31 December 2011

[ this moment ]


[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

27 December 2011

Solstice

Sun streams through the windows
at that early winter angle
and I, second cup in hand,
linger over words,
both written and unwritten.

19 December 2011

The Burden Lifted

Friday afternoon, I sat with my family in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. I was fidgety, nervous, and I thought of how a doctor’s office is probably one of the most anxious places on earth. We wait there for news that can be life-changing. It’s a wrenching place to sit, to wait, to play out the various worst-case and best-case scenarios, all while thinking about the future despite being trapped in the apprehensive present.

That day, though, we were all waiting for good news. Would Arden be released from the burden of wearing her eye patch? This patient girl, who now breezes through a couple of chapter books a week, who had begun wearing her patch when she could read and write only her own name. This girl, who had worn the patch for four years: fully half her life. This girl, who once had no vision at all in one eye, and who now has good enough vision to pass a driver’s license vision exam.

I thought of how either of my daughters would remind me if I seemed to have forgotten about the day’s patching by chanting: P-A-T-C-H, P-A-T-C-H! It always seemed like they spelled it as if it were an unspeakable word, not quite a curse word, but almost.

I thought of all the hours and hours Arden had endured, and how incredibly grateful and lucky she’s been that A) the patch was effective B) that more drastic options like surgery weren’t required and C) that she was responsible and compliant enough to wear it. As difficult as it was at times, it was the simplest and easiest of all the options out there.

Sometimes in the course of my day at work, I see kids who are confined to wheelchairs, who cannot feed themselves, who cannot communicate beyond their most basic of needs, if that. In my mind, I see these kids as my outlook barometer. They help me to reset my attitude. It’s not me in that wheelchair, so what do I really have to complain about today? It’s not my kid there, so what can I feel grateful for today?

I thought of those kids in the wheelchairs while I waited, reminding myself that even if Arden would have to continue with the eye patch, there was still so much to be grateful for. I thought of how the patch could sometimes flip her attitude from sunny to cloudy, of how she hated to wear it in public and often felt awkward at strangers’ prying questions. But I also thought of how she’s been planning a No More Patch Party to celebrate, including some cool cupcakes in the patch-wearing pirate cupcake liners we found several months ago.

Finally, we were called back to a room, the three of us squeezing into the small seating area while Arden sat, looking tiny, in the too-big examination chair. Her fantastic, encouraging doctor supported her throughout the eye exam, each of us in the family watching and listening anxiously as she read the letters on the screen, knowing she was mistaking some, and hoping that she was doing well enough.

And we waited. The doctor took notes, asked questions, entered information into her laptop, and then she turned to us: yes, she could stop wearing the patch!

In spite of the small caveat that she return in April to be certain she wasn’t backing off on her gains, we cheered quietly with high fives at her burden lifted – definitely more sweet than bitter, with Arden’s proud smile elevating my no-longer anxious heart.

16 December 2011

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

14 December 2011

The Salt Water Cure

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea." – Isak Dinesen, 1937

This week, two friends on Facebook posted the same quote from Out of Africa. It struck me, first, because neither knows the other, although they both possess a love of great books. And then the reality, the veracity of the quote hit home. Because really, regardless of the depth of the problem I am facing, sweat, tears or the sea always make me feel better.

Crying isn’t something I do very often anymore, but there are times when it is the only way to express sadness, anger or frustration. And crying isn’t often a choice – it comes from something primal, something within, and it is often a first reaction to bad news, as we all know too well. It’s what we do after we cry that determines our true response to something beyond our control.

And by moving, doing, accomplishing something that takes real effort and work, we can find a purpose and a sense of achievement. Find something that needs doing, and focus on what can be done, rather than what can’t be undone.

To look out across the ocean and to see its immensity puts life’s problems back into perspective. Somehow that vista forces me to understand that my place in the universe is very small and insignificant – and it may seem ironic, but that brings me some level of comfort. I feel the same way in the Grand Canyon, among that ancient stone, that relentless river, and that sky the stretches on forever. I suppose that what I feel is a sense of continuity, that whatever issue I’m dealing with in my personal life is nothing in the grand scheme of things; that this, too, shall pass.

And of course, it doesn’t have to be the ocean or the Grand Canyon that cures us. It can be any connection to the natural world, no matter how small: a collection of stones or leaves, a bouquet of flowers, a field, a sunset or sunrise can be equally empowering.

Another of my favorite quotes is from the author of one of my favorite books, The Little Prince:

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Something about inspiration and self-reliance in both of these quotes speaks to me. There is so much in this life that we cannot avoid, cannot help, cannot change. But when we can find, within ourselves, responsibility for our own happiness and unhappiness, that is when we can begin to change our world.

09 December 2011

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

07 December 2011

Another Chapter

For the month of November, I participated in NaNoWriMo, a month-long writing adventure designed to push wanna-be novelists into creating a habit of writing by giving them thirty days and a goal of 50,000 words. And I did it – I wrote 50,057 words and have an ugly shell of a pretty decent story in need of major revision and renovation. I’ve never written anything that length, usually because I get bogged down in trying to make my words sound (right / beautiful / elegant / fill-in-the-blank). The 50,000 word goal was scary at first, but after a week I already had managed to write more than eleven thousand words. And that’s when I began to think that maybe I could actually write a long work. In order to do it, though, I didn’t permit myself to go back and re-read (and therefore edit) what I’d written. I didn’t delete anything. I only took two days off from writing during that whole month and both of those were school days with other evening events tagged on top.

I learned that writing is a lot like running. You just have to do it. There aren’t any tricks that make it easier, except continuing to show up and do it again. And slowly, those miles / words build up, and before you know it, you’ve come a long way. (I have to confess that it’s hard to stop looking at the ‘word count’ at the bottom of the page while I type this.) I also learned that it’s actually pretty cool to immerse yourself in a month-long task. I’ve been wondering what other goals might seem more manageable if compressed into the time frame of thirty days.

But in order to write that much, with a more-than-full-time job and full-time family, I had to give up some things. Some were easily to push aside than others, like waking up at 4:45 a.m. to run so that I could have a longer block of time in the evening. The early morning wakeup call was pretty easy to let go of – too easy in fact.

It was more difficult to give up watching movies and HBO shows with Dan, something we do a few nights a week with the small amount of time sandwiched between the girls’ bedtimes and our own.

And the strangest thing of all for me to give up was reading. I read all the time. I often have several books going at once. I love to read: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, juvenile and young adult, magazines, articles online. But to reach that crazy writing goal, I had to – and I mean had to – let go of reading.

This past weekend was my first non-NaNoWriMo weekend in four weeks. Lucky for me, it was also a very chilly, snowy weekend. One of my daughters also had a cold, which allowed all of us to lay low as well. And so, while I didn’t get a run or a movie in, I did read. A lot. I started and finished reading two books, and then Sunday evening, I started two more.

I was hungry for words. Maybe after all that output, I needed to devour a hundred thousand words or so to replace what I’d written. Sitting near the cozy fireplace, I read and read and read. Sometimes I was alone, other times members of my family of readers joined me. Sometimes Lucie the cat cuddled nearby as well. One of the great things about reading, as opposed to writing, is that, for me at least, reading doesn’t require nearly the time commitment as writing. Ten minutes here, five minutes there. For me to write, though, I need a block of time that is relatively undisturbed – and rare in this busy woman’s life.

Meanwhile, though, I’ll continue to show up for this blog and refocus for the revisions that await my novel-in-progress, in addition to trying to catch up on the other areas of my life that have recently been neglected. And most happily, I’ll immerse myself completely in the beautiful words of Marquez and others. But don’t worry. I’ll come up for air in about thirty days.

02 December 2011

[ this moment ]

[ this moment ] - A Friday ritual. A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember. (Homage to Soule Mama)

If you're inspired to do the same, leave a link to your 'moment' in the comments for all to find and see.

29 October 2011

Below the Rim

Five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, most of them gawking, jaws dropped, from the South Rim. And yes, it is a truly inspiring vista, beyond the scope of my skills with words. There are other vistas, too, just as sweeping, from below the rim. And there are also small wonders that surprise and enchant me, and whose grandeur seems equally difficult to express with the inadequacy of language. On a recent seven-day hike in the Canyon, we moved camp every day but one. And every new camp, and the trek to it, yielded gems beyond my expectations.

I’ve been to the bottom of the Canyon many times. But before this fall’s hike, I’d only done three different routes to the river. My first was to Supai with my sister and cousins in 1992. I’ve been to Phantom Ranch / Bright Angel twice. The boulder scramble down to Soap Creek Rapids, though, has enchanted my family, and I’ve been there dozens of times, including twice with my age 11-and-under daughters.

This is my first opportunity to really travel within the canyon and to see its many faces. As we begin this adventure to Thunder River and Deer Creek from the North Rim, we drive through a lovely dense mix of pine, oak, aspen, and limestone over a seemingly never-ending dirt road to the trailhead. Embarking on the trail, we walk through scrubby oak just hinting at the changing season, up (yes, up!) and then around and down a limestone section dotted with a few tough piñons and hardly any places wide enough to remove our packs and rest.

I stop to take a break near a promontory pointing to Bridger’s Knoll, and realize, slowly, that the huge bird flying just below and beyond me is a California condor. It’s so close and so huge, and I can almost read the number tag on its wing. Before I can get my camera out, the soaring bird is some distance away, but no less awe-inspiring.

Somehow, the downhill travel is more difficult than the uphill. Every step is calculated, the quads are straining against the natural law of gravity, trying to slow this body in motion. The sliding scree is tough, more so because we are all carrying extra water to cache on the Esplanade, our first and last nights’ camp. The Esplanade is an immense expanse of relatively horizontal red sandstone with hoodoos and drainages that make it a fun place to explore. We may find rainwater in the shallow tinajas, or depressions, in the sandstone there, or maybe not. We won’t know until we get there. And if there is water, it might not last a week under the sun until our return, since animals and other thirsty hikers will also pass this way.

The first night we’re tired. We don’t yet have our canyon legs and our packs are at their heaviest. We eat, pump water from the tinajas nearby, and set up camp. As the sun sets, the alpenglow casts the Esplanade aflame with a rosy golden light. And once the light is gone, so is the heat, and we call it a night.

Sometime the next afternoon, we can hear Thunder River. We can hear it before we see it. And then, we crest a saddle in the ridge, and there it is. Water bursts directly from the wall of the canyon to our left, more a waterfall than a river. It is a lush oasis, with trees and ferns, icy-cold pools and cascades. It’s an incredible abundance of water contrasted against last night’s supply, pumped from shallow rain puddles. We soak our feet in the chilly spring water until they’re numb, dip our heads, replenish our bottles, and carry on, down to our next camp.

In the morning, we continue, soon fording Tapeats Creek, which is running higher than I’m comfortable crossing. With Dan’s help, I’m the last one – we all make it across safely. As we travel downstream, I marvel at the vegetation. It seems more like the fertile foothills desert of Tucson: mesquite thickets, fat prickly pears and hedge hog cacti, grasses, flowers. It seems opposite from the barren landscape dominated by stone and erosion that is so emblematic of the Grand Canyon. And always, as we walk, the creek rushes alongside, racing ahead of us to tonight’s destination: the Colorado.

By the time we reach the river, we’re high above it and the sun is directly overhead. It’s hot. We snake down a group of incredibly steep, rocky switch backs, ending at a sandy beach strewn with stones smoothed by water. The Colorado is a milky chocolate color today. Where the clear Tapeats water meets the sediment-laden Colorado, there is a clear delineation marking the boundary between river and creek.

As we break camp the next morning and head downriver, it seems my canyon legs have arrived. It’s easy, picking our way through the boulders scattered by ages of floods, and then up and across Cogswell Butte toward Deer Creek. My pack feels good, and for the next two nights, we won’t move camp. It’s probably that thought that encourages me to keep my pace.

From high above the Colorado, we watch for rafters, and finally we are rewarded. A couple rafts and an old-style wooden dory are traveling together. We watch them navigate through Helicopter Eddy, the dory bobbing like a cork. Later, we learn the old man in the dory is O.C., a Canyon river-running legend among the rafting set.

At Deer Creek, we pause. To the right are towering cottonwoods and a wide canyon where we’ll camp. To the left are the narrows, beginning with a room-like area called the Patio. It’s an obvious border, where we stand, and while the dark shade of the narrows tempts us, we opt to go upstream to claim our camp.

And the camp is lovely. Our site is large enough for all of our tents, shady and level, and the creek burbles just meters away. Several times during our stay, I think I hear voices, but realize it’s just the creek. I’ve often heard about babbling brooks, but this is my first experience actually listening to one.

We laze about, splash in the creek, set up camp, and decide to head for the narrows. The narrows of Deer Creek are a slot canyon. A dozen or so people sitting and reading in the Patio. A few more soak in the water flowing across the flat sandstone. We stay to the right of the creek, pass a waterfall, and walk along a narrow ledge of sculpted sandstone. The canyon walls go high above us, the water some distance below. There are places where the canyon tapers and curves beneath our ledge, and we can no longer see the water rushing downstream. We walk, single-file, our shoulders sometimes brushing the edge of the canyon wall as our feet skirt along the lip of the brink.

And then, Dan stops abruptly near an overhang, and gestures to a treasure I would have missed. Three small handprints, probably Anasazi, adorn the wall. My eleven-year-old’s hands are probably larger than these, marked on the wall with blown paint in a kind of reverse-stencil. How many centuries have people walked this path? And in the past century, how many have walked on by this artwork, too concerned with their footing to notice?

Two days later, as we begin our ascent, we stop to refill our water at Deer Spring, near the Throne Room. The Throne Room is a large area under an overhanging cliff where hikers and rafters have built sandstone thrones of many sizes, most with armrests. We try several out, and I’m surprised at how comfortable they are. A week without upholstered furniture somehow makes solid stone chairs relaxing. At the spring, we pump enough water to make it back to our water cache on the Esplanade. There, on the huge stone where we sit, I spy something that doesn’t quite seem to fit. At first, I think it’s a bundle of sticks that someone’s placed side-by-side. I pick it up, brush off a few willow leaves, and I realize it’s a split twig figurine, a fetish shaped like a deer, about the size of my palm. It’s not ancient, of course, but a lovely modern example made by a fellow traveler who passed this way, just days before me. I cradle it in my hands and marvel at the small wonders of this grand place.

That night on the Esplanade, we are again astonished by the splendor of the sun, setting beyond the countless chasms. We watch the stars come out in greater numbers than can be seen almost anywhere else in the world, and quietly point out satellites that cross the sky above us. Here in the Canyon, I've found treasures that will feed my soul until the next time I go below the rim.

08 October 2011

Bloom

My grandmother had a plaque in her kitchen that stated, “Bloom where you are planted.”

When Gram was a young bride, she followed her husband to different mining camps all over the state of Arizona. Sometimes home was a little mining shack with a packed dirt floor. Sometimes home meant the nearest store or post office was several hours away, over bumpy, wash-boarded roads. I think of how lonely she must have been in those early years of her marriage, when her husband was working long days in the mines. And, of course, she couldn’t stay connected to the outside world by checking in to Facebook or receiving emails or even phone calls. Eventually, my grandfather realized that they’d have a better life if he went to college, and so off to Tucson they went, and after that, there were more moves as well.

But she loved him, and wanted to be with him, and had promised to do so, no matter how tough things got. She toughed it out, made the choice to be happy, and they made a life together for more than sixty years. She bloomed, and he did, too.

My grandmother certainly wasn’t a Buddhist, but she definitely understood the concept of living in the moment, and being present. She and my grandfather always made the best of a bad situation – sometimes to the point of later romanticizing the situation, and turning it into a family legend. This was the Depression, after all, and yet it seemed through their stories to be the Golden Age. Maybe that is the coloring of young love?

I thought of Gram this week, when I read the news of a college friend, who had been in the process of adopting a second child. She and her family decided to stop the process after yet another setback, but she remarked how difficult it was to stay sad for long with the gem of a daughter who made them a family.

Gram would have liked that attitude, saying my friend and her family were blooming where they were planted.

But, man, it’s tough sometimes to bloom with what we’re dealt. I look at my family and friends, some of whom have been facing difficult issues: cancer, infertility, extended delays with adoptions, unemployment, and divorce. I think, though, that we’d choose to keep to the path we’ve each chosen, in spite of each of our relative hardships.

I think, too, of my favorite of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Number 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


It was the first Shakespeare I’d ever read – and I had to memorize that sonnet for Sophomore English so many years ago. That sonnet somehow spoke to my teenage angst, and I still find comfort in it today. And I see how we can choose – or not – to bloom.

04 October 2011

Come Winter

Scrambling to create lesson plans for the coming week, I wonder again why I’ve agreed to one last camping trip for the year this weekend. There is too much to do to be going camping. I have quizzes to grade. I have emails from parents that I need to respond to, papers to copy and file, reminders to post. And that’s just the work side of my life. At home, where my family awaits me, the house needs a thorough cleaning, there is shopping to do for an upcoming backpacking trip, and my never-seeming-to-grow-shorter to-do list awaits. Plus, I can’t quite decide if that achy feeling in my shoulders and that scratch in my throat mean I’m coming down with something.

One last camping trip before we winterize the trailer for the coming cold. And yet, I can’t help thinking that we should just winterize it and put it away, and get to work on what we need to do. But Dan and the girls really want to go, and since we’re leaving the girls with grandparents while we go backpacking, it’s really something we should do. The girls love to camp so much – they ride their bikes and play together in ways that they don’t always agree upon when we’re home.

Finally, I am ready to leave school, and as I walk out of the building late on Friday afternoon, I notice the skies are dark with clouds and it is just beginning to sprinkle.

At home, there’s the final frenzy of last minute packing before we hook up the trailer and take off. We don’t go far – just to a small campground nestled among the granite boulders in the ponderosa, juniper, and manzanita a few miles from home. It’s one of our favorites, partly because it is so close to home, and partly because it really is strikingly beautiful.

The rain is moving in, and we quickly set up camp while the girls ride their bikes a few laps around the campground. Thunder, lightning, and the large drops begin to fall just as the trailer is ready to be home again for all of us. The girls return and stash their bikes just as the downpour starts in earnest.

A few moments later, we sit with a snack and drinks while the rain steadily pounds the roof. We all love that sound – the rain on the trailer roof – and my mind turns to other camps set up in a hurry, especially cranking up our tent trailer during a short-lived June snowstorm in Yellowstone back when Arden was not quite four.

After a sunny morning’s hike, the clouds build up, and it rains from Saturday afternoon into evening. The weather is chilly, and really finally feels like fall. We read, drink coffee, and laze about, enjoying the rain on the roof and this fleeting time to just sit and do as little as we want. By Sunday morning, I realize I’ve slept more than twenty hours since Friday night, and those aches I’d felt have disappeared. I feel lighter and calmer. The view of the granite and trees from the trailer door is exactly what my soul required to recharge. And in spite of my vague resistance, one more camping trip before winter is just what I needed. Sometimes we don’t recognize what it is we need – and luckily, sometimes those we love know precisely what will make us – all – whole again, and that will sustain me come winter.

02 October 2011

Vacuum of Silence

The other afternoon, Arden was struck by another of her headaches. These bad boys seem to come out of nowhere, and from time to time, really knock her down. We’ve been documenting when they happen, and what activities precede them, what she eats and drinks, and even how she reacts to the headaches. So far, though, no patterns are emerging.

By 4:30 that afternoon, she was in bed with the shades drawn, and a compress on her forehead. A whimper-y, tear-filled half hour later, she was asleep. At dinner, the rest of us remarked at the gloomy silence left in the vacuum of her absence. Later, we tiptoed through the dreary evening, sad for her and sad for us, too. Without her spunky cheer, the three of us fall into boredom pretty readily.

The night stretched long with worry. Silence always seems to lengthen the period of time it occupies.

The next morning, when I went to wake her to see if she was able to go to school, she stretched and sighed and smiled. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and asked, “Did I eat dinner last night?” She laughed when I shook my head no.

I could see her reviewing the events of the previous afternoon, and she cautiously moved herself, trying to determine if her head was still hurting.

“I feel lots better,” she pronounced, and hopped out of bed to begin her morning routine.

Relief flooded over me, and each of us was consumed by the frantic morning pace that somehow gets us out the door each day. That night, though, the typical commotion of our family dinner swirled around us, and my heart beat to its usual cadence once again, the tempo set by the lovely, ordinary noise.

25 September 2011

Lessons from my Garden

#1 Patience: The plants will grow. Let them. Water them. Visit them, but not too often. Don’t harvest too soon, even though it is so tempting to pull up carrots to check if they’re ready yet.

#2 Carpe Diem: Harvest before the rodents serve themselves, because the rodents can sense our thoughts: “I’ll harvest this tomorrow when it’s just that much more ripe.” (rebuttal to Lesson #1)

#3 Timing: Plant too soon, and the frost will claim the seedlings. Plant too late and there won’t be enough time for the fruits to ripen.

#4 Defense: This year, I worried far too much about infiltration from footed animals, and not enough from those with wings.

#5 Space: Don’t underestimate the space plants will need. (See also: volunteer yellow-pear tomato that currently is taking up half the walkway in addition to 3/4 of the pea / bean bed.)

#6 Plant More Flowers: You can’t have enough, and the phrase “too many” does not apply to flowers. Plant flowers that remind you of others (i.e., delphinium and sweet peas for Gram, roses and cosmos for Arden, and daffodils for Madeleine) because you will, indeed, feel their presence among the blooms.

#7 Wonder: Be amazed that those tiny seeds know exactly what to do, and when, and how.

#8 Contemplate: Wish that certain aspects of human life were as clearly defined as the roles of seeds. Rejoice that most of them aren’t.

01 September 2011

Playing the Small Parts

Last week, I read a painful update on the Tucson shootings about the mother of Christina-Taylor Green, the girl who was born on 9/11/01 and who was killed in Tucson this past January when Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot. I didn’t watch the memorial service in Tucson for Christina-Taylor and the others, but I did read this excerpt from our president’s speech there: “We are reminded that in the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame – but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better.”

I look at my own girls, whose birthdates straddle Christina-Taylor’s, and I am overwhelmed by her family’s loss. And then I remember all the families of those killed on 9/11. And the families of those Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since then. I think of the families of Afghans and Iraqis killed and I feel for them and can’t help but try to understand the depth of their losses, too. Taliban, al Qaeda, or not, their families mourn them just as deeply as we mourn our own. And although bin Laden is dead, I still will not celebrate.

I recall feeling great hope after 9/11’s initial shock and devastation cleared. I remember thinking that maybe this event would be the catalyst that would give our nation the focus and unity required to move beyond status quo, that would take us to a new height – and maybe even to a level of compassion that can only be achieved after devastating loss. I can see that the hope I felt was naïve at best, and now it seems as foolish as a child’s dream of playing in the NBA.

I spent much of the summer frustrated about our nation’s stagnation in debt, and Congress’s short-sighted and self-congratulatory “solutions,” which could be likened to pissing into the wind and being too stupid to realize that it’s their own piss splattering on their faces – as well as on ours and the future generations’.

And then, the media frenzy that will attempt to honor the tenth anniversary of 9/11 began to rear its head, in many forms: some well-written and poignant, others sensationalized and sappy. Honoring the dead is a necessary rite. Supporting the survivors and bearing witness to the tragedy are essential. But I don’t need to see the towers fall again and again and again to do those things.

And just as I was beginning (again) to feel a bit disappointed in my perception of the State of the World, I read this and a few days later, this. And then a friend posted this on facebook. And what, with all that, 9/11, and Christina-Taylor, my boots were getting heavy, and I was forced take a long look at my own mortality and attempt to make some peace with it. Because really, my mortality and I, we are walking this path toward one another, every second getting closer. And there’s no way of denying that.

Last fall I attended two memorial services, one for my dear aunt, and another for a woman I’d met only once – the mother of one of my students. I was struck by the similar tones at each service: how these two women, above all else, were mothers and wives. Everything else that defined them was secondary. But their relationships with the people who needed them the most were the focus of their love and their lives. And those people knew it. They felt it. And all those whose lives they touched were better for it.

And just because these two women were mothers and wives above all else does not mean that they fit a stereotype. They were dynamic, educated, interesting people who made an effort to convey their love. It has nothing to do with feminism or the woman’s role in the family or society. They were extraordinary women. They were extraordinary people. One of the gravest mistakes of the women’s movement has been to underestimate the capacity of women to create love, and to miscalculate the value of the power of that love.

And so tonight, even though I had papers to grade and a house that’s been needing attention, a garden that’s needed tending and a sink full of dirty dishes, my daughters and I enjoyed an afternoon at their favorite place, the library, and dinner out.

I’ve realized a few things. There will always be work that can be taken home. There will always be more work to do. There will always be some place in the house that needs a thorough cleaning. The garden can often times thrive on neglect. And while those dishes never seem to wash themselves, I can still wish for the dish fairies to come and bless my sink.

But I’ll never, ever, get to go to traipse through the public library searching for (even) more horse books, or enjoy another pizza downtown at Bill’s with my daughters on September 1, 2011. And, yes, we somehow did find a whole new pile of books to enjoy. And of course, the pizza was damn good. But the company was even better.

07 August 2011

Navigating the Middle

In the car on the way to my daughter’s first day of middle school, Madeleine wants to review again what she’s going to do this morning to kill time until her classes begin. She’s not as fidgety as I’d feared, and she speaks in a clear voice, chanting her locker combination once more. The drop-off area is actually in the same parking lot as her former elementary school, and I’m relieved at how normal it feels to be pulling into this driveway, the same place she’s been dropped off for six years already now.

As I pull the car to a stop at the curb, she is blinking a little too quickly, trying to distribute nervous tears before they gather and spill. She manages to pull herself together and we hug. And it is only when she pulls away that while I know in my gut that she is ready, I suddenly realize that I am not. I don’t want to leave her here. I don’t want to watch her walk up that pathway alone. Panic flutters about within, my own tears threaten to spill, and I am grateful for my dark sunglasses. Can she see that I am struggling to hold it together? Can she see that my chin wants to tremble? Does she notice that I am shaking as I help her into the straps of her new backpack? More than anything, I don’t want her to notice what’s going on with me. This brand of anxiety is highly contagious.

She manages a nervous smile and signs “I love you.” I return the gesture, but when the door slams shut and she turns away, I jump and feel myself shatter inside. Gasping for breath, I watch her walk away, alone, until she disappears beyond the curve, obscured by boulders and scrub oak that surround her new school.

I want to leap out of the car and keep her company until that first bell rings. I want to watch again as she tries to open her locker. I want to make sure she can navigate the crowds and find her way. But I can’t. I have students of my own, several miles away, who need me to be there for them, and I cannot stay. I hear a voice that sounds like my own saying, “You’re letting go of the bike. It will be ok.” And I put the car in drive and pull away from the curb.

Tears stream down my face, and I try not to sob. Somehow this is even more difficult than leaving her that first day of kindergarten. And as I wait for the stoplight to change I remember why. I’ve taught middle school. I know what a critical time this is for her. I see the faces of a few former students, those I couldn’t quite help navigate these deep waters, and I wonder where they are today: Prison? Stuck in a cycle of poverty? Dead? Or did they somehow exceed society’s expectations? And above all: are they happy? In those tough-but-sweet faces, I saw too much freedom and not enough support. No boundaries followed swiftly by arbitrary ones. It was easy to notice what I perceived as failures of parenting, back when I wasn’t a parent. It was easy to prescribe the cure-all for what ailed these kids, these kids that I was capable of loving only to an extent.

Middle school is a crossroads for all kids. Which paths will they seek out? Will they follow, or will they lead? So much is determined in these short, volatile middle years. Now that I have my own middle schooler, I realize (again) how much parenting is like feeling your way in the dark. Sometimes I have no idea what I’m doing. I go by my gut. I ask others. I read and research. I monitor and adjust. And I hope that I make more good decisions than not. I want her to make her own path, so that when hers intersects with other paths, that she’ll make wise choices. I want to make sure she has enough breadcrumbs to find her way back, too, though.

Somehow I make it to my school, and I pour myself into my teaching, manic energy fueling me through class after class. And when I see Madeleine – finally – at the end of the day, the light from her smile melds this mother back together, and I exhale as the details of her day bubble up with exaggerated gestures and laughter.

31 July 2011

Cultivating Hope, Part II

We’ve spent many weekends this year preparing for our first garden. We had a fence installed, and then built beds. We hauled dirt, mulch, and compost. We set up an irrigation system including barrels to harvest rain. And of course we planted seeds and seedlings. And throughout it all, we hoped.

And just when it seemed that we had everything in place, including the timer on the irrigation system adjusted just-so… we left on a two-week vacation.

We left cosmos plants, not yet six inches tall; pumpkin and melon plants with three leaves apiece; a puny basil plant near a couple of equally small pepper plants. It seemed very much a nursery, what with all these baby plants that had just barely poked up through the soil. We did, however, enjoy our first harvest before leaving: a single tiny strawberry. I shared it with Madeleine, and it was sweet and juicy – just as we’d hoped.

And so, when I returned to my garden, which had enjoyed a couple summer thunderstorms in my absence, I was astounded at the changes in the plants. It was comparable to seeing my nephews after a long interval apart: how is it possible that they have grown this much!

And not only are most of the plants larger, the pumpkin and melon (or is it cucumber? I didn’t label well this year – a lesson for next time) threaten not only to take over their own beds, but their neighbors’ beds as well. Some plants I don’t recognize. Are they weeds? I’m willing to wait and see before I rip them out. And others I recognize but know I didn’t plant: tomatoes. They must be volunteers from the compost.

It’s gratifying to see how well the garden is doing, even if there’s a part of me that thinks: these plants did this all on their own. We gave them what we hoped was an environment in which they could thrive. We should all be so lucky in our own lives, that our proverbial soil was well-prepared for our arrival, right? And the lessons the garden teaches are of the highest magnitude. Not much teaches staying power quite like waiting for those berries to ripen, or pulling up a carrot that I think must be ready, only to find it’s about the size of a fork tine. And there is always the lesson of perseverance: next year, next season, we can try something new or do something better.

Again, I see the parallels to parenting, and life in general, and I think of Voltaire and Candide as well: Il faut cultiver notre jardin, loosely translated as “We must cultivate our garden.” This is sometimes used in the context of ‘first things first’ or ‘let’s take care of our own problems before we tackle the problems of others.’ At this point in my life, though, as a mother of two with a full-time job, I see another interpretation: Find ways to seek happiness within the confines placed upon you.

There are few hours minutes in my day that aren’t filled with responsibilities to my children, my husband, my home, or my job. I’ve made my peace with that, and I wouldn’t trade my lot with anyone. And yes, being a full-time mom / wife / teacher is sometimes difficult – but compared to what? Compared to a 19th century homesteading wife? Or compared to a medieval mother? Or how about a present-day Afghan woman? What if this garden was my family’s sole source of food? I’m grateful that it’s not, although there is something very gratifying about (the idea of) feeding my family with the literal fruits of our own labors. Putting my life in perspective helps me to realize that I do live in the best of all possible worlds.

And the garden helps me appreciate that. I’ve really been striving to carve out time for myself to write, to exercise, to learn Spanish, to read, to garden. And it is in these moments that I am capable of finding happiness in small things – and where, it seems, hope cultivates itself.

22 July 2011

The Tracks in Montréal

On my way to the Métro
I saw you at once when I emerged from the darkness
of the underpass.
You were slumped against the concrete barrier,
backpack at your side,
your neck cocked at a right angle
facing the sun
and I thought,
How uncomfortable.
Your neck will hurt when you wake up,
and you’ll have one hell of a sunburn,
but only on half your face.


But as I walked closer,
I discerned
things I didn’t want to notice,
and wouldn’t choose to see:
your belly didn’t move up and down
fresh track marks and a smear of blood
on your tender inner elbow
and my realization, strangely, was that
you might not be the type to worry about
a crick in your neck.

Someone’s son.
Years ago
someone must have held you and rocked you to sleep,
and yet, I could not bring myself
to touch you,
to shake you,
to check for a pulse.
I dared not even
touch your shoe
with my sandaled toe,
or call out to you.

I continued walking –
I did not hurry –
to the Métro station
where within the walls,
I called 9-1-1.

The phone rang
six, seven, eight times
before a woman answered in French.
I asked if she spoke English,
wanting to avoid any miscommunication.
I told her where you could be found:
with your right-angle neck
and the tracks on your arm,
between rue Ferdinand
and rue Notre-Dame Ouest
on the sidewalk parallel to the railroad.

Later, I wondered,
if it happened like this:
your face turned,
your cheek accepting the kiss of the sun,
and the light blinding white,
censored all traces of darkness.

16 July 2011

Letting Go of the Bike

When we initially inquired about renting our vacation apartment in Montréal, we were told that bikes were available. There is a great bike path along the canal just a quarter-mile or so from here, so we really wanted to spend some of our time seeing the city in this way. When we spent time regularly in San Diego, one of our collective favorite memories is riding our bikes around Mission Bay, stopping at the playgrounds along the way.

We were also aware that a bike in Arden’s in-between-a-child’s-and-an-adult’s-size would be hard to come by. And so we weren’t surprised when the best choice for her was really a bit too big. Dan adjusted it as best he could for her, and she spent some time this morning, in fits and starts, pedaling – somewhat half-heartedly – up and down our street. Yes, it’s a city street, but it’s only about 100m long, is one-way, and has very little traffic at all. But somehow, riding new terrain on an unfamiliar, almost-too-big bike when you’re mere weeks from being eight-years-old, can mentally feel akin to learning to ride without training wheels for the first time. After a couple spills, she wanted to call it quits.

We reminded her that most of bike riding, maybe even as much as 90%, is just simply believing that you actually can ride. She didn't want to hear it. We put the bikes away and walked to the park a block away where the kids got soaked, running and splashing in the fountains there, built specifically with kids and hot summer days like this in mind.

A pair of brothers was riding their bikes on the trail through the park, and I convinced Arden to try the new bike there while Dan and Madeleine rode down to the canal. After I made her say a ridiculous, eye-rolling, self-affirming mantra, she got back on the bike. I helped her get going a few times, but then, once those wheels got rolling, it was all her, pedaling away. And then she’d circle around and pedal back, and away again, and back. Before today, all of my teaching-a-child-how-to-ride ideas were just that: ideas. Dan’s been the one to actually handle this department of parenting. I could talk about it, sure, but it was all theoretical.

A child riding off on a bicycle really is the ultimate metaphor for parenting, as Sloan Wilson so aptly notes:

The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.

As much as any other endeavor my child will embark upon, first and foremost, she will have to believe that she can do it. And instilling that belief, by far, is the most important task a parent has. Today, I had history on my side, as she’s ridden bikes before and knows she can do it. All I had to do was remind her of her ability.

I wonder, though, how much more difficult will my task of encouragement become when her task is something she’s never, ever, done? Or something I’m feeling a little shaky about her doing?

Running alongside and whispering encouragement, though, are actually pretty easy to execute. It’s that last act of teaching a child to ride. When I realized that my hand grasping the back of the seat was no longer what she needed, and in fact, had become an awkward hindrance. When I realized that by holding on, I might actually cause her to fall. Eventually, I had to let go. Let go, and let her ride off, alone, trying to convince myself that she is ready, she is prepared! for any obstacle in her path.

27 June 2011

The Blue Otter Pop of Happiness

It is hot, the sun intense, and the wind gusts from time to time. We are four families, camping for a weekend, something we haven’t done together since our days in college, more than two, ahem, decades prior. Now, though, there are spouses, and somehow eight children (eight!), aged thirteen to four, between us. Throughout the day, we migrate from campsite to campsite, looking for a shady space large enough to accommodate us all.

The kids flit in and out like butterflies while we adults talk, reminisce, become reacquainted, and laugh. The seven girls go on short hikes – mostly to the bathroom and back, it seems, or across the road to some granite boulders that are just challenging enough to be fun. Seth, the lone boy, rides his bike around the campground.

It’s surprising, really, how easily the conversations flow, how little some things have changed, and how certain things are still funny, even after all these years.

When Sojo, the youngest, commands our attention, the silence is reverent. She announces a joke: “How do you get a tissue to dance?”

“Put a little boogie in it!!”

Sojo is endearing, and probably because she is the youngest one present, we all focus on her. The girls want to play with her and help her meet the challenges posed by playing with kids twice or more her age. I look at Sojo and am astonished at how quickly time has passed since my daughters were her age. They’ve become so independent, sometimes in miniscule increments, sometimes by leaps. It’s easy to lose sight of how different things once were from a parenting standpoint: how my daughters seemed so independent at age four. I couldn’t fathom the level of responsibility then that they have grown to accept so readily now. I don’t really recall relinquishing most of that responsibility that they now shoulder, but somehow they have come so far.

The pack of girls runs off again, and the talk turns to work, travel, and recipes. Since I last saw Tara, Sojo’s mom, she’s lived on three different continents, working in International Schools with her husband, Dale. But somehow, those decades and oceans between us – between all of us – seem to fade to irrelevance. How is it that we might have reconnected and easily planned this outing without Facebook? Or without the Internet, for that matter? I’ve been able to see photos and read blogs of these friends and watch these families from afar, and it’s amazed me more than once that technology has the capacity allow these intimate, familial exchanges to take place, sometimes from half a world away.

I met Tara, Brian, and Jay my freshman year of college – and, let’s face it – there’s probably no other year of one’s adult life that can be so demanding, frightening, and freeing. My only responsibility was me. I was lucky to have connected with these good folk then, and grateful to have this opportunity to gather together now, even though focusing on the passage of so much time makes life appear more frenetic than it actually is.

Being outdoors allows the pace of life to slow. Most of what is extraneous is whittled away, and still we are left with much more than the basic comforts and company aplenty. And this is what I crave when I haven’t been outdoors for a while: a slower pace, easy conversation, watching the day progress with little attention to tasks besides meals, and enjoying simple pleasures with friends and family.

When the kids return again, their faces are flushed and an official Otter Pop time-out is declared. Each kid chooses a favorite color / flavor, and they dig in. Sojo’s face is the picture of bliss as she nibbles away. Sometimes happiness really can be found in something as simple as a blue Otter Pop.

And, I think, too, that this simplicity is what draws me toward the younger kids. At age four, life is pretty simple, things are quite absolute. As I grow older, I realize that less and less about life can be put into simple categories like black and white – the coincidence of what happens to our hair isn’t lost on me. Or maybe I’m just now finally able to grasp those delicate differences and nuances - because, yes, there are so many shades of grey. Would I go back if I could, to a time when I was only responsible for myself? Or to a time when my daughters were more dependent on me? Not a chance. But still, sometimes I yearn for those simple choices, like what color Otter Pop I prefer: I like the green ones.

21 June 2011

Night Hawks

Soon after night creeps over the desert,
the Big Dipper shines through strategically placed holes
in the huge black canvas that replaced the blue Sonoran sky

We sit by the pool,
where,
the palms, lit from below,
draw thousands of insects,
flying high above us,
who lure dozens of night hawks
gliding in overlapping spirals

The white bands on their underwings
shine like reflective tape
and we watch,
agape,
as they flit and circle, soundless,
through the desert air,
just slightly cooler
than the temperature of our skin

Again and again the night hawks
spiral
circle
choreographed orbits
tethered to celestial bodies
that are invisible to the naked eye

07 June 2011

D-Day + 55 years (Normandy: June 6, 1999)

We approach the beaches from the south
in what was Nazi-occupied territory,
a lumbering tour bus filled with teenagers,
most on their first European tour.
As we draw closer, each successive village bears
more American flags in the windows that line the streets,
some with messages of gratitude like
merci and thanks you, America.
I chaperone these newly-graduated, newly-minted adults,
which mostly means that I tell them they need
to go to bed or what time they need to wake up and be ready to roll
or I threaten that if they stay out too late or break the rules
by drinking in a French bar, I might have to call
their parents, who await their return with anxious hands and hearts.

That was before we stopped near the beaches
nicknamed Juno and Omaha in American lore,
near the sprawling cemeteries on the bluffs,
the cold wind off the Channel whipping our skin,
making our eyes tear up,
buffeting our jackets as we peered out to the north
from the sidewalk café where we sipped rich chocolat chaud.

That was before an ancient man in an old Canadian military uniform
pointed at the choppy sea and the scuttling clouds and said to us,
or to no one in particular, that day was just like this, cold and grey.
And we shivered, grateful to him and the others
– for their courage, yes,
but also because we weren’t in that water,
loaded with gear and guns,
dodging German bullets and mortars, and
trying (not) to envision those
aspects of war that old soldiers never mention.

That was before an old American man boarded our bus to share
his testimony: I was here, he said, voice shaking.
I was here, and I saw things no one should ever see.
I don’t know
, he started, and stopped, looking at each of us,
why I lived and why my buddies didn’t. He paused again,
his intense eyes becoming shiny,
then, they were good men.
He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his nose
and the bus was brimming
with our soft weeping and sorrow, and
we tried to reconcile the textbook image of hero with this
very real man who stood before us, gripping the back of the bus seat
to steady himself: I was here, he said again, and now he looked at
the boys on the bus, and I was your age.

He turned, and his middle-aged son, camera strapped to chest,
appeared to help his father down the steps
as we called out inadequate thank yous.
Somehow, I think he meant to tell us other things,
what it was like that day and what he did in the war -
until he saw these boys on the bus.
Even fifty-five years can’t bury some things.

That was before I was a mother, before I could plumb
the dark depths of love and fear those boys’ mothers
must have reckoned from the other side of the Atlantic,
without benefit of a phone call from a chaperone,
on their sons’ first European tour.

05 June 2011

Defensible Space

As the weed eater sputtered to quiet, Elise turned back to look at what she’d accomplished. Her arms were still shaking, from the vibrations of the weed eater as well as the exertion of the yard work. At the fire safety meeting last night in the elementary school cafeteria, the forest ranger had harped on the importance of defensible space. It saddened Elise to cut down the grasses she loved, especially the side oats grama grass, but she also knew that her cabin’s location on the border of the national forest was risky until the summer rains came again, probably two months from now.

The wet winter had encouraged a seemingly disproportionate crop of native grasses; plants her neighbor Dave called weeds. But Elise loved them all, even the ones that deposited sticky seeds she’d have to pull off of her socks one by one with a pair of tweezers. Looking west to the forest, a shiver went down her spine. So many dead trees, juniper and ponderosa. Last summer they’d appeared flaming orange, still clinging hopelessly to their dead needles. But now they all stood grey and lifeless, ominous in their fuel potential. Satisfied with her progress for the day, Elise hauled the weed eater back to the shed. Tomorrow she’d prune some of the low branches out of the junipers on her property. She cringed at the thought that she might need Dave’s help. He’d offer to chop the trees into firewood for her, oblivious or not caring that they were habitat for countless species of birds and insects.

Elise had lived in the cabin for more than ten years, since she retired after thirty years teaching fifth grade, and divorced Charlie. It had once been only a summer getaway, but during the divorce she’d talked Charlie into keeping the house in Mesa so that she could take the cabin in the mountains. She knew that Charlie still wondered sometimes why they’d divorced. They talked on the phone at least a few times a month, and he’d often come up once or twice in the summer for a weekend. It was nice; they were comfortable together. But she’d just needed a change, and so they’d split officially, while still sometimes sharing a bed, and supporting one another through the trials of aging parents.

Charlie would be up this weekend, for Fourth of July. And she’d promised him her famous barbecue chicken. Elise cleaned up and got ready for a trip into the grocery store. She made a mental list of what she’d need: a whole chicken, brown sugar, French bread, green beans, tonic water, lime. Probably a new bottle of gin and some of that extra sharp cheddar that Charlie liked so much.

It wasn’t until she turned onto Valley Road, on the way home from the grocery, that Elise noticed the plume of smoke. It wasn’t yet a huge trail through the otherwise blue sky, but it was definitely smoke. She pulled over and called the forest service office from her cell phone, relieved that she’d programmed it into her phone during the fire safety meeting last night.

“Yeah, we know about it,” the gruff voice answered. “Haven’t got a crew out there yet, but we’re working on it. It’s already been called in. Someone’s campfire got away from them and they called us.”

Idiot! Campfires had been banned in the forest now for three weeks! And yet there was always someone who thought they were above the regulations. Damn. She pulled back onto the road, noticing the plume’s width had already doubled. Arriving at home, gravel from her driveway spraying behind her truck as she slammed to a stop, Elise realized the fire was due west of her cabin. The afternoon winds were picking up, whispering potency into the fire.

Elise ran inside, up the stairs and onto the small deck overlooking the forest. The smoke now seemed to take up most of the western horizon, and she could smell it. Running inside, she knew she would need to evacuate. She grabbed the box she’d packed last night after the fire meeting, filled with a change of clothes, her jewelry box and some framed photos off the walls. She took it outside and put it in the back of the truck, vowing not to look at the smoke plume until she was ready to leave.

Running back to the house, she grabbed the cooler and took it to the truck, filling it with the groceries that were still in the bed of the truck. And again, racing back inside she grabbed another box, not sure what to fill it with, but compelled to try to save what she could. Her eyes darted from object to object. How could she determine what was worth trying to save and what would have to be left to chance? The books – there were so many! Charlie had given her so many books, for birthdays, anniversaries, and Christmases, sometimes for no reason at all. Some were first editions; others were signed by the author. But they were heavy, and, she supposed, ultimately replaceable. Her grandmother’s silver candlesticks stood sentry on the small mantle. Grabbing those, she looked on the other side of the room. She seized the photo album from the coffee table. Her cardboard box still had a good deal of empty space, but as she whirled around the room, she couldn’t decide what to choose.

Forcing herself to stop her chaotic frenzy, she set down the box, closed her eyes, and took three deep breaths. Her eyes opened, and were trained on the bookcase. She opened the glass doors and grabbed the first edition of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Charlie had given her that one Valentine’s Day, exactly one month after they first met.

Praying that the box contained enough memory, she took one more tour about the small cabin. Grabbing her toothbrush and a few other toiletries, she approached the door. She was about to turn around to say goodbye, but stopped herself.

“Damn it, Elise, it’s not going to burn. Be positive!” She was surprised at the anger in her voice.

She opened the door, and stood there gaping at the scene in front of her. Flakes of ash were falling all around her, and the sun burned orange and huge behind the barrier of smoke. Her eyes burned, and she coughed at the acrid smoke. Running to her truck, she threw the box in the cab of the truck, noticing the layer of ash that covered everything, including the windshield. Frantic, she sprayed the windshield and started up the wipers. But it only made a mucky mess, and seemed to attract more flakes of ash. Holding back tears, she paused before pulling away from the cabin, the windshield wipers pathetic in their frenzy.

25 May 2011

Mourning the End of Second Grade

Most kids are delighted at the end of the school year, looking forward to a couple months of family vacations and relaxation. And my kids definitely are excited at the prospect of the lazy days of summer. And yet, tonight when I gave my daughter, Arden, one last good night kiss to her as a second grader, she began to sob. She didn’t want to be a third grader, she said, because that would mean leaving her beloved Mrs. Y behind.

Arden has grown so much this year, making giant leaps into chapter books, writing poetry and stories, challenging herself to catch up to her best friend in leveled math. She’s received accolades and awards, and truly has had a wonderful year. And I knew she was attached to her teacher. Heck, we all are.

Our older daughter was lucky enough to have this same wonderful teacher for second grade as well. And Madeleine suffered a bit in the transition to third grade too, missing Mrs. Y terribly at the start of that year, even wishing aloud that she’d been “held back” so she could have another year with this brilliant teacher. And I remember that years before, Madeleine had refused to hug her preschool teacher on the last day of school, because she thought that if she didn’t say goodbye, it wouldn’t end.

Mrs. Y is one of those rare teachers who is able to find a lesson in each and every moment, one who knows that the most important ones can’t be measured by a test. She’s been teaching for decades and still finds wonder everywhere. She is one who teaches with such finesse, such enthusiasm, and such artistry, that I believe that I could learn a lot from her. I wish I could spend more time in her classroom, just so that I could absorb some of her magic. And everything she does, she does with an abundance of love and contagious joy.

Still, I was surprised that Arden was so upset. She’s always ready for a new challenge, easily bored, and game for most adventures. I thought third grade would be right up her alley, especially since one of her favorite things to play is “high schoolers.” And yet here I was, consoling her while she wanted more time in second grade.

Many years ago, when one of my daughters received her first helium balloon, she played with it all evening before she went to bed. Of course, when she awoke, the helium had dissipated, and the balloon no longer floated, but bobbed along the floor: now just an ordinary balloon. She was upset, and couldn’t quite grasp why her special balloon was no longer special. And I tried to explain, gently, that what made the balloon special was that it didn’t last long. Its transitory nature, the fleeting time with that balloon, was what helped to define that moment as something out of the ordinary. Fireworks, birthdays, special vacations, and so many temporary moments are special precisely because they are ephemeral.

And while an entire year with Mrs. Y doesn’t really qualify as ephemeral, it is time to move on to new challenges and adventures. Tonight Arden and I talked about bittersweet feelings. How it’s ok to feel sad about leaving second grade while also being excited about summer and the new challenges she’ll face at school next year. About how it’s hard to say goodbye to what’s comfortable and routine. About how it’s a little scary not knowing whose class she’ll be in next year or whether her friends will be there with her. And we talked about how Arden can always love Mrs. Y, and how Mrs. Y will always love her, but that Mrs. Y knows, too, that it’s time for her to move on. And how she’ll still be able to hug Mrs. Y, even when she’s no longer in her class.

Saying goodbye with grace is one of life’s hardest lessons. Letting go and moving on are often some of the most difficult tasks we face in our adult life. If many adults don’t have the skill set to manage this, how will an almost-eight-year-old? And while I won’t encourage Arden to wallow in her sorrow, it’s ok for her to mourn the end of second grade as she figures out how to face her future adventures. I do know that when she steps off that big yellow bus tomorrow, I will be waiting, ready to greet my new third grader with a kiss and a hug.

14 May 2011

Patient Curiosity and Charming Snakes

Several months ago, I wrote about the dead packrat my daughters discovered in the yard. We buried it, and a month or so later, after the snow had melted and the ensuing mud had dried, they went to dig it up, hoping to see its bones. But the burial ground had obviously been disturbed, and nothing remained of the rat except a few tufts of grey fluff. Perhaps a desperate coyote had claimed it for a meal?

Soon after that, another morbid discovery was made in Arden’s horse stable after an especially heavy snow storm. She found a small owl, dead on a white drift. With her unwavering curiosity, she expressed her desire to see this creature’s bones, too. But she had learned her lesson with the rat, and didn’t want to trust these bones to the earth and to the coyotes. And so the owl rests on our porch, in an open cardboard box.

With help from Audubon, we identified it as a screech owl. Grampa John, a wildlife biologist, told Arden she ought to put some insects in the box to help the process of decomposition. Our UPS man, the most joyous man I’ve ever seen – really – was intrigued by the most unusual contents of this box on the porch, and asked many questions about where it came from, what we were doing with it, and why.

And still we wait. The owl appears almost the same as when she found it. The feathers are intact, and if anything has changed at all, it’s the weight. I suppose it is possible for the cold winter air to mummify a bird. The box has been blown about by the April winds, but the owl is still there, on the porch.

* * * * *

Last week, it was Dan who found wildlife in our yard – a gopher snake of more than five feet, sunning itself near the garage. We love these snakes, and think of them as good omens, as lore claims they keep the rattlers away. He captured it to show the girls, and each of us held the snake and let ourselves be charmed by its good-natured indulgence toward us. Ever since he spent a summer snake-sitting as a child, he’s kind of wanted a snake as a pet. But ever since I learned that some snake species can live for thirty or more years, I’ve said no. I can make a lifetime commitment to a person – and even to a fellow mammal – but I’m not sure I can make one to a snake.

The snake reappeared shortly after we’d released him into what remains of our woodpile. In the meantime, we’d noticed no shortage of squirrels around the house – which did not bode well for our budding garden. We’d trapped one squirrel but had seen more, and had also found the hole they called home.

Dan caught the snake again, mostly to see if he could make it interested in the squirrel hole. With one flick of its tongue, the snake must have sensed its potential meals, and it disappeared down the hole. Not long after, the girls, who had been playing outside, yelled to us that they’d seen two squirrels running as fast as could be.

During an evening game of hide-and-seek, the girls noticed the two squirrels again – dead now, victims of the snake’s appetite. It appeared that this was truly a case of the snake’s eyes being too big for his belly. We disposed of the poor critters, and man, we love our new pet snake.

07 May 2011

Endurance

When I first read Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl, I was just a little older than my oldest daughter is now. For me, like it is for most people, the book was devastating and inspiring, all at the same time. I came back to it again and again throughout my pre-high school years, looking for hope and courage in Anne’s words. I moved on to Elie Wiesel’s Night, and other Holocaust books – some biographical, others fiction – and I still read every single one I can get my hands on.

Then, it was a search for understanding, a desire to find courage and resilience in the terrible, unjust lives of people who were simply trying literally to endure. Now, I think I read more out of a sense of responsibility, a need to bear witness to these events which seem so long ago. I have had the honor of hearing many Holocaust survivors speak, and each time I am reminded that these were real people. They were just like you and me, but were targeted and victimized and murdered, for the simple reason that they were somehow different. Except they weren’t. Different, that is. They were people.

And so, when I learned that a Holocaust survivor, Thomas “Toivi” Blatt would be speaking in Prescott in honor of Yom HaShoah, or Days of Remembrance, I wanted my eleven-year-old daughter to join me.

When we arrived at the theater, I was surprised – and pleased – to see such a large crowd assembled, and then I worried that there wouldn’t be any seats for us at this ticketless event. We somehow made it up through the line, and were escorted to a pair of seats, and the ceremony began a few moments later.

Prayers were said, a short film was shown, and then candles were lit by local educators and librarians to honor victims of the Holocaust. Survivors in the audience were recognized: there were more than a half dozen. And then Mr. Blatt entered the auditorium. Even at 84-years-old and walking with a cane, Mr. Blatt looked like he could take on most members of the audience and walk away unscathed. The details of his ordeal during the war are in his book, From the Ashes of Sobibor, which I haven’t yet read, but his story was a completely different kind of Holocaust story from any that I have known.

I’ve heard Holocaust survivors speak at schools, both when I was a student and since I’ve been a teacher. Last year I heard the story of a man who hid in the woods in Belarus for several years during his early childhood, among the armed partisans depicted in the film Defiance. There was the harrowing account I heard in Tucson of a woman who detailed what she lost. The most difficult loss, she said, even more difficult than losing her entire family, was losing her dignity. How, she still wondered, do you reclaim that? Her story was emotional and raw, tearful and angry.

But Mr. Blatt’s story is none of those things. His story is one of cunning and courage, of risk and audacity. The creative ways his family survived – up to a point – and the lengths they went to in their attempts to save their son were surprising, including purchasing documents to permit him to travel to Hungary in his early teens, where, they hoped, he would be safe. All was going well on the train until he was deemed suspicious, and while his papers checked out fine, the Gestapo guard somehow knew that young Mr. Blatt was a Jew. I wish I could relay the humorous exchange between Mr. Blatt and this Nazi who insisted on personally checking if Mr. Blatt was circumcised, but I doubt I could it justice without a Yiddish accent. Mr. Blatt is utterly human, but somehow larger than life, too.

Mr. Blatt and his family ended up at Sobibor, not far from their hometown village, or shtetl. Sobibor, in eastern Poland, was not a concentration camp like Auschwitz or Dachau. Sobibor was a death camp. Most of the Jews that were taken to Sobibor, including Mr. Blatt’s family, were immediately gassed after disembarking. Mr. Blatt survived because he was chosen to be a shoeshine boy for the Nazi guards.

In October of 1943, the Jews at Sobibor carried out an aggressive plan inspired by news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They killed the Nazi officers of the camp in order to escape into the woods. Mr. Blatt, age fifteen at the time, delivered false messages to lure some of the officers into situations where they were ambushed and killed. Half of the Jews - more than three hundred - were killed in the attempt, and while the remainder escaped, less than fifty ultimately survived the winter and the last eighteen months of the war. Mr. Blatt is one of six Sobibor escapees still alive today. The successful escape was so embarrassing to the Nazis that within days, Sobibor was closed, razed, and a forest of trees was planted in its place.

I was honored to witness Mr. Blatt’s story, and while I think my daughter struggled to understand this old man and his strong Yiddish accent, she was pleased that she went. This spring, she had studied the life of Eleanor Roosevelt for a living history project. And by listening to Mr. Blatt, my daughter was witnessing the story of someone whose life experiences had led to what Mrs. Roosevelt called her “most important accomplishment:” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. My daughter was able to hear Mr. Blatt’s story straight from his mouth and to have history come alive for her through his experiences.

And so here’s to the power of our own personal histories. And here’s to the continuity of history and the power of connecting the dots between historical events and across generations. And, most especially, here’s to the strength, resilience and endurance of the human spirit.

23 April 2011

The New Old School of Egg Decorating

I couldn’t remember the last time we’d decorated Easter eggs. My daughters have only done it a few times in their lives. And so, after seeing Soule Mama’s blog on eggs, I thought it was high time we tried it again. But having been inspired by Soule Mama’s crafty inclinations I thought we’d try using some natural dyes. I’ve never met this women, who lives on a farm somewhere in New England, where she sews and knits, photographs, writes books, and does so many beautiful things that make me wonder why I’m sitting in front of the computer screen (again!) instead of learning how to do something.

As kids, my siblings and I decorated eggs every year, if I recall my childhood correctly. We were dyers of the Paas School of Egg Decorating. How I loved to drop that colored tablet into the vinegar! Easter, to me, always smelled like boiled eggs and vinegar, rather than chocolate and lilies. We were pretty traditional in most of our designs, using crayons and rubber bands to illustrate our egg canvases. And usually, even our dad would join us, often late in the game, making cool multi-color eggs that made us all wish we had a few more eggs to color. And our mom would usually indulge us by letting us dye any eggs – even raw ones – that remained in the house.

It is definitely more work to make our own dye, and the process of dyeing took a lot more time than it would with the kit. It wasn’t a short activity by any means; in fact, eggs were in the dye baths for several hours, so it wasn’t the greatest activity to do with young kids. Arden got bored, but came back to check on her eggs several times.

To make a pink dye, we used beets. Coffee, of course, will give you a yellowish-brown effect – I tried not to think about what my daily habit is doing to my teeth! Red cabbage makes a beautiful blue dye. And red onion skins resulted in a very cool mottled greenish effect that was more dramatic than anything we could have achieved with a kit.

I was reminded of a framed poster my grandparents had hanging in their house, which had illustrations of various native-to-Arizona plants and small swatches of yarn that was dyed from parts of those plants. For a time, my grandfather was into weaving and even dyed his wool.

This process of making dyes was an experiment that made me think of how we – as a society – have lost a lot of skills and knowledge about how to make things and how to do things. A few generations ago nearly everyone had a garden, was an artisan of sorts, understood how things worked (and therefore could fix them), or created something that was a necessity for others. It was far more than a hobby or craft. We’ve ventured away from that for the most part, towards offices and desk jobs and computer screens. But the good news is that there are lots of people out there who do know how to make and create all kinds of things – and many of them write books and blogs about it.

What new “old skill” might you learn?


09 April 2011

Pressed

Another pot of coffee pressed while
the snow piles softly against the panes

and our pajama’ed daughters drive small
vehicles of even smaller creatures

about the house, racing to appointments
here and there, they play at being us.

The snow grants reprieve, an excuse
to stop and wait, not pressed, unlike most

weekends when we rush toward whatever
it is we do: mostly, it seems tasks

not accomplished during the week.
Yet in today’s quiet Saturday

morning moments we linger: these we
yearn for during the chaotic pace

of work’s week, these that are pressed in a
book of memories banal but desired

still because they usually flee,
chased off by a cycle of trite to-dos

that drive us from our cozy bed, but
where this morning, your head on the pillow,

I watched you sleeping, and traced the
imprint of your heart, pressed into mine.

30 March 2011

The Promise

There are mountains of clichés,
piles of poetry, all proclaiming:
The Promise of Spring.

And no small wonder, really.

Winter casts a bitter, dark spell,
never-ending below-freezing nights,
frost coats all,
the drab trees, naked,
shivering minus their green garlands
the dull skies, the clouds uninspired, and
even the tall grasses are dead,
lying forlorn and horizontal.

The tomb of the world seems cast open,
with little chance of redemption
or rebirth
Winter’s death creeping, shadowing
over all

Somehow the crisp air
the yellows oranges reds
the blue skies of October
all faded to the same lame, deathly grey
without even a rattle to mark their passing.

And we retreat indoors,
we scurry, preparing for holidays and
family, gathering together in the warmth
of the hearth and the stove
brightening the nights
with artificial lights whose symbolism
we may not recall.

We plod
through the later months,
dulling the ache with chocolate
(is it possible to be homesick for the sun?)
this pitiless wind rattles our windows
and whistles down the chimney

Until

One day

I notice incremental changes:
a haze of green at the tips of distant
branches, which yesterday, yes! just
yesterday were still only grey

then the pink buds appear on the plum trees,
sunny daffodils materialize from earth,

But

not until
this morning -
when I go out looking
(again)
and I see,
finally,
that from the lifeless vines
on the arbor,
red green shoots have emerged,
strung tight as a gyroscope,
ready to twirl open -
can I exhale for
the promise kept,
once again.

11 March 2011

Her Bittersweet Burden

My daughter Arden has worn an eye patch for the past four years – more than half her life. For between two and four hours a day – and sometimes as many as eight – she’s covered her strong eye to give the weak eye a workout. We were cautioned early on not to call it her “bad” eye. It’s not bad. It’s just weak, and the hope is, that through patching, the weak eye will gain enough muscle strength to track the way it’s supposed to.

It seems easy enough. But that’s a lot to ask a preschooler. And now she’s a second grader. And still patching. And it is easy now. She knows the routine. She reminds me when I forget. She knows – and I mean knows – how much she’s gained by wearing her patch.

Four and a half years ago, Arden’s preschool teacher – who was also trained as a nurse – pulled me aside and told me that my daughter had serious issues with her vision. I think her exact words were, “She has no vision in her left eye.” She urged me to get her to a pediatric eye doctor right away.

I’ve always pictured myself as a (mostly) rational parent. I think I know my kids pretty well. I think that I am a pretty good judge of what they are capable of and what their limitations are. And, being a teacher, I figured I had a pretty good edge on believing what other teachers might have to say about my own kids.

And yet, even as this woman was talking to me, a little voice inside my head was saying, “Yeah, right! Not my kid!” I just couldn’t believe that my offspring might have an imperfection.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when another, more lucid voice in my head, one which had been nagging, finally broke through the incoherence: “Maybe Miss Renée is right. Maybe Arden can’t see.” And so I plopped my daughter onto my lap with a stack of CD cases nearby. I told her we were going to play a little game and I wanted to know what she could see on the CD cases when I covered up each of her eyes. I covered her left eye, and she played along. I covered her right eye, and held – I can still remember this vividly – my French Café CD. She pushed my hand away with her own chubby, dimpled-knuckled hand.

“Mom, I can’t see when you do that!”

Of course, the shock, dismay, and panic that ensued are all tragically commonplace. We took her to a local eye doctor who confirmed the nurse’s findings, explaining that her brain couldn’t reconcile the conflicting images it was getting from one eye so strong and the other so weak, so it essentially shut off the weak eye. He took very cool photographs of Arden’s optic nerve in her weak eye, which is covered in what he called “grey matter.” He couldn’t say if that was a cause of her loss of vision, but her eye was slightly “lazy” too, and he referred us to a pediatric specialist who prescribed the patch.

Oh, those first days and weeks with the patch. They were difficult. Because with the patch on, she could not see. At all. And it was so very scary for her. And how do you explain to a four-year-old that something so scary is actually going to be good for her?

But we all marched forward; sometimes all of us wearing a patch while she wore hers, a show of solidarity although I wasn’t sure if she could even see what we were doing for her, with her. We bought her cool patches, decorated with ladybugs or pink camouflage. We found patch posters of fish and princesses that were designed to display her used patches – a gold star chart for the visually impaired.

Once, on the way to school, she heard the word “burden” in a song. She asked Dan what the word meant, and upon his explanation, she said, “Oh. My patch is a burden.”

At first, she couldn’t see the Christmas lights I eagerly tried to point out to her on the way home from gymnastics. And then there were little glimmers of improvement and success, like the day in the car when she told Madeleine and me that the traffic light, fifty or so yards ahead, was red. Hearing stories from adults (so many!) who saw her patch and had to tell her that they had worn a patch as a child and could now legally drive without glasses. And every three months, a visit to the doctor, who confirmed that yes, she was improving. And who urged us to keep patching, double the hours, it’s working!

There were stories, too, of children who weren’t as lucky. Who were facing surgery as their best option. Who refused to wear the patch, or peeled it off when their parents weren’t looking. And also, stares from curious kids, the looks of concern and pity from adults, and questions like, “What’s wrong with your eye?”

To which my brave girl would reply, “I’m a pirate.”

(Disclaimer: I relish in the bewilderment that would pass across the faces of these well-meaning, but sometimes nosy adults.)

All the while she was improving, sometimes incrementally, sometimes in leaps and bounds. But the weak eye still lags far behind the good, even with her glasses on. And even though I know I’m not supposed to, I really, really want to help her with her eye chart while she sits in that too-big chair at the doctor’s office.

Her last few appointments, however, she’s shown no improvement. And we knew this was coming. The doctor had told us that the effectiveness of the patch would begin to wane somewhere around age seven. And so at her appointment earlier this month, we were told that we could begin a “slow wean” from the patch, backing off to three hours daily. At her next appointment, we’ll see if she’s maintained her gains in vision, and I imagine, back off a little more.

I welcome the end of patching, I really do. But I do so with a sense of wistfulness that surprises me. I want her to be free of that burden. She has gained vision through her own diligence and sacrifice. And that’s a huge gift to herself. But at the same time, the end of the patch means the end of improvement. Her vision won’t get any better once she is permitted to stop. And that will be a bittersweet celebration.


27 February 2011

Michelangelo, Mother Teresa and Me

I started this blog one year ago. It was a pretty scary proposition, initially, to share my writing. Those first few weeks, especially, questions swirled in my mind: What if you didn’t like what I wrote? What if I ran out of things to write about? What if none of you cared enough to read my posts? And, most of all, what if I am a horrible writer?

What if what if whatif whatifwhatif?

Writing is intensely personal, like any creative art – it is part of me out there on the proverbial page. But let’s put all those clichéd metaphors about how difficult it is to reveal one’s flabby, cellulite-ridden self aside, because I’ve learned that I am a writer. It’s part of who I am and what I do. A year ago, I couldn’t say that. But to make a connection with a reader – to say something that resonates, that touches, that gives voice to what we feel, fear, or find meaningful – brings me great personal joy. It’s as gratifying to me as hearing an audience burst into applause is for an actor or musician. It’s a quiet joy, though, most of the time.

But that’s not why I write. I think I must write. I can’t not write. And while sometimes writing looms above me like a chore, it’s not. I’ve come to think of it more as an obligation – to myself. There were times during this year when I wanted to stop. But then one of you would comment or share your thoughts, or agree, – or even better – disagree, and I would find the energy and inspiration to keep my eyes open and really, really see a poem, a story, an idea, emerging, unfold its almost indiscernible wings and take flight. And I’d have to follow where it led, sometimes shocked, and nearly always surprised, at where it would take me. Which actually makes it sound too easy. It is difficult, time-consuming work to write. There are switches that must be flipped on, and others that must be turned off. A segment of time must be carved out of my already-too-busy schedule, and to do that, I must remind myself of one of my all-time favorite quotes:

Don't say you don't have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein. – H. Jackson Brown
I can hardly put myself into the same category as those brilliant human beings without laughing hysterically (in fact, I’m sure you sniggered at the pretentious title of this blog), but that quote always reminds me of the potential of one. One person. One goal. One minute. One word. If I can focus on that, and just begin, and write just one sentence, then I can usually create enough momentum to propel myself a bit further down the blank page. Michelangelo & Co. didn’t have anything that any of the rest of us can’t gain by focus, desire, and determination. Or, at least, that’s what I learned from David Shenk.

I’ve started on a novel, inspired by the huge compliment one of you gave me this fall. And while its ideas and storylines are still too green and malleable to share, it’s coming along. If I hadn’t found the courage to share what I’m writing, I wouldn’t have been the recipient of the encouraging words that have permitted me to breathe life into some interesting characters that I hope will connect with you sometime in the future.

So, thank you, thank you for reading. I hope that you have gained something from being a reader. You have given me far more quiet joy than I will ever be able to repay. And, in case you’re wondering, the question that pops up most often in my mind these days is this: What if I did tell my stories?


20 February 2011

The Snow Moon

The snow moon rises east
of the Cerbat Mountains,
the bright yellow disk
luminous in
the mellowing-golden-pink-tinged blue

From the west, fingers of graying cirrus
reach above and eastward,
portents of a winter storm

Fringed with
dark peaks and punctuated with
yucca, cholla, and power-
pole silhouettes of pure black against
the fading light,
the Mojave is far more
beautiful at evening without
the harsh glare of the sun

The snow moon diminishes as she
rises, bleaching herself white,
accompanied by
noisy stars twinkling in
conversations beyond
the scope of human ears, until
finally she completes her silent ascent
in the blackness overhead


06 February 2011

Fingernail Moon

You saw me huddled
with the Others around the
fire pit in
the darkness on the edge
of the winter desert
on the edge of the bright city
just within a sphere of light
and heat.
The Others, laughing drinking
talking daring calling
within the glow and warmth
sharing that
superficial
camaraderie that emerges
easily after a few.
In the black blackness
of the starless sky,
I caught a glimpse
of you smiling,
suspended,
a darkened sphere
with just
a sliver of silver
light without heat
hanging
like a shiny spoon,
and I wanted to call
to the Others,
Look! The moon!
but I sensed the Others
were
not like me
and so I did not,
did not share.
The Others
laughing drinking
talking
did not,
did not notice
our secret:
you smiling at me from
far across the sky.