"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Magi Gifts

If ever there was a good Christmas to be snowed in, this was it for us. We had not planned to travel. We hadn't planned a big gathering. In fact there were no firm plans at all.

My middle brother, Mark, was maybe going to come down from Tacoma, but even that wasn't firm. So the house was decorated for us. The meal was planned for us. And I was open to whatever might come, and open if nothing came.

Mark decided to come Christmas Eve in an attempt to beat the next storm. He had other offers for the holiday that would have been much easier for him, but he drove for three hours on what turned out to be mostly dry pavement (until he got to our nightmare road) to be with his big sister. 

That was the first gift.

My three brothers and I have a complicated adult relationship, probably not that unusual. Until very recently you needed a play map to understand who was speaking to whom, and the possibility of the four of us ever being together happily under the same roof seemed about as likely as two weeks of heavy snow in the Pacific Northwest.

Mark arrived at our house later than he might have because our baby brother, Geoff, wanted to send a gift with him. I was puzzled by that because we don't exchange gifts usually, and financially Geoff is not in a position to be buying gifts this year. 

He made a picture album - the same one for all three of us. It includes prints of pictures of our paternal grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There are pictures of our dad as a child, our mom as a child, and one absolute favorite of the four of us on a couch as very young children. The captions for the pictures are  moving, informative, and laugh out loud funny. The cover letter that my baby brother (who barely graduated from high school, struggles with reading and does not have an intimate relationship with words) wrote is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

The theme was the power of family love and especially sibling love. It was an offering of a heart no longer willing to exclude members of family because of disagreements or differing beliefs. It is a peace offering to my older brother, and opens the door to the possibility of the four of us being together again.

That was the second gift.

Mark's gift came wrapped in gift wrap, tucked in a huge gift bag. As I picked it up I could feel plastic through the paper - the kind that blankets come in. So even before I got the paper torn off I had an idea what he'd done. My brother made me a quilt. From fabric we had picked out together on his birthday last spring (for a quilt for him)  on one of my favorite all-time days with him. On a very busy schedule in a very tiny home. He made me a quilt. The colors are warm, the pattern  (which he created himself) eye-pleasing, the weight that of a loving hug.

That was the third gift.

For my part, I had decided to make jam for my brothers for Christmas. Our mom used to make a jam she called apple butter, but which is really spiced apply jelly. Made with apple pulp instead of apple juice because she didn't want to take the time to strain the pulp to get the juice. Geoff has asked me for the recipe countless times and lost it the same exact number of times. So I pulled out mom's original browned and stained recipe, bought the ingredients, and made apple butter for my brothers. In honor of one of the rare common pleasures of our childhood. Mark surprised me by telling me it's his favorite jam. I wish I could be there to hear Geoff's laugh when he sees what I've done. I hope it touches Frank in the same way I hope Geoff's album will.

In an amazement of synchronicity - without discussion, plans or questioning - we surprised each other with gifts of the purest, simplest love I can imagine. The world is a brighter place, my heart beats a lighter tune, and hope is a more certain blessing than I believed possible before this Christmas.

Top photo: Mark, Frank, Geoff, Big Sister - circa 1957. Geoff's caption: "Debbie, why are you squeezing my hand so hard?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


From the perspective of my office window, the world is snowbound. Tree branches bow to earth and begin to break under the weight. Squirrels scamper across the surface in search of food, somehow knowing that movement is all that keeps them from sinking. White has erased every color but gray and green, and significantly muted those.

And the snow continues to fall.

It's just warm enough that the icicles on our eaves are drip, drip, dripping. Great clots of snow avalanche from fir branches, driven by some unseen combination of weight, heat and gravity. Change is coming.

We're far enough from town that it's easy to believe the whole world is this beautiful, isolated, whiteness. It's easy to believe that this will never end - that we'll be stuck here forever with no easy way out. It's easy to believe that nothing that mattered so much a week ago really matters at all.

But we got to town yesterday, with relative ease: Walt carefully driving our four-wheel-drive pick-up over packed snow ruts and barely thawed pavement, me sitting warm, cozy and carefree on the passenger side. Town, three miles away, was bustling. 

The store was full of men pushing shopping carts as wives figured out what to substitute for the many things that were missing from shelves. Neighbors greeted each other heartily and happily, as though it had been an entire winter rather than days since they saw each other. The clerk who checked us out was more interested in telling us about her frozen shower drain and two feet of snow than she was in the looks of mild frustration from the several people in line behind us. 

I think we could probably get to town again today if we needed or wanted to. My brother is sure he can make the drive south from Tacoma late this afternoon. The mailman drove up to our door with a package just a bit ago.

Yet there is a part of me that isn't quite ready to release the quiet, no-expectation peace of these last few days. I like the rhythm of days centered around Toby's exercise and playtime, cats' needs for lap time, and hour upon hour here at my computer doing what makes my heart laugh and dance. I like choosing, guilt-free, to sit and read until the book is done (or to sit and do nothing at all). I like enjoying Walt's gentle, comfortable presence.

And that leaves me with this question: Why do I need to be snowbound to give myself, guilt and anxiety free,  those gifts?

photo by Walt Shucka

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Year, Already!

Well, that year went fast. Impossibly so. There's nothing to mark how much can change in twelve months quite like a puppy, and most especially our Toby.

Just a year ago Walt and I were bringing Toby home. An adorable armful of sweet butterscotch fluff who quickly turned our expectations, our lives, and our home inside out, upside down,  and every which way but what we thought we were getting.

After sleepless months of futile effort to crate train him, Toby decided to sleep in his open crate on the patio. Since the recent cold snap, he's been sleeping in the house - anywhere he decides to land. As I write this he's sleeping on (yes, on) our bed. In fact Walt just called me to come see Toby on "his" bed. The one he allows us to use at night, apparently.

I finally gave up trying to rescue the cats from his no-holds-barred, dog nose to cat tail chases. Somewhere along the line they stopped running, so he had nothing to chase. He satisfies that urge now with squirrels and birds and shadows on the other side of the fence. 

The cats love him, or at least tolerate his presence - depending on which of the three we're talking about. Emma, the queen of the household, who doesn't like anyone, including me sometimes, adores Toby. Sometimes in a sort of inappropriate creepy way - but it works for them, so who am I to judge?

We've reached a compromise with the whole walking on a leash business. I don't take him for long strolls in the park with a beautifully slack leash connecting us in a lovely symbolic way. He tolerates the leash for the distance it takes to get to get to the campground and river, where I can release him. He checks in with me (and to claim his treat) regularly. I walk happily. We both have fun.

I'm really grateful that neither Walt nor I verbalized our separate and identical fears that we had acquired the wrong dog. That we might have made a huge mistake. That we might need to consider giving him to a family who could appreciate his independence and strong will.

"That face!"

"Look at him!"

"Come see! Isn't he amazing?"

Every day we fall in love with him a little bit more. I'm not exactly sure when I reached the place where I need the smell of his sweet wild fur and the mischievous gleam of his bright eyes and the smile of his under-bit mouth to feel whole. But I'm there.

He's most certainly not the dog I thought we were getting. He's not even the dog I thought we wanted. He is, exactly, the dog who completes this family and who reflects a rich and abundant part of my inner being I didn't even know existed. He is, always, his own dog, and yet he chooses, always, to be delighted with my company. He is fully physical, completely in the moment, and forgives instantly. Lessons I continue to learn.

All that in a year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow Day

Being on the teacher end of a snow day is one of life's greatest gifts. It's a summer day in the middle of winter - unspent, unpromised and full of undefined possibility. Wednesday's snow day was particularly sweet, a midweek break from classroom Christmas craziness. 

One day would have been sufficient. The three we've received are a bounty of time that I'm rolling around in like Toby does bad-smelling things in the woods.

I spent most of Wednesday on the couch, in my Christmas decorated living room, wrapped in the wool throw I brought back from my summer Scotland adventures, absorbed in the latest Wally Lamb book. One cat stretched on the back of the couch by my head, another tucked at my knees, the third curled in a tight ball in my rocker across the room. The cold white outside is achingly beautiful from my nest in the warm red inside.

A combination of guilt, twinging back (from all that laying around), and curiosity compelled me to take Toby for a walk. In the below freezing, slippery, snowy blowy outdoors. 

I've become old-ladyish about being cold - actually about most physical discomfort. I'd rather not be cold or uncomfortable. But I'd also rather not be old-ladyish, so I made myself move.

I bundled. Two pairs of pants. Three heavy shirts and a lined denim barn coat. Two pairs of socks and rubber boots. Gloves, a wool scarf, a hat. I felt like the little kid in A Christmas Story. If I fell, I would have to roll home because there was no way I could bend enough to get back up.

By the time I was putting socks on, Toby had to be put outside because he was so excited his tail was sweeping things off of every nearby surface. Plus it's hard to put things on feet that are being stood on by 95 pounds of happy golden dog.

Toby's excitement took me well into the walk before I realized that I was actually enjoying my own self, not just his bouncing enthusiasm. I was plenty warm. The deep crunch of snow underfoot resonated clear up to my chest. And the transformed world was a wonder to behold.

The river had gone from its usual green/blue/brown translucence to an opaque shade somewhere between mercury and steel. A thick elemental being, flowing around snow-covered rocks, barely registering the sky-jumping flakes landing on its surface.

I stood at the bank and looked up into the dizzying other-worldly dance. Stuck my tongue out to catch flakes. Noticed a hint of movement at the top of a tall snag across the river. My eagle. Sitting high, still and almost invisible. Watching. I watched back, happy. He flew, eventually, upstream and away and I headed for home. 

There's still work to be done, obligations to meet, snow days to be made up. I'll be complaining in June about having to be in school longer than the original calendar promised. But June is months and lifetimes away. And just maybe I can enjoy these days enough that the remembering will make the later start of summer seem worth the cost. It seems a necessary happiness.

photos by Walt Shucka

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Peace on Earth

This week's calendar is as full as the winner of a pie eating contest. 

A party at my house Monday after school. A date with my favorite cousin on Tuesday. The school music program on Thursday.  Gift shopping and wrapping that have to be done before Friday and the beginning of winter break. Fudge and buckeyes and gingerbread to make. And a surprise addition to the venue: the temporary crown the dentist gave me last Tuesday is singing ugly songs in my head and will need to be dealt with as soon as the office opens tomorrow. 

All of that on top of a job which right now consists mostly of finding  ways to be more interesting to twenty-six eight year olds than Santa, grandparents coming in from out of town, and the looming magic of Christmas morning.

The weather is no respecter of plans, not even time-sensitive holiday plans. Dire forecasts of the coldest weather in ten years, snow that won't melt for days, and blizzard level winds threaten to completely undo the week.

My book group Christmas gathering, scheduled for this afternoon, has already been cancelled. Everything else is wait and see.

In past years, I would be fretting mightily at this point. The not knowing. The fact that some things can't be rescheduled. The complete lack of control.

The winds blow, tossing tree branches in a manic symphony of feathered green gyrations. Snow comes. One meandering white dot here. A second lazy descending bit of ice there. At first. Then I look up to see the air crowded with small doilies of white lace swirling their way to earth. A moment later there is nothing but stainless steel light filled with dozens and dozens of pine siskins waiting their turn to gorge at the thistle feeders. 

The thermometer on the patio has dropped ten degrees from an already chilly place since I fed Toby this morning. The weatherman says it's going get even colder, before this day is done. I'll take his word. I'm not planning to go outside and find out for myself.

The house is cozy warm. Smells of chocolate and cinnamon and ginger will soon join the evergreen fragrance that lives here this time of year. Emma, Grace and Cooper dream feline dreams on separate chairs, the perfect picture of ease and entitled safety. 

Walt and I sat and talked this morning, about this and that, dreams and hopes, the past and the future. No urgency. No agenda. A conversation that increased the warmth of our home and the day in a way no fire could. 

 Walt and Toby are outside playing soccer on the sugar dusted lawn in the razor sharp air as I write. The happy murmur of Walt's voice and Toby's answering growls provide melody to the rhythm of the blowing wind.

Gratitude that I can feel the gift of this day, completely free from anxiety about what the week might bring, fills me now. Even my angry tooth is not enough to dim the light. I marvel at the peace of this release of plans and expectations and what-ifs. I glory in the grace of it, and hope that it finds a home in my heart.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wing Song

This happened weeks ago, and I can still hear the sound. In fact it lives inside me now like the scent of sweet peas and lilacs from childhood, the taste of my grandma's gingerbread cookies at Christmas, the sight of a tropical sunrise viewed while the rest of the world slept.

I was walking the path in the park, as I've done hundreds of times, lost in roiling rapids of dark thoughts that no amount of attention seems to still these days.  I was so deep in my head that it's a wonder I heard the sound at all. 

Off to my left, where the river was running clear and clean, a wind-kissed snap stirred the air just enough to find my ear. Clean sheets on a windy August clothesline. Fingers popping to happy dancing music. God's "ahem" to bring me fully into the day.

I turned my head, not entirely sure I'd actually heard a real sound, to see a Bald Eagle making her way downstream, maybe six feet above my troubled head. As the realization of what I'd really heard dawned, my eyes followed her flight. She was mature, fully white head and tail, dark body, bright yellow beak and talons - regal in every way. I had a clear view a long way down the river, but at some point she simply disappeared. One moment she was there. One moment she wasn't.

The analogy is too simple, but the only one that fits. The sound of an eagle's wing in flight is exactly as I believe an angel's wing would sound. This is not the first time a Bald Eagle has arrived at the exact moment  I needed a Voice to remind me that I am not alone. This was not the first time the bird simply vanished from the sky as I tracked its flight.

 Usually I spot them as  they fly directly overhead, almost close enough to reach up and touch. I've spotted pairs soaring in a distant spring sky. A peripheral flash of white will often reveal a full grown eagle, occasionally with companions, perched majestically in the branches of  tree skeletons. Once, a long time ago, a perfect feather, earth brown and cloud white,  presented itself in my path. 

I remember loving Bald Eagles as a child, and being terrified that I'd never get to see one in the wild. Those were the days of DDT and soft eggs and the brink of extinction for the species. I didn't see any until I had reached adulthood, and sadly can no longer recall the first one. Every time I see one, however, it feels like the first one. The grace and glory and wonder of a spotting never fails to take my breath away.

This was the  first time I heard an eagle's wing sing for me. A soft song of one pure note that has not diminished at all in the week's since it first made its way into my heart. The sound of hope and comfort and a power greater than any threatening darkness.

photo from Flickr