Sunday, February 25, 2007

God is in the Details

I live in a busy neighborhood just behind a very busy highway. It is rare that I don't hear the sound of cars and trucks buzzing here and there on their way north or south. My school is in a quiet neighborhood that is near a busy city, and within earshot of two busy highways. To many, it wouldn't seem like an inspiring place to live. It's handy to where I work and what I need to do with my life, but on first glance, it wouldn't inspire sighs after its picturesque setting.

And yet every day there are natural reminders that this world does not just belong to mankind and its inventions. There is still a natural world out there, a natural beauty that puts in its bid for my attention. Whether it be a sunrise or a sunset, the stark, naked branches posed against a brilliant blue sky, or the male cardinal singing me into my car each morning, God is in the little details that lift my eyes, ears and thoughts upwards.

Photos: Sunrise over the playground last week; Sunset out my living room window several weeks ago; the view from my office window where a pair of cardinals have taken up residence.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Spring in the midst of Winter

It is very clearly still winter here. My windows are rattling from the wind pounding against them as I write and there was snow to brush off my car this morning. And yet there are signs of spring on this side if not on the other side of the wall.

When I went to the local farm stand for tomatoes Wednesday, I was tickled to see piles of pussy willow on one table and bunches of daffodils still tightly budded on another. There were larger bouquets of small sunflowers as well.

Of course I bought some. I had to. And now they perch precariously on the coffee table in my living room, just waiting for one or the other of my curious cats to knock them off. Lately I've not been able to have flowers anywhere but high off the floor and away from anything they can jump on, that's how much they need to tip vases over.

For now, though, at least while I am near by to shoo them away, I have left the flowers at eye level to enjoy. So far so good.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sunrise over Kruger National Park

I've taken hundreds of pictures of beautiful sunsets all over the world. Sunsets that span the sky as far as the eye can see. Sunsets peeking through trees and over mountain tops, sinking into lakes and rivers and oceans. Sunsets of icy-cool blue-tinged yellows, of fiery-red pinks and browns, of veregated oranges shot through with gold.

But it's not of glorious sunsets that I want to write. It's not the myriads of days dying into West that stand out in my mind's eye. It's the rare sunrises I've seen that have stopped me in my tracks, that I can count my days back to...

Remember that sunset on July 5th, 1993 when we were waiting for the gates to open at Kruger National Park? Remember the blush of pink that crept up ever so slowly on the horizon, the molten gold that spread across our sights? Remember the stillness around us? The hush before daybreak? The aching calm of it all? Remember how we watched, breathless, as the pastels deepened into jewel tones, too overcome to even look at each other? Remember how the silence became a hum, then a hiss, and then a song as the sun's warmth began to wake the birds and the bees, began to stir the sap in the brush, began to seep into our skin and melt away the chill of that pre-dawn morning? Remember grabbing my hand, still not looking my way, and saying "Let's not forget this sight, this feeling, this day"?

That was more than a decade ago. I have no picture of that sunrise except as it's burned in my memory. And yet I have not forgotten. Not one single detail.

[Written during the Memoirs of the Soul writing retreat.]

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Fly Like an Eagle

I want to fly. Not like a bird necessarily, although that would be cool enough. But not enough to be a bird. No, I want to fly. Fly my own plane. Be that independent, that bold, that calm in the midst of life-threatening activity every second aloft.

I don't know why exactly, because two of my great fears are of speed and of falling, both realities of flying. Maybe it's the control part. Maybe it's the no boundaries, no borders part. I don't know. I dated a pilot for a couple of years. Not an airline pilot, although he does that now. No, when we dated he worked for a small charter company in Maine where he flew millionaires wherever they wanted or needed to go or did moose counts for the Department of Fish and Game. His idea (and mine) of a great date was to hop in the Cessna and do take offs and landings on a couple of lakes or buzz down to the family picnic 100 miles south of us.

But I loved flying long before that. There were the months of reading every flier biography I could get my hands on: Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Lindbergh, Denys Finch-Hatton, Beryl Markham. My favorite movie scene comes from Out of Africa where Denys takes Karen flying across the plains of Kenya. I love the soaring, sweeping vistas, and the oh, so romantic gesture as he reaches for her hand, the wind wildly whipping their hair and scarves around their heads while the zebras and giraffes lope along below. One of my favorite classical pieces is Ralph Vaughn-Williams' The Lark Ascending. One of my favorite poems is John Magee's High Flight that describes how the young fighter pilot has "slipped the surly bonds of earth...put out his hand and touched the face of God."

Oh yes, I want to fly. I want that glorious rush of taking off, of climbing the sky into the clouds to the sun and that rarified air. I want the joy of the skylark rising at dawn, singing exuberantly until it is out of sight. I don't want to be earthbound. I don't want to be chained to expectations of anyone else's plotting and planning. I want to chart my own path, make my own flight plan. I want to go when I'm ready and leave when I feel the need to move on. I want to rise above the mundane, bask in the heat of the sun. I want the perspective of God without the burden of responsibility.

Oh yes. I want to fly. Fly like an eagle with that prospect view. Fly like Amelia or Anne without the loss or the hurt. Fly like Denys with complete abandon and independence. Fly like Charles without fear. Fly like Donny with joy unbounded. Fly like John in the presence of God.

Memoirs of the Soul

I drove down to the Cape last night weary from a long week full of meetings (albeit good) and travel (albeit interesting). I was tired from the strain of long-carried burdens and sore (from my soap-operation of the morning). I did not know what to expect of the weekend, although I did expect to feel comfortable and comforted at the very least. I've been on a WriteLines retreat before, so know the purpose is to come away feeling empowered as a writer and nurtured as a person. Already I've felt both.

It started with the food. Eating out as a vegetarian is always risky because you never know what's really in the food, even if it has "no meat." Earlier this week in Corpus Christi reinforced that. Fortunately, the retreat director knows and understands my parameters, and so instructs the retreat hosts accordingly. Last night, the woman prepared a lentil-pumpkin stew for me that was truly delicious. How did she know that lentil stew is a favorite of mine (since second grade when we were studying Jacob in Bible class and our teacher made us lentil stew so we'd have an idea of what Jacob had traded his inheritance for. I always thought that even though it was a seriously unequal trade, the stew was almost, but not quite, worth the longing.)? Of course I've never had it with pumpkin. Now I'm wondering why ever not?

The first writing session lasted 3 hours and introduced the six of us (another came this morning) to each other. When I write with groups, especially with strangers, I'm always hesitant to give away too much until I hear how vulnerable they're willing to be. This group of women gave away quite a bit last night. Most more than I. They shared some of the heartaches and tribulations they'd gone through in their lives. One had had brain surgery, another had lost a grandchild (via miscarriage). Some had left their church behind, others were struggling with relationships.

And then there's me. Looking back, now, on what I've revealed, I'm wondering what they know, or think they know, about me. Of course that's not the goal. More to the point, what have I come to know about myself so far? We've now had two 3-hour sessions and written four rough pieces. And here's what I've learned (or been reminded of): I am a blessed person. My life is good and centered and filled with love and support. I have purpose, and I have promise...and plans for the present as well as the future. That's more than many, and better than most. That's what surfaced for me by the end of the morning.

Photos: Harbor Inn, the guest rooms of the Evensong Retreat Center; a garden decoration; the door to my room (#5 on the right); Margaret's Walk, a labyrinth at the back of the retreat property; and the pillow on my bed: Bloom where you are planted.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Soap gets in your eye

This morning, in an effort to simplify my weekend retreat, I decided to wash my hair, and I chose to use a different shampoo from what I'd been using recently. Apparently the container has been unhappy about its neglect because it decided to unleash a glob of shampoo straight into my right eye. For a good five minutes I was in severe pain, unable to even open the eye to flush the soap out. By the time I got it free from shampoo, the damage had been done. My eye has been red and puffy ever since. Oh, and painful.

I spoke with an eye doctor who said just to continue to flush it with water throughout the day and it would clear up within 24 hours. Problem is I had a 3-hour drive south later in the day, and I didn't want to have to drive with a sore, sometimes hazy eye. Twelve hours later, though, here I am at the Evensong Retreat Center, sore eye and all. The eye is still red, and the drive wasn't easy as a result, but I'm here, and I'm ready for some serious retreating.

Photos: The carnations we got at The Olive Garden on Valentine's Day in Corpus Christi; my room at the Evensong Retreat Center.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sunrise...sunset in Corpus Christi

I've not been overwhelmed by the beauty of Corpus Christi...except in the sunrises and sunsets. Those have been quite lovely. My sister and I have both been disappointed in the weather and the surroundings otherwise. I don't know what we expected, but I think we at least expected sun, warmth, and birds. Except at the extremes of the day, we had no sun, it was warm only compared to what we left, and the only birds we saw were gulls and grackles or magpies (or something loud).

People I've mentioned this to are surprised that we aren't more enamored of the area. Our aunt and uncle come here often to go birding. One of our superintendents and her husband used to come here birding. A friend we met at the conference came here for vacation. Actually chose to come here! We don't get it. Perhaps we have too much New England in us.

I flew from Houston to Corpus Christi with the Mid-America Union Director of Education, a friend of several years. He lives in Nebraska and was commenting on the landscape we were flying into. He said it was quite similar to what he's used to...flat, flat, flat. I asked if he gets claustrophobic whenever he goes to a place like New England. He said not really, but when he goes home he realizes how open the space is where he lives, and it feels strangle freeing to be able to see for miles. I'm reminded how Pa in the Little House books needed to have space to breathe, how he needed to leave the Wisconsin woods for the wide open plains of Kansas and Missouri...

The meetings have been good. Today I learned some amazing things about the changing demographics of our country. It was most amazing to see things I'd thought laid out for me in graphs and charts and numbers regarding the impact of immigrants and generational shifts. Things I know in my gut, but now have back me up. All very interesting.

My sister and I spent yesterday evening and this afternoon exploring the area. We didn't find much, but did make our way to Padre Island yesterday and the USS Lexington today. We had more fun than we initially thought we would. We also went out to lunch today with a friend at the Olive Garden where they gave all the ladies carnations for Valentine's Day.

Meanwhile, snow in Massachusetts. And no school. wouldn't you know it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

A Wrong Righted

One of the more startling things that has happened to me in quite awhile came sometime this afternoon while I was waiting for the afternoon marketing session to begin. I was sitting next to my sister minding my own business when someone said in my ear "Can I ask you a question?" It was a former boss. His question: "Are we friends?"

We went on to have a conversation I never expected to have, and didn't really know entirely how to carry out. He wanted to know if we had parted as friends and said it had bothered him for years to think that we hadn't. The truth is I do not remember the details. I remember the hurt and discomfort, vaguely, but not the details. I don't really want to remember them and so I told him "what's past is past. I've moved on." And in reality, it ended up being a good thing for me to have moved on, even though it was painful at the time.

Moving on meant I had a year of working on my PhD at UNH under teachers whose work still impacts on my life. Moving on meant I had two years of traveling all over the world with the New England Youth Ensemble. Moving on meant I met people, formed relationships that changed my life for the better. People and events that never would have happened had I stayed. Important things, life-changing things...all because I moved on.

He asked my forgiveness. Told me I was the best English teacher he ever worked with. That was surprising (and secretly pleasing) news. I had no idea he felt that way. I hope my response was gracious enough to let him know I had forgiven him, too. It can't have been easy for him to have done that...I'm not sure I would have done it... It is a relief to me, thinking on it now. I hadn't realized what a heavy burden I've been carrying until I set it down this afternoon.

Pictures: Well, I've been trying to upload more pictures of Corpus Christi, but they won't post right now. I'll try later.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Corpus Christi

I've never been to Corpus Christi before, but now I find myself here for 5 days. It's a marketing conference, which may or may not be interesting, but will definitely be helpful to me in my work.

The cool thing is that there are lots of people here that I know. People I've worked with before here and there across the country. One, I even dated for awhile. He's the keynote speaker.

I was all set for some warmth and sun. So far it's been cloudy, rainy, and cool, although it's still some 40 degrees warmer than it was when I left home this morning.

My hotel room has a balcony that overlooks the harbor. The pictures are the view I have. The first two are from when I arrived in my room around 5 p.m. The second two were taken about about 8:30 p.m. after a long dinner at a Thai restaurant that had hot, pretty food. There were 10 of us at the table from all over the country. It was a lot of fun. Tomorrow should be more of the same.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Passion gets some Backup

Have you ever known something from your gut? I mean deep down believe in something so strongly that it’s part of your core being? That’s how I keenly feel about what I do. That’s how I passionate I am about my school and what we stand for. I’m sure it’s the same for my colleagues who work side by side with me every day.

Being passionate about what you do and who you’re doing it for is usually considered a good thing. It often means that your work is not just a job, but a huge part of your life. That kind of passion can be a good thing, but it usually isn’t very objective. And when it comes to judging the quality of the target of your passion, that kind of subjectivity is somewhat suspect to those who need entirely unbiased criteria by which to make such a judgment. Your passion, in essence, rules you out as a viable critic.

That’s why it’s a joyous day when you have facts to back up that gut feeling, that deep-down core-of-your-being passion. Such a day was mine earlier this week when I sat in a meeting and heard the preliminary results of the first year of testing in a massive three-year study of the cognitive abilities of the students in school system across the country. I wasn’t alone. There were a couple dozen educators with me who were privy to the report the directors of the new study our school system is doing is doing. So far, the news is outstanding. So far, the results indicate that our efforts not only hold their own but our students are performing even better than expected in all subject areas and on all grade levels.

What an empowering experience it was! How validating to know that our work stands up!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Blizzard of '78

Twenty-nine years ago today "the grand-daddy of them all" blizzard buried New England under more than two feet of snow. Thirty-three hours of straight snow. It was enough to paralyze the region for days. I was in college at the time. I remember when it started. It was beautiful. The air just filled with pretty snow flakes. I remember skipping across campus with my boyfriend, happy at the sight of a beautiful snow fall. Little did we know how that snow would develop. When it finally stopped and Main Street was plowed, the snow was so high on either side that houses could not be seen. I remember being able to step out of our second story window and fearlessly jumping into the snow not too far below us without fear of injury. Our dogs got lost in the snow, sinking out of sight as soon as they stepped outside. Snowmobiles were sent out to take doctors and nurses to hospitals because they couldn't get there by car. It was terrible, but in many ways very cool. And beautiful.

Today, barely a whisper of snow. We had some Friday night and a bit of it is still around because it's been too cold to melt. I'm missing it even more remembering the blizzard of '78.

Friday, February 02, 2007


Some music just gets your heart racing. Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 "The Italian" last movement makes me want to all but yell (in a good way). It's based on the tarantelle, a traditional dance 6/8 or 4/4 time characterized by the rapid whirling of couples. I'm listening to it right now and my head nods wildly and impulsively, my feet beat their own tattoo and my fingers itch to fly over my clarinet...fingers that know this piece intimately...fingers that have played it in smoke-filled concert halls and marble-floored hotel lobbies...fingers that have slowed down in recent years from a reluctant but unavoidable musical idleness on my part thanks to the additional responsibilities in my life. As I listen, my mind is a whirl of memories as well. Shutting my eyes, I see myself on stage somewhere in China...Hangzhou maybe, or Xi'an, or...where doesn't really matter. I feel the adrenaline that comes with playing a piece like that, full of runs and twists, and you're the only one on your part, and you don't want to mess up...catching the eye of the violist who sounds like a huge rumbling bumble bee...trying not to lose your place in the midst of the sheer enjoyment of being surrounded by sound...such a sound...what a rush...

And now it's done...before I can write a good paragraph, the melody races off to be heard only in my inner ear, mostly likely for hours to come. Music like that stays with you...

Thursday, February 01, 2007

To Be or Not to Be

I'm just finishing up a unit on Hamlet with my seniors (tomorrow, in fact). I've been teaching this play for some 20 years, although I change up what I do each year to keep it fresh for myself. Some things don't change, though. For example, I always have the "to be or not to be" discussion at some point during the unit. I'm always prepared for the discussion because it usually happens when I decide it's going to happen (dictated, of course, by when we arrive at that particular scene in the play).

What I'm never prepared for is when I have that discussion with a student...for real. Three times this week, I've found myself on the listening end of students who wanted to kill themselves. It's not a new experience. It's been happening since my first year of teaching. But it does not get easier with each time like some things do. It is always shocking, always frightening, always unspeakably sad.

It doesn't happen often in the small Christian schools I've worked in. But it has happened in each of them, and somehow, for some reason, the question seems to come my way, more often than not. This week, three different times I was helping kids wrestle with the age-old question. What was new about the first two times is that it was a six year old posing the question. What do you tell a six year old who says he wants to kill himself, who says "I don't want to be in my life"?

Faced with that question first thing Monday morning somehow shifted my whole focus, not only of the day, but of the week. I've not been able to shrug off the unbearable sadness of that little voice saying to me that his life was miserable and he wanted out. At the time, I just put my arm around him and told him that I loved him, and so did Jesus, something that I couldn't do with the 17 year old boy twice in my office today with the same question, "what's the point of living"?

I have no handy philosophical conclusion to this entry any more than I've had one all week long. Except this one thing that I know for sure. Kids need someone to listen to them. They need to know there are adults who respect them and care about their present and their future. I don't always have answers, but I do have time. Time to let a kid know they matter to me...and to God. I can't take away the pain and misery from their lives, but I can give them a moment's respit. For the six year old, it was enough for that day. For the 17 year old, it was a start. For me, it was a reminder of why I am where I am, doing what I do.