I’ve been going through a challenging time the last few days. My mom met with her doctor and things going forward have a big question mark over them. I am emotionally unable to write about it now and I do not want to because right now she is here and hanging in. I’m going to talk to her later. And I do not want to dwell in grief that I do not need to dwell in. Suffice it to say, I feel like I’m walking around with a broken heart (literally, broken) in my chest.

But I’ve been thinking about my grandma. She died about a month after my dad and I didn’t mourn her the way I would have had he not died. When she died, I was still so numb and discombobulated from dad’s death that my response sort of got sucked into the discombobulation. But she was one of my very favorite people. My brother and I spent so much time with her when we grew up.

The other day, I curled up in the middle of the day to take a nap. I delight in being able to take naps in the middle of the day and this is most certainly a trait I inherited from my grandmother and I thought of her as I was lying in bed. She worked late hours, so even if she were visiting us at our house, when the time rolled around she’d say, well, it’s time for my nap, so I’m going to go home. And she would walk back to her house.

This line of thought took me to remembering some of the conversations I had with her. I would walk down to her house and sit with her at the kitchen table, or if it was at night, I’d go down and we’d sit in her reading room, where she kept a goldfish who grew to be enormous. And we would just talk. I can’t remember details of what we’d talk about, but I remember she was a fantastic listener. She would look you in the face while you were talking, would not try and interject or solve the problem. She was so thoughtful and focused on the conversation, smoking her cigarette and drinking her black coffee (at ALL HOURS of the day). Having good listeners in my is something I took for granted. My mom is the same. She is easily the best listener in my life (though that has changed a bit as she’s aged because she’ll interrupt me to say something for fear that she’ll lose her train of thought if she doesn’t say it now…she always apologizes, which makes me laugh.) The people in my life—my friends, my work colleagues—she remembers them by name, she remembers the stories I tell her, she asks me later what happened in this particular situation, or to that particular person. She’s sincerely interested because she’s my mom. There will never again be someone who loves me so completely and self-lessly. Who listens to me so intently and seriously and remembers what I say weeks and months later. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have great friends who listen or a great husband who listens. I feel loved all the time. But a mom’s love…well, there’s nothing like it, really. I’ve found it to be the most enduring force in my life.


Pimple Poppers & Vanity

I surprised my mom for her 70th birthday by driving 10 hours to spend the weekend with her. We had a great time. A lot of it was spent bingeing on a show called Dr. Pimple Popper. I had heard of the show but never seen it before this visit and it was captivating. I have a reasonably high tolerance for gross stuff (so long as smell isn’t involved…I can’t take bad smells) and seeing the different types of skin ailments (and watching her “pop” them) was surprisingly riveting. A lot of people leave fatty tumors to grow and grow until they become burdensome. Like, some of these tumors were the size of baseballs! WTF? How do you not want to deal with that shit asap? My only guess is that the clients don’t have health insurance, so going to the doctor isn’t so simple. If I get three pimples at the same time, I’ma headin’ to the doctor. I guess I have economic privilege.

I was really struck by a brother and sister who live with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that creates tumors at the ends of your nerves. The two of them had tumors all over their bodies, but the brother’s case was much worse. The sister had smaller bumps all over her face, whereas her brother had rather large ones. And the bumps hurt (they are on nerves, after all) The disease is incurable, but the sister visited Dr. Pimple Popper in hopes that she may be able to help with some of the bumps on her face. The Dr. burned some of them off, and the sister noticed a difference after her face had healed, but I didn’t see a huge difference.

What struck me about them, though, and especially her, was the complete equanimity with which she approached her situation. She had had this condition since she was a child. She got it from her dad’s side of the family. Her mom said if she’d had any idea how difficult living with the disease would be, she wouldn’t have had children. Neither the sister nor brother are having children for that reason. She talks about people staring, asking questions. About feeling unattractive. About being in pain. But her personality was lovely—her kindness and friendliness came through and soon enough it was easy to look beyond her skin condition. I kept thinking, Would I have the depth of character to deal with such a potentially devastating situation with such equanimity? Do I have the depth of character to deal with a disfiguring accident? Without losing myself completely—succumbing to depression. How much of my understanding of myself is tied to what I look like? To be completely frank, I’m not sure I have that depth of character. It concerns me a bit.

doggy prozac

The dogs being cute after a fight where I was bit. You can see the bite on my hand in the photo.

It’s been an eventful few days. Not in any sort of glamorous way, though. 

On Thursday, I was getting the dogs ready for a walk. There had been an incident on the Saturday before (Dec. 2) where Lucy attacked Jojo (I can’t remember why, but for no good reason) and I got bit on my hand in the process. I had to go to the walk-in clinic to update my tetanus shot. When we finally left for Albany—we were going there to celebrate my birthday—I felt so drained of energy and so fatigued after the stress of the bite, separating the dogs and going to the clinic, I asked Spence to turn around. I just wanted to sleep. We turned around and I slept for most of the day. By Sunday I was feeling more like myself and we finally made it to Albany. 

So, back to Thursday. Getting the dogs ready for a walk. They get amped during this process, chewing each other and jumping around. Getting ready for and going on walks is one of the only times they are themselves with each other. We haven’t been having many problems lately—before the Saturday bite, they’d been getting along about 95% of the time. I’m trying to get Jojo’s harness on and I see Lucy sniffing her and a look comes over Lucy’s face…one I recognize. She’s going to snap (I’ve gotten good at recognizing this face). They start fighting and are already so close to each other, it’s all I can do to get them apart. And, I get bit by Lucy. A-fucking-gain. It didn’t break the skin, but it felt like I had slammed my finger in a car door. It hurt like a sombitch. Once we got the dogs separated, I was standing in the living room shaking my hand and squeezing it between my legs (as if that would help), and I just started bawling. I mean, wailing like a toddler who has unexpectedly fallen and hit her head. I’m talking, Charlie Brown cartoon, head back, tears flying in arcs away from my face. Spence immediately embraces and comforts me. He’s great in situations like that…he doesn’t turn away from dramatic (uncomfortable?) displays of emotion. I was in so much pain and so mad and sad about the dogs. I just let it all out.

After a few moments of standing in Spence’s arms in the living room, the waterworks stopped and I felt immediately better and more collected. We decided then that it was time to put Lucy on meds. We had seen a behavioral therapist at our vet’s office and she said the fact that Lucy acts out at Jojo even when Jojo shows signs of deference implies Lucy may have issues with impulse control. Typically dogs only want deference and then they move on, but Lucy doesn’t do that. She recommended putting Lucy on doggy prozac and, in the meantime, giving her a more immediate anti-anxiety medication to help chill her out until the prozac kicks in fully. I fully support and appreciate the fact that there are pharmaceutical options to help people/animals who need help. We left there knowing we had an option for Lucy. But I also hesitated. One of the things I love about Lucy is her high-energy nuttiness. Would these medications dull that? Would she be a different dog? I emailed the vet this question and she said that typically doesn’t happen…it’s such a mild effect, the personality stays the same. It just takes off the edginess. So after getting bit twice in one week, Spence said “this can’t happen again.” And Lucy is now on prozac.

It’s been only a couple of days, but I can see a difference…probably not from the prozac, but from the other anti-anxiety med she’s taking temporarily. She’s a bit more subdued. I’m not sure how I feel about it, but considering the stress she was creating with Jojo and me getting bitten, I don’t think there were any other options left. 



311What I’m thinking about as I start my 43rd rotation around the sun: mortality (always mortality), kindness, patience, love, creating.

I had a splendid day with lovely messages from friends, and Spence always makes the event fun and funny. I started the day with an early morning jog. I’ve been getting better about pushing myself out of bed between 5 a.m. and 5:15 a.m. to go on a 20-25 minute run. I knew I wanted to start my 43rd year in that way and so I did. (I’ve also kicked both dogs out of the bed, so I’m sleeping much better and waking up much easier. The dogs are in crates in the bedroom.) There is saying I like: One day you will not be able to run. Today is not that day. I think about that when I don’t want to get out and moving. Movement, pushing myself, is my gift to myself. The body is meant for motion.

Next week I am meeting with our new chaplain to talk about spirituality and helping people. I’ve met her twice for other reasons and liked her immediately. After reading “Barking to the Choir” and listening to OnBeing podcasts with Rev. James Martin and journalist Pico Iyer, I’ve decided I want to talk out ideas with someone who has chosen to follow such a path. I’m particularly interested in talking about generosity of spirit and how to maintain that equanimity in a variety of situations. It’s great that I can be of good cheer when I’m surrounded by people I enjoy, work I enjoy, etc., but what about when I wake in a bad mood (not much of a morning person, generally), or someone pisses me off, or treats me poorly (or I perceive it as such) etc. etc. How does one maintain equanimity while also dealing with the situation at hand (without being walked over). It seems like those are all basic human experiences and some handle it with such grace and others not so much. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pope Francis, Father Greg, Rev. Martin—they demonstrate an equanimity I strive for, but as a layperson, one who doesn’t spend my days ministering to people and reading religious texts and meditating—how can I bring that more into my life?

I also like how they, particularly Father Greg, ground their practice in the concrete—in relationships and reaching out to people and listening to people—rather than in the supernatural. Father Greg describes a relationship with god and the practice of the gospel in concrete terms, in how one lives her life now, without consideration for an afterlife. Of course, he has his own faith and understanding of what happens after death, but for someone like me, who is secular and of the earth (one of my favorite quotes by Thich That Hath: “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”), it makes Father Greg’s book resonate even more strongly with the likes of me.

Lastly, I really want to start making things. Like, from scratch, with my hands. The complication is I’m not that skilled with drawing. I briefly looked at etching, but the printing process is totally cumbersome (I’m looking to do something at  home) and the etchings are basically incredible drawings that are then inked and printed. I can be a bit ridiculous in these ideas. Like when I decided to start practicing the clarinet again (something I’m thinking of doing again, by the way, with a tutor) and decided, Hey! I want to play like John Coltrane, and so I bought a book of John Coltrane songs, and realized, Oh, most of his songs are improvisations…so they aren’t written out. Because John Coltrane was a genius who played whatever the hell he wanted. Same concept with etchings. Hey, maybe I’ll try etchings. Yeah, no. BUT I am going to try block printing, which is a bit more accessible and can be use for more abstract designs. We’ll see. I’m sure I’ll be sharing work here if there is anything worth sharing.

The messy, living gospel

My last post was about anticipated racism in Vermont. A short time after, I heard a story on NPR about a Nicaraguan man who was living in northern Vermont and considering going back to Nicaragua because of issues relating to his family who was still there. He talked about his time in Vermont and how he loved it here. He said, “I’ve met the very best people here in Vermont.” And I wondered about the people I could be meeting if I were out in the world a bit more, helping the community. I filled out my volunteer application for Meals on Wheels the day before Thanksgiving.

I’ve also been reading this extraordinary book by Father Gregory Boyle called Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. I learned about it through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Instagram page. Father Greg works with gang members in L.A. to help them acclimate to life after prison, or life off the streets, or life after drug addiction. He has a broad and all encompassing view of God and Christianity and religion, which I appreciated. I’m a bit anti-organized religion, identifying primarily as a Buddhist who prefers to find peace and spirituality in the world around me—the woods behind our house or in the quiet of a run—than in some organized way on a particular day of the week. But Father Greg brings in teachings from many religions and poets and writers in ways that resonated with me. He spoke of action as the way of God—forgiveness, compassion, kindness, kinship. It’s a lovely book with tragic and beautiful stories. It made me rethink my own reactions to people in my life. My goal is always to be a friendly face, smiling, smiling. But I’m a grumpy ass in the morning, when I first arrive to work. Various behaviors grate on my nerves. I can get a bit bogged down in the pissiness in my own head, stewing a bit. I try not to let it show, but it can make me feel hard-hearted and tired. Reading this book reminded me of how much our world expands when we strive for an open, non-judgmental heart. One that aims to bring relief, support, love, laughter, kindness to the people around it. One that strives to live the word of God in action: “Meditate on the world, he [Ignatius of Loyola] instructed them, and all that happens in it, packed shoulder to shoulder with God. We live amidst a universe soaked in grace that invites us to savor it.” Also this: “We must try and learn to drop the burden of our own judgments, reconciling that what the mind wants to separate, the heart should bring together. Dropping this enormous inner burden of judgment allows us to make of ourselves what God want the world to ultimately be: people who stand in awe. Judgment, after all, takes up the room you need for loving. Readying oneself for awe, at every turn, insists that compassion is always the answer to the question before us.” Beautiful stuff.

The other thing I realized while reading the book is how afraid I am of messiness. I pride myself on the fact that I have no drama in my life. And when I sense a bit of drama, I drop that situation like a hot potato. I pride myself on the fact that I have a built in drama detector that almost always keeps me from becoming friends with people I later learn are incredible creators of drama. I don’t know this at the time. At the time, I feel like I don’t “click” with the person and so we don’t really become friends. It’s only later, sometimes years later, that I learn of the chaos that follows this person and his/her relationships. It helps to create a peaceful life. But I also wonder if this means I’m not embracing the full spectrum of experiences in the world. Not so much with drama-prone people, but in the sense that I don’t put myself “out there” enough. I’m an enormous animal lover. I don’t eat them. I donate to causes to help them. I have personal standards for how I think dogs should be kept as pets. One fear of becoming a Meals on Wheels volunteer is driving to the homes of people who cannot leave and what if I arrive and there are dogs kept in awful conditions outdoors in the freezing weather. Typing out those words makes me realize how ridiculous it sounds, but it’s a situation that bothers me deeply. So instead I avoid the situation, which neither solves it nor helps the person in need of a food delivery. Putting myself in those situations, regardless of what I might find, is the only way to change anything. And it may not change anything. But neither does avoidance. Father Greg visits prisons, presides over funerals, testifies at death penalty hearings (against it). He’s the first person many of these men and women call when they have trouble or need help. I would find this all quite stressful but he’s bearing witness to their lives and trying to affect change, to help, to show kindness. And I don’t have to be Father Greg. I can help my community in my own, small ways.

The other idea this book highlights is one that has been with me for many years, and has at times really bothered me, and that is the idea that how our lives turn out is largely happenstance/luck. I’m one who hit the lottery of life. Father Greg explains it here:

I am sixty-three years old and I’ve never killed another human being. If I asked you why that is, you might say it is because I know the difference between right and wrong. Or you might suggest that I have sufficient emotional intelligence not to let conflict spiral to such a murderous end. Both are true, but neither is relevant.

There are three great fortunes that have landed in my lap that account for the fact that I have never taken another person’s life:

First: by sheer dumb luck, my life has been almost completely devoid of despair. I have always been able to imagine my future and consequently I care about my life. (And because I do, I care about others’ lives as well.)

Second: I cannot identify any defining trauma in my upbringing or in my life to date that would lead me to such a place of rage. Struggle and suffering, yes. But the golpe of huge, damaging trauma? Never.

Third, I have never been plagued by mental illness. I have never had to navigate schizophrenia or been burdened with sociopathy, psychopathy, or bipolarity. I have issues like everyone else, but I won the mental health lottery. It is not my moral superiority or heightened emotional intelligence that accounts for my lack of murderous past. It is luck. Sheer dumb luck at that.

Every homie I know who has killed somebody —everyone—has carried a load one hundred times heavier that I have had to carry, weighed down by torture, violence, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or mental illness. Most of us have never borne that weight. We are free not to like the truth, but we are not free to deny it.

I have often thought about my good fortune in that I had loving, supportive parents. We were poor/working poor, yet I never feared losing our home, not having food, etc. Many of the stories recounted in this book are of gang members whose mothers’ abandoned them in apartments, whose fathers’ broke their arms, whose entire families were drug users and gang bangers. Devastating, tragic stories that explain a lot. And, of course, mental illness can strike anyone at any time. There but for the grace of God goes I. And when you think about what that really means, it can feel a bit frightening.

Mostly, though, Father Greg inspires me to be more patient, more open-hearted, more action-oriented to help when I can.