Why I Love the Hard-Won: Everyday Magic, Day 1066

Walking to the edge of the deck this early morning to take this photo of the fog burning off the brome field and the prairie, I felt great tenderness for the hard-won: all that comes to us after or during great struggle.

Here is the land where Ken and I are so blessed to live, even and especially because we spent over 35 years doing all we could to save it from encroaching development and for native plants and migrating wildlife. Finally buying the land (aka buying the literal farm without buying the deadly metaphoric farm) in 2020 took far more faith, gumption, money, patience, prayer, hard thinking and deep feeling that we knew ourselves capable of, but that’s the song of the hard-won.

I think of writers from my Turning Point workshops (for people living with serious illness as patients, caregivers, or survivors), many of whom wake up in chronic pain, that is if they got much sleep at all, then go about the business of the day from making oatmeal to feeding the cat. I think of friends living with disabilities that sometimes send them for long hospital stays or experimental treatments. I think of dear ones sitting with overwhelming grief that makes any meaning illusive. I think of my grown children, trying to make sense of the world they’ve inherited, climate change and water shortages and all, and still carrying suitcases of plans and hopes into imagined futures.

Sure, there are easy wins in life. The blue morpho butterfly that lands three feet away on a falling down native sunflower, tilts toward me, and pauses. There’s occasional surprise letters in the mail or sweet calls from old friends, things that don’t require grit and effort over long stretches of time. Sometimes we meet just the right person with no extra effort on our part and find them to be a life-long friend or sweetheart. Occasionally, the shining, crazed face of fortune laughs upon us, and all good things click into their slots.

But so much of what paves or pads our dreams and sometimes even our survival is hard-won, from cancer treatments over months of mystery and fear to the work that brings our lives greater meaning, even if getting there entails plenty of time in doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. Yesterday, for instance, I went for my regular visit with my ocular oncologist, and after the technician apologized for any discomfort from rubbing an ultrasound instrument over my eyeball, I told him it was nothing (truly, it doesn’t hurt at all) compared to the painful surgeries and long recovery. Then I went home to present an Art of Facilitation session with an exuberant group of women, talking about hard-won work we do with our communities.

In most of our days, the seeds and fruit of the hard-won abound. So let us pause this glorious morning, time and clear air at a tolerable temperature an easy gift for the willing, to say how magnificent we are for all that’s hard-won in our lives, both in what we did to make it happen and in how it grows our spirit and capacity. After all, there is nothing like the hard-won to show us that we are so much more than we or anyone else thought.

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.

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.

What’s Wrong With Humans (and Some Birds): Everyday Magic, Day 1052

An hour ago, a mourning dove crashed so hard against our living room window that Ken and I both jumped. The dove attacked his reflection so vehemently, it was hard to believe he survived. For a long time afterwards, he sat on the snow-covered deck and stared at the birds on the deck railing for their morning buffet of birdseed. Occasionally, he swiveled his head to look back at me on the other side of the window. I couldn’t tell if he was mortally injured or doing that total-repair-in-stillness thing that birds do.

For close to two weeks, I’ve been alternating between despair and heartbreak when I take in the news from Ukraine. Three women in the back of a truck heading into battle, one of them with tears running down her shining face as all three clutched their weapons. Two nieces and their children rushing into the arms of their Polish aunt as soon as they crossed the border. A family of four dead on the ground when they were supposed to be safely leaving the city. The deep state evil of how vastly news has been censored, twisted, and spit back out in pure decit in Russia. The great-grandmother lying belly-down on the ground, aiming her gun and still wearing her long gold coat. A little girl singing “Let it Go” in Ukrainian to a crowd of children and their parents hunkered down in a Kyiv subway.

“The birds are incredibly impulsive. It’s a survival mechanism. They fly first, ask questions later,” Ken just told me when I lamented the obviously hurt dove still on the snow. Obviously, this isn’t just birds. As we, who are outside Ukraine, watch and wait, donate money, even to Airbnbs for refugees to have a warm place to sleep, we also have no idea, as my friend Judy reminded me the other day, how this will end. Nor can we say what the right thing to do is that would lessen the shelling and missile attacks, the hunger and freezing, the war between cousins, without triggering Putin to go nuclear. Even if any one of us did know exactly what to do, we have little to no power to enact what we know.

I think of all the people being traumatized exponentially by the hour right now. I think of nations, cities, regions where trauma has reigned for generations, particularly in both Russia and Ukraine. Because of greed, fear, anguish, insecurity, and god-knows-what-else, there is Putin with all this power to destroy in minutes what it takes lifetimes to create.

Despite all the family ties crossing the border between these countries and the long entwined history, despite all the brutality and the wounds it threads through families and communities for decades, and especially despite what history has taught all of us humans in such a visceral and devastating way about war, here we are in an unfathomable place. A time when it seems only miracles could do any good, but I still believe that as humans prone to charge our reflections, we can do something other than charge our reflections. We also have an instinct to alleviate suffering and the capacity to sit with not knowing and enormous pain.

It’s not lost on me that this is an injured dove, and a mourning dove at that. He eventually lifted to the deck railing, stayed there for ten minutes watching all the other birds, and then, against the odds, lifted off and up to join the cardinals in the cedar tree and watch the rest of us. I want him to live. I want us all to live.

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.