Monday, May 12, 2014

Heaven From Hell

"So, so you think you can tell, heaven from hell, blue skies from pain?" ~Pink Floyd

A couple weeks ago, I read Jon Muth's Zen Shorts to the kids. One of the zen fables the panda Stillwater tells to the boy Michael is about fortune. A series of inter-related events befall a farmer, alternating between apparently good luck and bad luck. As his neighbors express their delight in his good luck saying, "Such good luck," the farmer replies, "Maybe." When they bemoan the bad saying, "Such bad luck," he replies, "Maybe." And, as is the case in life, we learn that the good and bad are so intertwined it truly is impossible to tell them apart. 

A week ago Thursday, I left for a long haul trip to Prince Edward Island where I was to present at a conference. I'm not a happy traveller in the best of circumstances, and my itinerary looked to be a grueling one, starting with a flight to Vancouver, where I connected to Toronto, before catching a third flight to Charlottetown. The first two legs went off without anything more than the usual aggravations, but I arrived in Toronto to learn that my next flight had been cancelled.

The customer service representative literally said, "The bad news is the flight's been cancelled. The good news is that we have you booked on tomorrow's flight, which will get you there around 3 p.m." Since that was pretty much when the conference ended, I told her it was all bad news, fought back the panic and the attendant urge to take it out on her, and reminded myself of Stillwater. I was sent to Air Canada's customer service desk. It was frustrating that no one in Toronto seemed to even know why the flight had been cancelled, but they could tell me that the later flight was, naturally, booked solid. We discussed my alternatives, all of which involved flying to other destinations then hiring a car and driving for several hours, putting me at the conference site, after nearly 24 hours of travel, only a few hours before it was time to take the stage. I did manage to convince them enough of my urgency that they moved me to the top of the stand-by list, and then, after several hours of sitting on pins and needles, Air Canada essentially bought my seat for me by offering $800 travel vouchers to anyone willing to give up their place on the plane and fly the following day.

So, I finally lay down in my hotel room bed at 2:45 a.m., setting my alarm for 6, feeling quite sorry for myself. It took a lot of coffee to get me going in the morning, but I made it to the podium where I found some 50 folks in my session. Not only that, but it was one of the most engaged audiences I've ever experienced, making me feel embraced from the very start. During the breaks people came up to me with compliments, well-wishes, and cameras for having their photos taken with me, both with and without the cape. My hosts could not have been more gracious and sympathetic. It was all-around an elevating day, topped off by an invitation to dinner from a man who wanted to surprise his wife who had been disappointed to have had to miss my session. Frankly, I felt like a superstar all day. And it continued into the following day as I turned tourist in sunny and historic Charlottetown. It seemed like around every corner was someone else who recognized me and wanted to chat. 

Such good luck, I thought, without remembering to temper it with "maybe."

Still on a high, I awoke early on Sunday, however, to the emailed news that there were "important changes" in my itinerary. My 7:30 a.m. flight was unchanged, but the legs from Toronto to Vancouver and then on home to Seattle were pushed back to much later, leaving me with at least one long layover I'd not anticipated. The worst part is that I had been looking forward to arriving home in the afternoon, which I'd planned to use for resting up, but now it appeared I wouldn't be touching head to pillow until at least 9:30 p.m. Again, I fought back the strong emotions, opting instead for the stance of Stillwater, telling myself that this was only "maybe" bad luck. As it turned out, the first leg of my journey was also delayed . . . by 7 hours, causing me no small amount of anxiety about making my connections, which would mean not even making it back in time for school on Monday. One of the commitments about my new life as a presenter and speaker is that it won't interfere with my real job, which is being a classroom teacher. As Werner Erhard used to say, "Breakdown only shows up against a background of commitment," and I was living that truth.

It was brutal and there was a great deal of waiting around followed by running, but I made the connection with minutes to spare, then after another delay in Vancouver, finally made it into my bed at 11:30 p.m., way past my bedtime. It was much harder by now to answer "maybe" to my bad luck.

I was groggy on Monday, but the kids always make my life easier. The challenge, I thought, was that our 3-5's class had it's year-end social "meeting" scheduled for the evening. I worried all day that I'd crash and burn, but I needn't have worried. This is a class comprised mostly of families who have been together for 2-3 years, and for many, this was our last time to be all together. There were lots of tears and lots of stories told about our years together. Families expressed their gratitude to me and our community in such touchingly heartfelt ways, it was impossible to not reflect on my good luck to have found my way to be here with all of these people. I left later than I could have imagined, walking on clouds, having been fully embraced.

Although I was exhausted, I awoke my wife Jennifer when I got home, too full to keep it all inside. I made a point of greeting both of our dogs as well, who I'd really not seen for five days. Our standard poodle Athena only lifted her head, and Jennifer said, "She's exhausted. She had a long day getting groomed and going to the office with me." Athena is 12-years-old, with Addison's disease, an illness that we've controlled with medications these past five years, but which still weakens her, especially during times of stress. She's my good old girl; my most constant companion during the decade of my 40's.

I awoke on Tuesday morning to find that she'd died in the night. When I'd left her at 11 p.m., she'd been on her bed, which is a few feet from our bed. Somehow in the middle of the night, she had used the last of her life to move a little closer to us. She'd apparently died in her sleep, hopefully without pain or fear, which I understand is good luck, even when it's a mere seed in the soil of bad luck.


To say life is a roller coaster is a cliche hardly worth evoking, but I've rarely experienced so many highs and lows compacted into such a short time.

No, I can't tell heaven from hell. Indeed, one cannot exist without the other. That Pink Floyd song lyric has been in my head for days now and I'm beginning to doubt it will ever go away.

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Cassandra said...

I'm sorry for the loss of your dear, sweet pup. Thank you for sharing so much. You're always posting something that helps make my own journey homeschooling my kids more purposeful.

Heather said...

Air Canada does indeed suck. If you ever need to travel to Canada again, try to use WestJet.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy for your good bad luck and so sorry to hear about the death of your beloved dog. You will grieve your loss and continue the good work that is so important to children. Be well.

Anonymous said...

I'm happy for your good bad luck and so sorry for the loss of your beloved dog. You will grieve your loss and continue with your good work, which is so important for children. Be well.

Unknown said...

What a beautiful final gift for Athena to give you. Whilst you can never know how she felt at the end, I think you can be certain that if given a choice, she would have chosen to die at home, with you. And this is the gift, the peace of knowing that her life ended in the way she would have chosen.