"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

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Turbulent Air

I ripped the envelope open and scanned the letter for one particular phrase. When I found it, feelings collided with one another like two opposing weather fronts. I read through the entire letter then—slowly—and when I got to the phrase it had not changed:

Fifth Grade.

I'll be teaching fifth grade in the fall. There is nothing in that sentence that would be my choice. I don't want to return to public education. I don't want to spend the fall cooped up in a stale-aired building tied to a bell-driven schedule. I don't want to go back to fifth grade.

Of the twenty-two years I spent in the classroom before my leave two years ago, I spent all but six years teaching fifth graders in some form. When I switched to third grade for the last three years, it felt like I'd graduated somehow. Like I'd learned all I needed to with tweens and was ready for a new challenge. Third grade turned out to be a challenge for sure, but not the place for which my particular set of talents is best suited.

Last Thanksgiving when I made the decision that going back into the classroom was the most effective way to create income and still continue my writing career, middle school English seemed a good compromise choice. It would allow me to share my passion with a new age group, and to focus on one subject which would free up more energy for writing.

The letter said fifth grade. It didn't say why, or explain the thinking behind my placement. It doesn't really matter. I don't believe the district is in charge of my future, or my life in any meaningful way. Nor do I believe it's an accident that I'm returning to such familiar territory. I'm still working on what it means exactly.

Without my searching, or even paying much attention (since I'm focused on absorbing and appreciating every minute of every day of my remaining time of leave), gifts have appeared like rare bird sightings in the last couple of weeks.

A surprise encounter with a former student, now a graduating senior, who has grown into a handsome, poised and accomplished young man. The warmth of his smile and hug. Remembering how I enjoyed the tender ten year old he was.

Running into a former parent at the grocery store and hearing that her daughter still talks about her third grade year with me all the time. A long and happy visit that left me radiating validation.

In Costco, bonding over field guides with the guy standing next to me, answering his "what do you do?" question with, "I teach fifth graders." And finding I didn't mind the taste of the words in my mouth.

My counselor saying she was glad I was returning to something I knew so well because it meant I wouldn't get caught up in the adventure and novelty of something new. That meant I'd have more energy to continue answering my soul's longings.

Here's what I know to be true: I love fifth graders, and always have. There's something about their being on the cusp of so much, and the resulting vulnerability, that brings the very best of me to the surface. At odd moments now I find myself remembering the fun, magical and transformative moments of previous years. I'm looking forward to creating more of those.

Here's what else I know to be true: I am a writer. Wings unfurled and strengthened in the last few years will not suddenly fall from my shoulders. The dreams I left the classroom to pursue, while still not accomplished, are no less compelling, and more sharply defined.

Although I wouldn't have chosen to either return to the classroom, or return to fifth grade, I am choosing to trust in gifts yet to be revealed in the wide blue sky of my life. I'm choosing to allow bubbles of excitement to the surface as I begin to let go of my picture of how this was going to go. There is loss here. But not of my dreams. Only the route to them. I choose to keep flying.

Picture from Google Images

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dancing in the Streets

She was on the sidewalk catercorner from me as I waited at the five lane stoplight, waiting to turn left. It's not unusual to see these kids on street corners, holding signs for various businesses, but she didn't fit the mold.

She wasn't wearing a drab and wilted Statue of Liberty costume and waving a sign offering help with taxes. She wasn't listlessly push-pulling a tall pole covered with bright signs inviting everyone to come to this open house or that blow-out car sale. She wasn't staring at the ground and flapping her sign as though it were stuck to her hand and she was trying to get it off.

This girl was dancing.

At first I reacted as I almost always do: with pity, and wondering about the circumstances that would bring someone to need money so badly they're willing to stand that exposed, and to do whatever is necessary to draw attention to themselves and the business they're representing.

My pity quickly turned to intrigued curiosity.

She seemed to be completely absorbed in her dance, and radiated a fierce clean energy. Petite, pale skin, dark unkempt hair. Clothes looking like they'd been picked blindly from the floor and thrown on without thought. Even with a knee brace (How, for someone that young?), she moved fluidly to a choreography clearly well-practiced. She dipped and bounced and spun and marched and pounded the air with her fist in perfect rhythm. She waved the sign (for pizza) as though it were an important prop, an integral part of the dance.

I found myself moving, just a little, to her rhythm, even without the beat of the music only she could hear.

This intersection is one of the busiest in our county. All too often, I find myself stuck at the light there. I'm usually taking deep conscious breaths well before green glows and traffic begins moving, especially if I'm at the back of a long line of cars. On this day, I was at the front, and wishing the red would stick. I didn't want to move away from her super-nova presence.

While I won't know the circumstances that brought my dancing girl to that street corner as a human billboard, I do trust in her ability to get herself eventually to the destination of her dreams. It's simply impossible, with that much dancing in her soul, for her to be stuck anywhere she doesn't choose to be.

Photo from Google Images

Monday, May 23, 2011


At the auction preview both Mark and I noticed the miniature castle, complete with drawbridge, pennants in the turrets,  and dozens of tiny medieval figures. Although we usually don't buy toys, this one was tempting for its intricacy and for that Christmas morning feeling it evoked as we stood admiring it through the glass case. My fingers reached of their own accord for the little knights and I might have left a nose print in my efforts to get closer than the glass allowed.

When that lot came up for sale, Joe, the auctioneer, mentioned it belonged to a ninety year old man who'd had the set since childhood. He was giving it up as part of his move to assisted living. I imagined him coming downstairs on a cold December morning eighty years before, exclaiming in joy that Santa had left the one thing he wanted more than anything. I imagined the endless pleasurable hours of play he enjoyed protecting his castle from marauding invaders. I imagined what it must have been like in adulthood for him to be able to reclaim those happiest of childhood memories whenever he looked at his treasure.

The bidding for the castle was intense and it sold for about the same price as a beautiful deco era wardrobe brought later in the auction. Clearly the old man wasn't the only one who found value in that toy.

I'd like to think that the love he had for the castle and its knights, the depth of his value for it, soaked into the set, and that was at least in part what made it so attractive to all of us there that night.

I often find myself wondering at these auctions what it is that makes an item valuable. Clearly it's not appraised value, since art work often goes for a small fraction of that. It's not size - I've seen a baby grand piano sell for less than an original Coca Cola tray. It's not even about aesthetics - WWII paraphernalia consistently brings far more than the most delicate crystal or most ornate silver.

For the original owner of the castle, I would guess there is no amount of money that can replace the value of his childhood toy. I wonder if he'll mourn the loss, or if he's refocused and found value in different things. Maybe both. I wonder if he got so much value from the castle during the time it was his, that he no longer needs its presence. As he approaches the end of his days, I wonder what does hold value for him - if it's memories, or his family, or the great mystery that awaits him.

Photo from Google Images

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Swift Rescue

I'd heard the tell-tale rustling and chirping behind the mirror over the fireplace for several days in a row. The swifts were back and setting up housekeeping in our chimney. I don't remember the first year they discovered the brick nest at the top of our house, but they've claimed it as their own for long enough we no longer feel safe to use the fireplace in winter - even for emergencies.

That morning as I sat in my living room journaling my way into the still-dark morning, it dawned on me that the manic peeps I was hearing came from the fireplace itself. The only other time that's happened was with a baby who had fallen from the nest and couldn't yet fly. I figured this time, since it was far too early for babies, this was an adult who could go back up whatever opening it had descended through.

I just needed to give it time.

Several hours later, it was clear the swift was going nowhere on its own and would need rescuing. So I formed a plan and said a prayer and got to work: Put the dog out. Clear the hearth. Check the location of the cats (all three sleeping and uninterested). Open the living room windows as wide as possible.

Best case scenario, the bird would fly straight out a window. Worst case, the bird would fly frantically around my house breaking things until a cat awakened and decided to have some fun.

I cautiously tugged the fireplace doors open, expecting a flurry of feathers to come flying out. When nothing happened I stuck my head inside, a little bit at at time, and looked around. Nothing. I figured the bird had escaped back up the chimney to get away from the noise I'd created, but went to get a flashlight just to make sure.

And there it was, clinging to the sooty bricks, nearly invisible. It blinked at the light, but didn't move (allowing me to take pictures) until I reached for it. Then it flew out the window, just like that. I put everything away, satisfied at the successful rescue.

Shortly after, I heard a soft rustling in the fireplace. No chirping, just the faintest whisper of a sound. I convinced myself it was my imagination until one of the cats started knocking things over trying to get through the glass of the fireplace doors. So I repeated my earlier preparations, this time putting the now hyper-alert cat outside with Toby, hoping to get the bird out the window before the cat made her way back around the house.

There it was, on the opposite side, a mirror image of its partner. Except its eyes were closed.

This time the bird didn't move, even as I reached for it. I decided it must have been there all along - that both birds had found their way down the chimney together. After hours of no water or food, this bird was out of fight. When I wrapped my hand around its body, it came to life in a frantic flurry which I scooped toward the window. How it managed to fly through and past the returned cat waiting at the sill, I'll never know, but I was so grateful it did.

They haven't returned to the chimney, this pair, although I hear them as they swoop for food above the house. I wonder what they tell each other about their adventure. I wonder why they didn't just fly back up through the damper that had somehow come open over the winter. I wonder about the survival mechanism that made it a better thing to stay still and risk capture by a giant, over escaping in any way possible.

I think about how similar we humans are when faced with a fearful situation. How we'll freeze and take our chances with outcomes that hold the potential for far greater disaster than risking a push into the dark unknown. How even the threat of death is not enough to make us break through the fear. Still, with all of that - we, like the swifts, respond to a helping hand. It doesn't seem to matter whether we recognize the hand. Somehow the help of another being reaches past the barriers of fear to give our wings lift we can't find for ourselves.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I Remember

I remember the first time my daughter called me Mom. I remember my surprise at her decision to give me the title because she’d called another woman Mom for the twenty-four years before we met. I remember the thrill of hearing that dormant part of my identity named by the one person I was told I’d never meet. I remember responding to her “Hi Mom” with “Hello my daughter."

I remember our first hug, how each filled the curves of the other like they had never been filled before. I remember the strength and conviction of her embrace, no hesitation or reserve. I remember hugging her back, absorbing the warmth from every contact point, and telling myself to feel and remember. I remember her kissing me on the mouth, and her laughter as she explained that she’d waited her whole life for that hug and kiss. I remember our pulling apart to study each other and then falling into another, longer embrace.

 I remember we didn’t disconnect physically—that some part of us was always touching except when we were in the bathroom­­­—during the twenty-four hours of our first contact.

I remember the Red Robin parking lot in which we stood, surrounded by the ocean rush of freeway traffic and the tantalizing smell of cooked meat. I remember the heat of the May morning sun on my head and the remnant chill of the previous night on my sandal-exposed toes. I remember the tremor in my knees that worked its way up through my heart and into my voice, a vulnerability I so didn’t want her to see.

I remember searching her beaming face for evidence of my own. I remember recognizing my wide smile, the Cherokee curve of my cheekbones. I remember delighted surprise that our chin-length pageboys were so similar. I remember wondering (and not asking until much later) why she straightened her hair. I remember marveling at her velvety Afro halo, her father’s legacy, in the childhood pictures she had sent me in the weeks before. I remember sparkling cola eyes and soft fawn skin.

 I remember thinking there was something undefinable about her that reminded me of my own mother, and wishing that weren’t so.

I remember the musical meadowlark pitch of her voice. I remember her laughter, a summer creek over rounded stones. I remember she laughed often. I remember laughing at funny stories from her childhood that made me want to weep for all I’d missed of her.

I remember walking into the restaurant holding hands like elementary school girlfriends. I remember wondering if anyone noticed us and somehow knew what a miracle was occurring right before their eyes. I remember the waitress telling us as she refilled our iced teas how nice it was to see a mother and daughter enjoying each other’s company so much. I remember asking how she knew we were related. I remember her saying we looked so much alike. I remember the thrill of pride I felt and my daughter’s delighted smile. I remember telling the startled waitress our story, needing someone to be witness. I remember asking her to take our picture. I remember posing next to my daughter, arms entwined, heads leaned together, her musky perfume blended with my floral.

I remember our remaining time that day as a carousel spin of shopping, walking and driving to the constant calliope song of our words and laughter.

I remember our room in the Motel 6 where we started the night each in our own double bed. I remember her little girl voice asking across the darkness if I’d mind if she cuddled with me for a while. I remember waking frequently during the long night, feeling her in my arms, marveling at the fact that after twenty-four years of waiting, I had finally soothed my daughter to sleep. I remember opening my eyes to her sweet face studying mine, her smile a mirror reflecting my joy, her greeting: “Good Morning, Mom. I love you.”

Written in response to the follow-up prompt to "I can't remember" for Lisa's class (and for #1Nana).

Photo by Walt, taken at Catherine Creek.

Friday, May 6, 2011

I Can't Remember

Bitter Root

I can’t remember much about the last time I saw my daughter. I can’t remember the date or precisely how many years it’s been. I can’t remember if we both had frappuccinos at the Starbucks where we met, or if she had something else. I can’t remember if we indulged the sweet tooth we shared by choosing something from the pastry case.

I can’t remember what she wore, or what I wore. I can’t remember how she wore her hair, whether it was kinky or straightened, long or short, in spite of her comments about my newly gray hair. I can’t remember for sure the shape of her figure then; she wouldn’t have been happy with it no matter what. I can’t remember if I was in a skinny place or a chubby place myself.

I can’t remember what we said to each other once we’d covered the summer weather and condition of the I-5 freeway traffic as we journeyed from our respective homes to that central spot. I can’t remember how much time passed after that meeting before she stopped driving altogether. I can’t remember when I realized, much later, just what it meant that she no longer drove.

I can’t remember clearly the feel of her hug or whether we kissed. I can’t remember the texture of the curve of her face in my palm. I can’t remember the precise shade of brown of her eyes or her skin or her hair.

I can’t remember her scent.

I can’t remember whether our greeting hugs and goodbye hugs that day felt anything like our very first reunion hugs when she was twenty-four. I can’t remember what she said about why it had been so long since she was willing to see me. I can’t remember what she said about future visits, whether she promised more or hedged her bets.

I can’t remember whether I was convincing when I told her I loved her. I can’t remember whether my words reflected my fear of being hurt by her and my reluctance to impose myself where I felt I had no right to be. I can’t remember if her face told me whether she knew just how much I loved her.

I can’t remember if she asked questions, if she wanted to know about my life, or just needed to tell me about hers. I can’t remember what she told me about her children, or her husband, or her adoptive family. I can’t remember which medical crisis she was in the midst of for that visit. I can't remember which previous ones she might have shared stories about.

I can’t remember what her hopes were for her future – she was young enough to still have unlimited possibilities in front of her. I can’t remember if she might have hinted at the inner demons she lived with. I can’t remember if in her laughter and cheerful banter there was a darkness I didn’t want to see or know.

I can’t remember her last words to me as we parted at the end of a long afternoon, the summer light begun to fade. I can’t remember my last words to her. I can’t remember the exact time she was no longer there, the exact moment her face was gone from my sight, the exact second that was our last.

I can’t remember why I didn’t work harder to remember every detail of what felt like a second reunion in the same way I claimed our first reunion. I can’t remember having any sense at all that there wouldn’t be more time, more days and years and visits in which to experience everything that was my daughter. 

Written in response to an assignment for a Lisa Romeo class I'm taking where every sentence was to start with "I can't remember."

Photo by Walt, taken at Catherine Creek.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day

For the last half hour a bright golden sphere has kept me company here, climbing above the distant hills and burning away shadows. As it slowly moves upward, playing a game of peek through the thick branches of our bordering firs, our eyes meet from time to time. I feel promise and playfulness as though the sun were as young as this season.

It's May Day. Distant childhood memories surface: dancing around a maypole as an elementary class activity, and pretending I was a young maiden of olden times; making paper flowers that would become Mothers' Day gifts, hoping beyond hope that this gift would bring light to Mom's eyes; based on a story from her childhood, gathering tiny bouquets of wildflowers, and dropping them on the front steps of our closest neighbors, thrilled to share an ancient tradition with her.

I'm aware of warm softness around the edges of pictures that used to surface coated in icy fog. I love the little girl trying so hard to be or do something that would make her Queen of May in her mother's eyes. I love the mother believing the only way to keep her daughter safe was to turn her into a meek, obedient and silent wraith - exactly the mother's chosen survival cloak in her own sad childhood, and exactly the opposite of her daughter's nature.

In my North Idaho childhood, spring didn't really arrive until May. This year, in my Pacific Northwest adulthood, that seems to be true as well. In this moment as I sit in the still and birthing glow of this new day, for the first time in weeks I feel light in every sense of the word.

Today we're going to Catherine Creek for our annual wildflower pilgrimage. While I hope for glorious surprises, I'm also happy to the point of tears anticipating the certainties of the day. The sun will keep us company for hours ahead. The air will be soft and alive. The sky will beckon with blues that seem new each spring.

Walt and I will be our best connection for the greatness and grace of the day, and for whatever might create shadows.

Breath comes easier. Worries lose their sting. The world feels fresh, new, and full of promise. The sun has that much power, May's gift to us all on her birthday.

Shooting Stars from last year's Catherine Creek pilgrimage.