Tiny Dancer

When I packed, I rediscovered a simple silver dragonfly.  I bought it for my mom shortly before she died. When I tried to give it to her last February, she insisted I keep it.  She knew we were both facing transitions. Changes. I knew she was preparing to die, and I was struggling to accept it. I decided to wear the necklace on my trip.

In California I became a student again. This time Julia Cameron was my teacher at a workshop. I am rereading and studying her classic, The Artist’s Way. While Julia proved to be an unconventional creativity guru, her advice struck me as completely conventional. She gave homework and reminded my class to do something creative and interesting every week. “Do it alone,” she insisted. “Call it your artist’s date.” I heard moans come from other students in the room.

But I didn’t moan. A prickle ran up my spine. I like to be alone. I have just forgotten this because I love being with people, too. It has been a life-long dilemma. I write alone. But I teach workshops to ten or sometimes two hundred people. I practice my spirituality alone. For three decades I drove eleven miles, five days a week to teach 150 high-energy high schoolers, but many nights I sat up alone, grading their words, their honest attempts to discover who they were.

Yesterday I went hiking alone. My first “artist’s date.” No, I did not take on the Pacific Crest Trail. But I took a short hike in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz—and it opened up my head. Midway through my tromp among the pine and redwood trees, I sat down on a flat rock and looked up in wonder at the threads of sunlight shooting through the branches of this natural cathedral. I was thinking of how I love to walk and how sad it was for my mother when she could no longer take her own walks—for my mom loved to walk, too.

Then I saw this flash of red. She hovered near me like a tiny toy helicopter. A brilliant red dragonfly. Like a graceful dancer she spun close to me for a long moment as if she had come to tell me something. Then she flew backwards like a hummingbird but returned to hover over me. Directly over me. I watched her wings spin and marveled at her red belly. I had never seen a red dragonfly and she was—well stunning. Then she darted down close to my face before unexpectedly shooting forward into her future and my memory.

It was late last night when I remembered the ruby red dragonfly. I dug deep into my bookbag to find my journal. “Dragonflies,” I wrote. “They stand for changes—and wisdom.” I twirled my pen in imitation of this wonder bug. They can and do fly in six directions at a speed of up to 45 MPH—and they do this with the agility and confidence that that come of age and maturity. I admitted to myself that I am aging, and that since mom’s death, life seems to be passing too quickly. Then I touched the silver dragonfly on my neck and the glimmer I was seeking shot right through me. “While life may seem fleeting,” I wrote, “it can still be lovely and graceful.” Then I realized Mom left me with the knowledge that aging comes with the possibility of wisdom and a deeper understanding of how to navigate the ending with poise and confidence. I thanked the universe for this moment. I can embrace it and try to move forward with the grace of the tiny red dancer I met in the woods.

Defeating Self-Doubt

Max came to class today. Uninvited. Unwanted.  I always think he looks like he is caked in dirt from four-wheeling in the desert. He sank into a chair in the back and crossed his long, lanky legs. Right at home, he hunkered down in the back of the room where my students, an energetic mix of adult writers, didn’t immediately notice him.

Today Heather reads, and it is a riveting story.  With M. C. Escher precision, she paints—but with words. Words of a long-lost memory. Words of a man who lied to her online and betrayed her. There are tears in many eyes when she finishes. We talk of how she has artfully painted a painful memory that needed a canvas.

Then Toni agrees to read a piece that she admits was hard to write. This almond-skinned beauty could read in Swahili and the class would listen. Her voice sounds like a soft jazz song as she honors a love that is being born in her life. I am contemplating that one reading has focused on a life shattered by the lie of love, and in another, a life is unfolding with the beauty of love. Then suddenly as Toni’s voice reaches a crescendo, there is a sudden gasp that escapes her lips. She pauses, and I see her eyes flicker toward the back of the room.

I pivot only slightly for I don’t want it to be obvious that I know she sees him. Max. He has just hoisted his long legs and Frye boots with chunks of mud falling from them onto one of our writing tables with a thud. It takes a moment, but Toni regains her composure and finishes her reading.

After we acknowledge the beauty in Toni’s words, Joseph, the poet, looks around the room. Indignantly he asks all of us the same questions. “Why does he stalk all of us? How does self-doubt seize our insides and make every one of us question not just our writing but just about everything we do?” He turns to me. “You call him Max, right?”  I nod. “Why is this inner critic always sneaking into the back of the room or into the crevices of our minds?”

For the remaining moments of our class we talk about how we arm wrestle with our inner critics, our self-doubts, day and night. We talk about how we write, meditate, walk, paint, practice yoga, and eat chocolate to rid ourselves of the whining doubts in our heads. In the end I explain that it may take pages in my journal to erase Max from my mind, but I am willing to write those pages. When necessary, I use an imaginary eraser to blot out Max.  Once, I admit, I resorted to writing the name “Max” on the bottom of my Nikes and stomping on them. Amid the laughter, I look to the back of the room and see that Max has fled. I want to believe he is never coming back, but I know he will try.

All Youth Are Promising Youth

Her skinny legs wobble as she teeters on the heels she borrowed from her friend for this occasion. She approaches the podium timidly, but her handshake is stronger than you might imagine. Someday she will speak from a podium like this one, but not yet. Today Cory is barely eighteen, and she shakes a bit as she poses for the mandatory photos and clasps the hands that reach to congratulate her. Cory is trying to make her dream happen. Kaye would like that. Kaye would like her—and this moment is for Kaye.

Twenty years ago, my best friend from high school gave up on this life. For two decades Kaye had tried to bear a life of disappointments coupled with chronic depression, but she could no longer manage it.

In high school we called her Star.  She did shine but more than the aura of her light, she had a gift for seeing the world as it was. I understand that more fully now. She told me to date Paul because he was lighthearted and fun. He was. She told me to never let go of my friendship with Freddi because she was genuine. She is. She treasured our friendship with Jim because she noted, “He is a rare find—a truth-speaker.” He is. She told me to write because I could and should. I did.

Kaye’s passion centered on children—promising youth. A creative and gifted young teacher, she took a stand against “teaching to standardized tests.”  This act of courage brought a halt to her early teaching career.  She never talked of this. She tried to be equally silent about the mental illness, the depression, that plagued her family—and would dog her life.

When her early teaching career ran amok, she moved to southern California where she found love. When she had a miscarriage and her love shattered, she made her way up the coast—and stopped returning my calls. But years later, shortly before her death, she wrote a letter to our friend, Jim. In it she thanked him for our friendships, and she even sent her love to me, admitting she let go of her friendships because she was embarrassed by the depression that had knocked her life sidewise. Just recently Jim sent me a copy of this letter.

While the words ripped me open, they also helped.  In the end Kaye found her voice and admitted her truth. Amid her illness she seemed to be shining a light, as only a star can do, on something important. On unresolved depression.

At our recent high school reunion, Paul, Freddi, Jim, Larry, Tim, Pat, CJ—and many others who loved Kaye, came together because we wanted to write a better ending to Kaye’s story. We decided to host a “promising youth” scholarship.

“Thank you for this scholarship,” Cory wrote in her note to me. “I plan to study social work and addiction counseling.  While I am unable to live with my siblings in our home because both my parents suffer from substance addictions, my grandmother is my hero. She has given me a home and taught me to have a dream.”

“My dream,” she wrote, “is to make a positive difference in the lives of others who need our help.” A promising youth, a genuine “star” –I believe Cory will make a difference.

Promising Youth Scholarship

(My high school pals, Paul and Freddi, at the award ceremony with Cory, in the center.)