"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, December 22, 2013


When I opened the door to let the kids into the classroom, it was the usual happy chaos of good mornings and good-natured pushing around those whose need to share something with me couldn't wait until they were in the room. On this day, unusually for them, two girls hung back to be the last. One blonde and brash, the other dark and shy, both deeply dear to me.

The blonde shoved a small wrapped package into my hands, her words tripping over each other like rocks rolling down a hill. The shy girl watched intently as I took the gift, and offered her own words, which got lost in the other's avalanche. "Secret Santa" emerged a few times, but I heard little else beyond, "Open it now!"

There was a note taped to the outside of the gift, with "Shucka" (no Mrs. in sight) written in ink on top of the folds. Both girls were crowded so close to me that I had to unfold the paper with elbows tucked to my sides. The paper itself was from a notepad with a hole at the top for a pencil to rest with the initial F at the top. Neither girl has an F as an initial for either first or last names.

I read:

-secret santa

:-) <3

p.s. secret santa will be the one to hold you at the end of the day to the buses. 

The package was wrapped so tightly I knew it was a heart before the paper came off - with the girls still so close to me I felt gift-wrapped myself. And what a heart it was. Large, poufy, sparkly, only slightly grimy around the edges. The Goodwill tag still attached. (I didn't see that word as part of the gift until much later.)

The girls were beside themselves with  a weird combination of glee and tenderness. "We don't know who your Secret Santa is. Someone put the package in our hands and told us to give it to you. The heart is Alex."

I played my part, although I was having a hard time holding back tears. "I guess I'll have to wait until after school to find out. I wonder who would have done such a wonderful thing for me."

With the heart placed prominently on my desk I pushed us all into the day. During the morning I felt both girls watching me whenever I would reread the note, or shift the heart out of the way. For a bit I wondered which was my Secret Santa, but then forgot about the whole thing as I gave myself over to the thousands of decisions and conversations that are the hallmark of every teacher's day.

At the end of the day, after giving closing directions and while overseeing the usual pandemonium of twenty-four kids on the verge of freedom, I felt a nudge at my left arm, which I lifted to encircle the unseen child. I looked down into huge brown eyes beaming up from a porcelain face framed by waves of almost-black hair. 

I smiled back down at her, and for long moments there were no words at all. Just knowing. And love. And the ghost of a kitty only two weeks gone.

She stood under my wing for the rest of the day - as I guided the kids to the bell, and all the way to the buses.

Eventually there were words: "I saw the heart and I thought of Alex, so it's him to remind you he's still with you so you won't be sad."

"This is the best gift a student has ever given me, and now I'll remember both you and Alex whenever I see the heart."

At the doorway to her bus, we hugged, I kissed the top of her head in benediction, told her I loved her and breathed the purity of her love in and back out into a world greatly in need.

Wishing for all of you at least one gift of this magnitude this holiday season. Your presence in my life, your comments of encouragement and love, your stories - these are all gifts I treasure in the same way I'll always cherish that Goodwill heart. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Just a couple of days before our recent stretch of clear cold, I found myself driving into blackness on the way home from school. A storm had passed before me, a big one that soaked us as we walked kids to buses and that left the asphalt shiny and hissing. At one point the road and sky seemed to blend together.

We often get storms like this in the summer and I'm oddly energized by them. As light and dark battle it out across the sky I feel more alive, like I'm watching Creation unfold. I also know that rainbows are inevitable, and none are ever more vivid than at the juncture created by the passing storm.

My mind is always a jumble after a work day. As hard as I try, I can't leave the kids or the problems or the to-do list at school. Worse, every instance where I might have been kinder buzzes and bites like a mosquito with a vendetta. If I'm lucky I can clear most of it by the time I've gotten home and walked. If I'm not so lucky, I lug the whole load through a restless night and back to school the next day.

So the storm and the search for the rainbow were a welcome distraction on this day. A reminder that summer, both literal and figurative, really did exist, and will come again. As my eyes scanned the sky for color, the world expanded beyond school and my own limitations. When I first spotted a section of the vibrant arc in the distance, one end touching ground far away and the other swallowed by darkness, I smiled.

I drive home on country roads. At that time of day I often have them to myself. That made it easy to slow to a creep from time to time and scan the sky. I wasn't disappointed. The other half of the original section touched down right where my eyes searched. And before too long the color stretched up from both sides to meet in the middle, forming a perfect and complete arc. There was even a shadow of a second rainbow mirrored above the first.

The miracle of color at the intersection of light and dark never fails to fill me with wonder. I'm reminded of God's promise to Noah, but somehow that seems weak compared to the promise I feel with every rainbow given to me. And they all do feel like personal gifts.

As I continued my drive, and the storm traveled ever eastward, the rainbow danced and wavered and shifted. I lost it completely at one point. A little farther on it reappeared much closer, a short section, the bands of color fat and distinct. I realized I was driving toward it, wondered if I might go under it—or through it. A golden glow on the asphalt just ahead caught my eye. The rainbow ended on the road right in front of me. And it stayed there while I drew close and drove through, and then it was gone.

In a life abundant with grace and miracles, it's easy to take gifts for granted. Always to recognize them, and always grateful, but perhaps to not appreciate fully the love behind them. Often forgetting when the darkness threatens to overwhelm that light always returns. And so the Giver of gifts offers a moment like that one, with a rainbow just for me, promising to light the way unfailingly.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


When people asked last week what I was doing for Thanksgiving, I was aware that my response felt so ordinary: a three hour drive north to my baby brother's. We've gone enough years in a row now that I can't remember when this became our family tradition. I take it for granted, while at the same time holding deep gratitude for its existence. There were some years where we didn't talk, let alone sit at a common table and hold hands in grace to offer a communal thank you.

Three generations formed the circle around the table, and three different families of origin were represented there. Two of my three brothers, one to my left and one on the right just on the other side of Walt, laughing and pitching shit and embodying that combination of child and adult unique to sibling relationships.

Our missing family members were there in other ways. The absent brother and a daughter/niece via phone. Our mother in the cherry pie I'd gotten up early that morning to bake. Our father, the good parts, in the eyes and voices of my brothers.

The food honored childhood traditions while incorporating the creations of a new generation. Turkey and stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Cranberries made from scratch by my middle brother. Green bean casserole. Rolls and butter. A small creamed corn casserole just for my youngest brother, a remnant of our childhood that only he enjoys. Pumpkin pie to go with the cherry. Phyllo-dough roll-ups filled with kale and mushrooms.

We played Mexican Train as we always do now when there's a sibling gathering. A game that takes hours to complete, and that brings out a competitiveness we don't often reveal. There is grumbling and laughing and some swearing, and there is fun in its most satisfying form.

So when the phone call came on Friday morning, I received the news from the nest of that profoundly ordinary yet powerfully extraordinary love.

Alex had died Thanksgiving night. One of the two cats we got last winter. Apparently a stroke, he collapsed and was gone in minutes. Our fifteen-year-old pet sitter was with him. Her mom, who made the call, had decided not to ruin my Thanksgiving, to give me as much time not knowing as possible. The drive home was one of the longest ever on a road we've traveled hundreds of times. Traffic was bad, but mostly I was afraid I'd get home and find Bunkie gone, too. My friend said he was hiding under a bed, and not eating. Bunkie who was fearless and who had an endless appetite. Bunkie who had never been away from his brother, and who was now alone.

Grief is the ultimate paradox: simple and complicated in their most extreme forms. Loss. Sadness. Emptiness. The pain surprisingly physical. Many-layered—new grief seems to attach itself to old grief and be flavored by it. Unresolved grieving finds outlet in new loss, magnifying it exponentially. Grief allowed to live on the surface teaches the new grief, like a kind old dog with a puppy, and somehow softens its impact.

And therein lies the biggest gift of Alex's death. My grief for him is clean. It burns like snow on bare feet, but it does not threaten to avalanche. Even though the third anniversary of Kathleen's death is just a couple of weeks away, and I am reminded more deeply of her loss now, this new grief seems a separate thing.

Maybe I've finally reached the place in life where losing loved ones is familiar. There is a loose pattern to grieving, and I know if I'll allow the sadness its voice, it will lose much of its bite. The initial impact is not influenced by the length or type of relationship.  I also know there are gifts to be found in this time that cannot be experienced in any other arena.

As I was on the phone Friday morning hearing the news, I became aware that everyone in the house stood in a circle before me. Looks of love and concern filled the space between us, and held both Walt and me as we struggled to absorb the impact.

A young woman, no stranger to loss already, had her first experience being present at a death. She got to learn that she could not only survive the pain and shock of it, but she did so in the arms and hearts of people who love her and who are more concerned about her well-being than anything else.

Walt, determined to soften my pain, insisted on burying Alex himself. I stayed inside holding Bunkie.

Bunkie ate on his own this morning for the first time since Alex died. He hasn't been back under the bed since yesterday morning when I pulled him out to let our sitter see him. Right now he's curled, purring, in my lap. I breathe a prayer of gratitude that he's not going to grieve himself to death, and that he seems to have chosen me as an acceptable substitute for his brother.

The world has not yet settled itself back into ordinary. The aftershocks are frequent (I see Alex out of the corner of my eye constantly), but lessening in intensity with each one. The reminder that death comes on its own terms stays fresh, making life in this moment all the more precious. The warm bundle in my lap. Good coffee. Rain tapping out music on the window. Toby snoring peacefully in another room. Walt doing the same at the other end of the house. Brothers in my life in all the best senses of the relationship. Friends who offer love in ways that constantly magnify the meaning of the word. This breath I take in, and release, softening my heart with each contraction and expansion.