musings

A sack of flesh and bones and a moment of transcendence

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“The answer comes to me like a movie in my head.  I am flat-chested and pigtailed, bending over the edge of a lake and watching the lacelike line of froth advance and recede, trying to determine what makes the water green.  The sun is warm on my back.  I am entirely unself-conscious – my body is a sack of flesh and bones whose function is to take me where I want to go.” – Elizabeth Berg (from the novel Open House)

I don’t know about you, but I remember those days.  You know, the days before puberty.  Before breasts and menstrual cramps and obsessing over boys, and whether the right boy (or the wrong one) liked you, or didn’t. Before that time, I was rather a feral sort of child.  Not a tomboy, not really, but just a bit, if not wild, well, yes, I guess feral really is the right word.  Only partially domesticated.  I gave little or no thought to how I looked; my long, blonde hair was often snarled with twigs and leaves from my forays into the “woods” (which is really just what we called the overgrown vacant lot at the end of the street).

I’ve always been an animal lover, but as a kid, I extended that love, that sense of fascination, to almost all living things. I spent long stretches of time transfixed by the unceasing marchings of ant scouts, busily to-ing and fro-ing from their home mounds.  I climbed trees and peered into birds’ nests, marveling at the matte beauty of the eggs, straining my ears to hear the faint peeping of the baby birds inside as the time for them to hatch from their shells grew closer.  Born and raised in Florida, equally as at home in the water as on land, I snorkeled coral reefs, diving and surfacing and diving again, engrossed by the abundant and colorful life just below the surface of the water.  On the beach, I dug my hands deep into the sand near the shoreline, delighting in the frantic tickling of sand fleas endeavoring to escape my loose grasp.  I rode bikes and built tree forts.  Most of my time was spent outside.  Most of it in the company of animals.

One of the things I loved to do above almost all else, though, was ride horses. Growing up, family friends had horses that I rode, and I took English riding lessons with an instructor. When I was twelve, I got my own horse, a bay Anglo-Arabian mare with a star and a blaze whose barn name was Ginger.  Like me, Ginger was a bit of a wild girl.  She was sweet and mostly willing, but also spirited at the same time, and, like most mares, she had her own mind, and wanted to do things her way.  Riding her was a challenge, a challenge I embraced and thrived on.

See, almost anyone can get on a reasonably well-broken horse, and guide it from Point A to Point B, but that isn’t really riding. It’s being a passenger.  Riding, at its best, is a partnership, in which the rider trusts the horse and the horse trusts the rider, and there is mutual respect, and yes, even love.  It is asking an animal that outweighs you by roughly a thousand pounds to do as you bid it using only gentle pressures of your fingers on a set of leather reins or the pressure (or lack thereof) of your legs against its sides and having that animal, who could absolutely refuse to comply, say “yes.”

When there is mutual respect and trust, riding a horse can be a magical experience. When there is also love, it surpasses mere magic and becomes transcendent.  And despite the thrill of competition, it is something that really has nothing to do with ribbons or silver cups, or who came in first.  In fact, almost before my show career really got started, it was over for me.  My parents couldn’t really understand this, although I think they were probably relieved, given how expensive it can be to show even at a local level.  Initially, though, they were understandably confused.  After all, I finally, after begging for one almost since I could speak, after badgering them to drive me to horse shows in which I wasn’t even competing just to watch my friends ride and to be around horses, had my very own horse, and all of a sudden I wanted nothing to do with the shows I’d been desperate to get to in the past.  In fact, after awhile, I didn’t even want to take lessons anymore, because I was sick of the constant pressure to reconsider my decision not to show.

Looking back now, I understand why my trainer pressured me. For one thing, the discipline of riding is, well, a discipline.  It takes years, and hours upon hours in the saddle, to become truly proficient in giving the necessary aids in the correct order, in precisely the right way, so that the horse understands what is being asked of him, and a common bystander has no idea what has suddenly caused the horse to move from a walk to a trot, a trot to a canter, and back down to a walk again, to change directions, to move laterally from one side of the arena to the other, and so on, because the aids are that invisible, and because the horse and rider are so much in concert that at times it seems as though they are one body, a single mind, a united purpose.  A good trainer knows this, and instills the desire for excellence in her students.

On the other hand, though, blue ribbons won at shows garner attention. There are endless numbers of horse crazy little girls brushing the manes and tails of their My Little Ponies with infinitesimal little combs, cantering around their backyards neighing to themselves and begging their parents to take them to the horse shows at the local fairgrounds on weekends.  I know, because I was one of them.  And because horses are expensive to feed and to board, a comparative few are fortunate enough to have, as I was lucky enough to, a horse of their own. Weekly lessons on a favored mount and the chance to show that horse in a few classes at weekends is as close as many horse crazy kids are likely to get, and students winning blue ribbons mean an endless stream of up and coming horse lovers begging their parents for lessons at your barn, which is how many of the horse crazy kids who grew up to be horse crazy adults can finance their own passions.  And so it goes.

What I discovered once I had my own horse was that, now that I didn’t have to take those weekly lessons in order to even get close to a horse, and could in fact spend all day at the barn if I wanted to (which I did), I quickly lost interest in lessons and showing. Like anything else competitive, there are politics involved in it, even on a local level, and also a lot of expense, and a lot of pressure.  Competition is fierce, and I had a natural competitive streak.  If I was going to compete, to show, I wanted to win.  Unfortunately, winning isn’t always possible, and even when you do win, sometimes the victory can feel like an empty one.  Also, at twelve, while I was still pre-pubescent, still pre-adolescent, that particular storm was gathering on the horizon, gaining force, preparing to make itself known.  And already there were twinges.  So I withdrew from that particular arena, both literally and metaphorically. I quit showing, and eventually quit lessons as well, in favor of spending long hours largely alone with Ginger.  I couldn’t get enough of grooming, riding, and training her – my very own horse.

I was in junior high at this time, and others may disagree, but speaking only for myself, it was probably the most difficult time of my life. (That transition from child to teenager was, for me, almost harder than the transition from teenager to quasi-adult.  True adulthood, I suspect, has, even in my 43rd year, eluded me thus far.  They say you aren’t truly an adult until your parents are no longer alive, and so, personally, I hope I’m not a ‘true” adult for a long time yet.  I may own my own home, I may pay taxes, have a demanding career, and be for all intents and purposes a fully functioning member of society, but whenever or if ever my back is against the wall, I’m dialing the ten digits connecting me to that house on the river where I grew up as fast as my fingers can go!)

Looking back, I see what a centering influence those long hours at the barn (which incidentally was not the same barn where I’d taken lessons – a “show” barn; the barn where I boarded Ginger was for mostly people like myself, who may have been very proficient in the saddle, but were not interested in showing or ribbons, who just wanted to ride for the sake, and the joy, of it), were for me. How grounding they were.  Unlike many girls my age, I wasn’t spending hours looking in the mirror and measuring the shape of my eyes and the length of my nose or the poutiness of my lips against the models in fashion magazines.  I wasn’t trying to sneak out of the house to meet boys wearing clothes inappropriate for my age.  I was spending eight and nine hours a day at a stable, mostly in the company of other adolescent girls or women, either riding my horse, or grooming her, or mucking out her stall, or standing in the center of a round pen, lunge whip in hand, as she cantered circles around me, waiting for her to settle, to quiet, to drop her head, engage her hind end, and use her whole body instead of prancing around with her nose in the air as she wanted to do.

Or, in other words, the only thoughts I really had about my body were in relation to how it affected my riding. Ginger, as I mentioned, was a challenge to ride, being fairly green and also on the spirited side.  She was unlike the well-schooled mounts I’d lessoned on for years, even the ones I’d ridden most recently as I got older and more skilled.  Then, too, she was a mare.  (It is worth mentioning that when it comes to horses, most of those who are “in the know” consider a gelding, or a castrated male, to be a far superior mount, all other things being equal, to a mare.  Mares can be moody and temperamental, while at the same time being sensitive, and then of course, there is the same monthly cycle that all women everywhere are slaves to.)  So even though I’d been riding for years by then, we still had some difficulties in the beginning.  It took awhile for us to learn to read each other, to trust each other, and finally to love one another.

It’s not the kind of thing you can rush, the rare and precious alchemy that transformed a young girl and a young horse from two separate beings, each with her own ideas about how things should be done, into what, at times, felt like a single body, a shared mind, and one beating heart, filled and pumping with the joy of being young and strong and vibrantly alive in a world of our own making. It was, for me, the best kind of solitude – alone, but never lonely.  Oh, how I miss it.

Eventually, after several wonderful years together, I had to say goodbye to Ginger. I was heading off to college, and my parents, quite honestly, couldn’t afford to send both of us.  And in truth, even in the year or two prior to saying goodbye to her for good, I had started to pull away from Ginger.  That world of horse and stable was a grounding, a centering force in my life for a number of years.  An insulating force, too, I realize now.  It kept me from focusing too much too soon on my burgeoning body, and the increasingly adult thoughts and feelings that are a natural part of growing up and which tend to exert force over our actions long before they probably should, or before we’re truly prepared to handle the consequences of those actions.  I did not, as I see now that so many of my peers did, grow up too soon. I was too focused on things that were completely apart from those that occupied most of my peers’ waking hours – mainly makeup and clothes and boys and how to use the ones to influence the other.  The stable, I see now, was my own little Neverland, and I dwelt happily in it for as long as I reasonably could.  Eventually, though, I had to take my place in the real world.  I had to grow up, and until very recently, six months or so now, horses had not been a part of my life for a good twenty years.

In twenty years, you change a lot. In gaining new skills, you often lose those you once took for granted.  Riding has been like that for me.  Much of it is almost cellular, innate.  But a lot of it isn’t, I’ve found, and I’ve had to work hard to regain it.  Often, I’ve been frustrated, because, accustomed to riding well and almost without having to think about it, I’ve had to recognize that I’m older now, and a bit out of shape, and my body doesn’t obey me as readily as it did years ago. Also, I no longer have the luxury of spending hours, let alone entire days, in the saddle.  I ride two hours a week, and there is a limit to what can be accomplished during that time.  I’ve had to learn to be patient, with myself, and with my mount, which can vary from week to week because I am using stable-owned horses for my lessons.  They are wonderful horses, one in particular, but they are not mine. I do not have the bond with them that comes from hours and days and weeks and months and years spent in one another’s company, learning to respect and trust and love each other.   Wonderful though they are, they are not my Ginger, and of course I am no longer the girl, or the rider, I once was.  So even when my mount and I are working well together, it is still just that:  work.  Which is fine.  Wonderful, even.  I am so thrilled to have found my way back to something that gave, that gives, me so much joy.  Yet I do still miss that magic, that transcendence, that feeling of pure, unfettered freedom.  I have wondered, often, if I will ever experience its like again.

And then, yesterday evening …

The feeling comes to me softly at first, like a tap on the shoulder from an unseen hand, a whisper in my ear: “Look!”  I look, and see, as if in pentimento, both my middle-aged self, wearing a regulation riding helmet and black stretch riding pants astride a tall bay gelding, and the teenager I once was, bare tan legs wrapped around the barrel of a fine-boned bay mare.  So different, and yet, we are one and the same.  A late afternoon rainstorm has come and gone, the Indian summer heat vanquished for the moment.  The breeze on my cheeks is even a little bit cool.  It’s been a good lesson so far – my body is listening to my mind for a change, and things are clicking.  The horse beneath me is not the one I knew as well as my own skin those many years ago, but we’re beginning to be able to read each other.  I circle the ring at a posting trot, and then, at the corner of the arena, I sit for a moment, squeeze my legs against my mount’s sides, apply pressure on my left rein, and make a kissing sound with my lips. The bay gelding beneath me rocks forward into a canter, and as we circle the arena again, I point him toward a small crossrail.  I count strides in my head.  One two three … one two three … one two three.  Until, in seconds, the fence is just three strides away.  One.  Two.  Three.  I close my legs around my mount.  He gathers himself and leaps.  I lean forward in my saddle, my hands and arms moving forward to follow the motion of his mouth.  For the briefest of moments, we are no longer earthbound.  Ah, yes.  I remember now.

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This road closed

Photo by Silver Moon Photography

This past weekend, I watched a friend’s two kids while she was out of town on vacation.  It was the first time I’ve done this type of thing in awhile.  Occasionally, I’ll take another friend’s daughters for a day or an evening, take them to do something fun, have them to my home for a sleepover, that kind of thing.  This was different.  It was, now that I think of it, the first time I’ve cared for anyone’s school aged children for more than a twenty-four hour period.  This involved an entire weekend of meals and bedtimes and trips to the community pool, schlepping coolers and floats and all manner of other paraphernalia that you have to cart along with you whenever you are taking kids anywhere, plus getting them bathed, dressed, fed, and on the bus before heading off to work myself on Monday morning.  And then of course the younger one, whose hair is mad curly, wanted her hair straightened for school, which of course meant that she went to school with straightened hair and I went to work with glorified bedhead.

It was fun, it was exhausting, it was … well, yeah, fun and exhausting pretty much cover it.  Or, in other words, minus the husband, it was very much like the life I had always assumed I’d have.  Even from a very young age, I always assumed I’d be a mother.  And not just because it was something that was expected of me.  It was something I wanted.  Something I yearned for.  I had it all planned out.  Like my mother, aunt, and grandmother, I would become an elementary school teacher.  I figured I’d do it the way my mom had done – stay home with my kids when they were really young, substitute teach once the youngest started kindergarten, and then segue into teaching full-time at some point after that.  My own mother waited until I was in eighth grade and my sister in fifth before she started teaching full-time.

Of course, I also thought I’d meet my husband, and the father of these imagined children, in high school, or college.  But that didn’t happen, (which in retrospect I’m glad about – I’ve changed far too much since then to believe for one second that any man I married in my twenties would still be a good match for me today), and the years passed, and well, the truth is, there have been men I have loved and men who’ve loved me, but it’s been a bit of a challenge to get both of those things happening at the same time.  I don’t really know why that is, whether it’s bad luck, or bad timing, or some unrealized and therefore unable-to-be-corrected flaw in my deepest self that makes it impossible for me to reciprocate the feelings of the men who seem to dig me, or vice versa.

I also decided about mid-way through college not to become a teacher, and I told myself all sorts of stories about why that was so.  The money was terrible, I wanted kids of my own one day, and I didn’t want to spend eight hours a day giving the best of myself to other people’s kids and then coming home to find I’d left nothing for my own.  There was another reason I told myself these stories, though, but that’s probably a post for another day.  And the guy, well.  The truth is, that even if I’d found “the guy,” years ago, it’s a reasonable surety that I still wouldn’t have had children to get off to the bus stop or to bake cookies for after school, or take to soccer practice, or swimming lessons, or do any of the other things that people do when they have children, because the simple fact is that I can’t have any.  I’m not alone in this, I know.  I’ve had three friends who’ve struggled with infertility.  Two were finally able to conceive via IVF, and the other finally made peace with the fact that a viable pregnancy just wasn’t a possibility for her, and decided to proceed with adoption.  She now has a beautiful son.

Which, for the record, was something I explored as well.  Seven-ish years ago, I finally decided that, you know, I was in my mid-thirties, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t even remotely close to being married, and in fact the year before, my nearing-eighty-year-old grandmother had taken me aside and asked me point blank if I was a lesbian, and then, while I stood there in shock with my mouth gaping open, proceeded to tell me that, if I was, it was perfectly ok with her.  Now THAT was an interesting conversation! I told her I appreciated her interest in my sexual orientation, as well as her willingness to be open-minded about same, but that while I agreed there was nothing wrong with being a lesbian, I happened to like men very much, I just hadn’t found one I wanted to marry, or one that I wanted to marry who wanted to marry me, or, well, you get the idea.  I think she believed me, as she didn’t pursue the conversation much further, except to say “I just don’t understand why you’re not married!  You’re a beautiful, smart girl!  You should be married by now!”  I thanked her for the kind words and escaped to the kitchen for more wine.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yes, adoption.  I was thirty-five or six, (definitely heterosexual but still unmarried, just in case there was any confusion on this point), I had a solid career, I owned my own home, and I figured, well, if I can’t just go to the nearest sperm bank, buy myself some sperm, and get pregnant on my own, I can damn well adopt a baby.  So I started researching, and then I researched some more, and talked to people, and went to some meetings, and talked to more people, and emailed some people, and researched and researched and researched.  After about six months or so, I was ready to move forward with adopting a baby from China, which seemed to be the most stable, as well as one of the most financially feasible, foreign adoption programs around, and, unlike many of the others, they did permit adoptions by single women.  The only glitch was that I had to wait almost another six months to apply, because while single women could adopt, they could only apply at certain times of the year,  unlike married couples, and I had missed my window.

I figured it wasn’t the end of the world – it would just give me a little more time to plan – , but by the time that six months was just about up, I started hearing rumblings from the online adoption groups I’d infiltrated that China was changing some of their guidelines, and that single women were no longer going to be able to adopt.  Which, unfortunately, turned out to be true.  Because the program in China had been so stable for so long, it was, and still is, a very popular country to adopt from, and some people were waiting more than two years for a referral once all their paperwork was in.  In an effort to make the process move more quickly and to cut down on the wait time for those still working their way through the mountains of necessary paperwork, they were making the guidelines far more stringent, and it wasn’t just single women who were being affected.  My friend who eventually adopted her little boy domestically was also out of the running.  We’d talked a lot about how if things worked out and we finished our home studies and other paperwork at the same time, maybe we’d both be in the same batch of referrals and get to travel to China together to bring home our babies.  Unfortunately, some health issues on her husband’s end meant that she, too, had her hopes of adopting from China dashed.

I will tell you honestly – I didn’t handle this news very well.  I see now that for several months after I got the news, I was actually pretty depressed. For as long as I could remember, I’d wanted to be a mom, and for eight or nine months I had been making some actual strides in turning that dream into a reality by taking some very concrete steps down a road that, some eighteen months to two years or so later would end with me boarding a plane to a country so far away I could scarcely imagine it, and having my baby placed in my arms.  I knew that this baby would likely be a girl, because most children adopted out of China are, for primarily cultural reasons, female, and though I couldn’t know for sure exactly what she would look like, I knew that she would have black hair and dark brown eyes.  I even chose a name for her.

So to find out that this child I’d been dreaming about for so many months, as I planned, and waited, and navigated some very confusing paperwork essentially on my own, was never going to be, well – it was a blow, is all I can say.  In fact, and I’m trying not to be melodramatic here, but it really felt a great deal like a death, if not of an actual child, such as is the case with a miscarriage, at least the death of a dream.  And it took me awhile to get over it, and try to think about what my next step was going to be.  If I couldn’t adopt a baby from China,  what was I going to do?  Where to go next?  So I researched some more, and talked to more people, and emailed more people, rinse and repeat.  By this time, my friend had found and contracted with an agency specializing in domestic adoption, and by some infinitely well-deserved miracle, she and her husband were chosen by a birth mother almost before the ink was dry on their home study.  I was leery of domestic adoption for a lot of reasons, but I was encouraged by her experience, at least enough to go in for an interview, but ultimately it just didn’t feel right.

No, that’s not true.  The truth is, I felt a little inadequate.  Because, here’s the thing.  With a foreign adoption, as mercenary as I know it probably sounds, and as long and expensive and frustrating a process as it usually is, if you dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s and pass all your home studies and fill out all the right forms in just the right way, at some point, long months or even years down the line, it is going to be your turn.  The procedures and the length of the wait are a bit different depending upon the country you are adopting from, but eventually you are going to get your chance.  You will get your baby.

Domestic adoption is not like that.  For one thing, it is often even more financially daunting than foreign adoption, or at least it can be.  For another, there is no guarantee.  Unlike with a foreign adoption, it is not just a matter of filling out the forms and completing the home studies and proving to who knows how many different people in who knows how many different agencies in who knows how many different offices in at least two different countries that you are fit to parent a child.  Which, I am here to tell you as someone who as at least partially gone through it, is a really scary and humbling process, not to mention the fact that it all seems tremendously and even pathologically unfair, especially when there are teenagers getting pregnant in the backseats of cars every single day, while you, on the other hand, can’t get pregnant no matter how many backseats you are willing to take your clothes off in, or how many doctors you enlist to come to your aid.  Anyway, the point is, with domestic adoption, you have to be CHOSEN.  And as a single woman, I just wasn’t all that confident, and I still am not, that I would have been chosen, and here’s why:  because I was not sure *I* would choose me, or any single person for that matter, if it was *my* choice to make.

After all, there is a reason it takes two people to make a baby.  Parenting is a hard job, and while I don’t know that it necessarily takes a village, it for damn sure isn’t ideal to do it alone.  I know people, both men and women, do it all the time, God bless them.  Every day, in fact, and for all sorts of reasons – death, divorce, desertion – you name it.  And I knew I’d have a great support system, and I thought, and still think, I would have been a great parent.  After all, and I really believe this, I learned from the best.  But ultimately, I just wasn’t willing to don my Ruby Slippers and skip off down the Yellow Brick Road of domestic adoption because I wasn’t at all sure that I’d ever reach the Emerald City.  I wasn’t confident that a good witch dressed as a midwife (for the record, if Glinda were a midwife I think she would wear cotton candy pink scrubs with little lacey hearts all over them, and her scrub cap would be kind of like a crown, but her wand would look just the same because anything else would just be wrong) would appear to advise me on just exactly the right thing to say to a birth mother to convince her that she should trust me with the task of raising the baby that she, for whatever reason, couldn’t.  It just seemed so impossible.

At some point, though, I may have gathered my courage, and made the leap.  Donned the slippers, picked up my basket, and started skipping like hell.  But before that could happen, the global economy shit the bed, and I, well, I got spooked.    Parenthood is daunting.  Single parenthood even more so.  But the simple and unavoidable truth is that with my house suddenly worth far less than it had been when I’d bought it just two years before and my industry in crisis, I was no longer in a financial position to even afford an adoption.  And, in the years since, after getting smacked down not once or twice, but several times (I won’t go into that – this post is getting long already), I have just not wanted to open myself up to the possibility again, because I didn’t want to be hurt again.  Also, if you accept that a certain path is closed to you, it stands to reason that eventually the ache of that loss will fade, and just maybe there will come a time that it won’t hurt anymore.

Crappy iPhone photo by yours truly

But as I sat watching my friends’ daughters run through the fountains at a nearby community gathering place, their squeals of laughter mingling with those of all the other kids running across green grass or skipping through fountains in the summer dusk under a pink cotton candy sky, it struck me that maybe that never really happens.  When you want something as badly, as viscerally, as all-consumingly as I wanted to be a mom, I don’t know that you ever really get over it, at least not deep down.   Move on, yes.  Get over?  Maybe not so much.  And the fact is that I really have no viable option but to accept this.  My life is my life.  Most days it’s pretty good.  Great, even.  I have people, both related to me and not, who I love deeply, who love me, who I know will always be there for me, and who I’ll always be there for.  I even have some pretty great kids in my life, who think I’m cool because I’m not their mom, who I can borrow when I feel like it.  I’m happy, even content, at least more often than not, which is more than a lot of people can say.  My life is not a perfect life, but whose is?  No one that I’ve ever met.

I guess the point is … sometimes you think you’ve put the hurt of the past and certain hopes for the future away, and then you realize that even if that’s true, deep down, it still hurts.  Not as much as it used to, but it hurts.  In a weird, kind of behind-a-pane-of-glass way that almost doesn’t feel real, but it is.  Ok, you know what it’s like?  A few years ago, my elderly neighbor’s cat got loose and she was panicked.  She put signs up all over the neighborhood, but no one had seen him.  It had been like a week.  Then one afternoon, I was letting the dogs out in the yard, and they trotted out nonchalantly at first, and then all of a sudden two sets of ears perked up and both of them took off running for the back fence and began barking their scruffy little fool heads off.  And when I went over to investigate, I saw that trapped in the space between my neighbor’s privacy fence and my stucco wall was my neighbor’s cat.  In my ensuing attempts to rescue him, the little shit bit me on the thumb of my left hand, pretty badly in fact.  It required a visit to a doc-in-the-box on a Sunday afternoon, some antibiotic injections, and some pretty serious bandages, although no stitches because you can’t really stitch up a cat bite because of the infection risk.  The lesson here?  Cat bites suck. And even now, years later, I still have a bit of weird, tingly numbness on the inside of my left thumb.  But if you push on it, the numbness goes away for a second and it still kind of hurts. So yeah – this feeling I was talking about?  It’s like that.

* Top photo by Silver Moon Photography. Crappy iPhone photo courtesy of yours truly.

Goodbye to a Golden Girl

Ten years ago this fall, while driving down a side street on my way to work, I saw two approximately ten week old Golden Retriever/Lab mix puppies running loose.  In fact, they almost ran directly into the path of my oncoming car, but fortunately, with a screech of brakes and a pounding heart, I was able to stop in time.  Startled, they veered around the car, and kept on going down the street, so I quickly turned the car around and pulled up beside them, attempting to head them off, as they were headed straight for a busy highway.  Fortunately, they didn’t resist at all when I hopped out of my car, grabbed them up, one under each arm, and stowed them in the backseat.

I can so clearly remember how they looked that day – filthy, their golden (the boy) and strawberry blonde (the girl) coats streaked with dirt and grime, their xylophone ribs and hip bones jutting cruelly, their hides lax with dehydration.  I remember their overlarge paws and ears, their bewildered, yet earnest brown eyes, and their hopefully wagging tails.  And right they were to be hopeful, because their luck had definitely changed.  My then-vet’s office was on my way to work, so I called them from the car and told them I was making an emergency stop with two little foundlings who needed a bath, a good meal, and some vet care ASAP.  They weren’t wearing collars, and they had no microchips, although I would have fought tooth and nail to keep them from going back to wherever they had wandered away from even if they had.

The male puppy, who looks more like the Lab side of his heritage, except for his tail which is a bit too feathery to belong to a purebred Labrador, went to a friend and then co-worker of mine, and has led something of a storied existence in the intervening years since his inauspicious beginnings. He has crisscrossed the United States several times on epic road trips of weeks-long duration, dined next to celebrities at outdoor eateries in Aspen, camped in the Wyoming wilderness, and only escaped being bitten by a monster rattlesnake because his faithful human shot it dead before it could strike him.  He has one of those practically perfect dog lives – he gets to go just about everywhere his human goes, and because of all his exposure to varied settings, he is about as calm and centered an animal as you are apt to find anywhere.  He may have been a homeless waif in his youth, but any breeder would be proud of his temperament.

The female puppy has led a less glamorous existence, and not been as widely traveled, but has had every bit as happy of a life as her brother.  She was adopted by my best friend, her husband, and son, and although she’s never lunched on a patio in Aspen or been nearly struck by a rattlesnake, she has been greatly loved and cherished by her family and adored by all who came into contact with her, for her sweet and gentle nature and charming personality.  I delivered her into my friend’s care nine and a half years ago as a scrawny, ill-fed, puppy with a dry, patchy coat flaked with dandruff.  With excellent care, she grew into a beautiful adult dog whose russet red coat (any colorist would be proud to take credit for it) gleams with health.  Or, at least, it did.

On Monday morning, I was sitting at my desk when I got a call from my best friend, J.  Now, J never calls me during work hours, so I knew that either something really good or really bad had happened.  In the few seconds it took for my eyes to register her name on my iPhone screen, my mind first went to J’s son, who is in the military and has been recently stationed overseas in the Middle East.    I knew he was due back stateside any time, but you know – things happen.  Planes crash.  Life is uncertain, often scary, is tragic as often as it is triumphant.  Fortunately, my fears about J’s son were unfounded.  He is safe and sound back at his stateside post, thank God.

Unfortunately, the news WAS bad.  It seems that sweet H, the beautiful dog who grew from the scrawny, waifish puppy I found by the side of the road going on ten years ago, had woken J in the night in obvious distress.  She could not rise, was struggling to breathe, her gums were gray.  J woke her husband, and they took H to the emergency vet, where it was discovered that her abdomen was full of blood and that she probably would not live through the emergency surgery to locate and correct the cause of the bleeding.  It could be a tumor that had grown undetected and suddenly ruptured, it could be something else.  The vet didn’t know, wouldn’t know until or unless surgery was performed.  And so, with a very uncertain outcome and a risky surgery as the only other option, the difficult decision was made to spare her more possible pain, and let her go instead, which they did in the wee early morning hours of Monday.  H was wrapped in a blanket that smelled of home and her two favorite humans were by her side, gently stroking her, and whispering words of love and comfort.  If only we could all pass from this life to the next in such peace, surrounded by such love.  I hope, when it is my time to pass, I am as fortunate.

In the past two days, I have often stopped whatever it was I was doing, having been brought up short by thoughts of H, feelings of sadness over her abrupt and unexpected passing, and concern for my friends.  And although it has been years since the beautiful, always smiling dog had been that scrawny, waifish pup, it was the pup, and not the dog she grew into, who occupied most of my thoughts.  She was so frightened in those first days after her rescue, so unsure; she clung by turns to me and to her littermate like the proverbial life rafts.  Her worried, earnest brown eyes tracked my every movement, and when I spoke to her in a gentle voice her plumy tail would wag with joy.  She was almost desperate for attention and reassurance, which I tried to give her plenty of. As I stroked her small, warm head, I promised her that I would find her a wonderful home, with people who would love and care for her the way she deserved, the way she hadn’t been up until she and her brother happened to run in front of my car that fateful morning.  She would look up at me, rapt, seeming to understand, and to trust in what I told her.  I am so grateful to have been able to make good on that promise, and to know that she had the best possible home with the best possible family.  I am also grateful that because she went to close friends of mine, I was able to watch her grow up, have the opportunity to know the wonderful adult she grew into, and know for sure that I kept the covenant I made with her all those years ago.  She lived a life that any dog would be lucky to have lived, and as rough a start as she got in life, as precarious as her beginnings, she left it knowing how much she was loved, which is, of course, the most important thing of all.

Goodbye, sweet H. I feel lucky to have been the one to have helped change the trajectory of your life all those years ago, and to have known and loved you in all the years since.  I will miss your golden smiles, but you will live forever in my memory both as the tiny puppy you once were and the beautiful dog you grew into.  Rest in peace, sweet girl.jenn 012hannah

 AFTERWORD:  As I wrote this post, I couldn’t help but think that in some ways it was almost wrong to be writing it.  After all, in the last week, we’ve lost a beloved comedian/actor to suicide, an American journalist has been murdered by Islamic militants, and one of the bloggers whose blog I read daily has lost her mother.  There are a lot of sad and terrible things happening in the world right now, and in the face of them, the death of a dog may be considered by some to be fairly insignificant.  However, while my intention is not to argue with people who might feel that way, I also know that for me and all the other people who find such comfort and solace in the gentle, loving presence of their animal companions, the passing of one as loved as this dog was is far from insignificant.  She was loved by many, and her loss will leave a void, at least for awhile, even as treasured memories of her bring joy and smiles. In this way, loss is universal.  My heart aches for all who are mourning the loss of loved ones, whether public figures or those known only to a small circle of family and friends, but a small corner of it also aches for the loss of a dog not even my own, and I make no apologies for that.

Oh, wasted youth

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I have a new favorite song this week … it’s “Lost Stars,” sung by Adam Levine (writing credit to Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, and Nick Southwood), from the movie Begin Again, starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.  Adam performs it in the movie, and on the soundtrack, as does Keira Knightley, who had never sung or played guitar before this, which I found pretty impressive.  Actually, I kind of prefer Keira’s version of the song to Adam’s, which is saying something, since I sure do love me some Adam Levine.  Mmm.  Hmm.  Can you say “yum?”

Oops, is that drool?  Ok, let me get back on track.  What was my point?  I was sure I had one.  Oh, yes.  The song.  It’s a beautiful song, and regardless of whose version you prefer, Adam’s or Keira’s, the lyrics are lovely, and I have been singing them just about nonstop this week.  (Not well, unfortunately.)  During which one line in particular in the chorus keeps jumping out at me:  “God, tell us the reason youth is wasted on the young ….”

Why indeed?  Yet that does seem to be too often the case.  At least if you ask anyone over the age of twenty-five. I remember the iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally in which Meg Ryan tearfully exclaims “And I’m going to be 40!”  To which Billy Crystal asks “When?” and Meg rejoins “Someday!”  At the time I was eighteen, and forty seemed like the dark side of the moon.  Unimaginable.  Some place I couldn’t see from where I stood, and so far off in the distance that I couldn’t imagine ever reaching it.  Now that 40 is in my rearview, I have a different perspective, of course.  Funny how that happens.

Now – I am not old.  I know that.  For one thing, age is a state of mind.  Although in that case, I am sure some of my friends would argue that I am far closer to eighty than forty.  What can I say?  I’ve always been something of an old soul.  But no, really.  I’m not old.  There are no orthopedic shoes in my closet.  I don’t have bifocals … yet. But the way I know that I’m getting older (note I said older, NOT old!) is the way that I find myself saying yes far more often than I say no. Because I figure … why not?  Might as well.  Don’t mind if I do.

This fall, for example, I am going to be driving 1,300 miles by myself, to attend a two day conference on something I know absolutely nothing about by myself.  Along the way I will be stopping in, among other places, Washington, DC, and touring our nation’s capital by myself.  Then I’m going to drive home roughly the same way I came by myself.  Did I mention I am going to be by myself?  I make a point of mentioning it because it’s something I have never done before. I am lucky – I have an immediate family I’m very close to, as well as a reasonably large extended family, and I am close to many of them as well.  I have good friends.  Although by nature I am someone who likes to keep my intimate circle rather small, the point is – I don’t need to go places alone. However, this particular trip is not one that interests any of my friends or family, except one who isn’t able to go, and in times past I would probably have let this deter me.  But I’m not doing that anymore.  This is an experience that means something to me, and I’m going, even though I have to go alone.

Maybe this means I’m maturing, but I choose to think of it as getting in touch with my inner child.  Not that a child would make a 2,600 mile road trip alone.  That would be unwise, not to mention illegal.  But when kids have the chance to do something fun, they generally seize it.  Eating chocolate cake for breakfast, jumping in a carefully raked pile of leaves in the fall, running through a sprinkler in summer, if the opportunity for fun and merriment presents itself, kids jump in with both feet and damn the consequences.  Which is of course why they need parents to look out for them, but that is not the point.  The point is – depending upon where you are in the journey, life is either very long or very short, but every day is a gift, and any kid will tell you that a gift should be opened, and enjoyed, immediately.

Railroad to Nowhere

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I have always loved railroad tracks, as far back as I can remember, really, but looking back I think it actually started in the first grade. As a young grade-schooler the bus ride home, though only a couple of miles, often seemed interminable. I enjoyed school, but I couldn’t wait to get home at the end of the day, see my mom and baby sister, play outside. (This of course was back when kids still played outside, built tree forts, got into all manner of harmless trouble, and didn’t spend every waking moment staring at some screen or other, though we still enjoyed feeding endless quarters into the Miss PacMan machine at the bowling alley.)

For the entirety of my elementary school years, my bus driver was Mr. Williams, and I will always remember his deep baritone voice singing out “Railroad crossin!” as he stopped the bus at the tracks. Arriving at the railroad tracks meant I was halfway home, that the freedom I’d been anticipating all day would soon be mine.

Now that I live several hours from the town where I grew up and where my parents still live, I cross those same railroad tracks in the final miles of my homeward journey, and often I think of Mr. Willams, not a young man when I knew him, and long since gone to his reward. More often, though, I think, simply, “home.”

Or at least that’s the only reason I can think of that makes any sense when it comes to explaining why my heart seems to gladden when I catch sight of a set of railroad tracks. So when I found a set of rusty, long unused ones on a random drive-about close to home, I had to come back with my camera (and my trusty photographer’s assistant – aka my dog, Tucker) and spend some time there.

There were also these big hunks of metal and old concrete tunnels lying around nearby, and there was something beautiful and poignant about them to me in the dying light of a winter afternoon a few months ago. I’d like to go back again and shoot them again in a different light.

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Committing to Paying Attention

Swing Set in Summer

Swing Set in Summer

The prolific and much-lauded poet, Mary Oliver, whose writing resonates deeply with me, wrote, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Which is, for my money, pretty good advice, as good as any I’ve ever gotten on how to live. It’s also really hard to do, at least consistently. We get so wrapped up in existing, in surviving, that we forget to really live, to really pay attention, to be present and aware. Or at least I do.

In some ways, I think, that is what this blog is about. I want to try to pay better, more mindful, attention to what surrounds me. There is a lot of beauty out there in the world, and I want to remember to see and appreciate it. I want to be astonished. And as much as I can’t write even the first word on this electronic page if I let myself think that anyone might actually read it, I do want to tell about it, even if only to myself.

One of the ways I process just about anything is to write about it. It’s almost as though I can’t really know how I feel or what I think about something without writing about it first and then reading back to myself what I’ve written. In my teens and early twenties, I journaled incessantly. I wrote everything down. Everything. Periodically, I would destroy the journals or throw them away, because having them around was unsettling. When it is just you and your thoughts, recorded in pen and ink in a black speckled composition notebook, things can be pretty raw, pretty unfiltered. Which is the point, of course. It’s a tremendously effective outlet for powerful emotions. It’s just that all that truth and honesty and unfiltered raw emotion can be hard to go back and read later without cringing and wanting to crawl in a hole, or at least getting a little blushy.

Going back and reading old journals is a stark reminder that the voices we use to speak to the world and the voices we use to speak to ourselves are often very different. I remember when I was about thirteen, I accidentally stumbled upon the journal of one of the mothers I babysat for. It was an innocent mistake – the journal was a spiral bound notebook sitting out in plain view on the counter next to the phone. I was looking for a place to jot down a phone message, and there it was, and almost before I realized what I was doing, I had started to read it, and then couldn’t stop. I remember the ringing in my ears, the heat in my cheeks as though I’d been slapped. It was highly personal stuff, written by a woman in a considerable amount of pain, and it was information I never wanted, had no business knowing, but then, once I knew it, could never forget.

It was fear of something like this happening with one of my journals accidentally, or on purpose, falling into other hands, my naked thoughts out there for anyone to read, that spurred me to routinely purge the physical evidence of these thoughts from existence. I still journaled, almost obsessively, but just as obsessively I would go back later to destroy and eradicate the evidence. Not much from that era survived, but I am glad to have the little that did, even if it makes me blush to go back and read it. And who knows, I may find myself cringing ten years down the road at some of what I write about here. But I am going to keep trying to pay attention, to be astonished and aware, and to write it all down.