The Rocky Path

Once a year my ritual is to unplug my computer and pack my bag. Then I turn my back on the writing and emails that beckon to me and head my steering wheel toward Sedona. I missed this ritual last year, and my soul felt I needed it more than ever.  I longed to hike the rocky red trails, but now that the mask mandates have been eased, a friend had warned me that the red rocks had been overrun by young tourists. But I have had my vaccines, and last Thursday I was determined to have my first get-away in a long time. I loaded my car and headed north.

As I drove to Sedona, I was still unwinding from the past week. It had been a wonderful week. After I taught my Mayo Clinic writing class, a student wrote me that her writing had led to an understanding of her estranged son. Nothing makes me happier. But it had been a hard week, too. I did a presentation to Intel employees in Chandler. It was supposed to be a well-rehearsed Zoom talk, but my computer with an Intel chip died at 12:17 pm. Thirteen minutes before the scheduled talk. The irony hit as I struggled to call up the hotspot on my phone and give my first talk via my phone.  While it worked, it was stressful!

As I arrived in the canyon, I was surprised by the dozens of cars parked along the roadsides. California license plates. Nevada. Utah. More California plates. Tanned and jubilant I heard many of the young people chatting gleefully as they walked down the roads, headed for the trails I love. I started counting the cars with out-of-state plates, and I was a bit unsettled.

Two hours later my hiking boots were laced, and I headed into Boynton Canyon. It was quiet, and I reminisced about the many times I have hiked these trails. It has often surprised me but never disappointed me.  It was here I once saw an oak tree fallen to the ground, roots half in and half ripped from the earth with arms entwined with the earth in what appeared to be a warm embrace. I remember thinking how wonderful that the earth and the tree are one.

Often as I navigate the rocky path and stare up at the canyon walls, I have contemplated how Native Americans lived here over eleven thousand years ago. I imagine how these ancients must have stared wide-eyed, as I often do now, at the natural canvas painted here, streaked in dusted pinks and red-oranges. You can see the holes in the canyon walls where these people lived.  I think of how their children must have scaled the mountain sides to the caves. Sometimes when I hike, I sense their aura, and feel I am being welcomed into their home. I love to imagine their voices echoing across the canyon—their chatter, their laughter, the squeals of their children.  I stare straight up and think of how these people probably scaled these heights with relative ease, for it was the life they had come to know—chasing animals and gathering wild plants.  From time to time, someone slipped or fell and there was no helicopter to navigate a rescue. Like the oak tree, these long-ago humans were completely entwined with the Earth.

As I hiked on, I was passed by a group of young hikers, several basketball players from North Carolina State. They were friendly and hailed me kindly. One called, “Good for you!” I am grateful he did not add, “old lady.” The path had become steep and rocky, up and down.  As I age, I find it harder to navigate, but I walk more slowly and deliberately.  Another group of young people pass.

An hour later, I paused to rest. Looking up I was overcome by the sight of the red rocks that pointed upwards like a stunning red cathedral and the shadows landing from the other side of canyon appeared to be the long-pointed spires shooting upwards toward the sky.  Then it appeared.   A kaleidoscope of light, brilliant color, and dancing shadows. The reds, the pinks, and the golds sparkled in the glow of the sunlight as the shadows of the oak leaves danced back and forth across them. Nature’s own stained-glass window. A stunning rose window. A magnificent, shimmering kaleidoscope of light and color illuminating the canyon wall.

I was silent for a time before I heard laughter and a group of four young women came charging into the space. When they saw me, they halted–surprised.  “Are you okay?” asked a kinky haired girl, the first in their line.  I nodded and pointed upward to my imaginary cathedral.

“Oh, wow!” she murmured, and her girlfriends were equally taken back. The five of us stood in reverent silence for several minutes. Then they silently mouthed their “thank-yous” and slipped past me on the way into their futures.

Unlike the girls, I was not in a hurry. I relished just being there and reflecting. While this does not happen often, I have learned to try and seize these special moments. It was then that all the stresses and craziness seemed to wash right out of me. It was there that a computer crash seemed insignificant. It was there that I was flooded with gratitude. To be out. To be here!

The last year has been a rocky path for all of us. As we work to hoist ourselves up and out of the pandemic, we can learn from the oak trees and the Native Americans of long ago. I can look down the trail and see that it leads forward. I will find my way. The young people will find their way.

Indeed, when we stay the course, the rocky path often leads to the beautiful. The unexpected. Suddenly I was flooded with joy that so many young people had found their way here. For in this place we can connect with the oak tree, the ancient humans, with each other, and most powerfully, with something bigger and more beautiful than all of us.

A Crack in Everything

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen


This song became stuck in my head last year as I prepared a keynote speech for one of my favorite groups of word lovers, the National Association of Poetry Therapists. Shortly before the conference last April, the COVID scare came smacking into our lives like a bird hitting the patio window. Conferences, workshops, and travel cascaded off our schedules and we began to try and find our way through a maze of confusion about  what we could do and where we could go.

About the same time, I was planning my mother-in-law’s, 100th Birthday party for relatives and friends from across the country. Amid the preparations, I had a startling conversation with Edna. “I am okay with a little birthday party,” she explained, “But when I die, I don’t want any party. No service. My friends are dead and there will be no need to talk about me!” she announced decidedly.

“What?!” I looked at her across the patio table where we sat. “We always have parties and celebrations. A service is not for you or for your friends who are gone. It is to help all of us who are left behind. We have to rewrite our stories to move forward without you. It will be hard for us.” She looked at me doubtfully. “Mom,” I pleaded, “we need the ritual of celebrations.” She shrugged and hugged me, but I sensed she was not convinced.

A strong-willed woman, Steve and I had cared for her in Phoenix for the last four years. I had met her when I started graduate school in California. She was caught up in her work as a high school librarian, and I liked her spunk immediately. Often I would eat dinner at her house and as she would simmer the marinara sauce for manicotti, she would tell me tales of her past. She had been an independent journalist during World War II to the point of flying in the war planes. When her children were born, she became a librarian first at UCLA and then at Narbonne High School in Los Angeles. She was so good at what she did, it was said that Steve Jobs stopped by her library to give her the first computer in the Los Angeles Public Schools. In turn she helped Jobs bring computers into the schools, hosting the first computer lab. When she retired at age 75, they named her library for her—the Edna Marinella Library.

Last June amid COVID, we hosted her 100th Birthday. While no one flew into Phoenix, we hosted her friends and relatives from all over the country in a huge Zoom party to honor her for her incredible spirit and the positive gifts she brought to us.  For days after this event she kept asking me how all those people crowded into one little computer screen, and she marveled at the many gifts sent to her from the Mickey Mouse sapphire necklace to the hand-knitted blankets to warm her legs. About a week later as she fingered her presents, she turned to me unexpectedly and said, “I feel loved.”

And she was.  Last week as I presented my long overdue keynote Zoom speech at the NAPT Conference, I shared the words of the Leonard Cohen anthem, “There is a crack in everything.”  I talked about how our words, our stories, and our poems allow us to touch, to see, and even to be the light. A few minutes after I finished, I headed to the home to see Edna who was now in hospice and nearing the end of her life. She wanted to hear how it went.

When I arrived, it was late afternoon, and the hospice nurse had pulled the blinds to keep out the sunlight. I helped raise her bed and fluff her pillows so she would be upright. Then we chatted. “I am going to leave here soon,” Edna explained to me. I told her I understood. “I am going to miss you.” Then she took my hand tightly, “Will you make one important promise?” I nodded.  “Will you please have a big party for me. A really big celebration?”

“Oh, yes,” I promised.  “We will have a party to honor you. A celebration of your wonderful life.”

“Please, it needs to be in California. That is my real home—and you can talk about me all you want.”

“I promise,” I said, tears flooding my eyes.

Relieved and smiling, she sunk back into her pillows. Then I opened the blinds just a bit and a stream of sunlight shot across Edna’s tiny, frail body, and we both marveled at the how it seemed the light was coming from her. From her body.

In the coming two days all her children and grandchildren arrived to visit with her. We shared stories and told her we loved her and held her hands as she passed. Indeed, that is how the light slips in.

Turning Points

Although I am not ready to celebrate the end of the pandemic yet, I have had the vaccine and like a sand crab inching out of his burrow, I want to inch forward, too. While excited, I know that turning points can be fraught with difficulties and stress.  But I also know that life has prepared us to face change. Like a sand crab we will find our way back to the surface. Indeed, we know that tomorrow will be better. Life has taught us this. Cancer taught me this. Friends taught me this.

Here is one story that showed me that change, even hard change, can lead to surprising growth. I arrived at Purdue University near the end of the Viet Nam War.  Like most college students, I hated that America was engulfed in a war that had no justification. The war stalemate left the campus with a perplexing malaise. Nonetheless, I was blissfully idealistic and had high hopes I could make a difference in the lives of others. I wanted to major in psychology and be a therapist, and I secretly longed to be a writer. Better yet, an author! I had no clue how those two majors would sync up, but I was determined to major in both. In high school I had won a few minor writing awards, and I did excessive listening to the problems of friends. I harbored a deep-seated belief that these subjects were my future.

Within a few months my hopes of becoming a writer had been dashed. My first writing teacher tortured me with B after B, and he slashed unexplained red marks across my papers. One day in class, he insisted we were all “sludge writers.” Although there was no way to Google the term back then, I knew it was bad. “Every one of you need to find another major,” he yelled at us. “None of you—I repeat none of you—will ever be able to make a living as a writer.”

In the coming year, my psychology instructors made their field appear to be a rabbit’s hole of research and exploration into the minds of those suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and paranoia. I searched the course catalog for just one class that was uplifting, but positive psychology did not exist yet. That semester I took my first (and last) class of psychological research, commonly called “rat lab.” In the second month of class, a virus swept through the lab and killed all the rats. I took it as a sign.

On my way home after the rat lab debacle, I ran into a friend who was heading to the Union to sign-up to tutor inner city students. On a whim, I went with her. This is how I came to spend my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons tutoring nine-year-old Rodney in the basement of the local Presbyterian church.

In our first session Rodney wore a Pacers jersey, and we argued over who was the best player on the team. When I realized he knew more about the team and their stats, it was easy to introduce his math lesson by teasing him that he certainly knew numbers. And he did. His language was basketball and math. Both were games to be played, and he liked them.

But reading was no game, and Rodney was not a fan. One day as we struggled through a story in his classroom reader, he made a confession. “I’m not like my sister!” Turns out that his three-year-old-sister Stephie loved books. “She pretends to read them aloud over and over,” he said. “It’s hilarious. She makes up all kinds of things!”

One day when Rodney’s mom dropped him off, I met Stephie.  She had a heart-shaped smile and a bouncy Afro pulled into mini ponytails tied in pink ribbons that seemed to have sprouted all over her head.  Her walk was more of a rock dance than a walk.  When Rodney introduced us, Stephie hugged my legs. I was charmed!

A week later when Rodney needed to write a character description, he decided to write about Stephie. We titled it “Rah! Rah” which was a nickname that sprung out of her mouth when she could not say Rodney. The name stuck, and so did Rodney’s memory of the antics Stephie pulled. “One day she took her baby doll in the bathtub, and they had a tea party, but Stephie drank so much soapy water her tummy hurt, and the baby doll—well she looked like she drowned!” A bit like a young comedian learning to work his audience, Rodney told me story after story as we worked on his assignment. He wrote how Stephie loved to punch holes with her straw in her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “She thinks they taste better!” he noted. “What’s the funniest thing she had said lately? I asked.  Rodney thought for a minute before answering. “Last night when we went to bed, she said, “Mommy, please wrap me up just like a Dorito!”

Later that month we finished reading a dog-eared copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I found at a second-hand bookstore. While I did most of the reading, Rodney worked at it, and I sensed it was making a difference.  He was changing. So was I.

After class one spring morning I was headed home from campus, but I kept thinking about my work with Rodney. I felt I was on the cusp of something significant. A turning point.  While tutoring was not a class, I realized it had been my most fulfilling learning experience since arriving on campus. As I walked down State Street, I became totally caught up in the shadows of the oak tree leaves that fell around me. The darkness of these shadows danced around me, and suddenly I paused to stare at them in wonder as they whispered to me. In that moment I felt the warmth of the sun on my cheeks, and as I lifted my head skyward, I could see the sun light as it filtered through the darkness and shone like diamonds in the sky.

I knew what I had to do. My start at Purdue had been bumpy, but it no longer mattered. I had discovered what I loved doing–and I could do it. Perhaps for the rest of my life. I turned around and headed back to campus counseling. I would become a teacher.