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.

Real Imaginary Friends: Life and Death in Cyberspace

I sat back in my chair, stunned. Ruth passed away from cancer. It was a simple statement at the bottom of a comment section of her last post. Ruth and I had been writing buddies for NaNoWriMo in 2012. We exchanged comments on her blog or mine for the last few years and I kept up on her entries dealing with cancer treatment. I feel terribly sad that her voice, which was so distinctive, sometimes sharp, sometimes funny, will no longer be heard. I never met her, but she was my friend.

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Last month, I met another blogger friend for coffee. I had to laugh when she said “You’re much nicer than you seem on your blog.” Distance. The distance between who we write ourselves as and who we are. If we do it right, that little first skip from cyberspace to reality is a short one. We’re able to shake off preconceptions and get on with the business of getting to know one another. If we obfuscate and seek to deceive, it becomes a terrible blind date where we take a circuitous route home to avoid being followed.

I’ve been fortunate in my cyberlife. I’ve met friends who love to read and write as much as I do, who encourage me when I’m really slogging through things. When I moved to Minneapolis years ago, leaving behind a stale job and relationship, I placed an ad with Yahoo online personals (a precursor to the current menagerie of dating websites), because I was too old for bar scenes and too introverted for networking events. I exchanged messages with a man who responded to the ad. After I scouted his address, ran his plates and notified all of my friends about who I was with and where we were going, we went on a date. Eventually, I married him. That’s how introverts do it, yo.

When I read comments on various forums, I am often amazed at how willingly people reveal themselves to be racist, misogynist, homicidal shitheads. They think that cyberspace is actual space between what they say and who they are, some sort of magical buffer zone. Whoever they are online, it’s never diametrically opposed to who they actually are offline. They just take pains to hide it better.

Alarms have only gone off a few times in my online dealings. I tried to buy some old computer hardware from Craigslist. The equipment was good, but the seller was creepy, even in a public space. I decided to go nowhere near the trunk of his car, lest I become an unwilling passenger. And I tried to remember exactly where his kidneys were located, should I need to incapacitate him in a pinch. Instead, I had to get his phone calls blocked, which was likely a bigger hassle than a kidney punch.

I’ve never viewed the internet as a place where I lived some other life. My online persona is merely an extension of me, one that at times is more nuanced or strident or intellectual or silly than what everyday life allows. The gap between online and offline is a puddle jump. People who know me are rarely surprised by what I write here and thus far, the people who meet me after connecting online rarely run away screaming.

When I talk to people who don’t use the internet socially, it feels like I’m talking about imaginary friends. They “uh-huh” and nod and feel slightly superior for their numerous fleshy friends. I could hardly explain why I would cry about a lady I’ve never met or why I feel a void where her voice once was. It would seem to them like crying over the demise of a fictional character.

But she was real, so let me tell you about my friend, Ruth. Better yet, I’ll let her speak for herself, through her comments:

I don’t believe happiness can be ‘caught’ but is often ‘stumbled upon’ unexpectedly. I think we have to be open to those moments when they catch us unawares. Happiness to me is having nothing to do except write, or go on a ‘photo safari’ with my partner. Even then, I’m not sure if that is happiness or contentment. I am perfectly happy to be content most of the time with some giddy moments of happiness thrown in to mix it up a little.

******

Success and failure are constructs we make. If you think you’ll succeed or you think you’ll fail, you’re right. Failure isn’t in my vocabulary any more. But that depends on how you define failure – if it means not living up to someone else’s definition of success then it isn’t a failure. And if you do fall short of your own expectations, but keep trying, then that isn’t a failure, either. And I never, ever, think of myself (or anyone else) as average – there’s no such thing. We are each unique with our own set of talents and quirks, and that’s what makes us special, not average.

******

I don’t know about ‘fitting in’, but I’ve always marched to my own drummer, even in high school in the early 60s when I was taking science classes and most of the other girls were taking language and arts. I’m sure there are some demographics I fit into, but the more you drill down from the broad categories of age, gender, occupation, the more people become unique to themselves.

******

And that’s what love is – a journey together into the unknown.

******

I think there comes a point in our lives when we realize our mortality. That’s the point when we ask ourselves if this is all there is. We either get depressed and accept that life is over for us, or we get off our butts and realize we still have a lot of living to do. I read somewhere that happiness is the journey, not the destination, and that we are so often too busy pursuing what we think is happiness to realize it’s right here with us.

I have learned that nothing is certain in this life and I have also learned that it’s up to me what I do with my time here. I choose to live as long as I am physically able, and to enjoy whatever time I have left. None of us know how long we have; we don’t know our expiration date.

******

Ruth Rainwater was here. And she was my friend.