A tortoise-adjacent Gandalf

After we lost our dog last month, we decided as a family to take a short trip, to get the hell out of Dodge for a quick minute, where “Dodge” is the large, silent house with the tufts of fur I still can’t bring myself to vacuum up. My son and I are interested in skywatching, and the Perseid meteor shower was supposed to be in full swing, so I spent a few hours looking for a precisely located, contact-free Airbnb in a sufficiently dark place.

I found one nestled close to the Green River in a remote part of central Kentucky. No matter how old I get, and despite all my experience to the contrary, I’m still silly enough to think that trips like this are going to unfold in some magical, uplifting, healing way. Nope. It’s not wrong to think that travel contributes to healing. It can! It’s just that it’s so much messier than I ever fully anticipate. It’s a jagged, uneven, sometimes downright weird process. If I’m not careful, I could mistake some trips for a complete failure.

The entire enterprise was a comedy of errors from the beginning: They had forgotten about our reservation so the place wasn’t ready. While we were waiting in the driveway for the owner and his employee to clean the place, we decided to get some food out of the cooler, and I went to open a plastic package with my husband’s knife. Somehow, mistaking my own fingers for the summer sausage I was trying to open, I thoroughly slashed my thumb and index finger, and began dripping copious amounts of blood on the gravel while my husband frantically looked for something to wrap my wounds.

Fishing, one of the primary attractions of the trip for my husband and son, was a wash. Rains came and flooded the river, lines got tangled, and tempers flared. Until the last night, the meteor shower was invisible, thanks to the cloud cover. Each of our worst traits was on display and chafing everyone else. We were all in different stages of the grief we were feeling, both for our longtime canine friend and the losses inflicted by the pandemic. As for myself, the routines I experience at home that serve as a silo for my emotions were completely gone, and the entire range of feelings swept in on me.

Circumstances were demanding my complete, unconditional surrender.  I didn’t fully comply — I never do right away — but I sort of dropped the rope. Sometimes we do things, like take a trip, because we want to feel better. But we don’t need to feel better; we need to engage with the process. When I was home, the demands of daily existence limited my ability to truly feel things that needed to be adjusted or addressed. Curiously, just being uncomfortable in a different place, in the middle of Kentucky in August, with its humidity and rain, and the same three people I’ve been with since March, brought some things into clearer focus.

The last night, the clouds parted a bit and we were able to make a fire and do some stargazing. Four meteors. Not bad.

The next morning as we were packing the car to leave, I was redistributing a few of the fallen twigs we’d gathered that we didn’t use for the fire the night before. Walking around the side of the house that backs up to the forest, my eye was drawn downward to a broad rock underfoot, scattered with broken nut shells. There I encountered the highlight of my trip, a tiny Eastern Box Turtle.

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Box turtles grow slowly, so this one might be a year old or more. Although they are members of the pond turtle family, box turtles tend to stay on land, and are therefore somewhat tortoise-adjacent. We spent a little time together, and I just sat with the privilege of getting to meet this youngster.

I think a lot about the part of Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey that involves magical helpers — think Yoda, Obi-Wan, Galadriel, Gandalf, etc. The creatures I meet on trips feel like my magical helpers. They aren’t mentors, exactly. More like faith-restorers.

After awhile I called my family over, and we all enjoyed the encounter. Then, I told my turtle helper to stay off the roads, and I climbed into the car and headed home to the tangled mess of things to sit with and work out.

More than a week later, my fingers are healing, talks have been had, steps have been taken, and I still enjoy thinking about my young turtle friend. So by that measure, it was a good trip.

To let it go

When the pandemic lockdown began in March, my husband and I started walking every day to burn off anxiety.  One day we hooked up our 14-year-old dog, Thomas, whose mobility had been declining since the end of last year, to his leash.  We took maybe ten steps before we realized he was no longer able to go with us. As our time at home progressed, it become clear – after close examination of his gait and phone calls with his vet – that what we thought was arthritis was actually a degenerative condition similar to ALS in humans. Thomas’s fate would be a slow march to paralysis – first his back legs, then his front, then his respiratory system. I realized at about the same time that his tail was no longer able to wag, and instead hung limply down between his haunches.

One of the blessings of this pandemic for us has been getting to be home with him as this unfolded. He couldn’t go on leashed walks anymore, but he could roam our acre-and-a-half property at his own pace, the boundaries of which he had somehow intuited and always respected. He still enjoyed lying in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in our sunroom – an activity I called “Old Dog TV” – and barking at squirrels, the kids next door, and occasionally, nothing at all.

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As his mobility changed, so did our infrastructure: when he could no longer jump across the creek, we made a bridge. When he could no longer struggle up the front steps, we built a ramp. When his back end began to slide off the ramp, we built guard rails, and I decked them with fairy lights so he could see it at night, like a runway. When he could no longer handle the steep descent on the right side of the house, we reached his backyard via the gentler slope on the left.

During those months at home, his world began to shrink. The dog that had once backpacked in ten states, across rivers, over mountains, and through prairies, had to find his wilderness in an ever-shrinking circle around our home.  Still, there was dog-joy: as late as early July, he was able to supervise our yard work, and took the time, as he did every year, to carefully examine the prairie flowers popping up in the meadow across the creek. Something had died back there in June, and his frequent carcass-sniffings were so routine that it seemed he was engaged in some sort of community science project. He was still busy.

But a few weeks ago, he began to need help getting up. It was easy enough at first, but then it got to the point that only my 17-year old, with his youthful strength and still-supple spine, could get this 75-pound dog on all four paws. Time for another infrastructure adjustment: on the recommendation of friends, we bought him a mobility harness. That expanded his world a bit, one more time. With a human hand on the back handle of his harness, his hind end was controlled enough that he could move about again. Always, we kept an eye on the most important question: was there dog joy?

Soon, that dog joy was down to two things: Food, and communing with his people. He enjoyed those things as much as ever. But the outdoor-loving dog, the one who had refused to limit his yard-surfing during a polar vortex, who insisted on attending every hike in oppressive heat and humidity, manic grin on full display, tongue dangling, no longer liked being outside.  He would reach the bottom of his ramp, pee, and then try to swerve immediately back indoors. Even the gentle slope to his backyard, the creek, and his community science project had become too much, and was abandoned.

And so I found myself sitting on my front porch one morning, phone in hand, trying to will myself to call a number. After twenty minutes of unapologetic procrastination, I dialed.  There was no answer. I didn’t leave a message. I sat another ten minutes. Then I sent a text, as the outgoing message invited.

This internal struggle eventually ended in a phone call with a warm, kind veterinarian who specializes in pet hospice and in-home euthanasia. She immediately confirmed everything I’d been feeling. Degenerative myelopathy makes it incredibly difficult to make “the call,” she said. The dog is not usually in pain, or overtly suffering. Their world has shrunk dramatically, yes, but they are still themselves. It makes the euthanasia decision, as the vet put it, “brutal.” She was right.

It was Monday. I made an appointment for Thursday morning.

That was the frank but warm conversation I needed to have. I wasn’t getting it with his normal vet, and I don’t blame him for that; his job is to make animals better.  This vet’s job is to know when to stop trying to make them better.  Still, I don’t regret the struggle to decide. There are some decisions that should be hard, even agonizing. This one, I assure you, was both.

It didn’t make me feel better to have that decision confirmed over the next two days. Just before Thursday, Thomas developed a terrible UTI – in the advanced stages, dogs with degenerative myelopathy sometimes can no longer empty their bladders fully. My big, strong, hiking dog was almost immobile and was now definitely uncomfortable. Getting up with the harness put pressure on his urinary tract, so we were back to lifting him ourselves.

During those last two terrible, precious days, he ate a lot of steak and salmon. Increase the dog-joy, I thought, where it can still be found.

On Wednesday evening, I roused him from his place in the corner to go out. He did the usual pee-and-swerve, and we walked back up the ramp. Then we walked around the house a little, my hand on the back handle of the harness. I followed him wherever he wanted to go. He walked back to the front door. I opened it. We both stood in the doorway, surveying the yard and the trees bathed in the honey-colored light of early evening. After about five minutes, he stepped forward. I followed, and we walked down the ramp. For the first time in two weeks, there was no swerve back indoors.

He seemed to sense something in the air, and we walked – haltingly, as always — down the gentle grade to his backyard, around the garden, and back up again. We motored around the strawberry bed in the front yard up a slight grade to the road. Each patch of grass was sniffed, and then the next one, farther on.

By the time we were in my neighbors’ yard, I realized with a jolt that we were taking a walk again together, as it used to be. I let him go as long as he wanted; he crossed the street to sniff some evergreens, and we naturally moved back home. When we reached our ramp again, my son and husband came out of the house, and I told them, astonished, that we’d just taken our first walk in months. They could tell; his tongue was dangling.

Now that they were outside, Thomas turned, again, toward the road. He wasn’t finished. The four of us walked, each human taking a turn with a hand on the harness, for almost half a mile in the waning golden light. We all knew we were in the midst of something glorious, even as we knew the hourglass was draining.

I’ve always known that there are these moments in life that crystallize in memory, like jewels tossed from the heavens. The older I get, the better I am at identifying them when they’re happening. So there it is now, tucked into my mind’s eye, the four of us taking one last, improbable walk as the setting sun spills through the giant pines on our road.

It was all he had left, physically – all three of us had to help him lie down comfortably when we got back to the house – and he spent it all on that walk. Nothing was left unsniffed; no patch of grass was left unmarked.

And then, the next morning, it ended much the same way it began for me and my beautiful, brilliant dog: me sitting on the floor with him in my lap, trusting me.

I felt like I could barely breathe for days. A week and a half later, as I write this, his absence is still a body-wide ache. Every day, though, a little more of that ache — not too much, just a little – is replaced by gratitude for having had such a great dog, and for so long.

Mary Oliver’s words about death revisit me over and over again:

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

There are extra tasks in that last part when it comes to our animal companions. That morning on the porch, when I clutched my phone trying to force myself to call the vet, I was engaged in a direct confrontation with that third condition: When the time comes to let it go, to let it go. With animals, we are so frequently called not merely to accept a death that is imposed on us, but to cause one, at precisely the right time, to spare our friends needless suffering. We must have a clarity of mind that all our own feelings are desperate to avoid.

Letting it go is a practice. I did the affirmative part well enough last week. Now, dammit, I’ll spend some time letting the rest of him go, at my own pace. I don’t know how long that will take, but when the time comes to let him go, I suppose I’ll let him go. That time isn’t here yet, though.

Hermit life

002-3Quarantine has ended for many people, but my life doesn’t look much different than it did in April. Although my private practice has ground to a screeching halt, my other work can be done remotely. My husband is a mental health professional, and has moved his practice seamlessly to telehealth. All of which is to say that, while I see a lot of magical thinking that all is back to normal again, my husband and I have withdrawn from the petri dish. We’ve done this both to protect ourselves, as well as deprive the virus of two vectors with which to infect others.  We don’t forget for a second that we’re fortunate to be able to do so.

It’s not that we don’t go out at all, but we’re extremely picky about where and how we spend our allotted risk. We attended a BLM protest in June, masked and distanced from the crowd, with plenty of space between us and others. There we heard a riveting speech from a young woman a few months older than my son, who noted that her grandfather had been part of the lunch counter integration movement, and here she was, today, continuing work everyone had hoped would be finished  by now. This and voting are probably the only crowd-based activities I’ll be willing to undertake in the next several months. They’re equally important to me.

Today we went to our egg lady’s alpaca farm to retrieve another three dozen and meet the brand new cria – a baby alpaca – that was born today. It was raining when we went so I left my camera at home. We pulled the barn door open to find ten or fifteen alpacas gathered in a group, staring at us with their trademark looks of rapt curiosity. When alpacas look at you, it’s impossible not to feel that they are fascinated by you. I felt like a rock star about to take the stage.  In the corner stall was the baby, fur still frizzy from the wetness of birth, standing on wobbly but determined legs. This was her first day of life, and here she was, checking the place out. What an odd thing, to one day be within your mother, and the next day to be standing in front of a group of your curious-looking brethren, trying out your legs.

As I exclaimed over her, I felt a nudge at my elbow. I turned, and there was another alpaca, leaning in at eye level, nudging me as if to say, “cute, isn’t she?” My intrusive friend leaned in some more, and we touched noses.  I remarked that this was the closest I’d been to anyone other than my husband in three months. As far as I know, I would be the first person to get coronavirus from an alpaca, so catching the disease from this encounter would definitely have its compensatory aspects – if nothing else, at least a great story and perhaps a little notoriety.

We got a little closer to our egg lady, who can give us the virus, than I would have preferred, all things considered. But even though the verdict isn’t in yet, I’ll still say it was a risk well taken.

Just like “normal” life, this new hermit life has fallen into routine. I wake up, stumble into the kitchen, and get coffee, absolutely convinced I don’t want to do ten seconds of exercise. After half an hour or so I start to get restless, and my husband and I get on the bikes and ride ten miles or so, up and down a few hills, across the reservoir and back again. We go through a prairie patch next to a golf course, say hi to the goldfinches congregating on the thistle, and proceed into a cool, dense forest, my favorite part of the entire ride. Then down a hill, and down another, wind in my face, opening out onto the hike-and-bike trail across the reservoir. We pass people, but it’s quick, distanced, and outdoors. It’s also the best part of every day. So again, an acceptable risk.

We ride home. He sees clients over video in his office. I spend my work day in our sunroom. One of us takes my son on a practice drive to prepare for his driver’s license test. I may teach him how to cook something if there’s time. My husband works in the vegetable garden between sessions; we make sure our aging dog gets time to yard surf. If the temperature isn’t miserable, there will be a mile or two of walking in the evening.

Tonight I recognized that our lives seem a bit surreal right now, because there are few overt markers to demonstrate the passage of time. The ones that exist are subtle: the cucumbers in the garden are getting bigger; the milkweed is growing taller; the neighborhood owlet looks bigger and her feathers less raggedy each time I see her; my dog slips away a little more every day. Even my own physical condition is a marker; every day it takes us less time to bike our established route, and the hills are easier. That’s how I know time is not standing still.

In this world, everything is present and immediate. All the places I used to hide from anxiety are inaccessible. Going to work and being with my coworkers was an anxiety-reliever. So was burying myself in work. So was my long daily commute. Now I can simultaneously see the future for miles, and not a foot in front of my face. I can see my rapidly fledging child and the end of full-time parenthood. I can see a deteriorating canine companion that’s been the hub of my blended family. I can see my own mortality.  At the same time I have no idea when or how any of this current moment ends, or what comes after.

Like I said, it’s surreal.

I’m determined to get what I can from it. I just don’t know what that is yet — other than the hills getting easier. That’s it for now, I think.

Birding, race, and the freedom to enjoy nature

Like much of the country, when not worrying about the global pandemic currently afoot, I’ve been absorbed with the racist incidents in Minneapolis and Central Park.

I’ve thought extensively about the Central Park incident, in which an enraged white lady threatened Christian Cooper, a black man who was out birding, with a false police report. She made this threat because Mr. Cooper asked her to leash her unrestrained dog, in accordance with the posted rules. The video is easily available via Google.

The danger to Mr. Cooper in the Central Park encounter is made evident by events that occurred in Minneapolis around the same time, when police casually and intentionally crushed the neck of George Floyd, a black man they had in custody and under control, killing him. Police encounters are dangerous for black people, particularly black men — although the recent police-killing of Louisville EMT Breonna Taylor, during a mistaken no-knock search warrant, cannot and must not be forgotten.

Viewing the video compels a conclusion that the Central Park woman knew the danger of a police report, and did not hesitate to weaponize it against the black man who was out that day trying to view the park’s avian residents, and who asked her to behave in accordance with the rules that made that activity possible.

As many of you know, I also enjoy being in nature and communing with wildlife. And really, it goes far past enjoyment, as you might apprehend by reading an entire blog I’ve named “The Trailhead.” My connection with and participation in the natural world is fundamental to my identity and my life. It’s as simple as that.

It is unacceptable to me that others are unable to engage the natural world on the same terms because of race. The Central Park incident reveals that there is nowhere that a black man is free of the burdens placed upon him by our country’s racial pathologies. He can be in the middle of an open space and still, on a chance encounter with a white woman brimming with racism and entitlement, be placed in danger and reminded that he can’t even go fucking birding, thank you very much, without bumping into the ever-present walls of America’s racial failures. And only by chance does it not end in tragedy.

I have been heartened that many birding and nature organizations I follow have made strong statements affirming their dedication to the rights of non-white people to access and enjoy nature without impediment. Tonight the topic was addressed in a Facebook group I belong to that’s dedicated to Indiana nature. To be honest, I was worried when I began to read the thread; every time someone brings up a politicized issue about nature, there is a chorus of voices pleading that they “don’t want to talk about politics here.” They are here, they say, so they can enjoy nature without the unpleasantness of politics. Six months or so ago, fully one-third of the group left when the administrators declined to quash talk about the effects of climate change on the natural world.

I confess that this sort of thing drives me round the bend, because I cannot understand how people don’t get that nature is inherently political, and the desire to enjoy it without pressing oneself to consider the threats to its existence is not a love of nature, but a mere consumption of it. But on I read, hopeful. And for twenty or so comments, it was a lovely discussion about how the community can make it safer for non-white folks to enjoy the natural world. And then there it was — only one comment, but a point-maker all the same.

This gentleman was offended, he said, by the term white privilege, because it diminished his accomplishments and his hard work. And anyway, he said, he comes to this group to escape “discussions like these.”

One woman who had obviously had enough just told him to fuck off, while others tried to remonstrate with him, and the admins, to their credit, held the line. This issue is appropriate for this forum, they ruled. If you don’t like it, move along. He elected to mute his notifications.

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I made this image without threat of harm, a freedom that must be extended to everyone.

 

Meanwhile, all I could think is that this man had claimed for himself — without a trace of irony or self-awareness — a space to enjoy nature without the bother of having to consider the impact of race. It was apparently not evident to this man, for whom the term “white privilege” is so wounding, that he had just demanded it. It never occurred to him that he felt entitled to the unfettered space to engage with nature that Christian Cooper was not afforded.

Don’t burden my enjoyment of nature with discussions about people whose enjoyment of nature is burdened by race.

Breathe, I think to myself. This response was one out of twenty positive responses — but that’s still too many.

As I wrote this, I decided to venture back to the thread and make a constructive response to him. But when I reached the thread again I saw that he, like the climate deniers who just wanted to enjoy nature and not talk about the threats to it, had left the group.

And so his demand for the privilege of enjoying the pleasures of nature unburdened with thoughts of others who can’t was, in the end, denied. I’m glad it was; it ought to have been. This is the sort of thing we must keep doing. White folks, when we speak up and refuse to close off discussions that discomfit our privileged fellows, can deny them the benefits they don’t care are refused others, at least in a small way.  We can and must do more. But making spaces less safe for the exercise of that sort of racial privilege is a necessary start.

 

A close quarter

I have been mostly confined to my immediate circle of family for nearly three months – a quarter of a year. Lockdown seems a harsh and imprecise term for my life this quarter, because I have been out and about a few times, either to pick up carryout food or collect a work laptop. I have a spacious home and an expansive yard into which I can disappear as needed. My husband and I play Zoom euchre with my sister and brother-in-law every week. I spent a Saturday kayaking, and one blustery day I biked to my sister’s house to drop off the photographs I culled for her when I decided to go through my mother’s box of pictures. (It was a cold ride, and my husband was right that I should’ve worn gloves.)

Still, it’s been an odd and confining three months, and I don’t know very many people who haven’t struggled in one way or another. Today on Twitter I witnessed a frustrated parent bluntly proclaim her lack of empathy for kid-free folks during this time. That was all it took; the brawl was on. Single people rightfully took to her mentions to note that they hadn’t been in the company of another individual for months, a circumstance posing a good deal of psychic discomfort as well.

I know two things. First, that empathy is not an easily summoned commodity right now. Empathy is so much easier when we have what we need. So it doesn’t surprise me that Twitter Mom can summon none for someone in a circumstance that looks like it holds none of the realities that are making her miserable. But I also know that no matter what your interpersonal situation, there will be difficulties.

I have what should be the easiest arrangement; a nearly grown child who needs little of my supervision, and a spouse. I am not in solitary confinement, nor am I minding toddlers and school-age children. My marriage, before the pandemic, was solid and fulfilling.

It’s still solid, but admittedly, it’s on autopilot for both of us. Our relationship has always rested on ample amounts of space and emotional fresh air. We used to enjoy going out into the world and bringing pieces of it home to one another.  Now there is none of that.

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Nesting pair of barred owls enjoying some time together after a day apart.

About six weeks in, I woke up one morning, looked at him and said, “it’s me again!” We laughed, but the reality is that it can be very difficult to stay open when you’re running up against your partner’s stuff all day and all night, for three months in a row, with none of the refreshment that comes from the outside world. And when you are not open, connection is elusive. So I find myself in the pungently ironic position of missing my husband. With whom I’ve been in close quarters for a fourth of a year. Go figure. For my part, I’m lucky I can articulate these things to my partner. He gets it.

But there it is. One can be lonely with people, and lonely without them, and the flavor is probably different for everyone. These are hard times all around. I hope Twitter mom can take that in, but I’m afraid everyone else on Twitter is as drained of empathy as she is, and so she has probably had a rougher day than she anticipated.

Anti-depressant squirrels of the 2020 pandemic

What a time to dust off a blog, right?

When this thing started, I had grand hopes that I would write and otherwise creatively engage during lockdown. Sadly, this plan wildly overestimated my access to the mental and emotional states that I typically need to function in that realm. These are the days that as I emerge from sleep, I try to check – quickly before my eyes open – which me has shown up for the day. Is it the stubborn, resilient one who refuses to be beaten, or is it the FUCK EVERYTHING version of me, who needs two or three naps to make it to the next day? Some days both show up and fight it out before I ever leave the bed.

Anyway, after two months of lockdown, I can finally report that I’ve seen some patterns emerging.

The Covid era offers many flavors of difficulty and hardship, and of course, they lie on a spectrum. People who have lost loved ones who died alone have been traumatized. But even the middle-schooler who is confined away from the world she’s just begun to grow for herself is still struggling.

I can only speak personally to the flavors in my own cake. My husband’s job is good – great even, a discordant reminder that the need for mental health treatment is higher than ever right now. He is working 12-14 hour days trying to conduct therapy sessions over video, a medium he says is far more taxing than in-person sessions. There’s a difficulty in seeing body language and other nonverbal cues, and also, research suggests that it’s more tiring generally because it requires constant mental focus. All of his emotional and mental energy is spent on this, and he can’t dial back because – and here is where we get to me – my career is at a dead halt and I am contributing almost nothing right now.

I’ve noticed similarities in my own experience and with others my age whose careers have been torpedoed: Every past loss, every past grief that still has any hold on you in the current moment may come roaring back, bigger this time. You may not even know which boogeyman is on your doorstep, because it may come in different disguises, and it may not confront you openly until you find yourself on your riding lawnmower one sunny afternoon (because that is one of the things you can still do.) “Oh,” you may think to yourself as you are rounding the curve around the oak tree, “this is really about [X thing]. Ouch, that feels terrible, but somehow better now that I know what it really is.”

The risk of hitting hard walls is very real right now, and there are few avenues to soften the blow. This current moment seems to challenge my most difficult mental spots, as if all the things in my psyche I try carefully to manage have landed on my feet at once, forming an alarming pile.

This isn’t all bad. I’ve learned some things, and a lot of them are good things, if I can remember them and continue to apply them.

First up: Self-blame and self-recrimination are heavy, heavy loads, and they need to be dropped. Yes, we all suck in some ways. We’re better off forgiving ourselves for that, though, recognizing that we’ve been working from the beginning with a set of cards we didn’t deal. A lot of the usual discussion around feelings of inferiority suggests that you’re wrong to feel inferior. I’m starting to feel differently about it now. Yes, some of the things I fear about myself are in fact true, but I’m going to forgive myself for them anyway. It’s okay to be “inferior” in all the ways you suspect you are, whatever that means. You’ll continue to fall short in the future. Forgive yourself for that too.*

Second: I never knew precisely why I was a wonder junkie – just that I was one – until I read Michael Pollan’s How to Change your Mind, about the history and neuropsychology of psychedelics. I have a history of and tendency toward depression. The neuro-folk think a part of your brain called the Default Mode Network runs this whole thing, and most depression, addiction, and so forth is a result of an overactive DMN, a brain that gets stuck in a cud-chewing, self-ruminating rut. Turns out psychedelics, as well as your garden variety sense of wonder, derail the DMN and help the brain jump its depression track.**

When I woke Saturday, I was in the beginning stages of a blossoming depression. It was our fifth anniversary, though, and we’d been planning on a kayaking trip for a week. I’ll write more about this later, but the slowed-down moments I experience on a river or creek are the opposite of depression. They are just two totally incompatible states; they cannot exist at the same time. Those moments re-align my brain, and help it jump out of the rut. I’m still reaping the benefits of that afternoon on Eagle Creek.

The fact that you’re reading this, and that I have anything at all to say on the subject, is entirely due to the cliff swallow that came flying toward me, wings beating in slow motion as I was about to paddle over a mini-rapid glistening with sunsplash, and flew directly over my head. And also to the two owls I saw last evening sitting on a branch together, silhouetted in the sunset. And the baby squirrel leaning out of its hole twenty feet up a tree, taking in the fading light of evening, just as I was.

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Anti-depressant squirrel.

There is no space to concern myself with my failures when there are two barred owls having a chat on a branch in front of me, or a baby squirrel on its front porch.

So that’s where my nature thing comes from. It’s an anti-depressant, apparently.

I don’t mean to suggest that all anyone needs to do is go outside and their pandemic depression will lift. Conferencing owls and porch-sitting squirrels are my anti-depressant; they may not be yours. So if you are cut off from your sources of awe right now, please revisit my first point above, and be very gentle and solicitous with yourself. You’re in a serious place, and this is no time to carry any extra bullshit. Being depressive is not a character flaw, and even if it were, so what? You are entitled to some character flaws. They are expected.

Anyway, that’s it so far. We’ll see how far the owls take me.

 

*This is the one I’ll have trouble remembering.

**Read this book. It’s very interesting.

Cry if you want to

Well, shit. I see we have to go through this AGAIN. It’s Mother’s Day weekend — that time of year when the posts hit social media trying to save the world from complexity, trying to strip the sweet from its partner, the bitter, and pretend that we can have all the gauzy sentimentality without any of the darkness. After reading no fewer than three of these pieces this morning, I decided I must rise from my reclined and happily inert position, mount my trusty blogging steed, and ride forth in defense of human wholeness once again. But I had coffee first.

This will be my first Mother’s Day without my mom, who died last October. For the last few years, my mother tried to nudge Mother’s Day in the direction of my sister’s and my motherhood, and away from hers.  Instead of spending the day with her, the three of us would meet for lunch either a few days before or a few days after at her favorite Italian restaurant just south of downtown, the one with the exposed brick and the perfect bread. The place I still can’t go yet.

039-2So here I am this Mother’s Day, at once a mother and a motherless child, thankful for the fact that my mother encouraged us to associate the day more with ourselves than with her. But still, it’s right in your face and you start to wonder “how am I going to feel about this?” And there they are — the articles about Not Having Your Mom on Mother’s Day.

And man, so many of them contain a version of what I can’t help but think is really terrible and sad advice:

Don’t cry today. Your mom would want you to be happy.

People, NO. The layers of wrongness to this are legion. I mean, I get it. We want people to be okay, and we want them not to be so destroyed by a holiday that they cannot enjoy it. But we have to stop this, and here’s why: because an immutable characteristic of an authentically lived life is that we are not always okay. We have to stop fearing pain and grief, and we have to stop trying to enforce cheer. It takes a lot of courage to follow loss and grief down its own path without trying to control it, direct it, manage it, or resist it.

Because following it means things like this: You will cry when you open your cabinet one random morning and see the two beautiful coffee mugs your mother gave you after your divorce because, as she insisted, you will need two again someday, Jennifer. You will. (And I did.) And you’ll have tears in your eyes as you open the fridge and get your coffee creamer, because it’s an odd time for that to happen, and you may have to explain it to your husband. But that’s what it means to surrender to loss instead of merrily pretending that my mother would not want me to be sad.

The funny thing is, in that moment, I appreciated her so much. What I felt in that moment wasn’t just loss. It was a blend of loss, pain, appreciation, and gratitude.

And I know this in my bones: You can’t have one without the other. Over time, the proportions may change, but I will die on this hill: Attachment and love are partners with grief and loss. Loving someone is complex, and it’s still complex after they’re gone. Joy and pain swirl together and must be experienced as an entity of its own. There’s a reason for the word bittersweet.

Instructing people to control their emotions and not cry on Mother’s Day because their mother wants them to be happy is a warning not to trust the process, and to wrest away control of it for the sake of something that may or may not be true. That’s so sad to me. I’d rather be open to the memory of my mom tomorrow, come what may. I may cry a lot, or not at all, or perhaps a little bit when I visit the tree that fell in my yard the day after she died. I’m not stepping off the path for anyone, even if my mom would be so ill-advised as to want me to.

Trusting the process also has the benefit of including people who are motherless for all manner of reasons other than death — abandonment, involuntary separation, estrangement, addiction, mental illness, dementia, imprisonment, or any combination of the above.

So if you really want Mother’s Day to be about you instead of about your mother’s absence, then keep to your own path. Feel what comes. Cry if you want. Tears are cleansing and often beautiful. Or don’t! That’s fine too. Or maybe you’ll find that Sunday is fine, but Monday hits you like a truck. No one is sure what’s around that curve. Trying to control it is an illusion, destined to fall apart.

So my advice for motherless children on Mother’s Day is just this: Stay curious, and don’t listen to anyone who tells you how to feel. They probably mean well, but they’re talking more about their own fears than about you.

 

 

 

A file full of ghosts

Last week I began sifting through the boxes in my basement. I was looking for my old film cameras, to determine if I wanted to sell them. On top of a box full of 15-year-old slides I found a blue accordion file folder.

When I opened it, I found a number of cards and letters I’d saved over the years. In the front pocket were 4 or 5 cards from my former father-in-law who died in February. He had a gruff and sometimes challenging personality, but it was checked by a surprisingly sweet and generous, but undeniably dry, sense of humor. That humor most often appeared either in his stocky engineer’s handwriting, or in a mumbled baritone as an aside to some grump-ism he’d just uttered — there had to be just a little bit of interpersonal distance for it to appear. I went through the cards one by one, laughing, and I sent screenshots to his son, my ex-husband. I carefully separated the cards out to give to him, showing them first to my son, who misses the grandparents he lost this year acutely.

In the process of collecting the cards, a crisp white envelope fell out. The address where I lived 26 years ago was typed neatly and evenly on the front, and in the upper left-hand corner was a return address label adorned with seashells and my grandmother’s full name. The postmark was 1 JUL 1993. A particular and nearly forgotten feeling of being cared for washed over me, a feeling that, historically, came only from seeing my grandmother’s impeccably addressed letters. She had something to tell me.

My grandmother rarely wrote a letter that didn’t contain an insight of some kind. There was always the usual small talk, but she was a thinker, a processor, and to some extent, a philosopher. Like me, my grandmother had to work the events of life into a narrative that made sense to her. And she was often willing to share her conclusions, which I suppose was one reason she saved my emotional life as a child. My grandmother was often the only one of the adults in my orbit who shared my mental process, and so life simply made more sense when I was with her.

The date on the letter, I noticed, was a couple of weeks after I lost my grandfather on the other side of my family, a lively, warm, funny man whom I had adored, and who adored me in turn.

img_2209The letter began:

“Dear Jen,

I’m thinking of you today as you mourn the loss of your Grandfather. This is probably the first time that you have lost someone very close to you. You will find that it is the hardest thing in life to accept. People will say and do comforting things, but nothing helps except the passage of time. It is hard to accept because death is really an unknown condition. But surely the depth of love that we feel on this earth for other persons doesn’t end here. I think about dying, and I’m certainly old enough to, but I reject the thought of leaving my friends and family. This, however, is the pattern of life. We are all going to die at some time in our life, and if we didn’t, there wouldn’t be enough room on this earth for all of us. It is usually the old ones who die and that is good, because we have been privileged to experience all the good things as well as the bad for a very long time.”

I wondered, as I read it, if she wasn’t talking as much to herself as she was to me. A week later, I am still astounded to find, in a nondescript blue accordion file in a random box among piles of them in my basement, evidence that my grandmother wrestled with the same things I am wrestling with. I don’t remember with much clarity how I felt as I read this for the first time; I remember only a vague sense of comfort, the kind I always felt when I received her wisdom. But the letter wasn’t nearly as much for 1993-me as it was for 2019-me.

The researcher Brene Brown has said that one of the most powerful things a person can say to another is “me too.” And here she was again, whispering in my ear, only a short period of time after I wrote, in a fit of grief for another lost friend, that I will never get used to losing people. Me neither, she said. But this is the pattern of life; this is how it is and must be.  There was no attempt to fix it, no explanations of how to deal with it — just a simple expression of feeling, of doubt, of mystery, and then, of her usual kindness and warmth.

I couldn’t believe it. Here she was still, holding space for me long after she’s supposed to be gone.

She went on:

[Your grandpa] had such a wonderful sense of humor, he must have enjoyed his life here….Fond memories brought out occasionally are what they have left us. We oldies that are still here can only hope that we have left some too.”

And of course, she did, and I was just lucky enough to find one when I needed it. And so here I am again, like the author Sherman Alexie, not believing in ghosts, but seeing them all the time.

 

It ain’t the wrinkles, folks

We went to Purdue University’s Bug Bowl yesterday, where I achieved a breakthrough in personal growth by high-fiving a tarantula named Blondie. This was the option offered by my stepdaughter, an entomologist staffing the Insect Petting Zoo, for those not quite ready for the full-on act of cradling a huge spider in one’s hand. It involves putting a single finger out in front of the nearest of the Blondie’s forward-moving legs, and letting it connect for a second or two. A few years ago, I don’t think I even could’ve gotten near the tarantula, but this year, I actually enjoyed feeling the gentle squeeze of Blondie’s pincers as she tried to gain purchase on my finger. For some reason, I could see the spider as vulnerable, a fellow traveler on this often unkind space rock, instead of something to be disgusted or terrified by.

080I don’t know; maybe that’s overthinking it. The real point is that I’m still growing, still learning, still challenging myself, still trying new things, and declining to take comfort in set ways — probably more so than I was 11 years ago, or even 20. This has been a pleasant surprise to me: the older I get, the more risks I’m willing to take, and the more I’m able to do. Careening through my 40’s hasn’t limited me. Quite the contrary. My life is still remaking itself in gorgeous, surprising ways.

Ever since knowing my neighbor in Montana a decade and a half ago — a doctor in her 50’s who pursued her life with a zeal and purpose I never saw in my contemporaries — I’ve suspected that for a woman, that decade can usher in an explosion of life, creativity, and self-actualization. Kids are gone; finances are sometimes better; the limitations of marriage have either been improved upon or escaped.

I won’t lie, though; this era has its physical challenges. The mirror’s reflection is still sometimes a shock. My joints ache after fewer miles than before.  There’s something ironic about gaining all this freedom, only to struggle to use it. But you persist.

And so it was that we were on our way home from my tarantula encounter, and out of boredom, I wandered onto my phone’s Facebook app. And waiting there was the announcement from an old friend’s new widow that he had unexpectedly died the night before, leaving behind three kids, one under 6, and a devastated circle of family and friends. He wasn’t the first old friend of mine who had died too young. My friends and family starting dying about 3 years ago, when I reached the age that lots of people’s friends and family start dying of natural causes.

And I am here to tell you: forget wrinkles, forget menopause, and forget the hip joints that now ache after only a few miles. I will never get used to the part of aging and mortality in which my friends and loved ones die; especially the ones who are dying long before they should. It’s only going to speed up from here, and I will never get used to it. It never occurred to me that one of the greatest challenges of aging would be assimilating and managing all of that sadness and grief, refusing to turn away from it, without letting it prevent me from living fully the time I have available. I’m not sure how to do it. Maybe it’s something I’ll get better at with time, experience, and effort. Like holding tarantulas.

I don’t think there’s a clean answer for it. I think it’s all about stumbling around, forgetting to live in the midst of loss, then remembering again. Over and over and over, until it’s my own time to step off the train.