Atonement

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

Rebecca surrounded by our cats. The cats never bothered her. And she liked eating grass.

This quote is everything to me. It’s a way to forgive myself and to aspire to improve. I’m really, really fortunate that I’ve had a fairly drama-free, tragedy-free, trauma-free life and I can say the same about my childhood. There is little I would want to change in my life.

One thing I do regret, deeply. Deeply. The way animals were treated in the area I grew up. Dogs were mostly kept outside, tied to dog boxes, even our two dogs. They received food/hay/water, but not the companionship they should have had. Of course, I was a kid and had little control over this, and my parents lived in a culture where this was the norm, and I didn’t question it much until I became a teenager, and the dogs had passed away. I can feel forlorn over these memories at times, but I remember the quote above. When I worked at a vet clinic in Illinois, I told my friend and colleague about my regret and she reminded me that this was a common living condition for dogs in the country during the 1970s and 80s and that, at any given time, we can only do our best, and to not look back with regret but to look back remembering we were doing the best we could at the time. A corollary of the Angelou quote.

And so I live my adult life atoning for actions I wish had been better when I was a kid. One of those include my first guinea pig.

Her name was Rebecca. I named her after my friend. I remember so clearly everything about adopting her. She was in the pet section at Meijer and she had a bite taken out of her ear, likely from another guinea pig. I implored my mom to allow me to adopt it and she said okay (which is surprising when I think about it now). She lived in my bedroom. And I have all sorts of memories of her being out and about with me (I have a photo I love of me sitting in a chair, striking a pose, ribbon in my hair and Rebecca on my lap). However, I also know she was terribly neglected. She was kept in a fish tank for the first few years of her life (a big no-no) and I HATED cleaning her cage and avoided it for as long as I possibly could. The filth in her cage would build and build until mom threatened me with a punishment of some kind, and I would take the aquarium out to the edge of the woods to dump it and I did it with such attitude that I broke the acquarium at least twice. Thinking back on how I let her live in such filth literally makes me cry today (as I write this). 

Eventually I think my mom took over taking care of Rebecca as I become a preoccupied teenager, too busy thinking about other things and trying to (unsuccessfully) fit in. Surprisingly, Rebecca lived for five years…a decent lifespan for a guinea pig that didn’t receive any sort of vet care. I was in Texas with my mom when Rebecca died. My stepdad was with her and her discomfort during her death brought tears to his eyes as he kept her company. I’m actually embarrassed and ashamed when I think about it all today.

In my twenties, I adopted two guinea pigs (at two different times) knowing how to be a better caregiver. They both lived shorter life spans–one for three years and the last for only one and half years–in spite of having better care.

Now, as a 41-year-old pet owner, I have added a guinea pig to the mix and plan to add another (as early as tomorrow, depending on how things go this weekend). I’ve learned you can rescue guinea pigs rather than buying them from pet stores, so that’s the only way I will bring them into my life. I’ve learned they are incredibly social animals, so I’m hoping to adopt a second one so Penny (my current pig) will have company; I’ve learned they shouldn’t live in cedar chips or wood chips because of the dust (prior to this, all my pigs lived in chips) so instead I use recyclable fluff and I’m trying to figure out how to change over to fleece blankets; I’ve learned they shouldn’t eat iceberg lettuce (poor Rebecca ate ONLY iceberg lettuce) because it can give them diarrhea. 

I learn. And I try to do better.

Small things

HeartI don’t know what determines if a marriage will last or not. I know I tend not to dwell on such things; I’m just grateful that I feel as happy now as I did 16 years ago, when we first started hanging out together. More so now, because our histories are intertwined more tightly. We’ve been through a lot together. Health issues; family issues; personal issues. It’s not always been easy, but we’ve been honest with one another, brutally honest at times, and we’ve made our way through difficult times. And I’m grateful that the difficult times are few and far between compared to good times or simply content times. More often than not I find myself laughing hysterically with my better half or sitting next to him and reflecting on something he’d said earlier and giggling to myself, and I think, I’m just so thankful to know such happiness.

Two recent small things that made me feel thankful. On Sunday, after I’d spent part of the day working at home, I went to a lecture on campus to hear our state senator. I was so hungry when I returned home and I walked in to find DS had dinner ready–my salad was waiting for me on the table and he was just starting to dish out my pasta and sauce when I walked in.
This morning (and what spurred me to write this post), I was working from home for the first part of the morning and I saw DS getting his pans ready to make eggs. I said, I’m going to make eggs, too. He asked if I wanted toast and I said yes, so he cut some slices from the loaf he’d recently made. I had every expectation of making my own eggs once he was finished, but the next thing I knew, he set a plate down next to me with eggs and toast. “You made my eggs?” I said. “Of course,” he said. It was not a big deal to him but it meant a lot to me. And he does stuff like that all the time. As well as accepting my nose piercing and my septum piercing and my guinea pig adopting and my head shaving and my dog adopting (when he’d always had cats) and my girls-only vacationing. (Not to mention dealing with all the snow, refusing to let me help with the shoveling, even when I’m requesting a potty area for the dogs so they can go out more easily…he even handled that. Without complaint. First thing in the morning.)

Prior to committing suicide, Virginia Woolf wrote a heartbreaking letter to her husband. In it, she says, “What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.” This line brings a knot to my chest each and every time I read it because I know she’s writing it as a goodbye to her husband, and I kfeel completely the same toward my husband. It is the one thing I would want him to know, should I suddenly disappear from this world. And it is written more beautifully than I could have ever written it.

And so each day, I try remember THESE are the good ol’ days. I hope we have many ahead of us, but I know we at least have this one we’re living today.

Kay

Kay is my great aunt. When I was five or so, I would spend my days with her and my great grandmother when my mom and dad worked and my brother went to school.

I would pour them imaginary tea and they would drink it and eat my imaginary food. I would take their mail and pretend to be the mailman, delivering to them important messages. They were a lot of fun. Especially Kay.

Kay never learned to read or write. She had (and has) the mind of a child. The only difference between her and me was that she looked like an adult. She could be convinced to do anything in the way that you can convince your playmate to get into trouble with you.

She also has a speech impediment. You had to be around her an awfully long time to be able to understand her speech.  I remember one of the neighbor kids thought she was speaking German. When I was younger, I could understand her with no problem. During my most recent visit with her at the nursing home, it is more challenging. She throws out names and memories and with no context, it’s hard for me to follow along. But she’s perfectly content to keep talking if I nod in agreement and laugh when she laughs. And I understand her better when I can stop her and ask a question, and I have context for her answer.

The only reason Kay is in a nursing home now is because she’s unable to read and write, so she can’t really take care of herself if she’s totally alone. For a long time, she had friends who lived with her, or she’d stay with the neighbors (we lived out in the country where everyone knew each other and Kay was a local fixture, walking up and down the road, picking blackberries or strawberries or mushrooms and jabbering at anyone who stopped by. (And I use jabbering intentionally–it likely sounds like gibberish to anyone unfamiliar with her and she will go on and on and on.) ) For a long time, my grandmother (her sister) lived right down the hill from her, so she had someone to turn to if she had a problem. Once my grandmother died, and once Kay’s roommate moved out, she was placed in a nursing home.

I’m thinking of Kay now because I recently made a presentation to a group of colleagues and in it I mention how important higher education is to my life and career. And I think of Kay, who was sent home from elementary school when she was quite little, diagnosed with an unspecified learning disability. The teacher told my great grandmother she was unable to learn. And so that was it. She never learned reading or writing. She never went to school again.

As an adult, I don’t even understand what Kay’s disability is. I recall asking my grandmother many, many years ago what Kay would be diagnosed with today. What is the name of her disability? I don’t recall her answer, but I think that’s because she didn’t have one. I mean, Kay’s alert,  she has cognitive ability. She can cook her food and watch television and find her way around her spaces. She has an emotional life. She cries over past loves and losses. She hugs me tightly when we part ways. She has no physical handicaps. If she could speak more clearly, her inability to read/write would be completely hidden.It’s only when she talks that you can tell something is not right. My grandmother called it Lazy Tongue, but I think it’s not that simple. Also, her decision-making process is quite stunted. If a stranger pulled up and said to Kay, jump in and I’ll give you a ride to the mall, she’d likely get in without a second thought, even if she didn’t want to go to the mall or even know which mall the driver was talking about.

And still, I don’t know what her diagnosis is. She grew up at a time when labels for children like her were given easily. Feeble-minded. That may have been what they told my great grandmother. Kay was feeble-minded and couldn’t learn.

But that couldn’t possibly be true, right? If they had lived in a place with more resources, perhaps her life would have been different. Perhaps if they had had more financial resources, her life would have been different.

Instead, she lived a child-like life, trusting everyone, befriending everyone, visiting everyone. Perhaps she wouldn’t want things to be any different.

Bring out the Funk

septumI got called n*gger nose a few times as a high school student.

My mom grew up feeling self-conscious about her nose thanks to her own family members teasing her about its flatness. She still makes comments about not liking her nose, though less frequently than she used to.

I guess we all just grow into ourselves eventually and realize what’s important.

I wanted my nose pierced when I was a teenager but when I mentioned it to my mom, she scoffed at the notion and the idea of bringing more attention to my nose. I understood.

Many years later, I recall talking to a co-worker about the nose ring I had. She said she’d had one earlier in her life but then realized she didn’t like her nose so why would she want to bring more attention to it. (We are all so critical of ourselves. It’s a bummer.)

I eventually did get my nose pierce with a tiny little stud that I was sure everyone could see from a mile away. I remember when my then boss came to see it he said, “It looks like a little fleck of glitter on your nose.”

After I got comfortable with it, I went to a silver ball stud and eventually a hoop. I always liked the hoop best but worried it was “too much,” though by whose standards, I don’t know.

That original piercing closed up a few years ago and I recently got pierced again. Nose rings are just a statement I relate to. I feel like I’m most accurately representing inner self with my nose ring and turquoise jewelry.

I have an appointment on Saturday to get my septum pierced. For me, this is really taking my interest in piercings up a notch. Not only are they not quite as mainstream (though gaining popularity as time continues), many people don’t like how they look. And it’s that discomfort I’m fighting right now. I’m imagining the next time I go up to one of my very rich, very traditional board members to shake hands and he sees I have a septum ring. Hmmm.

However, I like that septum rings have a history tied to Native Americans and people of color, generally. The Aztecs had pierced septums (with items bigger than rings) and the Nez perce tribe name translates to pierced nose. In African tribes, the septum piercing is a sign of strength. (When my husband expressed reservations over the septum piercing, I said, “You know the Aztecs used to have their septums pierced and I am part Native American. And he said, “Well then you must get it done!” Sarcastically, of course, but he has come around to the idea.)

I want to live boldly and embrace my ethnic backgrounds and not be afraid to bring attention to the parts of me I felt self conscious of for so long. And even as I do it and want to do it, I know I will feel uncomfortable going into my one-on-one meeting with the new boss and having him see I have yet ANOTHER piece of jewelry pierced into my face. On top of my huge turquoise necklace, my handful of turquoise rings, my five turquoise beaded bracelets, and my turquoise earrings. And also my shaved head. I hope I’m talented enough at my job to be permitted to look so flashy. (Happily, I talked to a friend who works in HR and she said there is no policy dictating body piercings, so I should do what I want. Also, I have seen at least one other person in my office building with the septum pierce so it’s not without precedent.)

And so it is such a minor, insignificant thing in the scheme of life to get another piercing. But it feels significant to me. Because I’m pushing forward with presenting my true self to the world. And it’s not always a comfortable thing to do.