Tooth and Nail

I know the new year came and went a long time ago, but as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t finish this post.  I started this post back in December when my friend, Lynn, shared some questions with me.  The questions began bobbing around in my mind.  I’d stare at the screen as answers eluded me and the words felt all wrong in my mouth.  Then ever so slowly the answers surfaced.

The new year always brings about a restlessness to clean out my house and gut it of clutter.  Along with the removal of physical clutter comes the move toward cleaning out life in general.  What stays, what goes, what needs to be cut away, what needs to be alloted space-all of these thoughts seem to press in on me at the close of the year and the opening of another.  It’s a time to answer hard questions, a time to resolve the year.  A resolution, but not.

What was an upset or a disappointment last year?

It’s no secret that I was disappointed with the disruption my heart caused in my life last year.  To say that it upset me is not accurate, but to say that it caused an inordinate of fear in my life was a painful realization.  The balance between pursuing medical answers and being unafraid eluded me for months.

Where and when did things not flow easily?

The obvious answer is that blood did not flow easily to my heart, but the more important answer is that my classroom has not been easy.  No, my young ones have challenged everything I thought I ever knew about teaching, but from that discomfort I’ve learned new ways to teach, new ways for them to learn, and I wouldn’t trade this impossible year for anything.  As our class becomes their school home, I hold out hope that the hardest part is now just a glance in the rearview mirror.  Far enough away that it doesn’t impede our daily progress, near enough that I am aware of our starting point.

What flowed easily?

In the absence of turning the pedals, my fingers flew across my keyboard.  It’s not that I birthed revolutionary works of literary genius, but as fear of my physical heart increased, my writing pulsed with honesty and I faced the terror of the blank page with unflinching boldness.  This boldness was a delightful surprise.  And yet I can’t help but wonder if it was that way because one passion moved aside and gave way to another.  Can I have both at the same time or is it like wanting to sprawl on the hot sand during high tide?

What’s incomplete?

My novel.  My novel is so horribly incomplete.  And you know what?  That’s okay with me for now.  I like knowing I can come back to it bit by bit, tinker with the words, change the outcome, alter the characters.  But for now I’m content to just leave it in peace.

What are insights I gained last year?

I feel like if I answer this question, I’m saying I’m insightful.  Believe me, that’s not what I’m saying.  At all.  What I learned last year, or already knew, but am remembering, is that everyone has a story.  A lovely, hilarious, heartbreaking, inspiring, tender story.  So I wonder then what if I began to listen more than I talk? To laugh more than I criticize?  To accept more than I judge?  I can’t help but think that the story of my life would become wider, richer.

What am I grateful for?

Terry, always Terry.  It’s not lost on me that I am spending every day of my life with someone who loves me and desires my love in return.  I’m acutely aware of what a gift that is and I hope that I remember that as our happy days together stack up and make me fat with joy.

How will I acknowledge and celebrate the wins of the last year?

Wins.  Isn’t that an interesting word?  My cycling team used to have a mantra “Win, Susan!” She fought tooth and nail against cancer and I pedaled my heart out to help her.  Then she died, but to say that she didn’t win is an ill-fitting phrase.  She left this Earth having lived with passion, love, and tenacity.  Our team now says “Fight like Susan.”  And so I guess, I don’t feel like noting wins or losses of 2009, but instead I want to figure out what is worth fighting for and then use this new year to fight for it tooth and nail.

I love…

Sometimes after a challenging day at work I need to remember that there really is a lot to like in this world, a lot to love even.  This was one of those days and so turning the corner into this blissful three-day weekend, I’m focusing on the parts of my life I love.  It is not a comprehensive list by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, I’m going to come back and add more over the weekend.  I hope you’ll let me know about all the things you love in the comments section.

  • I love the smell of Terry just out of the shower, wrapped in steam with stray drips of water still behind his ears.
  • I love when we’re laying in bed and Terry reaches over and touches my leg, acknowledging I’m there with him.
  • I love the steady beat of my heart.
  • I love reading blogs in the morning before work to see how friends in other parts of the world are starting the day.
  • I love tucking under a blanket with a good book as the rain streams down my windows.
  • I love riding my bike the long way up to Shasta Dam just because I can.
  • I love the pink casing on my bike that matches my jersey and my water bottles.
  • I love going to church and closing my eyes to worship.
  • I love praying with Terry as we part ways in the morning.
  • I love when my nephew begs for more tickles and kisses me with crackers in his mouth.
  • I love when one of my students says, “I love writing.”
  • I love eating summer blackberries from my backyard.
  • I love writing.
  • I love writing so much I’m putting it on the list twice.
  • I love talking to other teachers about how to foster young writers.
  • I love visiting new places, but I love coming home even more.
  • I love Abby and her candy drawer.
  • I love Nick because he believes I’m a better person than I really am.
  • I love my Gramma because she understands the worst parts of my life and doesn’t judge me for them.
  • I love green vegetables.
  • I love when my principal has my back.
  • I love my grade level team for making me a better teacher.I love my home.
  • I love burritos.
  • I love parasailing over the turquoise Caribbean ocean.
  • I love the Olympics.

Heart of a Warrior

I’m pretty sure I’ll never be one of those girls who bounces out of bed at the sheer prospect of riding my bike.  Don’t get me wrong, I love riding my bike.  I just also love burrowing in my warm cozy bed.  Because my love of cycling can be so easily trumped by my bed, I resort to trickery.  I round up the troops and make them ride with me.  I might stand myself up, but I won’t leave a friend hanging.  So this morning, I set out in the good company of Terry, That Laura, Nick and Abby.

This morning I ate the cycling breakfast of champions: oatmeal, skinned grapefruit and a banana.  The last time I rode, I had eggs for breakfast and almost had a reversal of fortune on the side of the road up to Shasta Dam.  (Note to self: Eggs are not a good cycling food.)  But back to this morning, I slipped on my Team Fatty gear, dismayed that the fatty part, while once ironic, is now just truth in advertising.  I’m working on that.

The weather today was so perfect, blue sky, cotton ball clouds and barely a hint of wind.  It was warm enough that I didn’t even need tights.  We headed out to Millville Plains, my most favorite place to ride.  You can see for miles and miles at the top of the Plains.  The cows grazing there must be the happiest in all of California.  My favorite tree lives there, too.  She was all sticks and bones standing guard over the plains, but I know she’s secreting away green buds for me underneath her black skin.  Spring is coming, spring is coming I told her as I whipped by.

My legs were strong most of the ride leading me to believe that maybe, just maybe, my spin instructor isn’t entirely evil.  My legs were strong enough, but my heart, my heart was fierce.  I had the heart of a warrior today.  It pumped away pressing uphill, screaming downhill, and keeping time on the flats.  It was glorious and I smiled so much my teeth hurt from the cool air.  Not even the five putrid dead skunks I passed or the pair of pitbulls that chased me could dampen my joy.

Thirty three miles into the ride and three miles from home, my legs began to ache.  The sort of ache that feels like my bones are hollow and might shatter any second, but I’ve had this ache before and I know it passes if I just ignore it.  Well, I complain about it and then ignore it.  Same difference.  I willed my legs to circle me back home.  At home I rested in the front yard.  Not even the fact that I’d locked myself out of my house could ruin this ride.  I waited for a friend to arrive with spare key and as my legs pulsed complaints, my heart was steady, calm even.  I sat there making a sweaty print on my walkway and realized I’d just had one of the best rides of my life.  Now that just might make me bounce out of bed to ride next time.

Brave

Fearless is a word I don’t have much use for.  Being fearless is sometimes touted as this great character trait, but there are things to be afraid of, things worthy of a shake in my shoes, a shiver up my spine, and a sweaty nightmare or two.  I am not fearless, but I’ve got bravery in spades.  Or at least I used to.

These past few months I’ve taken care to follow doctor’s orders to rest my heart.  While spiders laced cobwebs through the spokes of my bike and my most favorite cycling season fell to the ground in a blush of yellows and reds, I waited for my heart to be sure and steady.

While I waited I pursued my love of words.  I wrote a novel.  I wrote poetry.  I wrote about teaching and life in general.  As the air whispered out of my tires, my fingers flew across the keys tapping out this life of a writer.  Writing can be a frightening affair and I faced some of my writerly fears head on.  When I reached a stuck point in my novel, I tucked my head down and pounded away at the keys until my characters moved my story along for me.  I’d heard of that happening, but I thought it was just something writers tell each other to get past the quicksand that secrets itself away in every newborn plot.  But no, it turned out to be true, even in my meager novel.  I dipped my toe into being published and faced my first rejection letter.  With bravado to spare, I tackled two fears at once: public speaking and reading a piece born of my own hand to a large group people I know.  It turned out to be one of the most rewarding days in my life as a writer.  So this idea of facing fears is one I’ve grabbed hold of with both hands in my life as a writer.

It’s puzzling to me then that this boldness in my writing life would come at a time when I was paralyzed by fear of riding my bike or doing anything else that might press my heart beyond its capacity.  The weight of the heart monitor was so much more than the half pound of space it occupied in the corner of my purse.  It sat in that dark corner, unwanted and untouched for almost a month.  My little heart beat away happily, normally as if my heart knew of the monitor’s presence and decided now was the time to play nice inside my chest.  For months I was careful not to strain my heart in the least.  Trust me, I’ve got the gelatinous thighs to prove it.

It was at the tail end of this time that a friend asked me “Is this the life you want to live?”  Well, not really, but the “live” part of that question was of more import than the quality of living I was doing.  On days when my heart was a sloppy quick step and my arm throbbed, living was enough all by itself.  Honest to God it was.  But is that a way to live a life?  No.  Definitely no.

Eventually the time came to turn in my heart monitor.  Enough days had passed without incident or pain that I was free to resume life.  And yet, I was afraid.  Quivering in my shoes, waking up in a pillow of sweat, eyes wide as moons kind of afraid.

What if my heart started to race in the middle of nowhere on my bike?

What if I lost feeling in my arm and crashed?

What if?  What if?  What if?

As I sat on my couch pounding out tales of my brave writing life, my fear of turning the cranks came to a head.  I could not stand the stagnation of my life a second longer.  It was time.  It was time to pump air into my tires, to pull on my gloves and brush the dust off of my saddle.

It feels appropriate that my reunion with my bike happened on Christmas Eve morning, a day full of anticipation.  On Christmas Eve Terry and I found ourselves in Sacramento, near my old friend the American River and it’s seemingly unending bike trail.

That morning I pulled on my tights and armwarmers, my nerves bouncing just inside my skin.  The what ifs rose to every surface of my being.  I forced them back down as I tightened my helmet strap and velcroed my shoes, breathing deeply before facing the morning air.

It was a frigid thirty degrees when I rolled the Rocket out to the street.  I said a prayer and watched my words float above me in bleached puffs against the blue sky.  I wanted to ride 25 miles.  25 miles is nothing on a bike.  Barely long enough to warrant filling a water bottle.

Three of us set out that morning.  My legs moved in unsure circles after so many months off.  I thought about the time I was cycling in a dream and sleep pedaled my sheets into a lump at the foot of my bed, but this was no dream.  We moved onto the American River Trail, the river rushing to the left of us.  My heart was steady.  Steady and happy.  It was a slow and beautiful ride.

After 26 miles I unclipped and rolled to a stop back at our starting point.  Steam rose from the vents in my helmet and the morning air was cold on my teeth as I smiled.  I packed my bike into the car and breathed a sigh of relief.  I patted my heart for a job well done.

A few minutes after our ride, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  These last few months, my increasingly chubby cheeks or my multiplying chins have been the first things to catch my attention when I look at my reflection, but not this time.  This time I was taken aback by the expression on my face.  It was familiar, but something I hadn’t seen in quite some time.  It was the expression of a girl who’d faced fear and found it wasn’t so terrifying after all.

Welcome back, brave girl, welcome back.

Robot Teacher

Years ago when my little heart was all aflutter, and not in the good way, I had to wear a heart monitor to school.  I did my best to cover up all the receptors stickied to my chest, but the wires hanging down from the monitor were harder to keep tucked away.  I didn’t want to alarm my little students, so I went about the day teaching while my heart ticked away on the monitor.  A couple of kids noticed the wires and asked what they were.  I pacified them with simple answers like “wires” or “oh, nothing” and kept on teaching.  These dismissive answers did not satisfy Ethan.

Ethan was a stick of a boy with a heart of gold.  He was quiet and thought carefully before he spoke.  In a small voice he questioned what the inside of a chrysalis looked like when a caterpillar is becoming a butterfly.  Another day he asked me how much gravity weighed.  He was the kind of kid who lost a tooth and then looked at it through a magnifying glass to see what teeth were made of.  So, when he saw wires sticking out from under my shirt, our conversation went something like this:

“Mrs. McCauley, what are those?”

“Wires.”

“Wires to what?”

“Ethan, it’s really nothing.”

“Wires don’t usually go to nothing.  What do they connect to?”

“Can we talk about this later, Ethan?”

I’d hoped he’d forget all about it, but, no, not Ethan.  Later that day, as I crouched down, helping another student, Ethan sidled up next to me, fingering the wires.  He gave them a gentle tug and was shocked to discover they were attached to me.  I didn’t say a word, smiling because I could see his wheels turning.

The next morning as I prepared for the day in the quiet of the classroom Ethan arrived insistent on knowing what these wires were for.

“Mrs. McCauley, what are those wires?  Where do they go?”

Here’s where I got creative and cemented this kid’s future need for therapy.

“Well, Ethan, I’m a robot and my wires are coming loose.  I have to go in to get repaired.”

“You’re not a robot…are you?”

Leaning down so we were face to face, in my most staccato robot voice, I replied

“I am robot 413 in need of repair.  Do you have any tools?”

Ethan stared at me wide-eyed, jaw agape.  Other students filed in, ending our conversation.  As the day went on, I answered all of Ethan’s questions in a quiet robotic tone.

As the last kid hurried out the door, I dialed Ethan’s mom.  I explained the real reason for the monitor and then told her about the joke I’d played on Ethan.  Her sense of humor was as twisted as mine and, to my delight, she played along!  The rest of my conversations with Ethan that year were peppered with robot talk and more than once I saw Ethan checking for loose wires.

Today I sat in the cardiologist’s office, dismayed to be on this road again.  Dismayed to add another EKG to the stack.  Dismayed at the idea of going on heart medication again.  Dismayed at the fact that I have to wear a heart monitor for a couple of days.  Terry, always trying to make me feel better, halted my grumblings by pointing out one bright spot.

“Well, at least you might get to convince another kid you’re a robot.”