Packing: Five Things I’ve Learned

Photo of stacked boxes

Shredder, lamp bases, frogs. That’s my favorite of the 151 labels I’ve written on boxes since I started packing back in June. For the last two months, I’ve been running up and down the stairs, lifting, sorting, tossing, carrying, wrapping, weighing, taping, and stacking every single thing my husband and I own.

Rusty has been watching me with his head tilted to the side. He is worried that I might pick him up, wrap him in newspaper, and throw him in a box labeled winter coats, wine chiller, dog. (And if you want to know why a person moving to Florida would have a box labeled winter coats in the first place, you are already beginning to understand what this process has been like for me.)

Rusty’s distress aside, I’m now happy to report that the movers will be here in a few days, and we are ready. I hadn’t planned to stop posting essays while I packed, but once packing was underway, I couldn’t sit still long enough to complete anything that wasn’t going to end up swaddled in cardboard.

I like to think I was just listening to my old friend Rilke. He says, “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines.”

I don’t know if I’ll pull off ten good lines here, but I do feel like I have been packing for a whole lifetime. Perhaps I’ve even gained a little sense and sweetness. Here is what I’ve learned while my blog was dark.

ONE: I can only be single-minded about one thing at a time.

What’s that thing that’s the opposite of an oxymoron called again? Oh, right, a tautology. That heading I just wrote fits perfectly, because the term single-minded already means one thing. But believe me, it takes more than a tight tautology to convince me that I can’t finish a paid writing project, prepare two Sunday’s worth of music to play in public, write a guest post for another blog, and keep posting on my own blog while I single-mindedly stuff 3,500 hundred square feet of house into 151 cardboard containers.

Nope, what it takes is exhaustion, sore feet, sore hands, a few tears, and a few dozen eye-rolls from Fred. Things got better when I realized I could just stop doing everything else for a while. (I offer this as a cautionary tale–if you are like me, you will conclude that unlike me, you have what it takes to pull off doing everything at once. To you I say, “Hello, kindred spirit.” We can talk again when you reach the other side.)

Two: I should have been great at Tetris.

Remember Tetris? All those little Ls and Ts and squares fall from the sky, and your job is to stack them into a perfectly filled-in wall. My step-daughter is great at it. No amount of practice could make me good at that game. I just played for free online and confirmed that I’m still terrible at it.

And yet, if I do say so myself, I am a ninja when it comes to packing. That tiny empty space at the top of the box of kitchen bowls? It would be the perfect size for my mother’s old music box. That square wooden Cathy’s Kitchen sign (my mother’s again)? That will fit perfectly to reinforce the bottom of the box with the pots and pans. In perhaps my finest ninja moment, I emptied the third roll of packing tape and realized that the cardboard ring inside would perfectly protect the little glass globe my parents brought from Italy.

Don’t even get me started on tearing off the perfect size piece of bubble wrap for every picture. I’m telling you, if this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I’ve got options.

To be fair, I should mention that Fred has a ninja packing skill of his own. He can smell an empty cardboard box from three streets away, and charm grocery stockers, gutter shop owners, and my favorite winery into passing them along. Of those 151 boxes, I think we paid for three.

Three: The gap between what I have and what I need is immense.

I probably should say obscene, but being that honest might compel me to take more action than I’m ready to take. Ever since I packed up the kitchen, we’ve been living just fine with one skillet, one 2-quart pot for boiling water, and one French press coffee pot. If you look in the boxes you’ll find something like twenty-two pots and skillets. (I didn’t count them, but I’m not exaggerating and I’m a little afraid that I might be undercounting.)

And for the record, I found that barely used French press tucked deep in a cabinet behind some dried out bandaids as I fretted about packing my real coffee pot, the one that grinds the beans and has my coffee ready for me when I wake up in the morning.

I could go on and on: clothes, shoes, books, vases, tools, even underwear. I have too much of all of them.  It’s sobering to pile up all the evidence of your excess in boxes in the living room. One night I was talking to my sister and Clare told me that she came to this same realization  when she was packing for her own recent move. She said she found herself crying at the size of the job, until she realized that it was ridiculous to be crying because she had too much.

While I haven’t gotten rid of anywhere near as much as I should have, Clare’s words have helped me keep this work in perspective.

Four: One thing empties another.

I started packing the same way I start every big task. I made a giant list of every area in the house I’d need to pack. It included things like “upstairs hall closet, loft, upstairs master bedroom, closet under the stairs, china cabinet, bookshelves…” and so on.

I love lists. I’m one of those people who adds things to my to-do list after I’ve completed them just so I can enjoy the satisfaction of crossing them off. This list, though, wasn’t working. For weeks and weeks, I couldn’t cross anything off. I’d start emptying the hall closet, and before I knew it, I was running to my bedroom for a sweatshirt to wrap around a tennis racket. I’d find myself needing some stuffing to keep the mugs from rattling around, so I’d head to my sock drawer. Towels dribbled out of linen closets; shoes and plastic hangers filled gaps in boxes of lamp bases and tools.

I kept complaining to friends and family that everything was in process and nothing was getting done.

Then one day, Fred and I walked around the house opening closets and tugging on drawers, and there wasn’t anything in them. Somehow we’d packed up the house without ever crossing anything off the list.

One thing empties another. I feel like there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Five: Packing tricks you into thinking you can take it with you.

One gentle Tuesday a few weeks ago, my packing had a sound track. Aurora, the violin-playing-gymnast grandchild, is learning to play guitar. She doesn’t learn a new instrument the way I would, by buying books and obsessing over understanding every little detail.

“What are the notes for each string?” I ask her. “I don’t know,” she shrugs. She’s just learning to play one song, gently, beautifully, confidently. This morning she plays the first eight bars of “Here Comes the Sun” over and over again while I pull plates and bowls out of kitchen cabinets, wrap them in newspapers, and seal them into cardboard boxes.

It’s a gentle morning, and Aurora’s playing is light and lovely. She and I have been playing music together since she was a tiny kid who wouldn’t talk and wanted violin lessons. In a few minutes we’ll both stop and slice some strawberries for lunch. In a few weeks, she’ll start high school. She is on a mission to finish in three years. In a few months, I’ll move.

Right now, though, I’m savoring this moment standing in the kitchen. I’m not thinking about where either of us is headed tomorrow. “Here comes the sun,” the music sings again and again.

I keep wrapping plates, surprised by how easy it is to believe.


Thanks for coming back! If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to pass it on and tell a friend about LiveLoveLeave. If all goes well, I’ll be back in a week. 

Dogs I’ve Known

Photo of Rusty lying down
Excuses, excuses.

I’ll tell you about some dogs I’ve known, but first I need to make some excuses. Last week I was ahead of the game. I wrote a full draft of a post on Sunday afternoon, so when Monday got busy, I didn’t worry. I figured I’d revise Tuesday morning, post my essay, and call another week of blogging a success.

That plan worked great until Tuesday morning, when I reread my essay and couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure what was going on in my head. I’ve fought that “it’s not good enough” demon many times before. Every other time, though, I’ve managed to wrangle my ideas into some sort of small truth, hold my breath, and press the “Publish” button.

Tuesday morning, I couldn’t even stay in the game. I bailed. That unrevised essay is sitting abandoned in my “drafts” folder, where it might just live out the rest of its days. “It will be ok,” I told myself. “I can still post something later this week.”

Then Wednesday, I got sick. By Thursday evening my eyes were streaming, my nose was dripping, and I felt like I was breathing with lungs full of honey.

So, as I languish on the couch not writing next to a full box of Kleenex and an empty box of Kleenex that I’m using as a trash can, Fred says what he always says when I say I’ve run of things to say.

“Write about dogs,” he says. “Or dead people. People like that stuff.”

So last week passed

that way, and through my coughing, sniffling, chills, and fever, I’ve been thinking about all the dogs I’ve known.

I’m not counting the Farrell’s Lhasa Apso that barked ferociously from the top of their stairs and made me afraid to feed him. Or Pepper, the Watchen’s lab who I sometimes watched for a weekend when they went away.

I’m talking about dogs I’ve known like Benny the Beagle. He was the first dog. I didn’t want a dog. Then Fred and I went to dinner one night and as we ate, he told me stories about the dog that slept under his crib when he was a baby.

We went home that night with Ben, whose sole talent in life was to look soulfully into your eyes until you gave him food. My father-in-law used to cook him steak, and eggs, and chicken. (On the same day–that was breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)

Many years later, when Peter and Ben were both much older, they would sit together on the couch watching tv and eating peanuts out of a giant can.

Then somehow

(and this part is still a little fuzzy), we got Annabelle.  She was a puppy when we got her. I remember that we used to say, “No, Ben,” a lot, but take it from me: “Just say no” doesn’t work any better as birth control than it did with drugs.

So for a little while, I knew a bunch of beagle puppies. In those days, we still had the waterbed Fred owned when I first met him. That’s where Annabelle went when it was time to bring her babies into the world. Let’s just say that wasn’t an ideal choice for any of us.

Of all the dogs I’ve known,

I remember three of those puppies. Our friend Ed and his wife and four kids came to visit as the puppies were just getting old enough to give away. Ed didn’t want a dog. No dogs allowed. He absolutely didn’t want a dog.

On the last day of their visit, we went shopping for a crate so they could take their puppy on the airplane. Sherlock was a beloved member of their family until he died happily, many years later.

I also remember the puppy that didn’t make it. I held him in my hands as Fred drove to the vet. She said some things I don’t remember, and then I held the puppy as she inserted the needle. I remember watching his heart go from beating to still. Outside Fred leaned on the hood of the car, and his whole body crumpled in one lone sob.

The last puppy I remember is CT, or Lester Crooked Tail, to be official. He was born with a gimpy tail and an opportunistic bent. Fred’s dad Peter didn’t think the dogs should be alone when we went to work, so a few days a week, we’d drop the dogs at Grandpa daycare.

CT knew a good thing when he saw it. While the other dogs romped and rollicked like normal puppies, CT glued himself to Peter. Sure enough, he got himself adopted by the man who cooked meals for his dogs.

Years later

when we sold our house and built a house that was big enough to live in with Fred’s parents, the beagle family was reunited. My sister Clare (not a dog person) once described Ben, Annabelle, and CT as furniture that followed you around.

While I’m thinking about it, Clare is the only person I’ve ever known whose houses come with pets. Every time she moves, there’s some animal that “comes with” the house. Bentley, who came with her house on the hill in West Virginia,  is another dog I’ve known.

He lived on the land at my sister’s before she moved in. He moved over and made some room for them and slept on their porch for years. When I’d visit, I’d feed Bentley ham and he’d let me brush him, much to my sister’s surprise. I was sad when I learned Bentley died. He was a good dog.

When Ben died, I learned that dying is something that happens to your mouth. Ben had been slowing down, hinting that something was going on, for a few weeks. Then, he rebounded. For a full week, he ran up and down the stairs and  followed us all around the house.

Then one afternoon, he lay down for a nap in the sun near the back door and didn’t wake up. You could see it in the funny set of his mouth.  CT died under a table in the living room. Annabelle was harder. She didn’t want to die. By the time we took her to the vet, she was so obviously close to dying that we wished we hadn’t taken her. I held her head and she was gone.

Other dogs I’ve known include Snow White, who smells bad and sits on my lap when we watch her. And Circuit, who pushes Rusty away and flops his crook-eared head into your lap, pledging affection without a price tag.

And then there’s Rusty.

Rusty has always been more person than dog. He worries a lot. Change unsettles him. He watches tv and barks at the animals, even if they are fake animals. Every time. I’m talking to you, Geico gecko. And you, Trip Advisor owl in your bathrobe. Rusty knows you’re up to no good.

Lately, Rusty has been having a lot of trouble standing up. His back legs aren’t working so well. We tried going up to bed without him, but he’d wake up after an hour or so and bark from the bottom of the stairs. Now we sleep downstairs in the guest room.

Rusty has an appointment at the vet on Thursday, and I’m hopeful that there will be something she can do to help him get more mobile again. A pill, a shot, a fancy “hip harness” device like I’ve seen online. Once he’s up and going, he’s all puppy.

So, there’s a quick tour of the dogs I’ve known. I’m grateful to them for their uncomplicated dogginess and their unwavering love.

Being sick has made for a strange day. I was too miserable even to read, so I’ve been writing a little and dozing in front of the tv.

It wasn’t a great day to watch CNN. In between writing about dogs, I’ve been looking at pictures of kids in cages and listening to tapes of children crying for their parents.

The thing I remember best about my father-in-law was that he liked dogs more than people. On a day like today, it’s easy to see why.


As always, thanks for reading, and feel free to share this post with your friends.

Learning to Drive

Photo of rose bush

My oldest granddaughter is learning to drive. She fiddles with the levers under the seat to adjust it just so and backs out of the driveway. Her shoulders are up around her ears, and I have to coax her to relax a little.

Her eyes are glued to the pavement right in front of her. I encourage her to  sweep the road with her eyes, to glance in the rearview mirror. It’s as though she is somehow paralyzed and in motion at the same time.

When I was learning to drive

someone told me to “Aim High in Steering.” It must have been a heading in the Pennsylvania Drivers’ Manual, because it’s been running through my head like a chapter heading ever since Cali first got behind the wheel of my Subaru a few weeks ago.

Today she wants a bigger challenge, so we head down Golf Course and hang a right on Montano. We’re heading for Unser, where the road cuts through the petroglyphs and intersects the far west stretch of Paseo del Norte.

The road opens out as we cruise past the volcanoes and the Double Eagle airport. The city falls away to the east, and if you aim high in steering, all you see is desert road unravelling before you. Cali takes the curves gently and doesn’t panic as impatient drivers zoom by on her left.

I’m usually a nervous passenger,

but for some reason, I channel utter zen cool when someone is learning to drive. My step-daughter still jokes that when I taught her, I would say, in a matter-of-fact tone, things like, “You might want to tap the brakes now before that semi flattens us.”

I can’t explain it, but nothing Cali does really throws me. She’s doing fine, other than the fact that she doesn’t quite get the idea of stopping gradually as you come to an intersection. (“You might want to brake sometime soon,” I say a few times.) I don’t even flinch when  we hang a left and she turns into the oncoming traffic instead of the right lane. “Go to the right,” I say a few times, and she does. We don’t even have to hop the median.

My point is that while she’s cruising the desert, I have time to think about aiming high in steering. If I remember my Drivers’ Ed right, I think the idea is to pay attention to what’s happening up ahead, to lift your gaze beyond what’s right in front of you so you can anticipate problems before they happen.

It might be the advice Cali needs as she stares straight ahead, but for some reason I haven’t passed on this particular nugget yet. (“Ease off the gas when you see brake lights,” and “If there’s a ball rolling into the road, there will be a child”–these are the ones I’ve told her.)

It’s June,

so lizards are skittering up the back wall and the roses need a good dead-heading. Cali pulled uneventfully into the driveway after chalking up another hour and a half in her driving log, and I’m still chewing on”Aim High in Steering.”

Is it the opposite of living in the moment? Usually when I hear kids planning out their whole future, I cringe a little. I know teachers are supposed to be in favor of setting goals, but so much of what teenagers are planning comes from other people’s goals and expectations for them.

Most of them haven’t found that thing that makes them vibrate yet; or, if they have, too often they have to set it aside  to jump through all the other hoops we put in front of them and call school.

Live now, I tell them. You’ll figure it out. Life will ask you questions and you’ll build a life by answering them.

And yet,

come October I won’t live here anymore. I yanked my gaze out of the present, and now I’m learning to drive into a different life. When I first made this decision, a friend told me that “the universe rewards boldness.”

It sounded encouraging, but I didn’t know what she meant until it started happening. Barriers, stress points, uncertainties–all those things are just evaporating. I’m aiming high in steering, and friends keep running out into the road ahead to clear the way.

This afternoon when I was trying to figure out where this post was going, I pulled The Art of Possibility off my shelf. In Chapter 8, “Giving Way to Passion,” the Zanders quote Martha Graham. She says, “There is a vitality, a life force…that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it…it will be lost.”

There’s a lesson there,

I think. Once upon a time, a Buddhist nun asked me to wash some special glasses. They had belonged to her parents, she told me. I washed them carefully, dipping them in the soapy water one at a time. As I placed the last one in the drying rack on the counter, I missed the peg, and it shattered on the tile floor.

I felt terrible, knowing that the glass was important to her. When I told her what had happened, though, she said, “It is the nature of glass to break.”

Back in January before I threw my whole life up into the air, I wrote, “It’s madness not to be who you are.” What I didn’t know then is that when you step deeply into who you are, into your unique nature, you step into energy, into Graham’s “life force.” It turns out, that force has (is?) a momentum all its own.

So that’s what I know as June warms up the lizards on the back wall. Cali is about eight hours into her life as a driver. Next time we go out, I think I’ll tell her to aim high in steering.

Right now, though, the rose bush is shouting for attention, so I’ll stop here. I’ve got to get out the clippers and make way for some new things to bloom.


As always, feel free to share this post and invite your friends to check out LiveLoveLeave! I’d love to hear from you.

Not Talking about the Trinity

Photo of three small lit tea candles, but we are not talking about the Trinity.

[This week, I’m posting a sermon I delivered at St. Michael and All Angels. Back to regular posts next week!]

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How many times have I said those words and made that gesture without thinking about it?

When Father Joe asked me to preach today, his email included this note, “Fair warning,” he said. “It’s Trinity Sunday.” To be honest, at first I didn’t really know why he was warning me. I guess I’ve never paid much attention to the feast of the Trinity.

So, I did what I often do when I’m confronted with mystery. I fired up my laptop and typed “preaching on Trinity Sunday” into google. I found things like “Dear Priests: The Top Five Heresies to Avoid This Trinity Sunday”; or this one: “It’s Heresy Sunday: Don’t Fall for the Trap”; and my favorite: “Tweeting Trinity: Because Heresy is Meh,” which unfolded as a series of 66 tweets. We’ll come back to #61 later.

I was starting to understand Father Joe’s warning,

so I made a snap decision. We’re not going to talk about the Trinity today. I’m going to leave deepening our understanding of the triune nature of God to the professionals.

Instead, I want to talk about Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus in today’s gospel. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. The Jewish Virtual Library describes the Pharisees as “blue collar Jews” who are the “spiritual fathers of modern Judaism.”

Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night,” presumably to avoid being seen. He starts the conversation with what seems to me to be an unequivocal declaration of faith.  “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God,” he says. That’s his going in position: knowledge–not suspicion, not curiosity, not hope. “We know,” Nicodemus says. “No one could do what you do without the presence of God.” Of course, he doesn’t say that Jesus is “the son of God,” but if I get sidetracked by that technicality, we might end up talking about the Trinity, and we’re not going to do that today. Suffice it to say that Nicodemus knows that Jesus has come from God.

The last thing Nicodemus says is “How can these things be?” I have been thinking that living in the space between those two comments— “we know that you are of God,” and “how can these things be?” — might define our lives as Christians. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

It occurs to me that to call ourselves Christians

is to do exactly that: to declare our willingness to sit with mystery.

In between those two statements by Nicodemus, Jesus says a lot of important and famous things.  “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” and “no one can enter the kingdom without being born of water and the spirit.”

We know that Nicodemus is “astonished” by these words, because Jesus says to him, “Do not be astonished.”

But let’s leave Nicodemus with his jaw hanging open in astonishment for just a moment. I want to tell you about the butterflies. Not just any butterflies, but a few dozen specific butterflies hanging from the eaves at Bosque School about two weeks ago. On Wednesday morning, they began to emerge from their chrysalides. We watched in awe as each chrysalis first opened, as a new creature stepped gingerly into the world. They hung there for hours. While we watched, each butterfly unfurled one wing at a time, then the two wings would start to spread apart and stretch open. Finally, early that afternoon, the first butterfly stepped off the overhang and flew.

I couldn’t stop thinking about them. These beautiful creatures, (Cathy Bailey came by and told us they were mourning cloaks) have been here before. What I was witnessing wasn’t their first birth. They knew the earth first as something to crawl upon and now they know it as something to soar over. Maybe that’s what it’s like to be born from above, to be born of the holy spirit.

But we are not talking about the Trinity this morning.

Let’s get back to Nicodemus. In this country, we love to evaluate teachers. In that spirit, when Jesus turns to Nicodemus and says, “Aren’t you a teacher of Israel? I can’t believe you don’t understand this,” one might conclude that this wasn’t Jesus’ finest teaching moment.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if Jesus had said something like, “Oh, I see these metaphors aren’t working for you. Let me lay it out more simply”?

But far be it be from me, a person who is afraid to talk about the Trinity on Trinity Sunday, to rewrite Jesus’s lines for him. Instead, Jesus doubles down on the figurative language. He says,

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

In other words, be willing to sit with the mystery.

The wonder I felt that Wednesday morning

watching the butterflies emerge and soar lasted exactly forty-eight hours. Friday morning, at work at Bosque again, the chrysalides were hanging empty from the eaves, and I started getting texts from my husband.  Sadly, you probably know where I am going with this. The names of the cities are starting to blur. That morning, it was Santa Fe, Texas where an angry young white man showed up at his school and started shooting. Two days ago, just before I left my house to attend a joyous graduation ceremony at Bosque, a seventh grade boy in Noblesville, Indiana, started shooting his classmates.

I find myself standing here before Jesus, among all of you, friends and fellow believers, and all I have are the words of Nicodemus. “I know you are from God” I repeat, almost like a mantra in the face of suffering, almost as though I am trying to convince myself. I know you are from God, I say. Yet “how can these things be?”

Nicodemus shows up two more times in John’s gospel. In chapter seven he reminds the chief priests that the law requires them to give Jesus a hearing before convicting him. Then, after the crucifixion, Nicodemus brings the burial spices and, with Joseph of Arimathea, wraps the body of Jesus in the burial cloths, and lays him in the tomb.

I have one more short story

to share with you this morning; my third, if anyone is counting. (Not that the number three has any special meaning to me today.) In between those two school shootings, while I was trying to write a sermon that either would or wouldn’t be about the Trinity, I met up with an old student to have a drink and catch up. He’s in his thirties and highly successful by any measure. As a person who served in the military doing dangerous work in Afghanistan, he has experienced more suffering and death than I likely ever will. Talking with him I was reminded of a time when I experienced a great loss. In 2011, a student I loved killed himself a few days before the beginning of his senior year.

In the wake of that loss, I was trying very hard to pretend I was fine. When people kept pointing out to me that I wasn’t, I finally went to talk to Brian Taylor. When even your priest tells you to talk to a therapist, you figure it’s time. My problem was that I had become terrified to love in such a fragile world. To heal, I had to remember to love anyway. I had to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and retain my ability to function. I like to think that that’s what Nicodemus was doing as he laid Jesus’s body in the tomb.

So. If this had been a sermon about the Trinity,

you might be tempted to think that the story about the butterflies was a story about God the creator, and that the story about the school shootings was a metaphor for Jesus’s earthly suffering on the cross. You might even think that my own slow decision to let love call me back to the things of the world reveals the movement of the spirit.

But you would be wrong. The only thing I understand about how God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one is that love wins. Tweet 61 from “Tweeting the Trinity because Heresy is Meh” says “So can we speak of God? Yes! (because of revelation). Do we know what we mean? No! (because what’s revealed is a mystery).”

What I have to say on this Trinity Sunday, on this Memorial Day weekend, is that all that I know about what I mean is that as Christians, we are called to sit with the awesome mystery of Christ’s redemptive love.

In the name of the creator, and of earthly beauty and pain, and of the mighty, mysterious power of redemptive love. Amen.


Happy Memorial Day weekend! This post is the text of the sermon I preached at St. Michael and All Angels this morning. (At some point, that link should take you to the audio version.) If you enjoyed reading my work, please feel free to share and to invite your friends to follow LiveLoveLeave.

The Metaphorical Implications of the Butterflies

Photo of just emerged mourning cloak hanging from the eave

There is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school. So instead of talking about last Friday’s murders (or as CNN puts it, the 22nd school shooting of the year), I’m going to talk about last Wednesday’s butterflies.

I was sitting at my desk

cleaning out seventeen years of files. I was laughing over an old thank you card (“Thank you for testing our pooper-scooper. We give you our gratitude. Thank you for making this possible.”) when I heard a student say something like, “They are coming out!”

Some people wrap up their time at a job by working hard right down to the wire–crossing and dotting t’s and i’s, overturning every old stone, and finishing all those things they meant to finish months ago.  I’m not one of those people.

I stopped assigning new work and slid into a serious “winding down” phase at least two weeks ago when the seniors left. Since then, I’ve spent my days packing books, filling the recycle bin with old lesson plans, and interrupting my colleagues who are still trying to get work done.

When the student called out,

I wandered outside and looked up at the roof of the patio where, a few weeks ago, the same student had shown me a dozen or more nondescript chrysalides hanging above our heads. Today, two long rows of butterflies are peeking out of those temporary, fragile homes.

I watched them on and off all morning. One time I witnessed the exact moment when the chrysalis opened and the butterfly stepped gingerly onto the wall. Another time I watched as the wings slowly unfurled, transforming two tight cylinders into a full black cape.

A science teacher tells me their name. Mourning cloaks, she says, transporting me to an old-fashioned world where women drape themselves in heavy black capes and travel to funerals in horse drawn carriages. 

The metaphorical implications of the butterflies

are not lost on me. I’m leaving this job, leaving this place, getting ready to emerge in a new life with a new way of being in the world. But that’s too easy, isn’t it? Cliche, really.

How about this? School is the chrysalis. Kids grow safely there, out of site of the world. They change shape, mature, and, as high school ends they emerge as new beings, ready to unfurl their wings and soar.

That’s a little better, but I still don’t like it. Maybe sometimes a butterfly is just a butterfly.

That’s probably why the baby birds appeared. I’m staring up at the butterflies when I shift my gaze for a minute and see a bunch of kids staring up at the tree outside my classroom. “Baby birds,” someone calls across to me. “Right up here in the nest.”

If you were editing the movie, you’d cut the scene with the baby birds. It goes too far, you think; no one would believe it.

There is nothing new

to say about kids getting shot in school. That’s why I am writing about butterflies and baby birds. By Friday morning when I started getting texts from Fred, all the morning cloaks had flown. I saw one of them step off the eave. She flapped awkwardly for just a second, and then she soared.

On Friday morning if someone at the school in Santa Fe had said, “They are coming out,” they would not have been talking about butterflies. They would have meant the students hiding in the closet in the art room, emerging from that unexpected chrysalis as new creatures into a changed world.

When the reporters showed up

they knew what to expect. They were ready for surprise, for “we never thought it would happen here.” The reporter’s question even had that answer built right into it.

It turns out there is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school except what Paige Curry said. “I wasn’t surprised,” the seventeen-year-old  told the reporter. “It’s been happening everywhere.”

The reporter blew the moment; he didn’t see the butterfly stepping out of the chrysalis. He didn’t see that this movement from shock to expectation was a new moment in the world.

I blame Rush Limbaugh

for all of it. That probably sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. He turned outrage and bad argument (yelling, personal attack, logical fallacy) into entertainment, and then convinced people his opinions were based on reason.

My parents loved him. I loved them, but I spent a career trying to teach young people how not to be Rush Limbaugh. I wanted them to think critically: to base their opinions on evidence and sound reasoning; to avoid digging in; to be respectful even as they disagreed. I tried to teach them that yelling louder than the other person doesn’t make your ideas right.

Rush Limbaugh started all of it, and now we’re here, and there is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school. In public discourse, we’ve enshrined disrespect, elevated anger, and embraced dehumanization. Then we made a fetish out of guns.

We can argue all we want about banning guns and “hardening” schools and raising young white men to be less angry. What we can’t do any longer is pretend to be surprised.


If you know enjoyed this post, please feel free to share it and to invite your friends to visit LiveLoveLeave. 

How to Prune A Peace Lily

Picture of the peace lily in bloom

At first I wasn’t sure it was possible to prune a peace lily; I thought we would just have to keep going on together as we had been. Several times a day she would beg for water, and I would mumble, “Already?”

Then, her leaves would droop lower and lower until I complied, tipping cool water from a pitcher into the ground below those elephantine sails. In October when my sister came to visit, I warned her. “The peace lily will probably wake you up in the middle of the night to ask for a drink of water.”

Let me be clear: I love the peace lily.

She came as a gift from my colleagues when my mother died in 2015. At that point, she was already a huge plant; I felt like I was hacking through a rain forest as I carried her from my desk to my car.

I got her home and rearranged some furniture to give her a home in the guest room, where the odds of her survival were slim.  I’ve been know to kill ficus and spider plants; surely this exotic creature was at risk in my care. We soon fell into an imperfect rhythm. I’d water her faithfully every Sunday with the other plants, and then forget about her until some stray errand took me into the guest room where I’d find the tips of her extravagant leaves dragging on the floor.

Eventually I adjusted my routine. I checked on her daily, but every time I went in, I found her drooping and calling out for more water. Things went on like this for a long time. When I realized my other relationships were beginning to suffer, I knew I was going to have to learn how to prune a peace lily.

Here’s how I did it.

Step One: Acknowledge your discontent

I tried to change other things: I thought about working out more, eating better, drinking a little less wine. None of them worked.  (That might have been because I only thought about doing those things, but I digress.)

I had to say it out loud. The needs of my beloved peace lily were taking over my life. Eventually, I had to ask myself the big question: Is this relationship keeping you from being who you are meant to be?

When I finalIy recognized that my dissatisfaction was rooted in the same pot as my peace lily, I called a wise friend. “I’m not surprised,” she said, surprising me. “You’ve been making this change for a long time; you just didn’t know its name.” 

Step Two: Make the Easy Cuts First

Armed with my kitchen scissors, I entered the jungle. I didn’t know how my peace lily would react to my pruning. I started with the leaves that had gone brown around the edges, following their stems deep into the heart of the pot. A snip here, a snip there. Soon my hands were overflowing with enough giant fronds to make a banana tree, but I wasn’t looking to start anything new here.

I carried the fronds to the trash can outside and dumped them in. “There,” I thought. “I’ve done it. I can go on.” Now I just had to wait to see if she survived.

Step Three: Re-evaluate the situation

She’s still thirsty, unmoved by my pruning. Our co-dependent droop-response cycle slows down, but the same old rhythm pulses. I cut back from watering every day to watering every other day, but it’s not enough.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” I tell her. Having tasted freedom from her needs, I’m hungry for more.

Step four: Be bold; cut deeply

This time when I enter with the kitchen shears she trembles a bit, tries to pretend it’s just a breeze. I’m going to take them all this time, I tell her. Every leaf that’s bigger than my face must go. I cut until my hands are full then walk, looking like a palm tree, outside to the trash.

My dog, confused by my arboreal transformation or the peace lily’s perambulation, barks at me.  Undeterred, I do it again. And then again.

When I’m finished, I’m surprised by how deep I was willing to go.

Step Five: The Reveal

I wasn’t sure for a few days if she was going to make it. She didn’t droop, but since drooping had been our main form of communication, I didn’t know how to interpret her silence.

The next morning I walked in to see if she needed anything. I opened the blinds to give her some sun and saw it. New, bright green leaves, younger than the whole world, were pulsing up from the base of the stems.

I could have sworn she was laughing.


And that’s how you prune a peace lily.

It turns out that pruning a peace lily is not that unlike making any other big change. Something nudges you, and then that nudge turns into a whisper. You ignore it for a while, but if it’s a real call, it keeps buzzing in your ear. You can’t swat it away.

It just keeps getting louder and more insistent until you figure out what the heck it’s been trying to tell you all this time. Rilke says, “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.” It turns out that if you till the soil, plants are inevitably going to grow.

Rilke also says, “This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? …if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”

That passage has been haunting me since I first read it as a freshman in college, when I was still as green and unfurled as those new leaves on the peace lily.

It has taken me more than thirty years to say I must out loud, to make the deep cuts and hack off the old, beloved growth. In less than two weeks I’ll be wrapping up this phase of my life as a high school teacher. It feels heartbreaking and wonderful; terrifying and invigorating at the same time.

Oh–and one more thought about that peace lily. Just last week it burst into bloom.


As always, if you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it with your friends and tell them about LiveLoveLeave. 

Advice for Seniors

Note from the seniors reading "We [heart] you Ms. O'Shea"

“Do you have any advice for us?”

It’s a few days before the last day of classes and the seniors don’t want to spend any more time analyzing the Federal Reserve’s response to the financial crisis.

Who can blame them? My mind is on the future these days, too.

“Write an advice post on your blog,” they say. Then, they get back to work preparing for their debate on the Federal Reserve.

So, if they can power through their senioritis,  I guess I’ll get to work, too. Senior women in B-Block Economics, this one’s for you.

Note to everyone else: one of the perks dangers of teaching is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you are as wise as the students think you are. Let’s agree to pretend that’s true for a few more minutes while I get my hubris on and offer them some advice.

1. Everyone is insecure.

I spent a good deal of college feeling like I wasn’t quite “enough.” I was a great student and I made good and lasting friends, but I always felt a little bit like a misfit.

At my twenty-year college reunion I found myself in conversation with some of those people I’d been intimidated by. They were talking about all the things and people they had been intimidated by. Come again? One of them even mentioned my brains. Huh. 

(Bonus advice: go to reunions. They are funny and they give you an excuse to think about your life. Also, there’s a good chance that the crush who ignored you senior year will have lost his hair. That will feel better than it should.)

2. If you have a terrible job, juggle glasses.

My freshman year I worked in the dining hall. If your dining hall has a conveyor belt, imagine riding on your tray all the way through the little opening in the wall where it disappears. I worked on the other side of that wall.

Worse than that, I worked on the other side of that wall during dinner on Fridays when students were starting to let off steam for the weekend. Young people do terrible, disgusting things to mashed potatoes and patty melts after a few beers.

My job was to scrape the mashed potato castles and ground beef sculptures off those trays. Pete’s job was to take the glasses off the trays, dump out the mashed potatoes and fruit punch, and load the glasses in huge plastic racks.

Pete would grab a glass from a tray, toss it into the air, and catch it behind his back. Then he’d grab another, until he was juggling six at one time while trays kept rushing by. I never saw Pete break a glass.

I was homesick that semester in the dining hall. Pete made me feel like I could be happy.

(Bonus advice: don’t put mashed potatoes in your fruit punch in the dining hall. Extra bonus advice: don’t actually ride your tray on the conveyor belt. That would be weird. Extra super bonus advice: don’t keep that dining hall job for too long, Pete or no Pete. Dorm mail carrier–that was a good job.)

3. Try not to hurt people more than you have to.

You are going to have to hurt people sometimes. Maybe you will tell your freshman roommate that you want to live with someone else next year. Perhaps you will disappoint your parents when you realize the needs of your heart don’t align with the needs of their expectations. Someday you might stop loving someone who still loves you.

Life is complicated and sometimes it’s really hard to figure out how to be good. Don’t waste your karma hurting people when you don’t have to.

(Bonus advice: when you do hurt someone, don’t fake apologize. People hate that shit. Bonus apology to non-teenagers: Sorry about the profanity. Teenagers like that shit. Bonus homework assignment for Econ B: Debate the following proposition: O’Shea just fake apologized. Be prepared to argue either side.)

4. Don’t use the ice bucket in hotel rooms.

Old people soak their teeth in them. Don’t ask me how I know that.

(Bonus advice: If you have a long drive to college, you can always count on O’Reilly Auto Parts.)

5. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

I’m just kidding. That’s terrible advice. (Trust me–I’m your Econ teacher.)

Did we remember to make you read Hamlet? Laertes, son of Polonius, is heading off to college. Polonius, perhaps fearing that he has forgotten to raise his son, starts spewing random advice. You can watch Bill Murray in this scene if you follow the link. Go ahead, click on it. I’ll wait.

I always thought Polonius was being sort of silly and arrogant in that scene. Then I started writing a blog post full of advice.

(Bonus advice: Make a budget. Live below your means. Be frugal when you have to be and generous always. Extra bonus advice: That thing Polonius said about friendship (did you watch the clip like I asked you to?): “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”–that was good advice. Do that.)

6. You don’t get extra credit for being strong.

Be as mature as you can pull off. Try to be decent. Be kind. But strong? Sometimes strong is stupid. Let people help you.

(Bonus advice pop quiz: Fill in the blank with appropriate bonus advice: ___________________________________________________________)

7. Like what you like, not what you think you are supposed to like.

I like Dancing with the Stars. I can tell you the complete plot of a Brady Bunch episode in thirty seconds or less. I’m a halfway decent Texas Hold’em player (I’m not kidding–I won a tournament in Laughlin one time).

People with MBAs and PhDs in English aren’t supposed to like these things. Sue me. I’m happy.

(Bonus advice: Love who you love, not who you think you are supposed to love. You should probably make sure that point ends up in your notes. In the scene before Polonius gives Laertes advice, Laertes gives Ophelia advice. In a nutshell, he says: don’t love that Hamlet guy you love. Things go badly from there. Bonus writing advice: don’t bury your most important point in the parentheses after number 7.)

8. No one is just one thing.

You’ll have to figure out what to do with this advice on your own. Someday you will need it, and I promise that it’s true.

9. See that face in the mirror?

Like that face. Say nice things to it. Treat it as well as you treat your good friends. I think I was in my forties before I figured this out. Skip those twenty years of wishing your face looked like somebody else’s face. There’s absolutely no upside there. Use that extra time to read Hamlet.

You are going to wake up with yourself every single morning of your life. You’ll probably wake up with other people sometimes, too, and that can be nice. But you are the one who will stick around. Make sure that person is someone you enjoy hanging around with.

10. You don’t need my advice.

I was halfway through writing this post on your last day of class. You started giving advice to the juniors. You told them to stand up for themselves and trust their own choices. Then you advised them not to stress out comparing themselves to their friends. Finally, you reminded them that they can get a good college education anywhere–that what you put into it is more important than where you go.

I just sat back and smiled. Class of 2018, relax. You’ve got this.


If you’ve got advice for the class of 2018, feel free to add it in the comments, and don’t hesitate to share this post with your friends.

I Am Not A Robot

Photo of Rusty, my golden retriever.

I am not a robot. In the past week, I have had to move a cursor to a little box, thumb-click my touchpad, and assert my non-membership in the robot species no fewer than five times. (I must be signing up to follow too many blogs!)

“No, o great internet gatekeeper widget,” I say again and again, “I am not a robot.” Then the robot asks me to type a strange message that only a robot could decipher, and, voila! I pass the non-robot test.

It turns out that joining the “I Am Not a Robot Club” is as simple as joining AARP.

Then one day I started feeling philosophical. How do I know, I wondered, that I am not a robot? Do robots know they are robots? What does it mean to know, anyway? All of a sudden I started to remember words  like epistemology and ontology from way back in Philosophy 101.

Before things got out of hand, I decided to make a list. Here’s what I came up with.

1.  I am certain that I am not a robot because my eyes hurt.

I woke up a few weeks ago feeling like my eyes were too big for their sockets. The last two times my eyes felt like this I had a condition called iritis, or inflammation in my retina. Apparently this “-itis”  comes as a free give-away with certain auto-immune diseases. (“If you call by midnight tonight, you’ll also receive…!”)

2. I am certain that I am not a robot because it is spring in Albuquerque.

The wind is gusting and the pollen is swarming like a gnat cloud. Those are both perfectly reasonable explanations for why my eyes hurt. If I were a robot, I would have an algorithm to weigh those explanations against my fear that I have iritis. That algorithm would have crunched all the data and concluded that I should go to my eye doctor.

3. I am certain that I am not a robot because yesterday when I had lunch with some friends, I kept taking my glasses off to clean them.

First, real robots don’t have friends. I know, I know. You are thinking about  C3PO and R2D2.  C’mon. That was Hollywood. Real robots also don’t wear glasses. And they wouldn’t have to clean them because they wouldn’t be feeling like there was a blurry spot in their vision because they would have gone to see their eye doctor when their eye pain indicators first started beeping.

4. I am certain that I am not a robot because I am thinking about Christmas.

The part of my eye that is usually just green is green and red now. Even though it’s April, you might be thinking about Christmas now. But if you live in Albuquerque and you just thought about Christmas in April, you probably meant that you wanted both red and green chile on that burrito you just ordered.

(Spell check wants me to change how I spelled chile, but don’t worry, Albuquerque friends, I won’t be bullied by my computer. I’m not some robot it can push around.)

(And if you have no idea about this Christmas thing, come visit. Experience Albuquerque!)

For the record, I never should have started down this path. Now I’m thinking about having chile in my eyes and that is making my eyes hurt.

5. I am certain that I am not a robot because when I finally went to the eye doctor she told me that my eyes are just dry.

Yippee! I don’t have iritis again. That news made me feel happy and relieved and a little embarrassed for overreacting and for letting my eyes shrivel up.  I am pretty sure robots don’t get embarrassed or feel relief.

So there you have it. In a world full of uncertainty, I am certain that I am not a robot. If you are craving certainty, too, give it a try. Sign up for some free blogs or newsletters online and answer confidently when you are asked if you are a robot. It feels better than it should.

Before I got around to hitting “publish” on this post, I learned that April 26 was “Poem in Your Pocket” day. I started wondering if there were any poems about robots, and I found “Robot Poems” in the Yale Literary Magazine. They are really worth reading, so click that link if you have a few more minutes.

Then one other funny thing happened.

Do you remember The Partridge Family? Well, Fred doesn’t. Somehow that fact came up in conversation a while back (we are nothing if not high-brow at my house). I told him stories about how my friends and I used to stand on a picnic table and sing into a hose.

Set the Wayback Machine to something like 1973 and you might even be able to see me playing the triangle (just like Tracy Partridge!) and rocking my bell bottoms in a red polyester pantsuit.

So, the other night when I was getting mad at the evening news, Fred changed the channel. “Here, I found these,” he said, and the seventies sprang to life before us. If it’s been a while, click this link, listen to the theme song, and it will all come back to you.

In one of the episodes we watched, the local department store has just gotten its first computer, the 1984Z. (And you thought The Simpsons were the first to insert clever literary references into a sitcom!) The computer turns Shirley’s $29 cuckoo clock into a $290 bill, and then things get really zany.

Before long the furniture has all been repossessed, and the lesson (every episode has a lesson) becomes clear:

Humans are better than computers. Groovy, isn’t it?

I was thinking about just how quaint that idea seemed when Fred switched back to the news and I remembered that bots have been planting fake stories on social media.

Maybe the seventies knew what they were talking about after all.

I’ll leave you with three last thoughts to wrap up this weird little essay. First, I might be the first person in the history of the world to have used the word epistemology in the same essay as Partridge Family. Enjoy the fact that you were there when it happened.

Second, twenty seconds into the first song, Fred said, “That kid’s not playing that bass.” He was talking about Danny Bonaduce, the red-headed smart-alecky kid. When the credits came on, Fred hit pause to show me the part where it said that the music was “augmented by” other musicians. Another childhood illusion bites the dust.

Finally, the point of that deep Partridge Family lesson about computers was that they aren’t reasonable, kind, or understanding.

My take-away is simple. The next time I declare that I’m not a robot, I’m going to do a quick inventory to make sure I mean it.


If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it and to invite your friends to sign up to receive an essay each week by email. My site will probably ask you to prove you are not a robot.

Hard Days

Photo of hikers emerging from a cave into sunlight.

Many years ago (call it 2007) I was in the middle of one of those long stretches of hard days. My father had just died in West Virginia and my mother-in-law was dying in my family room.

I was teaching high school and Fred was teaching at the community college. He had a great schedule: all of his classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he had plenty of time to care for his mother. Part of this care involved managing the troupe of hospice workers who saved our lives every day.

They brought things Ann refused to use,

like oxygen and a hospital bed. They convinced her to do things she refused to do, like take a shower, or speak to the doctor, or sleep in her bedroom at night.

They took her blood pressure, listened to her lungs, and helped us find a good sleeping chair. Hospice workers taught me how  to help with adult diapers and  to apply the cream she needed for the rash under her breasts.

On good days, I’d listen forever to her stories–often fabulous tales with a recurring theme: life would have been better if only [fill in the blank] hadn’t wronged her.

On hard days I seethed while she complained about Fred or about the meal I had just made her. “I can’t eat this garbage,” she might say, on a day that wasn’t good for either of us.

That was a rough spell. Coming as it did on the heels of both my father-in-law’s and my father’s deaths, and in the midst of my mother’s worsening dementia, those were hard days. Even our dogs had started dying.

I look back on those hard days now

and can see how my focus telescoped in. Breathing and moving. Those were the things I knew. Inhale, exhale, and keep walking through the obstacle course as it unravels before you. One day you climb over a rotting fence, one day you belly crawl through thorny underbrush, and one day you leap over or (screw it) stomp through mud puddles.

Maybe you even have one day when you lie on the couch and pretend the world can take care of itself, because even the air has become too heavy for you to carry.

On one day like that, I stayed home from work. Ann must have been sleeping, because I can’t find her in this memory. The lone member of the hospice troupe scheduled for that morning was a woman named Mary.

I’d never met her before, but Fred knew her well. I don’t remember her title, but she seemed to be the “caring for the caregivers” member of the team. I put a pot of coffee on and she and Fred launched into conversation.

I hung on the fringes,

gave them some space, and poured the coffee when it was ready. Determined to be a spectator in this conversation, I wasn’t ready when Mary turned to me and said, “And how are you doing?”

What I mean by “I wasn’t ready” is that I didn’t smile and say something like, “I’m fine, Fred is really bearing the brunt of this.” Mary blew that simple trumpet, and all my walls came tumbling down.

When my mother-in-law was dying I didn’t dig; I didn’t open my heart to wonder why she was preparing to leave this world with so little affection for it. Her stories were set-pieces, polished works that I let pour over me like tiny stones.

I was afraid to pick them up and learn what they weighed. I smiled and nodded through Ann’s last six months, occasionally generous, often resentful.

When Mary asked me how I was doing, I talked and cried for a long time. I’m not exaggerating when I say she changed me forever. Her simple question gave me permission to feel what I was feeling. She taught me that I didn’t have to be strong, that I could set my little piece of sky down once in while so I could rest.

Oscar Wilde said

“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” He was right about that, but in those hard days I felt like I was being precocious in racking up so many losses. My friends were still visiting their parents for holidays and dinner parties, not going to doctors’ appointments or writing eulogies.

Lately, though, and sadly, that has started to change. My friends’ parents are receiving hard diagnoses, entering hospice, passing judgment on their own long lives. My friends are walking beside their parents, holding up the sky as best they can.

I’m watching from the other side, wondering how to be helpful.

All that comes is a line from a poem by John Matthias.   “When my father finished playing dying/I began…”

The line is from a poem titled “Poem for Cynouai” that I first heard the poet himself read when I was in college. He was my teacher, and the poem moved me deeply. Whenever I forget what it means to write poetry, I read that poem and remember.

Right now, the book that holds that poem is sealed in a box in what used to be my mother-in-law’s closet. I packed most of my books a few years ago when we first thought we might sell this too-big house. We filled neatly labelled boxes and stacked them on top of one another like drawers in a mausoleum.

I can’t find “Poem for Cynouai” online (except in pieces in that review I linked to above). The words remain alive in me, but I can’t touch them. I can’t read the lines above or below the one line I remember. I can’t ask the poem questions or turn the page to see what follows.

It’s something like that, all of these losses.

I am not sure

why John Matthias showed up in my kitchen while I was writing this morning, or why Mary the hospice worker came to mind as the coffee brewed. What I do know is that a number of my friends are in the middle of things I’ve made it to the other side of.

I feel like I should have something to offer them: useful notes from the journey, maybe, or dispatches from the far shore. Instead, I feel like the friend I spoke with the other morning.

He’s in the middle of the obstacle course right now; he’s climbing, leaping, wading, striding, trudging–dealing with each hurdle as it appears. From where he stands, I imagine, there is no such thing as looking around or beyond or ahead.

“I wake up every morning,” he said, “and I don’t know.”

I remember that feeling.

In those long stretches of hard days it’s as though you signed up to run a race and no one will show you a map of the course or tell you how long you’ll be running. All you can do is put the next foot down, and then put the next foot down again.

Right now, though, I’m in the middle of a stretch of good days. Or maybe I am not in the middle at all; maybe I’m at the beginning, and these good days are going to unroll into the future as far as I can see. Or not–maybe I’ve lived through most of them already and my next obstacle course is waiting just around the corner.

In his poem “Evening” my old friend Rilke says, “It is alternately stone in you and star.”  I don’t know. But if I were going to send any news from the star days, maybe it’s just that they came back. Life came to its senses eventually and got back to the business of living.

In the meantime, it’s good to have friends who help you hold up the sky.


Thanks for reading! If you like LiveLoveLeave, please tell your friends! (And don’t forget to add your email address to receive every essay as soon as it’s posted. )

Learning to Count

Learning to count in 7/8 time.

Yesterday afternoon while the wind blew and the pollen tried to kill me, I was learning to count.

The question at hand was this: Is it 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 or 1-2-3-1-2-1-2? For a few minutes as the numbers were flying, I could feel the panic room shields locking into place around my brain.

Does this happen to you?

Sometimes when too much information comes at me too quickly my brain just stops. Picture a little kid covering her ears and singing “lala-lala-lalala” when she knows you are about to tell her there is no Easter Bunny.* Or worse, if you’re an Apple user, picture that spinning color wheel of death.

Nothing good ever happens after the colors start spinning.

So yesterday afternoon at mandolin orchestra practice when I asked, “How are you counting those two measures in the introduction?” and Ken started calling out numbers, I felt my inner la la girl reach her hands toward my ears.

I don’t know if this shut-down feature has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, or if I’ve just become more aware of it. All these years of encouraging students to reflect on their learning after every project might be rubbing off on me. (Where was it hard? Where did you get stuck? How did you move past that point? What are you most proud of?)

I had a similar shut-down moment a few weeks ago. I was walking through a model home with a realtor who wouldn’t leave my side. She had a really loud voice, and she wouldn’t stop talking.  In fifteen minutes, I learned details about her life story that I couldn’t tell you about some of my closest friends.

I finally had to interrupt her in mid-sentence and run out the door, leaving  Fred to mop up for my abrupt departure.

So Sunday afternoon

after Ken said 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 and 1-2-3-1-2-1-2 and Michael said 1-2-3-4-5-6-7  (and I snapped “That’s not going to be helpful at all,” at him), I thought it was all over. I was about to resign myself to being lost on the intro and hoping I could catch up a few measures in.

And then something funny happened. I looked at measure 48 and saw it–three eighth notes followed by two quarter notes: 1-2-3-1-2-1-2. Then measure 49 came into focus. Even measure 51: half note, eighth rest, eighth note, eighth note (1-2-1-2-1-2-3) started making perfect sense.

Learning to count in 7/8 time.
Learning to Count in 7/8 time.

Maybe you have been confidently playing music in 7/8 time for years, and you’re wondering why this was hard for me. Or maybe you don’t read music at all and you have no idea what I’m talking about. (Sorry about that!)

Or maybe you are neither of those people and you are just trying to figure out what the big deal is about a 54 year-old finally learning to count.

I’m trying to figure that out, too.

But the thing is, it was a big deal. It’s not just about learning to count in a 7/8 time signature. With as much music as I’ve played and sang in my life, it’s more remarkable that I’ve never learned that before.

What excites me is that, when my familiar shut-down moment appeared, my old brain did something new. It wedged its foot in the elevator doors before they slammed shut. To quote my uncle, that’s big potatoes.

I’ve always been able to empathize with students who have test anxiety. I’ve always assumed they felt just like I feel when my la la girl starts singing. Now, though, I can do more than empathize. I can assure them that their brain can do something different.

But how?

I can’t claim to know that what happened Sunday is repeatable, but I can tell you what I noticed.

First, I gave myself permission to fail. I was resigned to my confusion. I let go of any pressure to succeed, any pretense that I knew what I was doing, and any disappointment over not already knowing how to do this.

Second, I was persistent (some in the Albuquerque Mandolin Orchestra might, if they weren’t such kind people, say annoying) in asking for what I needed. I kept saying things like, “Could you do that again more slowly?” or “Could you tell me how you’d count measure nineteen?”

Third, I was grounded. I’ve been making some big decisions lately (more about that in a future essay), and those decisions have left me feeling clear and solid. Years ago the city of Albuquerque brought goats (a flock? a herd? a scrabble? a gabble?) into the bosque to eat the salt cedars.

I feel like the bosque must have felt the next day: the goats have eaten away the underbrush and the path is clear.

In The Book of Awakening,

Mark Nepo writes, “the way to stay in the presence of that divine reality which informs everything is to be willing to change.” A dear friend gave me this book, and pointed out the section called “The Gift of Shedding.” Shed what?  “Whatever has ceased to function within us…whatever we are carrying that is no longer alive” (104).

I don’t mean to argue that loving yourself is some pat cure for test anxiety, but I do know that learning to count didn’t happen while the weeds were wrapped around my ankles.

One more thing about learning to count. I thought about telling you this happened in a dream so you wouldn’t think I’m crazy, but that feels like cheating. Sunday afternoon before I went to mandolin practice I was leaning on my kitchen counter, just sort of lost in thought.

All of a sudden I had this weird image: my chest opened up like one of those shoe box dioramas little kids make, and a whole menagerie of colorful animals came trotting out of my chest into the world.

I don’t know quite what to make of that vision (brain tumor?), but I thought it might be relevant.

I’ll leave you with that thought while I go play a little mandolin. The Albuquerque  Mandolin Orchestra is opening for Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally in a house concert this Friday evening, and while learning to count Cantiga 706 in A minor is great, it’s not the same thing as being able to play it.

(* That little girl is singing la la in a count of 1-2-1-2-1-2-3. See what I did there?)

+++++++++++++++++++