The Landscape of the Heart

As I watched the screen at my daughter’s echocardiogram, the blips and blobs of color, the scan across the bottom looked like a topographical map. I felt tears welling up thinking about how simultaneously frail and steel-willed humans can be. She has done well with treatment – thriving and thrilled that her stifled independence will soon be unstopped, gushing out in a spate of plans and applications and escapes from handwringing parents.

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I am surprised by my resistance and anxiety in thinking about post-pandemic life. I wonder if I’ve been institutionalized in my own home. The thought of social obligation and interaction, of life slipping out of this time warp where everything is slower, quieter, and less populated, back into the relentless flow of everything, all the time and I think hell no.

Life slowed down enough for me to start making some long-desired changes and I don’t want to lose sight of them. That is a function of my privilege and good fortune, so I understand the mass desire for pandemic life to come to an end. But I think about the 975K+ memorials that have been muted or delayed, the trauma of loss and how it will contrast against the exhilarating celebration of travel and social gatherings and consumerism that will be unleashed in the coming months. Life has been weird, but now it is thoroughyly surreal.

We often ask each other: What do you miss most? What are you going to do first? For me, it is only a slight shift. I will go to the library and maybe a coffee shop. Or perhaps a plant nursery. I will meet up with a friend and go for a walk in the park. I feel a sense of dread that I will be required to once again attend meetings in person or meet distant family obligations. I dread that I’ll see my daughter so much less and that she’ll be out in this mad world having her own adventures, many from which I cannot shield her. It’s all normal, they’ll say. I imagine a scene where someone spouts what is intended to be a comforting cliche at me and I completely and utterly lose my shit. Normal? Normal? NONE of this is normal. Normal left the station years ago.

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I’ve experienced a loss of confidence. I’m not the steady, stable soul I’ve always seen myself as. I’m struggling like everyone else. I’m not the voice of reason in the middle of a shit storm. I’m too busy trying not to sink under the waves. This confidence, this swagger that I can always think myself out of a problem, that I will be more composed than everyone around me, has definitely been shaken, stirred, and dropped on its ass. Part of the reason is menopause, which is a tasty midlife treat when you’ve come to expect your body and mind will act a certain way and then one day it doesn’t. One day, you have vertigo, your knees hurt, your anxiety levels seem unmanageable, and you have heart palpitations. The human bedrocks of certainty – balance and a regular heartbeat are no longer a given. You have a sense that your life has irrevocably been altered and your body is no longer reliable and that you will never be unafraid again.

Aging was never that bugaboo on the horizon that I shied away from – I had all the cockiness of someone who could stand upright and wouldn’t get dizzy. The shameless stamina of someone who didn’t forget why they went into a room or what that word was for that thingamajig, you know that one thing…I hate those jokes. It’s not so funny when you can’t count on your own brain anymore. Working on my MFA with people who have fully functioning brains, who are ambitious, who have enough time and energy to play the publication/submission numbers game – well, that’s shaken me, too. I know I just have to keep forging ahead, pretending that I’m still going to make a career of this writing thing, but I know I’ve started late in the game and my number might be up before I see a result.

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As is my modus operandi, I do the research regarding menopause and I’ve started to work on mitigation and modification and coping mechanisms. It gets tiresome sometimes, this attempt to wrench control from the vagaries of aging, a pandemic, and an emotional snake pit of unpredictable outcomes that we call life. I see retribution at work for every time I responded to someone’s stress by telling them to breathe and to take things a moment at a time. Fool. That’s like throwing a piece of yarn to someone who’s drowning. Still, I’m sure I’ll say it again. What else would there be to say?

I have not felt joy in a while. If you are a depression-inclined person like myself, the pursuit of joy must be an intentional act. You have to make space and time for it. Spring opens a lot more than windows for me – it’s the start of gardening, of renewal, of dragging my camera out to the woods and staring up in trees for elusive birds. The spate of cold, gray days is coming to an end and I started my indoor seedlings which is, in my small world, an act of hope and optimism. Perhaps that is the first step back into the world.

As the World Burns

It’s a breezy overcast spring morning shortly after curfew has expired. I didn’t sleep much last night. I live in an older suburb of Minneapolis in a little ranch house with a little yard on a little street. We’ve quarantined here for months, leaving only for grocery pickup, and my daughter’s followup medical appointments. Life and time has stood still, frozen in an endless loop of a mundane activities. Outside a global pandemic continues barely abated and neighborhoods are burning and being looted a few miles away.

Yesterday I cried when my cat’s ashes were delivered. It seems disproportionate to the world at large, but my grief is layered and dense. Some days it feels like I’m a matryushka doll, with sorrows, large and small stacked one inside the other. Too many personal losses and traumas in the last year, too much going on in the world that I felt powerless to make better. To even say it out loud, when people of color are dying at the hands of those hired and trained to protect all citizens, seems the height of a privileged existence, but my experience is the only one I can tell. Of all others, I must listen and learn.

At 2am I heard the nonstop sirens. I check the news. Police station burning, more businesses looted and burned. The National Guard sent in. I worry that it’s near the area where my daughter has her oncology followup appointment next week. Will we touch the rage? Will the rage touch us? For some people, the world has always been burning. I’ve spent a lifetime tiptoeing around rage and violence. Growing up poor with alcoholism and domestic violence taught me how to live on eggshells. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk back. Get through the moment.

In spite of, or perhaps because of my military stint, I don’t trust uniforms, guns, authority. But I live under the radar, the color of my skin unsuspected, unburdened by stereotypes except those of gender. Passive and uninteresting. Just enough activism to soothe my conscience. Memberships in the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters. Little cards sent to me to make me comfortable, even when I know that there is no such thing as moral purity, blamelessness. The little cards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but they’re all I have.

I signed up to be an election judge this year. I thought, before the last few months, that this would be the only way to right the ship. To help legitimize the election. Doubts plague me and I don’t think anyone, from sociopathic capitalists to fuzzy socialists to bellicose anarchists have the right answers. Like most things, an imperfect system with good intentions requires a good faith effort by its participants. We’re too busy egging each other on and dehumanizing each other to manage that. My own efforts to remain a decent human have faltered in the face of willful ignorance and cynical exploitation. I am constantly talking myself down from self-righteous anger these days.

Another round of sirens. The national conversations have begun about this place that I have come to love as my first real home. The president weighs in, as usual, with ugly, violent language meant to sound tough and designed to throw more meat to his ugly, violent base. Most of the protests are peaceful, but the violent ones will be all that are talked about – a way to further cement the ideas of “us” and “them”. George Floyd called out for his mother before he died. Mama.

I’ve been researching for a story I’m working on. When I was at Glacier National Park a few years ago, I read up on the history of the area. I’ve been learning more about the Piikani Blackfoot Indians and the Marias Massacre of 1870. The massacre of nearly 200 women, children, and elderly men was covered up, lied about, reframed, and revised over and over again. I think about that story every day now when I read the news. Everyone has an agenda, a perspective, an opinion, a reason to highlight this fact and downplay that. But the video could not lie. Mama.

The unrest is not over and like everything else at the moment, outcomes are uncertain. Today I bury my cat’s ashes. This I know. I call my mom in Kansas to let her know we’re okay and to make sure that she and my 93 year old grandma are staying safe from this virus. I follow up on my daughter’s chemo med refill. I know that things will not always be like this. I will try to spend my day thoughtfully, get through more tears, find grace and joy in moments, knowing that the world burns outside. It’s the only existence I can manage at the moment.

Goodbye, Pete

For the first time in thirty years, I woke up this morning to neither a dog to walk nor a cat demanding to be fed. I said good-bye to my 17-year-old tomcat yesterday. I watched, masked and from a distance, as a vet drugged him into oblivion. He will be my last animal companion for a very long time, if ever again. I am both sad and relieved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sacrifice and love and how it can reach a tipping point. With people, with animals, with any passion, there comes a moment when maintaining the relationships, the dedication, starts to feel like one’s life is draining away. This last year has aged me, short-circuited my brain, turned me into an insomniac. I’ve cried more, slept less, been less. Love and sacrifice have never been far apart. I have few regrets about this, but I’m tired.

Things had gotten bad with my cat buddy, Pete, but I didn’t realize how bad until this morning when I woke up without him. Feline dementia had him yowling throughout the night, sometimes during the day. In our small house, it was impossible to escape and his deafness meant no volume control. I would often get up to comfort him, turn on lights, anything to keep him from waking up the rest of the family.  I’d learned to get by on 4-5 hours of sleep. Last night I slept for 7.

He’d started to paw my feet to get attention while I was reading or writing and it was rapidly becoming an obsessive behavior. I couldn’t focus for more than 15 minutes at a time. And he’d returned to feral ways when it came to the litterbox. I spent quite a bit of time doing clean up. It happened slowly at first, until our house became a patchwork of plastic mats and makeshift litterboxes. After he was gone, I spent several hours with enzyme cleaners and hot, soapy water returning our home to a more hospitable state.

Making the decision to end another creature’s life is never easy. Like a person with Alzheimer’s, Pete would have moments of clarity and seem his old self and even as I knew I was making the right decision, I was riddled with doubt. It wouldn’t get better and I was exhausted. Pete was now anxious most of the time and began to lose his appetite, his hearing and vision, and arthritis turned his stealth walk into a bit of a lumber. In the end, he began not to recognize me, nor want human attention.

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Elliott, 1989-2003

Pete is one of four pets I’ve seen through long lives and silent deaths. Elliott was a Scottish Terrier who’d been marked down in a local pet shop. Sitting in his cage in a puddle of pee, he was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen. He was there through college and grad school, through crappy jobs, and even worse boyfriends. He was ferociously loyal and playful and I took him everywhere with me. In college, I taught private flute lessons (not a euphemism) and I sometimes used play time with him as an incentive for the younger students. He died at the age of 14. To this day, I feel a twinge of pain when I think of him. Some losses really stick with you.

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August, Adopted 2003-2008

For the next 16 years, I lived with cats. I adopted Pete and August from the local humane society. Pete was a kitten, August a cantankerous middle-aged cat who tolerated him. When August got kidney disease and I had to make the decision to end her life, I remember my daughter saying good-bye to her before preschool. August sat there, always the proper lady, while my 4-year old chattered away. When I returned from dropoff, August staggered to her blanket and collapsed.

Pete started getting a little more vocal after August was gone, strengthening his pipes for future yowling. We thought it was mourning and adopted Owney, a fickle, older Tortie. Owney had no interest in Pete and often took an active disliking to him. He

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Owney, Adopted 2008-2019

followed her, slept as close to her as she would allow, drove her insane with his constant lurking presence. She also succumbed to kidney disease. Near the end, she and Pete were still not friends, but she no longer hissed at him when he came near. That was last year.

Pete outlived his housemates. He was a laid back, gentle giant who had a rumbly purr and a penchant for suddenly flopping over in front of you while you were walking. Being underfoot was his trademark. He rarely took offense and even as his cognitive abilities began to slip away, never struck out in fear. He was, as we humans are wont to say about male creatures, a very good boy.

Pete in one of his favorite spots.
Pete, 2003-2020

There is a little garden in our backyard that hold the ashes of my animal companions. On the stone bench, the squirrels like to sit and chatter away before raiding our birdfeeders. The birdbath hosts cardinals and finches and dark-eyed juncos. At night, raccoons teeter on the wooden fence behind it, munching the Concord grapes. Occasionally neighborhood cats show up, eat some catnip and loll about in the grass. Pete has spent years in the study window meowing and chittering at the menagerie of critters. And now he’ll join that natural world, leaving me behind, to imagine I hear him meowing in the night. Grief is a funny old process.

The Green Study on Spring Break

I started writing a blog post called “What’s Keeping Me Awake, Pt. 2” to follow on the heels of a post about a sleepless night. Last night (since it’s 3 am already), I tossed and turned listening for our sick kitty. The vet is coming today to end our tortoiseshell’s long battle with kidney disease. It’s the first time we’ve been able to say good-bye to a pet at home, but the time between scheduling the appointment and the actual appointment is a vast space. It’s been such a long, sad winter in our home and I’ve had enough of it.

The Green Study will return on April 1, 2019.

canstockphoto1508295Instead of writing what would be a continuing narrative of unhappy posts about dead relatives, dying kitties, and a middle-aged lady’s health anxieties, I’m going to take a break, let things settle a bit, get through today, get through medical testing in the next couple of weeks, get through the last dregs of winter. There is so much immediacy in my life that I’m writing without circumspection and that feels like showing first drafts to my mother. I adore the editor within, but right now she’s too busy googling medical scenarios, feline and human alike, to be of much use.

Since this post will be up for a couple of weeks, I don’t want to leave on such a melancholy note. My aching gratitude for the humans and pets with whom I’ve shared a life is in the form of grief right now, but like the spring that reveals bright green shoots on the trees, it will give way to hopefulness and warm memories. And perhaps writing which will honor those lost during this long-enduring winter.

Until then, I leave behind a smattering of unrelated thoughts.

Media Diet

I’ve been off Twitter for a couple of weeks now and ended some video streaming services. The math of doing fewer enervating activities adds up. I feel better and I’m more focused. I hit a couple of main news sources in the morning and at night and leave the punditry and digital sophistry to others. You never know what you don’t need until you stop using it like you need it. That should be profound, but it just sounds like a bad sentence. My editor is completely checked out.

On the Reading Docket

78223I’m nearly through a 900 page lit course called The Art of the Short Story. To sum it up, with Flaubert everyone dies, Flannery O’Connor hates humans (not a single likable character), Poe likes convoluted sentences, and the 1800s killed writers at a young age. I learned more than that, while also becoming suspicious of the idea that good literature has to be realistic and miserable. After I get through the stories by Welty, Wharton, and Woolf, I’m going to read some lighter fare – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas. Well, lighter than Faulkner and Oates, anyway.

This week I revisited W.S. Merwin’s work The Shadow of Sirius. Merwin, an American poet, passed away a few days ago. There is something striking about the passing of what I call the “gentle poets”. Mary Oliver died earlier this year. It takes a moment to adjust to the quiet pace and the light maneuvering of language. We have become so battered against the rocks of cruel and incurious public discourse that first reactions to gentle poetry is a snickering cynicism – as if nothing matters over 280 characters or 20 second sound bites. To read poetry is a deliberate return to tenderness, a rebuke to the world too enamored of its own edginess.

To the New Year

By W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last

you appear in the valley

your first sunlight reaching down

to touch the tips of a few

high leaves that do not stir

as though they had not noticed

and did not know you at all

then the voice of a dove calls

from far away in itself

to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you

here and now whether or not

anyone hears it this is

where we have come with our age

our knowledge such as it is

and our hopes such as they are

invisible before us

untouched and still possible

               *****
The New New Year

canstockphoto9109848.jpgConsidering how the year started and how it is currently proceeding, I’m all for resetting the holiday to align with spring. What did that old Roman god Janus know about the long Minnesota winter, when looking forward and back is just more snow? Spring is when energy rebounds, optimism in the form of daffodils and tulips arise and large rabbits deliver chicken eggs. Humans are weird. This particular human needs a reset on the year. Until that happens, I’m off to get myself sorted.

See You in the New Year!

 

Adult Disequilibrium

In parenting classes, we learned about the phases of child development involving periods of time when calm behavior alternates with unpredictable behavior. It helped explain periods of growth between acquiring new skills and practicing them, marked by feelings of uneasiness and struggle. I am in my own disequilibrium phase right now, triggered by a death in the family, the onset of winter, and hormonal shifts. The dark gloominess is starting to thin out a bit and I am thinking about how to get back into the game after this particular round of Life.

canstockphoto41721441Disequilibrium, this falling apart, collapsing inward, feeling simultaneously disheveled and uptight, is uncomfortable. I begin not to trust myself and I look externally for answers. This is the phase where I research exhaustively and write and follow the threads of thoughts. It feels a little desperate, trying to find a palliative for my uneasiness.

My internet search history of the last few weeks runs something like this:

  • What does it mean when my RHR (resting heart rate) is elevated
  • How to handle toxic relative
  • How to transition to gray hair
  • How to help teenager with grief
  • How to deal with heartburn at night
  • Eco-safe unplug sink drain
  • How to get cat with kidney disease to eat
  • Why are box elders suddenly in house in winter
  • Why do caskets get put in vault
  • Average lifespan of woman who reaches 50 (FYI: 85)
  • Late life writing careers
  • Pre-paying cremation
  • Dry hands remedies

canstockphoto8705409Yeah, I’m in the super-fun stage of pondering mortality and random bugs in the house. I did you a favor and left out the weird medical shit. My internet searches are only the tip of the iceberg and I suspect many of our search histories are a reflection of every niggling anxiety our busy brains can conjure.

During a phase of disequilibrium, there is no worry too small that it doesn’t require Googling or a night of tossing and turning. A couple of nights ago, I dreamt I was in a Geo Prizm (a car from a couple of decades ago) and there was a warning light I’d never seen before. I couldn’t get the engine to shut off. That was the entire dream – me sitting in the car in a parking lot, trying to figure out how to shut the car off. I’m not skilled in dream interpretation except that the feeling of being stuck in an untenable situation feels fairly realistic to my waking life.

So I did what I always do. I wrote lists. I met my life coach friend for coffee and went over the lists. I needed to say things out loud to another human, who could assure me that I wasn’t a complete nut job.

One of the steps towards finding equilibrium again, is differentiating between self-care, self-comfort, and simple numbing behaviors. Some of these things overlap, but over the last few weeks, I’d overeaten, binge-watched, gave up any pretense at exercise (apparently just wearing a Fitbit doesn’t count), spent a great deal of time in fleece-like materials – alternately doing internet searches while scrolling through my Twitter feed for things that would piss me off. Sometimes any feeling is better than none at all.

Initially, some of these things might have been comforting, but as soon as you start canstockphoto10730093feeling the backlash, they’ve crossed the line from self-comfort into numbing behaviors. My jeans became uncomfortable, I had trouble focusing when reading or writing, my communication began to consist of various grunts and whines, I had to search out news items to feed my anger addiction, and I could not handle the most minor of domestic mishaps without feeling like the ceiling were about to collapse.

It is finally time to trade in some of these things for self-care. Getting back to exercise, good nutrition, doing work that is meaningful to me, sleeping well, connecting with people who elevate and don’t depress. Tomorrow I’m going to decorate for the holidays – a weird set of rituals from childhood that look a lot like Christmas without the dogma. But shiny things. And trees inside. And lights outside. And online shopping. None of it really makes sense, except that I will take time to think about the people in my life and what I could say, write, or gift to them that expresses my gratitude for their presence in said life.

canstockphoto15596557Returning to life, as it were, requires a lot of fake it until you make it motions. If I waited until I felt like getting my shit together, that would be a special kind of long term purgatory. I’m not going to fully spring up into a high functioning adult tomorrow, but I need to make my way in that direction. I think of that song from that kid’s holiday TV special. Put one foot in front of the other…

 

 

The Aftermath of Life and the Writer

I spent a good portion of last week writing in a hotel lobby in northern Minnesota. My family was upstairs asleep, quite accustomed to my compulsion to be up early and writing. We were there for my mother-in-law’s funeral. She passed away early last week and between all the planning and rushing about, there was little time to reflect. Now that I’m back home, back to our everyday life, I feel a heavy blanket of depression and am desperate to be alone. Exhaustion has flattened my senses, as has the constant requirement to be around people.

Writing saved my sanity marginally (as is always the case). I wrote her obituary and a eulogy, the few personal touches in a sea of motions and formalities surrounding a person’s death. I thought a lot about narrative and how, after a person dies, they simply become a collection of stories and pictures, all determined by who is doing the telling and the picking. At times I felt angry about misrepresentations – cloying sentimentality and overt religiosity, in which my mother-in-law had little interest when she was alive. Every time I felt a prickle of anger, I had to remind myself that the rituals were for the living, not the dead.

I just finished reading an essay by Rebecca Solnit titled “Twenty Million Missing canstockphoto1323495Storytellers”, where she writes about voting and how the people who vote define the narrative for our country. Those who are routinely discouraged through voter suppression tactics or whose votes are rendered pointless through guerrilla gerrymandering do not get to shape the narrative. And then I think about Sinclair Broadcasting which now requires its local stations to release propaganda as part of their local news reporting. They are shaping the narrative.

The narrative is power. It drives people’s recollections and opinions and decisions. It writes history and bends the people’s will. I came back to my everyday life unable to get back to writing projects, feeling the listlessness and temporary powerlessness brought on by loss. It’s more extreme and immediate than the occasional malaise that has hit me over the last few years, but the question is the same. Why does anything I write matter?

The answer is also the same. We must tell our stories or they will be told for us, whether it be after we pass or used to shaped the political world in which we live. We must tell our stories or they will be stolen from us, revised, and rewritten. We must tell our stories or we will be indoctrinated by someone else’s teachings, our memories overwritten by someone else’s telling.

There is also the personal reason. My life is made more tolerable when I write. My senses are easily overwhelmed by emotion and chaos. I numb myself, shield myself in a dull shroud. But writing frees me, allows me to cry in private, to express intense emotion, to re-order the chaos. It allows me to tell my story in my own time, manner, and place of choosing.

So it matters.

At the moment, writing elicits long sighs and some tears, but it is by feeling my grief in words and finding comfort in silence that I will find my way back. I have more stories to tell. In the mean time, I will read yours.