Coping, Grief, Healing, Squirrels

Finding Sanity.

 

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.” Haruki Murakami

Yesterday, a few hours before Game of Thrones was scheduled to air, my Comcast service quit. I was not all that upset: #GOT last-season-how-much-blood-can-you-stand fatigue had set in for me. Mystery solved this morning, when after three hours of ladders, dusty gross cellar crawling, rewiring, more ladders, more dust, a technician informed me that squirrels had chewed through the wires to the house. And I laughed.

When I returned from Seattle last week I didn’t find much funny, or edible, or worthy. I spent days in deep self care, so saddened, wrapped in a blanket staring out the window, recovering from both the privilege of holding my Aunt’s hand through the end of her life and the trauma of this loss. Curled up in a soft chair, I stared out the kitchen window at my bird feeder for hours until it became evident that even the good-sized, cherry-red Cardinal could not compete with the new generation of juvenile squirrels who had perfected the art of holding the bird feeder open with one toe, while spooning out the birdseed with another. By the second day this blatant pirating made me cross: rustling up shoes, I stomped outside with a can of Pam spray and blanket flying, greased the pole.

The little pissed off spitting grey fur-balls dashed up, then slid down faster, to the ground. Some, after wiping off their paws, their tails spinning in an angry, indignant twitch, then decapitated a nearby heirloom quince bush of all the coral blossoms. Payback seems to have also included snacking on my utility line. Maybe not so funny anymore — but this small, focused preoccupation with squirrel sabatage over the rest of the week helped me regain my footing into the weekend.

I treasured our relationship: my Aunt, also my Godmother, my mother’s first cousin and best friend, knew five generations of the women in my family. She unabashedly drank Nescafè all day long with hazelnut creamer and never minced on words. Our connection was part daughter-sister-sage-advocate-protector. The loss of this 87 year-old woman who had grounded me since my mother died, thirty-five years ago, was for some reason unexpected. Are we ever ready? I mourn her completely. Life has experienced a seismic shift. But just when I get buried in this grief I also remember her scolding me —  get on with it what are you waiting for — when, after all my surgeries, I was consumed with lethargy. She would have loved that I took on squirrels to ease my pain about her, to get me out of the chair.

So I grilled this technician: Why? What do you all do for that? Is this common? All the while knowing full well that ‘my’ squirrels — and there are too many to count —  are here for a reason. Much better than Game of Thrones.

Thanks, Auntie.

 

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Easter, Father, flowers, Hyacinth, Memoir

Love, Delivered.

Funny what starts a trigger. For me, it is hyacinth.

My first: delivered to the back steps of my childhood home on a snowy Connecticut March day, the potted bulb cradled in pink foil tied with a white bow, buds tightly closed on verdant green stalks leaning bravely into the winter wind. Tucked between the stems, a minuscule florist envelope, the card reading From the E. Bunny penned in my father’s funny half-script-half-print, signed off with his signature smiley face adorned with a small squiggle of hair. Oh, Dad. I felt so grown up I thought I would burst.

And a few days later, as the centerpiece on the Easter dinner table, the flowers opened to bundles of lilac blossoms, the fragrance — mingled with lamb, mint jelly, roasted potatoes — imprinted on me forever. My first, of almost forty, potted hyacinth delivered by florists to my door over the next four decades, whether my dining table was in Connecticut, Seattle, San Francisco, or later, Boston.

My father died in March, 2011. I held his hand those final days and rambled on about all the things I could and would remember about him and us, thanked him for so many things, even got a faint smile once or twice. But I forgot the flowers. When Easter came a few weeks later there were lilies on my table. My doorbell didn’t ring. I lost him all over again: it’s the little things that can hurt the most.

Spring is here in Seattle, the bulbs are bursting. Walking a neighbor’s puppy this afternoon we chanced upon a garden flocked with those white, pink, purple spring bulbs. The fragrance staggered me and left me breathless. All those memories firing and triggering and my heart bleeding just a little. Did he realize that eight years after he died I would still half-anticipate the doorbell, a florist delivery person standing on the step holding a foil wrapped pot? That I would miss seeing the lopsided grin of his silly squiggle person on those cards? That just a tiny whiff of the blossom would make me cry? I will never know what made him begin that tradition. I do know that at Easter I miss him the most.

As a parent I often reevaluate before the holidays and think well the kids are grownups now, they can’t possibly care about this tradition anymore. Then I remember his simple gesture, repeated over and over; the pink foil, the little skip of joy in my chest, the smell of a hyacinth bursting from the bulb. How it felt to have a father.

We are never too young, or too grown up, for love to be delivered, in any way.

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 Kingsland Kitchen, Portland, Oregon

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#AWP2019, Memoir, New Vocabulary, writing

Gathered Together.

I am in Portland, Oregon, for the yearly AWP — Association of Writers and Writing Programs. I am not on a panel, am not a published book author, will give no readings and cannot expense this: I am, however, one of 15,000 attendees that have paid the fee to marathon through three days of fast-paced workshops and readings on topics that will range from sexuality, travel, teaching, #metoo, memory, trauma, health, gender, publishing, literary agents, every and all literary genres to digital poetry. I will learn new words. My feet and head will hurt by Saturday night.

I did a trial run to the conference center on light rail this afternoon. Our 2019 host city chose to rain hard today, the humidity rising from our shoulders as we were corralled through the the registration area like airport security. Behind me, I saw a famous author I hoped remembered me from a workshop in Seattle. Waving madly at him, I thought; what gives me the cred to be here with him?

Tomorrow quite early I will  have a good coffee with an extra shot, probably swallow three Advil, purchase a day pass for the train and swim upstream through the escalator masses to find the ballroom where author Pam Houston’s panel convenes on writing about intimacy. Then I am off and running: Colson Whitehead’s keynote, Lidia Yuknavitch’s reading, Cheryl Strayed’s talk about her writing process, workshops on trauma, healing and humor. I will end the three days with a panel talking about being 60 and writing about death. If I hold up, eighteen sessions. And I may even attend a yoga class or two for writers.

I will watch people read famous author’s name tag as they pass him in the hallway, stop him, talk with him, ask him to sign one of his books. My name tag —  Alexandra Dane — won’t ring any bells. I will be handing out my business card to anyone who smiles at me, and if I am lucky they might read my blog, a few of my articles, remember me next time.

Yet a common denominator brings us here; on Monday morning, all of us will face a blank sheet of paper. Each of these 15,000 writers will search to find the first word of many to write something that will make you, the reader, think.

Our name tags are the same color at AWP2019 for a reason: under the dome of this conference center we gather together — young, old, famous and not famous —  and learn how to be better writers.

Humbling.

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Billboard on the building across from my hotel room.

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Choices, Diet, Dieting, fat girl, Women

Taking Steps.

It takes me exactly 3,500 steps, according to my FitBit, to walk over and down the hill to the french bakery, Rosallini’s, that in my opinion pulls the best coffee between Ballard and Green Lake. The walk puts a hefty dent in my hard-won 10,000 daily steps. However, I only indulge in a pastry there about once a week. When I order my lattes I breathe in the butter-filled air, gaze into the pastry cases, and plot out the next treat. This appreciation-not-deprivation makes the equation of exercise and calories work for me.

This morning, as I tried to make my hot coffee match the length of the New York Times, two women sidled up to the bar next to me, deeply engaged in conversation. I began to hear “ten pounds” and “diet” and “no carbs.” They were talking over each other, competing pounds lost and gained. Do women really talk like this anymore to each other?

I had just finished reading my health writer idol Jane Brody’s article, For Real Weight Control, published January 28th, that addressed just this issue of extreme dieting.  She supported the idea — with data and fact and personal experience — that we have to change habits to control our weight, not take away eating. The deprivation vs. moderation argument that has become personal to me.

When you have lost as many bits and pieces as I have including a length of colon, time is precious and so is my food. It matters what I eat and how I eat and silver lining time; this has become a lesson for me. I feel better if I eat thoughtfully and every four hours. Generally, my portions are small plate. I still have two pieces or more of chocolate at tea time. There is no food martyrdom, just a consideration that what goes in has to be good for this battered flesh and bone, aging despite all the diets in the universe. Once a fat girl who hated her body, I now am grateful it is carrying me into the next decade.

It was a close call at the bakery this morning — whether I was going to lean over and let fly some unfiltered and unsolicited opinions and offer this link — or whether I was going to sit this one out. Super close when I swiveled, put down my paper and saw two beautiful, thin women were having this conversation. And it is January, ladies — not the month to punish ourselves.

I won’t pounce on you at the bakery; I hope you will click on and read the article linked above. But I will send you healing vibes as I eat my vanilla bean eclair in a few days with a creamy, steaming 12 oz latte.

Get informed. Love the body you live in. Take a walk with that friend who is obsessed with dieting. Hug them.

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Painting by Todd Young, owned by Beth Slattery

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Be Brave., Death of a dog, Grief, Scottish Terrier

Letting Go, 2019.

I have a new tradition, spurred on by a writing friend, of choosing a ‘word of the year’  to prompt and inspire me into January 1st. I have chosen words like “faith” and “healing,” “patience” and “intention.” On December 31st, all fired up from a good procedure result, I decided on “brave.” Thinking to myself; I will brave the world and get to that bucket list. And; I will be brave on all the projects that have idled while I endured the ups and downs of 2017 and 2018.  Little did I know that three days into 2019 I would be tested as to whether I could be brave enough to get out of bed.

January 3rd I said goodbye to my best friend on four legs pup Olive.  She stopped eating at New Years and slept through the days. On January 3rd an x-ray at 1:30 in the afternoon revealed she was full of tumor. She declined in a matter of hours, her heart rate and breathing so accelerated that I did not think she could make it through the afternoon. At 7 pm I held her, her muzzle tucked under my chin, while she was euthanized at home.

Olive was beloved by me, my family, my friends. She did her dog job with all her heart and soul; she spent endless hours learning tricks with my children, endured ferry, car and plane trips, explored new places with ears up, walked all my steps and errands, lay patiently at my feet in stores while I did whatever I had to do, reminded me daily — with a gentle paw swipe — when I had been at the computer long enough. She enchanted small children and lived for Seattle dog-friendly coffee shops with biscuit jars. She was a fixture at social knitting on both coasts. She chased everything and caught nothing. She went everywhere happy.

And then, when I was in the darkest of all places, she only left my side when forced. One part of her body was always touching mine, no matter the temperature. When anxiety from illness and body trauma, fear and mortality kept me awake for the better part of two years, in those dark night hours she pressed closer and snuffed at me while I practically stroked the fur from her body. Only in the last few months, when I began to feel better and after a good procedure result in December, did she lighten up and sleep at my feet.

She knew. She knew I was better. After a joyful family Christmas she saw me writing. She saw me moving. I know she heard it in my voice. Only then did she let go. Her job was done.

I saw her failing in little ways over the past few months, but thought we could manage with her medications, diet, exercise. This is a dog lover’s blind spot: I could not envision a life without the rhythm of her needs and mine so intertwined so we saw more vets, tried new routines. Part therapy dog, heart of a black lab, the look of a little human, that square bundle of Scottish Terrier was worth it and I believed I could extend her life.

The contradiction still strangles me as I write: We love them heart and soul until we have to end their lives to make them safe. Sitting on my living room floor, ready to help us do the unthinkable, her vet said, “this is our gift to them.”

The last four days have sucked. I did stay in bed and cry and sleep for two of them. I clutched the baby puff she slept on, smelling that earthy doggy-ness and just wept my eyes swollen. I don’t know how I found the deepest of brave to let her go last week — on purpose, by my own hand. It was my final act of love. And it crushed me.

But she was a gift to me, eleven years ago, that little beanie-baby of a puppy we chose with the green ribbon tied around her neck. Thank you, Olive Cricket, for waiting. I wish we had had a lifetime more. The silence is deafening without the tick of your nails, the thump of your body ejecting off the couch. I will think of you on the beach, the wind blowing your beard askew, a crab in your mouth, running, running, running.

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Edge dog. Marblehead, 2015.

 

 

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Family, Father, gratitude, Handmade

Love Pigs.

Of all the holiday pleasures nothing — nothing — makes me happier than the pigs.

So long ago, before my father’s eyes were beset by Best’s disease, he carved animals from wood. I have a fat sheep and a patient donkey for the manger. On my desk lies a palm-sized duck with a beak tucked tenderly under a wing. On the bookcase, a life-sized Curlew, beak always in peril from the vacuum and small children. On the tree hangs wooden ornaments he cut from pictures my children drew for him. But nothing gives me more pleasure than the two tiny little piggies he carved, the size of my thumbnail, that I place in the Christmas scene come December.

The pigs lie in wait for eleven months, swaddled in cotton, kept safe from the jumble and flurry of the holiday set-ups and take-downs, in a small porcelain Christmas tree that flips open at the trunk.  They are my final tradition in the days before the holiday. I wait until all the lights are strung, the tree trimmed, the skating scene arranged and rearranged, the snow sprinkled; only then do they come out: I tip open the base of the tree and one by one carefully place them on the mantle. Though so small, they square up amongst the skaters and carved trees, the string of sparkle lights and little churches. Their shadows cast stout silhouettes. All that my father loved about this holiday — family, the hearth, the music, beauty created from our hands —  is in these little animals. All the love he could give me is in these half-inch tiny knobs of wood. I always cry when I step back and look at them.

I still remember the sharp points of their ears pricking me as he dropped them in my palm, this tiniest most beautiful gift from his hands to mine. Some years, I place them  around a reindeer. Some years, I place them next to a small hand carved Santa, or in the middle of three paunchy Santas, their ears and tails pointing North and East, peering at the tiny skaters frozen in their poses. Guests will lean on the mantle, stare at the scene and then suddenly burst out laughing. Tiny pigs in a skating scene is funny.

In 2011, a year after my father died, a small box arrived in the mail. My brother had set some of my father’s ashes in a small round globe of glass, the disc streaked with ash and a thin blue swirl. That year I strung the disc on a holiday ribbon, and as soon as the tree was upright, hung my father on a sturdy branch facing the room. Every year after that, he watches his little piggies stand guard and his family grow tall and I cannot believe — each Christmas —  how much of him is all around us. He is right where he was happiest.

I lie awake and wonder what I will leave my children that will stand, year after year, the test of time and love. Words, I think. Many, many words.

Happy New Year, Friends.

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Carcinoid tumor, on purpose, self image, space, wellness

On Purpose.

Yesterday, I went to an appointment that was actually scheduled for today.

I have misplaced my favorite glasses.

And I probably forgot your birthday last summer.

This has been my new normal over the last seventeen months. I hardly recognize myself or this tendency to lose stuff. I have been pulling the blankets around me, physically and emotionally, at the expense of the every day. Closing my eyes, overwhelmed by the after-effect of three rounds of surgery, the fluctuating test results, the pains that wake me in the night, the deadlines and word counts I can’t measure up to, the waistbands that cut over my incision areas and the bottomed-out exhaustion of lying awake all night while this movie reel spins ’round and ’round and ’round.

And then, I had enough of letting things happen to me and nothing being done on purpose.

I got up and began a purge, inside and out.

First, at the Seattle Nest; I threw away any paper I had not touched, filed or looked at twice in the last year. That freed up three baskets. Then I gave two of those baskets to Goodwill. I gave most of my clothes away. I kept only the shoes that made me smile. There is now a 1000 piece puzzle on a table in the middle of my living room space replacing books on writing. There is so much yarn. Fiction waits by my bed. I forgave myself the preferred diet of dairy, toast and fruit and went to the store for more cheese.

Then, inside: I had not been following my own cardinal rule — information is power — instead, I had been cringing away from the real time of my diagnosis, wrapping myself up in fear, lying awake to be sandy-eyed and worn out by daybreak, cowed by every pain and the bottomless fatigue. And pissed at myself, fully aware of this self-defeating cycle of fear=exhaustion=anxiety=more fears.

So last week I opened the hospital app, put in the passwords and read my medical reports online out loud for the first time. Did not wait for someone to tell me the results. I read them over and over, letting the now be all mine. Here is what I owned, here is what I said out loud,

I had a carcinoid tumor in my appendix, colon re-sectioning then a sick gall bladder over a twelve month period of time. That is a lot of surgery.

I may have more cancer.

But today? I  feel just fine. 

And remarkably, I felt better. I wrote 758 words that rocked. After a good cry, I slept my first solid sleep in a very, very long time and woke up to a magnificent morning.

Shelf space=heart space=real space.

In less than ten days I will kick the 50’s out the door and welcome in my next decade with open arms. I say bring it on, whatever I need to know and do, make me safe — whatever it takes — so I can stick around a little longer to stomp my footprint a bit deeper into the earth.

I am not sorry about the birthdays, the glasses or the appointments. People that care about me will not care about my failings and stick around. Appointments can be rebooked. I have ordered a stretchy skirt. And I have been longing for a pair of cherry red glasses, anyways.

This morning the September sun beats down on me, the crow with a white feather chortles to me from the railing, begging shamelessly for more dog treats. The sky is brilliant. I feel on purpose today.

I am still here.

 

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