I go into the woods as myself. Grateful, uncertain, and whatever else I am that day. I am adept and used to ignoring questions from people who don’t want to know the answer anyway. But given a chance, the trees whisper strange things. I’m never quite ready. Always a little caught off guard by their boldness.
Why are you afraid to rest? Trees have a documented habit of never going anywhere. It’s hard to pretend they don’t have time to wait while I think their questions over.
Why are you afraid to need something? Why are people so afraid to not be okay? Their communication system is nothing if not sophisticated. When I don’t stop to consider and walk on ignoring them, their thirtieth cousin fourteen times removed takes up the conversation. An oak tree on the edge of a field asks me why I feel embarrassed at the idea of taking care of myself. I roll my eyes irritated with the stupidity of trees. I do not allow my steps to betray an interest in the question through slight pause or increased pace.
Three hundred yards later, a white pine asks why I think weakness is shameful. And what’s so noble about strength? asks the next tree beside it. A snot nosed little punk of a half dead wanna be excuse for a tree tries to tease out the subtle lines between strength and pretending.
A solemn clearly a woman tree, says something I’ve heard before. Not with emotion, but like a well known fact: true and bound to stay that way. My strength is made perfect in weakness. I hear it like a whisper on the wind but I don’t know what to do with it. It’s not one of the facts I completely understand. Every time the leaves rustle she says it again. If I’d been asked to play with the words a bit before they went to the publisher, I would have suggested some changes. Strength doesn’t mind weakness? Something like that, but it’s a little late now.
I don’t answer the trees that day. I go on a hike for Thanksgiving and take pictures. Afterwards I look at them. Broken trees, dead trees, falling down trees, crooked trees, mixed up together trees. I can’t find one that doesn’t seem beautiful. Or any that I wished hadn’t been there. Not a single one I thought should have looked like something other than what it was that day.
And there are supposed to be two or three more pictures here but for reasons unknown to me the program refused to allow this last night or this morning. Please thou therefore use thy imagination to flesh out the particulars and I’ll comfort myself with the fact that imagination trumps electronic representations of reality.
With the family away, I wrote Friday until 6:00pm in order to earn the right to drive the tractor until 8:00pm. I ran the bushhog on our far field while keeping a close on eye on the ground for rocks and creatures. Last year I stopped just short of a partridge on her eggs. No partridges were disturbed by me this time, but I saw a painted turtle and jumped off to move him out of harm’s way. As I bent down, instead of curling up inside his shell, he ran. I got back on the tractor laughing. What if all turtles can run, but it’s one of those things that just isn’t done? What if this one was running because he was too young (or too socially awkward) to know better?
Boy one’s barn chores were uneventful except for Misty, who snuck in behind me to the sheep barn. The children love the pony. Boy one talks to her, grabs her mane, cajoles her, puts his arm around her, pulls her, and generally does whatever he wants with her like she’s his sister. Misty and I don’t have that kind of relationship. I spoke, she ignored. I pushed, she rolled her eyes. I didn’t try pulling because it seemed ill advised. After ten minutes, I went and got the whip, which I didn’t plan to use but I wasn’t going to tell her that. She saw me come in the barn and stand in the corner. She glared at me and took one deliberate step at a time toward the door. Before she left she turned and barred every one of her senior citizen horse teeth at me.
Outside she walked around to her stall which was not in great shape. I pointed out to her, while cleaning up her stall with a close eye on her, that the crap she was standing in was thanks to her boy who could do no wrong, whereas the clean floor with fresh straw was thanks now to me.
The rest of my weekend retreat was writing, plus a birthday lunch for a friend. I got drenched doing Saturday night’s chores. It felt like a fitting baptism for the new hope I was feeling. I gave Misty a night off on her diet so she could stay outside to eat all night with the cows. For my part, I found myself a good documentary (on sugar!) and settled in to watch with not a stitch of laundry folding attempted.
The gang returned safe and sound to a house with no electricity and one roll of toilet paper. Everyone took it in stride for the hour of waiting. On the camping trip, the family found clay, discovered a cliff they could climb, watched a raccoon try to steal their food in the middle of the day, saw a porcupine on their hike, and swam in the still frigid lake. A resounding success all around.
photo thanks to Smadar at morguefile.com
When I stopped teaching, it felt like I was dying. The sight of math books, grammar DVD’s, or anything school related undid me. The label that told me who I was (teacher) wasn’t going to exist anymore. I would picture my sons, looking up at me as I led an assembly, and burst into tears. How could I quit before I ever got to teach one of them? How could I take away something they were proud of?
The months that followed were an excruciating relief. Relief because I badly needed rest. Excruciating because on the way to getting it, I realized things. My kids didn’t really care that I quit teaching. Turns out their pride in my accomplishments was a happy smile in a day, not a sustaining factor in their lives. They liked my improved availability.
Although I had put in hundreds of hours to non-teaching related helps to the school, nothing fell apart when I left. My students had enjoyed my classes, but no one’s education came to a grinding halt. That something I was an integral part of could be okay without me was “totally new information.”
I knew that I had been slowly bleeding to death trying to do it all. I didn’t know that with the best of intentions, I was choosing to die. Or that no one had really asked me to. I thought I was special to the people at the blood bank. I never realized that they accepted what I had to give because I was standing in the line to give it. That they weren’t even marking gold stars by my name for donor of the month. When I left, the blood supply did not even hiccup. Life went on.
A friend teaches kindergarten. If a someone’s mother has a baby, if chicks hatch, or something important happens, they make a poster. They always put “BIG NEWS,” at the top, and then tell you whatever it is. As I rested my body and spirit (something in my case that should have been done years earlier) this was all very big news to me. At first it made me feel small and depressed. With no official employment, not only did I no longer matter, but I had never mattered. (This is what it felt like.) The thing that I felt as vocation and claimed as identity, teaching and school involvement, was gone. I was left facing the fact that I had not been as important to the picture as I thought I was.
An invaluable gift came wrapped in these painful discoveries. I found permission to rest and permission to wait. I wanted to write, but I was hesitant to go rushing off to join the hubbub of facebook likes and incessant small talk. I intentionally stayed back from the maddening crowds and focused on what I could learn in quiet, without promotions, recommendations, or commendations. (I would have been okay with some of that but since it wasn’t available I learned to make do. )
I didn’t quit teaching five years ago to be noble. I quit because I couldn’t function anymore. Some days I miss it. More days, I’m glad. All the grief I felt then at walking away from something has grown into the firm conviction that I was only ever walking towards something. Perhaps this is one of life’s secrets, that a little honest effort will suffice to keep the boat on course. We journey on a wide and forgiving river nudged gently along toward the good, when we know it and when we don’t.