"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

Friday, June 29, 2012

Out of the Jungle

Walt and Deb atop El Castillo at Xunantunich

We left our amazing jungle experience behind yesterday and made our way to Hopkins, a tiny Garifuna settlement on the Caribbean. While there was wifi at Table Rock, our jungle lodge, the satellite system they used didn't like Macs apparently, so I was forced off the grid for a week. That was a bit frustrating, but also helped me be even more present for the days we were out of touch. 

Since you heard from me last we've visited the market in San Ignacio and eaten our first pupusas, climbed pyramids, explored Maya ruins, gone caving, gone zip lining, seen incredible butterflies and hummingbirds, wandered villages, fed howler monkeys in the wild, seen miles and miles of leaf cutter ants wending their way from trees to nests, held green iguanas, and spotted my elusive keel-billed toucan as it flew overhead, away from me. We lounged at the palapa of the lodge every afternoon, reading or taking notes on the day, being served lime juice on ice by Jose. We've eaten five star meals prepared by Chef George, and had orange juice squeezed from oranges grown at Table Rock. Our breakfasts were made from eggs laid on their farm, and the fruit came from surrounding villages. We've made friends, met people who have moved into our hearts to stay. 

Leaving Table Rock was hard. We have never experienced such luxury. Yet we still felt  like we were contributing to the health of Belize. Alan and Colleen built the place from jungle scrub with nothing but vision and grit and the labor force of a neighboring village. They are off the grid electrically and use only local foods. Water is conserved. There are no outlets in the rooms.  But there is such a feeling of abundance, both materially and humanly, that we drove away overflowing with a sense of deep rightness and connection to life.

Our arrival at Hopkins was another huge culture shock. Partly it was being away from the family feeling of Table Rock. Partly it was the heat and return to a scrubby landscape. Partly it was being faced one more time with the incredible poverty in this country.

We had visions of a romantic week in our secluded cabana on the beach. Ingrid, our hostess, is a warm and lovely German woman whose English leaves me baffled frequently. At first glance, the cabana was everything we hoped for. After Ingrid left us to ourselves, however, the cracks began to show. The lovely beach front we had to ourselves was littered with garbage, and the sea breeze, while comforting at first, after a bit felt more like a blast furnace. The cabana itself was a bit beyond rustic. Which might all have been okay, except it did not cool down even a bit last night, and we woke up this morning groggy, grumpy, and not sure what to do next.

To make this long story shorter, Ingrid found us another place on the beach (she apparently manages a number of properties in Hopkins). We have gone from run down rustic to a room in a million dollar home, with access to the living room and kitchen of the suite next door because it's currently empty. It's beautiful here, more than we actually wanted, but the air conditioning is making us both very happy right now.

As we drove up to the place this afternoon after a day of adventuring in Placencia (where we had lobster for lunch that was caught this morning), we saw a  very small girl, probably 7 or 8, riding a very large bike up and down the side of the property. I talked to her about the size of the bike and her prowess with it, and got great smiles. Her home is a wooden shack on stilts, right next to this house. The houses on the other side of us are much the same as hers.  It's interesting that my first experience with Belize was the poverty, and the ending of my time here is surrounded by it as well. 

It was Linda who commented on the last post that what seems so unusual at first will become familiar. And that's certainly been true of a lot of our experience in the last ten days. We've grown accustomed to the roads (which are worse in some places than the guide books warned). Walt has learned to drive like a local, which means passing cars in places and ways that seem insane at home. We've gotten used to the bugs (which really aren't as bad as we expected). We're moving slower, in part because of the heat and humidity, and in part because no one moves fast here. Our ears are more attuned to English spoken with a Spanish accent and I find myself hearing in my head the names of the places we've been, spoken with the most musical of lilts.

The poverty, too, is becoming more familiar. What it isn't becoming is comfortable. I don't know what to do with it. At every speed bump, and there are at least six for each village we go through, locals stand either waiting for the bus or selling food of some kind. Our car has to come to almost a complete stop to inch across the wide concrete barriers. I sit with my window open and beautiful brown people within arms's reach. So I smile and wave at the faces we pass. Some, most actually, smile and wave back. It's not enough, but right now, that bit of affection is the best I have to offer. 

We have five more days here. I'm not sure what they'll bring. We have no specific plans for our remaining time in Belize beyond exploring, eating great food, and looking for whatever adventure presents itself at the next turn. I hope to post once more before we return home, but I've got so many stories just waiting to be told on the other side of this time. I can hardly wait to share.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Culture Shock & Crooked Tree

We arrived in Belize City at 10:30 in the morning. I have no idea what time my body was thinking it was at that point. I knew it was Tuesday. I knew I'd been up beyond one bedtime, with only about three hours of sleep (if you can call it that) on the plane. When we stepped out of the plane and onto the stairs down to the tarmac, the first thing I noticed was the heat. Which hit with a force that felt like it had real substance.

We made our way into the airport and through customs. It's always sort of intimidating going from one country to the other, no matter how in order things seem to be. The bored officer asked a couple of desultory questions and stamped us through. A second slightly more animated officer took our declaration form, and I think welcomed us to Belize.

We walked across the road to our car rental place, Jabiru Rentals. A father and son operation tucked in a tiny office with room for five people if they liked each other a lot. They were warm, extremely helpful, and before long we were out of the airport in our sporty yellow Dihatsu four wheel drive SUV. It wasn't until we'd traveled a few miles that I realized we were the only sporty yellow car on the road, and so might as well have been wearing a sign that shouted TOURIST.

The trip out of Ladyville toward Crooked Tree where our first stay was booked, was depressing. I kept telling myself I was tired and hungry and in culture shock. But the garbage and poverty and scrubby land didn't change for the whole drive until we turned off toward the resort.

The guide books weren't kidding about the roads. There are speed bumps on the highway, in what appear to be random places. In a great show of entrepreneurship, the locals have set up food stands at every bump.

Once off the highway, like the very long road to our resort, the condition of the roads made it clear why the rental companies only seem to have four wheel drive vehicles available. We bumped and swerved and plowed through deep standing water. We drove so long with no sign of civilization, we wondered a couple of times if we'd taken a wrong turn somewhere.

In the meantime I was searching for birds, the toucan in particular. I was seeing lots of new ones for me, but nothing that took my breath away. The best sighting was of basilisk lizards running across the road on their hind legs, like they were playing some reptilian version of chicken.

Crooked Tree Lodge was a relief in more ways than one. Located on the lagoon of the Crooked Tree Refuge, it's beautiful, rustic and exceeded their advertising. Mick and Angie and their two adorable boys are amazing hosts. It's very much like a bed and breakfast here. We eat our meals family style, meals that are abundant, delicious, and prepared with love. We are surrounded by beautiful country, flat calm water, and sounds that I'm pretty sure were heard in Eden.

We are at the end of day three. It's Thursday afternoon, almost 4:00. We leave tomorrow for San Ignacio and a week inland. In the last days we've experienced horrific humidity, sweltering sun, and this morning for about an hour, the most torrential rainstorm I've ever seen.

 We've done a sunrise birding boat ride where I got my fill of new birds, saw crocs and iguanas, and learned some local lore.

 We went to the Belize Zoo, where there are only Belizean animals which have been rescued in one way or another.

We visited our first Mayan ruins at Lamanai after an amazing boat trip, and climbed to the top of a pyramid. We wandered in Orange Walk Town, visited a grocery store (one of my favorite things to do when I'm traveling), and saw Mennonites walking the streets among beautiful brown skinned people. We were the only tourists around, which felt a little weird, a little wonderful, and ultimately didn't seem to matter at all - even with our snazzy yellow car.

I have so much to share, but the internet connection is slow here, and I don't trust it, so I'll close for today. It's an amazing country. It's amazing to be here. We're having so much fun, even without toucan sightings. I can hardly wait to see what's around the next corner.

The view our first morning at Crooked Tree

Monday, June 18, 2012

In the Airport

We are on our way! Our dear friend Daune drove us here a bit ago. We sailed through the check-in process and security. The plane is due to take off just a few minutes into tomorrow. We are going to Belize. I am in awe of the fact that I get to say that.

After months of planning and reading and deciding - every conversation since Christmas has been Belize related in some way - in just a few hours all our imaginings will become reality.

This morning I found myself wondering why I ever thought Belize was such a great idea. The weather report shows nothing but rain for the foreseeable future. We started taking our anti-malaria pills yesterday - big honkin' things with all kinds of warnings to go with. I packed insect repellant, sunscreen and three different medications for the stomach bugs we're hoping with some fervor to avoid.

Then Walt reminded me that if we had stayed with our original plan to celebrate 25 years of marriage and (for me) 60 years on the planet in Hawaii, I would be feeling like something was missing. And he was right.

One thing about living as long as I have is that I've had some experience with the difference between expectations and reality. With all of our reading and internet searching, we've developed some pretty strong pictures of what to expect in Belize. I anticipate (in addition to a lot of rain) a multitude of birds, gorgeous and mysterious Mayan ruins, a whole new shade of water blue to add to my life list. I hope that magic will happen, that Walt and I will grow closer, that I still have the capacity to view an adventure like this through eyes of wonder - no matter how many mosquitoes there are.

I know that the reality will be different in ways I can't possibly anticipate. And that's the joy of this thing called travel. The lack of control. The blasting out of comfort and routine. An experience of the world as a place of be savored, treasured, marveled at. Surprise at every turn.

One to the things I'm looking forward to the most is that I'm going to see toucans. My first awareness of these birds with impossibly large bills is from childhood cereal boxes. For a long time I don't think I even considered that there was a real bird that looked like that flying around the world somewhere. My ten year old self is very excited to meet that reality.

It's almost 10:30 P.M., but this gate is buzzing. A large group of high school kids just swarmed in, accompanied by a tired looking teacher who warned them to find seats quietly so they didn't bother the people around them. They're chattering quietly around us, most plugged into electronic devices of some sort. It's a lovely energy.

I'm up way past my bedtime. A bedtime that won't be happening tonight unless I can doze on the three hour flight to Houston. There we'll have breakfast and explore during a three hour layover. Then we'll catch a two and half hour final flight to Belize City, and arrive around 10:30 tomorrow morning. I'll sleep well tomorrow night for sure.

It feels weird to be writing this and not ending with a life lesson of some sort. It also feels pretty wonderful to just be here and to be open to whatever comes along and to be able to share all of that with you and my future self - the one who will return home in sixteen days different in some way than the me writing this now.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Question Answered

In the fall I asked myself the question almost every day. Why am I back in the classroom? The simple answer, that we needed the money, while true, did not satisfy. There are other ways to make money. It was made clear in a variety of subtle but unmistakable nudges, that I was meant to go back to teaching. That I ended up back in fifth grade seemed both gift (I love this age in ways that make no sense), and punishment (Hadn't I already done my time? Didn't I deserve to move on?).

I searched for the real answer in every child who crossed my path. Are you the one I'm here for? I searched in my adult encounters. Do you have wisdom for me, or I for you? I searched my heart and mind in the exhausted stillness of the time that's neither night nor day into which I awakened far too often.

Events happened that seemed like they might be answers.

A girl standing by my desk at the start of a bright spring day. She's wearing the same stained white coat she's worn every day, the one I ask her several times a day to take off when I look up and find her sleeping, her head tucked down like she's in a cocoon. She's late more often than not, so I'm surprised to see her. I'm even more surprised by the flower she extends to me, her face lit in a proud smile. I take it with all due delight, wondering whose flowering cherry tree she ripped the branch from on her walk to school. I remember this same girl from a few months before, silent and never smiling, hiding under her desk one day. Then avoiding our Friday ritual of hugs or handshakes by slipping around and out, now clinging to me on many days saying she doesn't want to leave.

A third grader with a story that would break a weaker heart who somehow has become my buddy. Her face lights up (as does mine) when she sees me in the hall. Great hugs. A trip to my room one morning so I can give her a nutritious snack to balance out the bag of chips she was eating for breakfast. Another morning she extends a hand full of peacock feathers toward me, telling me she'd brought them for sharing. We stand for long minutes as she tells me everything she knows about peacocks, including the fact that they climb trees because they can't fly. (They actually do fly up into the branches of trees, and don't literally climb up the trunk, but she convinced me enough that I looked it up.)

Lars. I'd forgotten about him. My heart leaps the first time I see him in the hallway. He's in third grade now, not much bigger than when I knew him as a kindergartner. Still tow-headed, still disheveled, still radiating light like no other child in my world. "Lars!" I hold my arms out.  He looks up with a beaming smile and comes for a hug. I have no idea if he remembers me or not. It doesn't seem to matter. Every time he sees me it's like I'm exactly the person he's been waiting all day to see.

The three people I teach fifth grade with have become friends, and we've become one of the most functional teams I've ever worked on. So different in so many ways, we share a fierce and stubborn belief that every child deserves our belief in their potential. We love each other's kids. We laugh. We celebrate each other's successes. 

Not all was smooth. In the two years I was gone, I became fodder for baseball field gossip, started by a former teammate. My principals, meeting me for the first time, believed the gossip, or at least enough of it to color how they saw me. For the first time in my career, in a year when my purpose was to be as unnoticed as possible, I was disciplined. The weird thing is that the focus was on an activity that former principals have praised me for. The focus was not on the thing that I've always felt perhaps I might deserve to be disciplined for. 

As the year wound down and I was pretty sure I was still missing the point, I began looking even more closely for the answer. I'd begun to think there was no answer when, on the last day of school, it was just there. Clear. Unmistakable. Simple.

In past years I've grieved the ending of the family I had spent the last nine months creating. The last weeks of school were filled with bittersweet energy as I reluctantly released my kids into the summer and the rest of their lives. I cried often and walked around tender, vulnerable, wounded. At some level I knew I had loved them and taught them the best I could, but I also knew how hard I'd had to work to love some of them, and how I'd not been completely successful in that endeavor. Somehow the raw grief of June was more about that loss, my inability to love well, than the loss of my students, but I didn't see that until just now. 

This year there was none of that grinding sadness. As my kids and I reflected back on the year and worked closure together, all I felt was love and satisfaction. Love for every single child in my room: the girls who never stepped out of line, the drama girls, the sad angry stony girls; the boys who could not sit still, the competitive boys who needed to win more than they needed to care, the funny smart endearing boys.

When asked what they liked about the year, the kids said the usual things: our play, the game day, outdoor school. But they also said they really liked how everyone in the room was an important part of a team and how we all worked together. It was in that moment I knew I'd succeeded. Not just with the kids but in overcoming that part of myself that could not love them easily and without reservation. I knew without doubt that my principals and the gossips were wrong about me. I knew that a heart so determined to find a way to love freely could not possibly beat in the person they thought they knew.

I don't know the direct cause and effect for my healing. All I know is it's real. I'm deeply grateful that finally I can look back on a year and know no matter what else happened, twenty-five kids were taught and loved and cherished from a soft and open heart. We've been warned—repeatedly—that the class coming up is the most challenging group of kids to come along in years. I met them on the last day and began to fall in love as they sat in my room in a circle with curious faces and wiggly bodies and multitudes of questions.

This year did not come without cost. I lost sight of my writer self. My body did not respond well to the concrete floors, the long days, the fatigue. I spent weeks in fear and shame as I struggled to understand how my view of myself could be so different from that of my supervisors.

I prayed. I stayed. I felt it all.

And now on the other side I feel a freedom I haven't known since my own tenth year. My defenses against shame are stronger than ever. My body is healing. My story is waiting to be told still. Only now the telling will come from a light and spacious place cleared of shadows, cobwebs, and ancient dust. 

Thank you to all of you who read my story and offer such wonderful words of encouragement. I love you in the same way I've learned to love my kids. For a while my blog is going to go a different direction. Walt and I leave for Belize tomorrow! I'm hoping to blog the whole two-week adventure as much as possible. I'm not sure how much internet access I'll have, but one way or the other, I'll be journaling our time there. Mostly for our own memories, but also to share this trip of a lifetime with all of you. I hope you'll come along for the ride. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Patty and I sat by the window of our hotel, visiting. It was a perfect Oregon beach morning: calm, mild, sun splashes along the ebbing tide line. Our conversation wandered from teacher talk to girl talk to book talk to speculation about the stories of the people making the trek down the stairs just below us heading toward the beach.

One particular redhead caught our interest, both for her amazing russet hair, and for the trench coat that was not standard beach wear. As we watched her move up the beach with her two small children, we noticed a small gathering at the very edge of our line of sight. At first it looked like they were watching the two surfers braving the cold Pacific waves. But when I stuck my head out our window and looked harder, I could see people taking pictures of something in the sand, which I could not see. At one point I thought I saw some bit of gray move slightly, but it was hard to tell.

Curiosity drove me from the room with camera in hand. I didn't quite run, but I moved quickly, afraid I'd miss whatever was so interesting. I could see stakes in the sand from quite a distance away, so I knew what I'd find before I got to the clump of people.

This is the time of year that seals give birth to their pups. There are signs everywhere at the beach warning  tourists to leave the babies alone if they see them on the sand. Moms will leave them there, safe, while they hunt for food just beyond the incoming waves.

The stakes were placed by volunteers as a sort of corral meant not to keep the pup contained, but to keep us away.

When I got close enough to really see the pup, I was surprised at my own reaction. He seemed so vulnerable and I could see ribs and some very strong part of me insisted he needed my help. I distracted myself by taking pictures, and watching the people who were watching the pup. A volunteer said he was just a couple of days old. She also pointed out the mom, swimming and hunting in the shallows. She said the mom might not come in to claim her baby until late at night after the beach was completely clear of people. I wondered if the mom knew how much danger she was leaving her baby in, if there was a thought process involved, or just embedded survival behaviors.

Mothering has been on my mind a lot lately.

In the weeks before Mothers' Day I was aware this would be my first without my own mother, and my second without my daughter. However, it seemed like my grief was at low tide, and I was going to get through the holiday without incident. That changed several days before when my favorite barista asked me what I was doing on Sunday. I have no idea why that question at that time created a new tsunami of sadness, but it did. Not so much for my mom, but for Kathleen.

When I woke up on Mothers' Day the worst of the sadness had abated. I sat in the quiet predawn, journaling, missing both Mom and Kathleen, but grateful for the love I felt for them both. Emma was on my lap, Toby and Walt both sleeping, and Grace was in her corner. She hadn't come out for breakfast, but when I checked on her, she responded to my pets and went back to sleep. In the preceding weeks, I'd watched her go completely blind, grow thin and lose much of her spunk. But still she had demanded food, purred under my hand, and curled into my lap.

I became aware of odd sounds coming from the corner that had become Grace's safe place months before. When I went to see what was happening, already knowing it wouldn't be good, I found her unable to move her hind legs. So at 6:30 on Mothers' Day morning, I woke Walt, told him we needed to take Grace in, and began my final goodbye to her. As with Cooper in January, I held her through her last breath, and brought her home, saturated in an awareness that true mother's love is a willingness to sacrifice personal needs for the greater good of the beings in our charge.

Because my experiences with mother and motherhood were unconventional, I've always thought there was some magic to motherhood I missed out on. That if my life had followed a different course, I might have known some secret maternal power involving safety and a love that serves as a shield against loss and pain.

But watching that seal pup last weekend, I realized that mothering is a danger-filled endeavor, no matter what. Dangerous for both mother and child. Requiring trust and sacrifice. And never ever free from pain and fear. But it's only through a willingness to bear the pain and sacrifice that  any of us get to the incredible joy found in that one very particular and unique bond.

The first year anniversary of my mom's death is Wednesday this week. I'm not feeling sad, which surprises me quite a bit. What I feel more than anything is gratitude for the bond my brothers and I formed, the true family we became, when we said goodbye to the mother my oldest brother describes as "far from perfect, clearly human, but most importantly, all ours."

Mom left me on a beach very early on, and didn't ever quite find her way back to me, always swimming in the shallows, perhaps waiting for the safest time to come in. A time that never arrived.  But I understand, finally, that she believed she was keeping me safe. Just as I believed I kept Kathleen safe by giving her to other people to raise, and swimming away.

The only love we have to offer comes from hearts broken on rocks we have no power to avoid. Hearts that seek to save others from those very rocks. Imperfect love, yet strong enough to be a healing power long after the physical relationship ends.