"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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thank You, Mr. & Mrs. Sodorff

Forty years ago this spring two educators were working hard to help get me into college. They were working against the wishes of my parents. They were working out of their love for me.

These weren't just any educators. He was the principal of our high school. She was the girls' counselor and teacher of world-class electives - I still remember her psychology class as opening whole new worlds of possibility to me. Their daughter, Marcia, was (and still is) my best friend. I had spent many nights at their house, gone to many parties from their house, felt an oasis of safety whenever I entered their house.

My parents were not fond of this family, for what are now obvious reasons. Jealousy being the primary one, and fear of losing control of me. And as much as I longed to be free of my family's spirit-killing claim on me, my loyalties were torn. The paranoia with which my parents kept the world at bay infected my trust. I could never quite believe the Sodorffs were helping me because they believed I was worth helping - and saving. 

That they understood me and loved me and knew the only way for me to really be free was with a good education was too much for me to hold. Even so, I accepted their help with gratitude, and found myself in a small private college with great credentials that fall.

It would be nearly twenty years before I could face my second family again. I broke contact with them believing I had destroyed their trust in and love of me with my life choices. There was no way I could face any of them given what I had done with the gifts they gave me: got pregnant, flunked out, got lost in drugs and sex and alcohol, joined a cult. Or so my shame convinced me.

It was only after I went back to school to become a teacher myself that I felt okay to let them back into my life. Amazingly, they were waiting, their love undiminished. Marcia and her mom traveled 300 miles to be at my wedding to Walt, two weeks before I got my first teaching job. I'm pretty sure it was then that I finally started calling her Claire, instead of  Mrs. Sodorff. It was another decade before Dick & Claire became more natural to say than Mr. & Mrs. Sodorff. That softening came hand in hand with my ability to feel safe loving them and to be loved by them.

In the years since, whenever I go to Sandpoint to see Marcia, one of things I look forward to most is stopping by her parents' house to visit, and going to lunch with her mom. I know I've thanked them both, but I'm pretty sure they don't really know the depth of my gratitude. Or my love. But I'm always glad for the chance to tell them one more time.

Even though it's taken decades to manifest, their belief in me was not unfounded. As I get ready to leave public education, an institution I joined in part to honor them, I finally understand what they saw in me. 

These educators who saved my life, who believed in my potential, are getting old. Life has gotten harder for them, even with Marcia close by to help. I wish there were some way I could ease this time for them. I owe them so much. I'm grateful that I will have a chance this summer, when I go to see Marcia and to attend my 40 year reunion,  to hug them, tell them I love them and to let them know how very much their unwavering love mattered to me, and always will.

picture from Flickr

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Unfinished Bird

Water sprayed out of the bird bath like some wild fountain. The source, a gray-brown bird in full bathing ecstasy. Dip, shake, dip, shake, dip, SHAAAAAAAKE. She flew like an overloaded plane to the overhanging, still mostly bare, branches of the sweet gum tree.

I watched her shake and ruffle and preen, several times almost knocking herself right out of the tree. She'd wobble, right herself, and return to her feathers as though nothing had happened. The amazing vigor with which this bird was attacking her toilette grabbed my attention first. Then it was curiosity about who she was.

At first I thought robin. Young female. Mostly gray and brown, but a hint of red at the wings. But the face was wrong. Too pointed. The eyes too small. And the coloring didn't quite work.

Starling? The face was right, but there was no iridescence. A young one perhaps. But the body shape seemed too streamlined to be a juvenile.

Maybe someone from the blackbird family. There are a couple of different cousins who visit from time to time. Except the coloring was too mottled and the eyes were wrong even for a young brewer's or cowbird.

At some point I realized the bird I watched was a fledgling. Its clumsiness was the first clue. Its undistinguished coloring and exaggerated movements provided more evidence. By then I had the binoculars out, so could see its bill closely. I noticed the soft widening at the corners, left over from a mouth that needed to be big enough for a mother bird to insert food. 

This was definitely a fledgling - of some sort. I could narrow down the possibilities of her identity: bigger than a sparrow, smaller than a grosbeak. But there was no way, even with a handful of great bird guides, that I would be able to identify her. She was too ordinary looking - her feathers the standard gray-brown drab protection issued to all young birds learning how to be safe in a much larger world than they could have dreamed possible.

And then I realized I was looking at a form of myself. No longer safe in a nest; no longer being fed and defined by the security of an outside source. Taking first tender steps (hops, wing-flaps, baths) into a wide new world. Not quite formed. The final identity still a molt or two away. I'm reminded that it takes my bird guide, Bald Eagle, two years to get its glorious plumage. 

After long minutes of intensive fluffing and preening, the bird took off into the sky. The launch was a bit shaky, some of her feathers still stuck out at odd angles, but before long her wings were carrying her strong and sure beyond my sight. A part of my heart followed her, wishing her gently lifting winds on her journey.

photo from Flickr

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Celebration of Flight

Dear Friends,

On Monday, June 15, I will be leaving the safe nest of elementary education after a 22-year incubation. On Saturday, June 20, I would like you to join me in a celebration of my fledging and preparation for flight into the wide-open skies of my new life as writer. All you need to bring are your love and hope and joyful energy. And if you’d like to stay for food, bring your favorite summery dish to share.

Things will start at our home around 2:00 PM, and end around 6:00 PM, although coming early and staying late are encouraged if you’re so inclined. Some of you are receiving this even though I know it would be a challenge for you to make it (Scotland is a long trip for a party) because you’re really important to me. Just knowing you’ll be with me in spirit will be enough.

No RSVP is necessary. I’ll be thrilled to see you on that Saturday.

With love,



Dear Blog Buddies,

What you just read is an invitation I sent out today to friends and family. Those of you who live close by were included in that e-mail. Those of you who live not-so-close were not.  But here's the deal: You are my new peer group, my sisters (and brother), my newest and deeply treasured friends. And so I'm inviting you all, and hoping if you're in the Portland/Vancouver area on June 20, you'll stop by for a hug and some food and some great conversation. Whether you  are here physically or not, I carry your spirits with me as I celebrate the spreading of my wings.

(Walt took this picture in our back yard.)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Fear Transformed

I'm lying on a gurney, parked in the hallway, outside Room 2. Maria, with her dark curly hair, quick smile and stained uniform shirt with endoscopy misspelled on the chest pushed me here from my room several tight corners ago, chattering lightly the whole time. After offering me a magazine and reassuring me it wouldn't be much longer, she disappears into what I assume is a nurses' station.

Alone, with only my fear for company, I reflect on the days preceding this moment. 

I have managed to avoid this procedure for seven years beyond the recommended time. In truth could not have managed the fear well enough to do this  before now. One of the seven people who have asked something of, or done something to me so far this morning joked about my 50,000 mile check-up, then corrected it to, oops, 57,000 miles. 

I thought I wasn't afraid. I thought I had conquered the body fear and shame that have stalked me and held me prisoner my whole life. I thought  my ability this year to take care of all the medical screenings responsible adults are told to do, meant I had finally put fear in its place.

I had been edgy all week. The dietary restrictions necessary as preparation for this procedure tilted me off balance even before the day of clear liquids. When I saw Pat two days ago and told her how grumpy I was feeling, she asked if the grumpiness was covering fear. I said no, I don't feel afraid. And I believed it.

Walt, always supportive and concerned, knowing how afraid I am of anything medical, asked what he could do to help. The only thing I could think to say was for him to keep his distance. We both laughed, because it sounded funny, but it was the safest truth in the room. He hovered protectively the whole week, offering back rubs, asking if I minded that he was eating what he was eating because I couldn't.

Even this morning, driving in, empty and exhausted, I was sure I had things under control. Just waiting to get to the other side of the day. I was aware of the unusual quiet in the car - I normally chatter about anything and everything. Breathing and being took all my focus - nothing left over for chit-chat. But I was calm. Present. Okay. 

Until we got to the parking lot of the hospital. When Walt didn't park where I thought he should, I nearly came unglued. Opened my mouth to set him straight, and clamped it shut to stop the torrent of high-pitched weirdness scrambling to find expression.

Checking in, when the volunteer handed me a clipboard and asked me to fill out the form front and back, I had to choke back the snarl that would have informed her I had already filled out enough f-ing forms, and no I would not be filling out any more. When I handed it back to her and she said good job sweetie I grimaced a smile that barely concealed my f-you feeling at her and went back to my seat. When the first nurse came for me, accompanied by a high school girl who was interning with her, I wanted to shout I don't want to be practiced on. When the girl weighed me and announced the weight loud enough to be heard in the parking lot, I closed my eyes and my mouth to protect her from what might explode from any open avenue.

Not fear. Anger. Frustration. Impatience. Not fear. 

In the hour and a half between arrival and my delivery to this doorway I have been treated with great respect, spoken to softly, given information clearly. The teacher in me admires the the teaching these nurses do, even as I hold myself as still as possible. The writer in me studies this new environment - I haven't been in a hospital as a patient in almost forty years - curious about the procedures and people and language. The frightened child in me wonders why I'm putting myself through this.

I feel a bump at the back of my gurney, the next nurse letting me know she's entering my life. As she leans casually on the rail, she offers information about the drugs that will make this procedure possible and pleasant, asks if I have questions, then stays to chat while we wait for our turn in Room 2. I ask her how she came to be an endoscopy nurse, and surprise myself with my ability to enjoy her story.

The door opens. A gurney is wheeled out. I make eye contact and smile at the woman at eye level with me as I'm wheeled in. Her groggy returned smile is somehow reassuring.

The doctor, a pale, wiry woman with black hair spiked  around her thin face, a no-nonsense attitude, and kind eyes, asks me how I'm doing.  I say, "I'm here." She smiles gently, then asks me if I'm cold. I say no, thinking not only am I not cold, I can't actually feel most of my body right now. She asks if I'd like a blanket. I say no, I'm fine, thinking can we just get this over with. The nurse says the doctor prides herself on being able to talk every single patient into a heated blanket. Not wanting to ruin her record, I say yes. She leaves the room, for what seems like forever. I marvel that a doctor is spending her time going out into the hall to fetch a blanket.

When she comes back, her smile is triumphant, as though she's acquired a great treasure. She unfolds the blanket over me, then shocks me by laying it over my shoulders and wrapping it around my face. The shock of comfort and kindness brings tears to my eyes. 

From that point on there is a flurry of activity. The doctor asks what I think of all these women working together - there are three besides her - in this tiny room. At first I thought they had popped in to visit with my first nurse. But now they are all busy gently moving me, talking to me, chatting with one another as they work around me. 

I don't remember ever feeling this safe before.

She asks me if I have questions. I say no. I have told her I want the lightest possible drugs. I don't want to be unconscious for this, and I don't want to lose the rest of the day in recovery. I become aware of a great peace washing everything else away. The conversation around me fades into a musical buzz with no clear lyrics. I'm at the center of a hive of women, being cared for, not caring or concerned in the least what they do to me.

In time that is no time and forever, the doctor's voice breaks through to tell me she's done, I'm fine, everything went well. 

Less than four hours after we left home, we return. I feel calm, a bit floaty, but otherwise myself. Without the fear. It's a sunny day, the first warm one in ages. I spend the afternoon relaxing in the sun with a book and Walt and Toby, enjoying  - just enjoying.

I'm aware there are questions needing to be examined. Why can't I experience fear as fear? Why do I need to alchemize it into something more powerful, less honest? What shall I do with this new experience of being afraid and vulnerable, and not being hurt - in fact being so well cared for my heart is not quite the same as it was before the warm blanket and lovely women?

There is time. Fear will be back to help me find the answers. I believe that next time - I hope - I will be able to allow her to be Fear, my teacher and guide, and nothing else. 

painting by Sophie Shapiro from Flickr

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dear Anna Quindlen

Dear Anna Quindlen,

Really? You're leaving me? No more twice monthly The Last Word from you in Newsweek?

When I read your last Last Word column, I missed all the clues that might have prepared me for the words, "my last LAST WORD column for NEWSWEEK" a quarter of the way into the first page. I missed "Anna Quindlen's Farewell" on the cover (distracted by the pig snout perhaps). I missed the significance of a two page column that's always been one page before. I didn't even get it with the title, "Stepping Aside."

I just dug in to your column like I have done twice a month for years now. I peek in the back to see if it's your week, then read the magazine from front to back, saving you for dessert. I always know I'll laugh and snort and more often than not want to stand up and shout, "You tell 'em, Anna!"

I didn't do any of that this time. Instead, I cried.

Your writing has been such an important part of my life for the last almost decade, I'm having a hard time imagining how I'm going to fill the gap.

I don't remember when I read your first column. What I do remember, and what I think every time I read your writing, is that I want to be able to tell the truth with as much clarity and wisdom and humor as you do. When I think of writers in whose company I want to be included, your name is at the top of the list, along with Mary Oliver, Terry Tempest Williams, and Anne Lamott. 

I am so grateful you delayed leaving until after the last election. During the eight  years  of the Bush administration, there were times when your words helped quiet  my despair at being an American represented by values so counter my own. I felt less alone, and more hopeful, because you were having the same feelings that I was.

Often your column would help me define what I believed about issues that I was unsure of. Even when I didn't agree with your views (which wasn't often), I respected your voice because I knew how carefully considered your words always were. Your ability to cut to the core of a topic with respect and without rancor, leaves me even now in a state of wonder.

I'm enjoying the irony that we occupy the same place on the Baby Boom spectrum, and that we're both stepping onto new paths at this time. Mine is the path of writer, one that you have had much to do with inspiring. It sounds like you'll continue to write, but I wonder what new adventures await you. I'll be looking for the stories you'll have to tell about them.

I wish you every joy. I'm thankful to have your example to look to. I'll miss you.

With Gratitude,

Deb Shucka

photo from Flickr

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Spinning Out of Control

When Toby is afraid (like when Walt needs to apply his ear medicine), or when he's in trouble (like when he loses his mind and chases a cat), he runs manic laps in the yard. It's clear he's not in control of himself, but has been taken over by some energy force that drives him so hard he literally skids around the turns. 

Calling him does no good. He might stop for a moment, and I can even see him intend to obey, but then his body takes over and he's off all over again. Eventually he wears himself out and allows himself to be taken prisoner. He always looks as sorry as it's possible for a golden retriever to look - and I don't think any being can look sorrier than that.

On Tuesday I got a glimpse with my kids of the human version of Toby's madness. 

The morning had gone well. The day was on track to be an easy happy productive one. Until I went to pick the class up in the cafeteria after lunch. Three of my boys were sitting alone at three different empty tables, looking for all the world like Toby about to surrender. The assistant in charge of our table made a bee-line for me.

Usually when she comes to talk to me, it's to tell me how much she appreciates how well-behaved my kids are. It's what I expect to hear. On Tuesday, however, she shared that the kids would not stop talking, that even after moving those boys and three stern warnings, they were still "up in her face."

The walk back to the classroom was as quiet and sober as a walk can be. There were no smiles or hands held or funny faces. There were only worried kids and a very disappointed teacher.

We spent some time trying to problem solve, but nothing really seemed to fit. They suggested assigned seats - boy/girl - until someone pointed out that wouldn't stop the talking. They suggested losing a whole week's worth of recess until I pointed out that would punish me. Someone even offered no silent ball for a week, but no one liked that idea at all.

I said I needed to think about what I wanted to happen, and we'd talk about it the next day. I gave them the standard disappointment - this is not best third grade behavior - talk. I promised that I wouldn't be able to take them into any public places if I couldn't trust their behavior (five field trips of various purposes in the next five weeks). And then I proceeded with the work of the afternoon.

They proceeded to fall apart completely. They would not stop talking. I think they could not. They laughed hysterically at things that weren't even marginally funny. Usually when I give them the Shucka look, they'll settle down. Not happening. They were up out of their seats in a restless whirlwind of nervous energy. When I let them in from last recess, they were shouting so loud it hurt my ears. I tried every single tool in my settling-kids-down tool kit. Not one of them worked. Even during silent ball, they got into so many arguments about the referee's calls, the game came to a screeching (literally) halt.

Finally, I got my voice over theirs, told them all to sit, to put their heads down, and not to speak again until I dismissed them. Like Toby at the end of one of his rips around the yard, they settled into their seats with a combination of relief, resignation, and remorse.

I went home Tuesday ready to call in sick for the rest of the year. Until I made the connection with Toby's behavior. I'm not sure what exactly triggered  their insanity - the coming full moon, retrograde Mercury, the winding down of the year. I may never know. But somehow understanding they truly could not control themselves, that they would have if they could have, helped me go back yesterday with a fresh heart.

And it was a much better day. Today was lovely as well, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow - at school with my kids.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Last Thirty Days

Thirty days from tomorrow, on June 15, I will walk out of school as a classroom teacher for the last time. It's a day I've longed for, been ready for, dreamed about, for years. I've completed what I set out to do (become respectable and make a difference in the world) and managed to find myself (defined by so much more than respectability) in the process.

When the longing for something else first began to tickle my heart from the inside, I believed it meant I needed to try harder to make teaching work. I changed grade levels. I became an academic coach. I decided to become a principal.

The longing grew stronger.

And in listening to the longing, in listening to my heart, in trusting for the first time the sweet gentle voice of my soul, I find myself six weeks from a new life.

I told my kids a couple of weeks ago that they are my last third grade class. Some knew because the entire adult community of the small town where my school is located knows. Some were blissfully clueless in the way of kids who have much more important things to do than attend to the world of adults.

Once the kids were reassured I wouldn't be leaving them before the end of the year, their curiosity took over. I answered their "why?" with writing a book and getting it published and being a writer full time. They wanted to know if I'm going to be famous, if I'll be on Oprah. I promised to wave to them and to say hi to the best third grade when I am.

When the idea of leaving public education was just a pleasant daydream, I anticipated how excited I would be in my last days. I imagined telling certain people just what I thought of them. I imagined not caring about following rules, and doing only what I felt like doing. I imagined a great sense of relief and release and rejoicing.

The reality - no real surprise here - has turned out to be quite a different event.  There will be no satisfying telling off of anyone. There's no one I really want to set straight. I know that every path is stone-filled and every person is traveling with as much grace and dignity as they can muster. There is no satisfaction in breaking rules (at least overtly).  I still need to teach my kids, and I still respect my principal, and I do care. And the only thing I feel strongly, at least today, is sadness.

I'm getting ready to leave a life that I've loved and hated in pretty equal measure. It has wounded and healed me. I have laughed my deepest belly laughs, and cried my most bitter tears. 

I've been Mrs. Shucka to somewhere around 600 kids, and been proud of my title. I've created 22 families in nine month increments, and wept every single June when I had to release them to their own lives. I am a celebrity: Not a day goes by that I don't hear my name shouted with enthusiasm and wonder down a hallway, the shouting followed usually by a small body barreling in for a hug. Sitting on Oprah's couch, or talking to Terry Gross, or reading my words to groups of women who share similar stories - none of that will ever quite match the feeling of the status I'm getting ready to walk away from.

The kindergarten brother of one of my girls calls me Mrs. Sugar. How can I possibly top that for an accolade?

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to stay. I'm as ready as I can be for the adventure that awaits. But this adventure is not quite over. And it's been a grand one. Well worth the tears of loss that cleanse my remaining days as an elementary school teacher.

image from Flickr