Yesterday, much to my delight, I noticed that rain was in the forecast. Much, much needed rain. As the skies greyed through the day, I found myself murmuring, Come on, rain!, over and over again, making me think of Karen Hesse’s fabulous picture book of the same name.
Finally, at around 3 pm, the rain started. Just a sprinkle or two at first. Come on, rain! Next a misting. Come on, rain!! Then, finally, the mist solidified into steady showers. Come on, rain!!!! Looking out my window at my garden, I could practically feel the plants shaking the dust off, their roots stirring and drinking, leaves plumping. I imagined them as jubilant as the young girls in Hesse’s book:
Thankfully, it continued to rain through the night. A soft, steady rush of water. Come on, rain!
In the middle of the night, or perhaps early in the morning, I woke with words running through my mind. I reached for pen, paper, and my book light, then scrawled them quickly so I wouldn’t forget them.
When I awoke this morning, I reached for the paper, remembering I’d written something on it, but not fully aware of what I’d recorded. Canticle? Do I even know that word? As you can see by the “?” on my paper, even my night-time mind wasn’t sure it made sense or that I was spelling it correctly. I looked it up to find that I had spelled it correctly and used it correctly, too, as it means a “hymn or chant.” The mind’s a funny thing, isn’t it?
Here’s what I ultimately did with those words:
The Rustle of Plants: A Translation
On this morning of rain after endless days of sun’s piercing gaze we absorb its blessing and offer up a canticle of praise.
Last month I came home from packing up my classroom to an unexpected package in the mail. I saw from the return address that it was from my friends, Dan and Hannah, two of the nicest and most considerate people you’d ever want to meet. I set it aside as I finished unloading the car, wondering all the while, What in the world could it be?
After finally unloading everything, I turned my attention back to the package. As I unwrapped the brown paper package, a soft beautiful hand-knitted shawl fell warmly into my hands. Ooooh! I sunk my hands into it and immediately wrapped it around me. I was still at a loss, though. Why had they sent me this? I dug around in the package in search of an explanation. Aha! There at the bottom was a letter. I pulled it out and opened it.
The letter offered a full explanation. Hannah is an in-home hairdresser and has a 96-year-old client, Helen, who lost her son to pancreatic cancer nine years ago. When he died, she was devastated. Ultimately she decided to make a prayer/comfort shawl in his memory. She chose to knit it in an ocean palette as her son made his living from the sea. When she was done knitting it, she asked Hannah if she knew anyone to whom it might bring comfort. Hannah had another client on hospice and she gave him the shawl.
This initial exchange blossomed into an ongoing practice. Helen has continued to make shawls and give them to others with Hannah as her conduit. At this point she has shared more than 75 shawls! Although she does not seek thanks or acknowledgement, she cherishes the notes she receives from recipients and feels that knitting these shawls has helped her deal with her loss. After summarizing this story, Hannah added a note for me, “We thought you might need a little extra comfort on Father’s Day. And the colors of this shawl seemed to me to speak comfort. And Peace.” I pulled the shawl closer around my shoulders and kept it on me all that evening, feeling grateful for its warmth on the cool evening and for the thoughtfulness of friends.
The next day I went to spend time with my dear friend, Sue, who was at home in hospice. I brought the shawl with me. Leaning close to her, I told her the story of Helen and the shawls.
“Oh, how lovely,” she whispered.
I tucked the shawl carefully around her and told her I wanted to share it with her. That I hoped it would bring her comfort.
Today I read a poem by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer called “As We Sang the Hymn at My Father’s Funeral”. This portion of it really captures that sense I have had so often lately–the feeling that within my grief, I have been blessed by the kindness of others:
Grief comes with its arms full of blessings. I am not grateful for the loss, but there is so much beauty in how the world rises up to hold us—cradles us with kindness, cradles us with song. There is so much good in how grief asks us to be tender with each other—
I have the shawl back now. The woven fibers hold Helen’s sorrow and comfort, her remembrance of her son and mine of my father, the kindness of Hannah and Dan, and the essence of Sue. Most mornings I wrap myself in it as I write. In fact, I’m wearing it right now.
Earlier this spring I was chatting with my friend, Sue. She filled me in on the progression of her illness, recent doctors visits, etc, but then got down to what she really wanted to talk about– a bird she’d seen lately hopping about on her grass.
“Oh I’ve been having such fun watching it!, she enthused. “It isn’t a robin though it’s about the same size. It’s got specks on its chest, and it’s always poking around in the grass out my back window. Do you know what it is?”
“Could it be a northern flicker?” I asked. “Does it have a sort of heart-shaped patch of red on its head and a black bib?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “It does!”
She looked it up in her bird book and was delighted to confirm that her mystery bird was indeed a northern flicker. She was also tickled that I’d been able to identify it based on her clues.
I was pretty chuffed too, but did fess up that I’d had several flickers visiting my yard last spring and learned about them then. I also told her that flickers were one of my dad’s favorite birds. In fact, during one of our visits over the past year, he had told me that one reason he’d bought the house I grew up in was because there’d been flickers in the yard when they first visited. For a few weeks after his Celebration of Life service in April, I spotted flickers all over the place and took some comfort in that. Now I always think of my father when I see flickers.
About a week ago, I walked out to my car after visiting Sue, carrying the weight of the knowledge that I would not see her again. In the cool, grey drizzle, something moved and caught my eye. I looked. A bird was hopping about in the back yard. Could it be? I blinked, peering through my tears and the rain. Saw the telltale speckles. The red heart. Sure enough, it was a northern flicker. I couldn’t help but smile, even in the midst of my deepest sorrow. It felt like a sign, a message from Sue or maybe the universe. Either way, I again took some comfort in it.
Yesterday, we celebrated Sue’s life. If I try really hard, I can still feel the warmth of her hand in mine , see the sparkle in her blue eyes, and hear her voice and the echo of her wonderful laugh. I know some of that will fade with time, but I also know that her presence in my life is permanent. She’s left an indelible mark.
In the days to come, I’ll be keeping my eyes out for flickers, and will now remember both my father and Sue when I see them. But truly, I won’t need the flickers to remember.
Sometimes on a day where your heart feels heavy and grief feels like too steady of a companion, the universe conspires to lift you up…
A visit to the garden in the morning yields an exuberance of blossoms. Pollinators tumble and bumble in and out of pollen-rich stamen. Peonies unfold in fragrant splendor. Sun sets a late-blooming poppy ablaze. A white crab spider lingers in a rugosa rose.
In early afternoon, an out-of-town friend calls and I pull myself out of low energy and an afternoon nap to meet her. To talk and walk. On that walk we stumble upon a garden of prayers for the Earth.
It is one woman’s intricate creation, open to the community. She is (by chance?) in her garden and explains: The prayer wheels are painted in Aboriginal style, in colors representing the Chinese elements. “I started to paint the dots,” she says, “and it wasn’t until I got underway, that I realized the dots were actually leading me.” Her garden is a place of welcome, tranquility and unity. Hope and harmony.
Later, after eating out, Kurt suggests that we take a walk, and though I yearn only to go home and cocoon, I acquiesce. And on the walk along abandoned railroad tracks out into a sort of forgotten wilderness, we see snapping turtles heaving their heavy bodies up by the tracks, churning up the earth to lay their precious eggs. Primal and sacred.
Further on, a beaver swims in lazy circles, undisturbed by our presence. It’s so quiet and so still that I can hear the beaver exhale over the water. A Baltimore oriole flashes tangerine in the leaves and a yellow warbler hops through the treetops. Far off in the distance a deer grazes.
Later, as we leave the tracks and head back toward the car, a mink appears by the side of the road. It’s not there. And then suddenly it is. It sees me and takes one step back with its catch firmly gripped in its mouth. It stops. We stand, frozen, eyes locked, for one long moment. Two creatures traveling along the same road.
Then it bounds across the pavement and disappears into the greenery.
Suddenly the day sort of spins into a wild joy or keening gratitude, kaleidoscoping all these moments.
And perhaps they are all the brighter for the sorrow that darkens their edges.
The poem from the prayer garden now seems especially apt:
“I thank you God for this most amazing day… blessed is the fruit of Thy womb. Who can number the sands of the seas and the drops of rain? Green trees spiraling to the sky, earth in their roots and heaven in their branches. Creatures of the field and forest, the sea. Our brothers & sisters who share our home. The Whole Universe is blessed…is lost in this Wonderful Holy Dance.”
Looking for warblers, or what I call warbling, is one of my favorite things to do early in the morning on spring weekends. According to Oxford dictionary, warbling technically means to sing with a “succession of constantly changing notes”. I, personally, prefer to think of warbling as wandering around on an early morning, neck craned to look upwards, eyes flitting about from tree to tree. I’m not alone in this pursuit, as in birding hotspots, you’ll find flocks of like-minded folk, binoculars pressed to their eyes, cameras at their side. I often think we look like our own odd species of bird. You’ll even hear whispers and fragments of our customary calls: “Oh, there’s one!” “Did you see….?” or “Darn it!”
So, if you’re not a bird of this feather, it would probably help to know that warblers are small, often colorful, active birds that migrate in the spring. I’m still relatively new to birding, and I only recently learned that most birds migrate overnight. Isn’t that the coolest thing!? I love to think of waves of warblers moving through the night skies while we’re sleeping! In the morning they’re hungry from all their exertions and need to fuel up for the next leg of their journey. As the sun warms the treetops, they glean insects from the newly emerging tree foliage. In pursuit of prey, they rarely sit still–or at least when they’re not blocked by a leaf or a branch! Spotting them, much less identifying them is a challenge!
Trying to take photographs of warblers is an exercise in patience and optimism. You spend a lot of time looking up at this…
or at suspicious looking clump of leaves like these…
hoping to see a flash of movement or a splotch of color like this (though preferably when one’s camera settings aren’t off!)…
And then (if you’re lucky!) there are lots and lots of birds around and many “almost got it!” moments like this (unlucky timing, poor camera settings, bad lighting, etc)…
Still, there are many consolation prizes. You get to spend time here…
And sometimes you bump into some other old friends along the way…
If you’re really lucky, you get a few pretty good warbler photos to show for all the effort…
and then sometimes a few that feel deeply satisfying…
All in all, whether you get a photo or not, it’s a wonderful way to spend a spring morning.
My father died on Thanksgiving Day. He had just turned 81, and after 80 healthy years, he had spent the last seven months of his life battling pancreatic cancer. We’ve spent the last four months or so trying to pick up the pieces. This past weekend we paid tribute to my Dad, traveling to Ohio to celebrate his life with family and friends. When it was my turn to share, this is more or less what I said:
When I started teaching fourth grade about five or six years ago, I had to teach students how to write five paragraph essays. The curriculum guide suggested writing a model essay with the claim: “My Father is one of my most important teachers.” At the time, I kind of shrugged and thought, well, I can work with that. But year after year, as I thought about this claim and searched for reasons and evidence and wrote about it, I came to realize that my father had taught me more than I had ever imagined.
First, Dad taught me to think of others. He was unfailingly polite and could be quite a charmer. He enjoyed chatting with people. More than once when I was wandering around talking to medical personnel, trying to track down some random schedule detail or information, the person helping me, upon hearing my dad’s name, would say, “Oh, I remember your Dad! Tell him I’m thinking about him. He’s such a nice guy.” In a word (or two), he was ever affable and gracious, and everyone enjoyed interacting with him.
Dad also taught me to work hard and to get through tough times. Whether it was professionally or personally, Dad didn’t shirk. He reinvented his professional life multiple times, rising above some big challenges. He didn’t moan or groan about it, he just got done what needed to be done. Only as an adult could I begin to appreciate how challenging some of those times must have been. On a lighter note, I also distinctly remember him out mowing the lawn at our home in Pittsburgh, even though his allergies always kicked into gear. He would repeatedly stop to pull out his ubiquitous handkerchief and blow his nose. Then start mowing again. Stop. Blow. Mow. Stop. Blow. Mow. Getting the job done. Meanwhile, I was often cooking him a cake in my Easy Bake oven. Now that’s a memory that still makes me smile.
Above all, Dad taught me the power of a well-played word. He had a great vocabulary and a wonderful sense of humor. He enjoyed using his wit to come up with the perfectly timed quip to make people laugh. He was quick and often quite funny. He had such a marvelous twinkle in his eye when he delivered punch lines or slipped in the perfect jest. He loved using interesting words and finding just the precise word to say what he meant. For example, Dad often reminded me that my face was dolichocephalic. (dolly-co-cephalic) You can look that up. (Believe it or not, somehow that one came up in conversation more than one might imagine. )
Dad was also a terrific punster. One fond childhood memory I have was of taking road trips, usually to visit our grandparents in Ligonier, and asking him to tell the story of “Falling Rock” . Dad had concocted quite a tale for our enjoyment about how Falling Rock was a young Indian boy who had strayed from his tribe. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember begging for the story. And I remember it ended something like, “And that’s why to this very day you still see signs that say “Watch for Falling Rock.”
Over the last year, Dad taught me so much more. He taught me how to handle the worst of situations with dignity, grace and humor. Over and over again when things were tough, he made the best of it. Throughout everything, he kept his sense of humor and dry wit at hand.
Toward the end of his life, he was talking with my niece on the telephone. She said, “So Grandpa, how are you handling everything.” Dad, now restricted to the hospital bed in his bedroom, paused, and then replied to her, succinctly and true to form, “With style.”
One of my most treasured memories is of Dad and me sitting together this past fall, writing limericks. When writing limericks, Dad always included the name of a city and he was bold in his choices (I mean who tries to rhyme with Cincinnati!?). He also didn’t let rhythm and complete rhyme hold him back. So, it seemed only fitting to include a limerick today—and in honor of Dad, I’m including a city name and taking a little bit of license with the rhyming.
There once was a man from Aurora who was a bold verbal explorer Though not always loquacious he was ever sagacious And without him our lives are much poorer
Not long before Dad died, I told him about writing essays about him with my fourth grade students. I told him how I’d come to realize how much I’d learned from him. I shared all my reasons and examples and finally I thanked him.
Dad listened while I talked, and after I finished, he looked at me and said, in his typical, understated way, “Well, Molly, I never knew I taught you all that.”
Somehow this year I’ve managed to misplace my sense of optimism. Once in a while I find it, but then it just slips through my fingers. Again and again. As I write this, I’m realizing that saying I’ve lost my optimism is actually a bit too passive. It’s more like it’s actively engaged in a never-ending game of Hide-and-Seek that I never chose to play. And I’m always “it”. Oh, no! Actually, I think it’s more like that horrible “Keep away” game and I’m the “Monkey in the Middle” and optimism is always sailing just out of reach, over my head. It’s tantalizingly in sight, but I can’t ever get my hands on it. I jump around in uncoordinated leaps trying to do so. Exhausting myself. Until I just give up.
I always hated that “game.”
At any rate, I will keep looking or reaching for the catch, but in the meantime, I’m just looking ahead to the next break.
Countdown to February Break
I can make it four days. Right? Just four! One two three four… Can I make it?
People ask me sometimes, “How do you stand the cold?” or “Aren’t the winters long?” They look at me askance, wondering how I manage Maine winters. Or why I do.
To be honest, the hardest part of winter isn’t the cold, it’s the dark. In December twilight comes quickly. Walking the students out to the buses, the sky is already low on the horizon. Days seem to end before they begin. Later, you start wondering if it’s time for bed, since it’s been dark for hours, but then you realize it’s only 6:30 pm. And that’s if you’re lucky.
On the other hand, winter in Maine offers unique and meaningful consolation prizes for those willing and able to bundle up and get outside. Or simply when looking out the window.
In winter the beach has an entirely different feel. It’s vast, open and beautiful. There are typically a few hardy folk wandering and one or two joyous dogs, but mostly it’s a place removed. Somewhere to get away and lose yourself in broad swaths of sand and sky.
Or if you’re so inclined, you can visit the marshes where familiar grasses and serpentine waters are transformed into an alien world.
Winter sunrise brushes warm colors over a chilled landscape. It skates along the ice and highlights the shadows of leaf-bare tree limbs. Throw in the distant thread of a calling owl and there’s clearly magic in the air.
Keep an eye out, for winter is also the time when majestic snowy owls swoop in to visit from northern climes. These owls, used to long stretches of light in their northern homes, are often out and about in daylight hours. Ruffled elegance on a rooftop.
Bitter cold offers more enchantment. When the temperatures hover around zero, it’s time to visit the shore in search of sea smoke. Frigid air moves over warmer ocean water, forming tendrils of fog. If the winds are calm, the fog gathers, drifts, and swirls. Mesmerizing.
Winter ice storms glaze the world in ice. Summer’s left-overs become winter’s wonders.
Closer to home, on those bitterly cold days, blow bubbles and watch frost unfurl, transforming liquid bubbles to enchanted orbs.
Or check your windows, where cold kisses window panes and frost blossoms again into intricate patterns.
When the frost clears, look out the windows. With trees free of their autumn leaves, there’s so much more you can see. Birds gather, deer wander by and squirrels entertain with their endless antics.
I’ve been in a bit of a funk lately, sort of slogging around through a toxic sludge of negativity, not super pleased with being in my own headspace. (Probably not thrilling those around me either, for that matter.) Overall, I’ve just felt primed to go dark. Here’s a small example: On the Teacher’s Room bulletin board, someone wrote, “What are you looking forward to in 2022?” Others had already responded, writing things like, “To thrive, not just survive” or “My son’s wedding” etc. My immediate knee-jerk response (internal thankfully, since the filter held this time and I didn’t say or write it) was “June 15th”. That just happens to be the last day of school. So, you get the picture.
Anyway, last week, I was walking down the hallway at school, stewing in my own negativity, when I happened to look up and see this bulletin board.
I’ve seen it before, but this time, I stopped and read through it, line by line.
As I read, I thought about the things that have been coming out of my mouth lately: Complaints. Snarky comments. Pessimism. (Just to be clear, the audience to all of this is primarily adults–friends, family and colleagues (sorry, everyone!)– not students. But still.)
So I stood in front of the bulletin board and considered.
Think Before You Speak
is it True? Well, yes, what I say is generally true (though perhaps I’ve been catastrophizing a bit.)
is it Helpful? Um…maybe not so much
is it Inspiring? Oh. No question there. Definitely not.
is it Necessary? Probably not.
is it Kind? Well, it’s not un-kind …
I bumped into two colleagues a little while later and mentioned thinking about the sign.
“Oh, that’s a great bulletin board,” one of them said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I used to have it in my classroom. After reading and thinking about it today, I realized I find the poster and put it back up. I also realized that, in the meantime, I mostly just need to stop talking.”
But I wasn’t totally joking.
The next day, out of the blue, a text arrived with a photo from a distant friend (who courtesy of that distance honestly hasn’t been forced to listen to my negativity).
Last week, Ruth Ayres invited others to write along to the prompt “Beginnings.” There was a time when I would have kept what I’ve written in my notebook. Safe from other’s eyes. Private.
Times have changed.
With my father’s death fresh in my mind, I’ve noticed that every beginning is marked by an ending. Or is it that the endings herald beginnings? Or do beginnings presage endings?
All I know is that right now, my father’s absence colors each threshold. This new year marks the first time in my life that a year won’t have him in it. On my upcoming birthday, there won’t be a card. Or a call. Updates and daily news shrivel unspoken on my lips.
I’ve always hated crying, but I’ve gotten used to it now. I’ve stopped fighting the prickling onset of tears. The slight wobble in my chin. The quiver in my lips. I accept them as part of each day. Not something to lean into. Not something to lean away from. Just something that is.
Tears will flow. Sometimes they brim and overflow, sometimes they pool and tremble, then recede. Sadness reabsorbed. Perhaps they are a beginning of sorts. First steps on a journey?