Saturday, February 15, 2014

Funeral Blues (Song IX / from Two Songs for Hedli Anderson)
W.H. Auden

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun.
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

A Sarah Lawrence classmate gently crossed over yesterday - on a day that celebrates love in all its various forms, and the very day that marked the second date she had with her husband. Reading his words this morning - words wrought of tenderness, respect, and piercing loss -I heaved and sighed. And I am stilled. During a season of endless and unforgiving snow that blankets not just my beloved and so very missed greenness, but also any promise of warmth to come, the words hang suspended - icicles that refuse to melt.

I didn't know K. all that well...I knew the cadence of her Italian from our Italian class together, and the slight envy I had that she, with her equally transcendent voice, made the language ever more beautiful. I recall her raucous laughter, which rang down the hill to Bates (our dining hall) - a bell that jolted you into LIFE. She walked with confidence and her smile made you fall in love with her spirit. She was never lacking for admirers. She never seemed to know how not to love.

An insidious cancer claimed her life, but not her spirit. She tackled her cancer with gusto, grit, and a healthy dose of anger, confronting the "what ifs" with a candor that gripped my heart. In one post, she mentioned getting all of her kids' spring clothing ready and labeled for her husband. I thought of one of my favorite films, Tampopo, which features a memorable vignette of a dying mother cooking one last meal for her family, and then dying while they ate it.  I thought of my own paternal grandmother, who, while dying of liver cancer, filled freezers full of meals for my grandfather. I thought of saying goodbye to our family friend this time last year, and that as my tears spilled into my water, he took my hand in his, gently and firmly, and HE said goodbye. He offered me grace. And I thought, not for the first time that this is how the dying say goodbye -  often with much more grace than those they leave behind. 

As I watched K.'s facebook posts decrease, I began the internal process of saying goodbye to another kindred soul whose ebullience helped me from afar more than I realized. Until now. And with it, I am saying goodbye to something about my time at Sarah Lawrence too. We think we are invincible, most of us. We look to that august time traipsing up and down SLC hills as pure, unchangeable, perfection in four years. At least I have. K. represents this chapter of innocence and freedom in the purest of forms because, by all accounts, she remained that unchanged through adulthood - with a boisterous and unbridled laugh, with a steely will, and with a love for this gift we so often squander: Life.

It is hard to recognize that we say goodbye to innocence in so many ways long after we leave childhood behind.

And until the days stretch a little longer...until the crocus peeps its head through the thaw...until that smell of spring wafts through a cracked window...until our hearts feel a little less heavy, Auden has it right. 

Because sometimes, we just don't know what else to do. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Nietzsche Has a Point

"We love life not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving."

Yesterday was a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day."  It just was.

And I know that it could be exponentially worse (having read this morning of a poet executed for writing. Writing.), so why is it that nearly every interaction, emotion, movement etc...felt like sandpaper rubbing me to the point of complete and utter vulnerability?  With each interaction that left me feeling raw, I kept returning to the inside - the part that feels tender, not raw. And I said to myself, "find the love in this."  The vulnerability: perhaps I choose to feel. I think that makes sense. My armor is paper thin, which is surprising given some chapters in my life. Perhaps my defense, so to speak, is to find the love. I proffer it in spades; I look for it in equal measure. In the sage words of Nietzsche, I am used to loving, above all else.

Find the love when a student stumbles in ways I have no salve to offer.

Find the love when I am in a meeting and a litany of anger is directed at me, because even if I haven't caused the anger, I am the person who hears it and hopefully helps to find solutions.

Find the love when after a day that felt like one hundred days (in a Groundhog Day sort of way), a sweet and sensitive toddler has an extended temper tantrum for which I have no response, save a fumbled request for ten minutes to collect myself, and find the love for this moment with him.

Ten Minutes.

We are told to love ourselves. We tell ourselves to love who we are, warts and all. Being "used to loving" entails the personal loving of people, things, moments that no one else embraces. I tell others this. I grapple with how to give this to myself. I fail fantastically in successfully and lovingly articulating my need for ten minutes: a "Please Pass Go" freebie for behaving like my very own toddler. I struggle mightily - fitfully, even - to recognize that when I ask for my Ten Minutes, I have passed the point of doing so productively, respectfully, lovingly. I struggle because the heart on my sleeve, which cries out "LOVE," sobs in turn... due to my own shortcomings in that department.

Yesterday is in the tender past. The Ten Minutes have been filed away, to be replaced with a beautiful and serene morning, with birds leaping from branch to branch chirping in joyful anticipation of spring, with a good cup of coffee, with the same toddler who gave Maria Callas a run for her money yesterday. Today, he is back to living love.  He has returned to the reflexive act of burying his sweet head of curls and innocence into the crook of my neck, washing clean the spoiled goods of yesterday. I remind myself that it is easier to love than to, out of that defensive mechanism that kicks into high gear, not. That makes me love life, in the crystallized moments that offer a romantic wonder at this great world and all of the singular people who populate mine.There is a lot in life to love, and the bad days remind us of the importance that lies in the loving.

So on a pristine, pure morning, be USED to loving. Make it the norm, not the exception. Breathe it in and out....and when the inevitable stumble happens, begin the breathing anew. Salvation lies in loving, and while at times, my own personal fog obfuscates loving WELL, I have to hope that the loving is our lighthouse. And as we breath in and out, with diffuse beams and a singular spotlight that says, "Yes! This one moment is all for the heart!", each moment is a beacon.

 It is ALL done in love.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


"But I'll spend my days in endless roaming; soft is the grass, my bed is free."

I left the window next to my bed open last night, because it is unseasonably warm, and because I relish fresh air at all times, but there is something singularly pure about nighttime air. I woke this morning to the sound of rain, and just listened. It felt as though I imagine peace tastes. I love these unexpected moments of pause, and the feeling that for one brief breath, the world is doing a happy sigh. The holidays begin in earnest tomorrow, and I have a lot to do. So much to do that I shouldn't be taking this time to write, but I went to bed last night writing this and woke up writing it, and figured that I should take the hint, and WRITE. Write about what?

Well, fortunately there are people in my life who have more focus than I, and whose focus both aids my vision (spiritually speaking) and sharpens my intentions. I was asked to reflect on my year - well, before the year ends - and since I have a week and change to do so, it makes more sense to reflect while I'm still IN it. As opposed to standing on the brink of new and old, and looking back over my shoulder to 2013 while anticipating the tabula rasa of 2014.

The thing about New Year's (as in the holiday) is that I really don't like it so much. Part of it has to do with the fact that for me, staying up through midnight fills me with mild dread. I do not like staying up late and I love/need my sleep. Also: I dislike those little horn things that people blow when the clock strikes midnight.To my ears, that is not a joyous sound. But these are small, external protests that I recognize don't carry too much weight in the scheme of things. New Year's Eve challenges the introvert in me to move into another year with others, when in fact, I like the quiet contemplation of home and hearth much more.

 Additionally, we don't wake up the next day all that different, and I am a firm believer that renewal and resolutions can and should happen at any moment. The concept of time and how to mark its passage is a mystifying one to me, and I suppose the lot of us NEED a moment to mark change, to look for fresh hope in the flipping of a calendar. I get that. And some years are better than others - I think maybe what I am trying to do is look beyond the "better" and "worse" categories to the place of simple and happy acceptance. Acceptance is one of the many cornerstones of love. It is so much easier to accept and adjust the sails, reciting personal mantras of love than it is to fight gale winds thinking that we have any power over Nature - or others, for that matter. We don't. Nor should we.

If I could summarize my year, it would be through the words of a friend of a dear friend: "It's up to each of us to practice love. Don't waste any of your breaths."

Don't waste any of your breaths. In a year when death and illness have been waiting at every monthly flipping of the calendar, this message grabbed hold of my heart in the profoundest of ways. Watching a dear family friend struggling to breathe as we talked over his bowl of soup and I sat next to him holding his hand not wanting him to leave us, I thought about his labored breathing and wished for him that his last breaths would be sweet. Losing a student who chose to take her last breath, and watching our school community have our collective breath knocked out of us, without warning, without the armor to protect our hearts from the heaves and sighs that attend such loss. And so on, with others who left us too early, too suddenly, too painfully...learning through this that when we BREATHE, we have choice. Choice in how we love, how we forgive, how we greet and conclude each day. Choice in how our own breath speaks.

 2013 has held a whole lot of questioning in its palm, and with every question, a flurry fog of few answers. CHOICE felt burdensome to me at times, which is really not all that helpful to those around me, and in the end, robs me of the whole breathing in the moment thing that I so deeply cherish. It was in autumn that my own resolutions emerged like a gale force wind: BREATHE, Paige. Breathe and practice love simultaneously. It's not that I didn't do this before, but rather that I wanted to be more intentional and mindful of the love that I was putting out.

John Green noted that "We tilt our lives to catch the wind." In May, I shared these words in a speech I gave about the gift of teaching. In June, our sweet magical son turned two and his relentless wonder at this magical world opened up like a Jack-in-the-Box, with so many words - his first "I love you"; his first "NO!"; his first "Why?" All of this LOVE shared so openly in a singsong voice, and with laughter in his beautiful eyes. 2013 has been a year of wonder.

So this is what life is, year in and year out. For every loss, there is more to gain - whether it is in the way of a shifted perspective, a slowing of the breath, or new souls who join us in the breathing. It is how we adjust our sails to catch the breeze in ways that ensure that everyone around us knows the power of the love we proffer. It is in the practice of love, which YES, requires practice. And it is in choosing how we spend each breath, guarding them, not wasting them, and breathing out love as we go, remembering that seas will be wide, and endless roaming need not be lonely.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

On sunrooms and courtyards

“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . ."”

-C.S. Lewis

It is an early Sunday morning and my sweet son stands in his crib, asking for his Yizzy. "Where did she go?"  "Where is she?" He repeats this earnestly, his nose pressed against mine, in hopes that if he asks enough times, she will magically appear. Two-year olds are good at never giving up on hope. They are also remarkably good at sussing out the innately good people from the not-so-good.

Not to be deterred by his quest to find his Yizzy, he then suggests going "to the sunroom" - he is convinced she lives there (I mean, in all seriousness, who wouldn't?), and will often come downstairs in the morning, expecting to see her in the sunroom, where his toys are and his memories are made, and where the sun comes in just at the moment it is most needed. It's a pretty magical place. I assure him that we will see her at school, and he seems okay with that...until we drive home again in the evening: "Yizzy in the sunroom?" It is almost a daily occurrence.

At school, all of the girls - my high school students - want his attention, which is equal parts endearing and also overwhelming for a little boy surrounded by so many big girls, all of whom know HIM, but few to which he can put a name to a face. He is slow to warm to most people (excepting one sophomore who was his first CRUSH and who had him at hello), but once you are firmly in his circle, you have his heart completely.

And then there is Lizzy.

Lizzy (aka Liz, aka Elizabeth, aka Lizzy Lou, aka Lizard...) came into our lives a few short months ago. She has a laugh that is contagious- it brings a kind of immediate joy to your heart that leaves you in a better mood for the rest of the day.  She has an understated and very mature ease about her that really does force you to stop what you're doing and just sort of marvel at the thoughtfulness and warmth with which she interacts with her world, despite some of the reasons why she may not feel so joyous at times. We all have our stories, and hers has been hard.

In the traditional sense, she is my student and I, her teacher...but oftentimes, it feels the other way around. And reflexively, she has become family to us in ways that make one thankful for the small miracles that turn into bigger ones over time.  It took no effort on her part to work her way deep into my heart, and very little effort to win the affections of Ezra, who looks to her as his own personal lighthouse - the person with whom he connects at school in the mornings, who makes him feel safe, who plays ball with him and teaches him funny faces. She is the person he clamors to see when we go to school, SHE is the person who understands that he likes being spoken to directly, without the high-pitched sing-song that so many of the girls lovingly use to greet him. She gets him. Without fanfare, she has won his whole heart, not on the level of crush, but almost on the level of older sibling. "HIS Yizzy" - this declaration of possession - is akin to saying that she is of his tribe, his people, and that means something so much more.

For me, she is as much a piece of my soul as anyone else in my life. It is more often than not that when in the same room, we have the same response to a question someone has asked, to the point that one student laughingly noted "You two are like the same person!" She can read my mood in a second, and knows when to make me laugh, and when to give a hug - these are things that most adults fail to do, so it is especially rare that a teenager with so much happening in her own life steps so seamlessly out of her orbit to offer her presence in mine.  And she has allowed me into her life too, which is no simple task. To express one's heartaches and struggles is rarely a painless process and it hasn't been easy for her. Sometimes these moments are born due to the person with whom one is sharing, and sometimes it is about the setting: sitting in the courtyard of our school one afternoon, she shared some of the challenges she faces, and we sat in the perfect sunlight, with the perfect trees against a perfectly blue sky, and somehow even the hardest of struggles seemed better articulated, and more authentically felt in that snapshot of, well, perfection. 

And we realize that these are struggles we can face. And we can overcome them, too. Sometimes it just takes a courtyard or a sunroom to realize this beautiful truth.

More often than not, it has to do with the members of that selected tribe we cull together, those special individuals who fit into the patterns of light and shadow that dance in our sunrooms and courtyards. These are the people who teach us about the wide expanse of family and what it really means. Thank you, Lizzy, for doing this with your whole heart, and for being part of our tribe.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ten Years

On November 4, it will be ten years. Ten years since we last heard her voice, saw her newest paintings, found her sleeping covered in a white afghan on one of my parents' couches (I remember thinking that she looked like one of Peter Pan's Lost Boys as she slept, tangled in the blankets with her short pixie haircut). Ten years since that summer when I received one her many witty texts, this time saying "Love Santa stuck in chimney."

Ten years since we sat hunched together on a big cooler at one of my parents' outdoor tent parties, and I told her I would leave my husband. She was the first to know. We sat together and watched all of the laughing people, dancing and clapping and singing to the music. We watched, and she said to me "You will find happiness, Paige. You are destined to have it."

Ten years since she brought a stack of her canvases over, laid them out on the breakfast table, and asked me to describe Michelangelo's technique of did he get them to look so old? I suggested candle smoke. She loved the idea. We made plans to go to Italy in the spring -- I for my research, she to tag along and get ideas for her work.

Ten years since we saw her palette on the altar of the church - "fitting" I thought to myself at the time, "but not the right time." Not the right time. And on that same day, holding up my father on our way back to the church pew after seeing her open casket, I couldn't walk without counting "1, 2, 3" over and over again in my head. Her beautiful artist hands with perfect nails and fingers that Michelangelo would have swooned over, into which I slipped a four leaf clover.  My father's shaking hands. Our shaking hearts.

Ten years since my parents opened their home and hearts to all of her many loved ones, a party in her honor in their great room the night before her funeral. She said to me once "I never got the concept of a great room until I saw your house. This room IS GREAT." She noticed the Windsor chairs my parents collected and made them beautiful collage coasters with antique prints of Windsor chairs. Helping my parents feed her friends, I placed glasses of wine onto her coasters, and silently cursed her for making them.

For my dad, ten years without a day trip companion to go antiquing for glass medicine bottles, pieces of pottery, and birds nest, which she loved. Ten years of her gentle jibes: "You're special Greg, but not that special" when he sped through a toll booth after a Bruce Springsteen concert.

For my mom, no one to sit at the table, slowly sipping a glass of her customary red wine and talking to my mom as she cleaned the kitchen...and also, given the early to bed nature of the rest of our family, no one with whom to stay up late talking.

For her friends, ten years since she asked one to borrow a shotgun to shoot mistletoe out of the trees. Ten years since she laid her head in the lap of another some hours before dying - a dear, sweet man whose tender heart belonged to her, and whose own painting, made at her urging, hangs in my living room as a reminder of how worlds become connected through tragedy.  

And ten years since our last meal together. She ordered three desserts, and when asked if she wanted the cardamom ice cream, she declared with utter certainty, "Make it so." Ten years since I held her hands for the last time, hugged her thinking that I would see her over Thanksgiving. Ten years since, with my parents, we all listened to Iron and Wine in my living room and she asked me for the name of the album while she sat on the floor stroking my cat, looking with a distant curiosity at my new and unfamiliar world. A blessed world without him...and then hours later, a world so suddenly without her.

Ten years since I had a friend over for dinner, and we were laughing over soup and wine, listening to music. The windows were open; it was a crisp autum night. And my baby sister called three times before I heard my phone ring from the bedroom. Her sob like a strangle, "Paige, Cheri's gone." I stood in the threshold between my bedroom and my living room, and I remember thinking, "This is what they tell you to do during hurricanes." Brace yourself. You won't be able to stand up without support from both sides. Hold tight to the door frame when a wave of grief pushes you into a place and you need to stop it from spinning. And you then realize that the world actually hasn't moved at all...but still, it won't ever be the same. 

Ten years of not being able to hear Don MacLean's "Starry, Starry Night" without thinking of her: "And with no hope left in sight/on that starry, starry night/you took your life as lovers often do/but I could have told you Vincent/this world was never meant for one/as beautiful as you."

Perhaps this is the only answer we can ever have when our hearts can't move past absence and loss. This morning, I saw the box she made for me, which she painted with peonies because she knew how much I loved them. I picked it up, and pried the lid off, breathing in linseed oil and a profound longing that has no word, no picture, nothing to give it proper weight. Oil paint doesn't ever really dry, and so the box is still sticky when it is opened, ten years later.

Tears, grief, loss - they never really "dry" either. My heart, though stronger, is not the same. It will never stop missing her. Ten years later.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


I'm sure I have mentally composed about 50 gajillion blog posts, ranging in topics from my little muse of a son to unexpected losses - some violent and sudden, some expected and peaceful - all heartwrenching - to moving into a new home a few blocks away from the old piece of heaven, and transforming this new space into something similar - to teaching and being taught in my career. And so much in between. I was asked by one of my very new but very favorite people on the planet why I wasn't writing - a question my husband has repeatedly asked me, because he knows it brings me something I have been missing. I didn't really ask myself the same question with the seriousness that I should have until about an hour ago, when I was dressing my son for bed and then reading him a story as he lay with his head in my lap, one little hand on my knee, another holding the edge of the book.

Maybe - to use the ostrich metaphor - we just retreat from the things we know are so good for us when the going gets rough. For some reason, sticking one's head in the sand is somehow easier than taking the time to do what makes us happy. Go figure. Or maybe the fatigue of juggling work and home and parenting and health just prompted an unintended pause button. That then got stuck....

Leave it to my friend Shannon to stir me to action with a directive: "Write about love for me," she politely asked. Well, okay then. I think about love a whole gosh darn heck of a lot, so this should be easy. And parts of it were easy like Sunday morning. Parts of it felt a little like doing 50 sit-ups after a 2 year hiatus. Oh, there is a muscle there? Huh.

But this is the thing about a "retreat" from something: if it doesn't force you to question pieces of your life, you need to try harder. Or something. At least work until the muscle hurts a wee bit.

Yesterday I returned from an ACTUAL PHYSICAL retreat with my new batch of ninth graders. It was pretty profound on a number of levels, not the least of which was my own realization that in getting to know some of my advisees and their truly wonderful hearts, I was forgetting about the needs of my own heart. Writing about love for Shannon was an initial heads-up that "Oh hey, Paige - you like doing this! Here's a grand idea - do more of it!"  And then sometimes, people come into your life and open up your heart ever wider. This happened.

Thank the stars and the crickets for those people. And thank the moons and the heavens that such people keep coming. There is no shortage of  personal thresholds (a theme I'm embracing this year) if you can at least learn to recognize them.  And so too, there is no shortage of blessings in the form of kindred spirits to mark those thresholds and give them their meaning.

So yesterday's retreat was a threshold in that I remembered something so painfully simple. I woke up early in the morning, took a quick shower to loosen my joints, and then sat outside to watch the sun rise. Surrounded by soybean fields and endless skies, I watched and listened to one of my very favorite things: Canadian Geese. Why anyone would want to shoot these beautiful bits of poetry out of the sky is beyond me. I mean, they mate for life! I watched them glide slowly down to land gently in a corn field, and I found myself thanking them for sharing in this morning with me. And I realized: salvation comes in all forms, but most principally, it can be found in the notion that in giving of oneself, one is receiving something in return. Holy revelations. And also: it's about time I remembered that.

Because I have a pretty constant soundtrack happening in my head, THIS was yesterday's morning anthem. It helped that the sunrise was a singularly spectacular orange.  It helped that my students - those I am charged to shepherd through their first year of high school - offer a type of love and understanding to those around them that it really does feel like a salvation of sorts. Everyone is saving someone. It is how retreating and then returning to a newly established center works. It is how the heart beats in its best of moments. And to the one inspiring soul who innocently asked me why I stopped writing, thank you.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Meditations on a pacifier

"Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, "grow, grow."

I am watching him through some newfangled, hi-tech monitor thing that my husband set up and tested on the dogs a good six months before he joined us. Twenty three minutes after putting him down for his nap, he is awake. I don't love that he regards naps with a casual disdain typically reserved for things like aspic. I do love that with each thought and impression, his entire body moves in response.

Everything really is that mind-blowing at six months old.

Yesterday, at his six month wellness visit, he wriggled happily on the examination table, bunching the paper on the table beneath him with his eager chubby baby hands, listening to the crinkle, the tear, the shhhhhhh sound it made. His need to touch everything is astounding. His feet (two of his very favorite things), my cup of tea, the Buddha bell that hangs on our doorknob, the stream of water at bath time, the ears of the dogs, my lips, my cheeks, sunglasses, hair, necklaces...all of these little tactile moments recording and transcribing some sense of order in his little world.

Today, he takes his pacifier out of his mouth. With his left hand. He does most things with his left hand, a source of pride for his southpaw mama. He studies it, turning it over and upside down, his eyes widening at each turn. He marvels that he does this. He marvels at his command of his hands in their ability to master the pacifier. He lets out several long "eeeeeeeahhhhhhhhhh" exclamations that remind me of Tibetan monk chants. He kicks his legs, and exclaims with a grunting staccato "Eh Meh Eh" that has the precision and force of Genghis Khan behind it. He makes raspberries, resumes his monk chants and then remembers the pacifier he holds in his hand. He smiles fondly at it, cooing love at a familiar piece of plastic with a joy I wish we didn't ever lose.

Several attempts, and the pacifier is back in his mouth, and his cherub lips purse and suck, smacking gladly at this accomplishment. Triumph.

Such moments of sweet victory pass quickly in the busy life of a baby. And for his sleepless, awestruck parents, there is always some moment of rediscovery and the accompanying wonder at how it was ever lost. How to pull back the curtains and let in the light. He does this now from his changing table, gleefully flapping the fabric and watching it fall again. "Embrace this moment, mama" he seems to say. "Look at the way the curtain moves, and the hippos on it dance." With his own little hands, he does this. He creates his happiness. He lets in his own light.

Sometimes he stops whatever it is that he is doing and with an awareness that belies his relatively few days, he looks at me, silently. With dark liquid eyes that reflect so much light, he stares at me intently. Such moments are profoundly moving. "I know you. I see you." "I see you!" I often respond, with want for something more fitting to say.

As parents and as people, we look backward and forward in a seesaw motion that can give one whiplash. I don't want to do this. This moment right now is pretty perfect. And as we turn a corner and greet 2012, I am thankful that 2011 has reminded me of this one truth.

Ezra. Thank you for being here, you imperfectly perfect you.