Old dog, new tricks

I’m supposed to be at tap class tonight but I’ve opted to stay in. I’m not feeling my best—at work it was all I could do to keep my eyes open—and judging by my intense sugar cravings (I’m about to make some vegan cupcake batter to eat by the spoonful), I’m guessing it’s hormonal. I have at least one day a month where I just want to sleep and eat and feel blah. I keep track on the calendar and it looks like it’s about this time.

I’m also feeling blue about mom. She just got out of the hospital on Monday. She was in for over three weeks. She’s happy to be home, but I worry about her. Especially now that my brother, who has been Superman in this situation, is getting ready to return to his life in Arizona, after extending his stay by a week. He sent me a text today assuring me that mom is becoming mom again, and I hope he’s right. It feels weird to not be there and helping her, but that’s how it’s been through most of her medical problems. I’ve always been there for a chunk of time, but never the entire time.

And I’m a single dog parent for the next week and a half, and that’s pretty exhausting. I feel fortunate that Spence works from home because so much of the dog care/house care falls on him. I don’t mow. I don’t take out the compost (most of the time). I don’t take out the trash. Hell, I don’t even make the coffee. He does so much. (And it’s not that I can’t do these things, thank you very much. He does them so I don’t even have to think about them.) When he’s gone, everything feels a bit chaotic and I’m constantly having to drive back to the house before I do other things in order to let the dogs out. (For example, I had a meeting in Lanesboro yesterday. I had to drive to Bennington to Williamstown (20 minutes), drive to Lanesboro from Bennington (35 minutes) and drive back (35 minutes). Typically, there isn’t that much back and forth because Spence is home. Plus I enjoy his company. But it’s good for him to get a break too.

But on to the old dogs, new tricks headline. Tap dancing is hard. And of course it is. Just because people make it look easy doesn’t mean it is. But what I mean is my 42-year-old body and brain cannot get shit together. I’ve learned one dance move (the Shirley Temple), which I can perform adequately, but I still have a hard time doing it quickly. Last week, I recorded a new step the teacher wanted me to learn. After I felt I had the Shirley Temple down, I decided to move on to the next move. I set the iPad on the counter in the kitchen and watched the instructor’s feet and I’ll tell you what, I could not mimic what she was doing. I could actually feel my brain struggling to understand…I could feel it trying to send the signals to me feet, and I could not get it. It was maddening. I could hear the beats and see the movement and could not replicate it. It includes just a little hop on my left foot and that hop was impossible for me to incorporate, which threw everything off. Then I realized this is what they mean when they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Like, my poor old brain/feet cannot comprehend this act that I’m trying to do that I’ve never before done in my life. Ever. There is no muscle memory, like there is for my classmates who danced when they were younger. We are starting from scratch together, me, my brain and my feet and it is a challenge.

I realize this is also why they say you should do new things as you get older…I can feel the synapses firing , feel new neural pathways forming as I watch the dance video over and over in an effort to do the same dance steps. It is humbling.

It’s also fun. When my brother and I were texting about my running efforts and I made a comment about my time not being as fast as I’d like, he said, the last time I checked, you weren’t making money off of this. It’s a good reminder to not be overly focused on certain outcomes, but to just keep getting out there and moving. I’ll apply it to dance, too. I’m unlikely to be as graceful and skillful as Gregory Hines, but it’s good to keep the body moving in news ways.


The problem with wings

One of my favorite sayings goes something like this: sometimes you have to choose between planting roots and growing wings. I like it because it doesn’t elevate either decision. There is something wonderful about both. My dad and his entire side of the family planted deep roots in the same area of central ohio for over 100 years. My brother and I both grew wings and left for other locales.

The problem with choosing wings over roots is that you can’t always find community the same way you do when you have family around. Also, it can be challenging to be with family during difficult times.

My brother and I both came to Ohio last Tuesday to visit our mom and step-dad. We were happy to time it to we arrived at the same time. We spent most of Wednesday just chatting it up—me, mom and my bro. It was great. On Thursday, we went to our favorite shopping center in Columbus.

Mom has been having stomach pain off and on for awhile and it has increased over the past month. A few weeks ago, her oncologist took a CT scan and saw something in the colon, though they couldn’t tell what. They arranged for her to visit with a gastroenterologist and to get a colonoscopy scheduled. She was able to get one on the books for July 20.

She had been having trouble keeping food down and on Wednesday and Thursday, she ended the days by vomiting her food. We all agreed that she couldn’t go on like this, especially since she had another week before her appointment. We had tentative plans to go shopping at our favorite store in Zanesvilled (called Gabe’s) on Friday. When we got up in the morning, I told my stepdad our plans and he said, I don’t think you’re going to go anywhere accept the ER. I didn’t realize he was serious about taking her to the ER that morning—I had no problem with it, of course. I thought it was the right decision. I said to mom, “Mom, Dave says we’re taking you to the ER.” She said, “But I don’t want to go to the ER. I want to go to Gabe’s.” I laughed and laughed at this. But even she knew with the way she was feeling, going to the ER was the best choice.

We drove to the ER at the cancer center in Columbus. One fact about having cancer: non-cancer doctors do not want to deal with your problems because they assume all problems are associated with cancer. Had we gone to the local ER, they would have simply sent us on to this ER. So we skipped the middle man.

Her pain was getting pretty bad. It’s a constant dull pain with spasms that really hurt. We arrived at the ER at approximately 11am, didn’t get seen until 4:00pm, and didn’t get a room until 3:00am. After the doctor checked out mom, they put her on a gurney and placed her in front of the nurses’ station to wait for a room to open up. I sat with her, trying to find a comfortable position to sleep in on the bench where I sat. It was impossible. I was so grateful when the woke me at 3:30am to say we were moving into a private ER room. Mom moved into a hospital bed and they left the gurney for me to sleep on.

The next morning, we learned from the doctors that they suspected an intestinal blockage. At some point they said surgery and removal might result in a colostomy bag. My mom was displeased. She’d had a colostomy 13 years ago that was reversed after six months. She had always said she would rather die than go through it again. And now, those were the two options. I drove home that morning, got lunch, took a shower, took a nap and drove back. I got back at 4pm and mom was still in an ER waiting room. We had been in the ER since the previous day at 11am. They were that full. Happily, about an hour after I got back, they moved us into the new cancer center. It was like moving into the Taj Mahal after living in the ER for so long.

To compress all the rest of the news: the surgeons told mom the blockage was created by scar tissue in the intestine. Surgery was required. Best case scenario, they remove the scar tissue and reconnect the bowels. Second best case, they remove the scar tissue and divert the intestine to an ostomy. Worse case scenario, they cannot remove the scar tissue and she moves into palliative care. If she chose not to do the surgery, she would also have to move into palliative care.

She decided to do the surgery (after A LOT of thought. I think the doctors were surprised she didn’t just say yes, but she really, REALLY hated her colostomy experience). The night before I practiced healing touch on her knees and legs (something I learned volunteering for hospice). The next morning, while in pre-op, we held hands and prayed. When she went off to surgery, I went to the chapel to talk to god, the universe, the great mother…what have you…and to send out good energy.

After three hours of surgery, the first surgeon came out and said she had handed it off to her colleague because she had to be somewhere, and that the team was still working but there was a lot of dense scar tissue. A lot. Then she checked in once more before leaving and told us it looked like she might not need an ostomy after all. That her colleague seemed to think he could reconnect everything. I think all of our jaws dropped—that was the best case scenario! We had assumed a colostomy was most likely. All in all, the surgery took a whopping five hours! It turns out a tumor was growing in her intestinal lining, which was binding up with scar tissue, and all of this was pushing in and blocking the intestine. They removed 2-3 ft. of her small intestine and large intestine. They said they didn’t seen any cancer anywhere else, which is great news. The surgeon said typically, when ovarian cancer has spread like this, you’ll see spots of it everywhere. That wasn’t the case here.

Now she has to heal and the bowels have to start working again. Already the doctors can hear grumbling and noise when they listen (before surgery, they were silent), so that is excellent news. She is in a lot of pain though, and it will take time to get over this hump. And I’m getting ready to return to New England today…that is the challenge with wings.

I wish I could just stay here and watch her heal, help her heal. Technically my bosses would probably allow it—I can do 99% of my work remotely. But I also have responsibilities at home to Spence and to work (and to myself)! And I feel a bit selfish about leaving at this point. If I had put in roots, I would be closer. I could go home and come back easily. But I chose wings. And the only time I question that decision is in a time like this.

I’ve already let my boss know I’ll becoming back later in August to see how things are going. I pray that she will be much improved. Much improved way before I come back! Thankfully, my brother, the other winged one, is still here and is free enough to extend his stay if necessary. Together we’ll support her.

The Weekend

Me tabling for the Vegan Lady Gang.

I know everyone is feeling it, but I just have to say: it’s fucking hot outside. I’ve spent most of my weekend in my bedroom with the window air conditining on high. The dogs are in here with me. I moved the pigs to the basement, which is the coolest room in the house (outside of my air-conditioned bedroom). I would bring them in here, but I turn off the air when I leave, so it gets just as hot in here as it is in the rest of the house (85 degrees the last I checked)—too hot for them to be up here. I’ve started training for a half marathon with a group of women here in Vermont. Today was our long run (4 miles). Let’s just say, the heat nearly destroyed my will to live.

Yesterday was eventful! I finally made it over to Albany for a Vegan Lady Gang event. We tabled at Babe Fest, described as “an inclusive, intersectional feminist celebration of women and non-men of the Capital Region and all the awesome things they’re doing.” This was the first time I got to meet Kimberly, who is quite active in the vegan movement in Albany, creating this chapter of the Vegan Lady Gang (I’m kicking around the idea of starting one in Vermont), hosting Cubes of Truth protests and other events. She was terrific. I’m a sort of supporting activist, rather than leading activist. I will carry signs, hand out information, etc., but I’m not the best person to debate with someone who wants to debate. (There is an activist named Earthling Ed who is a MASTER street debater…calm, cool, collected and with every factoid at his fingertips…it’s great fun watching him.) Most of the people who came to talk to us were already vegans, or vegetarians leaning toward veganism. There were a couple of older guys who came up to chat, one wanting to talk about how eating more veggies and beans had helped him lose weight/get diabetes under control, though he wasn’t vegan. He threw out a couple of arguments as to why he ate fish or meat and listening to Kimberly respond was really insightful in terms of the information she provided and her tone, which never changed, really. She was quite friendly. Another guy had never heard of veganism and one of the other volunteers started a conversation with him. The oddest moment was a guy who came up to the table and said, “I like lamb.” “Lambs are great,” I said. “I like them, too. They’re cute.” Then he named some other type of meat he liked. Then he said, plants feel pain. When Kimberly said, they don’t have the same kind of nervous system that animals have to feel pain, he said, they have a different nervous system. [insert my raised eyebrow here.] He was just throwing out these random one liners, without arguing really. But not wanting to listen either. Kimberly told him she wasn’t going to argue with him. He started looking at the information pamphlets on our table and took a small stack of the ones about animal rights that had a close-up of a gorilla’s face on the cover. The next thing we see, he’s inside the building, handing out the pamphlets to people. One of the event organizers came out and asked us who he was. Kimberly told him the story of how he came to us. “Well, he’s in there handing out pamphlets now, so maybe you changed his mind.” So bizarre and amusing.

I like the idea of creating a Vermont chapter of the Vegan Lady Gang, but I’m not sure how much interest there would be in this area. I guess it doesn’t hurt to send out feelers. But creating the group made me think more about my activism/volunteer work in general. Is the Vegan Lady Gang the best use of my efforts in this region, or is there something else I should be doing? There is a lot of poverty in this area; maybe I should be looking for organizations to help with that? Maybe I should be looking for ways to help the elderly more? By making home visits or volunteering at local nursing homes? I feel like there is so much need and I’m doing so little.

On the drive to Manchester this morning, I caught the last 10 minutes of On Being with Krista Tippett. I really enjoy that show and the conversations about spirituality, religion, love, art, and being human…what it means to be human (subscribe to the podcast!). Today she and her guests were speaking about MLK and some of his writings. They got to the quote “I have decided to stick with love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.” The group was talking about love as action, not emotional love, and how you put love into action. Some would say the protests that happened over the weekend, demanding that families be reunited, is love in action, but how do you refrain from the anger/hatred that spurs these protests? I feel like I’m filled with anger frequently over the political situation in this country. I’ve described my feelings toward 45 in very unkind terms and I’ve justified it because the things he says and the things he does are so infuriating, classless, unkind. How do I keep myself from being swallowed up by that anger? Better yet, how do I practice loving kindness toward those who stir within me such anger? Can I? Do I have it within me?

There is much talk about the new Fred Rogers documentary (which I’m heading out to see shortly). How he was a total radical for his time because he practiced loving kindness…he embodied it really. When he died, I remember reading this glorious essay from a writer who said he ran into Fred Rogers one day in Pittsburgh, when the writer was having a particularly difficult time in life. The ran into each other on the campus where the writer was attending school. Parts of the essay are below:

As we stepped into the lobby, I hovered for a moment, building my courage as they parted company. (And with him, how could you not wait and be polite?) Then finally…

“Mr. Rogers…I don’t mean to bother you. But I just wanted to say thanks.”

He smiled patiently. I imagine this sort of thing happened to hime about every 10 feet. Then he said: “Did you grow up as one of my television neighbors?” I felt like crying. Yeah. I did. I was his neighbor.

He opened his arms, lifting his satchel in the air, and beckoning me in: “It’s good to see you again, neighbor.”

I got to hug Mr. Rogers, y’all!

Then he opened the student union door and said goodbye. That’s when I blurted in a kind of rambling gush that I’d stumbled on the show again recently, at a time when I truly needed it. He listened there in the doorway. When I ran out of words, I just said, “So…thanks for that. Again.”

Mr. Rogers nodded. He looked down, and let the door close again. He undid his scarf and motioned to the window, where he sat down on the ledge.

This is what set Mr. Rogers apart. No one else would’ve done this. No one.

He said, “Do you want to tell me what was upsetting you?”

At the end, I just said thank you again ––for about the 13th time. And I apologized if I made him late for wherever he was headed. Mr. Rogers just smiled, and said in his slow, gentle voice: “Sometimes you’re right where you need to be.”

How do you become that patient and thoughtful and generous? There are people who embody this quality (the Dalai Lama is another). How do you keep your feet and heart firmly planted in kindness when all (political) hell is happening around you? When you can’t help but be angry about political policies that hurt people. About people hurting people.

Bliss and deep thoughts

I had the great fortune of spending a few solitary hours this morning at Reid Park in Maine. It was magical. The sky was gray and moody. The rocks jagged and dark. It was cool enough that I wore two jackets over my t-shirt. There were only a few other people on the beach at that time. I see the ocean so seldomly these days that I just want to absorb every ounce of it while I’m there. I not only want to snap a few photos, I want to sear the image into my brain. I want to bottle that awareness––that complete and utter absorption in nothing but the present moment–– and wear it on a chain around my neck for when I return to my daily routine.

I’ve been struck by the different types of natural beauty there are in this world. The Maine coast is otherwordly in its beauty, but the Vermont mountains, covered in verdant summer greens, also swell my heart with joy. The thick, damp Vermont forests also stops me on my feet to pause and look. Just look.

I find myself thinking, I am so lucky. To be on this magnificent planet. To feel well and healthy and pain-free, and to have the time and opportunity to travel, stop, look, breathe.

I thought of my mom, someone who has chronic pain now and has had variations of pain through her life, though she always worked through it. I don’t believe she’s ever been to Maine and it’s unlikely she’d travel to it now since she hates traveling and doesn’t feel her best. But she’s been to Italy and to Mexico and so many other places in the U.S. She was never a fan of traveling, but she’s been around! I thought of my dad. He never saw the Maine coast. But he did get to Florida and to the southwest. And, more importantly, he was perfectly satisfied in his little Ohio space.

I thought of Anthony Bourdain. I was never a fan, really. I thought he was handsome, but he looked like someone who could become an asshole at the drop of a hat. I knew he was a chef and a television host, but I never watched his shows. I loved that he had an underdog story (randomly submitting an essay to the New Yorker and it getting accepted, which launched him into the limelight). Spence watched some of the old episodes of his show and I realized I had no idea that Bourdain had been at it for so long––he looked so young. He was anti-vegan/vegetarianism (boo); not surprising since the entire idea of his show is to enter new cultures and eat whatever they eat. But I loved that he got to see the world! And he got to write about it and talk about it and have fun. So when I learned he’d committed suicide, in Paris of all places, I was thunderstruck. All the usual notions went through my brain––he had it all, he had a great job, he got to travel the world, he was filming another episode in Paris (!), etc., etc. I had to catch myself. We are all human. We are all susceptible to the pains, depressions, dark abysses, addictions of this life. It matters not the outward visuals of a successful life.

I stood on the Maine coast today, thinking about a lot of people I love and wishing they could see this scene. I thought about Anthony Bourdain, someone who saw most of the world, and it wasn’t enough to lighten the darkness when the darkness descended.

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” ––Anthony Bourdain

My first tattoo

I got my first tattoo last week.

In my head, I’ve been planning my first tattoo for years. I’ve always liked tattoos (generally) but it took a long time to decide what to get. 25-year-old me had considered a Grateful Dead bear. 42-year-old me would have been SOOO over that by now.

There was also the problem that I was obsessively afraid of blood-borne illnesses (specifically HIV) from the ages of 19-30. I mean, bordering on neuroses. I mean, if I had grown up in an environment/in a time when people knew to encourage mental health care, I’m sure I would have been sent off for mental health care. Instead, I grew up in a time/in a place where you were told to Stop Worrying. Stop. It. Going to get mental health care was more of a threat than a solution (because that must mean you’re “really crazy.”). When I look back at some of the moments where I was utterly overwhelmed by fear of already having HIV (having caught it in some inexplicable, yet-undiscovered way), I don’t know how I was able to keep from having a complete come apart. I don’t know how the center held except that I had some spark of reason deep in my brain that kept me from sinking into complete and long term despair. I knew that I didn’t have HIV and sometimes that spark of reason would bubble up and chase away the shadows.

This fear was a defining feature for those who knew me during this time. I guess I basically outgrew it? When I met the man who would become my husband, I insisted we both get tested and they came back negative, which eased my fear. My life got busier. Scientists developed treatments for HIV. The stigma of the disease lessened (the stigma, I think, was the impetus for my fear). I remember reading some years back that young people viewed HIV as just another STD that was out there, that totally bent my mind. It was nothing less than a death sentence to me, during which people would avoid you. When I told my mom, my brother, my high school best friend and one of my close friends from Florida about the tattoo, all of them mentioned remembering my fear. That’s when I realized it must have left an impression on them, too. But I’m happy to say I’ve moved past the fear. (It helps that all needles are single use/disposable and I still had the artist walk me through the sterilization process.)

I’d been seriously considering a sugar skull tat with my parents’ birth year underneath it. I was pretty certain that’s what it would be. I didn’t know the location…I was leaning toward my wrist, but thought it might be a bit too big. I didn’t want to get sick of looking at it, but I also didn’t want it to be someplace where I would never see it. I thought it might be a bit more expensive than I could afford. As I’ve become more and more serious about veganism, I started thinking about the symbolism associated with that. (Side note: I have to say veganism has become pretty close to a religion to me. It’s a daily opportunity to put into practice the beliefs I hold. I want to avoid hurting animals as much as possible. I want to help them as much as possible. I saw this really wonderful quote from Natalie Portman who summed it up beautifully:

“There’s a reason why every major religion has food rules. Because three times a day, you’re forced to think about your morality and your ethics and what you believe in. The reason you eat what you do—even not religion, but just culturally…why you eat a cow but now a dog—represents something in who you are and how you think about things.”

Sometimes it’s an effort to look away from the milk chocolate. It’s difficult to pass on the Björn sandals because they’re made of leather. To decline a dish because it has eggs. I realize people may think I’m being a pain in the ass (my mom says I’m an extremist), but I take my reasoning behind it to heart. I don’t know if I’m making a difference (or even if I’ve removed myself as completely as I can from the system of exploiting animals), but I’m doing my damndest while I’m on this earth.)

I started toying with the idea of the Cruelty Free bunny. The Leaping Bunny—both symbols of cruelty free products. I thought about the vegan “v” or the word Ahimsa. And a paw print (representing my dogs, my cats and all dogs/cats/animals) was always in the mix. It wasn’t until I went with my best friend from high school and her daughter to get her daughter’s tattoo (she committed quite quickly to her tattoo and got it the day after she turned 18!) that I thought about going small first. The daughter got two small, cool tats!

There is an all vegan shop in New Hampshire that I tried to get in to, but they are booked often and it’s a 3 hour trip, so that didn’t work out this time. Instead, I contacted the shop where I get my piercings and spoke with an artist there about her inks. She said the black ink was vegan, so I made the appointment. The day before I went in, I started thinking: Maybe I should add this. Maybe I should add that. I started getting a bit overwhelmed with the idea and decided, Nope. I’m sticking with my paw print. It represents a lot to me—veganism, my love of animals. That’s what I did. And I’m happy with it. I already have an idea for a second tattoo, but I like the simplicity of this one so well that I may stick with one. We’ll see.