A year ago, I was positively radioactive. On June 14, I had surgery to insert a tiny gold disk of radioactive pellets in my right eye, and on June 19, I had surgery to have it removed. That span of days, I was scared and exhausted by unremitting pain (that would go on beyond the radioactive phase), yet I was also on my front porch, drinking iced tea, watching hummingbirds dive-bomb each other, and occasionally eating a lemon cream croissant from the fabled 1900 Bakery that Kris brought me. I couldn’t pet the cat, get within 10 feet of Ken, or endure any sunlight.
A year later, I’m on the front porch of the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, my feet on a chair, my computer on my lap, and my eyes — one that can see relatively normally and that other that sees an impressionistic, soft-edged, floater-crossing world — are fixed on the sparrows, jetting from fence ledge to tree branch. We regard each other while a white-skinned sycamore tree looks on. I’m drinking iced tea and thinking about eating some leftover beef bourguignon for lunch. A whirly-gig — a little thin leaf swirling unevenly all the way down — catches me. Because of the pandemic, I’m alone here, and it’s okay.
A tale of two Junes is just a sliver of all the Junes I’ve lived and hope to live. A year from now, I envision a widely-distributed, extremely-effective, and vividly-safe vaccine, and life not going back to the the old normal, but opening back up. Maybe I’ll be back here, but when the trolley passes by, as it does every 30 minutes, the driver and riders won’t be masked. We’ll go to restaurants again, peruse book stores, consider air travel with ease, and think nothing of stopping at a gas station to use the restroom. I see us talking about how strange it was, still is actually, to have lost so much and so many while also — I hope — saying what we can see now that we couldn’t see pre-pandemic.
A year ago, I had to wear a towel over my head as well as two pairs of sunglasses under that towel when riding in cars to go for medical follow-up appointments. Light hurt so much that many evenings, after I lay on the couch with an ice pack over my eyes while we watched (me watching by listening) a Northern Exposure episode, we went to the porch in the dark to listen. My ears learned to see 6 varieties of cicadas and even more of katydids. I couldn’t see what I would see.
A year from now, I wonder what we will see and deeply hear in new ways, trusting that with all we lose, there’s some compensation of vision, beauty, wisdom or compassion even if it’s not often enough to erase the pain. There’s also this wind ruffling these leaves while a branch trembles under the weight of a young sparrow, just out of the nest and ready by instinct for what’s next.
What is a year? We don’t know, but we will find out.
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Yes, I hear you knocking on my door at all hours of the day and especially night, calling me out of my sleep because you’re not getting enough of your own. You want to know what will be, how it will happen, and especially when. Fair enough questions given that you’re human, and humans can’t help but to desperately want some ground under their dainty or lumbering feet, a sense of control so they can puzzle together some steadying vision of what they believe will happen. You’re planners, all of you to some extent, and you like to think your plans matter.
So here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how you leap from here to there or how high you’ll have to jump to make that leap because this isn’t a situation of you being able to soar high enough on your own volition to aim yourself toward a pre-designated target. Besides, it usually doesn’t work out well for the future to be too chatty about itself with the present. But what I can tell you is this:
Be where you need to be. For most of you, that means home or whatever approximates home for now. Some of you go out to work in hospitals, grocery stores or gas stations, and that’s, as they say, essential work, but if you have an option to work, worship, meet and otherwise gather from home, believe me (and I should know) that you’ll be glad you took that option in the long run.
Many of you — I’m eyeing you, America — really don’t like being told what to do and not do, where to go and not go. Please, for the sake of my time, get over yourself. No one is ripping away your liberty or free will, just tilting you toward using it to discover greater freedom and possibility at home. You are completely free to clean out that drawer in the kitchen that holds everything from extra screws to old sunglasses. You can discipline yourself to create a new wall hanging out of scraps of fabric or a new garden bed. There’s plenty you have dominion over.
At the same time, this is a pandemic, not an all-expenses-paid creative retreat. If can’t do more today than make some microwave popcorn and stare out your window at a pair of cardinals, that’s okay. You’re not going to regret the days that don’t register on your old scales of productivity. You will regret driving yourself crazy to win the pandemic self-improvement sweepstakes, so don’t even enter. Create what comes to you. Sleep enough now (believe me, there will be a lot of new work ahead when you get to my time). Take good care of your body and soul, and if you live with others, your housemates or pets too.
Accept that you have many shifting behavioral and emotional strategies and phases to cycle through, and you don’t all do this the same way at the same time. Try not to judge your brother-in-law for practicing for a marathon while the only marathon in your life involves Netflix. If someone judges you, tell them to back the #$% off, but say it nicer — this isn’t a time to escalate tensions. One other thing: make your bed. That’s something you can do to put some semblance of order into your day from the get-go.
Some of you are suffering tremendously. Maybe you’re sick with something that’s different or the same as Corvid-19. Maybe you’re terrified of dying or of losing someone. Maybe you’ve already lost a beloved, or you’re climbing out of a close brush with death. Many of you are losing income, and the unemployment checks haven’t started trickling in. Or you might be on the cusp of losing a job, health insurance, and other necessary supports. Some of you (maybe all at moments) are swallowed up in dread, despair, and anxiety for stretches. All I can tell you is that this is horrendous, I’m so sorry, and I wish I could do something for you back in what’s my past. But I can also tell you this: hang on, Sloopy, hang on. That’s because….
This future — and I know I’m biased here — is very promising. Many of you are already opening your hearts wider than you have in some time, helping others with donations, prayers, plans and tools. You have incredible potential to change yourself, and with you the world, for the better by just learning to stay. Sit tight without trying to impose your will or ideas of what your life is supposed to be on yourself and others. The more you do this solo, the more you learn how to do this together, household by household, community by community.
Also, listen to the real science (the more of us who do this, the better for the future). It will enhance your ability to be guided by reality in other aspects of your life too. At the same time, protect yourself from whatever news overwhelms you or sensationalizes reality. Take news fasts when needed or ask someone close to you to update you on anything vital you need to know about the real science and reality of where you are.
This is the spring and beyond of being much more than doing. Listen to the birds. Pet the cat. Take notice of that shining pale blue that holds all the trees in such grace. Marvel at the lilac, and this year, you have the time to smell them and even get down on the ground to smell lily-of-the-valley. Listen to your favorite singer streaming an old song about when you first fell in love. Cry at the end of “Casablanca” and laugh at “Ferris Bueller.” Call your grieving friend. Zoom with your lonely mom. Text your unemployed niece back and forth about cool movies she likes. But also get in touch with yourself: who you are (whatever that means) without decking yourself out in the story you don each day about who you’re supposed to be.
One other thing to remember: you can’t see the whole story until you get to the end of it. Yes, this pandemic absolutely has an ending, and most likely, you’re okay there and then, even if a little older, sadder, and wiser. When you get well past the arc of this story, you’ll see what the arc was, not just for our planet but for your own precious life. Especially, you’ll know heart-to-heart more about the preciousness of this gift, this life
Hey, kiddo, please also remember that I believe (and depend) on you.
With love always, the future
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That’s the question I kept asking myself as I replayed “Dust in the Wind” on my quickly-wearing-out but relatively new copy of Point of Know Return. I was a 17-year-old Jersey girl, commuting two years each way because of a wacky bus schedule from my home in Manalapan to Brookdale Community College, just 10 miles away. There, I studied English (quelle surpris!), but mostly, poetry, music, and several guys at our school radio station, WBJB, where we often played Kansas music in between jazz, folk, showtunes, opera, and rock because we had a progressive format (mixing any and everything). Oh, and did I mention the band that put out “Dust in the Wind” was Kansas, the name of a people and place where I would find my own point of no and know return?
Yesterday, to commemorate Kansas Day (our state’s birthday), I posted a video on Facebook of another Kansas song I’ve loved since I was a teen, “Carry On, My Wayward Son.” Stephanie commented on how much she loved “Dust in the Wind,” as did Betsy, all of us teenage girls listening to it in our rooms or cars over and over. When sleep eluded me last night, I started reading up on the band and its history, discovering that one of the voices I loved in both these songs was that of Robby Steinhardt (also the classically-trained violinist), from Lawrence, and hey, both songs were written by Kerry Livgrin, who still lives in Topeka. Livgrin said “Carry On, My Wayward Son” come through him in a flash, and “Dust in the Wind” started out as a guitar exercise he created, then his wife suggested he add some lyrics.
As I shimmeyed down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I learned there were several early version of the band, Kansas 1 and Kansas 2, plus in-and-out mergings with bands named Saratoga and White Clover (eventually a band called Proto-Kaw also). What’s more, one of the main guys in Kansas 1 was Don Montre, the twin brother of a dear friend, the late Weedle Caviness. Just as I was reading this, Weedle’s husband Paul, having seen my Kansas post, wrote me about Don (ah, the magic of Kansas or Weedle or just time itself!).
Eventually, I got to bed, telling a sleeping Ken what I had been doing, only to have him wake me up an hour later to ask if I loved “Dust in the Wind” as much as he did when it came out. Yes, of course I did, I told him. Then, hundreds of miles and dozens of years away from first hearing this song, no longer worried about if our lives are just dust in the wind (they are, but so what?), I lived out the opening lines: “I close my eyes/ Only for a moment and the moment’s gone/ All my dreams/ Pass before my eyes with curiosity.”
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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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.