"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, August 28, 2011


In the two weeks since I stepped back into the world of public education I've heard one question more than any other: Are you excited to be back?

Well, no, as a matter of fact, I'm not. But I don't say that. Not because I'm avoiding the truth, but because being excited is not the point.

The art teacher, my across-the-hall neighbor, was in my room last week introducing himself. Hired the year I left, he's young and clearly loves teaching even more than he loves his own art. He lives and breathes creativity. As I worked to express to him my belief that returning to the classroom will ultimately sharpen my writing, he said the perfect thing:

"Creativity works best under pressure."

It's not a new idea. A John Stewart quote with identical meaning found its way to me early last winter as I struggled to make peace with having to return to teaching.

But it was just one of many moments that are standouts as I've prepared for the first day of school, which is Wednesday.

The teacher desk left in my room was a small blond desk-wannabe that would have held my computer and phone with no surface left to spread out and work. While hunting for other furniture, I noticed a huge scarred dark wood slab buried under a pile of tattered books and torn borders. My desk! The one I had before, and loved.  Set up in my room now in all its aged battered glory, it greets  me every time I step into the room with a broad welcoming expanse and drawers enough for a paper addict's needs.

Vinnie, our district maintenance guy, was in my room fixing cupboard doors. I asked him if he'd seen the work order to move my projection screen (the focal point of the classroom), the thing I needed done much more than I needed doors tightened. He hadn't received that order yet, but took the time to move the screen while he was there, which made it possible for me to finish setting up my furniture.

I returned to my room during a break from meetings on Friday to find a newer computer on my desk. The tech guy, Chase, has months' worth of work that needs to get done before school starts. He can't walk down the hall without a teacher following him throwing out lists of urgent needs. Despite that, he took the time as he set up  my computer, without having been asked, to enlarge what shows on the screen so I no longer have to peer through squinted eyes to read.

Sitting in meetings (five days worth in two weeks), something that usually brings out every resistant bone in my body, has been mostly a pleasure. I hadn't realized how much I missed being surrounded by the wonderful quirks and stories and energies of my fellow travelers. I've laughed more (cried more, too), talked more, absorbed more, in the last two weeks than I have in ages.

Yesterday morning I wrote post cards to my new students. The list changes on a daily basis, but since  the first time I saw it early last week, I've already begun to love the names. I've also begun to form pictures of some of the kids as fourth grade teachers look to see which of their kids I got. I have siblings of three former students, all families I'm eager to work with again. As I finished each post card, I would set it aside with a blessing and a prayer for that child, our relationship, and their fifth grade year.

Tomorrow is another meeting day. So is Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon we have "free" to prepare for Open House Tuesday night. Wednesday morning at least 26 ten-year-olds will step into a new year with me. They'll see this quote by Douglas Pagels on the back bulletin board:

"Each new day is a blank page in the diary of life. The secret of success is in turning that diary into the best story you possibly can."

While I may not be exactly excited to be back, I am confident this year will be full of the best stories I've ever experienced, both mine and my students'. A year of pinnacles to be celebrated, admired, and grateful for. And under all of that, a glimmer of hope that one story in particular will find its way to the surface, and grow into a reality that exceeds my imagination.

Photo of The Pinnacles at Crater Lake taken by Walt.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Growing into the Light

My brother Mark and I were walking into a building together when I noticed the row of neatly symmetrical deciduous trees lining the sidewalk. Their unfamiliar tissuey pink flowers, more suited to spring than the hot August day, caught my eye first. The tremendous leaning of the trees toward the parking lot and away from the wall—like ladies in a row looking out together for the bus up the street—stopped us both.

"Do you know why plants lean toward the light?" Mark asked.

My mind immediately went to my elementary school answer. But I know my brother, who used to teach high school science. This was a trick question if ever I heard one.

"Isn't it to reach the sunlight? For photosynthesis?" I answered. "Is there more to it than that?"

And it turns out the answer is yes, to both questions.

I've taught kids for years that plants need light for photosynthesis. It was a relief to know I hadn't somehow been teaching the wrong thing.   There is, however, another process called phototropism in which cell growth occurs on the shaded side of leaves, pushing the plant toward the light.

As I marveled at the fact that growth was happening in the shadows, which seems so counter-intuitive, Mark tossed out, "Yup. Growth requires darkness. Life requires light."

We both recognized the power of those words the minute they left his mouth. My brother is experiencing his own time of shadows and intense growth. I'm not sure which of us needed his message more.

Growth happens in the darkness. Growth that nudges a plant toward the source of life. Toward warmth and light that provide nutrition and strength which in turn creates more of the hormone triggering more growth in the shadows.

We're finally having the summer that usually happens in July, or at least much earlier in August. It's hot and sunny. Bright air is full of life-giving light. My life right now feels much like the dark side of those trees. Shadowed with so much inner growth it's nearly impossible to find a comfortable way to be. As the cells on the backs of my inner leaves stretch and expand beyond their previously comfortable walls, I find myself leaning. Off-balance. Seeking the lush light of summer that seems just beyond my reach.

This design offers me much comfort in these days of my return to public education. It gives purpose to the shadows that lurk at every turn, and reminds me that only good can come from what now feels not-so-good. The sun meets my upturned face with a radiance that fills me with all I need to nourish a full flowering, driven by the growth of these dark days.

After our day together, I asked Mark to write about this same experience. He told me this morning that he had (I love it when my brothers listen to me!), but I didn't read his post until after I'd written this. I encourage you to read his story. His explanation of the science exceeds my elementary understanding. His wisdom and heart shine bright in every word. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

A Different View

When I drove into the parking lot of school this morning, I was grateful to see there were no other cars. My first day back after two years away, and I struggled to quiet the fear and anxiety that grew louder during my drive from home, like a geiger counter approaching uranium. I pulled around to the back of the building, just outside my room, and let myself in as quietly as possible. Almost like I was sneaking in, shy to be there.

I'd been prepared for the worst. Expecting dregs as far as furniture and supplies, knowing that all the good stuff would have been scavenged by other teachers at the end of last year. It wasn't the worst, but neither was it good. As I stood in the middle of the room, adjusting to the reality of what I had to work with, I noticed the floors weren't clean.

 My original plan had been to go in last week and get started with set-up and planning. I wanted to work my way back into the groove slowly, a few hours at a time. That was derailed by a last-minute directive from our principal to stay out of the building until today, because the custodians needed the extra time to finish the floors.

My initial reaction was to ignore the message and go in anyway. I was mad at the restriction after having been told I could go in early, then upset that my first contact with the new year resulted in my being mad. After listening to the calm counsel of a thoughtful friend, I decided it was wiser (and easier) to accept the change. The result was an extra week of freedom: time with friends, soaking up sun, reading, finishing home projects.

Today I expected to put in a full day to make up for the time I lost last week. But uncleaned carpets and unpolished tiles meant I was stymied. At first I considered moving in anyway, pretending I didn't know the floors weren't done. There was a time when I would have done just that, justifying my actions with  my need and the promised completion time.

Instead I went in search of the custodian and information.

As I tracked the sound of her footsteps, I reminded myself to stay focused on what is important and what is not. What matters is relationship, balance, and kindness. Anything attempted or gained through any other means is poisoned. It's not personal. Not about me in any way. None of it. The only thing that's about me is how I respond to what's presented.

When I found her, she seemed surprised to see me in the building, but was friendly. She's new since I was last there. Her name is Glinda (yes, like the Good Witch—I asked), which made me like her instantly. I had to restrain myself from interviewing her on the spot, but I look forward to learning what has to be a wonderful story, both about how she got her name and how it's influenced her life. Instead I asked about the floors, and learned the crew had lost three weeks of work time this summer because of circumstances beyond their control. I explained my time issues. She told me she'd get my carpet done today. I can move in tomorrow.

So I got my soft entry back to school, found the start to an intriguing new story, and gained one more day of freedom.  More importantly, I got to see what happens when I shift my view of things just a little. When I choose not to listen to the voice that tells me to fight, and instead seek understanding and connection.

Tomorrow, I'm sure there will be many more opportunities for me to choose the softer view as I begin my search for furniture.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Change in the Air

Walt and I were just gathering our lunch things, preparing to return to the canoe and the rest of our journey through the refuge, when we heard voices. A large rowboat beached and we watched a younger man help an older woman step onto shore. Our mutual greetings became a longer conversation in which they revealed they'd been out wocus picking. Members of the Klamath/Modoc tribe, they were gathering the seed heads to make a traditional cereal.

Our conversation turned to the perfect day: sunny, balmy, no wind, no bugs. 

"It feels like the time for hunting and gathering," the man said. "There's change in the air."

And I knew that to be true, even though I'd been trying not to know. I had been sensing the smallest shift in the color of light, feeling the first inner stirrings of restlessness, seeing the first yellowing of big leaf maple. 

Despite the fact that we've hardly had summer, autumn's breath is making itself known. 

This is the flat time, neither fully one season nor the other. Summer not quite over, autumn not quite here. Still more summer than not, but past the time where it feels like summer might last forever. 

I'm finding feathers everywhere these days, in unusual abundance it seems to me. Owl. Eagle. Jay. An egret feather floating next to us toward the end of the canoe trip that felt like an omen and a gift. As though the birds preparing for migration are sending me invitations to join them.

In the hours we spent paddling the flat water of the marshy refuge, we saw hundreds of dragonflies. At least four different varieties. I considered the contrast between that abundance and the huge numbers of turkey vultures we'd seen as we drove south from home the day before. Both are beings that have always touched me at that intersection of spirit and heart. The vultures whose job it is to clean away that which has died. The dragonflies who symbolize change and spiritual renewal.

A lone bald eagle soared overhead, close enough that his white head and tail, deep brown body, and golden beak were sharply defined against the Crater Lake blue of the sky. Just in case, apparently, I needed the reminder that our day on the water was both love letter and extended hand from the Divine.

A love letter that included a pair of otters playing on the bank, two deer swimming not far ahead of us, shy egrets peering at us through the reeds. A gentle hand that held us for miles of perfect stillness in amiable  companionship with each other, ourselves and the world around us. 

Change is in the air. It comes in its own time, at its own pace. But it comes. Full of promise, hope, and songs of waiting adventures. 

Photos by Walt

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Showers of Light

Like scouts for the Perseid meteor showers due later this month, bits of light flash across the sky of my life. At first I notice one or two shooting stars and they barely register as extraordinary: several days of sunshine in a row, the scent of petunias playing around my head as I relax on our patio.

Then they start to occur with regularity, streaking through with little time between, impossible to register anything but wonder and joy.

A breakfast yesterday with a fairly new friend in which the conversation was deep and satisfying—vulnerable and intimate. As I left the restaurant, running into two former and beloved students and their mom and a sister I can hope to have in a couple of years—hugs and happiness and warmth. From there to coffee with a friend with whom my relationship has grown this summer from an occasional pleasure to a constant source of comfort.

With time to spare before an afternoon appointment, I decide to get a pedicure. My first in two years. A luxury I'd decided to forego along with many other luxuries to better afford my leave time. Sitting in the big black throne of a chair with a breeze dancing through the open door to Enya's voice while my feet and legs are given gentle care. Walking out with a lighter step and purple toes.

More time to spend as I wish. An awareness that time freedom is the greatest gift of all, and soon will be even more precious to me for its rarity.

I go to an office supply store. The fall of my first year of leave, this is what I missed most: having a reason to lose myself in the world of paper and pencils and post-its, and to bring home an abundance of treasures from that place. Yesterday I gave myself that gift. Meandering each aisle as though visiting a familiar trail in the wilderness. Grinning with delight at new choices and products. Starting with a basket, which I quickly trade for a cart, and fill.

At my appointment, finally, hearing myself say, "I have hope." Surprising us both with the words and the depth of the truth underneath.

Coming home to a frantically happy dog and complaining cats, Walt gone to a day of golf, sitting on the patio in the last of the day's warmth and feeling nothing but gratitude.

Each event a clean flash of light, barely faded before the next one follows. As though I were actually lying in the grass of my field watching the shower of miracles, I feel held by the earth. Safe. Grounded. One with it all.

The Perseids are at their most spectacular in the darkest hours of night just before dawn. Bits of rock, distant cousins to the sun, ignited by the speed of their travels, announcing like the Star of Bethlehem the arrival of a new beginning.

photo by Mell P from Planetsave