"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, January 31, 2009

A Flower Blooms

On the first day of school she wept loudly into her arms, heartbroken and outraged that the supplies she'd so carefully chosen would become part of a classroom whole. Her pretty notebooks and colorful sticky notes were community property. The tradition of collecting supplies existed long before I arrived at this school, and this was her first year so she didn't know. It was the first of many things about her new school she found lacking.

It took a lot of consoling, a lot of kleenex, and most of the day to convince her that this one thing did not mean her third grade year was ruined before it even started.

For most of the first month of school I saw more tears, angrily furrowed brow, and jutted lower lip than anything else. Everything and nothing seemed to set her off, and the more upset she was, the less she could do, which upset her even more. She didn't get her way in a playground game. Math was hard. I asked her to rewrite an incredibly sloppy paper. All minor challenges for a resilient child. All too much for her. 

She wore her perpetual unhappiness like porcupine quills so I could only offer a careful hug and gentle reassurance and leave her to settle herself, which she always eventually did. 

At this point I don't even remember what the first success was. I do remember her shy smile and the way her whole body beamed with pleasure at my celebration with her. 

It took even longer before I heard her laugh out loud for the first time. A child's unrestrained laughter is God's voice at its best, and hers was a gift worth waiting for. 

We were playing silent ball, a game where we all sit on desks and throw the ball around - in blissful silence - until only one person is left up. There are lots of ways you can be called down. Hitting your teacher full in the face with a wild throw is definitely one of them. Which she did. I went into full indignant wounded drama, issuing wild threats and acting like I was seriously hurt. She laughed so hard she fell off her desk, which sent the whole room into hysteria.  For the short remainder of the day, all I had to do was look at  her, raise my eyebrow and shake my head and she'd be off again. 

A couple of weeks ago, the teacher she goes to for math told me this child is the best student she has. She raises her hand  regularly - the kind of hand-raising that starts from her toes and pushes her whole body into the air. She helps other kids. She's confident in a way that I rarely get to see when she's in the classroom that clearly overwhelms her more often than not.

Last week as we were lining up to walk out at the end of the day, I caught her looking at me with a tentative smile and read the message loud and clear. My hands are highly competed for prizes at day's end. In part because it means those two kids get to be in the front of the line, and in part for the special time with me. There's a sign-up list even, to aid in fairness, but it's usually the confident, more assertive kids who stake claims first. For whatever reason, on that day, both my hands were free and a quiet nod brought her to my side. Her hand slipped softly, shyly into mine.

As we chatted on the way out, I mentioned what her other teacher had said and told her how proud I was of her.  At that moment there was no more beautiful child anywhere on earth. She was summer sun, a blue sky laced with cumulus clouds, a flower in full radiant bloom. So far from the grieving sodden fury of a few short months ago.

This, I will miss.

photo from Flickr

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Over the Mountain

My childhood home, an eighty acre dairy farm, was nestled in a valley at the foot of the Selkirk range in Northern Idaho. Those mountains held great fascination for my brothers and me, and we were allowed often to include them in our rambles.

The trail we followed led to a series of cliffs which we named, with a colossal lack of imagination, first cliff, second cliff and third cliff. Getting to the top of the third cliff, a great granite bluff, was quite an accomplishment. The trail was steep, full of brambles and loose rocks. In the spring we had to watch out for ticks. In the summer there were flies the size of babies' fists. It was always worth the climb.

From the very top of the third cliff we could see our home - the house and the barns and the fields - along with the highway that led to town, the railroad tracks that led to worlds unknown, and another range of mountains far to the east. Our farm, Sunburst Dairy, was named for the spectacular sunrises that exploded over those mountains every day that wasn't cloudy.

The view I was most interested in on those carefree summer days, however, was the one to the west. The mountains looming gently over us as we rested on the third cliff called to me. I wanted to know where they led. The Selkirks are technically part of the Rocky Mountains, and I believed I might find greater beauty and grandeur if I hiked up and away. I had no real sense of geography in those days - only a sense of longing for something more, for adventure, for following without restriction something my heart longed for.

I even started to search for a trail deeper into the mountains one day, to the voices of my three younger brothers hollering at my back. 

 "Mommy's gonna be really mad. You're gonna be in so much trouble. We're going down now. You'll be alone."

 It wasn't their threats so much as my total lack of preparation - no food or water or extra clothes - that convinced my feet to turn around. It was the pull of pleasing and safety and being a girl that ultimately kept me from finding out what was over the next ridge, and the next and the next.

More than forty years later, I am on the verge of trekking away from the familiar territory of home and the third cliff. I will travel light, but not completely unprepared. And I will not be alone.

Last week I shared my intention with my principal, my third grade teammates and a couple of close friends at work. I've been slowly telling people in my life of my plan to set out on this adventure, to mixed reviews. But telling my principal made it official and real in a way it had not been before. Her support and enthusiasm for my new journey was stunning.

I'm taking a leave of absence from teaching next year. It's a baby step that I hope becomes a giant step away from public education. This is my chance to be a writer, and nothing else, for a year. I have a book to get published. I have stories to tell. I have unexplored places in my heart to visit. I need to know if I can make a living doing the thing I believe I came here to offer.

Whatever I find over the next ridge, the traveling will be adventure enough for now. I will journey with amazing people. I have strong direction without a clear destination. I have a newly discovered compass that's been waiting for decades to be followed. Who knows. Maybe I'll find the real Rocky Mountains with all their majesty and miles and mystery.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Teacher's Pet

My eyes seek the source of the jack-hammer laughter assaulting my ears and blocking the instructor's words. This is a small room, so the search is short. 

The woman sits front row center. She's laughing so hard her face is the same burgundy color as her over-stretched T-shirt. The instructor's story about wolverines is not that funny. It wasn't even that funny the first time he told it. It's definitely not so funny now in the third or fourth or fifth telling. It will be teeth-grinding material by the end of class. 

But she barks out delight as though her life depends on it.

This writing workshop has turned out to be a lecture class. Fourteen of us sit in two rows facing the instructor (a Kenny-Rogers-before-plastic-surgery look-alike) who stands behind a lectern. He delivers words of wisdom and tells stale jokes. We take notes. We are all writers defined by distinctly different criteria with little to bond us beyond the act of writing itself and our presence in this tired hotel space. 

The woman has a clear need to be teacher's pet. I know this because it was not very long ago that I might have occupied her seat. As a veteran teacher-pleaser, I recognize the signs. As it is today, I sit with Kari at the far right of the back row, with no interest in pet status. I am not so far grown out of  that need, however, that I can study her without squirming a bit.

She's a romance writer. Her book is about an older married woman who falls in love and has an affair with a younger male celebrity. If I were to judge this book by her cover, the only romance in her life, past or present, is this story.

Her hands are beautiful - hand  model material. Graceful with long tapered fingers ending in perfect unpolished ovals. Pale, unblemished, young.

I might not have noticed them except for their sharp contrast with the rest of her. 

Limp, dull brown hair - straight bangs offer the only hint of style. Thick-lensed glasses nearly obscuring small but startlingly blue eyes (Was she called four-eyes, or worse, as a child?). Wide nostrils (Was she called piggy as a child?). Two front teeth are much whiter and larger than the rest, outsized only by her even thicker gumline (Was she called bucky beaver?).

Full lips that might be pretty, but are not. No makeup. No jewelry except for a genderless watch. Ears have never been pierced.  The beginnings of middle-age jowls forming corners at the bottom of her face.

Overweight and lumpy - her profile is folded arms and two rolls of fat, one of which turns out to be her breasts.

It's as if she's been told so often what she's not, that she stopped trying  to be anything at all. 

Except a writer, whose work she believes can define her far better than her appearance. And a teacher's pet - hanging on his every word, laughing wildly and flipping her hair when he turns his attention to her, never once taking her eyes from his face. And a member of this strange tribe gathered for a few hours in a tacky hotel meeting room seeking a certain kind of truth.

While I don't know her specific story, I do recognize the wounds and the armor with which she protects herself. If she can only show the teacher how sincere she is, how committed to her craft, how intuned to him she is, then surely his kind and mildly flirty attention is proof of her worth. If she can laugh with such wild  whole-hearted abandon in this group of strangers, then surely she belongs and maybe it even means she's happy. 

If only she could know that beauty more glorious and brilliant than she can imagine rests inside her imprisoned heart, just waiting to be released. From the sisterhood of teachers' pets, I offer her prayers of healing love.
photo from Flickr

Friday, January 16, 2009

Down the Road

Two years ago, on a Friday much like this, I was in the middle of a regular winter school day so nervous and excited that all I really remember about the day is the raw energy. I left school that afternoon and headed for Portland for a writing workshop, my first ever,  with a New York Times bestselling author. 

By the time I arrived at the beautiful home of our hostess I was so terrified I could hardly breathe. What did I think I was doing? Who did I think I was? How long would it take for them to tell me I didn't really belong in a group of women who called themselves writers and seekers of truth and believers in love?

As it turns out, that weekend changed the course of my life forever. Such a dramatic and cliched thing to say, yet as true as anything can possibly be. 

In the two years that followed that first act of facing-the-dragon bravery much has happened:

Two more powerful retreat/workshops, this blog, and the development of relationships both real and virtual with women whom I consider sisters and for whom I would do anything.

I wrote a book. God Has No Daughters took the better part of the two years to be born, but she is real. The healing that's resulted from writing about my young adult decade in a small Bible based cult, and revealing my longing for daughterhood and motherhood, has been deep and continues even now.

I decided to stay in my marriage of 22 years after spending most of it thinking I would have to leave in order to be whole. It turns out that a choice made decades ago for needs that no longer exist can still be the right one. It turns out that being loved completely and without reservation is a gift I can receive safely. It turns out that my heart is wiser than I give her credit for.

I gave up a potential career as an educational administrator after three years of classes, thousands of dollars, and a change of districts that would have allowed me to intern and become a principal. I knowingly turned away from the status, the income and the power - things I had spent my life believing I needed in order to matter.

Today I'm getting ready to head to another workshop. This time I took the day off. I travel with a completed manuscript to work on, my lovely laptop, and a dear friend whom I met at the first workshop two years ago. I'm excited in that first-day-of-school way - the possibilities unfurl before  me in a bright ribbon of hope.

It turns out I am one of those women: a writer, a seeker of truth, a believer in love. This path is home in a way no path has been before. Let me head on up the road and find what's around the next bend. Thank you for traveling with me.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Life Without Error

Last week these Mary Oliver words from her book, The Leaf and the Cloud, attached themselves to my consciousness:

"The dragonfly lives its life without a single error. . . ."

A simple insect. Beautiful and evocative of amazing symbolism. Sublimely unaware of the many metaphors born from its being.

A simple insect, whose life consists primarily of feeding and reproducing. At no time does it concern itself with whether it's enough, or whether it's eating the right kind of mosquito, or whether its mate is communicating enough. It does exactly as its meant to do without any concept of error. 

Yet it appears so extraordinary to humans, who question everything, that we've given it great meaning. We look to it for answers, for comfort, for the wisdom of the ages. The dragonfly existed before dinosaurs and in that time of outsized life was the largest insect to ever have existed. Maybe those credentials are enough to warrant the faith we place in its appearance in our lives. 

Its adaptability is surely a model worth looking at. I doubt that at any time did a dragonfly think tank get together and decide that the species needed to fly faster, change colors or become smaller in order to survive. Dragonflies have lived life without error for eons. Because it's all they can do.

A simple insect which stands for so much: spiritual maturity, reflection of light, the power of light, balance, joy, the souls of the dead. The dragonfly inhabits two worlds, water and air. Born in water, moving to air, but never far from its birthplace. It finds its power and full color in the warmth and light of summer.

One legend tells of dragonflies darning closed the lips of those who lie. So, in a way, this perfect insect is also the keeper of truth.

A life of sunlight and endless sky with water for ground. A life of color and dancing and unconscious importance. A life lived without error. 

A simple insect.

photo from Flickr

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Blueberry Yogurt

Oddly, I'm nostalgic, in a deep longing sort of way, for blueberry yogurt. I first became aware of this wistful yearning a few weeks ago as I was stirring my morning carton of  fruit-on-the-bottom fat-free Cascade Fresh blueberry yogurt. Something in the way the sweet pungency hit my brain took me back to late adolescence/early adulthood - the time when yogurt and I first became friends.

In the late sixties and early seventies of Northern Idaho and Spokane, eating yogurt was something those damned hippies did. I loved the outlaw aspect of being a yogurt eater, but I also fell in love with the flavor and the texture and how whole and healthy I felt afterwards.

Yogurt was simpler then. Not so many choices. Not so sweet. Not so fancy. The fruit was fruitier. The yogurt more sour. And thicker. 

In my early yogurt days I was on the verge of stepping into the world. I had my whole life in front of me. Limitless possibilities. Possibilities that I discovered I couldn't follow because the cost, my family's approval and acceptance, was too high. 

As a senior in high school, with the help of the girls' counselor who also happened to be my best friend's mom, I was accepted by a small prestigious private college. She helped me get grants and scholarships to pay the tuition. My parents wanted me to go to a community college so I'd be closer to home. When they found out about my decision to go away to a four year college, they were furious. And betrayed. And disappointed.

They and my brothers drove me in the family rambler station wagon to school the September of my freshman year. The two hours it took us to get from home to school were silent. While I had longed for years to be away from them, to be finally free, their driving away from me on that beautiful fall day felt like banishment.

And so I failed. Spectacularly. Repeatedly. To prove to them that I really did need them.

Oddly, I remember finding comfort in yogurt during those years. The healthy normality of it in complete defiance of my family's tastes and values. There were many stretches of time when yogurt was all I ate. A diet of only yogurt when you're twenty-something is a great way to save money and to lose weight and not feel deprived.

I also found comfort in a wide range of less healthy pursuits. All of which ultimately left me feeling even more empty than I had before.

I joined a cult to fill the emptiness. That didn't work either. During that decade, yogurt became the food that no one in the group except me liked. That give it the power to make me special. It became something that no one could take from me. 

When I couldn't take the loneliness and pain any more, I left the cult. And became respectable. Married a good man with a stable job who loved me (and still does). Became a teacher. Bought a house. Got a dog and a cat. Spent holidays with families. Found a brilliant therapist. Ate yogurt for breakfast with wheat germ mixed in.

I thought for a long time that I was fixed. That life was exactly as I had always wanted. It's turning out not to be the case. 

Like the recently remembered pungency of my first yogurt, the unrealized possibilities of those early years have surfaced again. With no small amount of insistent nudging. I buried a huge part of myself in my attempts to regain my parents' approval. I buried a huge part of myself to make myself acceptable to God when I joined the cult. I buried a huge part of myself to become a respectable good-girl wife and teacher.

All of those buried parts are pushing against the surface of my heart like the crocuses just under the frosted ground in my garden.

To let them out, I need to take a step away from what I think I'm supposed to be doing.  I need to take a step in the direction of my heart's urging. This step will mean leaving the security of a significant part of my respectable life behind. It will mean trusting in my own abilities. It will mean trusting that I don't have to do everything alone - because I can't. It will mean believing in something improbable and currently unknowable.

I am nearly frozen with fear. Sitting still in stale security. Flying forward to freedom. The choice, put like that, is simple. Except for the choke-hold of terror that wakes me in the dead of night and makes me gasp for air in the middle of a random conversation. 

If I have been able to trust in the steadfastness of yogurt all of these years, should I not also be able to trust in the rightness of my being and the gentle voice of my heart?

photo from Flickr

Friday, January 2, 2009

Love in a Cook Book

My mom did not know how to cook when she married. She used to tell stories about Daddy teaching her how to boil water and how to cook hamburger.  I could hear her newlywed desire to please her husband in those stories. I could also hear her satisfaction in the self-sufficiency that drove her to bake bread and butcher her own chickens in the early days of her marriage.

Four children, the grueling work of running a dairy, and the disappointments of life with a man who didn't know how to love, drove all the romance out of cooking (and most everything else) for her. Surviving her life became all she could do. Self-sufficiency was no longer a point of pride. There was no other choice. Nurturing, parenting, loving - all got short shrift - which meant that so did her kids. 

But we were fed well. And because she didn't have a natural affinity for food and its preparation, she relied on cookbooks. She had three. One was a huge binder filled with booklets, each on a different topic, with the impressive title, The Culinary Arts Institute Encyclopedia of Cooking and Homemaking. Another was Elsie's Cook Book, Tested Recipes of Every Variety by Elsie the Cow. The third was Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book.

I have all three. 

I acquired them after we moved Mom into Assisted Living a few years ago and I was closing out her house. I had always wanted them, and hoped that they would be passed on to me in an act of love and  sharing. There was no final reconciliation between us, and so I had to satisfy myself with  possession and with the sweet memories held in the pages of the books. 

I love to cook. I don't remember learning to cook. I just always have. Mom was happy to turn as much of that job over to me as I could handle. So as soon as I could reach the stove at seven or eight, I was in charge of the nightly potatoes. Chocolate chip cookies became an early specialty, as did spaghetti. I played with spices and combinations and flavors. My failures were tolerated. My successes encouraged and praised.

Cooking was something I could do to please. Something that came easily. The only other thing besides reading and writing where I could lose myself and find myself at the same time.

So the cook books came to represent all of that to me. And in that, to represent what little love and approval I was able to experience with  my mom. 

This fall, I pulled the battered, stained and frayed Betty Crocker out of my cupboard when I decided to bake cherry pie for Thanksgiving. It's one of the few times in all the years those cook books have lived in my cupboard that I sought one out to actually use. It was so satisfying that Betty, and my mom's food-stuck pages, became my primary source for Christmas cooking this year.

For the first time since my mom's dementia removed any hope of our being adult friends, I felt close to her. As I followed the recipes in her cook book, the losses of my childhood no longer had the power to wound. The expected tooth-ache longing for her approval never did appear. The satisfaction of creating food that once nourished our bodies and our relationship was enough. I love that Betty Crocker cook book. I love my mom. I love that I can, finally and simply, love the woman whose recipes I use to enrich my life.

photos from Flickr