"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, October 30, 2011

Compatible Numbers

Toby's birthday is tomorrow. Four years ago, in a kennel in the country, he was born on a day that was ordinary for us in every way. We hadn't gotten serious yet about searching for a dog who would fill the still tender hole left when Riley died the winter before. We didn't even know that there was a breeder of golden retrievers twenty minutes from our house. We had no idea, six weeks later,  when we chose the biggest pup in the litter, and the one who seemed the least fazed by anything going on around him, just how extraordinary he would be.

Four is a good number. Round and compatible. In a dog's life, four is no longer puppy—even for a golden.  After many months of thinking perhaps he would never soften into legendary golden mellowness, one more time, he's fooled us. Four is the perfect number for him.

Toby is still playful. He loves his walks. He gets neurotically focused when we play ball in the back yard. He offers toys for tugging.

He is still self-possessed. He does nothing without a reason, never just out of obedience. He chases squirrels, barks at deer both real and imagined, and often decides he'd like to go outside in the middle of the night. No is not an answer he understands.

But more than anything now, he's affectionate. Finally, he's become something resembling the dog we thought we wanted. He frets if one of us comes home late, and grins with glee when the missing person finally arrives. After two years of having me home mostly full time, this fall has been hard for him. When I am home now he'll sprawl where I have to step over him, or follow me around and do his head-bury in my legs every chance he gets.

My birthday is Saturday. Sixty years ago in a hospital in Spokane, I was born to a nineteen-year-old girl already divorced from my father. While she didn't pick me, and her life definitely was not following the path of her dreams, she loved the baby who was me.

The girl I became was not what my mom expected or even understood. Outspoken. Curious. Fearless. Always asking questions and frustrated if the answers didn't satisfy. A nose for truth and not-truth. Challenging. Strong-willed. Impatient. Everything she was not.

And by the time I had mellowed enough to reach beyond the walls we both erected to survive our relationship, she was lost behind hers. I wonder sometimes, even now, if there might not have been a way for her to have found her way back to love.

Sixty is a good number. Round and compatible. Someone said recently that when we turned fifty it was easy to still believe we had half our life to go. It's not out of the realm of possibility to live to one hundred. That's not as easy to rationalize at sixty. One hundred and twenty seems neither possible nor desirable.  I've spent this last year knowing it was coming, and uncertain how it would feel. It turns out sixty is the perfect number for me.

Like Toby, I still possess all those same qualities from my youth. And, like Toby, more than anything I've become the human version of a loyal and affectionate dog. I'm ready to be here, and eager for the adventure that is this next leg of my journey. Full of gratitude to have arrived healthy, surrounded by love, and able to love. Grateful for dreams demanding fulfillment. Joyfully grateful to be sharing this birthday season with Toby. My gift. My buddy. My teacher.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Opposite of Sharp

It was one of those times when I knew as the words left my mouth they meant more than I intended. Sitting across from my counselor, soaking up her optimism and wisdom, talking about the struggle that is this year, I said, "I'm just not as sharp as I was a couple of years ago."

I meant that it's harder to remember things, harder to hold large quantities of information in short term memory, harder to make the hundreds of decisions an hour the job demands. I spend my days worrying I'll forget something important, let my team down, hurt a child in some way because I'm just not at the top of my game.

In a life full of loss and disappointment, I learned early on to rely on my brain. It was the one thing I could trust to provide answers, even though it's taken me years to realize not all of the answers were helpful or even completely true. I was one sharp cookie. I felt special for being so smart, for being a step or two ahead of everyone else. It was the one thing I knew my mom valued in me. The one thing I was encouraged to develop.

Aging (I'll be sixty so very soon) has been a definite factor. The early days of menopause were a nightmare of forgetting, and a new inability to find the right words for anything. Hot flashes were a walk in the park compared to the frustration of losing the one thing I had always been able to rely on. Over time I got used to the softening of my thinking, and clung to what remained. Worked at sharpening my remaining faculties so I wouldn't hit old age with a brain dull as river rock.

Then this last year happened. The losses. The grieving. The new demands of a job that was hard when I left and has gotten harder even for people still sharp and in shape for it. The war between my head and my heart. Head furiously trying to find sharpness again and thwarted at every turn. Heart wanting gentle quiet, slow movement, time to heal.

Pat, always honest even when I'm not sure I want her to be, replied, "I know you're not as sharp. But you are much more wise. Isn't that what you've always wanted?"

Well, yes. But I thought I'd get wisdom and still get to keep what I had before. I didn't realize the price for a life lived more gently, with more kindness and tenderness, was going to be my sharpness.

In the days since that conversation I've thought a lot about being sharp. The picture I get is of honed knives, paper edges, pointy objects. Things that cut, sever, separate. My own sharpness keeping me safe from the unknown and possible hurt. But also keeping me alone, lonely, isolated.

My heart has been waiting a very long time for this. Unlike my brain who has always demanded total control, heart is willing to share. All she wants is a chance to be heard and trusted. To have her language understood. Her timing valued. So this is wisdom: trust, acceptance, surrender. No sharp edges allowed, or more importantly, needed any longer.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Working in the Dark

Friday morning. An hour or so before sunrise.  Cold dew clings to my toes. It's a work day, but I'm in my back yard, hanging sheets on the line. There's so little light, I'm working by feel. Square corner to square corner, pegged. Pillowcases snapped out, my fingers doing the dance of setting them against the line and attaching the pins, all without  conscious thought.

The forecast said rain for the weekend, and for the forseeable future. I need to have one last week sleeping surrounded by the scent of outdoors, on the soothing scratchiness of line dried sheets.

It takes less than ten minutes. Toby wandering just out of sight, happy to have company, not needing more than that. The air holding a distinct bite. I look up at one point, survey the sky. Big Dipper, summer companion since childhood, to the north. Orion, a winter constellation, to the south. I take a deep breath that tastes like mountain streams.

My task done, toes beginning to numb, I move slowly toward the house. I'm reluctant to let go of this feeling of connection, freedom, mystery. Reluctant to step back into this life I've accepted, but that I still don't see the purpose of. Not the larger one - the one that holds my dreams at its center.

Wishing to stay a while longer in this moist glittering darkness that seems to understand. Delaying the return to artificial light, soon to be the primary light available for months to come.

I send a prayer to a friend who died this week, and to her family. She'd lived a long and full life. Even so, it's too soon.

Summer fading into fall, the season of dying. Not death itself, which is winter. But the season of transition from one form of life to another. Days shorten. Nights lengthen. Sunlight visits from time to time as a reminder that it will always return. Darkness beckons, offering a place to heal, a safe protected nest for transformation.

On this morning, for maybe the first time, I release my longing for the light. Trust it will come to dry my sheets when I'm gone into the world . Trust it to return as summer in due time as I set out to explore what the darkness has to teach me. Orion will travel across the sky in the months to come, my companion for winter, my reminder that beauty and meaning exist even in the darkest of nights.