"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

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sky Diving

My friend Patty related the story of her Turning Sixty sky diving adventure at the party celebrating that milestone birthday.  She is an accomplished story teller whose expression of her life, whether it's traveling down the Amazon, or marching in a parade in an umbrella drill team, or learning to scuba dive, never fails to entertain and enlighten her audience. 

Her response to the opening question, "Was it everything you wanted it to be?" surprised me.

"I was disappointed. I wasn't afraid, and I wanted to be. There wasn't any fear at all."

Which didn't make sense. I've traveled with Patty. We've worked together. We've shared life stories, life experiences and life dreams. The Patty I know is fearless. And I could not imagine why anyone, Patty in particular,  would want to experience fear.

When asked to elaborate, she launched into the story of the event itself, effectively avoiding the question. The fact that she wore regular clothes - black capris and tennis shoes. The funny hat she had to tuck her California blonde hair into. The racy fun of being asked to scootch back into the twenty-something man who was her tandem partner, and being told by him that he would be reaching around the front of her to adjust straps. The surprising noise and strength of the wind blowing into the plane through the open door.

Patty described the instructor's directions to her about where to put her thumbs, when to arch her body, what to do with her head, and her movements mirrored those instructions as though she were practicing. 

Her french-tipped nails danced nervously around her face as she said, "I asked him if he'd be repeating the steps if I forgot. I told him I might not be able to remember everything. He told me not to worry about it, but I was so afraid of doing the wrong thing, of not being a good student, that I don't remember much of anything he said after that. The next thing I knew, my feet were hanging outside the plane, and then we were falling."

I only half-heard the rest of her story because I was stopped cold by her expression of fear. 

My brilliant, brave, adventurous friend - not afraid of dying or falling or turning sixty, but afraid she might not do the right thing.  Not able to fully feel the exhilarating, life-affirming satisfaction of facing a primal fear because of the nasty shame-slimed good-girl fear of being wrong.

Wine and laughter flowed freely while Patty told this story. Everyone howled at her description and demonstration of the wind pushing up into her nose like water during a dive. The women all felt her pain as the harness pulled into her boobs when the chute snapped open.  I was still pondering her fear. I could not rely on alcohol to disguise the ugliness of this particular insidious gremlin. The laughter did little to soften its true colors. And no one else seemed to notice the significance I was giving her fairly off-hand statement.  A significance that may have much more to do with my own life right now than Patty's.

photo from Flickr

Friday, June 26, 2009

Waiting With Toby

The first night Walt was gone, Toby waited for him at the gate with such certain expectancy that I found myself watching for the pickup to pull into the driveway. Even though I knew he was two hours away and would be for four days. At twenty months, our gorgeous and loving and huge golden boy believes fully in his power to get what he wants.

This was my first stretch of time  home alone with Toby. I figured Toby would miss his human dad, but be satisfied with my attention. It didn't quite work out that way.

Even though we went for a long walk that involved lots of crashing through the brush and swimming for sticks. Even though I sat on the patio and threw the ball for him for hours. Even though I let him in, then out, then in again more times than all three cats combined. Even though all of that, Toby was not about to give up his post by the gate and come in to go to sleep until Walt came home.

At 9:00 I bribed him into the house with a treat and got him up on the bed with me. At 9:10 he got down and wandered whining through the house. Sometime in the next hour he threw himself down on the kitchen floor with extreme adolescent frustration and things got quiet enough for me to fall asleep. Until 1:00 AM. He was whimpering and pacing with an urgency that I wasn't willing to risk ignoring, so I let him out. Went back to bed. Almost fell back to sleep. Until he started barking. I brought him back in. Got him back up on the bed. He decided he'd rather play than sleep. So finally I locked him outside in his crate for what remained of the night.

The second night was a bit better. The third slightly better than that. He gave up the pacing and whining sooner. But it was clear he wasn't happy. I couldn't give him enough attention to satisfy. In fact, he left no room for doubt that my attention was not what he wanted.

It was really hard not to take Toby's rejection and edgy behavior personally. When I'm gone, Walt says Toby searches the house for me every time he comes in. But he's never said Toby refused to sleep, or refused the comfort of the human home with him.

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on the patio throwing the ball for Toby, happy to be providing some form of pleasure for him. I was also trying to finish a semi-satisfying mystery - fifty pages from the end. Emma, the seventeen-year-old tabby-and-white queen of our realm was sleeping on the stool in front of me. Somehow, in my distraction with the book, and because I am innately clumsy, when I went to throw the ball, I smacked Emma with it.

She came up out of a sound sleep, left claw marks on the fabric of the stool, and was halfway across the lawn before my brain even fully registered what had happened. By the time I got to the gate, worried sick that I'd hurt her, she had streaked along the fence line to the road, across into our neighbor's field, and disappeared into the brush beyond. I called and called and called. The only response was Toby's barking from the yard and my neighbor's concern for my unusual behavior. No Emma.

For the next hour I stewed and worried. What if I'd really hurt her? How was I going to live with that? What if she died alone in the woods? What if she ran so far away she couldn't get home? What kind of pet mom was I anyway?

Somewhere in the  midst of all my questions, I realized that Toby might have been feeling much the same way. Perhaps not the sense of responsibility, but certainly the sense of powerlessness. The unthinkable - one of his humans missing - was simply too much for him. No amount of comfort was going to soften that. And so he had focused all of his energy on waiting and  hoping and believing. 

Walt's return home from his trip interrupted my misery, and ended Toby's. Toby's joy was so profound I know he would have wept with relief if he could have. As it was he wriggled and writhed and grinned himself silly at Walt's feet. For about ten minutes. Then he wanted me to pet him. Seriously. Buried his head in my legs and stood in his I-need-comfort-and-love position while I gave him full body reassurance. He went back and forth between us for a bit, then settled down for a nap. His pack restored, he could finally relax.

Less than an hour later, Emma announced her return to the patio with her standard imperious yows, completely fine.  I nearly wept with relief. 

Toby and Emma by Walt.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Second Chances

On Saturday morning, as I was getting ready for my Celebration of Flight party, a heart-dropping thud brought all three cats to their feet instantly from sound sleep to attack mode. I rushed to the living room in time to see a robin fly away from what looked like a close encounter with the window.

The dusty softball sized imprint accented with three very small breast feathers told a story of a pretty hard hit. Although relatively confident I'd seen the robin fly away, I looked through the window to the porch just to make sure. I saw nothing, and went back to dusting odd corners that no one but me was going to notice, but that I needed to dust nonetheless.

Maybe an hour later, the window hit buried under the list of things to get done before people started arriving, I went out the front door. And startled a young robin. Just out of fledgling feathers. Speckled, pale gray infused with soft ember orange, no distinct eye ring yet. Flapping awkwardly away from me out into the flower bed. I couldn't tell if it was a wing or a leg or something internal making her wobble and not fly.

I stood as still as I could, forcing myself to hold back and not rush her and try to fix her. I talked to her, told her how sorry I was and how I hoped she would be okay, and went back into the house, shaken to the brink of tears.

I tried really hard not to attach significance to the wounding of a fledgling bird on this particular day. I tried really hard not read meaning into her lack of experience and vulnerability and aloneness in the world, and where it got her on this morning of all mornings.  But birds are frequently God's messengers in my life and it didn't seem right to decide this wasn't a message just because it saddened and frightened me on a day meant for joy.

 I did decide that perhaps I hadn't heard the whole message yet. And I held her gently at my center - her newness, her inexperience, her woundedness - as I continued to prepare for the party. Regular trips to the living room window slowed my progress a bit. The young robin seemed to be moving away from the house, on the ground, little by little, until she was sitting in the middle of our gravel driveway. 

I went out, hoping to shoo her back onto the grass. When she saw me coming, she began to scurry, then surprised us both by taking to the air and landing safely in the large fir at the center of our lawn.

For the rest of the day I carried with me the picture of my robin safely perched in the ancient arms of that tree. 

The party started slowly, a gentle summer rain of happiness. My God's-gift neighbor, my adored middle brother, a family of four whose kids I've taught and whose mom has become a treasured friend. And then it became a deluge, a gullywasher, a frog strangler of love and laughter and good will.  My little house was packed to overflowing with people spending a June Saturday to celebrate with me. 

My baby brother, Geoff, who has not been here in years and who I assumed would not be breaking that stretch, appeared in the midst of the happy chaos with his wife and a banquet's worth of food. I may have screamed, but I'm pretty sure no one could hear me. Except possibly for Geoff.

There was a moment in the midst of it all when I found myself briefly in a bubble of silent alone. The energy swirling around me was so bright and powerful and radiant I'm sure it could have cured the Middle East and cancer and maybe even old age if there had been a way to capture it. I have brought these amazing people into my life. My life.

Today is Monday. Party over. Mark gone home. Walt out of town for a few days. No current urgency. From time to time I wander into the living room and reread cards and marvel at the generosity of my friends. I feel loved and known and blessed almost beyond bearing. I think of a young robin who nearly ended her journey before it truly began. And I celebrate a life where this time the message was about the power of patience and second chances.

image from Flickr

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sea Legs

The world is quiet. Not silent, but quiet. A cat purring next to my computer. The wind whispering. Cars whooshing along the highway in the distance. The clock in the living room chiming quarters of hours. The refrigerator humming in the kitchen. Occasional goldfinch singing through the screen door leading to the back yard.

The quiet is unremarkable, except that this is my new background music.  No more 25 child voices all talking at one time. No more assemblies with 600 kids. No more bells. No more intercom announcements interrupting constantly throughout the day. The barrage of noise is gone.

The ending was sweet and clean. I moved out of my classroom last Friday to make room for the teacher moving in behind me - three plants, four boxes, and five large shopping bags. Everything else had been passed on to the next generation. So on Monday, the last day, all I had to do was enjoy my kids, say goodbye to my friends, and do one final checking-out with my principal. 

The kids cried. My principal cried. I did not. Although I came close when my friend and teammate, Kari, read Robert Frost's The Road Less Traveled as my team said goodbye to me in front of the whole school. I was emotional, but not sad. I was ready - as ready as I've ever been for anything. I was happy - not one single regret,  loose thread, or unresolved conflict.  

I  hear the echoes of the voices and the laughter and the noises. I see the shadows of the many faces. I feel my teacher sea legs adjusting automatically to swells and waves and storms that are now behind me. The land under my feet tilts and spins a bit as my body adjusts to the stillness. The disorientation is not unpleasant, but it does require attention. Nothing is automatic any more.

While I wait for the spinning to stop, I move through the days slowly. Careful not to lose any, but just as careful not to fill them with busy-ness that will disturb this lovely stillness. I clean a little, weed a bit, go for long walks with Toby. I do crosswords, read magazines, sit on the patio and marvel at the abundance that is my life in this moment. I prepare for Saturday's party. I allow myself the anticipatory thrill of my 40 year reunion and a road trip to Canada later in the summer with Walt. 

The sky beckons me. I feel its pull and call. My wings itch to spread and lift. Stories, ideas, plans, words and more words, possibilities - waiting for me. But for now, until the earth stops moving in remembered ocean waves under my feet, I will be content with stillness. And I will savor this joy.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Some Advice

Tomorrow is the last day of school. For this school year. For my kids' third grade year. For me forever (at least as it's been for the last 22 years). Here is some advice, given in a journal response, in their own words (but not their original spelling) my young friends are sending me into the world with:

You should write about when you were little.

Write funny and entertaining books.

Have fun, sleep in.

Write a book about Toby.

Go become a writer.

Always be ready for students.

Read some books from your favorite author.

You should write really long stories for people.

When your book becomes a novel have a good speech ready.

Glue google eyes to the back of your head and watch me. (This from Josh. See previous post.)

Enjoy what you’re doing all the time.

Be careful not to make spelling errors. (Miraculously, there were none in the original response.)

If you are writing a book, you should write it about your last third grade class.

When you’re on Oprah you be minding. (When she read this aloud she said, "When you're on Oprah, remember to wave to the best third grade.")

Whatever you’re writing, keep writing until you think it’s perfect.

Write lots of books.

Don’t go away. Stay here because it is more fun than writing.

Move to fourth grade so I can be your student again.

You should do some books hard and some books easy.

Have fun.

Write what your mind says. Don’t copy.

And this last one, my favorite, from a boy who has been a particular challenge and who often refuses to write anything at all: Pay attention to your story. Think about your old students and always get a good night sleep. And so I shall. With my whole heart.

Image from Flickr

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hammy's Gift

Josh's dad brought in Hammy, their new hamster, at the end of a recent Friday. 

I was supposed to say no when Josh asked weeks ago to bring his pet in, because animals are not allowed at school without an act of Congress and dispensation from the Pope (only a slight exaggeration). I have been following the rule all year, even though I think it's one of the dumber ones around. But Josh never asks for anything. And I knew that things at home had been particularly challenging. So just to see him smile, I said yes. 

And then forgot the whole thing. 

That Friday at last recess, Josh stayed back, clearly wanting to talk. In private. This is a kid who speaks primarily through actions - like throwing himself on the floor of the classroom without a peep, pretending to be dead. Or stealing the sticky note pad I've just written a list on and watching from across the room with a wicked grin waiting for me to notice. Or drawing a bizarre and funny stick figure named Bob and setting it under my nose. When the class wrote about the funniest thing that happened this year, most of the kids shared a Josh story. He waited until everyone else finally went out to recess before he whispered, "Remember Hammy's coming this afternoon."

Hammy turned out to be two and fat and a remarkably mellow hamster who only sleeps and nothing else. They got him for free on Craig's List. I didn't have the heart to tell them not to get too attached. Hammy is ancient and sure not to be around for Josh's fourth grade year. Josh proudly took his pet around the room for everyone to admire while dad leaned against a counter waiting patiently. 

I was sitting in my usual end-of-the-day silent ball spot, a table in the back of the room. Scanning to make sure I wasn't missing any important shenanigans that might result in disaster, I realized that Josh's little brother, Elijah, had come in with their dad. A four-year-old version of his long, lean, blonde brother, this little guy stood wide-eyed, silently clinging to his dad's leg. In the chaos of getting Hammy back in his cage, getting the kids settled back down, getting ready to play silent ball, I forgot about the little brother.

The game began with a little more energy than usual, the kids worked up from having company, so I had to work harder to keep things moving. A stirring from the vicinity of Josh's dad caught my eye. Little brother had moved away from dad to track the movement of the ball flying back and forth from kid to kid. I invited him to join me at my table. He raised his arms, without saying a word. 

Once settled next to me, he became the focus of the game. Kids would toss the ball gently in his direction, and he and I would sort of toss it back. Over and over and over, my all-about-me, nobody-throws-it-to-me, me-me-me kids gently drew Elijah into the game.

Elijah's throwing is not well-developed and my kids laughed at his wild tosses. The laughter was kind and inclusive, but little brother wasn't sure about it. The longer the game went on, the closer he scooted to me, until his side was pressed tight against mine and my arm winged over his little shoulder.

Eventually the game ended. The day ended. A happy Josh and his smiling dad took a sleeping Hammy home. Elijah went, too, even though the solid warmth and trust of his little body leaning into mine was as substantial as if he were still by my side. 

All these days later, I can still feel the weight of his belief in me as a safe place to be. It makes me want to weep. It anchors me as the last days of my life as a third grade teacher swirl ever faster around and away from me. It reminds me of who I am, without the effort to be, and who I will take with me into the beckoning light of my new life. All because I broke a rule and invited a hamster into my room. 

photo from Flickr