"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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


It's the middle of the night. I can't sleep. Usually when I have nights like this I move to the couch and read and then doze. Tonight I know that won't work. Actually it's very early morning of a day that will look like any other day. In a couple of hours I'll start the routine of a work day, and except that I may look a bit more tired than usual, nothing will appear out of the ordinary.

That's what's so strange about this particular anniversary. There is no formal marking of the day. No ceremony for this. Last year I didn't even remember the day until a couple of days after it passed. I remember thinking that felt like a victory of sorts, a healing, a moving on.

At the wedding on Saturday, probably because of the whole feeling of family, a bud of memory began to push through the membrane of my consciousness. Kathleen was more on my mind than usual, and  on Sunday walking with Toby in crisp sunshine, I took the time to wonder why. And focused on the date. And counted forward 14, 15, 16, 17 - Wednesday.

Four years ago today, my forty year old daughter decided living was too hard. Her adoptive mother called me to tell me. I went to my family Christmas as though only a small bump had occurred, only realizing much later that I was in shock. The grieving held off just long enough for the new year to arrive and then moved in to the space in my heart that had been Kathleen's since I was eighteen and signed her over to people I hoped could provide her with so much more than I might.

When we met, she was 24 and I was 42. She was beautiful and sweet and funny. She was full of love and life. She loved to cook and give gifts and shop. She loved cats. She loved her kids. And beyond all possibility or expectation, she loved me. She was also mentally ill, a reality which took some time for me to grasp because she worked so hard at hiding it.

Our reunion went from romantic to rocky in less than a year. But there was always some contact, and that contact always included a sharing of love. She always called me mom. I always called her my daughter, even as I doubted my right to claim either declaration. While I was often sad and frustrated and afraid, there was always hope. I was grateful to have whatever part of her I could have in my life. I believed in the possibility of healing.

I think about her mom and her husband and her kids this morning, and wish for a world where we might share this grief. I don't wish for the grief to be gone. Because what then would fill the Kathleen shaped space in my heart? I don't mind the sadness. I know I can live with it. I know how much light really does shine through the cracks of a broken heart, both ways. I wish, oh how I wish, I could have given her that wisdom.

Because I really do understand I had no power to save her - if she couldn't stay for her kids, she wasn't going to stay for me - it's easier to just miss her. And so I do. With love.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Forty people were tucked into the cozy living room of my friend's house on a Saturday afternoon. Walt and I stood in the back, waiting along with everyone else, our focus on the steps leading into the kitchen. The room was warm, both with all the bodies and with all the years of family love embedded in every surface. The homeyness of her antiques and plants and quilts was brightened further by the reds and greens of Christmas. I've always admired this house constructed and filled and lived in by people with deep vision and total commitment to creating home. I love this friend and the family she and her husband built from a powerful sense of purpose.

Scanning the people around me, most of whom I didn't know, I marveled at how perfect the moment felt. This gathering of strangers to celebrate a coming together of lives in a formal ceremony. My friend's adult daughter sat at the piano and played music that might have brought tears to the eyes of angels. The younger daughter sat just in front of us, on the cusp of adulthood herself, and I wondered if she was imagining her own future wedding as I might have done in her shoes.

My friend's adult son came to stand at the top step with his great friend, who would officiate, where they both waited for the bride to arrive from upstairs.

While I don't know the son well, his mom and I have been friends for almost twenty years now. So I know him in the same way friends know everything that matters about each other. His path has been a rocky and rutted one. There were times when it seemed he followed no path at all and was in danger of careering off a precipice into a place of no return. I relate. Maybe we all do in some way.

He's no longer young, but there was a peace and quiet joy about him as he waited to marry a woman he's already created a good life with. He smiled fondly at his almost-teenaged daughter and her friend as they came forward giggling and tossing petals. The daughter stood at his side. His face lit up like Christmas morning at the sight of his bride wearing spring green and looking so much like new life.

The ceremony was light and filled with laughter. Joy radiated from the steps. My friend's son asked his daughter at the beginning if she gave her approval. She did. She helped push the ring onto the bride's hand. At one point she wrapped the bride in a fierce hug and thanked her for becoming her mom. The bride cried, as did every other person in the room.

The pronouncement came very quickly, followed by the kiss and the introduction of the couple as Mr. and Mrs. They stood for a moment absorbing the applause and the love and perfect moment of fresh start. That point in time from which every new thing would be seasoned by the fact that they were now officially married. Afterwards were pictures and visiting over tables of food. Toasting with sparkling cider. The cutting of the cake. More pictures. So much tradition. So much love. So much hope.

We left the party feeling a satisfied sense of witness and possibility. Grateful to have been included. Cleansed, at least for the moment, of the weight of a too-busy life and the clutter of the urgent masquerading as the important.

I don't know what the future holds for this new family. I know it won't all be easy and that the joy of their wedding day will be strained to the point of breaking in ways they can't even imagine yet. But I do know that somehow there is power in the gathering of loving witnesses, the speaking of vows, the declaring of family. I hope, I choose to believe, that power will be enough to sustain them and weld them and mold them into lives that fulfill the promise born on the day of their wedding ceremony.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Stillness enfolds me in her healing embrace. The unrisen sun fills the eastern sky with winter-pale light while wind chimes chant a soft morning song. The house is sleeping behind me. Today is the last day of a five day break from school. Today is the first day since mid-August that isn't already spent before it's begun.

I breathe in the air of possibility. I breathe out exhaustion. I breathe in gratitude - so much to be grateful for my lungs could burst. I breathe out fear that I will never be enough. I breathe in this moment of perfect stillness. I breathe out these last months of overwhelming expectations.

This quiet morning feels like a miracle, and I realize that until a couple of weeks ago, I'd lost connection to the daily small miracles that are the touchstones of my life. Those small gifts are the lights along the path that show me I'm traveling in the right direction. When my eyesight becomes blurry with the fatigue that results from trying to be the impossible, I pass by those messages of hope without seeing. And I begin to believe the lie of unrelieved darkness.

Earlier this month I was at the beach with my friend, Lisa. It's a friendship where we don't see each other often, but when we do it's as though no time has passed. There is a knowing in this friendship that eliminates the need for explanations and that provides a sense of being loved and understood. We laugh and we cry, and every bump in the road becomes adventure rather than crisis.

On the drive to the beach under cold and sunny skies I looked up to see a Bald Eagle soaring overhead. Because of my relationship with Baldies, we both took it as a sign that our time together would be especially blessed. We joked for the rest of that day about our expectations that my bird would make an appearance on the beach where we were staying. It was neither a surprise nor a particular disappointment that we saw only gulls. One eagle sighting a trip felt like gift enough.

After breakfast the next morning at a funky cafe where the waitress wore skin-tight leather leggings under a too-big flannel shirt, and the food was both substantial and tasty, we made our way to Manzanita. The beach there is long and open and rarely crowded. We had just crested the berm separating the beach from the road. The ocean arced against the horizon, deep blue water against bright blue sky. We moved across soft sand toward the harder tidal sand closer to the edge.

With my eyes straight ahead and my voice playful, I said, "Where's my eagle?" Lisa's reply had not found air before movement overhead drew both our heads upward. And there, directly above us, soared a beautiful mature Bald Eagle. We stood, rooted, and watched as she followed the coastline north, and then disappeared. There in the air one moment, and the next simply gone as I've seen Baldies do so many time before.

Something in that gift began to work against the darkness, to restore my vision. The days since, while still full of demands I can never hope to meet completely, have seemed to contain more flickers of light. And the more I focus on those small and simple gifts, the more seem to appear.

The sun is up, casting golden shadows against the muted greens of almost-winter in this part of the country. I know we're at the beginning of the long dark - days where shades of gray are the only color and where gifts of light require intention to find. And so I breathe in this moment. I breathe out my fear of the dark and its lies. I look for the next light on the path.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wild Life

One of the best things about teaching in the new building is that I have to go outside to get to the old building. It's a trip I make several times a day because the old building still holds essentials: mailboxes, copy machines, ice. The distance between the two buildings is enough that a journey from one to the other brings me up from the depths of the to-do list in my brain. The cool predawn air, or the warmth of a recess sun on my shoulders, or the pull of afternoon light when the kids are gone and I'm about to be - all feel like kindness and answered prayer.

I had just stepped out of the old building on a morning last week, my arms full of copies for the week, my heart tight with that feeling of already being behind. The conversation in my head involved solving several problems that weren't even mine. That competed for space with thinking about what I needed to do to be ready for the new student arriving the next day, the coming goal conference with my principal I was struggling not to be afraid of, and getting ready for next week's outdoor school adventure.

A sound made me stop, literally in my tracks. Geese honking. The first of the season. This little town I teach in is on the edge of a National Wildlife Refuge. Geese are a common sight and sound. Except that in the summer you only see them in pairs or on the water with babies trailing behind. The vee formation is unique to fall and winter here.

I moved from the porch out to the driveway, my eyes skyward, my head empty, my heart pulled wide open. The morning air still held the chill of autumn night, but was painted the rose and dove colors that always promise the sun's arrival. One small vee announced its way across the western sky: We are home!

The only other person at school at that hour was the custodian, and she was working hard indoors somewhere. I had the moment entirely to myself. A gift. A blessing. A miracle. I stood and watched and absorbed, marking the moment and claiming it. Smiling to myself, standing a bit taller, I moved toward the new building. More honking drew my eyes skyward again. I stopped again. Chains of geese were scattered from one end of the sky to the other. Fluid letters that shaped and reshaped themselves into prayers. Avian chanting, a wild kirtan.

Fall has always been my favorite season, and as I age, it becomes even more so. For the obvious metaphor (I'm in the fall of life), but the geese reminded me this week of something else. This time of fading life and light is also a time of birth and new beginnings. Not the lush exuberance of spring birthing, but instead a quieter pull toward a clear light.

We leave today, a Sunday, for outdoor school. We'll come home late Thursday. A week away from home, on the mountain, with two hundred fifth graders and assorted adults. On duty in some capacity the whole time. Sleeping on thin pads in wooden bunks. Eating food chosen for it's economy and kid appeal. Teaching lessons about subjects I have little knowledge of. The kids think I'm as excited as they are for this experience. Part of me is. Part of me feels like a mule dug in and being dragged mercilessly toward a place I do not want to be.

My solution is this: to look for the wild. Up for geese and cloud feathers. Down for spawning salmon and elk sign. Out for that particularly beautiful feral energy of kids discovering. Inward for the spirit that flames like autumn leaves. I carry with me the memory of witnessing the glory of geese arriving home, the reminder of where my own home lies, the knowledge that I only have to open to be there no matter where I am physically.


One of the things teachers do at camp is take turns sharing a poem at the beginning of a meal. Last week I decided to read Mary Oliver's Wild Geese, in part because of the morning this post is about. I want to give the kids a taste of that wildness written by the wildest wisest poet I know. Rereading the poem just now, I realized she feels fall in much the same way I do. There's comfort in that.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I started this school year with great hope and eager anticipation. I was rested and renewed, still full of canyon dreams and river memories. Missing kids and the satisfying conversations that can only happen with colleagues, I didn't mind going back. This teaching career that I've struggled with from the very beginning was starting to feel like the right choice after all. As I get closer to retirement and the thought of not being a teacher, it has been somehow easier to appreciate that I am a teacher.

In the early years I loved the weeks of preparation before kids. The bulletin boards and organizing and shiny new supplies. The list of students who were about to become my family for the next nine months. The sense of possibility and fresh start.

I didn't even mind the inservices and meetings, until somewhere along the line I got tired of hearing that everything I'd learned previously was wrong and the only way to be a good teacher was to abandon that and to drink the kool-aid of the latest pendulum swing pedagogy. Even then I managed to find nuggets that helped me improve my teaching, and I was always glad to see my friends after a summer away from each other.

The best part was always meeting the kids, seeing all the potential, carefully molding the group into a family, working to create memories that had the power to illuminate a life's path.

This year for the first time in a long time that flutter of excitement from the early years returned. We were moving into a new building. My room was on the second floor with huge banks of windows and killer views. For the first time I was sharing a hallway with only teachers of reading and writing. I was again going to get to teach the one thing that I've loved the longest, the thing that has save my life over and over again - the magic of our language.

We are three weeks in. Exhaustion is my constant companion, lining my face, blocking my thinking, and dragging me out of sleep at 1:00 A.M. to remind me of all I didn't get done that day. The cheerful flexibility I was able to bring to every new situation has stiffened like lava cooling into granite. Despite my every effort to stay in balance, I am tipped.

It is some consolation to see that much younger and less conflicted teachers than I am are equally tipped and tired. On Friday as I left for the weekend, a pile of ungraded papers and unfinished planning for this week neatly stacked on my desk, I realized something about the profession. Teaching demands everything, and everything will never be enough. And so it is up to me to find a way to be okay with not being enough, to decide for myself that enough is enough. To do the impossible for as long as I can, and to be okay when I can't.

I have worked hard in the last month (we were allowed in our new rooms for the first time on August 25) to focus on what really matters. Relationship. With myself, my colleagues, my kids, their families. Every time some new problem required time and energy I had allotted for something else, I'd breathe and smile and remind myself that by the time the rains returned, all of it would be distant memory.

No one problem during the beginning this year has been overwhelming. Furniture deliveries that weren't complete until a week after the start so we unpacked with no place to put our stuff. A shared printer that hasn't worked consistently since its installation. No access to the building without someone letting us in until a week after the start. Heat blasting from the system on the first day of school when it was in the 80's outside. New standards, new testing, technology changes we weren't told about. New teacher evaluation expectations. New routines for a two-story building. No paper towels. And for fifth grade, classes of 31 and 32 students with no relief in sight.

What feels overwhelming is the fact that accommodating all of that has left me drained and feeling like rock formations in the canyon pushed to vertical by volcanic forces too powerful to withstand. Tipped sideways when my natural self longs for the gentle and restful horizontal of sandstone and schist. As I consider the long list of tasks requiring my attention when I walk in the door tomorrow, my stomach tightens and my heart closes just a little. I remember the information I left school with on Friday, and my breath won't come.

At the very end of the day I learned that the one thing I never want to happen, happened. One of my students felt that I had shamed her (not her word, but my interpretation) for not completing work. That one piece of information was enough to wipe out all of the smiles, and hugs, and laughter of the day. The beaming pride on faces when my class, for the very first time, worked together to line up quietly as a surprise for me - faded out of focus. The coffee brought by a mom, the camaraderie at lunch, the joy I feel at the wonder of my spacious and light-filled room - all dust.

This is perhaps the core of what teaching does to me. It exposes everything, just like the winds and water of the canyon reveal eons of history. The fatigue and impossible expectations strip away defenses and decoration, leaving me to face my humanity and fallibility. Leaving me to question every time whether I'm suited for a profession in which my flaws have the power to do harm.

I will repair my relationship with that girl tomorrow, as best I can. I have some practice with this, and kids tend to be far more resilient and understanding and forgiving than we give them credit for. I will do what I can to be fully present and kind with each child I'm given, and to remember what's most important. My job is to help kids develop into whole people. That involves helping them manipulate words in meaningful ways. But more than anything it involves showing them how to access the best parts of themselves, and showing them a world in which they matter and have the power to make things happen.

Today I will do what I can to restore balance. I'll walk and absorb sunlight and the sound of a giggling river. I'll appreciate the stretch of my legs. I'll forgive. I'll laugh with friends, hug my husband, allow the feel of Toby's fur and Bunkie's purr to penetrate the stiffness. I'll remember the canyon and who I was there. Who I am still. Who I strive to be more than the person who forgets from time to time what really matters.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Late Blooming

Sweet peas are a flower of my childhood. Their fragrance has the power to send me back to North Idaho summers, a version of my mom I saw far too little of, and the innocence of a time when I believed anything was possible. Nearly every year of my adult life I plant sweet peas. Some years they do better than others, but I always look forward to the bit of time travel the bright jewel blooms provide.

I had high hopes this year. I got the seeds planted early, in a half barrel that gets good sunlight. I stuck  with traditional seeds bought at a local feed store, unlike last year when I spent a lot of money on fancy mail order heirloom seeds that didn't produce any more flowers, or any better fragrance than the cheap kind. I watched the shoots push through the soil and grow into vining stalks that climbed and clung to the trellis. The foliage was thick and green and healthy.

And for weeks, there were no flowers. Not one. When we got back from the canyon, I expected to see a cascade of color and to walk into a storm of radiated fragrance. That was certainly the case for our other flowers. But not my sweet peas.

Eventually a flower bloomed. One. And then there was another a few days later. Within a week I was able to make a very small bouquet, which left the plants completely bare of flowers. And they stayed bare for quite a while longer.

A week ago school preparations took over our lives. Walt started with kids last Wednesday. I start with kids this coming Wednesday. This particular year is more consuming than normal for me with a new building where we have limited access, are still waiting for pieces of furniture, and where all routines have to be redefined and relearned. We have new standards, new testing, and a whole new way of scheduling.

So when I got home a couple of days ago, my mind was busy trying to sort all of that out. I greeted Toby and Bunkie and Walt through a fog of half-formed solutions and myriad unanswered questions, made thicker by the fog of accumulating fatigue from badly slept nights. As I stood in our backyard, working to still my mind and to be home, soaking up the particular warmth of the late afternoon late summer sun, the sweet peas caught my eye.

They were covered in color. Little dots of pink and red and purple and white, making the whole plant look for all the world like a lit Christmas tree. At the end of August when I would have expected the plants to be dried and shriveled and done, their blooming season is just starting.

Exactly like my life.

For a long time I despaired about ever blooming at all. It seemed like too much had happened, and it took me too long to heal, and I was too old. It seemed like whatever flowers I might produce would be weak and spindly and starved-looking. Second best. More foliage than anything, without the rich aroma and vivid colors guaranteed from plants that bloom in season.

In the canyon this summer something awakened in me that I expect will carry me to the end of my days. An emerging understanding of my connection to the larger whole of life. A clarity about what's important, what's needed, and what's the opposite of those two things. A new ability to not try so hard to make things fit my picture of how they should be, and to live with the resulting uncertainty with a spirit of adventure.

Even though retirement is close enough for me to smell its sweet fragrance, the years between here and there offer their own promise of deep living. A school year I'm actually excited about. A fresher version of myself I'm looking forward to getting to know. A trip to Italy in the spring. An old marriage re-energized by the wild flow of the Colorado River. I may be blooming late, like this year's sweet peas, but the flowers are that much more precious because of their unexpected arrival.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


We started seeing prickly pear cactus fairly early in the trip. Actually Walt and I saw an abundance of it on the shuttle ride from Phoenix to Flagstaff. We'd also seen squadrons of saguaros standing at attention on the side of the freeway. Because my blood runs with the forest moss fern green of the Pacific Northwest, all those cacti were an otherworldly delight to my eyes.

On day six of our float twenty-one of the twenty-four of us hiked up the Bright Angel Trail, and twenty-one new people hiked down to join the trip. Several of those new people had the age-old red rock of Arizona in their blood, and so cactus was every-day to them.

The farther west we floated, the more desert-like the beaches became so prickly pears were everywhere. Several varieties of rotund barrels dotted the slopes. On a calm flat stretch as we scanned the shores for signs of sheep, someone pointed out what looked like a giant bundle of incense sticks poking out of the rocky ground.

Ocotillo. And while not a true cactus, they are spiny and live in deserts and among cacti.

The Arizona natives seemed particularly happy to see these sticks. I was less than impressed. Erin, my new friend from Tucson, explained that ocotillo go dormant in the dry season, but once the monsoons start, and there's moisture, they turn bright green. And, she said, when they bloom, there is a single red blossom at the end of each branch.

Incense sticks turned into lighted Christmas tapers.

The monsoons had just begun, even though it was very early in July. We'd encountered rain off and on since the second day of the trip. Never for long, and always a welcome relief from the heat. So I was not surprised when just a bit farther downstream people started pointing out ocotillo in all its green glory.

The Arizona people would soften as they talked about ocotillo. There would always be a quiet thrill of excitement whenever we'd see patches of the green stick bouquets adorning the rocky shores or perched at the tops of canyon walls like guardians granting us permission to pass. They all had ocotillo stories, and many had ocotillos in their yards. One woman said it was her favorite plant from childhood because it played a significant role in her favorite picture book, Roxaboxen.

Hearing that, I felt like an old friend had just walked into the room. I've used Roxaboxen in my teaching often, and had rediscovered it just last year. Until that moment I'd never made a particular connection to the ocotillos that fill the pages of that book.

That was when I started seeing ocotillo differently than the other flora that are a part of the Inner Gorge ecosystems. Prickly pear was cool because it was in fruit and barrels were entertaining because they looked a bit like minions (or as one of the guides said, penis gardens). But ocotillo tugged at the same part of me the river and the colors and the song of the canyon wren did.

For the remainder of the trip, people would be heard quietly murmuring, "ocotillo," almost like a prayer. It was not at all unusual for someone to call out "ocotillo" as we passed, much in the same way they'd call, "sheep," (big horn sheep) or "GBH," (great blue heron ). Occasionally someone would point out a plant in bloom, flickers of red light dancing at the ends of long fuzzy green stems against a sapphire sky.

One evening in camp, when all the color of the day had followed the sun behind the canyon walls,  I looked up to see a single ocotillo standing over us, silhouetted against a fading Impressionist sky. It maintained its post all night, its shape defined by starlight later, offering comfort of a kind when I was up to pee in the small hours. Even as we broke camp and floated away the next morning, I watched it sit in solitary dignity and felt its whispers of sanctuary.

On the last day, as we traveled by school bus from the take-out at Diamond Creek along a road that was barely more than a rocky stream bed, one of the last sights my heart absorbed before we found ourselves on the pavement of civilization was a grove of ocotillos. The thickest stand any of us had seen so far. Someone in the back of the bus pointed it out, although I expect most of us had spotted it on our own. Several were blooming. Ocotillos can live to be a hundred, and judging from the size of many that we were seeing, this was a grandmother garden.

In the weeks since our return, our canyon experience has continued to expand the boundaries of my heart. The wonders we saw and felt grow brighter in memory. The river and the sand and the heat and the ancient rocks and the people I shared them with are all embedded, permanently I hope. And standing in the midst of it all, watching over,  is the miraculous, marvelous ocotillo.

Monday, July 28, 2014


Standing at the sink of my bathroom, surrounded by treasures I've collected over the years that speak beauty and love and warmth, toothbrush in hand, I smile at the face in the mirror. I close my eyes. Open them again, but only the eyes of my heart this time.

I'm standing on the bank of the Colorado River. Toothbrush in one hand, GCW mug in the other. The water is quietly lapping at my feet, but just a small distance away rushes and roars into a rapid we'll be starting our day with. The air is feathers on my skin. My feet sink into silt that soothes even as it holds and will make me work to get out of when I'm done here.

Most of the camp is still asleep, or just beginning to stir. The guides whose turn it is to cook breakfast turned on the blasters a bit ago (my alarm clock most mornings) to make the coffee. I smile at the memory of the morning I was up early enough to watch them make coffee: put large stainless steel bucket of water on blaster (a larger rocket-launcher looking burner); bring to a boil; add a pound of ground coffee; stir; walk away to let steep; pour through a strainer into the dispenser. The call "Coffeeeeee!" is the official alarm for the camp.

For now I feel like I have the whole canyon to myself. The sun is just beginning to paint the world above me in colors I'm certain come straight from God's own mind. At the bottom of the canyon, where morning is still a promise, gray softens the grandeur. As I perform the simple task of brushing my teeth, I am more whole and connected to life than I knew it was possible to be. No worries nag at me. No problems kept me awake in the night. No plans spin complicated webs in my head.

I am simply here.

I woke up this morning with a few inches of foam and an open sleeping bag separating me from the sand. Walt, still clinging to sleep by my side, missed the bats swooping overhead and the first call of the canyon wren and the first blush in the east. I got up to pee at the edge of the river, claiming a small bit of privacy while everyone else slept, and returned to our bed to find Walt awake. We lay side by side, holding hands, marveling at our presence together in this magical place. Marveling at our ability to not only manage but also thrive on the rigor of the days. The blasters told us the camp would be wide awake soon, so we got up to claim the quiet of a canyon morning for ourselves.

And now I am here, my feet bathed in the waters of the Colorado River, brushing my teeth. This moment is enough. I'm not thinking about what rapids we'll run today, or what new sights will take my breath away, or about the guides who make me wish I was 40 years younger so I can be them. I'm not thinking about the food which tastes better than any food I've eaten. I'm not thinking about the 22 other passengers, all of whom I love in the way you love people you share a sacred experience with. I'm not thinking about the new friendship I hope will survive in the Rim World. I'm not thinking about how I look. I'm not thinking about home or school or books. I haven't read a word since day one on the river (and it will turn out I don't read anything until we're out of the canyon). I'm not thinking at all, and my brain, once it gets over the shock, is deeply relieved to rest.

I am simply here. In this one perfect moment.

I open my eyes, back in my home. A place I love. The man I love is somewhere in the house, his presence always a comfort. Toby sleeps on the bed we've recently vacated. Bunkie does laps in the kitchen. Summer stretches languidly before me. And yet I feel homesick. For the place that was my home for a day short of two weeks. For a time my heart was fully open. For a river and a canyon and a state of being it seems I've spent my whole life searching for.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Grand Romance

Often while in that particular state of relaxed presence of a vacation, Walt and I will begin talking about where we'd like to go next. Last year was no different. I'm not certain where or how the conversation started. I think for me, internally, it began the night we were driving away from Ashland after seeing a play. The air caressed and comforted. The sky was a blizzard of stars. We stood by the side of the road breathing it all in as the car ticked its heat away behind us and the universe spun webs of wonder above. And I wanted more.

The conversations ultimately led, a year ago, to a decision to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. At that time the idea was romantic and adventurous and just risky enough to be exciting without being truly dangerous. A bucket list vacation for two people in their sixties, deeply aware that if not now, possibly never.

I dreamed of seeing California Condors soaring overhead and peregrine falcons nesting in canyon walls. I dreamed night skies of concentrated glory. I dreamed basking in the sun-kissed glory of ancient rocks standing sentinel, and breathing air electrified by the power of an untamable river.

This was a dream I would reach for and dare to claim its awakened counterpart. This dream I would not allow to collect cobwebs and regrets in the far reaches of my heart. In a rare confluence of inner integrity, all parts of me were ready to leap into this adventure. All parts of me were, and still are, more than a little amazed that I get to be that person.

Before the school year started, we had the beginnings of a concrete plan and our first reservations. At the start of the new calendar year we made the financial commitment and signed our lives away, promising not to hold our tour company responsible for any of the myriad possible disasters which might occur. Throughout the weeks and months of the last year, Walt and I have had endless conversations, made decision after decision, and spend hours preparing for this trip. The planning has been energizing, bonding, and fun.

I began reading right away: A novel about our exact trip. A just-released book about the history of rafting the Colorado and one man's obsession with the river. The website of the rafting company we booked with. I bought a river guide, a field guide, and a canyon guide book. I found a book written specifically as a record of all the people who have died in the Grand Canyon and how they died. And then I started reading books of stories about the canyon.

All of that new information served to make me fall even more in love with a place that still isn't quite real to me. It's also served to make me a little nervous. Sometimes even more than nervous. There have been a fair share of what-were-we-thinking moments when fear threatened to overwhelm the sense of adventure. Fears that reveal the hold the comforts of day-to-day life have on me.

There are no bathrooms in the Inner Gorge. No beds. No air conditioning or communication with the outside world. There are snakes and scorpions and strangers sharing space. July daytime temperatures regularly exceed the 105 degree heat of a Bikram yoga studio. Nighttime temperatures rarely go below our Pacific Northwest summer daytime 80 degree highs. The river itself, where we'll be bathing, hovers around 50 degrees. And if we forget to pack something, we will do without it for the 13 days it will take us to float the 225 miles from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek.

One friend, on hearing the details of our trip, said, "And you're paying money for this?"

Which is one of the big reasons we're doing this trip. To break the hold of the ordinary, the mundane, the routine. To experience life on its own terms with no distractions easily available. To honor a part of ourselves we all too often relegate to the realm of romantic ponderings.

The romantic is about to become real. All the pictures and words in my head are about to be replaced with Arizona sun on my skin, Colorado River water carrying me to uncharted inner territory, and Grand Canyon walls guiding, holding, teaching along the way. For the first time in my life, or at least in the clearest possible way, I get to step out of my head and into the land of my heart and spirit. Regardless of whether I fall in love with the reality of floating the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, I know I will love even more deeply than I already do the two people who emerge from the adventure at Diamond Creek.

Almost ready!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Are You a Mom?

In the barely contained chaos that is the end of a school day this time of year I reminded the kids to be nice to their moms this weekend. Even though it was a testing week, and a getting-ready-for-more-testing week, I had found some time for them to make Mother's Day cards. Many kids were still tucking away the construction paper, glitter and glue confections into backpacks when someone asked over the general hubbub, "Are you a mom, Mrs. Shucka?"

It was one of those rare times when, despite the noise, everyone heard the question. A small chorus of voices piped in: Are you? You never talk about kids. Are you a grandma? You don't have pictures like the other teachers do.

It's funny to me, but not surprising, that we're five weeks away from the end of the year, and this was the first time the subject came up. Kids accept what is offered of a teacher. In my case it's stories about my brothers and Walt and Toby and Bunkie, and that gives them enough to feel like they know me. Every year, though, someone asks about motherhood. Every year I tell a version of the truth. Every year I wish I had a different story to tell.

I always say, "Yes, I'm a mom." Sometimes that's all the kids want to know. This year they wanted more. So I said, as I always do at this point, "I had a daughter." A weird thing happens here. More often than not, the kids hear "have" and not "had." At which point they'll ask if I have grandkids, I'll say yes, and their attention spans reach the limit which sends them somewhere else.

This year this class heard the "had" part of my response. They wanted to know what that meant. We were talking at the end of the day on a Friday, and pictures ran through my head of kids going home telling their parents on Mother's Day weekend that their teacher had told them a story of her dead daughter. How was I going to give them a story that would satisfy their curiosity without causing pain?

I love these kids. I love all my kids, especially at this time of year, but I love these kids especially. I think it has more to do with who I am in my sixties than who they are, but regardless of the reason, I love them. It could be because as a group their childhoods most resemble mine. This is a class full of kids who know pain that no one should know until much later in life, if ever. Their collective story is heartbreaking: Abuse. Weird physical illnesses. Homelessness. Mental illness - both kids and parents. Deaths of parents, uncles, grandparents, beloved pets. Drug and alcohol abuse. They are highly sensitive to adult energy, and to what's true or not.

So maybe it's not a surprise they connected to the past tense of my motherhood. But still, to send them away on a Friday with that new information - I'm never certain how much truth is fair to give a child. So I said, "My daughter died. It's a sad story, and not one I want to send you away with. If you still want to know next week, we can talk then."

Most were satisfied, and eager to get out into the air and weekend freedoms. One boy raised his hand despite the fact that at that point everyone was talking at once. When I called on him he looked me right in the eyes and said, "I'm sorry for your loss."

A couple of girls came up after I dismissed the class, clearly wanting more information. And just as clearly having missed what I'd said. They wanted to know if I'd miscarried or had to give her away. I repeated that my daughter had died, and added that she'd been an adult. They somehow seemed relieved, gave me hugs, and bounded out of the room like puppies through an open gate. I wondered, and still wonder, how they came to a place that they could ask those questions of their teacher without batting an eye. Even more, how they, at eleven, know a world in which those things exist as normal.

Tomorrow they will come full of weekend stories, wanting to hear my latest Bunkie story, and overflowing with their lives. If they want to know more, I'll tell them, as I have told kids in the past, that Kathleen was ill. It's a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest.

Just like saying I am a mom is a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest. A truth that breaks my heart every time I remember all the stories that spin out of that one small fact. Stories that I wish had different endings. Even so, I'm grateful I can say yes, I am a mom. I'm grateful to be creating stories with kids that allow my mother-heart to continue to grow. I'm grateful that, even if I couldn't save her,  the story Kathleen and I wrote together was one of love.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What I'm Looking For

The splash of bright purple arrayed like a fairy rug in front of the weathered stump brought me to a complete halt. Toby lolloped ahead, joy radiating and trailing behind. The river rushed by just out of sight. Sun-warmed air, along with the pace of the walk until then, made my blood rush and pinked my face.

Wild violets, the first flower of spring here, surprised me. Even though I've been looking for them since early February, I'd never seen them in this place before. I found them in their usual patch in the park, first white and then the signature violet color. They were in full purple glory in the lawn I've come to expect to see them. So thick there that their clean sweet metallic scent fills the air.

There is something so compelling, and hopeful, about the fact that such a delicate elfin flower is one of the first to declare the end of winter.

Seeing violets in a new place felt like a special gift. Although this time of year every new splash of color, every bird sighting,  and every gentle breath of wind feels like a special gift. While the gifts of winter are hard-earned and stark in their beauty, spring's are lush and abundant and generous.

The route of Toby's walk goes from the campground where I saw the violets to a particular beach on the river. Without really thinking about it, at certain places on the trail that runs parallel to the water, I stop and search. This is where I often find eagles on the snags on the other side.

Lately a pair of common mergansers has paddled along the shore most days I'm there. The only thing common about them is their name. Like Lucy and Ricky, she a wild redhead, he looking slickly polished with a dark green head, they move with the current. Even Toby in the water rarely concerns them into flight or a more hurried paddle.

On this particular day they were nowhere to be found. Neither were the eagles, which I know are nesting now somewhere in another part of their territory. Instead my searching eyes found high-flying swallows, the first of the season.

In a clearing on the same walk, I stood rapt, witness to the wild courtship display of an Anna's hummingbird. He caught my eye as he flew straight up, so high I almost lost sight. And then, like a car on a roller coaster, he swooped down in a perfect half-circle arc, ending in a curlicue directly above the female whose attention he sought. He repeated the maneuver a dozen times or more until they both flew off in the same direction.

At some point in the walk, the words, "you find what you're looking for," bounced around in my head. I could even hear Amy Grant's voice, although song lyrics are rarely a part of my thought processes. I realized that I do find exactly what I'm looking for, and that there is great power in knowing that.

My daily walks are one constant search for surprises and for the comfort of the reliable. I don't see eagles every day. I don't spot magic carpets of violets every day. I don't even see anything exciting every day. But what I do find is confirmation that the world is full of beauty and miracles and gifts both large and small. Every single walk provides some bit of light to eyes searching for evidence of it.

I considered that what is true for my time in nature might also be true for the rest of my life. The defenses of childhood are no longer necessary. Looking for danger, which was real and ever-present, helped keep me safe. I could hide. Or I could armor myself. Vigilance was essential for survival. Looking for gifts was risky business, especially in relationships, and I found I couldn't do both at the same time.

As is so often the case, the danger is long past, but the defenses are slow to come down. For one thing, they become so automatic, it's easy to not see them at all. For another, habit is habit, and cannot be broken without conscious effort.

 So what if I consciously and intentionally look for the miracles in relationships that I see so easily in nature? If I look for confirmation of my worth. If I look for the best in people.  If I look beyond fear and anger and acting out. If I look for adventure in routine, freedom in structure, laughter to soften hard edges. If I look for love in every situation. I will find what I'm looking for.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


The Oxford dictionary defines labyrinth as, "a complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one's way." In the labyrinths constructed for meditation, there is always one way out if the walker will only stay to the path in front of her. My life this winter has felt more maze-like than labyrinthine—all complicated paths running into dead-ends with the way out cleverly hidden and always just out of reach. 

Yesterday we found ourselves, Walt and I, on a hike named The Labyrinth. The name didn't register until we were there because the hike starts with an ascent up a steep ridge called Coyote Wall. In reading about the place, I hadn't noticed what the loop veering off from the wall was called. Sometime mid-hike, however, I began to realize what a gift we'd been given in this place named for its winding, wandering path.

Directions for this hike were simple even though there were paths going in every possible direction: go up and to the left until you come to the fence and then go right and stay on the main path. Not quite in summer hiking shape, we took the ascent very slowly. There was lots of resting, which meant lots of time to look around. The Labyrinth loop involved some seriously steep descending, which meant we had to go slowly, which meant lots of time to look around.

Under a sunny sky, accompanied by capricious breezes, we saw the season's first wildflowers. Delicate desert parsley in lemony bloom grew through the rocks at the beginning of the path. Some sections of open meadow were purple with grass widow, and others were polka-dotted with grass widow and yellow bells. One rare magenta desert parsley plant blushed from under gray underbrush not yet revived from its winter death. Gold stars glowed demurely from the trail's edge. 

Western meadowlarks burbled and called from the tops of solitary wind-shaped pines. It's a sound from early childhood that, like the call of killdeers and the chortle of barn swallows, lifts me to the sky.

Ravens soared in tandem overhead, their whiskey-voiced croaks floating to us on random wind gusts. We watched one, all glossy big-beaked glory, eating something on a rock. Once finished, he flew to the top of a rocky bluff. As he watched us wind our way toward home, I felt his intense gaze as benediction.

Outcroppings of columnar basalt, so symmetrical it seems impossible they aren't carved by man's hand, surprised us from time to time around bends in the trail . The product of ancient volcanic eruptions, the columns stand against wind and temperature and time. Like beings in shoulder to shoulder formation, made powerful in their unity, they offer proof of eternity. 

Water in rivulets and seepings and one laughing tumbling plunging creek kept us company the whole day. It cooled the air, sang for our picnic, supported the beating of our hearts. The milky green of the stream turned the rocks of its bed into one long string of strange pearls adorning the hillside. 

Once in the Labyrinth there was never any doubt which trail we were to follow despite the number of times it turned back on itself. Fainter trails took off in random directions. Some were declared closed, and others were mysterious and tempting in a road-less-traveled way. We even talked about the possibility of bushwacking our way across country, but our energy and the time kept us on our intended path. 

Four hours later, footsore and sweaty, blood singing, heart overflowing, we made our way back to the car. Our way found. 

The metaphor is cliche. But the message was one I needed the way a lost child needs a mother's reassuring hug: A chosen destination, followed step by step will get a person where they need to be. It doesn't really matter what the choice is. What matters is the one foot in front of the other movement forward on a committed and intentional path. Even in a seemingly desolate place still officially in winter, beauty exists in bounty beyond comprehension. Rushing to the end means the possibility of injury (those trails were steep and rocky!), and the probability of missing most of the miracles along the way. 

This particular winter ended for me yesterday in The Labyrinth. Hope outshines despair again. A spark has been re-ignited. I move forward with a lighter step and my eyes focused more on my immediate surroundings. I left some part of me behind in the dark coldness of this last season. Something frozen and fallen away. While I'm not quite sure yet who is left, I look forward to getting to know her as we set out on new trails. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

New Light

A colleague asked me this week what I did before I was a teacher. I gave her the simple answer, the true answer: "I was in a cult." It had been a long time since anyone had asked that particular question, and the same amount of time since I'd really thought about what my answer meant. I realized that over the years, I've told the story in different ways. Each story is true, but none is all the truth.

In the early years after I left, the story was full of pain and outrage and betrayal. I had sought God in as clean a way as I knew how and ended up giving up my whole self to men whose good intentions were corrupted by the seductions of power. In obedience I married the man that was chosen for me. I foreswore material possessions. I strove to serve and study and to humble myself. I read and prayed and obeyed. I obeyed. I obeyed. And still at the end I was unchanged and my life made no more sense than it had when I joined.

There were some years when I was reluctant to talk about the cult at all, so I told the story in another way. I was a housewife whose life was centered around a small home-based church. My husband made enough money that I could stay home and be domestic to my heart's content. I had a built-in family with the church. We lived across the street from the head of our little church and shared everything. I gardened and canned and made a home. I took in foster kids. I sewed and volunteered and did respite care. I trained a golden retriever and went for long walks.

I wrote a book about my time in the cult. I called it God Has No Daughters. The title pretty much tells the point of view of that story. It wasn't until I tried to get the book published, after spending years writing and revising and polishing, that I realized how skewed and wounded it was. It wasn't until I was on the other side of the agency rejections and careful feedback from friends that I realized clearly that I hadn't actually left the cult behind.  I'm not sure how I managed to believe that I could simply decide to be finished with a decade of my life which started with a vow to God and ended with an affair (because that was the only way I could figure out how to leave). But for a long time that belief held. Until it didn't any more. When I had evidence of its wrong-headedness in my own writing.

In more recent years I've told the cult story as tragicomedy. Sort of a David Sedaris approach. I joined trying to get away from a rough childhood and a young adulthood fairly typical of the free love era. I was given a husband and we married in obedience to God and the elders of The Body (the name of our church). A primary tenet of the church was obedience, especially wives to their husbands. I tried. And failed. At this point in the story, my listener, without fail, laughs. The assumption is that, of course, I would fail at being a submissive wife. There is nothing about my personality, at least the part people see, that indicates I would find submission and obedience appealing let alone possible.

Last week, for the first time even as I laughed along with my listener, I wasn't sure how I felt about being perceived as the kind of woman who would naturally fail at attempts to be a submissive wife and obedient servant. One of the foundation blocks of my childhood is that anything can be achieved if I'm willing to work hard enough. And so failure at anything means I simply needed to work harder.

There is a new story wanting to be told about my time in The Body. One that is deeply shaded in the nuance and complications of being human. This one neither black nor white, but more like a winter sky at sunset full of gradations of gray and shot through with color that cannot in any way be seen as anything but beautiful. Not failure. Not betrayal. Simply a life lived toward healing in the gloriously messy way of all lives.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Varied Thrushes are year-round residents here. Except for an occasional glimpse of one in the underbrush, however, the only time I really seem them is when it snows. Then they move into our feeder area as though they'd had reservations for months ahead.

Usually there are a couple, maybe a half dozen at most. One year a particular thrush held my attention and concern as he attacked any bird who got even remotely close to him. It's not often you see a bird with issues, but this one was clearly suffering from some avian form of madness.

This year there are a dozen or more thrushes occupying not only the feeder area, but also the entire back yard. Granted it's been snowing or icing off and on since last Thursday. That's not enough to explain their abundance though. Not that an explanation is necessary, but I do like to know these things.

Ordinary birds, like robins with the orange arranged differently, there's nothing much about thrushes to excite imagination. Their call is a long haunting whistle—no beautiful trilling or melodic harmonies. They aren't majestic like eagles or whimsical like hummingbirds. They aren't endangered or even of concern for species survival.

Maybe it's because I've been housebound. Maybe it's because winter already felt like it had way overstayed its welcome even before this storm. Maybe it's that I'm desperately searching for some bit of light in this wilderness that is my life right now. Whatever it is, every time I spot a thrush, I feel a lifting of a weight I thought unliftable.  And just a smidgeon of delight.

Bunkie and I stand at the bay window in my dining room watching birds in companionable quiet. He clearly has dreams of somehow breaching the invisible barrier and finally, finally, taking down one of his tormentors. Although I have to say he doesn't look tormented. He looks alive and eager and a version of happiness that is uniquely feline.

I admire the black collars and orange headbands, the incredible symmetry of color distribution on wings. I marvel at the wind-up toy movement on top of the snow as one thrush dashes at another in a peckish flurry. With Bunkie purring under my hand, I'm grateful for the window keeping us in and the birds out.

I'm reminded of a day last week, before the storm. I was teaching, actually wandering the room talking to kids while they worked on poetry. My classroom looks out onto the playground, which was empty of kids at that moment. What I saw instead was eight killdeers motoring across the grass, their black and gray and brown and white markings standing out in stark contrast to the green of the field. It didn't take long before most of the class joined me at the window. Some had never seen a killdeer before. None of us had seen so many at one time. All of us stood in wonder for long minutes, absorbing the gift of ordinary birds in extraordinary numbers. When we finally returned to the day, we were all lifted.

Ordinary birds. Extraordinary presentation. Maybe that's it. In these sightings I get to be reminded that an ordinary life (and mine seems unbearably ordinary these days) is rich with wonder and surprise. It's there, the evidence that very small miracles are everywhere. Beauty offered, even in its simplest form, has the power to lift a heart and light a darkness.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


I am an alcoholic. Alcoholism and mental illness are prominent in my gene pool. My early life was more about shame than love, fear than adventure, rage than peace. I spent a fair number of years in self-destructive prophecy fulfillment (if you think I'm bad, then watch this). I also spent an equal amount of time in all-out war against the demons I was born with and the ones who joined the party in childhood.

A decade in a cult was meant to cleanse and purify and set me on a path away from myself. When that didn't work I chose a life of extreme respectability: teaching, country living, a good marriage, and golden retrievers. That did work after a fashion. It worked better after I stopped drinking, although the raw ugliness exposed without alcohol to blunt the edges nearly upended even that.

I've been sober and in recovery (two very different things) for over two decades now. Long enough that when someone opens a bottle of wine and offers me a glass, I consider saying yes, because after all I'm doing so well. Surely one glass wouldn't make a difference. And I do get tired of being the different one at celebrations.

See how easy it is for the lie to worm its way back in?

Whenever a celebrity succumbs to addiction as happened in the last week, it feels like the enemy has scored another victory. I ponder that enemy a lot, although certainly more so during times like this. Whether you call it Shame or Addiction or Satan (or something else), this energy/being hates us with unfettered passion. Fame, wealth, freedom, power, intelligence, adoration—none of the things we measure success by are enough to shield us from that being for long.

I don't believe, however, that the enemy's victory is inevitable. Despite powerful lies that contain just enough truth to be difficult to refute, despite promises of erased pain, despite whispers of discontent, it is possible to stand up to the voice that is always slightly louder than the one that can truly save us.

I don't actually know what distinguishes my life as an addict from that of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Marilyn Monroe or my daughter. The one thing I do know they all had is that they were truly loved as real people by real people. And that somehow for them it wasn't enough. It seems trite to say they didn't love themselves enough, but even as I write these words, I recognize the truth in them.

For me, this war is fought day by day, hour by hour. It is fought not in direct combat, but rather by allowing the enemy full voice. I don't hide. I don't run. I don't deny. I listen. And in that Buddhist way of creating space around pain, eventually all that light and air diminish the enemy's voice.

In that sky-wide space I can hear the other. The quiet voice that speaks through the throaty hoots of owls courting in a February twilight. The steadfast hand that pushes crocuses up through frozen ground. The loving eyes that look at me from every person I'm lucky enough to call friend.

The paradox both settles me and makes me sad. It is not money or attention or being important that keep me sober or happy, although even now the temptation to believe otherwise is there. How could I not be more of everything if I had more money and freedom? Right?

The truth is, nothing in my life does more to keep me present with myself, and thus not needing the escape so tantalizingly offered by Addiction, than the grace of simple miracles. A bald eagle floating against a winter sky in the refuge. A cat purring in my lap. A dog dancing delight every single time he sees me. A gentle breeze, surprisingly warm and most certainly carrying promises that can be trusted. A husband handing over a bouquet of flowers for no reason.

All of that would be lost if I were to allow myself the indulgence of just one glass of wine (which will never be just one). Not the events. I could still have those. What I wouldn't have is the connection to them, the ability to feel them, the light they create in me and around me. I wouldn't have myself, and I would soon forget how dear that loss was.

I don't know why I'm okay and Mr. Hoffman (or any of the myriad others) is not. I wonder if he might have looked at my life and wished for something he saw there. I wonder where the turning point was, where he lost sight and hearing and hope. I wonder still those same things about Kathleen. The best I can answer for myself on this day is that it, the losing, happens one choice at a time, in the dark, in isolation. Just as victory happens one choice at a time, in the light, in full connection with our own flawed and wounded selves.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


The return address said Flagstaff. The envelope was thick. Our summer rafting trip through the Grand Canyon became real with its arrival in our mailbox last week.

Among the contents was two pages of "Visitor's Acknowledgment of Risk." We need to sign the bottom of the second page, both Walt and I, and return it to the company before we'll be able to set foot on a raft. Those two pages are full of words like hypothermia, mental anguish, trauma, death by drowning, injuries.

The word risk is used twelve times. There are seven categories of specific risks, each of which is carefully described. Possible death, trauma and injury figure in all of them. Except for the last category: Etc. The company went to great pains to spell every possible risk out, but covered whatever they might have missed in that one catchall abbreviation.

Toward the end there is this phrase: I assume full responsibility for myself. . . . I also certify that I'm fully capable of participating in this activity. The company promises to do its best to keep me safe, but ultimately it's all on me.

While I like to think I'm a risk-taker, most of my risks have been pretty safe. Most have not involved physical challenges, but emotional, spiritual or cognitive instead. Even as a child I was reluctant to do anything that had a chance to hurt my body. I was afraid of pain. I was afraid of somehow harming myself beyond repair. Maybe I was even afraid of death.

So while my youngest brother scrambled up trees and ran across barn beams that were at least twenty feet off the ground, I wandered and explored and waded—feet firmly on the ground. When all three of my brothers wrestled and pummeled each other in frustrated rages, I resorted to pinching and sneak kicks and ratting-out.

The biggest risk of physical danger in my life happened in adolescence. An adolescence spent in the free-love, joint-sharing, hitchhiking era of the 70s. Even then I think I had one eye on just how far I could go before there was no turning back.

Early adulthood, actually most of my adulthood, held the safety of homemaking and gardening and teaching. While my time in the cult was certainly risky, there was no physical danger. Marriage is a risk, but in most circumstances, not one involving physical danger. Teaching carries risks as well, but except in the most extreme cases, the biggest chance of harm comes from being over-hugged, or being sleep-deprived.

A few years ago Walt and I started hiking. We started fairly easy, but graduated quickly to hikes involving some elevation gain and longer and longer distances. My fear of heights dogged me on many of the hikes like a pack of hungry wolves. Vertigo nearly tipped me a few times. But I kept going. The sheer pleasure of being outdoors, my blood fully oxygenated and roaring, every bend offering the potential for some new wonder, all made the fear seem more annoying than threatening.

Then came the year we went to Zion and hiked Angel's Landing. Walt would have skipped it without complaint, but the thought of accomplishing such a risky trail wouldn't leave me. Despite being very clear that a misstep could easily result in serious damage, I was determined to climb. That was a day I still remember with astonishing clarity. The feeling of looking straight ahead (up), and putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually looking down into a valley far far below. The fear didn't really get loud until the trip down, but by then there was nowhere to go but down, and so I did.

After that it became fun to challenge my fear of heights. Still in pretty safe ways, but the risk was there nonetheless.

Two summers ago, when we were in Belize, I took the biggest physical risk of my life by hiking/climbing/wading Actun Tunichil Muknal. While we had an amazing guide, the danger was real. My fear, however, stayed home as I squeezed through impossibly tiny spaces, climbed straight up high ladders, and pushed myself to the point of shaking-leg exhaustion. It was the single most incredible day of my life so far and I would go again tomorrow if I could.

Instead, I will sign the Acknowledgment of Risk for rafting the Colorado. I believe everything it says, but I also trust the guides and my own inner voice. As I travel the roads toward the end of my life, I want to be absolutely certain I don't miss anything important or wonderful or magical just because I was afraid of the risks, stated or otherwise. I am determined to challenge the false sense of security to be found in inertia and wrapping myself in soft quilts of safety. I am ready to ". . . be jolted, jarred, bounced, thrown to and fro, and otherwise shaken about during rides through rapids." I'm excited to discover what is revealed after things settle from all that action.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


According to the Grand Canyon National Park website, the average high temperature of the inner gorge in July is 106.3. The average low is 76.8. July is the hottest month there. And July is when we're going to be there.

From a cold gray January in the Pacific Northwest, where the temperature is at this moment a brisk 33, that sounds like heaven.

When we decided last summer that this would be our next big adventure, the heat wasn't a huge factor on the plus side. White water rafting, the canyon itself, birds (California Condors!), a break from the chaos of modern life, hiking - those were high on the list.

Right now imagining myself on a sandy beach on a night warmer than my house is now, darkness complete enough that the sky is white with stars, body exhausted in the way that only a day on water can bring—that picture is enough to counter the wet gray wool of January here.

The Grand Canyon has called to me from childhood. I spent hours scouring old National Geographic magazines that had been given to us by customers from the milk route. Those were the days when it felt sacrilegious to throw one away. I longed to see the colors and the grandeur for myself one day. I envied and marveled at the people with the courage to travel the Colorado River through the gorge, in the time before the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, before the river was tamed. I imagined myself among the tribes who called the canyon home, placing myself in the midst of the beautiful artists' renderings of what it might have looked like then.

Years passed and while the dream never quite left me, I never actively sought to claim it. Like so many dreams, I tucked it away in a place called Someday.

About ten years ago, Walt and I did a part of the Grand Circle. On one magical day we drove three hours from St. George to North Rim. I saw my first California Condor. We drank in the indescribable majesty, and soaked in the healing heat. I didn't want to leave.

For a long time I wanted to do the Bright Angel Trail hike down into the canyon. A part of me still does. I also wanted to do the mule ride until a good friend who is not afraid of anything did that, and said she'd never been that afraid before. Even so, a part of me still wants to do that, too. Walt, however, finds neither of those options even remotely appealing.

And so last summer we somehow found ourselves talking about rafting the Colorado through the canyon. It's the water that calls us both. And the camping, only this time with the luxury of having someone else pack everything.

I want my body to have this experience while the challenge and the pleasure still have the chance to occupy the same space. I want the feeling of connection with Walt that happened in Belize and that happens on every hike we take. I want to feel the aliveness that only happens for me when I'm a little afraid, when I'm outside, when I'm doing what felt impossible right up to the moment of doing. And I want to see California Condors.

It's been a year and a half since Walt and I went to Belize. I carry parts of that time with me like a smooth stone in my pocket. Always there as a reminder of who I am beyond a teacher of fifth graders and an aging woman whose life is dangerously close to settling permanently into the safety of conventionality. I really like the person who was in Belize, and the partner she shared it with. I'm looking forward to spending time with them both again in just a few short months.

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Living through winter is very much like living through a season of grieving. Focus is narrowed, everything feels more raw and restricted, and the future seems a too-distant promise of relief. However, also as with grief, winter's gifts are profound and unique. Unlike the lush blowzy abundance of summer's sunny gifts, winter's are offered in singular contrast to its cold and dormant darkness. Because of that, each gift radiates particular meaning and light.

It's like stars on a night with no moon. The sky is dark—the world is dark—but each burst of light carries so much promise it takes your breath away. And the darker it is, the more stars you can see.

Some stars in my sky:

Every day for the last week I've seen or heard Bald Eagles. Yesterday as I began my walk, a mature adult wheeled out of a tall fir very close to me and flew toward the park where I was headed. She seemed to be leading me.

I heard, for the first time this year, the annual owl courtship in our field.

A frog greeted me loudly on my walk yesterday, his voice a hundred times larger than the tiny tight green body I know it came from.

On Friday, at the end of the day while playing silent ball, my kids were laughing. It was simple, happy, we're-a-family laughter that warmed the air and nearly brought me to tears.

This Malcolm Gladwell article that just happened to be on Facebook this morning somehow opened a tight space in my chest and left me breathing more deeply.

A cat sits on my printer looking out the window. Without his brother, Bunkie has accepted us as sufficient substitutes. He makes us smile with his antics. He warms my lap with his bulk and his purrs.

Contact was made this week by the company facilitating our summer adventure. It's time to begin preparing in earnest.

There are more—so many many more. And the more I'm able to acknowledge the gifts of a day, naming stars in a night sky that might overwhelm but cannot because of the multitudes of tiny gemstones, the more bearable winter is.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


January and February are my least favorite months. Even as I write those words, I wish they weren't true. I wish I could not even notice the cold darkness. I wish I could embrace each moment of each day and be grateful for what those offer. Enough that the light emanating from such gratitude drives back the shadows of winter.

There is plenty to be grateful for, even in these gray days absent the vibrant golds and reds and greens of the holiday just past. Sun, when it breaks through, warming like a kiss. Skies, both morning and evening, the pink of new love. A single resonant robin chirp in the midst of the wintery and tinny music of gold-crowned kinglets.

After some weeks of absence, Bald Eagles are back. While I know their comings and goings from my line of sight are not specifically about my needs, their appearance always feels like a personal gift. A reminder that I'm not alone. Yesterday's sighting was the most powerful in a long time. Walking Toby in late afternoon, the sun casting a glow and making unmelted frost shimmer, turtled in my thoughts, I heard the tell-tale chuckle. I looked up to see two mature adults sharing the top of a Douglas fir across the river. After watching them for a bit, I continued on only to discover a completely brown and slightly rumpled eagle, probably last summer's baby, perched on a snag close by.

In those moments I feel so glad for my life, so glad to be alive.

But in these two months, they are not enough, those moments of grace and glory. I feel on edge, restless, heavy. I want time to pass. Which goes against everything I believe. And still I want to be sometime else. Somewhere else. Maybe even someone else.

Because I've been living with the challenges of winter for a long time, I have developed strategies for getting through. For getting to spring ready to burst into blossom as soon as the sun and earth invite. For enduring the inner darkness at its work while the outer darkness provides a complete absence of distraction.

My favorite strategy has always been to have something to look forward to. Some grand summer adventure that will motivate me to do all the healthy things that winter offers no encouragement for. And I have that this year. An epic adventure to anticipate.

I spent yesterday reveling in, reading about, losing myself in the anticipation of next summer's adventure. I intended to start writing about it today and to use it as a focus for my writing until I'm on the other side of it. And it was that escape that brought me to this most recent place of questioning. If I spend the next six months forward focused will I miss something important? If I find a way to embrace winter completely, without distraction or escape, will I be happier, stronger, healthier? Does the artificial light of future happiness somehow diminish the healing power of darkness?

Any time an old strategy starts to feel uncomfortable, I know to listen. Something new is about to be revealed. For now I wait. And wonder if there's not a way to have both - the energy and light of anticipation along with the patience for and presence in winter's dark dormancy.