Somewhere in Brazil a bunch of people stopped their car on a highway, got out, and signaled other drivers to hold off so that a very large snake could cross the road. When I saw the video, I was amazed at how calm and calming the humans and, to some extent, the snake were in doing what it took for the snake to arrive at the other side. It also made me happy to see members of my own species, known for how often we get it wrong when it comes to the more-than-human world, get it right. Such moments help me re-ignite my faith in this world.
Which leads me to a wedding — not of anyone I know personally but of a writer I admire, Anne Lamott, who, three weeks after she got her Medicare card, married writer Neal Allen. As she told the New York Times, the one thing she still wanted in life was a good marriage. At age 65, she got it. Shortly afterwards, she tweeted, “So never, ever give up, because God is such a show off.”
There are things happening all the time that can tip us toward greater faith in what’s possible and what’s actually even happening, and most of which don’t involve big snakes or fabled weddings. Despite the horrors and heartbreaks, bad decisions, evil renderings, and apathy resulting in terrible suffering, there’s also this: small acts of goodness or big leaps into love. There’s the incessant smell of lilac all around me right now as I type on the porch, my own marriage giving me so much inspiration and strength for a long time, and a so breeze lifting and releasing the cedars and walnut trees. There’s new green and old green unfurling and a whole lot of bird song.
There’s also the baby snake I carefully tricked the cat into releasing from his mouth so that the snake could live (and live outside our house). Grace abounds, and believing in a better world helps us glimpse it, shepherd it across the road, or meet it at the altar.
Emily Dickinson writes, “I started early — Took my dog.” In my case, I started late and took my croissant, and unlike Dickinson, I wasn’t looking for mermaids in the basement of the ocean or fleeing from the silver-tongued tide. Nope, I was savoring one flowering tree after another, that and buttery layers of flakey wonder.
Each spring, I hit the pause button on my life at some moment, and if I’m smart, many moments, and head out into the neighborhoods to worship at the fleeting faces of magnolia blossoms. Some weeks later, after the frost has zapped those magnolias brown-edged and fallen, I mosey along the lilac. I’ve also done lily-of-the-valley walks because those tiny white bells hold whole worlds of exquisite joy. This year, with winter holding its ground far later than usual and a sluggish spring, everything exploded into blossom at once, so a few days ago, I parked the car near the Barker Street bakery, got my provisions, and headed out into the blossoming world.
Instead of a somewhat orderly procession of daffodils before tulips and magnolias before redbuds, this year, everything is showing off at once. Turn a corner and behold! Lilac is just starting beside a spread of tulips. Cherry trees are partying on high, one happy hand of pink piled against another. Grape hyacinth sings the song of its people below a bevy of flowering dogwood and against the backdrop of Rhododendron (what are you doing so far west, Appalachian flowers?). From the ground, covered with thousands of slips of Bradford pear paper petals, to the heavens, framed with interlocking purple, pink, and white, the world is blooming faster than we can comprehend.
It’s also changing wildly fast after winter’s long dormant stretch of snow, ice, gray skies, and sudden jolts down in temperature, all of which makes life seem more monolithic than it is. What’s peaking today will be hollowing out in a week. What’s just opening its doors, flower by flower, will soon dissolve or fall away. That’s why I write and walk into this most springs: to acknowledge that yes, this is remarkable even if seasonal, and yes, we’re alive to bear witness to more than just the grief and insanity of the world.
Tomorrow, if I’m not an idiot, I’ll be the one walking slowly, phone in hand, to take pictures of what’s shining, to paraphrase poet Li-Young Lee, blossom to impossible blossom. I might even be crawling along the sidewalk to smell the lily-of-the-valley. Each bundle or spread or hidden conclave of flowers here, in all their power, demand no less.
Daylight Savings Time, beside being a kick that keeps kicking our sleeping patterns for a while, heralds a kind of lightening up, particularly if, like me, you’re not an early riser. For those of us sleep-until-it’s-been-light-for-awhile slackers, the time shift surprises us with more light at the end of the day, but I also experience this time of the year as a weight off my shoulders. Winter, which took up big-living residence in the house of time this year, is showing signs of packing some of her bags. Crocus, tinier than usual because of the cold, are unfurling. Birdsong sweetens its tune each morning. The temperature is playing tennis in the 40s, even the 50s, and dare we say the low 60s too. Sometime in the near future, there will be magnolia blooming, and then within a month, lilac.
I’m also experiencing a lightening up in my life. For the first time ever, spring break has no relevance to our lives. Daniel, who is finishing up grad school, isn’t coming home this time because of thesis-writing and internship-working. No one else is bursting through the front door with backpacks, suitcases, and leftover six-packs of craft beer either. We’re not packing or unpacking from a spring break trip either.
Mostly, though, my work is lightening up, and by that, I don’t mean the time involved but the weight of the work. I’ve realized that work hours weight variable amounts, some light and airy like beach balls, and others heavy and dense like medicine balls. Still on leaving from teaching, I’m juggling more beach balls: leading more workshops and retreats, writing a short-ish grant, planning new writing and consulting adventures, and, as one friend wished for me, finding my wings. Achieving lift-off necessitates shedding what’s no longer needed, then leaning into the thermals — the best winds that will give me lift-off — and letting go.
Today, I go for a long walk with Anne and Shay the dog. Then an open evening, and perhaps time to draw more birds as I teach myself more about playing with colored pencils and really seeing the contours and colors of what else takes flight. The sun is leaning hard against the clouds and may soon break through, reminding me that yes, little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter, but now there’s something lighter — in temperature, weight, and sunlight — coming.
So even if this morning required twice as much coffee or longer stretches of sleeping in for you, I wish you a daylight savings time that truly helps you discover more shining daylight in your life and more saving graces in your time.
As life has repeatedly, February is the longest month. Maybe it’s the overwrought repetition of cold, ice, and snow after months of winter. Maybe it’s the shy hints of spring to come — often snow drops before they get snowed under, or days like Thursday, when Harriet and I walked unfettered by heavy coats andg ear in 55 degrees — before the heavy hand of the winter storm warmings land again. Maybe it’s more personal because this is the month when my beloved father-in-law died (10 years ago as of the 10th) as well as my dear friends Weedle and Hadassah died during the shortest month that is anything but short.
Yesterday it snowed, enough so that much of my area of the country was closed to all but those intrepid drivers who ventured out while the accident blotters grew. Tonight, maybe some freezing rain. Tuesday, more snow. Our local school district has now had so many snow days that even the teachers I know are jonesing to get back into the classroom.
But it’s not just snow and ice flying around in single-digit winds. February is often when I see the most winter birds, having tried of thrashing against winter enough to just watch the bird feeders and Cottonwood Mel fill with juncos, black-capped chickadees, cardinals, bluejays, flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and usually at some point soon, bluebirds. Squirrels stand on the deck railing, ferreting out the leftover black sunflower seeds. The deer bravely slink across the field to surround the bird feeder too while we hold the anxious-to-protect-us-from-them dog by his collar and tell him to chill out. Yesterday, in the middle of the whirling snow, it looked like a scene from Snow White outside our living room window while beef stew made its way to perfection in the crockpot and I whipped up a batch of applesauce muffins.
As the first February in 23 years that I’m not spending half the month at Goddard at a residency (on unpaid leave this semester), my view is uninterrupted (although Vermont does February seriously). When the sun returns, like right now pouring over my typing fingers as I watch a chickadee hop across the snowy deck, I forget the length and weight of February. Instead, I see how much there is to be with right now. Spring will come, but here is the continual flight of winter wrapping us in its surprises and surrenders.
I started teaching when I was 26. It was English 101 at the University of Kansas, a gig I figured would help me get through graduate school so I could cozy up with my real calling: writing. A funny thing happened on the way through the classroom: I was instantly smitten and soon discovered that teaching was just as much my real work. I regularly told my students, struggling with essay-writing on demand, what I told myself as a writer: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going. It served us all well.
This fall (starting July 1), after 64 consecutive semesters, I’ll take a one-semester leave from teaching I’ve taught through pregnancies and childbirths (although my children had the good sense to arrive either at the very end of spring semesters or in the summer). I’ve graded papers while balancing a nursing baby. I’ve lecture-paced across classrooms with a baby in a backpack. I’ve fit classes into kids’ school schedules, and later kept teaching because they were in college, and their part-time jobs, loans, and scholarships didn’t cover tuition. As the years unrolled, I taught through chemo, surgeries, my father dying, and later — right in the middle of a residency — Ken’s father dying. Teaching was the backbeat of my adulting and middle-aging tap-dancing and couch-surfing moves and collapses.
Because Goddard is a horse of a different color, I’ve been able to teach at this Vermont college while living in Kansas and sometimes in my PJs. I’ve flown and back forth for 11-day residencies to Burlington Airport, my heart always warmed by the sign on the hanger proclaiming “Green Mountain Boys 1776,” and my gut occasionally trembling when I read “flight delayed.” I’ve adventured in the high seas of travel, once even taking three days to get the right combo of flights after being overnight-paused in Manchester, NH and Laguardia. But the flying is a small part of it: I’ve attended 45 residencies that start with two days of faculty meetings, then lift up when the students arrive. While there are ample wonders, the pace is often exhausting, and only once did I arrive home without instantly getting sick.
Most of my Goddard work entails packets — reading long (like sometimes hundreds of pages for thesis projects) — packets of students’ exploration, research write-ups, creative work, studies, and other bells and whistles. My life has been doled out each semester in three-week intervals when packets land, and I’m off to reading them and writing each student a long-individualized letter, often on my front porch or in the living room, and across many a coffee shop, airport, doctor’s office, or other places I’m paused long enough to pull out the laptop and work.
Mostly, I loved it, even when I didn’t. Starting a conversation with a group of students when I’m sleep-deprived (oh, wicked residency insomnia!) often turned into a revelation for all of us. Beginning a packet when I was mildly annoyed by a student using “it’s” and “its” wrong always morphed in my heart melting and mind expanding at what they were unearthing in their lives and the world. Then there’s all the administrative work I’ve done over the years, which I didn’t love as much but brought me so much satisfaction in seeing what good could come from attention to detail, hard-won collaboration, and taking institutional leaps of faith (such as launching the Transformative Language Arts concentration in 2000, and very soon launching the PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, which I’ve chaired the committee of for three years).
Why have I not taken a sabbatical, you ask. If only! The places I love to teach aren’t the sabbatical types unfortunately, so it’s been either show up and teach, or take an unpaid leave. This time, to my great surprise, when I was in the tub on Memorial Day, I suddenly realized, “I’m going to take a leave!” To my greater shock, when I sat down to see if finances would allow that, I caught up with myself: my subconscious has obviously been planning for me to take a leave because I’ve arranged all this extra work, some connected to the Miriams’ Well tour, and a lot more involving community writing workshops and the like. So I pulled myself together (truly), and started announcing, with great glee, that I was taking a break.
The world continues to give me green lights, but not “green-as-in-go,” more like “green-world-beckons-you-to-pause-and-just-be-with-it” lights. I stare into the magnificent Osage orange and cedar trees all around me, or up through this sycamore yesterday and exhale slowly. In three or so weeks, I’ll be caught up with the end of this semester (our semester officially ends mid-June), and I’ll lean back into the spaciousness of not teaching for a while. Then come winter, I’ll pack up my bags and happily march back into this work I love. I’ll tell myself: Don’t think. Pay attention. Keep going.