Sunday, June 26, 2011


A former palliative-care nurse chronicles the most common regrets expressed by her dying patients. I found this passage particularly interesting:
3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.

Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.

We cannot control the reactions of others. However, although people may initially react when you change the way you are by speaking honestly, in the end it raises the relationship to a whole new and healthier level. Either that or it releases the unhealthy relationship from your life. Either way, you win.
But it's not quite so easy as all that, is it? The rub is found in the first sentence: "Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others." But what kind of peace, exactly? What is the anti-peace we are afraid of? I have a theory. (I know you're not surprised to hear this.) If we express our anger, if we express our hurt to someone else, I think we run a very serious risk of having to hear their anger, and their pain, and all of the things that we did wrong. Pain and hurt are almost never a one-way street. What we really fear, then, is hearing that we are bad people. And if you have one person who is better at presenting this case than another, or you have a family system in which shame is liberally applied, then of course you'll strike the devil's bargain in which feelings are quieted in order to avoid what feels like a crushing judgment.

So it seems like a good time to remember the Wavy Gravy quote (which I encountered for the first time in Elizabeth Lesser's book Broken Open): "We're all bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride."

We all suck. And you know what? This is good news.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Wrapping it up

We've been having conversations, my grandmother and I. Stuck in a body that continues to improve after her stroke, she very bluntly informed me that she was tired of living this way.

I don't blame her. I can't.

But I feel as though I've been given a gift in the regular moments of lucidity where her recognition of me is unmistakably clear. I cried openly on Saturday as she reached up and touched my face and observed, more to herself than to me, that I was her "beautiful, wonderful granddaughter." She paused for a moment as a look of sadness filled her face. "And I'll probably never ---" I cut her off.

"Oh yes, you will," I said. "You will see me again very soon."

"I will?" she asked.

"Yes, you will. You can get some rest now. I'll be back."

Every time I see her now, I get the impression that she is wrapping things up. She knew I went through a traumatic divorce two years ago, and last Saturday, she broached the subject. "Is it too much to ask about..." she trailed off. I told her she could ask me anything she wanted. She asked what my ex-husband was doing now.

I'm not one to sugarcoat things, even for my grandmother. "He married her," I said.

"How are you doing?"

I smiled.

"I'm great. I'm amazing. I have more than I could ever ask for and I'm happier than I've ever been. You don't have to worry about that." It was a relief to be able to say that truthfully. On reflection, I'm so grateful that her time of winding down didn't coincide with my dark time. I think it would have been difficult for her to let go with me in that place.

Last Saturday, she wanted to make sure I told my father she said hello. She made me promise three times. Once she was satisfied on that point, she referenced my partner, whom she likes very much. "So, do you think he's The One?"

"What do you mean? You got [my recently married sister and her husband] married off, and now you're after me, too? I don't know what The One means. I love him very much. He's kind, warm, loving, funny --"

"Stop right there," she said, afraid I would insert a "but".

T rolled his eyes and laughed when I told him of this conversation later. "You should've just told her 'yes' and been done with it," he said.

"Yeah, but that's not me. I'm all about the fine distinctions," I said.

He's probably right. Next time I go to see her I'll tell her he's The One. I'm never going to get her to understand my relationship with the concept of marriage, anyway. (First I would have to understand it.)

I don't know what she'll ask the next time we're together, but it'll probably be about my mother and my opinion of her happiness. My grandmother always had plenty of things to worry about, so getting things wrapped up for her is not going to be a small job. I wonder what it's like for a worrier like her, this process of getting comfortable with disengaging from the directions of our lives. Slowly, she's getting accustomed to the idea of delegating the management of the world to us.

I'll visit her again this week, and keep making the case that we're up to the task.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The hardwood floor

My parents divorced when I was eight, which split up an already fragmented family. I was the youngest of five children, and yet an only child between my parents. That first summer after their separation, they did a smart thing. They let my grandmother take me. Grandma had certain ideas about the care and management of children, and they involved a combination of absolutely impenetrable boundaries, close supervision, and high levels of indulgence. What made it different from the approach that suffocated my mother was the addition of that last element. Indulgence was not a part of my grandmother’s parental repertoire, to say the least. But it was very much a part of her grandparental repertoire, and the combination was magic for me.

My parents’ divorce pulled the proverbial rug out from under me, but my grandmother replaced it with a hardwood floor. It was always there, waiting for me, every summer. Even during my teen years, when I was interested in no one over the age of twenty-one, I still returned to that suburban citrus patch in south Florida. The last summer I spent there was the one just before my seventeenth birthday. During the month I spent there, I devoted myself to learning the classics of all varieties. I read Buck’s The Good Earth and listened to Strauss waltzes. From that impossibly weird combination, I progressed to jazz and A Moveable Feast. The Florida house was the natural place for doing such things. My grandmother had been a proponent of my intellectual development for as long as I could remember. When she graduated from high school in 1938, she was offered a full scholarship to the state university – an extraordinary feat for a young woman at the time – but had to turn it down to care for her sick father. She was always quite clear that it was the big loss of her life, one from which she never fully recovered, and never completely stopped being angry about.

This was another area in which her parenting sharply differed from her grandparenting. She didn’t encourage, nor did she particularly acknowledge, her daughters’ academic lives. But she was relentless in promoting mine. I can’t account for that, and have mostly stopped trying. All I know is I’m grateful for it.

But more importantly, she created a space in which I was free from the burdens of anxiety or concern, and I used it to build a life of imagination. There was often a book in my hand when I was there. But if there wasn't, I would simply spend glorious amounts of time doing nothing at all, a privilege denied to so many children today. I'd lie on the porch among the orchids, picking apart hibiscus flowers, daydreaming and watching the chameleons skitter about, their red throats pulsating as we stared at each other. Or I would hold their cockatiel, Woodstock, on one finger and feed him peanut butter with another. Then I'd lift him up to my face, let him lightly peck my nose, and declare that he had peanut butter breath. Which he did, if you can imagine that of a bird.

It was there, in those tiny moments in the heat of a tropical July, that I learned the richness of experience and sensation.

And so there is a thread about to be pulled, and it feels like it must be connected to my viscera. But I know it isn't, because she never would have made it that way.

Last days

I used to hold my grandmother’s hands, usually when crossing the street. But last night she held mine, both of them, as I leaned awkwardly over the hospital bed. Her grip was surprisingly strong. I looked down at the nearly translucent skin on her hands, which are bruised and scabbed from a fall, and remembered them tanned and covered in mango juice. My grandmother’s hands always bring the same image. She is standing in front of her sink with a freshly picked mango cradled in her hand, and a paring knife in the other. Ribbons of yellow-orange mango peel are curling into the sink, and juice is streaming down her hands. I could be anywhere, perhaps standing behind her, or maybe watching from the screened porch, a skinny kid lying on a yellow chaise lounge, surrounded by tropical flowers and writing the memoirs of a ten-year-old in her head.

Mangoes don’t grow in Indiana, where I grew up, and where Grandma was born a few days before women belatedly secured their right to vote. But they were abundant on the trees in her Florida backyard. It was there I learned to eat them, usually plucked straight off the tree, because Grandma disdained any non-local mango. “They pick them green,” she said of the fruit shipped from elsewhere. “And the flavor is awful.” She’s right, of course. I can buy them at an international market ten minutes from my house these days, but the taste and texture isn’t the same.

The mango juice has long since been washed from her hands, and they intermittently squeeze mine when the pain comes. Her face is a mess, her lips a jumble of scabs, dried blood and bruising. This is what happens when you have dementia, and you forget that you’re recovering from a hip replacement, and you try to walk without assistance. You fall down. And that fall cascades into a stroke – or perhaps vice versa, the doctors are not entirely sure – and you end up gripping your granddaughter’s hands in a hospital bed.

I visit her again the next night, and she doesn’t know who I am. At first she thinks she’s back at her assisted living facility and I’m the lady who takes her dinner order. I’ve heard about this, about what a bruising experience it is for the formerly familiar not to be recognized by their loved one. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. Because the truth is, I don’t recognize her, either. I still smile. I still speak gently. But I know it sounds stilted and inauthentic, because for the life of me, there is nothing about the lady in the bed that seems familiar to me. And this feels like a terrible betrayal of everything she gave me, which was generous beyond measure. But I can’t change it. All I can do is continue to pretend. And so I do.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Losing Montana

"Something's lost but something's gained
in living every day." --Both Sides Now

I had a house in Montana once, an oddly designed, cedar-sided structure perched on a mountain bench in the far northwest corner of the state. It was a sometimes-home, a place I fled to whenever I could. It sat at the top of a serpentine gravel road that rose gently from the river valley below, a ribbon wrapping the mountain. I shared the place with the bears, and the mountain lions, and the less intimidating but still mischievous skunks, coyotes and, toward the end of our time there, wolves.

I trained Thomas there, a small pup learning how to live with me on trails through a pine forest.

Montana was the place I've been chasing since childhood, a return to a land of giant, snow-capped peaks my parents took me to see when my mind was still new. One spring day a couple of years ago I left it, loading the dogs up in the truck, closing and locking the gate behind me as I always did, and driving down the mountain.

I had no idea I'd never see it again.

I didn't know it as I closed the last gate behind me, but my life was about to blow apart. It would be the most terrifying, painful thing ever to happen to me. It would be the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the beginning of my own Phoenix Process.

But still -- still -- I ache for Montana. It's an enduring loss, a heavy price I paid to gain something profoundly valuable -- myself and my life. But I still chase the mountains. I know I'll find them again. I just don't know where, or when.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Nature of the Beast, revisited: The literary edition

"What? An out-of-the-ordinary dog book? I'm all ears."

Truthfulness in animal-human relationships has long been a hobby horse of mine, along with my unyielding belief that the best avenue to them runs one way: These relationships are most likely when we interact with animals on their own territory, instead of on ours. We have the capacity to reach across that divide, across that river of rationality we crossed so long ago. They do not. As a result, relationships with animals on our terms tend to center around what we want animals to be, and not what they really are.

Domesticated animals, by definition, reside deeply within the human world. When we refrain from projecting too many human anxieties, feelings or needs onto a companion animal, we honor their animal nature and allow them to live their lives. I believe the same is true with wildlife. The documentary Raising Sancho, and my good friend Carolina Vargas, who immersed herself in the giant otter world to raise – and then lose – the orphaned cub Sancho, offer an example of a deeply truthful relationship between a human and a wild animal.

Can a work of fiction accomplish this? Can a work of fiction be a truthful exploration into the nature of a dog? Can a work of fiction enter the animal world and allow its canine protagonist to be herself, instead of merely what people want or need her to be? These are the questions raised by Rose in a Storm, a book I began reading a few weeks ago after an interesting exchange with the author. (I won’t offer a synopsis; there is an excellent one at the previous link. I’ll wait for you.)

I follow Katz’s blog via Facebook, and have read many of his books about life on Bedlam Farm. Indeed, much of my thinking on animal-human relationships has been deeply influenced by Katz’s work. So I was aware he had a new book out – a novel, told from the perspective of a dog. One day, I followed a link on his blog to find that Rose in a Storm had received a somewhat weary-sounding review in the Washington Post that devoted its opening paragraphs to snarking about the extreme competence of the book’s protagonist, Rose, a workaholic border collie. The review then proceeded to its chief complaint – the essential stoicism and humorlessness of both Rose and the entire book. I had not read the book yet, but I did notice in the closing lines of the review a final criticism: “…Katz’s occasional forays into doggie mysticism clash oddly with the matter-of-fact narration.”

My brow furrowed on cue. I thought Katz had been writing that way for a long time. As long as I’d been reading him, he had been wrestling with the tension between mysticism and logical rationality. I first wrote about it here in 2007. To me, that was the beauty of so much of his work. Far from “clashing”, I felt it represented a willingness to grapple with complexity and paradox. I left a comment to that effect on his post about the review, which spawned an interesting dialogue between author and reader.

I wondered at the time if what we were really talking about was not rationalism or mysticism, but the tension, co-existence and interplay of the two. In his book A Good Dog: The Story of Orson, Who Changed My Life, that tension is prominently on display. In A Good Dog, Katz relates the rational yet crushing decision to euthanize his beloved dog that had become a danger to people, and by extension, every other dog. But the very rationality of that decision honored the mysticism of dogs, and Orson’s own canine nature. In this way, we see that rationality and mysticism aren’t at opposite ends of a spectrum, but rather complementary orientations: Projecting human needs onto dogs and emotionalizing our relationships with them crushes their mystique just as surely as thinking of them as nothing more than meat computers. Rationality, which arguably stems from our instinctual animal natures in the first place, is thus what protects and honors the mystique of those animal natures, by preventing human overreaching. We all emotionalize our animals, at least to some extent. What I appreciate about Katz is that he never allows himself to become really comfortable with it, and he doesn’t allow it to interfere with his animals’ lives.

Anyone who cares deeply about animals, and lives with them closely, is going to have to wrestle with that tension. It’s here that Rose fits in. It seems to me that Rose in a Storm, despite its “occasional forays into doggie mysticism” – and more likely because of them – first and foremost attempts a genuine exploration of the nature of a particular dog, and of the larger canine consciousness. The story’s most powerful actors are canids of some kind -- domesticated, wild, and even apparitional – and those categories are fluid throughout the story. This tale of an extraordinary human-affiliated dog, with one paw still in her wild legacy, lives at the intersection of rational and mystical. But then, doesn’t all of nature?

The result is not a happy-go-lucky doggie tale. It is not goofy or humorous. It is not sentimental, and is at times deeply unsettling. (The narration of the story from the dog’s perspective taps so well into primitive, old-brain consciousness that I had to put it down several times to take a daylong break and re-center my forebrain.) I don’t mean to denigrate the goofy/cuddly/adorable dog genre, or even to suggest that those stories can’t reflect the kind of truth I hold dear. Dogs are often all of those things, and I love that about them, and I love what that does for people. I often love those books. But that’s only a slice of the world of dogs – and a frankly overrepresented one. This is not your ordinary dog book. Rose is much more powerful, and more like whole life, with its moments of darkness and its full complement of feelings.

The notion that "dog lovers" will be the most reliable fans of this book is far too simplistic. Rose is very much Rose in this book, and may not fit the emotional needs of dog enthusiasts accustomed to, as Katz put it, writing their stories on the blank canvasses of dogs. I think the biggest fans of this book will be readers comfortable dipping a toe or two into the realm of myth, who are easy with paradox and complexity, and able to honor what we cannot see and do not know.

Though not at all sentimental, Rose in a Storm is deeply emotional. In that respect the story speaks also to my other deepest interest, the defining personal battle. Anyone who has undergone what Elizabeth Lesser calls a “Phoenix Process” will recognize a familiar arc in Rose’s epic – her struggle through a relentless battering of misfortune and challenge unfolding into a Zen-like surrender to the forces opposing her, near-destruction, recovery, and finally, new growth and peace.

But is it good? you might ask. Of course it’s good, I’ll reply impatiently, with a wave of my hand. Of course it’s entertaining. All of Katz’s books are delightfully and engagingly written. But there is far more to it than that. This work of fiction, by definition not “real,” is nonetheless deeply truthful, because the story takes place on her territory, and not ours. So beware. This story is about Rose, and not what we want or need her to be. This book will place you squarely into her mind and her life. It’s a remarkable place to go, if you have the courage.

Friday, October 29, 2010

"A marketable facade"


I did not expect this video to make me cry. Much of what is produced in this vein tends toward the “But you are pretty!” variety, and I have no use for that. Not every woman is pretty.

We should not have to be, to be valued, to be considered fully human, to be considered worth as much as a beautiful woman.

The conflation of a woman’s beauty and desirability to men with her worth causes so, so much misery. You can hear it in this clip, both in the speaker’s voice and in the rising crescendo of voices and cheers from the audience.

I read one woman's response to this and it struck me. This resonates with me, she observed. But yet I still have my tummy tuck scheduled. I am still on powerful medication for acne. And I’m thinking about Botox. Why can’t I just internalize this message?

Because the message isn’t – and shouldn’t be – about how individual women need to change (although I’m not at all surprised a woman construed it as such, considering that’s the overwhelming message given to women). The message of the video is that women are deeply, painfully hurt by the fact that the most valuable asset a woman can have is, as noted in the piece, a “marketable fa├žade”.

There is enormous pressure yet on women to conform to feminine standards of beauty. Very real consequences often await those of us who fail to do so. That’s probably why you can’t just internalize the message. Hell, you can be a viable presidential candidate and still have someone publicly ridicule your perceived lack of attractiveness. If you’re a woman.

I admire any woman who is able to say no to these standards, but I don’t expect every woman to do so. This sort of thing will have to get chipped slowly away. Every woman who can say to their daughter, however, as Makkai promises to, that no, no, you will never, ever, be merely pretty, is one more piece that falls away, one woman or girl a little less hurt or fractured.