The katydids unify their song, an extended whistle-like tune with small melodic indentations. The cat who shouldn’t be outside is outside anyway, meowing that he wants to be back inside but not really. A motorcycle over the hill and across the field vanishes its song into the higher-pitched hum of the plane overhead. Then it is quiet or at least relatively so.
This has been a summer of porch-sitting, and as eye recovery and associated surprises and lessons continue their roaring hum, I’ve done a lot of porch listening, like right now on this perfect summer evening as the tree frogs shake their maracas in staccato bursts and the fan continues its wind skimming whisper. I pick up my glass of water and take in the brightening and darkening blues of the western sky, rolling quickly toward one uniform color.
Meanwhile, in the backyard, the peaches — sprung from two volunteers trees that came up out of the compost pile years ago — are showing off their fruitful exuberance. An hour ago, I ran outside to take their picture, naked but for a pair of Crocs, while the bathtub filled, picked one small peach, and took a bite. It was delicious and tangy with sunlight while grasshoppers arced around us.
From all directions, summer’w still summering although it’s showing signs, false ones of course, of slowing down and cooling off. But here in the center of this moment and continent, I close my eyes, breathe slowly and deliberately, and land right where the porch, the peace trees, the cat, and I dwell, someplace east of understanding where the earth sings a lullaby to the wounds of the world.
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Arm-in-arm, Vicky, Eduardo, Ralph, and I walked down the snowy country road, belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and doing wheelies backwards and forward in the heavy-falling snow as we laughed. It was well past midnight, probably around 1997, and I was in love with my colleagues, students, and teaching at Goddard College, where students designed their own curriculum based on what they felt compelled to learn for their communities and souls. I was sure that I would teach here until I was well past retirement age.
A few days ago, I signed, scanned and sent in my final paperwork to be formally “separated” from the college, and although I had been planning this leap from what I loved for many months, I was surprised by the panorama of emotions that engulfed me in sadness, strangeness, and something beyond naming.
Last January, insomnia took me up the mountain of making this decision until I realized it was time to come down on the side of leaving. The urge for going began over a year ago when an economic crisis at the college, coupled with my exhaustion from teaching for 64 consecutive semesters, led me to go on leave. Then the dreams, as some of my readers know, began: dreams of following retired faculty into the woods, dreams of walking away from the college in the middle of the night, dreams of saying goodbye to staff and faculty while wearing raccoon make-up. I would wake up, argue with my dreams that I loved Goddard too much to leave, then the next night, another dream kicked my butt.
The dreams didn’t come out of nowhere (as dreams rarely do): my body had been singing, signing, and whispering its leaving song for a while. I rarely went to a 10-day residency, bracketed by 12-hour travel days (and that was only if everything went according to plan) without coming home sick, then struggling for a month or two to reach equilibrium. I grappled with living mostly in Kansas but, close to four weeks each year and longer in my dreamscape, in Vermont also.
I also heard something else calling my name: growing Transformative Language Arts, the MA concentration I started and coordinated at the college since 2000. I believe in paying attention to signs and wonders that nudge us toward our real work, and although I had been able to balance teaching half-time plus doing administrative tasks at the college with facilitating writing workshops, my own writing, and coaching and consulting work, that balance was changing. I felt compelled to develop new ways to help people write and witness the guiding stories that showed them their real work, truths, and strengths.
So I made the leap. The timing was good as the college needed to reduce faculty in alignment with student enrollment, an unfortunate problem facing multitudes of small colleges lately. As I told people and amplified my wishes and ideas for evolving work, I found some new inroads and a whole lot of support. I also tripped into new ways of seeing my work and life by virtue of — surprise! — being diagnosed with eye cancer in late April, then going through treatment, and now recovery. Nothing like a whole lot of illness and healing to land a person in a new place in life!
As I move forward, regaining blurry but increasingly larger windows of vision in my right eye and in my sense of what’s next for me, I look forward to what I’ll see and be called toward. At the same time, I wanted to pause here to honor all that I love about Goddard: sitting with a student at twilight in my office as we puzzle out her study plans until she bursts out laughing and crying at once in relief because she now knew what she wants to do in her life as well as semester. Or singing “Salaam” though the thin walls of our offices with my colleague, the Rebbe Lori, before we scooted out to swim in the freezing-cold waters of the quarry between meetings and dinner.
I loved rehearsing with the faculty for our cabaret act, the Goddard College Dryland Sychronized Swimming Team, while fellow faculty member Katt kept calling out, “Now remember. We don’t want to over-rehearse” although we only had one 10-minute rehearsal.
I loved walking the wooded road from the dorm village to the library alone or with students, joking about how the wind in the trees was transmitting magic. Or those solo walks across the now-gone (due to a storm) the forest’s Wabi Sabi bridge after a long day of faculty meetings.
I loved the Wednesday morning field trips each faculty member could take with their students, especially the one where Ruth, our program’s director, joined my six students and me in the Goddard van for a wander day in which we simply aimed ourselves whatever direction we felt compelled to go. Of course, we ended up at a remote Buddhist center where we fell under the enchantment of the bells.
I loved the quiet moments in the residency cabarets when someone got up to sing, tell a story, dance, or play the piano publicly for the first time, took a breath with all of us, then began.
I loved the summer meteor showers even when, lying on a bedspread next to a dorm with a bunch of faculty, we could barely see the sky through the trees. I loved the winter nights when the snow sparkled in kaleidoscopic ways I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I adored the ways the firs and pines dropped snow from their branches in seemingly slow motion.
In the here and now of this Wednesday evening when my former colleagues are at the college for a residency, I watch my shadow self sitting in a dorm room, as I would be doing if I were still a faculty member, a stack of student papers to read and a day of meeting ideas still swirling in my head. I tell her it’s time to cross that Wabi Sabi bridge of love and memory to the here and now of where I live. The rich Kansas night air — packed with the music of katydids, cicadas, crickets, and humidity — stirs me home. I am grateful for all of where I’ve been and for wherever I’m landing.
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It occurred to me recently that I’m in the middle of a big life reboot. Thanks to the eye cancer, treatment, and recovery time, I’m in a different season of my life than summer would have led me to believe. But that’s what life reboots do: they strip us down to the essentials of staying alive, then re-orient us to see and even be in the world a whole new way.
I realize that all of us get rebooted in our lives, and usually more than once, catalyzed by a medical diagnosis, a big loss and plunge into grief, or an old dream dying or dead. But everything can and does change with seemingly happy things too: falling in love big-time, finding the job of our dreams, or moving to our seemingly forever home. What we thought was the life plan, the itinerary of our own invention, or the trajectory we were supposed to live turns out to be a dry husk of a once high-flying insect. Just like when we reboot our computers, we have to shut down the old ways, wait for a new start, and enter some kind of password or otherwise invoke magic words or deeds to begin again. Unlike the computer, when the screen comes online again, it doesn’t often have all the same icons staring at us.
For me, the reboot started April 28 when the ophthalmologist told me I definitely had a tumor in my eye. It continues and will likely still keep unfolding over the coming months as the radiation treatment plays out its tumor-dissolving magic. Late spring and summer have become something else indeed.
Instead of going swimming two or three times each week, driving to meet friends for lunch or wander through Kohls to see what cool shirts are on sale, and going here and for gigs and meetings, I’m home, watching what is usually high summer move through me like the wind through the trees, also rooted here. The gains are more abundant than the pain (just about all gone), fear, and anxiety. Each night, we make time to sit on the porch, and in the dark, listen. We can usually make out at least four different kinds of katydids interrupted by the the tender and mournful call of the barred owl. Daytime, like right now, I’m also on the porch, hearing swirls of wind topple through the osage orange trees while a bird I cannot see pierces the waves of cicada humming (or roars). The soundscape continues to open up.
My work in the world — and I don’t just mean how I make a living — opens up too. For the last year, I’ve been considering ways to make a living without leaving the house as often, and boy, is that coming true with a vengeance. Some of my coaching client are coming here now, and over watermelon on the porch, we talk through new essays, website copy, and what a poem truly wants to be. The urgency that has driven the rambling hippie school bus of my livelihood for years is no longer onboard, and that bus is parked somewhere in the back 40. Instead, I’m letting come to me more than ever what my best ways are and could be to grow Transformative Language Arts — the ways we can use writing, storytelling, theater and more to enhance our lives and world (yup, and the Patreon campaign is part of this).
But there’s another closer-to-the-skin layer of my work: to listen more, be stiller, and trust more deeply that what’s mine to do will make itself evident (while resisting what’s not mine). Every chance we’re given to see our storyline — what we thought we were living, who we thought we were — fall away is a gift.
Throughout my healing journey — the cancer diagnosis and visits with three oncologists, the big-time scans and fears, the joys and reliefs, the waiting and preparation — I’ve been naming turtles. While this might be true metaphorically, it’s also truly happening beyond the world of symbol, sorrow, and surprise. I have a friend, Ben Reed, a professor at Washburn University, who has been tracking and studying ornate box turtles in southeast Kansas, and he’s given me the honor of naming each turtle. Because Ben is a turtle whisperer, he’s kept me busy.
It started when Ben dropped by one day with a beautiful large female he found, then numbered to track for his research. I told him she was surely worthy of a name made of letters, not just numbers, and he agreed. That was last summer, and this spring, he found Lucille again because of the transmitter he attached to her last year. He also re-found Samantha, Theodore, and the three-toed box turtle Rudolph. Lately, because of rain in biblical proportions, he’s found a bumper crop of new turtles for me to name.
I named Demeter, Persephone, and Priscilla — a trio of goddesses — the day after my brand new ocular oncologist said there was a good-sized melanoma in my right eye. I was sad and exhausted that morning, and it helped to distract myself by thinking of turtle names for three strong, old wise women turtles, or maybe it wasn’t a distraction at all, but a way to take in the larger breathing and changing world.
In between phone calls with my regular oncologist’s office to set up scans and tests, I was further connected to this bigger world by naming Yoda although all turtles look like Yoda. Then again, many of these turtles also look like Gandalf (the Green), which I bestowed on a very old male, surely is the incarnation of the previous Gandalf. I mean, if he can keep go from Gandalf the Gray to Gandalf the White in one lifetime, surely, he can come back as a turtle in another.
Just home one afternoon after a much-needed session with my therapist, I had more turtles to name: Leah, from the Old Testament, who Jacob had to marry to get to his much-desired Rachel. I always thought Leah had a bad rap, so why not let her be a vibrant turtle of intricate patterns? There were also two teenage turtles, both female, so I went with Amber and Topaz, assistants to the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. I played one of them in the only play I was ever cast in (and not for a lack of auditioning through my childhood and teenage years), a small production held at a camp I attended when I was 11 years old.
The night before my PET scan, when I was pacing the deck talking with friends to calm myself from anxiety and a healthy dose of claustrophobia, I was interrupted by the need to name turtles: one very old, so I went with Saul, an old Jewish man from Brooklyn, Sparkle for a lively young female, and Ponderosa for a sunny young male. The next morning, buoyed by energy healing from my friend Ursula in Germany and a good dose of pharmaceuticals, plus a lot of slow breathing to relax myself. I also was lifted by the thought of naming more turtles, which was helpful since later that day, Ben texted me with a magical female I named Ursula.
After the MRI a week later, another big challenge for me involving a small tube, big prayers, Versed and fentanyl, I was so relieved to have gotten through that I was utterly delighted to name Orion after the constellation of the same name.
Later, before driving to the ocular oncologist with a fear storm in my digestive system because of how suddenly my eyesight diminished, I named Thor and Odin. Such mythological names helped me envision greater courage. Coming home that day, Ken and I were greatly relieved to discover that the tumor wasn’t growing, and my eyesight was being impinged instead by fluid build-up in my eye (made worse by, guess what?, stress!). As my eyes slowly undilated from Anime-sized pupils to more normal ones, I got to name a large and beautiful female Leslie Jones (from SNL fame) because badassery is also the name of the game now.
There’s also a pregnant Chrysanthemum and Clematis from a day the turtles from a day I was in a botanical mood,, and Sunshine who I named when a storm was bearing down, both around and within me. And let us know forget Goldy and Silverado, two western-style guys (at least how they looked to me) with yellow and golden touches.
All these turtles, even the ones who struggle, seem to have a beautiful grip on the life force. When Ben found a female turtle upside down in a just-burned field, so light because of near-starvation because of an invasion of bot flies, we both agreed she needed an especially strong name, so I suggested Herculia. He brought her to his lab, where she became a mascot for the Washburn biology department, everyone cheering her on after Ben removed multiple bot flies, parasitic jerks who has destroyed her back legs and possibly her digestive tract. He didn’t expect her to survive, but six weeks later, she’s still alive, and just yesterday, she finally ate something of substance, a worm, so maybe she’ll make it after all. While Ben will need to make some kind of wheel prostheses for her back legs, she may one day propel on her own.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a turtle biologist to see the parallels between us messy humans and these ancient and resilience beings, although I’m sure the turtles outrun us in patience and even grace. Come fall, they go underground to hibernate through the winter, then emerge into the mud, rain, and wind of messy and changeable spring, finding their footing through storms and droughts, trials and tenderness. However the weather and light shift, they persevere.
Turtles pre-date humans, and from what little I know, their ancestor proto-turtles may be as much as 220 million years old. Ben explains that many species “are virtually unchanged morphologically since the dinos, which is pretty incredible.”
Yes, incredible indeed, and so is simply holding a turtle, marveling at their ability to live below and among us, navigating water and land, earth and fire with a hard shell that tells their stories of age and art and inside that shell, a beating heart committed to life. Surely we are all, turtles all the way down, on our own healing journeys, so let us pause and name what gives us strength and sight.
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.