Saturday, December 21, 2013

Each for what they are

“Sometimes you meet someone, and it’s so clear that the two of you, on some level belong together. As lovers, or as friends, or as family, or as something entirely different. You just work, whether you understand one another or you’re in love or you’re partners in crime. You meet these people throughout your life, out of nowhere, under the strangest circumstances, and they help you feel alive. I don’t know if that makes me believe in coincidence, or fate, or sheer blind luck, but it definitely makes me believe in something.”— unknown

I have a fool's understanding of the beginning of the Universe, my untutored lens on the nature of its existence peppered with romantic ideas about particles and their attraction. But I love my ignorance, as it allows me to believe what I believe to be the electricity of deep connection, particles from the beginning of time reconnecting, people finding in another something elemental, fundamental, paired, true. It's a coming together of things long ago separated. It's attraction that is undeniable, electrifying and real. 

There is little in the world that matches the feeling of finding belonging in another, and little that matches the exhilaration of allowing yourself to open up to make that connection of deep friendship. This, for me, has happened with only a handful of people in my life and, as my life has progressed, I've grown less available to that possibility. I've been less willing to put myself out there, more afraid of investigating a connection to a new friend that may not fit and to have to back away, awkwardly, from relationships that aren't meant to be. There is a fitting to intimate friendships, as if your heart is made more whole upon connection and diminished in multiples upon loss. If you let it, the losses cause your heart to calcify; to look with a prejudiced eye at the attempts of others; to resist your own awesomely joyful and open nature; to tamp it down, lock it up, seal it off.

But the truth is that they are there, these connections well-worn and those not yet hatched, even if you try to keep yourself from them. Sometimes they last a lifetime or two, sometimes they intuit when you need them, sometimes they are moments in your life stitched together just for the moments that they are. You leave the ones that don't work out behind and relish the ones that stay. You chip away at the calcification and warm up the veins. You recognize each for what they are and for what they bring to your life. And you are grateful.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Fat With Promise

One of my favorite memories from childhood flickers in my mind in dappled 70's film light. My friend Jill and I roaming her family's farm, playing in her treehouse, eating a picnic her mom made for us, fighting imaginary crimes. The group of  kids we played with at school were avid fans of superhero play, shaped mostly, if not entirely, by our television experience of the comic book stories.

I was thinking of this memory the other day as my work partners and I were talking about our favorite characters that we had growing up. Those days with Jill had a funny pattern for me. As would be expected, Jill would want to be Wonder Woman. And, of course, I would want to be Wonder Woman too. I mean, who didn't want to be Wonder Woman?
Or, rather,who didn't think that she was supposed to want to be Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was good, she had a strong spine, she did the right thing with a very focused look on her face. She stood tall.

Catwoman was bad. She had a whip, she enslaved men's minds, she wore that damn hot suit that would forever shape my fashion choices.

But, with another girl around, there was the option of being Catwoman if I wasn't Wonder Woman and I really, really, really (although fairly secretly) loved being Catwoman.  I remember wrestling with this idea constantly.  Not wanting to be Wonder Woman must be should want to be the virtuous, good, solid character; the person who does what is right. Wanting to be Catwoman was definitely showed that other side that nobody gets to see, the side that likes to be naughty, shades of grey between the stark black and white of Batman. Delicious.

Thinking through this little-person-starting-to-grapple-with-fucked-up-whore/virgin-bad/good-guilt line of reasoning and all of the fallout that has gone with it, something just finally clicked. [I mean, Jesus, I am 42 years old and it finally just clicked.] This warring of my two sides has been with me for as long as I can remember. I live with it in spades every day. It's the me that wants to get up to go to yoga every day but hates the virtuous air of what yoga seems to be about. It's the side of me that likes to drink bourbon until late in the night and shake my ass to funk, even though I know I should be home. It's the me that wants to be a perfect mom, but the me that loses track of time and shows up late. It's the chaos muppet in me that my order muppet tries to corral. But, in truth, it is the manifestation of intense creativity that lies within me that must be allowed to prowl. It's the me who comes up with irreverent ideas, the me who speaks her mind, the me who is passionate and fierce and loyal. The one that the more she is constrained, the more she needs to claw herself free.

I am not sure why it has taken me years and years and years to come to terms with this idea and the bigger question is what to do with it. I'm fairly sure this is as common as dirt and that a million dissertations in feminist theory have been written on this experience of young females along with the gazillion theories of why young girls love horses, but I'm going to play here, unlock it a bit, try to find that place where Diana and Selina can co-exist; lighten each other up or calm each other down.

They Gather Their Courage and They Give It a Try

You can’t buy a simple pad of paper in the New Orleans airport. Paper as it exists here is either the kind of list pad that has “hot & spicy!” or “Jazz!” written at the top, or comes in the form of a lined journal with biblical quotes at the bottom of every page. So I’m destined to write this post with my thumbs. Maybe God is telling me I should have gone with the journal.

Another door closes today as my treatment in New Orleans comes to a end with the embellishment done by a guy named Vinnie from Baltimore who has a penchant for beautifully made hats. We talked about home tattooing and PCP trips and stories about his youth as he tattooed my tits. Tittats. Tittats™ could be a great marketing schtick except that Vinnie is known as the Michelangelo of areola tattoos and needs no marketing help. Vinnie, who is incredibly cool and lovely to talk to, is flying to Memphis to check out a hat store tomorrow. Tittat™ business is good when you are talented. Thank God for the likes of Vinnie. Maybe there is a bible verse for that in one of those little lined journals.

I’m feeling all sorts of sassy and consternated here in New Orleans, gathering all of my memories to tally them up and close them out in a last-chapter roll finale my experience here. It’s humorous that I went from flashing my tits in this fair city to getting flash-worthy tits in this fair city. That’s something I’ll put in the thank-you note to Vinnie who tells PCP stories but not likely to my drs who might find my tit-talk a little off-putting, a tidbit I gleaned not only from their demeanor but also from the Romans 5:1-5 quote in my parting gift. And so it rolls.

There are things that wrap with this trip. Now the next four years stretches out before me as I am done fiddling with things. I have to put all of this fiddling aside and live in the present because being in the space of still having medical things to distract me is over. I have to dig in and realign where I am. I have to settle into the reality of now. On the way back to the airport today, I listened to my cab driver speak about his life. He poured out his story, this man, about his daughter who had cancer, about his wife who was depressed for losing her mother a year ago, about the spot they found on his lung that he’s not sure what it is. And all the while he holds out hope, this man who had lost his restaurant to the hurricane and who was driving a cab even though he was proud to mention that he had a college education. This man who came from Iran and was delighted to tell me that the Persians prefer butter to olive oil in their cooking. He told me about Jesus and hope and his confidence that I would be fine. “Eat oregano and garlic and onions!” he said. “I believe you will be well!” he shouted as he craned his neck out the window. “And Jesus! Don’t forget Jesus!”

I’m eating blueberry granola on the plane and wondering if there is really gin in my G&T. I’m winging my way back to Michigan, leaving all of this behind. I’m flying without net. I’m flying onto what is next. I’m flying.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Frank. True. Honest. Real.

I wrote this post about a month or so ago, right on the heels of the dream I described. In that time I had begun to believe that the things I was writing here were too goddamn depressing, that there was no joy in anything I had to say, that people didn't want to read shit that made them cry.

Which lead to me not posting. Which meant that I wasn't being true to myself.

And then I got an email from my friend Lara last night, a long-ago woman with whom I shared a voyage around the world that will forever be imprinted on my mind. Lara is a kick-ass woman and kicked me in the ass to post again. Because Lara is not afraid of scary things. She's not one to need to mark of sunshine and optimism on everything. She just deals with things as they are. At least this is what I remember of her,  and loved about her, those many years ago.

So here we go again. Some things not so lovely, some things will be. It is what it is.

Every once in awhile, there is a dream so vivid and real that I can't erase it from my eyes. Stark-still morning leaves me reliving the flashes and images that the soup of my brain has created the night before: some delicious and gorgeous and sensual and beautiful; others deep and lasting and disturbing and filled with resonant worry. Last night was one of those nights, delivering to me the dream that I've pushed off and aside for the past three years.

I can remember the colors in the dream, deep sapphire blue, lime-emerald green, white...all outlined in a contrasted black...and the incredible realness of what was going on. Frank. True. Honest. Real. Sitting in this dream, watching it unfold, participating in the scene, I believed that it was really happening.

That's because it can. And might. Which is what I thought of in my dappled-sunlight morning, swaddled deep in the sheets, unwilling to peek open to the new day.

It was the first dream I've ever had about getting cancer again, a recurrence which is pretty much a death sentence in the triple-negative world. See, I've never checked the stats, never typed "likelihood of survival after recurrence triple negative breast cancer" into the google jackpot to learn about my fate. My sister mentioned it once, the likelihood that I wouldn't survive another bout, but I plugged my ears and danced around until that voice in my head was gone.

But this dream was the real deal, it was sitting in the hospital getting the news, it was the reality that I was going to die, not a question of if, but when. Fuck. So real, so very real that I did type in those words and my sister was right. Likelihood of recurrence? Much, much higher than other hormone-receptive breast cancers. Survival rate after recurrence? 10%. Survival time? Average of nine months. Nine. Months.

I can't begin to understand what it means to die from breast cancer. My mind goes into overdrive trying to picture it in my head, what it would look like and comparing it to my mother's death from lung cancer. What happens? How do you die? What happens to your body? Who are you in that space? And in nine months? Nine months...on average?

I've lived the past two years in a daze, half denying that I ever had breast cancer, half denying that it can or will come back. It's comfortable, this denial, until you are lying in your warm bed completely awash in the reality that you very well may. fucking. die.


That something fundamental has happened in your life that threatens your existence in a way that you can't resolve. That you may be that life cut short that people cluck their tongues and shake their heads about. That all of your bravado and feeling good and pushing past the looks of people who know your story may be total bullshit because you may get this again and have to make decisions that are horrible all to extend your life by months...months, not years.

I suspect this reality check is something that every woman who gets breast cancer goes through. I know friends who have had recurrences who are there and are winning. I know few people who have died from this disease. But I have watched my friends and loved ones waste away from cancer. I have watched the bizarre deceleration and crippling otherness of an otherwise vibrant life.

Honestly, this reality is too much for me to handle. It's bankrupt. It's the end of the road. It's the edge of the universe. I can't wrap my head about what it would mean. And I want to believe it won't happen to me. But I'm not that arrogant and I am just that pessimistic.

So how do you live when that veil has been lifted? Does it change anything? Is it just roulette? Isn't there some huge life revelation that I am supposed to get from "holy fuck, I really may die?"

All I can keep with me is the blue and green of the scene, of the movement of people through the film in my brain, of the feeling of reckoning that stayed with me in the dream and beyond.

Final. It is what it is. No way around it. Real.

I wish there was some big pledge at the end of this post, something that would tell everyone that this was going to be ALL RIGHT and that things will be fine. But I am just going to sit with this reality for a bit because I need to, it's been too long that I've pushed it away.

Friday, September 6, 2013

And in and out of weeks and through a day

For my friend Lara Turchinsky, with whom I have sailed vast oceans. Thanks, my friend.


“And [he] sailed back over a year
and in and out of weeks
and through a day 
and into the night of his very own room
where he found his supper waiting for him
and it was still hot” 
― Maurice SendakWhere the Wild Things Are

My mother used to remark that every time she sat down in a movie theater, she would fall asleep. These were in the post-Dad-dying days where her burdens were heavy and, I suspect, nights restless. We would load into the car during that hot Oklahoma summer and in the cool dark of the theater she'd drift off until one of us would gently nudge her as it was time to go.

In the darkness of the music auditorium I have a similar experience. Away from handheld devices and computers diverting my attention,  from conversations and questions and things needing to be done, I let my mind drift and wander. I visualize my life in snapshots and pictures. I let the music seep in and replenish the dry landscape of my harried mind and heart. Within this space, I have learned to let go.

Tonight I spent a good long while with a blue-period painting projected on my mind. Eyes upon the back of a woman sitting in a small boat, the water is flat, the sky and the sea enjoined in one monotone color. An arial view shows no land. There is no wind for the sail. There is no obvious way north, south, east or west; no clear direction and nothing propelling the boat forward.

It's not a frightening scene. Just dead quiet glassy water, humidity so thick you can feel it in your throat, close. It's a scene that is wistful for a cool breeze and for the clouds to part. It's waiting. It's not knowing how to get moving or which direction to go. It's not knowing what land will look like when you hit it. It's not being afraid of what you will find but confused about how you will get there. It is being alone in a vast sea, and either waiting for someone to come and tow you in or figuring out how to do it yourself. It's a lot different than being a leaf on the stream.

This is what my life feels like now. I can blame it on cancer and its aftermath. I can blame it on the stress and pressure from every side I feel so acutely that it pools upon my skin in bumps. I can blame it on loss and distrust and the feeling of being alone in the world. But the reality is that no matter the cause, it is a long journey of sailing back over these years that will take me to the place that I can call home.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

circuitous routes

Steering through the small streets, squinting to remember the color and shape of houses I had seen just a week before, I used the Force to find my way back to the little white bungalow, perched in tree-lined shade on streets ordinal in number and alphabetical in line.

Ten days earlier I had arrived in Portland, skinny as an abandoned cat, grief-stricken, bereft and sad, newly repatriated after a dismal end of a romance over 9,500 miles away. I had come to take shelter in the warm home and friendship of my best friend and her husband, to stay a few days and renew, be with people that knew me best. Now with as much as I could cram into my car, I was heading back to start a new life.

I could fill up a page with words describe my friend: hilarious, brilliant, daring, feisty, creative, sharp as a whip, mischievous, unpredicatable, predictable. Equal parts beguiler and revolutionary, she had a personality that drew you in and held you fascinated. And, damn, was she funny.

We had a history of weaving in and out of each other's lives, taking long pauses after angry words, always reconnecting to be thick as thieves once again. Our friendship spanned decades, growing from the tumult of high school, through moves and loves and heartache and distance to new marriages, children and the fine crackling of expectations that accompanies a newly minted life. The many things that have shaped my life since that fateful decision to move to Portland (my husband, my career, Seattle) all hold her mark.

In short, I loved this friend. She was my constant, a phone call twice a day habit that I had grown both to depend on and to appreciate. Ours was one of the most important relationships of my life, not a girl crush but a deep and connected friendship. She was a taproot that held me fast in who I knew myself to be. I can hardly think back across my life without the best stories coming from our time together.

Five years have passed since this friendship ended abruptly and without obvious (to me) reason. For a time, I figured that we'd just run aground of something, that we would circle back into our relationship once again whenever what ever it was worked itself out. A year passed, then two, then my mother got sick and died, then I got cancer, and now I am here on another shore of living, the phantom feeling of someone missing popping up at moments when I feel most unguarded.

Because losing this friendship has been unmooring, disorienting, anxiety-provoking in ways that I'm just staring to unpack, I have decided to reach out to her, just to say hello and tell her that I am sorry if I did something wrong. I've decided to put up or to be prepared to just let it go. Thinking about this gives me a tightness in my chest that reminds of my six year old self trying to swim the length of the pool in a single, long-held, under-water breath. I feel my lungs burning and know that this is a surfacing that has to happen even though I want to continue to kick against it. But it's time to tidy things up, know where they stand, let things come full circle once and for all.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


For the Dead

I dreamed I called you on the telephone
to say: Be kinder to yourself
but you were sick and would not answer

The waste of my love goes on this way
trying to save you from yourself

I have often wondered about the leftover
energy, water rushing down a hill
long after the rains have stopped

or the fire you want to go to bed from
but cannot leave, burning-down but not burnt-down
the red coals more extreme, more curious
in their flashing and dying
than you wish they were
sitting there long after midnight

–Adrienne Rich

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tracking Back

I've been given the gift of time this summer. Time and space and a small place to work through some things that have been nestled under my brain like the eversoslight pea that makes the princess' slumber impossible. This is the first time I've had this kind of space in over 10 years, the constancy of an infant or two and the well-worn path of life tying me close to home.

In this time, I've been tracking back over snow-glazed expanses of land looking for landmarks, broken branches, bootmarks in the snow to figure out how I've gotten to this place blank with light, somewhat foreign, white earth and cloud-embanked sky turned upside down. My inner compass has become shoddy to shot, so I stop and hunker down, try to devise a plan to lead myself out of this snowblind space. It's not all bad. It requires me to trust myself, to get back to my native skills, to remember what those I trust have taught me. It's good here, because against this blank palette my gut is returning. I am requiring myself to begin anew. The woman who was emerging from the salt and sea but a year ago now is bathed in snow, a mikvah of frost, the cold breath against warm lungs leaving me panting. I can keen and mourn here. I have to just be with myself here. I have to sit and take things as they come.

It's good. It's good. It's neither lonely nor scary nor inhospitable. It's space. And for as sterile and remote as it feels, it's beautiful. I am thankful, so thankful, just for the opportunity to breathe, to see, to wonder. I am thankful for the chance to appreciate, to reconcile, to dig back in, to shake things loose in my brain that I have stuffed away for so long. I don't fear the blankness, I revel in it. It's a reset, renewal, starting anew.

Over the next rise is that small, warm shed.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lush with Potential

Thick dark pens, rows of them lined up according to fine or broad stroke, to color, to permanence. Rulers, lots of them, and watercolors and colored pencils the likes of which my aunt used to ferry back and forth from Europe to delight me as a child. White paper, tracing paper, rough sketch paper bound up in books for one's pocket. Tools for the hands, making visible ways of seeing with eyes that are fresh and new, untrained and excited, quiet.

I remember watching Nick build his store of art supplies for his foray into the study of landscape architecture. I was envious of his haul, of the boxes that would arrive daily from Dick Blick, reminding me of my highschool years where I would buy paint tubes upon pens upon sketch books just simply to have them nearby. I was never an actual artist, my fear of muddling the page or of looking foolish thwarting any desire I had to create something beautiful and meaningful. So the supplies sat on the shelf until they dried up or were given away. I watched in those months as Nick's natural talent emerged, his careful hand and attention to detail producing draft upon draft of spaces rich with meaning and lush with potential.

This Fall I begin a program of making, in a sense, having been accepted to a Masters in Design Methods program that will take me every other weekend to Chicago. I'm nervous, having been on my back foot for the past few months doing work that is not my strong suit and looking to a future where I have to take the pen to the page to create in a way beyond words.

The months leading up to this program are also a study in stillness, of seeing, of quiet, of reflection and introspection and all of those things you don't get to do when you are caught up in family and life and clutter and the distance that can separate you from your true self. I have been given the gift of time and space to sort things out. I have been given the opportunity to peel back through some blank pages and search for the words written in invisible ink underneath. It's beautiful and weird and heartbreakingly thanks-giving at the same time. I am awash in tears at the generosity of it all.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Today is one of those days that social media kicks your ass. Smiling faces of fathers beaming out of pictures with their children, grandchildren, exotic locales, dinner tables, weddings, you name it. I know there are a million stories behind those smiles, not all of them pleasant and certainly not all of them oft repeated in family conversations, but they are there, those fathers who still get to hug children and cook steaks and dance that awkward dad dance when they've had too much scotch.

After the great loss of 1987, I used to call my mom on Father's Day, just to be funny and say thanks for shoring up the ship on both sides. My mom was a helluva single mom, although calling her that seems weird given she had the means to raise children without financial panic. But digging deeper, I realize that being a single mom means much more than financial security. It was her going it alone, dealing with children who weren't easy to manage in a life too lonely sometimes. Single parenthood was more about relying on the network of friends who loved her dearly for moment of confiding and support. It was about being the rock for four kids who were navigating the terrain of being fatherless far earlier than they ever meant to be. She was dad and mom in one, Suz Hard as Nails. And a damn good both at that.

My children delight in their father, an amazing man whose gift for parenting is something he inherited from his own father and from whom I hope my son will learn. This is a day for recognizing that, rather than sitting afloat in the unanchored waters of a parentless life.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tomorrow: back and forth

My little dude stood at the front of the room, two cinder blocks holding up a piece of plywood. I could see him breathe in and out a few times, rehearse in his mind the movement and then go to strike. Strike means putting his little paw through a board.

A board. Breaking a board.

I kissed these hands tonight. They are small, somewhat gamey and dirty...who knew they could be the delivery of such power.

D has been in martial arts for five years now. In that time, I have seen him grow from a kid who was unsteady and unsure about engaging to a force to be reckoned with on the mat. I love watching him work through the forms that require memory and patterning. I love watching him bring power and precision to something he loves. Mostly, I love that this is a space that has been a constant for him for five years. A great teacher/master/mentor, good friends who practice with him, work that his body and mind know well: all a part of this journey he's been on for five years. When you are approaching 10, 5 years is half of your lifetime.

Tomorrow he goes for his black belt. There have been essays to write, there have been pictures to take and forms to brush up on and patches to be sewn on. It's a beginning, not and end, but it feels like a huge mile marker in this little guy's life. It started in Kindergarten and we are here on the brink of middle school. So much has changed, but he remains the still amazing boy.

Good luck tomorrow, chico. We love you.

Monday, May 13, 2013

From Inside the Center

I began to write this post ages ago and then read a post from one of my favorite yoga writers. It's really the essence of everything I wanted to say in a single line:

And a constant feeling of being broken open from inside the center of the chest, to everything. Everything.  -Inside Owl

Flat on my back, eyes closed, I'm summoning the courage to move my hands into position. Then, moving my feet in towards my sits bones, I pause again, playing into the nattering around the edges of something when that something needs to be done but the will isn't there.

Now I'm thinking about why I am pausing, what is holding me back from lifting, arching my back, leaning into my outstretched arms, moving into full Urdva Dhanurasana (Wheel pose).

Now I'm thinking about how this thinking is really an excuse to pause more.

Finally I push up, fearful, and feel the familiar pull of too much scar tissue, the shakiness in shoulders and legs, the arch of an unseasoned back. I push forward onto my hands and breathe through five inhalations and exhalations. Sometimes my teacher comes to brace my shoulders and pull me deeper into the pose. By tradition, I'm in it for two more and by the end I'm lying on the mat, nearly in tears.

I've been spending a lot of time wondering why I am so scared of the Wheel. Different theories, mostly about my physical nature, abound:  I don't trust my own strength; I fear that my arms will fail and I will fall on my head; I know the feeling of the scar tissue stretching freaks me out.

But in the great-grand scheme of things, this asana is an exposition on fragility, of evolving, of pushing out, of trusting oneself, of asking others for support and of finding the opening that leads you forward. It is opening your heart, being vulnerable. It is flexing your spine that has grown rigid and static. It's brilliant and scary. As I do it more, it doesn't necessarily get easier. In fact, it seems to get harder, in many ways, to hurdle the fear and push into it anyway.

But I breathe and go, breathe and go, breathe and go and then let myself take it in, this feeling of discomfort and fear that so clearly mirrors the interior of my mind.

To everything. Everything.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Motherless Day

For Denise, in particular.

I am declaring a new National Holiday, Motherless Day.

It's a day where the legions of us motherless daughters will meet in a beautiful place to grieve. Tents will crop up with signs outside that say "Lost The Best Woman Ever", "Unresolved Shit", "Denial", "Guilt", "Sadness", "Struggling to Be the Woman She'd Want Me to Be", "Grief", "Will Never Be the Same". Inside there will be Listeners who know when to nod, when to hand over tissue, when to comment. Listeners are alumnae of the former year's camp who come back year after year because it's never over. Because nobody knows like another motherless daughter.

There will be special sessions on "Surviving that Fucking Hallmark Holiday" both for motherless daughters who have no children and have to suffer through a day of total reminder of every inch of loss and for daughters who themselves are mothers and have to plaster on the smile knowing that their own girls look to this day as a day to love someone who someday will be no more.

Screw the Avon walk. I want a Motherless Day.

At night we motherless daughters will make mad feasts of our mothers' finest foods. Comfort food like Velveeta and rotel or Chicken in Wine sauce or delicious tenderloin cooked to perfection and topped with a cold bernaise. We will tell stories of how we learned to cook at our mother's elbow, just as I taught my girl today, or how our mothers were lousy cooks but could order like champs. 

We will make the first toast to our lost mothers with their favorite mother's little helper: chablis, cheap scotch, valium... spanning the years of Halston dresses and power suits and jogging suits and nightgowns that we remember from our youth.

But most of all, we will wander this space of lostness, of being cast slightly adrift in the absence of that anchor that moored us. But we won't be alone.

It's a big tent. Come on in.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sometimes you have to polish the duck

the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

-ts eliot

Tomorrow I start a new job. Well, in the tradition of my re-de-re life, it's actually starting a position partnering with my friend and long-time collaborator Joanna on a extending our community's vision of awesomeness for the kids' school, Summers-Knoll. 

The past few weeks have been equal parts mourning leaving my old job with wonderful friends and building excitement for what is to come. This new position stretches me in ways I need to be stretched and requires me to think through chain reactions in ways that I haven't since I was an executive director of a small and fragile nonprofit in Portland years ago.

Contrary to what you would think, I don't like change. Big words for a woman who used to pack what she could in her car and drive to a new city to start a new life. I am not sure if it's all of the moves that I have made, friends I have left in far-flung places, worry about what lies ahead, but change is sometimes hard for me. Change is good and change is hard but I both crave it and fear it in equal parts. It's working with the change, giving yourself time to understand it and all of the emotions that accompany it, is the key to surviving it.

So tonight I am pondering this starting again, thinking about how to dig in but not to rush in. Thinking about how not to get swept up in what is immediate when the need is there. I am reminded of a beautiful piece I read years ago when D was in a Montessori preschool. It's similar to the environment of learning that I enter tomorrow. Sometimes you just have to polish the duck.


Sometimes You Just Have to Polish the Duck: Lessons for Grownups From a Montessori Classroom

I am continually taught important lessons by my son's Montessori education. Montessori puts a respectful, loving philosophy into practice. The Children's House classroom makes a place that embraces the Tightness of the child's intentions while shaping the child's ability to line up these intentions with action.

How distinct this approach is from what I experienced in my own childhood education. While a few of us might have been defined by the school as "good" or "smart," school was essentially a process that required distrusting and redirecting so that children might be kept "on task" or focused on what they "should" be doing, often ignoring what they would really like to do.

After experiencing a Montessori classroom, I have come to believe the opposite: the classroom structure (and, by extension, the structure of a home) can foster a child's practically innate desire to follow a path toward learning. This environment does not have to shoehorn all children into the same trajectory, but rather sets the stage for each small person to proceed as the way opens for him or her.

The deep trust I have in Montessori comes from experience. My son, Anson, had his first Montessori Children's House participation at age 4, weeks after relocating from California to Wisconsin. His transition to his new school in Wisconsin was at first difficult. He cried each morning before school for several weeks, begging us to let him stay home. I shed tears as well, once in front of his teacher as I mentioned how difficult the morning routine had become. Wisely, she advised us to change routines: what if we carpooled with another child to school? This suggestion transformed our mornings almost from the first day we started driving with a friend. I began to suspect that there might be something to this Montessorian emphasis on environment.

Anson did not outwardly grieve the transition from familiar California to unknown Wisconsin the way we did. My husband and I missed friends and longed for familiar places. After the carpool started, Anson appeared to pass blithely through the day. At school, however, he chose different activities than the other children. Many of the kids his age worked with number chains, created words with the movable alphabet, or traced the sandpaper letters. My son rarely did any of the things his first months in Children's House, at least not to my knowledge. Teachers told me he often watched other children engage in these activities, but he did not participate. Instead, day after day, Anson chose to practice something he learned as one of his first lessons in the school.

He took to the table a small tray containing a cotton cloth, clear shoe polish, and a wooden duck. Then he enacted a simple ritual. Lid removed from polish. Cloth dipped in polish. Polish applied on duck. Lid put on polish. Items replaced on tray. Tray returned to shelf.

"What did you do at school today?" I would ask, violating rule number one for how to start a conversation with your preschooler.

"I wandered around," he would tell me. "And I polished the duck."

The duck, his teacher informed me the second month of school, was well maintained. "Anson likes to polish wooden objects and repeats this often," his progress report duly noted. I silently calculated how much we were paying per month (with what kinds of financial sacrifices) to subsidize our son's wood-shining habit.

This gut reaction arose from the timework messages transmitted to me through my education about what children "should" be doing in school. I mistrusted Anson's desire to learn, longing for him to rush to the things that "kindergartners must know." As parents, we receive messages everywhere about what kinds of evidence our children should provide to demonstrate progress. I jumped to the conclusion that duck polishing was, if not what my son would do throughout his year in school, at least an indicator that he would not create the kind of output necessary to "be a success." In a culture that values product, the seeming passivity of observing others or polishing the duck is slightly suspect. Shouldn't a student immediately jump into producing something, the way I was expecting myself to be producing something in the job I had moved to Wisconsin to begin?

Fortunately, the school's director suggested I read more about the Montessori classroom. I learned that children entering this environment normalize, a term that I understand to mean the way kids figure out how to listen to the loving voice within that just a few years earlier urged them to sit up, walk, and speak those delicious first few words. To normalize, children must learn the structure of the Montessori classroom through participation. Polishing the duck was not just cloth on wood (although I imagine that the textures and smells provided daily comfort for Anson during the transition to all places new in Wisconsin). This task, included as part of the Montessori practical life curriculum, helped to teach the order, both internal to my son and external of him, necessary for working in other areas of the classroom. The repetition done at his choosing provided comfort and confidence during the process of learning to work in a Montessori classroom. One year later, as Anson draws maps, manipulates the addition board, and learns to write, his early period of duck polishing ritual has served him well.

How much better would all of us be if we learned to trust ourselves the way my son did during this time? I am sure that my first year at work would have been less traumatic if I had been given the opportunity to observe and gain readiness instead of pushing to replicate the output of the best years in my old, familiar workplace. We drive ourselves forward, always wanting evidence of achievement. I am guilty of demanding daily proof from myself that I am productive. Another report filed. Another flowerbed weeded. Another project begun.
Nonstop output is not only impossible, but our expectations that we work in this way exhaust us and set us up for failure. Big, "productive" accomplishments, whether learning to read or writing a novel, require a strong, healthy center that cannot be nurtured in the moment of rushing toward task completion. As my son demonstrated, rituals and routines, while not generating output, help create the environment for success and time for regeneration. The mindful pause, as Anson enacted when polish met wood, can help us prepare for future bursts of growth, and help us to rest after completing such growth. I try to remind myself that this step of regeneration is vital. Sometimes you just have to polish the duck.

DARCIE VANDEGRIFT is a Montessori parent and assistant professor of sociology at University of Wisconsin at Whitewater.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What is Your Space Jam?

(for my lovely friend Nicole, who gets and gathers precious things, for whom I am so grateful on the cusp of a very special birthday)

I had a totally different post geared up for today, a whiny little post that whinged about being allergic to the dermabond used in my surgery (I am) and how medical issues make you feel like Sisyphus moving the rock up the hill (they do) and how there is something that feels really, really good about indulging in grousing (it does).

Weeks (months, years) have passed that have left me feeling unmoored, conflicted, vibrant in my skin yet uncomfortable in my skin. Simultaneously glittery and scattered, the glittery overriding the scattered until the scattered snuck in and grouted glittery's floor with stickiness. I've recognized the looming presence of things not dealt with and fought against things I haven't wanted to put aside. Treading water in this space has meant one thing to me: giving up one thing I love and appreciate for another.

I have a number of friends who are in this space at exactly this same time, this washy nebula of options and decisions and meaning making. We are all moving through the deciphering of importance and juggle, how to create something in our lives that compels us, makes a difference, brings us joy, lights up our brains with crazy chemicals, flutters our stomachs, makes us want to lean. in. hard.

And then I finally watched this video that has been floating around on the facebook. I don't know why I didn't watch it before and I don't know why I watched it today. All I know is that the arrow hit just the sweet spot in my heart and it all opened up. I have to make decisions to do something awesome. Yes, I have one wild and precious life. Too short to waste on things that are boring and easy.

Life is not dull, people.

What if there really were two paths?

I'd want to be on the one that leads to awesome.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Final Countdown

Thanks to the omnipresent Let's Dance IV in our house,  I've had Europe's The Final Countdown blasting in my brain non-stop. That means turning over at night only to have that godforesaken song click on like one of those damn musical birthday cards that screeches the Star Wars theme every time you shuffle it trying to clear off the cluttered table top.
But as I lie here waiting for the Lorazepam to kick in, I'm giggling at that song for all of its schmaltzy lyrics. I'm finally on the final countdown,  damn it. One last surgery starting tomorrow morning. No more anxiety dreams about procedures not being done or bad outcomes. One last time under the knife (I hope ). If I were really out there,  I'd post up photos of the crazy writing all over my body. One boob says "this size" while the other has "fat" to mark the spot that needs a little filing in. Whorls and swirls describe various spaces to consider and different procedures to be done.
The map of my body looks like an aboriginal painting, a naked solstice parader's cloaking for a wild ride through Seattle, like God took a big marker to an ikea easel after eating mushrooms. I'm the prototype Eve on second iteration, VanGogh's starry night traced on his lover's skin with a drunken finger, a Spirograph gone out of its frame.
Damn, this Lorazepam is good.
What I will wake up to tomorrow?  Who really knows. My nurse tells me it will take months for my body to completely heal. No yoga for four weeks,  swelling for long after. This is not the body you are looking for all filed with fluid to make it all work.
But it's the last of these. And while I'll be grateful that is over, I'm so much more grateful for the chance to be made this whole again.
So wish me dreams of starry skies and warm embraces and my surgeon a steady hand tomorrow.
Love to you all.