‘Tis the season

Two nights after the election my friend Lisa and I sat out on my dark back patio and drank gin under the twinkle lights and talked, as we’ve been doing pretty regularly since June. We wore sweaters and decided that, no, we didn’t really need to light a fire in the pit. It was dry and we were plenty warm; we told ourselves that the winter we’d spent the summer dreading might not be so bad after all.

“It’s already November and look at us!” we said.

A week later, the weather had turned cold and the patio cushions were soaked from days of rain. We canceled our Saturday lunch plans because on Friday our governor announced a two-week “freeze” on activities (which will be at least 4 weeks in our county) and because it’s too damn cold and wet to sit outside, even for us.

I talked on the phone with my mother yesterday. Back in the summer, when I was pushing hard for her to let me visit, she told me that she and my dad had decided to think of this as a lost year, but that they can be OK with losing it if that’s what’s necessary to have more years in the future. Yesterday she told me that they’ve decided we’ll just need to celebrate this year’s Christmas next July.

“But I’ve already gotten you a gift,” I said.

“Oh, we’ll still do gifts,” she said. “What’s on your list?”

Begging the question: What is a holiday, anyway?

For years, my feelings about the holidays have been ambivalent, at best—and my feelings about the holidays are rarely at their best. I’ve chafed against the commercialism, the materialism, the waste, the busyness, the stress. I’ve hated missing all the people I love who I’ll never share a holiday with again. I’ve wished we could all just hygge down at home with some candles, soup, and puzzles and call it good.

Careful what you wish for?

Last summer, when I anticipated the holiday season, I felt only dread. I hadn’t seen my parents since February or my son since the first week of January, and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing any of them during the holidays this year. When my daughter’s visa for Sweden came through we made plans for her to come home for Christmas; I let myself believe that fantasy for awhile, but I let go of it about two weeks ago when it became clear that the pandemic’s numbers were only going to go up. In the summer, knowing that I wouldn’t get to spend the holidays with any of my distant beloveds, I thought about maybe just ignoring them altogether this year–because for me, what holidays have been, my whole life, is a time you gather with family who don’t live near you. How can it be a holiday if someone isn’t traveling so we can be together?

Like so many things this year, though, things haven’t gone as expected and I feel upside down in them: As the holidays approach, I’m feeling neither dread nor a desire to ignore them. Instead, I feel a pull to embrace them.

Normally, gift-giving feels like nothing but a chore, and I find myself resenting it—which is about the opposite of what gift-giving is supposed to be. This year, I’m enjoying thinking about what I can give each person I’m not going to see. I want them to have something that tells them I love them and am thinking about them and want to care for them. I want them to feel my presence, even though I’ll be far away.

In previous years, seeing anything smacking of Christmas before Thanksgiving set my teeth grinding, but this year, two weeks out from Thanksgiving, I’m ready to clear out the pumpkins and bring in greenery and lights and peppermint hot chocolate. You want to put your tree up right now? More power to you. Do whatever makes you feel good.

The only thing bringing out my inner Scrooge are people on social media posting about how they’re going to have their holidays with whoever they want, Covid (and orders) be damned. No one can tell them what they can and can’t do in their own homes.

OK, sure.

This summer, when my mom was explaining why I couldn’t come visit them—even if we stayed outside, even if we wore masks, even though they understood that if we didn’t see each other during the summer we probably wouldn’t until the following summer—she told me their thinking about losing this year so that they could have a better chance at having more years in the future.

“Your dad is turning 80 next spring,” she said. “He’s really hoping he can have 10 more.”

I’m not unaware of my parents’ ages or the typical span of a human life, but something about my mother putting a concrete number–and such a small one!–to their life expectancy coalesced amorphous anxiety I’d been feeling about lost time into a gut-punch. All the fight left me, and I stopped pushing for a visit and started reading about radical acceptance.

Not long after our conversation yesterday (in which we established that yes, we’re still exchanging gifts), I saw this in one of my feeds:

I’m often wary of the idea of re-framing hard things; that can easily morph into toxic positivity and victim-blaming and lead to ignoring (or not seeing) systemic ills. But I sure wish we could re-frame what the coming holiday season (or hell, the whole pandemic) is or might be.

Given all that we must accept about our nation’s response to the pandemic and its current realities, I wish everyone would commit to having a small bubble and to celebrating holidays only with those inside it, and see that commitment not as an act of acquiescence to authority or of living in fear, but as an act of hope and love. Love for family in the largest sense of the word (especially our health care workers), and hope for a future in which we can all once again gather freely and safely.

My parents and brother and I have lived through 55 Christmases together, and there is only one year I can remember not celebrating with them. I miss them more than I have words to express, and I’m sad and angry (but mostly just sad) that I won’t be seeing them again until we have a vaccine or we can visit outside. But even if the worst happens–if we never see each other again–I won’t regret not spending this holiday with them. We’ve had 54 together. We’ve got such a full bucket of memories and love that we’ve shared, and our decision about this Christmas is rooted in that love and in our faith that if we can tough it out this year, we’ll get to fill our bucket with even more in years to come. I will never not feel good about that, no matter how things play out.

Maybe all of this is why I’m feeling more holiday spirit than I have in decades. When I consider what I have to be thankful for, I am so profoundly grateful that I haven’t lost anyone to Covid, and I can’t think of a better way to love my family (which includes all humans) than to do my part to keep the disease from spreading.

So, this past week, I’ve been bringing out the candles, working on gifts, and embracing the comforts of winter. I turn on the ficus’s twinkle lights in the now-dark mornings and now-dark late afternoons, and I light candles on the table while making dinner. I’m letting myself take breaks to just sit with Daisy on my lap (her favorite place to be) and read or write or knit. I’ve tried new recipes and enjoyed looking for others. (Pretty sure Lisa and I are going to try one of these if we can get a dry spell and brave the patio again.) Cane and I have sat at the kitchen table and just enjoyed long conversations, without any voice in the back of my head telling me I should be doing something more productive. This year, just being together with my tiny pack and finding any kind of contentment feels like accomplishment enough, and something to celebrate in whatever fashion we can manage.

Gratitudish

I’m not sure why November is the month so many of us decide to do (or not do) a thing for every day of it: NaNoWriMo, No-shave November, Dry November. In recent years, my social media feeds have been filled with daily gratitude postings. (This year, not so much. Shocker.)

These are bandwagons I’ve never hopped on. (I guess, in general , I’m not much of a bandwagon hopper.) But I was out for a beautiful walk on November 1, and happened to see some really cool things, and I decided that I’d really like to post one cool thing every day on Instagram.

This was not so much about practicing gratitude (because I don’t think this kind of thing does much for a gratitude practice) as about getting my body out in the world and moving. Moving my body should be easier than ever. I am working from home. If ever there were a time I could interrupt my day to take a lunchtime walk, now is it.

But it’s not happening. Last week, I could (and did) blame the election and all it brought forth, but this week, there’s no ready excuse. I just can’t seem to corral my day and/or work flow to make it happen. Or at least, that’s what I’m telling myself. The days are so short and the tasks so many. Once again, every day ends with a to-do list longer than the one that began it. (I suppose I’ll soon reach the point where catching up is so unattainable I’ll let that goal go, but I’m not quite there yet.)

So, my fledgling practice is not daily and its purpose isn’t gratitude, but this paying attention to finding cool things has me feeling all kinds of appreciative and grateful. Maybe that’s just because we have (at least for now) staved off an autocratic take-over (I hope), but maybe it’s because there’s a little more light in the room of my life and I can see in a way that’s been difficult for a long time.

But none of that is the point. I don’t really care to excavate the why or what for of this; I just want to enjoy (and share) the joy of finding cool things on a semi-regular basis. Like this:

I found this on a walk in the woods with my friend S. She came into my life when it looked a lot like that stump: hacked off, crumbling, broken. And she helped me believe that something new and strong could grow out of it. I didn’t know, back then, about nurse logs; this week they were everywhere on our walk. Most nurse logs are fallen trunks, but some are like this, supporting a whole new tree that pulls from a broken trunk the nutrients it needs to grow. On the day after our election was finally called, this was just the metaphor I needed to see.

The next day, another gift appeared. Monday morning I pulled up the blinds to a world iced in frost, the first freeze of fall blinking at us like a turn signal: winter’s just around the corner up ahead. I tried to capture the wonder of it from a distance–the sharp surprise, the sheerness of the glittery curtain covering roofs and pavement and branches–but my photo didn’t catch it. The image was just a sort of pretty picture.

Instead of shrugging and stepping onto the day’s treadmill–which I would have done if not for my desire to share a cool picture of cool things–I slipped into shoes and out into the backyard, where I noticed the last roses blooming at the top of the bush outside my bedroom window and saw a crystal fur coating the drying hydrangea petals. The air bit at my lungs, and I shivered in my flannel pajama pants, and Daisy–backlit by rising sun–looked at me with what seemed to be anticipation, the way she always does when any of her humans behave in atypical ways.

And all of it–the ice, the bite, the light, the wonder–made me happy, which matters, even if it’s just for a few moments.

If you’d like to follow along, you can find me on Instagram. I don’t post images every day, and I could well lose interest in this project or wander off course, and there will probably be too many pictures of my remaining ancient dog, but you’re free to join the ride.*

*Unless you’re a skeezy-looking guy who has one post and only 2 followers, in which case: Go away. And on the subject of Instagram and joy, I discovered #wienerdogworld which almost made me flirt with the idea getting another one even though I have sworn off them forever. Highly recommend that hashtag if you need an endorphin boost.

Oh happy day

It didn’t really sink in until I was out, around other people. I’ve been needing a pair of slippers, something warm to wear around the house with a sole that can go outside. Frustrated by the too many choices that my feed started feeding me once the algorithms realized what I was in the market for, I decided to go to a local shop in a southeast Portland neighborhood and get whatever version of it they have available there.

It was raining when I left the house, but the sun was breaking through by the time I got there. I bought the slippers quickly and easily (fewer choices is so often a gift, isn’t it?), and then Cane and I went for a walk in the neighborhood.

Walking neighborhoods is a thing we’ve been doing for years. Some people get out in nature, but we like to get out in communities. We study what people do with their yards and homes, we muse about what homes can tell us about their inhabitants and our collective history, and we talk about what’s going on in the world. It’s a thing that’s remained constant in spite of all that we’ve lived through in the past four years: separation, kids leaving home, moving, pandemic, and the Trump presidency.

It was that constancy–and the contrast we could both feel between the walks of the past year and yesterday’s walk–that made the meaning of yesterday finally sink in. The very air felt different: lighter, brighter (in spite of the clouds). It came from the people we passed by; everyone seemed to be carrying themselves differently, and I could sense the smiles behind the masks.

At one point, a rainbow emerged, and we stopped to take a picture of it. Everyone we could see stopped, too, pointing with their hands or their phones. A woman driving by noticed us and stopped her car in the middle of the street and just looked at it, smiling.

It felt like magic, like a gift, like a poem.

Later, I watched video of the celebrations around the world, bells ringing in Paris and London, and I felt the weight lift even more. It was further confirmation that it hasn’t been just me, just us–these thoughts and feelings we’ve been carrying for years now. What we’ve been living through has been real. The despair was real, the injustices were real, the threat was real, the trauma was real. When you live for an extended period of time at the mercy of a gaslighter, in the midst of those who confirm the gaslighter’s version of reality, it becomes easy to doubt your perceptions, and even easier to lose hope. To know that people the world over were celebrating, too, was to know that it’s all been real. It felt like the kind of relief you feel when you finally get a diagnosis for an illness: yes, it’s terrible news, but it’s not all in your head.

I spent far too much time yesterday joyscrolling or hopescrolling (it seems the collective hasn’t yet landed on a term for the opposite of doomscrolling), trying to take everything in. Because I am me, I don’t find myself in the place of giddy relief I often saw others in. Don’t get me wrong: I feel tremendous relief; however, my relief is tethered to my understanding that this is only a reprieve. It is a chance, a reason that hope is not an unreasonable thing to cling to, but what’s happened here is not over. Not by a longshot.

We got lucky. I say that not to discount the tremendous amount of hard work that so many, many people have done over the past four years (because yesterday would never have happened without it) but if Trump hadn’t been so atrocious and if the pandemic had not laid bare to so many of us how inept and dysfunctional our government has become, I doubt we could have roused the majorities we needed to win in a system that is so obviously designed to uphold minority rule in our country. And that system remains in place, abetted by a media landscape that allows propaganda and disinformation to flourish unchecked in a population with so many who don’t understand it or know how to navigate it (or, perhaps, don’t care to).

This view of mine can take me quickly to a dark place. What can I do to change this system? I mean, really: I am a white, late-middle-aged woman with no special talents and no significant resources, authority, or influence. Changing the system feels like the work of those who have more of all those things than I do. As I watched those who have led resistance efforts of all kinds express their relief and joy and feelings of vindication, I wished I could have done more, felt able to do more to make the results of this election happen. To be completely honest, though, for most of the past four years it has felt like it’s taken everything I’ve got to function well enough to keep working, care for those who are mine to care for, and remain informed enough to know what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t known how to do more, or felt able to.

Luckily, somewhere in all the scrolling of the past few days, I saw words that Jena Schwartz shared from Omkari Williams that hit me right in that feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy that I hate when it comes up in me:

“Today it is so clear that we are not there yet. How do we get there? How do we begin to move the needle towards that vision so that we never find ourselves in this situation again?

I think it begins with starting close in. I believe that we need to go back to square one and do the hard work but with a different energy and focus. I believe we need to take stock of who we are as individuals and look hard at where we aren’t living up to the values we espouse. Then we have to have the hard conversations. The conversations where we don’t put being “nice” above being honest. The conversations that so many of us are raised not to have…

We need to notice and challenge the places in ourselves where we don’t stand up for what’s right. We need to stop accommodating people who are in the camp of let’s just keep this civil and things will change eventually.

This is not about violence, in word or deed. This is about clarity; clarity of understanding, clarity of conscience, and clarity of intention.

The path to a just world is clearly one that includes that righteous destruction of the unjust systems that we currently have. We, each of us, needs to take a stand. We need to make a decision about who we are and what we will stand for and then actively live that out each day. No time off. No letting things we know are wrong slide by with an excuse from ourselves or others. We need to speak the truth as clearly as we can and as often as it’s needed.

The lines have been drawn. There is no middle ground. It is time to stand for what we know is right, justice and freedom for all. Start close in and then expand out. Let’s get to work.”

We all have different resources, talents, and limitations, but it seems to me that what she is asking is something that each of us can do: Be clear with ourselves about who we are and what we believe in, and then show up as our authentic selves in this world, in the spheres we inhabit, in the opportunities that come to all of in the simple acts of living our lives.

I am not going to make structural changes in our formal systems, but I can–along with millions of others of us–make cultural changes in the community I inhabit, simply by being honest and open about who I am and what I stand for, even when it’s not comfortable to do so. Those acts that can feel so small in a moment can ripple out in ways we’ll never know, and those cultural changes we can all influence are the things that eventually cause our systems to either adapt or collapse, allowing something more aligned with our culture to take their place. That adaptation/collapse happens through bolstering the efforts and resolve of those who do have that other kind of power, and in times–like this past week–when we all have a chance to directly impact what happens to us.

Each of us can look for where we do have talents, skills, and interests and focus our energy there, trusting that if enough of us would just do that, change can happen. I think I realized my limitations at a pretty early age and decided that I would focus the talents and skills I had into being the best teacher I could be. I knew I wasn’t going to directly change the world, but that I would have influence on what kind of world it might be. I had faith in the ripples.

In recent years I have felt as if (obviously!) that wasn’t enough. But maybe not. Maybe not. This election is the victory of only one battle in a war we’ve been waging since Europeans came to this continent and began taking it and its people over. Maybe the best thing to come of it will be a renewing of hope and faith that will bolster all of us regular folks to keep doing what we’ve been doing, only maybe a bit deeper and harder.

For me, the challenge going forward is two-fold:

  1. To remain engaged in the world. Because of the privileges I have, it would be easy for me to simply shut it all out, to tell myself that the fights are for those younger than me or more powerful than me. I need to resist that feeling.
  2. To be more authentic in the world, especially when doing so threatens my own comfort.

I’m not gonna lie: This sounds easy but will be a challenge. I so easily get discouraged with this country and my fellow citizens. It’s easy for me to go to a place of feeling that what I do doesn’t really matter, that the systems are too big and powerful, that people are too uneducated (by design) or too traumatized (through injustices of all kinds) or too spent with all it takes too many of us to simply survive in this world to make different choices than the ones we are. Maybe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but sometimes it looks like something stuck in an endless loop, in which every step forward is pushed back, over and over and over again.

Maybe that is how it is, and maybe how it will always be. But so what? We are all alive here, and now, and even if the gains we’ll see come January disappear in another four years, well–it matters that for the upcoming four a lot of things will be better for a lot of people. And maybe one of the gifts of the past four is that a lot of people like me will be less complacent and more hopeful and better able to be strong in the ways that we can and need to be, and maybe this lighter time on the loop will last longer or have deeper impacts. Or maybe it’s not a loop at all, but a spiral that just feels like one. Maybe each time we circle around, we have to go past suffering and ugliness again, but it’s a continual climb upward, rather than forward.

Near the end of our walk yesterday, I saw something that stopped me:

Flaming leaves were everywhere, so thick I almost didn’t see the flowers poking out among these. They look like spring flowers–and I saw bulbs with new shoots poking out of the ground, too–and I know that’s all kind of wrong, but it’s also beautiful, too. Just like us: All kinds of wrong, all mixed up, things just as they’ve always been at the same time they are profoundly different, a weird and horrible and wonderful kind of gorgeous.

Heartsick

Much as I have thought (and written) about radical acceptance, I am painfully aware that in the past few weeks I allowed myself to first hope (and then believe) that my country is something it isn’t.

As I write these words, the election isn’t decided but some results are clear. A very very large number of US citizens voted for President someone who is undeniably corrupt, vindictive, incompetent, and dangerous for those of us who are not white, Christian, male, heteronormative, able-bodied, and financially secure. That’s not an opinion; it’s fact. (I won’t defend this claim with evidence; those who care already know, and those who don’t care don’t care about evidence.)

I think, because of the polls and the large voter turnout, I let myself believe that I was going to once again get to believe in what I have long thought of as common decency and common sense. The only silver lining I’m beginning to see on this gloomy fall morning is that, perhaps, in the long run, it’s better for me (and those like me) to let go of those notions. If our dreams had come fully true yesterday, it might have allowed us to go back to a kind of complacency and blindness about who we are that hasn’t served anyone well, especially those we claim to love but are having a difficult time caring for.

We are, it is undeniably true, common. We are no different from any other group of people in any other place or time, driven by all the same needs as those in any other society. We are vulnerable to the same risks and suffering as those in places we’ve long liked to think of as Other in one way or another. We need to accept that and respond accordingly.

But still, I think that today I’m going to accept my sorrow and allow myself to grieve a bit. Until my first meeting anyway, which starts in less than an hour. Life goes relentlessly on.

What is a dog?

A cuddly bundle of fur and tongue, tail and paw, beating heart, breathing lungs.

He’s a romp in the sand, a reading companion, a reminder that delight is nearly always simple.

He’s a heartbreaker. Of course he is. From the day your story with him begins, heartbreak is the only way it can end. (It’s the end of every love story, isn’t it? One way or another.)

“You’re going to regret those dogs,” my ex-husband said not long after I got them. “Biggest mistake you’ve ever made.”

When my family was unraveling, when the most important dreams I’d realized were coming undone, I saw in a flash one day that in the new life I needed to make, the kids and I could have a dog. We could have two dogs! One for each kid! (We could have new dreams. We could. And I could make them come true. By myself.)

“They’re your divorce guilt dogs,” my daughter said to me later. She assumed I’d gotten them to assuage my guilt for what I’d done to her, to her life. She wasn’t wrong, but hers wasn’t the whole truth. I got those dogs for me, too.

I knew there would be nights–too many–when there would be no one to take care of but myself. I knew I needed a tether, something to ground me, something to come home to. I needed company. I needed unconditional love. I needed a dog.

I got two of them.

I had pictured a mid-sized dog, with shortish hair. A mutt. That’s not what I got. I didn’t really know what I was doing, how to find the dogs I thought I wanted. When I was growing up, dogs were different. They happened into your life and you’d keep them until they got hit by a car or something. As a kid I had three dogs in two years, until we got the one who stuck and lived until after I left home. We got him as a puppy from some friends who had a dog who’d gotten knocked up. There were no leash laws in my part of the world in the 1970s.

I ended up finding them through craigslist, from an older woman who’d recently divorced and said she didn’t want to be tied down in the evenings. They weren’t mutts, but miniature Dachshunds named Rocky and Daisy. I read some things about the breed having potty issues and bad teeth, but I brushed that off. They were just dogs, right? I was flying by the seat of my pants on a lot of things then, patching together a home from garage sales and thrift stores, trying to figure out how to be a grownup on my own. One day my son, fed up with all I had been putting him through, looked around the house that didn’t yet feel like home (let’s be honest: that wasn’t home, not the only one he’d ever known) and yelled, “Everything we have is used! Even our dogs are used!”

They were. Rocky had a rib that poked out in a funny way, and he shrieked any time a foot brushed near his side. We learned early and quickly that he couldn’t be trusted around toddlers. He was anxious, always. He was damaged goods. (Maybe that’s why I came to love him so. Maybe loving Rocky is how I started to learn to love myself.) It took him years to relax, and he never did entirely until he lost some essential part of himself to dementia.

When I decided that maybe I could make dreams come true with someone else again, and Cane and I joined our kids and our lives, the dogs were a tie that helped bind us; our kids didn’t love each other, but they all loved the dogs and that was something to build on.

Until it wasn’t. A fight over a dog was the straw that broke the camel’s back of our second-chance dreams. It seemed unbelievable at the time, but now it makes a perfect sense. A dog is never just a dog; sometimes he is a symbol, a test, and a territory–or a stake with which to claim it.

Perhaps more than anything else, a dog is a constant. The kids left home, and then Cane was gone too, but the dogs remained. We belonged even more to each other then, with our pack so scattered. Some nights I’d lie on the couch with one dog nestled against my belly and the other in the crook of my bent knees, so damn grateful for their presence, wishing that they had, indeed, been my biggest mistake, hating the way the empty, drafty house let me know that if a mistake was what they were, I’d made others far larger.

Though I’d never want to admit it to him, there were times when I wondered if my kids’ dad had been a little bit right, because a dog is also a money-suck, a burden, a duty. Those nights in my lonely house, I understood why the dogs’ original owner hadn’t wanted them calling her home to hers. And those articles that had warned me about Dachshunds’ difficulties with housebreaking and dental issues were spot-on. Rocky and Daisy have ruined carpets and rugs and sections of cork flooring. I’ve spent enough on dental surgeries to have bought a good used car, or to have taken a really nice vacation, or to have bought all-new living room furniture (rather than new flooring). Not that travel has been much of an option in recent years. A few summers back, I made elaborate plans to house them in a kennel near my parents’ house while on a visit home, so that I could spend a night away to attend a gathering of old high school friends. I got a call early in the morning after their night there, telling me to come right away, that Daisy was ill. That was the end of kenneling, and any trips I couldn’t take them on. I knew they were too old and fragile to be boarded any more.

We’ll never know what happened there, but we thought that whatever Daisy had caught at the kennel had put her on a quick path to her end. She lost weight she didn’t have to spare, and she was horribly sick for weeks. As she lingered in a diminished state for months, never fully recovering, we thought she would surely be the dog to go first. As it’s turned out, we were wrong.

Back in May, my vet gently pointed out what should have been obvious to me, that “there’s not a lot of Rocky left of Rocky any more,” and gave me a flyer on knowing when it’s time to end a pet’s life. As summer passed and then turned to fall, and I got ready for my daughter to leave home again, Rocky slowly (but steadily) declined. It got harder to care for him, and as more and more of my day became dictated by his needs, I thought I was prepared for him to go, too. I asked him more than once to just hang on until she started her new life, told him and myself that I would be just fine if he could only do that one thing. Turns out, I was wrong about that, too.

Denial is a funny thing. Every time I had taken him to the vet since May, I did it thinking I might not be bringing him home, but that’s not what I thought on what turned out to be our last visit. He wasn’t that much worse than the other times, was he?

(Yeah, he was.)

And so, on the morning of a day I had planned to fill with many other tasks, I instead found myself, surprised and heartbroken, holding my old dog–my companion, my anchor, my albatross, my dream–while he went to his last sleep.

After the vet gave him a sedative, Rocky and I were alone in the exam room, just the two of us, which was as it seemed it should be. His breathing was easy, his body soft. I cradled him as I once cradled my babies, and stroked his old-man paws and his now-threadbare coat, and whispered to him a list of all the things I knew he had loved best: his hedgehog stuffy, his braided rope toy, chasing Daisy in circles around the house or beach, napping on the couch with one of his humans, lying in a patch of sun, being loved by his kids.

His eyes closed, and the vet returned with another needle. And then he was gone.

Later that day, Cane and my daughter and I shared photos to a joint album, and as we added image after image I could see they were testament not just to Rocky’s life, but also to the one we have all lived together—one that, in spite of being messy, painful, and fractured, was also (is also) its own kind of whole. While many of the ties that once bound us have frayed and broken, our common love of our dogs is a thread that’s held.

Late in the afternoon of the day we let Rocky go, Cane and I sat at my kitchen table and drank whiskey and told each other our stories about him. Then we went for a long walk, and then we came back and drank a little more whiskey, and told more stories, and finally ate small sandwiches that neither of us had any appetite for. As the windows we sat in front of turned dark and we mourned by telling each other the story of our dog, I understood that what we were really telling each other was the story of our life and of all that we have had and lost, and that the telling was, somehow, part of a way of holding on to what remains and keeping it as we continue to live forward, together.

What is an old dog, one at the end of his life?

He is memory. He is history. He is family. He is love.

May Rockwell Augustus Maximus Ramstad rest in peace.

He was a good boy.

Mid-fall

What is there to say this week?

Nothing.

Everything.

October is nearly spent and what do I have to show for it? Not much that I can point to, that I can hold up and say: Here, this is what I have been doing. This is what I made of these days of colorful leaves and cool winds and squirrels burying nuts in the garden, these mornings of wet pavement and afternoons of weak, beloved sun.

Aren’t we all just holding our breath, wondering when we can exhale?

I wake in the night, every night, sometimes sucking air, sometimes with limbs clenched, always the remnants of struggle dreams floating away from me. Always needing to pee, and then calculating if I can tend that basic bodily need without waking the dogs. If it’s early enough that I know they won’t stir and start barking, I stumble across the hall, not as stiff and unsteady on my feet as old Rocky–but I see how things are starting to go. When I return to bed, I wait for the flash of heat to roll through my body, and then I breathe the way the personal trainer taught me: inhale through my back (1, 2, 3, 4) and exhale through my diaphragm, ribs shifting down and back (4, 3, 2, 1). Sometimes it works, and sometimes I pull up a Times crossword on my iPad and hope it will lull my brain, not unlike the way desperate parents will drive a crying baby around dark streets, hoping the car’s quiet rhythms will soothe it back to sleep.

In a moment of optimism last week I bought two skeins of chunky yarn and cast stitches onto fat needles. I’m not making anything in particular. Maybe a pillow cover. It’s not about the product. It’s about breathing, and movements like breath: in, up, around, down, over, in, up, around, down, over. It’s a thing to occupy my hands and mind at the end of the day while giving the dogs some time on my lap and watching TV that doesn’t require much focus.

I haven’t mailed any postcards, made any phone calls, sent pizza to those standing in long lines for hours waiting to vote. I haven’t even filled out my own ballot yet. (But I will. I always do.) I give my extra resources to work, to procuring and setting up and pushing out materials that might help children who might, in some future I may or may not be part of, make good choices when they sit at kitchen tables and fill in small circles, or stand in long lines, or in some other way participate in something that is or resembles a democracy. Lately, every day feels like one long breath: Swinging my legs over the edge of the bed is the start of a long inhale; my morning routines–feed the dogs, drink tea, shower, dress, read–are how I fill the lungs of it; and then the rest of the hours are a long, slow exhale (4, 3, 2, 1). By the time I pick up the needles, there’s little oxygen left to expel.

Sometimes this breathing feels like a kind of faith. Most days, it feels like it takes all I’ve got to keep that inhale/exhale going. Some days, lately, it’s taken more than I’ve got. (Hello migraine, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again…)

When I focus on breathing in the middle of the night, I can sometimes catch the moment sleep starts to sneak in. The colors behind my eyelids shift, fracture, turn kaleidoscopic. I try not to notice. Too much attention sends it running and there I am again, hamster-wheeling in the dark, wondering if I should turn on the light to read or fill in tiny boxes with letters, or if I should try the breathing again. (1, 2, 3, 4) If the breathing works, I won’t really know until I wake that it’s worked. (4, 3, 2, 1) I can only be aware of success after the fact.

Isn’t that so often the case?

Some days I wonder if the breath of my days has put me into some kind of sleep, if I’m just dreaming my way through this month, this season, this year. (This life? Could that be true?) I wonder if the steady rhythm of these days is lulling me into something without me even really knowing it, like all the babies in the backs of cars whose cries finally stop.

But what can you do? As we’ve been told, it is what it is, and we have to keep things moving.

This weekend I’ll pick up a load of firewood and stack it behind the garage. I’ll take down what’s left of the tomato plants, gather up the onions still nestled in the bed, tuck garlic starts in to the soil. I’ll soothe Rocky when he needs soothing (more and more now), and cook a pot of some kind of soup. We’ll watch a bad movie or two, and think about starting a puzzle (that we probably won’t start). I’ll clean toilets and fold laundry and wipe down the kitchen cabinets, as I do every weekend. I’ll try to catch up on work (or I won’t.) And, if it is all just a dream, I guess I’ll be glad it’s not one in which I need to take a final for a class I never attended, or am somehow living again with people I thought I’d broken free of, or am running through air that sucks at my legs like quicksand as I’m trying to flee something that wants to hurt me.

(Or is it?)

A rambling meditation on time, grief, impermanence, children, love, etc.

Over a three month period in 1981, when I was seventeen, I attended three funerals on my mother’s side of the family. This was my introduction to grief.

We didn’t talk about grief. There were tears at the funerals, but not many before them and none that I can remember after. Communal tears, that is. One of the funerals was for my beloved grandpa, and I cried for months over that loss, but always privately.

Maybe it was my family’s ways, or maybe it was the time; Kubler-Ross’s Death and Dying had been published only 12 years earlier, and I think we didn’t have the same understanding then that we do now about grief. More and more, I understand that seminal events in my life happened a significant amount of time ago–long enough to be part of an earlier era, an time qualitatively different from the one we’re all now in. Living with a young adult will do that to you.

On the morning my daughter leaves for her new life on a different continent, I see a garbage bag on the floor of her room, next to items that look like they could be trash. “Oh,” I say, “is that stuff to throw out?”

“No,” she says. “Those are my protest supplies.” And then I really see the items: gloves, safety goggles, duct tape, a water bottle. When I was 22, I didn’t know what to do in the event of getting tear-gassed, but she does. I attended my first protest at 25, and it felt more like a parade than a meaningful political action; I wondered what the point was. Times have changed.

I also didn’t really know how to grieve, despite my three funerals at seventeen. Maybe that is why, this past year, I have been grieving all the losses from that year until now. Deaths, but also other kinds of loss, too. Loss of geography, loss of dreams, loss of beauty and agility, loss of relationships and hopes and beliefs and faith. Loss of ways of living. Living through late middle age in the midst of myriad forms of breakdown will do that to you.

I have been crying for weeks, tears coming over everything and nothing, beyond my ability to control. As a child, I could always control my tears, and I almost never let anyone see me cry. I didn’t cry often, and I took some pride in that. I remember being both mystified and somewhat scornful at my mother’s softness, so near the surface that she cried at such things as the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I remember looking over at her when the fictional news team huddled together and sobbed, only to see tears rolling down her face. I poked fun at her for that. “But it’s so sad!” she said.

Yesterday, after writing the previous paragraph, I watched that episode again, and, like my mother before me, I cried. At twelve, I’d had no context for the loss landing on Mary, Lou, and Murray. Now, I do.

Even at seventeen, I didn’t really understand what I was losing, what had been lost, though I sensed something of it. The day after the fourth funeral, I sat in my English class and listened to my teacher talk about asteroids that could hit the earth and end all of life as we know it.

“If that’s the case,” I said, “what does anything that we do matter?” I felt so weary, so numb. Even my resilient family had struggled to get through a third funeral, and I couldn’t stop seeing the faces of my cousins who had lost their 40something dad to a heart attack.

The teacher made a comment about me being a fatalist and shifted the discussion. I don’t remember how or what he talked about next because I started to shake, and then I couldn’t stop, and then tears started, and I was mortified and frozen and didn’t know what to do or how to get out of the unthinkable situation I was in.

“Can you take her somewhere?” I heard him ask my best friend, and she led me to the hallway and we sat there for the rest of class, until my body slowly calmed, until the bell rang and I could return and get my books without having to have everyone stare at me. I wiped my eyes before retrieving them, and then I went to my next class. None of us–my friend, my teacher, any of my classmates, or me–ever talked about what happened.

On my daughter’s last morning at home, we talk about what love is, what it means to love someone. It’s a topic we’ve visited more than once since she came back to me in May. I have tried to explain, and to understand myself, why I love the people I do, and what love means to me, and why I want them in my life, close to me–even if we have differences, even if they have at times hurt me. Not so long ago, confronting my history with romantic love, I wondered in a therapist’s office if I might be incapable of love, if I even know what love is.

“Are there people in your life that you will always care for, no matter what they do?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, of course,” I answered, without hesitation, a list of those people filling my head. “Then you know how to love,” he said. “You know what it is.”

From the moment I picked my daughter up at the airport in May, I knew that whatever we were going to have in our time together would be impermanent. The plan was never for her to stay. In my social media feeds I see friends with young adult children who have not moved away. They live nearby, and their parents regularly post photos with their children and grandchildren doing all the kinds of mundane things I long to do with my children in the day-to-day of life: Attending games and performances, picking out pumpkins, eating dinners, celebrating birthdays. I am so envious of these friends, who have what I, because of my own choices, haven’t had with my parents, and what I am now not likely to get with my daughter, because of hers.

I know all about the relationship between suffering and attachment. Maybe in my next life I will learn how to love without attachment, but I don’t know if I can in this one. I don’t know if I really want to.

There were so many gifts in these months we got, this unexpected time. Perhaps the biggest one was an opportunity to learn again, more deeply, that everything is impermanent. When I cried at the thought of her impending departure–which I did, frequently, almost from the time she arrived–I wasn’t mourning just the loss of the alternate life I dream of in which we live closer together, but also of all the lives we’ve already had and no longer do. I have grieved over not just an anticipated loss of the young woman she is, but also the earlier passing of all the girls she once was: the baby who laughed with delight when she discovered her feet, the toddler who worked and worked at learning how to dribble a ball, the child whose favorite color was rainbow, the teenager who mapped her future in color-coded spreadsheets. They are all gone, along with the lives we lived when they were here. To the list of Graces now gone I can add another: the young adult who worked remotely from the back bedroom during the pandemic, and sipped cocktails with me on warm summer nights, and woke up early for long zoom dates with her boyfriend in a time zone 9 hours different from ours, and argued with me about communism and policing and relationships, and cradled her old, dying dog with a tenderness I hope she might someday extend to me, if a time comes when I have difficulty finding my feet or knowing where I am. She is gone now, or going, and I will never have her–the person she’s been these past months–back.

After the summer of 1981, my family was never quite the same again. How could we have been? That pow-pow-pow of grief changed all of us. I didn’t understand that then, the way I do now. I thought I was only missing the people who no longer sat at our holiday tables. I didn’t know that I was also losing an earlier version of all who remained, and of the family we’d once been. Many of my tears this summer have been for that earlier family, which exists now only in memory. I miss us so much.

I’ve been learning that grieving can be a long time coming. Or maybe that it’s a thing that’s never really done.

I have a recurring dream in which I’ve lost a season. It’s usually a spring dream, and–somehow, impossibly–it’s the end of summer. But, wait, I’ll think in the dream. It can’t be time to go back to school. Where did the summer go? I’ll think of all the things I wanted and didn’t get to do, and I feel panicky and cheated. Then I’ll realize I’m dreaming, and that I have not, in fact, lost the summer, and relief washes over me. One day in Grace’s last week here, I got disoriented about where I was in time, the way I do in the dream. For a moment, I lost what season we are in. Something made me feel like it was still summer, and I had to tell myself: No, it’s October. It’s not summer any more. But then it felt like it couldn’t be October, because I hadn’t really had summer, just like in the dream.

I understand my confusion. The whole summer felt like a bubble in which we were all suspended in some time out of time. Having my daughter back in the ways I did, after having earlier let her go, while we both prepared ourselves for what’s coming next, felt like simultaneously living in the past, present, and future. Where were we in time? Who were we? Everywhere and nowhere. Everyone we’ve ever been and no one we’ve ever been and everyone we’ll someday be.

The day she left was unseasonably warm. After returning from the airport, I pulled spent tomato plants from their box and filled the compost bin with cedar branches Cane had trimmed from the tree that overhangs my shed, sweating in the sun. That evening, I sat on a front porch with friends and we talked how we might continue to safely meet when the nights turn cold. It felt like a summer night.

But, the next morning I woke to rain and dark skies. The patio furniture was soaked when I put the dogs out to pee, and they stepped gingerly on the wet pavement. The power flickered off and then on again, while I worked on these words, and just like that, the season had undeniably changed.

I hated to let it go. I knew I had no choice.

Testing, testing

On September 6, I wrote about radical acceptance and the peace I think it’s giving me. Maybe the universe thought I needed to be tested on this, or simply brought down a peg or two.

I don’t really think that. I don’t believe things work that way. But if they did, I’d tell myself that maybe that’s the reason the blows started coming fast and furious in the days since.

The fires and the 10 or so days of unhealthy air quality, some so toxic they were literally off the chart. The pain and struggle of so many colleague friends as we attempt to provide quality distance learning while managing grief over all that we’ve lost in our work with children, as well as that of so many friends supporting their children’s engagement with distance learning. Signs of continued (likely increasing) instability in the district I work for. My daughter’s work visa from Sweden finally coming through, which means that in weeks she will be leaving to live half-way around the world, with the hope of permanently making her life there. A jump in Rocky’s decline that’s forcing me to think long and hard about what’s best for him now, what constitutes “quality of life.” The return of insomnia and migraine. The continuation of our bungled response to the pandemic (hey, remember the pandemic?) that puts so many people (more than 40% of school workers, for example) in significant danger.

And then Ruth Bader Ginsberg died.

I sat on my couch on Friday afternoon, minutes after learning about Ginsberg’s death and seeing that McConnell had already put out a statement about how her seat will be filled before the end of Trump’s term, holding Rocky who had required holding all day, my head dull and achey because I’d worked all day on computer screens while nursing a migraine hangover, looking out to still-hazy air, thinking of all the people I love (including myself) who could lose rights and protections so hard-won, and of the absence that will soon, again, fill my home, an absence that will be caused in part by my daughter’s not unreasonable assessment that she can make a better future for herself in a different country, and of how I really want Rocky to be able to hang on until after his girl leaves but I don’t know if he can or if I should let him, and I could do nothing but sit and cry.

Things are terrible.

I look back at early 2016 me, who could see the possibility of what was coming (but tempered her words because she hoped that she was over-reacting) and somehow, naively, thought that civil dialogue could save us. 2016 me was kinda sweet in her hope and good intentions, and I regard her with some tenderness, but she was foolish and in denial, which made her unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

We need to see clearly. We need to accept what is happening, what’s been happening–not just in the last two weeks or four years, but always.

When the rain came on Friday all I could see in my social media feeds were expressions of joy–which I get–but the air quality was still unhealthy. I was happy to see the rain, too, and grateful for the relief it was bringing, but the air quality was still unhealthy. We still could not safely go outside, and all I could see in all of us was how quickly and easily we’d become accustomed to a terrible new normal and how that made us nearly giddy for something that was still bad but not so terribly bad.

I want more than that for all of us.

We must see clearly, which means acknowledging contradictory truths: Yes, it was great that the air was better AND it was true that it was still not good. Since Friday morning, the rain has washed away the smoke and as I write these words, the air is now safe again. But we aren’t. The underlying causes of so many recent tragedies that seem beyond our control (fire, hurricane, derecho, pandemic deaths, continued injustices of all kinds that result in death) haven’t moved, and so we will return to them again and again and again until we address those causes.

This isn’t just about air quality. I suspect you know that, but I need to make sure that I am clear.

We need to grieve. We need to mourn. We need to cry because crying is part of accepting that things are terrible and we need to accept that things are terrible. Crying and feeling pain are not contradictory to radical acceptance. I think it’s essential to it, and our attempts to numb ourselves from pain is part of our undoing.

As news of Ginsberg’s death moved swiftly on Friday, I saw a slew of reactions along lines I’ve come to expect in the aftermath of any perceived political threat: “Of course they can’t fill her seat until we have a new President!” (Yes, they can, if enough Republican senators toe the party line, which they have done unfailingly for the past nearly four years.) “Now we really have to get out the vote!” (Sure, of course, but with respect to the question of the Supreme Court in general and Ginsberg’s seat in particular, that ship really left the dock in 2016.) Inspirational memes about coming back to fight another day. (Without any acknowledgement of how unfair the fight is, or how the unwritten but fundamental rules of engagement have changed, or how losing this fight might make future fights almost impossible to win.)

Initially these responses filled me with frustration because they remind me of 2016 me and because I cannot understand how anyone paying real attention now can think any of those responses are grounded in reality. Later, they filled me with sadness because that is just where a lot of people are, and it’s how they hang onto hope, and I have to accept that reality, too.

Please don’t misunderstand. I know that hope is crucial and that we are truly doomed if we all lose it, but it needs to be a critical hope. Our hope needs to be grounded in what is actually true right now today, not in what used to be true or what we wish or believe to be true–which means facing and feeling our sorrow and fear rather than pushing them away with half-truths that make us feel better. We need to accept the contradictory truths that things are terrible and that hope is reasonable so that we will take actions that might actually make a damn difference in our fight to make a better world, one in which we can all live and work without threat of death and raise children who believe they can make good lives for themselves on the soil from which they sprang.

(If you read only one link in this post, please make it this one: Why Critical Hope May Be the Resource Kids Most Need from Their Teachers. Plenty of wisdom in it for all of us, not just teachers and kids.)

Working from home with my old friend on Friday afternoon.

Smoke gets in your eyes

Question:
What the hell is going on?

Answer:
A. Climate change.

B. Forest mismanagement.

C. Irresponsible and/or malicious humans.

The answer is D, all of the above.

Our increasing inability to accept complexity and reject singular narratives is going to be the death of us.

(Still waiting on some rain.)