"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, September 28, 2010

Making Lemonade

When he first got out of the car I could see a difference. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, totally missed the new glasses I'd been gently (mostly) urging him to get for months, thinking maybe he'd lost weight.

"You look great." And I meant it. He couldn't return the compliment (I'd just returned from yoga), which left my words to fill the air with more meaning than if they'd merely been part of a social exchange.

I'd been looking forward to Mark's visit all month, knowing it would involve deep conversation, new spiritual insights and some great antiquing. Plus, because he's currently single, when he's here I get to spoil him a bit, to cook favorite foods, to provide space and sanctuary. And as our relationship has grown in the three years since he returned from prison, I've come to love my brother, and feel his love for me, in ways I didn't know were possible.

The last decade of his life has been difficult. Difficult isn't the right word, but I'm not sure what word to use to describe the devastation wrought by decisions he made borne from deeply buried wounds - decisions that cost him everything that mattered, and that sent him to prison for three years. Decisions he takes complete responsibility for, but that are not him. And the man he's become on the other side is someone with the power to heal a family, someone with a clear and certain connection to God, someone whose suffering has burned away all but light and truth.

In some ways the time since his release has been the most challenging of all. While he never ever complains or indulges in self-pity, the losses and restrictions are a reality that hurt. Freedom from the walls of prison did not restore his life to its former abundance. Yet he only looks forward. He's built a respectable life. He laughs. He loves.

I've marveled at his ability to be grateful and to allow God to work through him. He's often my evidence of a loving God - one who understands, forgives and creates wealth from poverty. And the news Mark brought with him last weekend, the reason for the looking great, took that evidence to a whole new level.

Once I showered and we got settled at my kitchen table with coffee, and apples, cheese and bread between us, he started pulling items from the box sitting on the bay window behind him. The first was a small cardboard cube, which I needed his help to open, and which turned out to be a mug. A pretty ordinary mug, as mugs go, except this one had writing on the side: Angelwings Antiques.

And I knew, without him saying a word, that I was witnessing another miracle. He directed me to look inside the mug, where I found business cards that confirmed what my heart had just told me. My brother Mark, who has lost so much, had claimed a lifelong dream. He is now an antique dealer.

Our mutual love of antiques and the treasure hunt aspect of antiquing has provided hours of pleasurable wanderings during our visits together. It was one such adventure that provided the miracle of my yellow vase last summer. Recently Mark went beyond the store level of shopping and began going to auctions and playing in eBay. I mentioned once that he should consider setting up a booth in an antique mall so he could fund his habit. As his big sister, I'd like to take credit for the nudge that was the catalyst for this dream-come-true. But I know, while I get to participate in the miracle, it wasn't my hand that guided him to this path.

Besides the mug and the revelation, Mark had brought several other gifts, treasures from his hunting chosen just for me. Several new pieces for my collection of yellow American pottery. A sweet snuff bottle with flowers and a dragonfly. "I saw the dragonfly and thought of you." That statement a huge gift in itself.

Then two boxes brought in from his car. "You have to choose one. You might hate me after this, because you have to choose." As I opened the first, I knew from the shape under the paper protection what I was about to uncover. Last summer Mark and I discovered lemonade sets - beautiful old pitchers and mugs designed specifically for the service of lemonade. Like wooden screen doors and the scent of lilacs, these porcelain vessels evoke all that's best about summer and a Pollyanna past that was slower, easier, gentler. They're also very hard to find, and usually far beyond the budget of a casual collector of memory-bearing artifacts.

So the fact that there were not one, but two sets in front of me, that in itself seemed something of a miracle. It turned out the choice was easy. One set had been more loved, and its colors were deeper and richer - the purples and sky blues that speak soaring and possibility to me always. While he was very careful to allow me a clear choice, I'm pretty sure Mark's preference was for the other set. The one that is his now, a visual reminder we'll share that lemonade will always be the outcome when a heart is clear and open and surrendered.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


When I took this picture a few days ago, I was so enthralled with the gemstone glitter of waterdrops woven in spider webbing, I saw nothing but the jewel-encrusted quilt on the monitor of my camera. I took several shots from a variety of angles. Even then, it wasn't until viewing the photos on my computer that I saw the spider herself. Big as life. In every single picture.

It made me think how our brains settle on one thing at the expense of unlimited other possibilities. I have always had a strong inclination to assign value to, to define, to decide about things, and people, and situations. Good/bad. Pleasure/pain. Strong/weak. Pretty/ugly. Happy/sad.  Almost always in opposing pairs - one or the other.  Black. White.

Once I've defined a thing by whatever value seems to fit in the moment (usually the one that makes me right or safe or energized in some way), it's very difficult to see anything else.  And almost impossible to allow new information in. I was so focused on the beauty of the raindrops, I missed entirely the wonder of the spider.

Assigning absolute value in relationship, ceasing to look beyond the first glimmer, often leaves me backed into an emotional corner with no easy way out.

For better or worse, Walt, whom I love more than anyone else is also the one whom I've judged harsher than anyone else. A habit of old survival defenses I'm trying hard to break. With some success.

We've been having a problem with mice in the pantry. The cats are no longer interested in playing Cat and Mouse, and so the rodents have become bold. First a few black specks, then the discovery of a bag of almonds nearly emptied, and before long the sound of rustling during the day and the surprise of a face to face meeting upon opening the pantry door. Enough was finally enough. I emptied the pantry of everything so Walt could plug the holes, denying the mice access, and life could go on. Except plugging the holes didn't work. Morning after morning we woke up to either a dead mouse or traps licked clean of their peanut butter lure. For weeks. 

In the meantime the contents of the pantry, which is in my office, have been stacked on the floor of my office. For weeks. 

My old habit would have been to be mad at Walt. For weeks, or longer.

And I would have justified the anger with a litany of his past behaviors that proved (to me, only to  me) he wasn't trying hard enough. That anger would have blocked my view of the fact that this was happening at the beginning of the school year, the most intense and exhausting time for any teacher.  He was already spending every spare minute trying to fix his recently broken tractor himself to save money and to get the lawns mowed before the fall rains made it impossible.  I wouldn't have heard the unbelievable sacrifice he offered when he asked if I wanted him to do the new walls and shelves we've been talking about forever, since the pantry was empty. I wouldn't have been able to share the victory with him when, two nights ago, he found out how the mice were still finding their way into a completely sealed off space.

Because no value was assigned this time - Walt was not the bad guy - the situation was inconvenient but without emotional suffering (beyond my angst over killing the mice). The problem was solved in a way that means it will be unlikely we'll find mice in the pantry again. And best of all I'm seeing my husband in multiple beautiful shades of gray - neither black nor white. 

A whole picture that includes both the living center and the magic webbing spun outward, ever-shifting to catch moisture, light and sustenance.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Friendship Flowers

My flowerbeds have been a constant source of wonder and surprise this summer. When I did my early spring clearing, I left anything that looked like it might be something other than a weed. And even a few known weeds were allowed to stay: Queen Anne's Lace, Pearly Everlasting, Oxeye Daisies.

We planted wildflowers a year ago so I expected some results from reseeding. What I didn't expect were flowers in abundance that didn't show up last year at all. Lupine. Wallflower. Black-eyed Susan. There were a handful I've yet to identify, but which provided some of the prettiest cuttings for bouquets of the summer. Even the buddleia which we had pulled out, managed to return.

While I've loved the variety, and ever-changing palette of colors and fragrance, it's the Black-eyed Susan that's giving me the greatest pleasure. There are at least three different types in my garden. They last the longest in bouquets, complement everything I've found to put them with, and seem unphased by changes in the weather or the passing of time.

Research reveals that Black-eyed Susan is a name given to a number of completely different flowers. Some wild. Some cultivated. Rudbeckia hirta, the flower whose official common name is Black-eyed Susan, has a number of other names, including Brown-eyed Susan, Golden Jerusalem, and Gloriosa Daisy.

Considered the most common of American wildflowers, it thrives in most soils and forgives neglect. The one nonnegotiable that it needs is sun. And when it dies, it reseeds.

Much like long-term friendships.

Several months ago Julie came back into my life. Her oldest son had been my fifth grade student (he's married now with a second child on the way) and then we became colleagues who enjoyed each other's company. I left the school we shared, moved a second time, and one beginning-of-the-year was delighted to find she'd been transferred and would be teaching my ELL kids. A friendship formed based on some common background and a lot of common beliefs about kids and teaching. We laughed together and commiserated together and my day was always brightened by contact with her. When I left that district, Julie was one of the people I knew I'd miss, hoped not to lose contact with, but did.

Then she found me on Facebook, we exchanged e-mails, and started meeting for lunch. It was like we'd never been apart. Even more amazing, in our older wiser less protected conversations, we're learning just how parallel our lives have been. I've felt blessed by her renewed presence in my life and the pleasure it's brought.

After his back-to-school barbecue just a couple of weeks ago, Walt came home talking about a student whose mom had once been my teaching partner and close friend. The whole family was at the event and the mom had asked about me. She followed up with an e-mail, which led to an exchange of e-mails, which led to our first face-to-face visit yesterday in eight years.

Daune and I have known each other as long as Julie and I, but our friendship bloomed in the school between the two I shared with Julie. We taught next door to each other for two years, piloting full-time classrooms for highly capable students. She had the younger, I had the older, and our partnership was powerful. Our friendship grew out of the intensity of that experience, as well as the fact that we live five minutes away from each other, and have more in common than many blood relatives.

I found myself on the wrong side of some political and parental issues, and ended up leaving the program as a result. Daune was supportive of me through the entire difficult time, but my hurt made it difficult to feel safe with her. So without ever declaring the end of the friendship, and without ever losing a bit of love and respect for each other, we drifted apart and all communication faded away.

When she told me yesterday she thought the separation was because I found her boring, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She is one of the smartest, kindest, most reflective people I've ever known. If anything, my own uncertainty about being worthy of her friendship helped keep me silent.

Greeting her at my door yesterday afternoon, it was like no time had passed at all. She looked exactly the same to me - maybe softer around the edges, maybe a little more tired - but so little changed in nearly a decade. Our hug was profound and emotional. Our three hour tear and laughter filled visit ended only because we both had families waiting. Our promise to not let any more time be lost to us is one I know we'll keep.

These recently renewed relationships give me such joy. When I look out  my window or wander in my yard and revel in the golden glory of my Black-eyed Susans, I'm brimming with gratitude for the gift of both flowers and friends. I'm also filled with hope. Hope that, like the hearty flowers which seem to require little beyond abundant light to thrive, other friendships lying fallow might soon grow into new life.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


The shift has been a gradual one, each new step into trust a surprise. And sudden. It seems like we went from a way of being that I had begun to believe was permanent to this new freedom in the space of days.

Toby is almost three. He and I walk together almost every day, and our routine includes time off the leash where I know he'll be okay even if he opts for deafness and adventure over obedience and safety. He's such a headstrong dog, and I've assumed his primary motivation is scent and movement, which meant his connection to me would always be secondary. 

The result has been that I was very careful about letting him loose anywhere there was risk of him being hurt if he wouldn't listen.

During our walks this summer, I noticed he would come back along the trail looking for me if it took me too long to catch up with him. Then I would find him stopped at the gates where I always leashed him up  - stopped without being told. And finally one day he met me as I approached one of the gates and walked beside me until we reached it, all without my saying a word.

We've become a team, Toby and I. Not because I made him mind, or even because I trained him well - because in the last three years I let go of any expectation beyond keeping him safe and appropriately social. And I just loved him the way he was. I trusted him as far as he'd let me, but didn't demand more than I got.

He seems to be returning the affection and the trust. 

Earlier this month, for the first time, I let him in the front yard to help me bring groceries in from the car. Because he chases anything that moves - squirrels, cars, shadows - he's only had limited access to this unfenced part of our place. He was so excited, he bounced like his favorite rubber ball, and never got more than five feet away from me. We've repeated this new routine several times now, and he's been the same every time, not once even considering the possibility of chasing. 

I haven't taken him to the park since last winter because he was so hard to manage on the leash for that long distance. He pulled like a sled dog, with no concern at all for whether he could breathe or not. The condition of my shoulder wasn't even a concept for him. 

But Sunday I knew there would be campers in our regular place, and it was a perfect day, so I decided to give the park another shot. And it worked. He was eager, but responsive to my voice and the tugs on the leash. When I let him off leash to swim in the river, he didn't try to run up the bank and into the park to make new friends. And he didn't seem to mind making do with the limits of leash and my pace as we finished the park loop. 

Even with all of that, what happened yesterday took me by surprise. We were walking with our friend Mary and her Bernese Mountain Dog, Pearl. Toby and Pearl had not met before, and while not hostile with each other, both were more interested in their own sniffing agendas. At one point Mary let Pearl off leash, a regular part of their routine. So I let Toby off, too.

It was like we'd been doing this thing forever. He never got too far ahead. Came to me when I called. For a while walked along side me for reassurance after a romp and frolic with Pearl. At one point he veered up a trail toward the street, and my heart stopped because my warning didn't slow him down. But seconds later, he crashed his way back to the big trail and ran to me, then sat at my feet looking up as if to say, "That was so much fun. What's next?"

From the day we carried him into the house, Toby has been a reminder that control is an illusion. He's made it clear that life with him would not be business as usual. At some point I surrendered to that, to the unknown of our relationship, never expecting that I'd get this amazing lesson in trust. 

And if I can trust that love and acceptance and surrender work with a dog, perhaps it's time to believe, to really embrace, that it works everywhere.

Photo by Walt

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Movement brought my eyes up from the screen, as it always does. My desk looks out onto our side yard through a large picture window which offers a view of perpetual green and the activities of small creatures. Squirrels frolic and forage. Jays screech and wheel, blue tracers against a backdrop of lacy fir branches. A cat sits at the edge of the thick vinca, intent, and I imagine the families of mice huddled in its depths.

On this morning, however, the movement was large and fast, at the very edge of the large doug firs and smaller red cedars that form the boundary of our place. I looked up to see a coyote loping for the field from which I knew he'd turn toward the wild land by the river where they den. He was beautiful - thick coat in shades of gray, tail plumed behind like a contrail, pointed face a study of concentration.

Even though I love coyotes, every time I see one, a current of fear runs through my blood. It's unusual to see one in daylight, especially that close to the house, and my first thought was to wonder where the cats and Toby were. I had begun to think this summer that they'd moved on, our resident pack of wild canines. We haven't heard their howls or seen them in the field at dusk and I haven't seen scat in the usual places.

He was gone in a flash, leaving me unsettled and excited all at the same time.

Yesterday, I read an Alice Walker poem, "The Writer's Life." These two stanzas stopped me, made me go back and reread, and felt like epiphany:

We know
If there is 
A butterfly
For miles
It will come
& maybe
On our head.

If there is a bird
Even flying aimless
In the next 
It will not only 
Where we are
But sing.

I've wondered often in the last year at how much more connected to the wild I feel, how many more experiences with its abundance I've had, how every single day brings some bit of natural magic. The owls that I continue to watch in the meadow. A great blue heron feather on the beach. Deer dining on my blueberries. 

The not-quite frog of last week that I saw a second time the other day in the same exact spot. 

Simple and wonderful events like seeing a newly fledged tanager in muted gold landing on the edge of the birdbath, approaching, mouth wide open,  the newly fledged towhee who'd been drinking, expecting to be fed. Both flew away in a fluster.

I discovered wildflowers this summer on a trail I've walked for years. Familiar friends from other places, but never before in that place. Corydalis, Indian Pipe, Monkey Flower. A stand of Goldenrod in the owl meadow that took me straight back to childhood wanderings.

And the coyote, close enough for me to see the whiskers on his muzzle.

A case could be made that I'm seeing more because I'm home more. But that wouldn't explain the appearance of the different wildflowers. Or the fact that I'm finding feathers so often - owl and heron and  turkey vulture. Or the salmonberry bush arched for the first time over that same trail offering me fruit for weeks of the early summer.

No, I'm sure all of these gifts of wild wonder are mine now because I've chosen to follow the path of writer. A path that's been calling me into its wild uncertainty forever. Wildness that makes me feel more alive than ever before.

For Mary - she knows why. 

You can read the entire poem in the October issue of Writer's Digest,  or find it in Alice Walker's book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For.  In searching for a copy  of the poem I might link to, I discovered Alice Walker's amazing website, a place of wild magic itself.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Tadpole Teachings

Something didn't seem quite right, but it took a minute to figure out what. I was standing at the edge of the river while Toby splashed in its center. The afternoon was perfect - late season sunlight slanted so the  maple greens glowed bright, clouds delivered of a laughing wind danced across a clean blue sky, and a certainty that for this year the day might be the last of its kind.

I was scanning the river rocks at my feet, always in search of heart shapes, or maybe another heron feather like the one I'd found the day before. A spot of gray-green caught my eye first, then a small slash of black. My mind registered "frog" then just as quickly dismissed it because frogs don't have tails. Then I realized I was seeing a frog still transforming from tadpole, the black tail that served as legs in the water not yet absorbed.

As I stood watching him in wonder, I realized that this was the very first time I'd ever seen a frog in a between state - well beyond true tadpole, but not yet complete adult. And it made me ponder transitions and transformation and thinking.

When a frog is in tadpole form, it's considered whole just as it is. It's a tadpole. It swims and eats and grows. It does what it can to stay safe. With the tiniest of amphibian brains, I doubt it bemoans the fact that it's still stuck underwater with no legs and a small mouth. I don't see it counting the days until it can live on land, or comparing the size of its emerging limbs with that of other tadpoles.

When a tadpole has metamorphosed into frog, little trace of its fishy self remains in the four-legged, deep-croaking, land-hopping creature.  Then frog is just frog, and his job is to eat and stay safe long enough to reproduce. Perfect in that stage of his life, without concern for what was (like being able to live completely underwater) or what might be coming down the road (like a hungry heron).

But what about the between time? If this frog's brain were big enough, would he be embarrassed by the tail that told everyone he wasn't yet a full-fledged adult? Would he yearn for the relative safety and known world of underwater? Would he long impatiently for the day when he reached his full green, nobby and wide-mouthed potential?

You see where I'm going with this, right? All times are between times and all stages are perfect just as they are. The tadpole is in a constant state of transformation as it grows into froghood. The frog ultimately transitions from life to death to life again. And both are spared the inner voices that insist somewhere else is better, anywhere else, than where they currently are. Tail or no.

Illustration from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Invitation

A year ago a seed was planted in a writing class that grew into an amazing partnership from which a series of successful memoir writing classes blossomed. Please come see what's new with Writing the Breathings of Your Heart, and consider joining me this fall.