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.

“Three Walking Songs for the Night”: Everyday Magic, Day 1056

Going from winter (otherwise known as much of April) to summer (disguised as May this year) has plummeted many of us in Kansas into the high humidity of late summer, chiggers and thunderstorms and all. While determined to work outside on this porch as much as I can — ceiling and floor fans swirling and iced water flowing — I’m hot, sweaty, shaky, and a little stunned. It feels like those breezy spring days full of blossoms galore and chilled good sleeping weather have been climate-napped away. But then we live in and do well to acknowledge the extremes wrought by life and global warming.

No season leaves us without gifts, however, and lately, the mid-90’s day temperatures dissolve into those luscious summer nights that I also live for. Walking on deck or down the gravel drive each night (lesson learned from this weekend: don’t walk in the grass without protection because the ticks and chiggers are fierce), I’m reminded of how much I love strolling through summer nights. Like most things in language, a poem shows that better than I could explain, so I dug out a small set of poems I wrote some years ago over the course of many summer nights. This poem (along with many others) appears in my book, How Time Moves: New & Selected Poems.

Three Walking Songs for the Night

1.

I walk across a field. No more destination,

journey through or over water.

No more dreams of arriving.

I’m here, overlooking a small slope

that leads nowhere. Leaves drop out

of the wet branches. The field eats them.

A fox. Then the sky turns itself

like a clever hand this way and that,

blocking or letting through the moon.

Sometimes rain falls. No matter.

The animals come anyway.

When it clears, I lie on the fallen grass,

look at the brave sky,

and tell myself, “shut up and trust that.”

2.

When I wake in the dark, I will go to the forest

with no flashlight, and walk slowly, afraid,

letting my feet make out where next to step,

waiting for what’s hidden to let me into its hiding.

No longer dreaming of his hands cupping my head

tenderly, I will just walk in, feeling only

where to land, the noise of the running world no longer running,

the tree frogs cupping their motor song over

the motor song of the cicadas, the brush of branch

on branch, the owls a broken harmonic.

Oh, dream of being loved so perfectly,

Oh, dream of forgiveness,

Oh, damp moon in a pool of clouds,

wide stillness of nothing that we call sky,

now, please let me be brave enough.

3.

I was afraid most of that year.

No particular reason.

Just the rush of old air through my lungs

as if it had nothing better to do.

I’d wake a lot at night, puppy diving

after the kitten, the baby nightmaring

right into the center of my good dream.

I’d wake for nothing also,

sit up, climb out of bed, walking the house

to prove to myself there was no reason

to be afraid. I mean, look at that moon

carrying itself branch to tree branch.

Look at the indentations the wind makes

of its body in the grass.

See how round the earth is,

remember how many animals sleep

hidden like prayers in the tall grass.

See the open mouth of the sky, the shifting of stars

across the throat of the universe,

this time in its slot actually happening.

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 —

My Friend Vaughn and the Walk to the House Down the Road: Everyday Magic, Day 1054

“Vaughn keeps talking about the house down the road,” Julie, his wife, told me just a few days before he died. I listened on the other end of the phone, looking out the window from my room at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow into the quickly-accumulating snow on the roof. I was hesitant to have come to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, not wanting to leave my dear friends Julie or Vaughn, but it also felt like the right thing to do although most of the regularly-scheduled things of our lives make little to no sense when death is imminent.

Vaughn I’ve known for so long I can’t remember when we met, but surely in the early 80s, and Julie became a fast beloved friend a dozen years ago when her adventure with Vaughn brought her to us. I thought I had a good sense of Vaughn, but I got to know him even better at the end of his life when he actively helped me write his obituary (you can read at this link) over hig last month in between talking through songs, poems, readings, and speakers for his Celebration of Life, which I had the honor of officiating Sat., March 26. The obituary and the service were long, winding, full of deep notes and soaring voices, wild stories and vast memories, just like Vaughn. Then again, any life, especially one lived with vibrant gusto, and admirable affection is a infinite unfolding.

Vaughn especially made big differences for many of us. Vaughn has changed my life, including in one small and one enormous way: red cowboy boots and the farm. When I was diagnosed with eye cancer, I wrote a pithy blog post about being back at the cancer rodeo, and all I needed now were a pair of red cowboy boots. “Then she shall have them,” Vaughn told Julie. Within a week, Vaughn and Julie were walking from their car to our house carrying a large box. They fit perfectly.

The farm, however, is something too big to fit anywhere although somehow it’s in our arms after being only in our hearts for years. When it became possible (although seemingly highly improbable) for us to purchase the land we’ve been trying to save for 35 years, it was Vaughn who gave us the guts and gumption to believe we could. He first brainstormed with us about building an ecological small housing development on part of the land, and when we all realized we had no idea how to actually do that, he was game to help us with financing. His willingness was a strong enough bridge that it led us to imaginative and sustainable financing beyond him. While we might have gotten there on our own, Vaughn’s passion for the people and land he loved sped us toward our destination in time for all the pieces to come together.

Vaughn’s death on March 17, shortly after I got home from Arkansas, brought relief, heartbreak, calm, beauty, and the big mystery of grief all together for many of us. He died in Julie’s arms with his his dear friend Danny and Julie’s wonderful daughter Becca around him. Shortly afterwards, Ken and I drove over as the full moon set to help prepare the body for his green burial. The room was full of calm, love, and peace, and being part of such sacred moments is surely one of the more important reasons we’re alive.

But in the time between his death and burial, I felt discombobulated and confused, uneasy and not really wherever I was supposed to be. I remembered how, when my dad died, the Colombian rabbi who got to know my dad told us that the time between death and burial was an immersion into limbo (one reason, he explained, Jews bury their dead so quickly). He added that we don’t officially become mourners until we lay the body to rest.

Saturday, when Vaughn’s friends and family lowered the biodegradable coffin into the living earth, then we did our burial ceremony, ending in filling in the grave, I realized we as well as Vaughn had made the journey to the house down the road. It’s lonely and little empty not to have him with us, but there’s so much to remember, including how I played John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” for him recently, and he said to make sure that was in the service also.

Here is the poem I wrote for him when I was at Dairy Hollow, right after speaking with Julie (and yes, the ending is a nod to the John Prine song). May we all find where we belong, and when it comes to our loved ones, carry what we remember into the house where we live now.

Walking To the House Down the Road

for Vaughn, 3/12/22

Of course it’s a house for you who loves

to build and rebuild the uninhabitable

into homes of music and good food.

Winter makes it harder, especially

when false spring turns to thunder snow

and sheet on a Sunday afternoon.

But leaving when blossoms clutch

the sky or when summer nights fill us

with lightning bugs and katydids

would be harder to leave behind

in this house of a life, each packed box

a decade overflowing of who you still are

and will always be even down the road.

A dog barks from the kitchen. The last

of the snow drops from the branches

while the steps to the last place you live

dampen in the sheen of old rain.

The birds come and go, whole flocks

of red-winged blackbirds, twisting

murmurations of starlings just

down the road from here

to where you’re going without

leaving this bed, with leaving this bed

like breath or time. But we can’t

say that, bear that now while you still

sleep or reach up to kiss again and

never enough. Love is a well

with no bottom, a weathervane

in the wind, an oak so heavy

with yesterday’s snow that it can’t,

it has to, let go, but love is also

what makes it possible to let go.

The lights in the house down the road

are already on for you, the door already

just a little ajar, the road between there

and here made of gravel, watching, weather,

one story to step into after another,

each say saying, don’t go, each

answering, I love you, it’s okay,

we remember, we will remember

everything.