We Never Leave You, You Never Leave Us: Everyday Magic, Day 1064

I left because it was making me sick, the “it” being the job I had loved fiercely and believed I would give my heart and time to until I was well past retirement age. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was one of the bravest. But my decision also meant I was parted from beloved land and people in and around Vermont who altogether were another home to me.

That was close to four years ago, and illness, cancer, and the pandemic being what they were, I didn’t have the chance to return to Goddard College, and more to the point, the places and people of my heart, until very recently. As soon as the plane touched down, I was surprise-flooded with ansty sorrow and sad urgency, something I would later realize was grief. It turns out that sometimes there’s only so much reconciliation and healing you can do from a distance. The first thing I had to do after we got our rental car was go to the campus with Ken, ferret out Jennifer, the woman who has holds together the college for the good over decades, and hug her a long time.

In 1996, I fell in love with the hills, mountains, woods, valleys, curves, and weather of the Green Mountains through the grounds of Goddard College. The smell of the air (pine, fir, humidity, and old wood) then, the mission of the college, the intense comradery of the faculty, and the life-changing work with the students filled me with a sense that I had found my place….at least for a good long while. I adored the intense, one-on-one teaching—more facilitation of what people wanted to learn and how they could best explore it—I did with students as well as the deep-dish connections with fellow faculty, talking late into the night about whatever made us laugh hardest.

The possibilities felt wide open, and it was there I developed Transformative Language Arts, founded and coordinated a MA in TLA for twenty years, and dug in to spin out out thousands of pages of proposals, plans, handouts, handbooks, and more for other projects, most of which crashed on the shores of we-fear-all-change in its many guises.

I persevered even when the signs billboarded sickness and anxiety, stuckness and despair. In my last decade or so of teaching there, the faculty in my program played a lot of go-on-leave-or-get-fired roulette because of the scarcity of resources and poverty mentality. We took pay cuts. Repeatedly. And we were getting paid way under value in the first place. Bad things happened, including the college, because of poor leadership and other issues, being put on probation. Infighting escalated. Then, for me, some big revelations.

First, I realized I needed to go on leave. Just a semester off, I told myself, after teaching continuously at Goddard or other institutions for 63 semesters straight with never a break. Once on leave, I decided to take off a second semester because I couldn’t make myself come back. Then the dreams started: night after night of seeing myself leaving my job. I’d wake up the next morning to tell myself I loved my job, but then I’d hear a voice in my head ask, “Do you?”

I didn’t anymore. I also had to reconcile myself with the immutable fact that after each ten-day or longer residency, I’d fly back to Kansas and promptly get sick for at least six weeks with chronic sinus issues, migraines, digestive hell. The body never lies, so they say, and this body rang clear as a bell. When I told close friends and my therapist I was thinking of quitting, they replied, “of course you are,” “it’s about time,” and “thank God.”

Since I left, most of my fellow faculty and the director of my program also departed. We’ve stayed in touch, speaking our leaving or needing-to-leave stories, the grief over what was no longer enduring, the dashed hopes and lost people along the way. Yet for me a searing bitterness lingered, blocking out all the good I experienced there, all the ways Goddard grew me up and blew open my understandings of places and people. I felt a sting when I ran into old photos of the place or picked up a cloth bag and found it had the college logo I once so proudly displayed. I had some reckoning to do.

When I returned to Vermont, it was also to wander with Jim across fields bordering Canada while watching ospreys in their nest. To laugh with Ruth over lunch in a quintessential Vermont charmer of a town. To make quinoa tabouli (so good!) with Suzanne we would eat outside surrounded by mountains beyond mountains. To meet the new goats at Sara and Joseph’s place in between hugging them repeatedly. To talk about our lives with Bobby. To connect with past students I’ve missed so much. To listen to so many others I carry with me in my heart from afar. It was a trip full of long hugs and overflowing delight in each other’s presence.

The woods on campus

But there was also this place that carried me for so long. I returned to campus a second time, leaving Ken to nap in the car, and went to the woods. When I was last here in 2018, I left little love notes in the woods, tucking them between branches or under rocks, thanking this place and saying goodbye just in case I didn’t return. It was over six months before I would decide that, but some part of me knew. Now I faced the woods, sitting against a light post on the path between the dorms and the library with my journal open. I was ready to write more notes.

Instead, the wind, the tall trees, the slow-motion falling first autumn leaves, the occasional acorn dropping, the soft late afternoon light told me to take dictation. The place was writing back to me, but no wonder. We are in reciprocal relationships with the land and sky we listen and speak to over time.

“You never left us. We never left you. You never leave us. We never leave you.” This, in so many words, is what I heard and recorded. It chimed through me as truth, helping me see that this place was and still is a healing ground underneath it all (and there’s a lot of “it all”). It turns out I only left a job because it’s impossible to actually leave what’s embedded in you.

Since then, I’ve been thinking of a Mary TallMountain poem I love, “There Is No Word For Goodbye” (which you can see in its entirety here). She writes, “We just say, Tlaa. That means,/ See you./ We never leave each other./ When does your mouth/ say goodbye to your heart?” It doesn’t, and we never leave each other.

We Used to Write Letters: Everyday Magic, Day 1062

Dear Readers,

For last month, I’ve been on an archeological colonoscopy into my past as I sorted through boxes and big plastic vats of papers and keepsakes. I was spurred into motion after Pittsburg State University enthusiastically agreed to house my papers, creating an archive of my writing and life, that at the least will serve as an auxiliary basement for a bunch of my stuff 136 miles south of here. But there’s an unexpected boon to dealing my past into many piles of paper: I discovered the riches I reaped through the letters I wrote and received.

I ran with a letter-writing pack, back when long-distance calls were astronomically expensive and long before emails and texts. Being a writer who connected with other people who loved to write, and even more so, loved to read, I found astonishingly in-depth correspondence with dear friends still central in life as well as ones I lost track of, and somewhat disturbing, some I can’t remember at all. Who were Dave and Ginny in Chicago, for example? What happened to beloved friends Margaret (last spotted in Arizona) and Carolyn 9last known address in New Mexico — it seems quite a few pals vanished into the Southwest)? 2hat was the last name of Steve, an old flame turned friend who wrote funny, wise, and sometimes fierce letters calling me on my shit (“Caryn, you shouldn’t be sleeping with you boss!”)?

The letters themselves are hardly ever short notes, often going on for three or four pages, front and back, sometimes much longer. There were beautifully penned letters from my sister-in-law Linda about adventures in Winnipeg and my pal Kathy about traveling the world as a journalist, piles of international missives in thin blue envelopes from my sister-in-law Karen from when she was in Kenya for three years building houses with Habitat. Some of the more local letters told me, “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you when you were crying and freaking out the other day — I was just worn out” (oh, I was so dramatic in my 20s!) and “You helped me get in touch with my anger by borrowing my car without my permission and getting so many parking tickets” (I was so inconsiderate at times too). I was especially moved by a short note from Holly, a friend who died decades ago, written before her cancer, about how she loved me, and since we never know what’s coming in life, she was telling me now.

There were ten-page extravaganzas from old sweethearts or new colleagues-turned-friends-and-collaborators as well as heartfelt notes (with lots of hearts) from my sisters Jennifer and Lauren when they were kids. I found lovely cards full of words, often three times underlined, from my step-sister Wanda and typed slice-of-life intrigues from my mom. I even discovered a long letter I wrote to my dad about the failing state of the world in 1981 and how we needed to transform our political system, which he returned with a note on the bottom that said, “Your way will never work. I hope you find yourself.”

Mostly though the letters unfolded deep grappling with how to haul around the overpacked luggage of our emotions or the empty cupboards of our self-esteem. I was moved by the tender and raw honesty in many letters people sent me or I sent them (I kept copies along the way of some of my letters), looking face to face at where we found ourselves lacking or thought we were failing and, in equal measure, searching the mutable and abundant world for signs and wonders. It seems I confessed often to self-sabotage, pettiness, obsession, and mere stupidity while also praising bird song, the feel of the wind on my arms, the lush green fields (although they were full of chiggers and snakes), and the setting sun.

Out of wandering through the fields of my letters, I realized how much I missed some faded friendships, so this week, I’m going to Kansas City to have lunch with my old friend Ellen. I’m going to give her — as I’m also doing with other friends who are interested — the pile of her hilarious deep-dive-into-life letters. When I go to Vermont at the end of July, I’m handing Suzanne — one of my oldest friends (we met in a cave in mid-Missouri in January of 1980) — a bundle of her beautifully-written travels through interior and exterior landscapes.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering, even in this age of instant communication (such as I’m doing right now in this blog) if it’s time to start writing and mailing out letters again. Each one a meditation traveling in slow and real time that reminds me of the ties and the lines that bind.

Love,

Caryn

Cancer Anniversaries: Everyday Magic, Day 1056

Cancer is often measured in anniversaries and fruit. We survivors often report in with our years out from the cancer after our initial diagnosis, yet in diagnostic land, we speak of tumors as big as grapefruits or plums.

Today is my third anniversary of being diagnosed with eye cancer aka ocular melanoma, which made me wonder how many years I’ve survived breast cancer. Twenty, and I think it’s a good thing to not have remembered my March 22, 2002 anniversary until now.

“Ordinary people stuff — that’s what you want to get to,” Dr. Stein, my breast cancer oncologist, used to tell me when I was in the middle of intensive chemotherapy almost two decades ago. He meant getting awful colds, flat tires, and bad haircuts, the random annoyances of a life not coalesced around cancer. That includes winking at cancer anniversaries on my way to get some groceries or scrub my bathtub.

While it’s a cliche to say anything can happen, it’s also wind-blown and bone-deep true. My first cancer — a common variety that I was prone to get because of family history and genetics — didn’t teach me that as much as the most recent one — a rare cancer that no one seems to know a lot about except that it tends to be aggressive and needs to monitored for years, decades even.

While there are hundreds of varieties of cancers, let alone various stages and nuances, my experiences were a bit of a study in contrast. I was Stage 2a breast cancer, meaning it had slipped the chute of the tumor (less than the size of a pea) for the hinterlands of the lymph nodes. What followed was rollicking but clearly mapped despite the sudden diversions.

The story started with a mammogram, follow-up imaging, and biopsy, then a lumpectomy, which I thought would land me in short-term radiation and a quick recovery. I cried on the phone with Dr. Jew, my breast cancer surgeon, when she told me of the lymph node involvement, but she also assured me, “Now we’re going to pull you up by your bootstraps, and you’ll be fine.” That’s what we all want to hear with cancer: we’ll be fine, okay, still here for the foreseeable future. What followed? Chemo, a BRCA-1 diagnosis (meaning I had an extreme chance of recurrence and ovarian cancer), and a bunch of “omy” ending surgeries: hysterectomy, oophorectomy, double mastectomy. Although I experienced many manner of ailments and some dangers (a lot like crossing the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride), I was fine once on the other side.

Three years ago today I sat in a small, dark examination room with Ken and my soul brother Ravi when an ocular oncologist told me — after an ultrasound of my eyeball and contrast dye scan that involved staring into the fires of Mordor — it was a melanoma, and it was large (thankfully, she didn’t give me a fruit analogy). She had earlier said it was either that or a brain tumor, to which I replied, “Let’s just root for the melanoma then.” The wait between that conversation and the actual diagnosis was one of the hardest hours of my life, my mind drowning in scenarios of not a lot of time left on this planet I love so much.

But this cancer, unlike my first one, was not mappable. My new oncologist as well as my therapist and other wise people told me adamantly not to google “ocular melanoma,” and they were right (something I discovered when I did google it one terrible night). There are something like 27 stages and the mortality rate is high, all of which changes the language of statistics and detailed staging to something more akin to impressionistic art (which is also how my right eye saw and continues to see the world). While I didn’t experience much pain in my breast cancer road trip, this was an odyssey to uncharted territory, plus the eyes are delicate creatures. Two surgeries — one to insert a gold disk with radioactive pellets, and one to remove the disk — were post-anaesthesia excruciating, especially in a migraine-prone woman. Light hurt and it still does on occasion.

Although today is my eye cancer anniversary, I’m not sure what that means because I’m not clear (especially when I look out my legally-blind but seeing-in-its-own-way right eye) on when I’m completely in the clear. That might have something to do with having CT scans or MRIs every season for at least ten years, each one assuring me that there’s no micro-metastases to liver or lungs, and each one another high-five with the universe that I’m okay. But I am okay, years after my ocular oncologist said “I promise you, are you going to be okay.”

What it is an anniversary of is gratitude and love. I’m so grateful for all the people who love me and who I love who were there and still are with me three years later. My friends and family who brought over Ritz crackers and chicken soup, sat ten feet away from me outside during the stretch when I was radioactive and hurting, listened late into the night (especially Ken, who was my real-time, all-the-time greatest supporter), and talked me down from trees of fear. I’m so grateful to be here and so in love with this life, right now full of teenage-sized leaves blowing hard on Cottonwood Mel, bright clouds and contrasting deep blue skies. It all reminds me how good life is, each day an anniversary of getting and being here.

The Quiet In-Betweens: Everyday Magic, Day 1055

Sometimes I feel like I’m at a sudden still point between waves of motion and change. Like right now as I sit in a floral chair in my living room, staring out at the just-cleaned kitchen counter and still-stuff-piled-on kitchen table while the dog sleeps in the corner and the cat sleeps in her clementine orange box. But of course the whole notion of a still point is just a notion. Life is famous for tossing one damn thing after another at us, but beneath all the damn things, everything is always in motion and all is perpetually changing.

Still there are these in-betweens: the wisps or room fulls of spaciousness that, as I get older, feel more real than the packed whirls of activity and action. Pay attention, I’ve been reminding myself for years. Cherish this.

It is easier to talk about what surrounds the in-betweens because that kind of stuff has names and lots of language to delineate it from the unscheduled, the quiet, the open-palm time that’s also on tap. For the last few weeks, I could speak of oral surgery, Passover, eating a Havana chicken sandwich with a friend, walking across the field with Moxie the dog, loading the dishwasher, opening the mail. I could point to wonders around me: the first budding lilac, the light on the porch in this photo, a great breakfast of Matzo Brei (friend matzo, likely an acquired taste), and the cool joy of cold water when I’m thirsty.

But to speak of the in-between is to speak in between language. Then again, that’s why we have poetry. “Language does what it can’t say,” William Stafford once wrote, and he also wrote something in his poem “Bi-Focal” that I continually ponder about the world happening twice: “once what we see it as;/ second it legends itself/ deep, the way it is.” Maybe the in-betweens are when we catch up with life as the way it is more than the ways we name or see it. There’s grace in such meetings.

Then again, maybe it’s in-betweens all the way down to and past the last breath of our life. One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, which begins with “I felt a funeral in my brain” (none of her poems were actually titled by her) ends with these lines:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —

That word “then” and the long dash are both in-between things pointing to what happens when we finish knowing, and then —

Love and Death in February: Everyday Magic, Day 1050

“Maybe since January lasted for seven and a half years, February will be easy,” I said to my friend Kris. She was doubtful since February, for us and many others we know, tends to be the longest and hardest month. Never mind the 28 days of it, February is notorious for slipping the bonds of time dragging us into a morass of sadness and fatigue, dying and death.

So far so good, I told myself a week ago, but I rationalized too soon. In recent days, we got the news that one of our dearest friends is going on hospice, and the anticipatory grief and very current despair about the rapid meanness of his cancer trips me from laughing to crying on a dime, especially for wife who loves him so utterly. An old friend I haven’t seen in over a decade died suddenly two days ago. Ken’s wonderful dad died on Feb. 10th in 2009, and a year early, our good friend expert pie maker Weedle died on Feb. 12th.

That’s just us, and I know many close ones who have their own string of February impossible losses and big swaths of grief. It makes me wonder, if we have some say over when we give up the ghost, whether the bitter dregs of winter have anything to do with it. February also tends to be when the worst ice storms or blizzards hit, seemingly out of the blue, but maybe it just feels like that by this time of the year. It’s been cold too long, even with global warming and some surprise 60-degree days, yet spring seems far off.

February is the squeaky door that doesn’t close properly between love and grief in real time. It’s a time of year when I see up close how much deep and unconditional love we’re capable of, despite what we believe of ourselves. A friend just posted on Facebook how caring for her dying husband is stretching her to her seeming limit only to realize she can stretch further. Another friend texted me, “How do we bear the unbearable?” and then a photo of her beloved’s face full of joy as his childhood friend kissed him on the forehead.

We get through the unbearable together. We stretch ourselves in inconceivable ways. We stand on the threshold of February looking back and looking forward but mostly just looking at what we can see here. Like yesterday, while taking out the compost in the hard chill of the air, when I noticed the first crocus, papery and white, blowing hard in the wind but staying intact low to the ground. Like February, especially this year.