“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Day 109: Summer in Winter, Winter in Spring

Dear Reader:
When my husband and I came back from our vacation in North Carolina with our dog, Zoe, last week, we drove home not to the last of winter, but straight into summer.  This week it was almost 80 degrees here, and now the trees are budding.  I saw purple crocuses in our yard that normally wouldn't arrive until the end of April.  Mosquitoes feasted on the sweetest among us, but not me.  And in the woods when Zoe and I walked this week, students were having barbeques.  She kept hoping someone would invite her to stay and eat a burger.

I thought of a note I'd received a couple weeks ago from my friend Sara.  She sent me this quote from Albert Camus:
"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
She told me she thought this was one of the themes of this blog, and I liked the quote so much that it's now up in the header as one of the two epigraphs.

Now it's going to be winter again: tonight, I heard, the temperature might go down to freezing here in the North Country.

I began the blog in December, when I was just completing a cycle of 108 straight days of meditating every morning and writing in my journal, which I explain on the home page here.

I was about to start again with another 108 days when my sister suggested (to be honest, it felt like a dare) that I write posts to the world, instead of journals to moi.  So you can blame said sister, Mira Bartok, dear reader, for all this folly.

I wrote about my sister often, especially on her birthday, on Day 76: On Sister Love.

When I was a third of the way through, and then two-thirds of the way through, I posted about what I have learned.  Rather than repeat myself, I'll hyper-link to those posts here and there.

Soon, I realized that while this blog is about time and about mindfulness, dogs and love, and finding the sacredness in everyday life, it is also very much about the writing life because I'm on leave to write this semester, and whatever I'm up to each day is fodder.  On Day 56, Gargoyles in Love: On Finding the Perfect Schedule, I landed on a good writing schedule that has helped me stay on track with my novel despite all the emotional upheavals that have taken place.

On Day 107 I wrote a post about the writing of this blog which encapsulated what I've learned as a memoirist in a new medium.  This was one of my favorite posts to write.

Zoe staring down her own shadow
Finding out a family member's days are numbered is heartbreaking, whether that loved one is human or, in this case, canine.  But numbering my own days has prompted me to live each of them more fully, and in many ways I have felt more alive than ever before.  Not just more alive: more like an animal.  More alert.  With senses primed.  And because I got so busy it took me a while to get a haircut, I was a lot more furry too.

My days with Zoe this past winter have produced some of the happiest memories I will ever have, even though they are tinged with sadness and the anticipation of loss.  I have found a resilience and a summer inside that has carried me through a long winter, and will carry my dog and myself forward into the next season, although what lies ahead is uncertain.

I want to thank some people for taking this wild ride with me.  Too many to name, and I know I'll leave people out and feel bad about it, but I'll try:  Mira, who made me do it.  Sara, Rebecca, and Marc, who read and commented on every single post!  Dr. Amy Thompson at Canton Animal Hospital who made the diagnosis and got us on the right track.  Dr. Peter Tropea, at St. Lawrence Valley Animal Hospital, who did the surgery.  The whole staff at Alta Vista, especially Donna, Willow, and Dr. Lena Bravo.  Tara Freeman, ace photographer of Zoe who also taught me how to take better pictures.  Veronika Hovathova's great pictures of Paris made their way into this blog, and I especially love her gargoyles.  Dawn R. and Cindy, friends since college and great writers and dog-lovers.  My nieces, Juliet and Fiona; my sister's step-daughters, Jya and Sianna; the inimitable Douggie Pee. Neal S, Becky H., Becky whose dog is Lily, Mrs. B's Sweeties, the Cleveland Baker Beauties: Mary Beth, Sandy, Herta, Stephanie, Cathleen, Eileen; hometown honeys Danielle, Cathy T (who drove us to Cornwall when Zoe became a tripod and gave me a beautiful photo album commemorating the day), Erin, and Eve; Dan S and his greyhounds, Macreena, Erik A., Chloe, Lukasz who shared from China, Jess W, Dennis, Josh S., Karen S (who took some great photos of Zoe) and her kids Andrea, Luke, and Luke's wife, Lisa, and their sweet dog, and entourage of Brittany and Emma; Olivia for soulful dog walks, Derek, Nancy, Judy, another Erin who subscribed, Chris and Iris, Patti L., Shaun, Diane and Fred, Margaret B., Mary H.,, Alex D., Scott R. Emma R. (who often shared on FB too), Susan and David, Pat A, Pat C and her whole family of dog-lovers, Jenny W in Montana., Kimi, Annalise, Nancy who subscribed, Writing as Jo(e), Brenda, Maddie, Ante, William B, Ned, Katie G, Sonya, Laura R., Lettie, Annie, Farmer Bob, Farmer Mike, Billie B., Sheri C., Janice G., James and Glenn and Milo and Emily, Jann S, Mackie, Alexis of the Adirondacks, Lizzie, my sister's facebook friends who started reading the links, Sadie the saucy dog cousin, Anne C.,, Jane N., Sarah B., Eliza R., Tom M., Dinty who just offered Zoe a "woof," Marina and John, Therese from Texas, and all the random people who agreed to be characters in these posts, sometimes after the fact, like Emma and Java in Ottawa, Milo the King Charles spaniel who thinks he's a greyhound, Max, Blue, Cooper, Maya, Sandra R. from Paris, Priyanka from New Delhi, and a dog belonging to a homeless man in Cassis and a dog named Rusty in a Post I had so much fun writing, 49:What the Dog Sees in Him.  There are other subscribers who are anonymous, and others who aren't but probably want to be, but I'm grateful to all of you for reading.

A special shout-out for Lettie Stratton, Erin Siracusa, and Rebekkah White, for agreeing to do guest-posts, all three of which were beloved by many. What great writers I have been blessed to have in my classes!

And I want to thank Shelley Kandola for designing the blog for me and helping me whenever I had an IT issue.  If you need someone to help you with your blog, she's available freelance and I'll hook you up!  And my sister yet again for helping me tweak the design and for tweeting.

I'm leaving with Zoe today for Vermont, then a visit with my sister.  After a few days off from posting, I'll begin a new cycle of writings again by next weekend.  I'm not sure, but I think I'll start up again on April Fool's Day.

Namaste, dear readers.  May you have a lovely, restful Sunday, and a good week, whatever season it feels like.

All best wishes,

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Day 108: The Way There and the Way Back

Part I: Hair Piece

On Wednesday when I took Zoe to her oncologist's appointment I decided to do something other than loiter in a nearby coffee shop for seven hours and then lurk in the waiting room, making people nervous.  I drove downtown to the Byward Market and got my hair cut.

The last time I had my hair cut was in early December, a week into this project of meditating and posting every day for 108 days.  So until this Wednesday I could measure the passage of time not just in posts written, words accumulated, but in hair.  It was getting rather straggly and dried out at the ends.

On the way to my hair appointment in December, I had stopped at a little store that sold clothing made of organic cotton and other fair trade products. There, I came upon a human/canine duo that made my heart sing.  A woman with blond dreadlocks was behind the cash register; her little gray poodle, Java, whose hair was long and curly and not fashioned in the usual poodle way, was in a basket beside her.   The two were clearly soul mates, and they exuded so much peace that I found myself hanging about and buying something just so I could bask in the goodness.  I also wanted to find out how Java came into her life, and it is an inspiring story.   To read this post on human/canine soul mates you can go to the hyper-link, here.

So now it was this Wednesday, March 21, the beginning of spring, and I was walking along a busy street on my way to get my hair cut.  I had parked my car in a garage near the market, and I was trying to remember where that organic clothing store was so that I could maybe pop in and visit Java and her person.  I was thinking about this duo, and then . . . there they were!  Walking toward me.  The blond woman with her dog on the lead.  I would have knocked right into them if I hadn't moved out of the way.

Just as Java is a sweet, shy little dog, her person is shy too.  And this person writing the post is a little bit shy as well.  Or was, once upon a time, before she began pouring her heart out every day into the cyber-world.  I said hello, told her that I doubted she would remember me, but that I'd been in the store in December, and so on.  When I told her that I'd been on my way to get my hair cut, she remembered.

I told her about the blog, and how to find it on google, just typing "winter with zoe" and that her story had moved and inspired me, and she said she would look it up.

Then I walked away and thought, Whoa, what am I doing?  What if she thinks it's really corny and dumb?  Or what if she doesn't like what I said about the dog having dreads too?  Will she misunderstand my comment about how she and the cute dog look alike, and think that I think poodles (and humans too) should be über-groomed?  And then I just laughed at myself.   The fact that I was thinking about her, and there she was, that we were put right in one another's path by happy accident had to be a good sign.

Just the day before I'd been working on my novel, and I decided to change the name of a minor character from Jasmine to Jessica.  As I made that change, I pictured a former student of mine named Jessica, a lovely writer (and person) who grew up on a farm in Vermont and now has a farm in the Champlain Valley of Upstate New York.  The moment I typed the new name, "Jessica," I saw that I had a facebook message.  Usually I use the "freedom" program when I'm writing to disconnect from the internet, but I hadn't that day and I was glad.  When I went to my wall, I saw that this same Jessica had read that day's post and pressed the "like" button.  So when she popped into my mind, she was actually really there, reading my post of the day.  Jessica and I have not been in touch at all since we reconnected on Facebook about a year ago.  We're both busy, and we never have a chance to talk, and I think that was the only time she's ever sent me a message in response to my link.

 I love when things like that happen.

I love it when all the paths of my life seem to intersect: writing, teaching, tending to my dog, and on Wednesday, getting a haircut while my dog was getting her check-up.  Then I feel like I'm on "the path," that is, that I'm doing what I should be doing, work and play and even errands that suit my true nature.  When the forces align in this way, it feels like the world is smaller, more manageable, and that the people in it are all plugged into the same electric power grid.  (Except that I'm pretty sure Jessica lives off the grid, and that Java's person would too, if she could, and I may be moving that way myself one day, but I think you get the picture.)

And sometimes, in my life, it's just about hair.

Part II  A Relapse, a Gentle Reminder

I knew I needed to meditate every day and not sporadically when I caught myself doing really careless slapstick stuff that was funny but potentially costly.  I've written in early posts about the time I left my purse on the top of my car and drove off, and how when I returned, two people, strangers to each other, had teamed up to rescue my credit cards, lipsticks, checkbook, and more that had flown into the street, en route to the river.  And how the dented garage door serves as a daily reminder to me of the time I was in such a hurry to get to work that I forgot that I actually had to open the garage before I sped out.

Another signal that something had to change happened on my last sabbatical, seven years ago.  Mikie was working on our house, building the kitchen and upstairs bedroom out so we could have a better view of the river, and I told him and my husband I would drive to the co-op in Potsdam and bring back some good bread and cheeses for lunch.  I was thinking about my writing project, my head was in the clouds, and I drove out of town the wrong way.  Main Street, in our town, turns into Route 11, which takes us to Potsdam, and that's where I meant to go.  But on the other side of town it becomes Route 68, which leads to Ogdensburg and the bridge to Canada.  That fall day all those years ago I drove almost to Ogdensburg, a 20-minute drive, twice the distance it takes to go to Potsdam, passing Amish buggies and farm stands, landmarks you don't see on the way to Potsdam, before I realized my mistake.

Yesterday, it happened again.  Seven years later, like a retrovirus waking up again.  I just couldn't believe it.  It was a real relapse.  Falling off the wagon.  A falling away from mindfulness, which has been so much the theme of this blog.  It was a very humbling experience, and a good reminder.

I had had a lovely lunch with my friend Rebecca, and our conversation had really moved me.  So I was thinking about what we'd discussed and, as ever, thinking about Zoe, and about how precious life is and there isn't a moment to waste, when I realized I was already at the turn-off, the shortcut on Route 68 that we take when we're heading to Canada.

I forgot she wasn't in the car with me.  It has become so automatic, driving Zoe to the oncologist in Canada, that my body seems to think this is what we do in the car.  When actually my mission was to go to Potsdam to buy some delicious goat cheese brie and other snacks for a meeting at my house with a wonderful student who is writing an honors thesis on her childhood in Kazakhstan and South Africa.

The way back I looked out at the Amish horses and buggies and farm stands and signs for alfalfa seeds and the bare trees and green grass and I really saw them this time.  On the way there, I could have been anywhere: I was in my head.  I had a good laugh with myself, not at myself, and realized that we keep teaching ourselves what we need to learn, again and again.  And that's why it's good to build new habits.  That's why I needed this project.  To meditate and post every day.

I think for the rest of my life when I am in a car, I will imagine that Zoe is in the back seat looking out the window as we go.  She watches with keen interest the landscape flitting by on the way there, but on the way back she sits up even taller and stares out, rapt, because she knows she is going home.

III  The Trail

After I got back from Potsdam I took Zoe on a walk.

We were out in the woods, maybe a mile in.  It had been unseasonably warm all afternoon, but now the sky was mottled with clouds and I put on the sweater I'd carried.

I was preoccupied because I'd been expecting an important fed ex package with Zoe's medical records.  I'm leaving for Vermont this weekend to take her to her appointment with the holistic vet on Monday.  But the fed ex guy hadn't delivered the package because it was the kind of delivery I had to sign for, and I'd been out having lunch with my friend when it arrived.  The slip on my door said that they wouldn't come back with the package until Monday, and that would be too late. 

I called the 800-number and begged them to come back. The slip was signed now, on the door.  I didn't have a lot of hope, though.

At 4:10, a woman called and said if I could get to the drop-off box on Main Street by 4:30 with the signed slip and some ID, the guy doing the rounds in my area would give me the package today.

So I had twenty minutes.  It had taken 20 minutes to walk to where we were on the trail, Zoe and me.  But I had to make it back to the car in less than 10, and then get to my house, and into town.  And I'm not a runner.

I told the woman I would be at that box.

I said to Zoe, very calmly, "We have to run a mile, as fast as we can, to Mommy's car." (I'm a bit like Bob Dole with my dog; I speak of myself in the third person.)  "Can we do that?"

She agreed.  Not only did we run straight to the car in seven minutes, never breaking stride, but she heeled, even though she was off the lead.  She stayed right beside me the entire time and headed straight up the hill to the car without jumping in the river as she usually does on warm walking days.

We made it just before 4:30, and then the Fed Ex woman called again.  "I'm sorry, but I was wrong about the time.  It'll be 5, or sometime after that, before he arrives."

My dog and I were standing there on the busy street, both of us still panting from the run and the heat and all the excitement, but I said okay, and I laughed, and then I told her the story, and she laughed too.

So now I have the medical records, and my dog and I are ready to head off into a new chapter.  Of her life, of my life, and of "Winter with Zoe" which will continue, even though it's spring.

And now Zoe and I will have a new spring activity to do together.  I think we're going to take up jogging.

Namaste, gentle readers.  Please return tomorrow, for Day 109's reflections: an ending and a beginning, where the way there and the way back and the way onward intersect.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 107: The Memoirist as Blogger

A friend from work has decided to start a blog about gardening.  Her flowers are widely sought out around town.  I'm telling you, a walk through her flower beds is a sublime experience; the colors alone are dazzling.  Her readers who are themselves expert gardeners will bring their specialized knowledge to the reading of her blog, and they will become part of her extended planting community.  And then there are the novices who will read: maybe, under her cyber-tutelage, those of us who don't have green thumbs (I, myself, am known to be a plant assassin) will learn practical things we can try on our own.   But I have a feeling I will love reading the blog even if I never try to grow anything again.  In fact, I might not feel the need to garden after I read her posts and look at the pictures.  Perhaps I will have satisfied that craving.

We've been e-mailing each other about the nuts and bolts of keeping a blog, and our correspondence has given me the occasion to reflect on what I have learned from writing "Winter with Zoe" and why I want to continue, even though my original assignment to myself, to meditate and do a post for 108 straight days, is coming to an end this week along with the arrival of spring.

I should point out here that just as I have a black thumb my friend, the gardener, is not someone I think of as a dog person, or at least a Zoe person.  The gardener loves cats and horses, but the first time she came to my house, Zoe scared her.  Zoe was a lot more skittish then and she barked at my friend from the deck.  Plus there's that wolfy stare.  But my friend still reads the posts about my dog, which is deeply gratifying to me, and our exchange made me think about what writing is, who we write for, and why.

Blogs, of course, have the potential to reach people quickly because of the speed of the web, and that is partly where their power comes from: their immediacy.  But I'm really talking about using a blog to write creative nonfiction: how an individual blog post can function as an essay, or mini-memoir.  I'm writing most of these posts about my dog and her illness, but the dog is the catalyst for writing about a lot of other things: time, mortality, mindfulness, meditation, and love.  It's about me.  Which means, when and if it succeeds as a piece of writing, that it's about you, gentle reader, as well.

Like many of my colleagues who teach non-fiction writing to college students, I subscribe to the view, posited by the French Renaissance essayist and humanist Michel de Montaigne, that (rough translation) every man (and woman) bears the whole stamp of the human condition.

I just came across a great blog, Writing is my Drink, in which the writer quoted a memoirist named Clairer Dederer, author of Posing, who wrote:
“Thinking the event is the story is the biggest mistake of student writers,” she said. “The transformation of the self is the story.”
Vivian Gornick makes this distinction in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.  She describes the "situation" as the plot, the events we are narrating, the memoir (or in this case, post) about planting flowers or tending to a sick pet.  The story is how the narrator is transformed by those events, including the telling of the story.  The “emotional experience that preoccupies the writer" is the thing non-specialists will read for, and it's the part of the writing that people find nourishing.

And that's what I'm getting to in today's post.  If a memoirist is writing a blog, the story is never just the literal sequence of events: We tried this drug on Zoe, and it worked, but this one didn't. 

I would be so happy if I found out that anyone reading "Winter with Zoe" was able to use any information I provide in a practical way.  But others, the majority of readers, will come to a blog looking for nourishment they can bring to their own lives.  And those readers might not all be dog-lovers (or, in my friend's case, gardeners).

Although it has been a challenging assignment to write 104 posts in the last 107 days (there were three occasions when I had amazing student writers do guest-posts for me) finding something about every day that was worth turning into a mini-essay meant living far more thoughtfully.  I try to work stuff out as it comes up, gleaning its potential lessons.  So I feel like I'm living more richly, more fully as a result.

It's as though life were a series of meals, and having to make meaning of this life day after day, from moment to moment, allows me to draw on more of each meal's nutrients.

If you read yesterday's post, you know I got some bad news at the animal hospital.  I was in good form for the whole evening, but by bedtime, I was in tears. 

When I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, and looking ahead to the next day, I didn't know how I could tell the story of this setback.  I don't share my pain and sadness with people readily.  I hate whining.  I know that people have much harder things to deal with in their lives than sick pets.  I certainly don't ever want to depress people.  But as I wrote, I tapped into the goodness and kindness of all the people who have been part of the story, especially for the last 24 hours.  And I let that kindness and care enter my heart as I wrote.  And I located that kindness and goodness within myself as well.  And I felt almost elated when I pressed "publish." 

In other words, by writing and posting, and making myself vulnerable in this way to a lot of people I don't even know, the writing is oddly, paradoxically, less about me.  It's about us.  The big wide web of us.  When that us comes back to me, through the writing and posting, I feel more resilient and strong.  Not strong in a tough way, full of bravado and stoicism.  I feel a greater tenderness around what hurts, and an openness, and that becomes the entryway to the wider web of caring we all share.

Today when I meditated, I opened Your True Home, the Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh at random and found this quote:
You contain multitudes.  Every one of us is a miraculous flower in the garden of humanity.  If you look deeply into yourself, you will see that you possess everything.  As the poet Walt Whitman said, "I am large. I contain multitudes."  The one contains all--that is the insight of Buddhism.  If you practice deep looking, you will discover this truth, the mystery of inter-being: the one contains all.
Now, I know there are a lot of blogs out there that help us get specialized knowledge we need to get something done.  When you look at a woodworker's blog on how she built the bookshelf, you probably don't want to know how she felt.  You want technique, woods, measurements, power tools and where they can be bought.

My friend the gardener knows stuff.  She's also a scholar, a multilingual historian who brings intellectual rigor to everything she does.  Her blog will appeal to gardeners who want to know stuff too, like how deep to dig that bed, how to deal with being in climate zone 4, and how to get rid of the aphids.   It will be a blog of real earth substance. 

I have a feeling, though, that what will flower from this project will be far more than the flowers themselves. 

Namaste, readers and writers everywhere.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 106: On Kindness

Yesterday Donna and Willow, the vet techs at Alta Vista Animal Hospital in Ottawa, brought Zoe out to me at the end of the day with a bouquet of birthday balloons.  I so wish I had taken a picture of these two vibrant women with the birthday girl and those bright yellow, green, pink and magenta balloons.  I was blown away by this gift, this kindness.

As I wrote yesterday, Zoe probably would not have lived to see her ninth birthday if she hadn't spent the last six months under the care of Dr. Bravo, Donna, and Willow. 

It was summer weather on the first day of spring, which made me feel as though we'd flashed forward in time.  As I drove across the bridge to Canada, a light fog rose from the St. Lawrence River.  It covered the car briefly, and then dispersed, reminding me that I was driving into an uncertain future.

For the last three weeks I was preoccupied with the question of whether Zoe could tolerate the new drugs she is taking orally, palladia and cyclophosphamide.  Some dogs just can't take them because they're so hard on the gut, and then that course of treatment is off the table.  Zoe had no problems at all, and she's been thriving.  Great energy, spirit, and appetite.  But what I didn't expect and didn't prepare myself for--perhaps there is no way to prepare for news like this--is that the drugs wouldn't work.  At least they haven't worked yet: the disease is progressing.  The nodules in her tumors have grown.  Not dramatically.  But in almost every visit we had when she was taking doxorubicin intravaneously, those little guys were shrinking.

Still, there is quite a lot of new research being conducted right now on canine osteosarcoma and other cancers, and a variety of new drugs being tested.  In between every visit, Dr. Bravo finds a brand-new paper that gives her more options and ammunition for treating the disease.  Have you heard about the shortage of chemotherapy drugs in the U.S.?  One of them is doxorubicin, the drug that worked so well on Zoe this winter.  We had to stop after 5 doses because it's toxic on the heart.  But now there's a sister drug that doctors are using in lieu of doxorubicin for patients (including human) who either can't get access to the doxo because of the scary shortages, or who need an alternative that isn't toxic to the heart.  Using this sister drug might be our Plan B.

Also, I haven't used the herbs (artemesinin) I bought yet, and they are thought to shrink lung tumors.

But I don't want to bombard you with medical details in this post.  I want, instead, to say something today about kindness.  It was devastating to get this bad news, of course.  I didn't let it seep in right away, because I was driving home to a happy, festive occasion.  Two human friends with birthdays, their dogs running around, and yes, I did succumb and I bought a dog birthday cake at a bakery for pets on Dalhousie street in Ottawa.  Watching the dogs chomp into this sweet bone-cake (made of spelt, apple sauce, and yogurt) really lifted my spirits.  Being buoyed up by my friends, and also by Donna and Willow and Dr. Bravo, really helped me.

And then I woke up to a really nice e-mail from Donna, who is fed-exing me all of Zoe's records and x-rays so that I can have them on Monday, when I take Zoe to a holistic vet in Vermont who does acupuncture and provides Chinese herbs, and more.

I found out about the Vermont vet indirectly, through a former student.  Before she left for the Peace Corps with her husband, she worked with a man whose dog has the same cancer Zoe does, and who is following the same drug protocols she is on, but is also supplementing the dog's care with the holistic vet's bag of tricks.  The dog is doing incredibly well.  So when I contacted this man and his partner via e-mail and told them Zoe and I were heading to Vermont this Monday to visit their vet, they invited Zoe and me to go on a dog walk with them on Sunday, have dinner at their house, and spend the night.

I can't tell you how touched I was and am by this invitation.  And I will have a lot to post about next week.
I feel a little like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire:  "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."

Except that in this case, I thought I would have to rely solely on myself, and my husband, and my sister, and my few closest friends.  I'm learning now that the circle of care is always much wider than we ever dreamed.  

Namaste, gentle readers, and thank you again for reading and for your good wishes.  My wish for all of you is that for whatever hard thing you are going through yourselves, you know, as I do now, that there are a lot more people than you think, some of whom you haven't even met in person, some of whom you may never meet, who have your back.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 105: A Birthday, A Check-up, and a Milestone

Dear reader,
Today is a big day.  My dog, Zoe, is celebrating her ninth birthday.  In all the years we have lived together, I have never done anything special to honor her birthday.  I am heading out with Zoe to Ottawa for the day, and my husband is afraid I will return with party hats for the dogs (there will be four, counting Zoe) but not for the humans also celebrating their Aries birthdays at our house this evening (two) or for the rest of us cheering the two others on (three more humans, counting myself) but I assure you, I don't have plans to give out hats or streamers, and no one will jump out of a cake.  I know people who buy their dogs special gifts on their birthdays, or who make them special meals, but my big plan for the extravaganza is just to make dinner for a few dear friends, and to enjoy having their dogs running around us as we eat.  And I will probably take way too many pictures.

For Zoe to make it to nine is in itself a very big deal--the biggest gift.

When she was diagnosed in August with osteosarcoma, I learned that if we were to let nature take its course and didn't amputate the left hind leg with the cancerous tumors, she would probably not live to see 2012.  And if we hadn't elected to do chemotherapy as well, if she had become a tripod but not fought this aggressive cancer's spread to her lungs with the drugs, she wouldn't have made it to this birthday that coincides with the start of spring.

"Chemotherapy" and "dog" are not words I ever expected to use in the same sentence, ever.  (Maybe that's why it never occurred to me to buy pet insurance . . . )  I know it's a luxury to be able to follow this course, and the majority of the people in the world would not be able to buy their dogs time in this way.  I spend a lot of my time thinking about inequality at the national and global levels, and I am aware that there are currently 49 million human beings in this country alone who don't have health insurance, and who therefore are not doing what they can to extend their own precious, irreplaceable lives through conventional medicine.  And in my travels in India and in Senegal my heart broke at the sight of street children and homeless dogs everywhere.  So I know how lucky I am to have the power to make a decision (with a husband who is splitting the bills) that never really was a decision for me/us.

Adding on a bit more credit card debt and putting off opening a savings account and a supplemental retirement account are simply worth it to me; maybe I'm just a romantic at heart, but when I think of what Zoe brings to my life, the lessons in mindfulness and joy, I can't imagine another way.   Plus, our kids are grown, and my husband and I are both orphans now, so we're really only paying for our own upkeep.  But really, the issue has been, is this course of action we are taking for Zoe, or for me/us?  What I'm really asking day after day: Is this dog happy?  Does she like her life?  Does she eat with gusto?  Does she love her daily walks?  Does she wake up every morning excited to greet the day?  As long as the answer to these questions is yes more than 95% of the time, then there's no question what our path will be.

One morning when Zoe was a puppy, I took her on a walk near our house on a 3.2 mile paved loop called Partridge Run.  Here dogs really should stay on leads because it's a popular bike path and place for roller bladers, and Zoe almost ran into one of those kids on blades, the elder daughter of B., one of my colleagues, an environmental philosopher/ethicist.  Do you want to know what this smart little girl said when my puppy almost made her fall?  "That's okay.  Zoe means 'bringer of life' in Greek, so that's what she's doing today. Adding more life to our day."

Zoe, bringer of life.  I hadn't known the meaning of her name.  The smart twelve-year-old daughter of the philosopher had to tell me that.  And here's the thing.  As she fights for her life on the cellular level, there is no evidence on the surface that anything is amiss.  Her eyes gleam, her coat shines, and she runs with her pack with the same sass and bravado.

Just now, I looked for a fuller definition of the name on google, and some web site or other gave me this:
I took this picture yesterday.  She's under the deck.

zoe { dzo-ay’}
Strong's Lexicon: Greek Origin
- the state of one who is possessed of vitality or is animate
- every living soul
- of the absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belongs to God, and through Him
- life real and genuine, a life active and vigorous, devoted to God, blessed, in the portion even in this world of those who put their trust in Christ, and to last for ever.
 Okay, I don't go in for all the God talk.  As some of you who have been reading my posts know, my religion is this:  God = dog = love.  Mine is a secular spirituality:  I believe in the force of love, animals, and nature, in social justice and peace.  But still, I love the idea that this name I picked just because I liked it and thought it was kind of spunky is a name that connotes vitality, the force of life, and goodness.

I will say this: bringing this animal into my family has made me a better human.  A more loving, compassionate, in-the-moment human, and a less self-centered, distracted, petty, solipsistic, head-up-my-heiny one (although as I wrote this, Zoe woke up from her nap and started licking her butt.)

So today's a big day.  Not only is she alive, but she's going to Alta Vista Animal Hospital again for a lung x-ray and blood work.  We'll see what's really going on inside, and if the new drugs she is on--palladia and cyclophosphamide--are helping.  If they are, if the nodules in her lungs are shrinking or at least staying the same size, then this dog will be able to bring more life into my life for many more months.  If not, I will love every day we have together.

I really hope, dear reader, that you will consider sharing the story of Zoe with anyone you know whose dog has cancer--especially people who just got the heartbreaking diagnosis and are deciding what to do.  I can tell you this much: the seven months we have had together since her diagnosis have been among the happiest days--and I now measure time in days--of my life, because of what I have learned about investing more of myself to every moment.  Zoe has taught me this.  And so has writing this blog.  Having to glean a lesson from every day, something vaguely essay-worthy, has been a tough assignment, but it has helped me find the sacred in the quotidian.

And I hope you will spread the word to your dog and cat friends that getting pet insurance might be a good idea.  We can't get it now, but we're committed to this course, and luckily, my husband and I both have secure jobs.  I haven't looked into how much of her treatment would have been covered if we did have insurance, but I'll find out and let you know.

In the meantime, thank you so much for reading.  I plan to continue this blog after we reach the milestone of 108 days.  (And if you are new to this blog, and are curious, just go to the home page and read more about the significance of doing something you want to turn into a reflexive habit--in this case, meditating and posting for 108 straight days, or look here, as to the method to my madness in "Winter with Zoe."  The post will have a new subtitle, but I'm hooked on it now, so I'll continue. We will let Winter persist in Bloglandia, but not its weather!  I'll have more to say about this plan soon.)

Tomorrow I'll have news about how it went today at Alta Vista, and I'll probably have something embarrassing to report about my behavior at this milestone birthday.

But until then, thank you so much for reading.  And may you all have a lovely first full day of spring.  May this spring bring you new life too--a lot of what the Greeks described as Zoe.

With gratitude,


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 104: Familiarity Does not Breed Contempt--Gertrude Stein and the Dog Agree

We like to think of our escape to the South in March as a human-friendly dog vacation at a human-friendly dog hotel, but I'm pretty sure Zoe only likes it because we've been here before, and therefore, it's a bit like being at home--another home.  What she likes is that it's familiar.  She knows these beachy smells now.  She likes the sound of the ocean.  But if she could tell us directly, I am sure she would say that the Carolina coast has nothing on the North Country, where we live, and where she can preside over another balcony overlooking another body of water, the Grasse River.

We were on the second day driving home and had crossed from Pennsylvania into New York when Zoe really perked up in the car. 

I watched her watching the landscape intently.

In North Carolina, we had seen dolphins and pink sunrises and trees ablaze with white buds.

We had run through salt water and watched seagulls and terns swoop down for fish.

But what excited Zoe was a return to the familiar.

This is what dogs teach us. That our home, wherever it is, is where we create our lives in every way imaginable.  Anyone can love a sunrise beach walk in mild weather.  But to love the place where we live in every season, even the monochrome ones, requires a subtle kind of knowing.  After a while, certain storm-scarred trees and shrubs become as recognizable and distinct as people and other creatures.  We know where the swimming holes are.  We know where to find berries in late summer and trillium in May.  If we can see this beauty a few paces from where we live, if we learn how to see and appreciate that place from moment to moment, we are truly alive.

The North Country has its share of poverty and extreme weather.  There is no ocean, and the river valley where we live is fairly flat.  When others might focus on the trailers we just passed, Zoe watches the sky and sees the branches bend in the wind. 

When others see farms that could be anywhere else in the U.S., Zoe smells the ones she knows.

And she is always thrilled to see critters out enjoying the sun. 
How I wish I had a photo--it was on the driver's side--of the happy, shirtless, Buddha-bellied farmer sitting in the grass with about thirty of his goats.  And then there are the Amish farms, the horses and buggies that she sometimes yells at for driving too fast.

While others might see these fields as monochrome, she sees the tall grass and knows what it feels like to run through it.

When others might see merciless rocks that the first farmers here had to remove with oxen, that miners later made into talcum powder, Zoe sees landmarks that tell her she's close. 

And then it's our street. She stands now at the car window, her face rapt.

And here is our yard.  Where did winter go?  It is warmer here than it was in North Carolina.  She runs up to the house to make sure all is as it should be.  She hugs her favorite carpet.  And later, she runs back outside to see the river again, her old friend.

And then on Monday, when it's near-summer weather, she takes her normal warm weather position under the deck.  She likes the cool leaves in her little fort down there, and she's so content to be back doing her job, watching the house, that she curls up her paws as she does when she's getting her belly rubbed.

Having a dog, going through a decade of one's life--more if we are lucky--with a dog helps us see what is around us anew every day, after every trip.

Gertrude Stein wrote in Paris, France: 
“Familiarity does not breed contempt. On the contrary the more familiar it is the more rare and beautiful it is. Take the quarter in which one lives, it is lovely, it is a place rare and beautiful and to leave it is awful.”
 My dog would agree, and as her person I have come to understand that it is wisdom to know this.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 103: A Tale of Two Mondays

Part I      The Monday before Spring Break:  Putting Mindfulness to the Test

So I've been trying to be totally here now, and that means focusing my attention not just on the obvious things that require complete concentration, like driving and writing, but mundane tasks where it is easy to drift off: washing the dishes, chopping carrots, doing laundry, getting mail at the post office, that sort of thing.

Early on I wrote a post, which you can find here, a taking-out-the-trash meditation, courtesy of Thich Nhat Hanh from You are Here.  I try to employ this helpful mantra on garbage day:

"Flowers and garbage are both organic in nature.  So looking deeply into the nature of a flower, you can see the presence of the compost and the garbage.  The flower is also going to turn into garbage, but don't be afraid!  You are a gardener, and you have in your hands the power to transform garbage into flowers, into fruit, into vegetables.  You don't throw anything away, because you are not afraid of garbage.  Your hands are capable of transforming it into flowers, or lettuce, or cucumbers.

"The same is true of your happiness and your sorrow.  Sorrow, fear, and depression are all a kind of garbage.  These bits of garbage are part of real life, and we must look deeply into their nature.  You can practice in order to turn these bits of garbage into flowers.  It is not only your love that is organic; your hate is, too.  So you should not throw anything out.  All you have to do is learn how to transform your garbage into flowers."
But what would Thich Nhat Hanh say about our problem with our neighbors, who give us their garbage?  Zen task of the morning: How to bring mindfulness to the dirty ugly truth that someone is putting trash in our bin and expecting us to take care of it?

We live on a busy road in a small village and over the years we've had to contend with the spectacle of all kinds of nasty stuff tossed onto our lawn: McDonald's cups, coke bottles, empty cigarette cartons.  And then there was the notorious drive-by diapering.  Don't ask.

But now we have a new problem, as of 2012.  We have "neighbors"--I use this term loosely because I know our neighbors across the street and next door, and they are all courteous, rules-playing, generous people who are quite clearly not the culprits here--who leave trash in our bins and expect us to not only pay for it, but bag it for them.

Well, the first time it was in a bag--one of the black bags that had just been outlawed by New York State.  We had just bought clear bags for our garbage, and our garbage-donors hadn't.  So I transferred the contents of their very large, heavy black bag into one of our new clear ones, and then, of course, because it was as tall as I am, and maybe also because I wasn't being mindful enough, it broke, and their garbage and I bonded in a very intimate way.  On my hands, down my legs, were spilled sodas, cigarette butts, and something viscous and sweet-smelling like pudding or melted ice cream.

Lately the trash just comes in loose shopping bags from the Price Chopper.

"Maybe if you pay close attention, you'll find a bill or something, that has their address," my husband told me.  He had seen the garbage earlier and planned to deal with it after the dog walk without telling me, but then his car died and I had to go fetch Zoe and hand him his wallet while he called AAA.

So here is my test.  Or course I'm pissed off, but I also don't want to let it wreck my morning.  I have work to do.  So I behold the bags.  Why does this garbage donation feel particularly hostile?  Inside the top bag is a big wad of human hair.  Long and black.  And some bloodied Q-tips.  Where have those Q-tips been?

I think, well, this is organic material.  It belonged to a living human being with real life human problems, including economic ones.  I certainly can relate to that one.  And I believe garbage removal should be paid for by our taxes.  I don't think it should be a luxury.  So since I'm more well off in my current life than my neighbor, I can be his or her benefactor this one time.

I think about Thich Nhat Hanh, and how the flowers become garbage, and the lettuce and cucumbers were in the compost.  But the rest of the bag contains a giant soda bottle that needs to go to recyclables (my donor expects me to sort his trash too, you see), and junk food detritus: the styrofoam Chinese to-go box, the Lucky Charms box (which should also be sorted into the paper bag, but I'm cheating now), the pizza box (that too?  I've never been sure about pizza boxes if they have pizza on them), and juice boxes.

The detritus of my neighbors' weekend is in my hands.  I'm not wearing gloves, so this feels all the more intimate.

I inhale and I exhale.  I observe all kinds of snarky class judgments rising to the surface without judging them.  Thoughts like, You could save money by cooking real food, and maybe you could afford garbage bags.  I would be happy to help you out here if I didn't have to bag your trash for you, Mr. or Ms. Long Black Hair Lucky Charms.  Maybe you would feel better, and have the energy to be doing this job yourself, if you didn't eat gross stuff all the time.
There it is out on the road, a temptation to those in need.  Wheel it in, Nat!

I was raised by a Welfare mom, but there was a garbage service in our building and we didn't have to pay for it. Would my mother have slipped out under cover of night and put our trash into other people's bins if we didn't have this service?  You bet.  We do what we do to survive.

I inhale and exhale.  Then I decide to mix my donor's trash with ours into a single bag so as to save not only on our bill but on the plastic that goes into the landfill.  That is the ultimate fusing.  Lucky Charms falls next to the empty bag of Zoe's food.  She needs all the luck she can get, so I'll take it where I can.

But now I'm onto the next stage of mindfulness.  To remember to wheel in our garbage bin, after the collectors have come for it, so that we don't have to go through this exercise every single week.

My view every morning as I wrote last week
Namaste, my friends.

Sweet Interlude on the Beach:

Part II    Putting Mindfulness to the Test, Two Mondays Later

We drove home from North Carolina to progressively warmer weather.  It was 65 when we took our last beach walk, and we returned to 77 degrees.

While we were gone, someone came and stole winter from us.  There is no snow anywhere to be found.

The dog runs through the yard looking for it.

The house is clean, and since we made no garbage this week, we have nothing to wheel out, and nothing to tempt the local garbage donors.

I wake Monday at 6 to walk to the studio for meditation and writing, with nothing to try not to grumble over, nothing to rise above, nothing to transcend.  Just a morning like any other: pink sky, still wind, and the river, my old friend, flowing past the house in no hurry to go anywhere or be anything other than what it is.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Day 102: We saw a Dolphin, and Other Memories Not Photographed

1.  We saw a dolphin on our last day.  We weren't trying to.  We didn't have our heart set on anything except rest and a few good walks.  But here we were, on the balcony.  The sun had just come out after a very brief rain.  My husband said, very calmly, "There it is.  The dolphin."  We saw its gray fin, and then it was gone, and then it was there again.  Then I went back to eating my yogurt.

2.  On a midday beach walk, I saw a tern with its wondrous spiky headdress and black-tipped tail pecking at a fish. The fish had the same coloring as the bird, mostly white with gray and black, and at first I thought the bird was eating a bird: tern cannibals!  I was quite relieved that it was just my eyesight and sicko imagination conspiring.

3. Every day walking on the beach I saw birds feeding on the water. 

4.  If a sound could be photographed or posted, I would want to hold this sound I hear now with me forever.  The waves, the waves, the waves.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Day 101: Dogs at Play and at Rest

On Topsail Island, dogs can run free.

The only dogs on leads are the ones that would run away otherwise, or the ones that have muzzles too, because they don't play well with others, or the ones that are new around here and can't believe their good luck.

This is my utopia.  The only place that comes close is France, where you can bring dogs inside restaurants.
Zoe with Sadie, the puppy in the room next door

These dogs of Dixie tired the old girl out
But on our last day of the vacation, we did bring Zoe to the wine bar outside the bookstore we love, and she took time to smell the flowers.  The new guy there, Jonathan, brought her out a couple milkbones.  Beth told her she was welcome any time.

If you come to this wonderful island with your dog, tell the dogs you meet that Zoe and Natalia say hello.

It was jacket weather at first, but by the end of the week, it was warm

This dog is named for a famous photographer.  His person is an anthropologist.

The anthropologist is dating a woman much younger, and her dog is much younger too.

Young dogs can always get Zoe to swim.

This wolfy dog would prefer to be pulling a sled in snow, and his person is a skier who had a hard time deciding between a beach week and the last week to ski of the season

This is Zoe most of the day on Topsail, but sometimes she is sitting.

I was afraid these dogs would run off with the fish the people had caught, or the tackle boxes.

At the bookstore/wine bar

Flowers!  in March!

Sitting outside in March after buying too many books: perfect end to a perfect week

Friday, March 16, 2012

Day 100: Lessons Learned on a Beach Walk in March, Upon Returning to a Place the Dog Used to Run Wildly through With Four Legs

1.  If there isn't a dog at the end of the beach, and we don't have treats, our tripod dog does not want to walk as long as she used to.  This is neither good, nor bad, but it means we have to get our exercise in other ways.

She was about to go on a sit-down strike only about fifteen minutes into the walk, when she spotted a golden retriever at the edge of the beach.  If you look closely at this picture, you see the golden's tail seeming to come out of Zoe's body.

2.  We can trust her now not to roll in every single smelly thing.  Case in point: the 13 jellyfish we counted on the walk back.  This is a good development.

3.  If the male person leaves to go to throw away the poop bag, and the team of three is split up, Zoe will be in a quandary.  For a long time she will stand in between her two people, pointing one way, then the other.  As a herding dog, this is a difficult moment for her.  Her sheep are not together.

4.  When possible, she will dog the man's footsteps, and we now understand why this noun is sometimes the only verb that will do.

Here's the sequence of how it went down, below:

The dog's male person leaves to toss the poop bag.  Dog can't take her eyes off him.

Dog gets in line directly behind him as soon as he's back and they walk away from the other person, who is once again taking too many pictures.

Plowing through sand can be harder than cutting a path through snow
5.  Three flights of stairs, with landings, and all that space in between, are a bit too much for a tripod dog at this stage of the game.  (Husband with arthritic hip concurs.) She often looks longingly on the second floor.  Are we there yet?  And today on the afternoon walk, her footing gave out, the back leg collapsed, just before we started up the stairs.  I thought I was going to have to carry her, and wasn't sure I could.  She weighs 65 pounds now.  But then she just rallied.  She said, Yes we can, like an Obama dog campaign ad, and before I knew it we were up.

6.  A dog doing a back roll in jellyfish-free sand is just as adorable as one rolling in snow.  The difference is that the snow melts on the carpet, and the sand, well, it never goes away unless you vacuum.  But if you don't care, it's sure cute.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Day 99: Three Dog Morning, with Scones

What a joy it is to visit a former student and kindred spirit on a spring day in a garden that smells like summer.

We drive into the college town guided by the GPS, which sends us to the lovely home of Yogini Writer Teacher Mom and Architect Painter Musician and their two small sons and two old dogs and one ancient cat. 

When we first met in the early 90s, I was a few years younger than Yogini Writer Teacher Mom is now, and she was a sophomore in my writing class.  Through work we did on social justice issues on our campus, and our shared addiction to literature, we began a lifelong conversation that we resume every few years, as we can. The last time I saw her was at her wedding six years ago.  The time before that was at mine.

She has prepared a tray of scones and coffee cakes and fresh strawberries, which we enjoy in the garden.  Fresh tulips and lilies in vases, the magnolia tree out front, and the rich green grass all conspire to make me forget that it's March.

While the boys are in pre-school, we talk about teaching; writing; family; birth order and how it affects, well, everything; dogs; the eternal quest to fit writing into an extremely busy life; and my recent travels to India (where her great-grandparents fled the Nazis to practice medicine in Bangalore for ten years) and the time passes so quickly that at the end of it we wish we could just set the visit on rewind and relive those 90 minutes again.

Zoe is thrilled to be hosted by two elder statesdogs.  The team captain, a basset hound, is a proud old Southerner who expects Zoe and her people to follow strict protocols.  I learn this firsthand when I hug him and kiss his head, as I do so often with Zoe it's as automatic as breathing.  The team captain would prefer air kisses on a first encounter, or better yet, a handshake.  I apologize for my presumptuousness and he agrees to let me stay as long as I behave.

Mr. Gratitude is a black-and-white Heinz 57 that this family rescued from evil forces, which is why he and his entourage are traveling by their spy names today.

For months Mr. Gratitude and his mother, Helen Keller, were made to live on their own in a garage. Their person, who by all accounts truly loved them, had died, and her dandy son inherited the two senior pooches.  Said son is a man about town who was busy running for Dogcatcher.  With so much to do for the campaign, new suits to buy, shoes to keep shiny, babies to kiss, he couldn't find the time either to take his late mother's dogs in or find homes for them.  I guess he thought, hey, they're old.  Every few weeks or so he'd remember the dogs and bring a big trough of food for them, but he kept expecting them to be dead.  How disappointing it must have been for him to discover that, despite his best non-efforts, these two were survivors--in part because of the kindness of their neighbors.

Yogini Writer Teacher Mom kept her eye on these dogs, and visited them with her children, and now Mr. Gratitude is part of their family.   Two months ago, before he came home with them, he had no fur on him.  Now he has a lovely thick coat.  He is so sweet that it took great restraint on my part not to sneak away with him.

The vet and another neighbor are paying for Helen Keller's care. When they took her to the animal hospital she had 20 kidney stones.  She is also blind and deaf, but she may have life in her yet.

Yogini Writer Teacher Mom and Architect Painter Musician work full time.  YWTM teaches four courses a semester, all of them writing-intensive, and she spends her days grading endless stacks of papers when she's not looking after the two small boys, whom we picked up from their pre-school at lunchtime.  Yet this busy family found the means to save these dogs.

Zoe has had a lifelong fear of peppy little boys, but after a few minutes in the company of the three-year-old, who knew just how to approach her, she felt brave enough to meet the other children at the pre-school.  Under this young dog whisperer's calming influence she allowed herself to be petted by three small children at once, and as her closing act she ventured over, on her own initiative, to meet a baby.  This was a major milestone in Zoe's career as an ambassador for her kind.

But when it came to the cat, Zoe made no progress.  For her entire life she has hoped in vain to befriend a cat, or better yet, to find a cat who is willing to wrestle with her without using its claws, get her high on its catnip, then carry around her food and open doors for her.  Zoe wagged her tail and stared, and the cat stared back, but Zoe's shadow loomed too large against the wall for the cat to dare to venture inside.