“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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Part II: Day 45, The Storm, the Wall, and Some Good Stuff in Between

Driving back on Tuesday from Zoe's acupuncture appointment in Vermont, after a lovely and restful Memorial Weekend at my sister's, the receptionist said: "Did you hear about the tornado warnings?"

"Really, where?" my husband asked.

She looked again at the computer.

"Uh, where you are headed right now, I think," she said.  "And all of Vermont too."  She read more about what was expected.  Torrential rain, high winds, thunder, hail.

"Figures," I said. 

For the past hour, Dr. Bond (Emily) had treated Zoe for her cancer, but also for anxiety: the first time this has been necessary.  Zoe had whimpered much of the way there from Massachusetts and had cried all the way to Massachusetts on Saturday.  Zoe's cry is very high-pitched.  It's plaintive.  Piercing.  Heartbreaking.  Normally she's a great traveler and she only whines and cries when she has to pee, or if she thinks she's going to be left behind.  Not this weekend.  This was not the same dog who, two years earlier, spent seven months in France, eleven weeks of which we wandered from place to place by car and boat, never staying anywhere for longer than a week.  This was not the dog who bounded fiercely through Alpine meadows and leapt with joy into the Mediterranean Sea.

I felt like we'd already been riding a storm cloud for days.  Now we were driving into one.

*   *   *   *   *

Just before Memorial Day weekend, I hit the wall:

Meditation: a patch on stress relief, nothing deep, nothing life-altering, and definitely nothing blissful.

Writing: A few very good days, but by Saturday morning I was too worried about Zoe to go in deep.  To write well I have to loosen the reins, forget people might read it and just follow the trail of imagery and insight and crazy loop-de-loops of insight and metaphor and characters behaving badly or surprisingly well and let them decide what to do and when.

To do this well I have to let go.  But I felt with every other part of me--the part not writing the novel, anyway--like I had to hang on tight.

In meditation class, our teacher Rebecca says that when she is with us as our teacher and guide she goes into a "light" meditation state so that she can be ready and alert if any of us needs her.  People can go to all kinds of wild places in meditation, and sometimes it's frightening.  She said, "I also need to be aware if anyone walks into the door."  She keeps the place safe for all of us.

Perhaps that's the role I'm performing for my dog these days and I really don't feel like I can abandon that post, even if she's outside or in the house and I'm in my studio.

Well, that's one way of looking at it.  The other is that I've been a frantic worrier.  Since Sunday night, May 20th, the evening after our college's commencement, Zoe wasn't doing very well and I didn't know how to help her.  I spent hours of the day looking on the internet about the side effects of Kinavet, Zoe's new drug, and not getting anywhere.

Something had changed last week, after we started her on this new drug.  She stopped trusting us.  She wouldn't eat.  She looked at her bowl with contempt.  She didn't want to just hang out with us and frolic.  She was still energetic and content on walks, and she perked up now and then--enough to tell us it wasn't The End--but something was markedly different, and we had nothing in our bag of tricks to help her.  When I found out she had protozoa in her system I was very relieved, thinking we had the reason, something ordinary and treatable, for her stomach woes, but even then we knew the new medicine had to be at least partly to blame.

It's one thing to have an adverse reaction to a drug.  That's a potentially big problem, but we could always go back to the drug she was on earlier this spring.  The real issue was this: had the disease advanced enough to make her feel bad?  Was she suffering? 

She was picky and finicky for a few days, but then Zoe went on strike.  She got all Bartleby-the-Scrivener on us and said, I would prefer not to. 

Her doggy health food diet, with all the non-wheat grains, the raw meats, the vegetables, the herbs?

She would not go near it.

She'd been so compliant.  We could mix all those Chinese herbs right into her food most of the time and if we topped up her food with a little bit of something she wanted, more meat, or some nibbles of cheese, or broth, she would ignore the ick factor and just go for it.

Then I spent a great deal of energy trying to decide if it was mean and evil of me to ask my husband to put the Chinese herbs and potions into a syringe and get them in her that way.  Mean and evil to make him do it, because I just can't, and mean and evil to subject her to more invasive stuff when all she wanted to do was lie in the shade and be a normal dog on a hot summer day.

But then again, this method of getting down the herbs works for Milo, Zoe's doggy friend in Vermont who has the same kind of cancer.  So why can't we make this work for us?

The two of me duked it out.

Meanwhile, my husband started tearing apart the side of our house so that we can insulate it better and put up some siding along the deck.  He's taking good care of us.  It's an important project and this is the right time to get it done. But here's the thing: our house's exterior looked the way I was starting to feel inside.  Like life as I had known it was now a demolition project.

This is all because Zoe had stopped trusting us, had decided her silver bowl was radioactive, and seemed also to lose her appetite for cuddling and play. 

I'd been waiting all week to hear back from the oncologist about this new drug and its potential side effects and I felt so helpless.   I wanted to help my dog but I didn't know how.  And it had all happened so suddenly.  She was completely fine, and then she wasn't, and it felt like there was nothing gradual in between.

I'd written about the whole "sudden decline" factor in a recent post: of the dogs of friends going downhill without warning, the dogs of friends who were left reeling in shock.  In writing that post I was rehearsing for the moment when I, too, will have to let go and say good-bye to our pup, but when I wrote it Zoe was perfectly fine so I could allow myself the luxury of imagining the worst--we weren't there yet.

When a week had passed without hearing from the oncologist I sent another message.  I should have called too, I should have called on Friday, but I was running around getting errands done then and it's never possible to get through to her without waiting for several hours and then I just feel frustrated and anxious.  At least, though, if I had called I would have been on her radar.  And I had total faith that I'd get an e-mail message.  The vet techs have always been great about this.  So Saturday morning I sent an e-mail thinking that maybe at the very least someone would call me on Tuesday, after the long weekend.  But when I sent my message I got the oncologist's vacation message which said that she was going to be gone all of the coming week and wouldn't be back until a few days after Zoe's drugs had run out.  That's when I panicked, big time.

It was a holiday weekend, no one would be around to help, and I thought I was going to have drive for hours and hours to some oncology vet in a distant state to get Zoe seen to.  I wrote a desperate e-mail to a vet that I thought was at the Cornell veterinary school, but was actually in Connecticut.  I looked into animal hospital hours in Massachusetts, where we were heading.  I thought about Tufts in Boston, where my sister's dog got really good care when she had a wood sliver lodged in her throat and had to have it surgically removed.  I was thinking I had to do something Big, something Drastic.  I was thinking if I didn't solve this problem that very morning All Would Be Lost.

It was a bad flashback, a deja-vu to a place I thought I'd long since left behind.  I knew what was happening even while it was happening, but I couldn't make it stop.  I felt the same panic, the same heart elevating, adrenalin-rushing-through-the-body dread and fear I felt when our mother would have psychotic episodes when I was a child and no reliable adult was available to intervene.  It was that same feeling of How can I help her?  Who will come to our aid?  How can I make a medical decision for her when I don't understand what's happening?  I have to fix this.  I don't know how to fix this.  I have to fix this.  I don't know how.

It was worse than this, actually, this Saturday morning meltdown, because going back to this place just felt so ridiculous and overblown and melodramatic and wrong.  I thought, my goodness, if you're going to have a panic attack because your dog has lost her appetite and is acting paranoid now in your company, how are you going to be able to help your husband in a time of crisis?  What good will you to be your sister or friends when they fall apart? Pull yourself together, woman!

And so on.

It's one thing to have a flashback to the places that scare us.  It's another thing to judge that experience as inappropriate and then beat ourselves up for having it while we are having it.

Honestly, in the eleven months since I first noticed Zoe limping, I've experienced many days of great sorrow, a handful of crying jags, but I don't think I ever went through a panicky meltdown quite like the one I had Saturday morning when I thought our medical support system was also in the hands of the demolition crew, and my husband and I were on our own, the dog was going to suffer now, and we didn't know what to do.

Somehow I pulled myself together and helped my husband pack up the car.

Zoe cried the whole six and a half hours the whole way there.  She has never behaved like this in her life.

I said to myself, This dog sounds like how I feel right now.  We are each other's mirror.  We're in a co-dependent relationship.  We need a therapist. 

And so on.


When we got to my sister and brother-in-law's house, Zoe seemed pleased to be there, as ever, but she didn't do what she usually does: run a lap around the house, then charge in, pull all the plush squeaky toys out of Sadie's box because she can, and say, Queen Alpha is baaack, hellooo! 

She wandered in, wagged her tail in a blasé way, then headed out to the deck to rest.  I need a break from my frantic person, she seemed to be saying.  I need some space.  Can I get a little air, please?  

It occurred to me then that just as she had seemed like a stranger to me all week, perhaps, in my panicked state, I had seemed like a stranger to her.


And then something shifted a little--the change of venue was probably what we all needed.  That night we realized that Zoe would eat if we gave her dog food and cat food from a can.  And if we put it in a different bowl, not the silver one which she now associates with All Bad Things.  There was nothing wrong with her appetite.  She was hungry.  She was just like a kid who says Enough of the spelt and spirolina and lentil cutlets!  I want a cheeseburger and fries and coke like a normal kid.   You people are freaks! 

Zoe had hit the wall too.  She'd been on her best behavior, she'd been strong and resilient and compliant for so long.  Now, it seemed, she just wanted us to treat her like a typical dog.  A regular dog, who eats regular dog food, and hangs out, and walks, and isn't fussed over, and is permitted the luxury of having bad moods without it meaning The End is Near.

So we gave her a day off, a Sunday sabbatical, from the new drug, Kinavet.  And we haven't given her any herbal treatments since.  I know they help her with her vitality and keep her immune system strong, but what we need now even more than that is for our relationship with her to be strong, and that means we do it her way.  We need her to trust us.  We need her to feel safe with us.  At the vet's on Tuesday morning, Emily suggested we put the herbs in capsules and I'm going to do that tomorrow.  She's really good about taking pills in little balls of cream cheese or peanut butter.  But the herbals in caps will mean 12 pills a day, and we'll just have to see how that goes.  If it doesn't work out, I'm not going to sweat it.

She needs to have a happy, uncomplicated doggy life until it's time to say good-bye.

And here's the thing:  Once we decided to give her a day off from drugs and to let her eat whatever she wants to eat and to take a little sabbatical from the herbs, we got our dog back.  She became our sweet, mellow Zoe again.

We walked our usual five miles a day.

She swam.

She played with Sadie and they fought their usual tug-of-war for the ball.

She found a cool spot in the iris bed and posed for us.

She rolled in the wood chip pile and gave us her goo-goo I know I'm Adorable come hither look.

My friend Sara told me this wise thing on Monday, when we met at the Leverett Coop for a walk in the woods and lunch: "Whatever your emotional baggage is, even if you think you're not carrying it around any more, it's going to hit you when you have a medical emergency with your loved one if no one comes to your aid."  She told me a terrifying story about how her mom had had surgery and then later went into withdrawal from the pain medication and went through what seemed at the time like a psychotic episode.  No one at the hospital had warned her that this could happen.  And the only thing she could do was to take her mom to an emergency room and sit with her for seven hours until someone was willing to see her and prescribe that drug again.  "When you are in a situation like this and you feel helpless, everything from your past comes out.  You may think you're over something, that you've left it long behind you, and then it's back," she said.

Then she told me how a few years ago she had helped her mom with a medical crisis and for that one she'd held it together just fine, but when she flew home to find out a kitten she had rescued was in serious trouble she completely fell apart.  "I don't cry about the people I love the way I did with this helpless little animal," she said.  "I think it has to do with the fact that our relationships with people are complicated.  But with these little animals we love . . ."

 "They're our hearts," I said.  "They're the furry little loving part of us.  We give them unconditional love and they give it back in a way that people just can't.  So when they are suffering, and we feel helpless because we can't make them feel better, we feel our emotions without any defenses."

The weekend was just what the three of us needed.  Zoe got to be herself again.  My husband got to rest his back after all the demolition work on the house.  I worked on my novel and got a lot of sleep and had other people help keep an eye on our girl--people who love her, whom she loves as much as she loves us.  By the time we were packing up to go home on Tuesday, I felt strong and peaceful again.  Zoe was fine.  She was our old dog again.  Nothing was wrong with her appetite--she just wanted to call the shots.  She still had her zest for life.

And then I found out that our oncologist had, indeed, tried to get in touch with me.  She had left two messages on my cell phone on Monday--that's usually her day off, so I hadn't expected this--and she promised a long, detailed conversation.  I had felt completely abandoned on Saturday, and now, a few days later, I got into the car to drive home with the terrible sinking realization that I was now the weak link in the chain, I had dropped the ball.  I didn't realize it at the time, but we hadn't had cell phone coverage where we'd been frolicking for much of the weekend.  The phone was by my side when the calls came but the phone never rang.

And now this person I so needed to speak to was on vacation and I was back where I'd started: the drugs were running out and I didn't know what to do.

This cancer is aggressive.  A few days without the medication might mean that Zoe's tumors blow up in no time at all.

This time I had screwed up.  All because of technology.  In Massachusetts I hadn't been able to get on the internet either--something wonky with my sister's new server--and I hadn't pushed it, or asked to borrow her laptop, because to be honest, it was nice to take a rest, have a holiday weekend without being plugged in.  If I had checked e-mail I would have known the call was coming.

I had now missed the call I'd been waiting for for more than a week, and we were in a bind.

What were we going to do?

*   *   *   *   *

This is what the sky and clouds looked like when we left Vermont and drove into Northern New York:



 Zoe was in the back seat and as the heavens opened, she started to whine.  We still had another three hours until we had to go home to our messy house where there are boards and bricks everywhere and not enough medicine for Zoe or a plan.

I took these pictures, and I prayed.  I was really pissed off, if you want to know the truth.  I did not have the proper attitude of gratitude.  I did not feel the least bit zen.  My attitude was, fuck that whole letting go thing.  Fuck the whole attachment is suffering thing.  Don't expect me to be so good.  I need to be snarky here.  I need to be mad.  I'm tired of being resilient and positive.  Let me just sink into this sinkhole for a few minutes and spew a little, okay? 

I looked back over the weekend.  I had gone three mornings in a row without meditating, which is the longest I've gone in a year.  I was on strike, in my own way, just as Zoe had been.  And now I looked at the sky, and I said, Really?  Seriously?  You're going to give this just-back-from-freaked-out-dog and her just-back-from-freaked-out-person and her just-back-from-trying-to-calm-down-freaked-out-person-and dog husband a friggin' tornado now?  Are you fucking kidding me?

Then I thought, okay.  Let's try something else.  I closed my eyes and counted my breaths, basically just to stop from hyperventilating.  I got my feet up into half-lotus on my car seat and meditated for a while, using the top-secret mantra my teacher gave us in the meditation tune-up class.


I looked outside at the pouring rain and then I asked my husband if he felt okay driving.  He said yes.  We were prepared to find a hotel somewhere if we had to but we were way out in the sticks.

But then I asked the universe, god = dog = love, the force of nature and animals, a little more nicely to give us a break.

And I started to feel better.  I said the mantra in my head for a while.  I breathed slowly.  Zoe stopped whining the minute my mood lifted.  It was that instantaneous.

The storm blew West and wreaked havoc on Plattsburgh, which was maybe fifteen miles from where we were at the time.

"It was like threading the eye of a needle," my husband said the next morning.  "Just a few miles away from us they had ping-pong ball size hail, terrible winds, torrential rain.  Everything we were supposed to have, but didn't."

I'm sorry, Plattsburgh.  I really am.  But I'm really glad we drove home safely without incident.

While we were still in the car, watching storm clouds head west, I got on the phone for maybe the sixth time that day and spoke to Willow, one of our vet techs.  We agreed she would order us more of the Kinavet and we'll just take it day by day until after our oncologist comes back.

"I don't know what's happening around here, Natalia," she said.  "There are so many sick animals.  Donna and I worked on Friday until 11 o'clock at night.  The dogs just kept coming and coming.  We don't know why it's like this.  We don't know why there are so many sick animals.  We don't know why we are this busy.  It's just so overwhelming."

I heard the goodness and frustration in her voice and I wanted to hug her.  I wanted to hug and love up all the afflicted beings in this cancer-infested broken and beautiful world. Why are so many dogs and cats getting cancer?

I was way over being mad and sad and feeling like a helpless child again.  That was so four-days-ago. 

Zoe is a strong, resilient dog but she needs to be able to feel like crap sometimes without her humans falling apart. We have to be able to see her through good days and bad days and let her feel safe and loved and protected through every minute of them until the very end.

Usually I'm pretty good at doing this, but last week I hit the wall.

Wednesday morning I woke up to calm skies and the sight of the great blue heron standing in tree pose on the rocks in front of the river.

I meditated and wrote and played with Zoe and had lunch with a dear friend and felt like my old self again.

When I turned on the internet for the first time since Saturday morning I found Facebook friend messages and e-mails from people sending good wishes, wanting to say hey, and some nice notes from the oncologist and vet techs whom I thought had abandoned us.   I woke to the reminder once again that we're never ever as alone as we think we are.

Zoe holds up a mirror to me.  When I feel bad, she feels bad, and vice versa.  I think she sensed all my anxiety on Saturday and carried it all the way from New York to Massachusetts.

We've had it easy these past eleven months because while Zoe is exceedingly sensitive, she is also placid and sweet and mellow.  She's what some people I've met recently call "a heart dog"--full of emotion and empathy--and to make her happy I have to hide my storms from her and stay out of sight, then come out in better weather later for a cuddle.

I've managed to do that 90% of the time this year.  But on Saturday, that long car ride--there was nowhere to hide.

Last night in my meditation class, everyone told stories about the weeks we had just had.  One woman, a very devoted yoga practitioner and meditator for decades, said that she's had moments during her meditation recently where she just burst inexplicably into sobbing.  She has relived moments of feeling alone and abandoned and unloved from when she was only four years old.  Others described sensations of color and heat and movement--what the yogis describe as kundalini awakening--an experience and sensation that Elizabeth Gilbert documents really vividly in the India section of Eat, Pray, Love.   Others talked about how when they need meditation the most, they can't find time to do it, or they do it and don't go in very deeply.  Sometimes when I sit in meditation in our class all I feel is physical pain.  Others feel emotional pain.  Our teacher tells us that we're "clearing" the pain--physical and emotional--when this happens.  We're experiencing it so that we can release it, so that we won't have the same blocks, physically and emotionally, we've been carrying with us for so long.

Last Saturday when I relived that panic of being responsible for another being but not knowing how to help her, and not being able to find anyone to give me the advice I needed, I was very frightened of that emotion.  It's one thing to release something.  It's another to get stuck there again.  But at least I understood what was happening to me even when I couldn't move past it.  

Zoe's her old self again.  This morning when I woke up she thumped her tail and rolled on her back and grunted and leaned against me.  She's off walking with my husband on the gentlemen's walk as I conclude this post.

Last night when I came home from meditation class, I took her outside.  She didn't need to pee, and didn't want to roll around in the sweet-smelling grass.  She just wanted to stare at the sky.  She nudged her snout towards my studio door, lifted her head, and I said, Okay.  We climbed the stairs and sat out on the balcony for a while, watching the night sky.  It was beautiful.  The clouds had woven a fine net over everything, but now and then a bright star blinked past.  The black sky that wasn't covered with this soft net was shaped like a black dog's head, a dog with a long snout.  A plane was flying south, its light like a dog's eye moving, blinking, watching.

I don't know what's coming next, but I'm so grateful that we still have more time.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Part II, Day 44: We are Family--the Disco, the Play, the Bugs, the Sisters

"We see some protozoa on Zoe's specimen slide.  Her immune system is compromised so we want to give her medicine so that the cocci we see here don't multiply."

"I'll be right there," I said, smiling.  I drove over to the Canton Animal Hospital and saw all kinds of people with dogs going in for what looked like routine examinations, and I was one of them.

This conversation cheered me up so much I wanted to sing and dance.  Maybe it wasn't just the new medicine taking away her appetite and screwing up her digestive system.  And the song I heard in my head was "We are Family."  Let me explain. 

When I was a senior in college I wrote a play called The Woman.  In it, two women wait for a man to come home.  One woman is kind, patient, nurturing, mature, wry, a little plump, and wise: an earth mother.  The other is pretty, skinny, sarcastic, demanding, a little needy and narcissistic, equal parts snarky and seductive.  As the play goes on, you realize that the two women are two sides of the same person.  That's right, readers.  In a not-subtle way, I had taken two clashing sides of my personality and put them on a stage to duke it out for all to see.  I don't remember the dialogue very well, but I think I was trying to cook up a dose of Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck" by marinating it with my favorite non-sequitors from Chekhov and Sam Shepherd and folding all the ingredients into a hearty casserole of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.  In other words, the ambition was there, but some of the talk must have come across as pretentious and heavy.  Still, it was great fun to write and put on a show.

The best part of this experience was working with the talented cast.  Some of the most accomplished people in my college community came together to put this one-act play on stage.  I had a very insightful, gifted male director whose work I had admired from afar.  Two of the three or four most respected women in our acting program at Northwestern University played the warring selves.  My freshman year roommate, C., whose golden doodle dog I wrote about earlier this month in "My Friend Has a Hole in Her Heart Now" wrote the music: a lush piano score that was achingly beautiful and sad, a bit like Michael Nyman's score for The Piano, which you can hear again if you press here.  I remember the guy who played the man the two women love as a real sweetie, an econ major who was friends with someone in the show, maybe the director.  Years later I ran into him in New York City at a brunch and didn't recognize him.  His head was shaved because he'd just had surgery after some thugs mugged him at an ATM, and I felt so badly for him.

The two actresses were very different from one another in real life as well as the play.  The one who played the Earth Mother was probably the more talented of the two.  She just exuded authenticity. She went on to do theater and TV work, and I saw her in a show in the late 80s about a Seattle family, the young daughter of which was played by a very young Sarah Jessica Parker.  The woman who played the snarky vamp was strikingly beautiful, but not terribly warm.   She reminded me in looks and build of a young Joan Collins.  I saw soap operas and commercials in her future, not major stage credits, but success nonetheless.  She was perfect for the part in my play except that it was very hard for her to be vulnerable.  And if she couldn't come across as authentically vulnerable without seeming melodramatic, the play wouldn't work.

Then we had another problem.  Earth Mother almost dropped out because she had a financial crisis at home and needed to get a job.  I promised her I'd find her a job with flexible hours that paid well within 24 hours, and I did.  I went all around town until I found a funky vegetarian restaurant in Evanston that had just opened.  I ate there that night and by the end of the evening I had befriended the staff.  They offered me a job, and I said, "If you like me, you're going to really flip when you meet Jane."  Then I told them that if they hired her and didn't put her on shifts that conflicted with rehearsals, they would save the day for a certain aspiring playwright.  They told me they would consider it, but she had to know something about vegetarian food.  Earth Mother was a hard core carnivore, but I went home and made flashcards for her.  It had words and concepts on it like "macrobiotic," "tofu," "tempeh," Diet for a Small Planet.  Jane auditioned for this exotic new part and she got it.  Everyone at the café loved her, as I knew they would.  I think some of the crew there came out to see the show.

I continued to have trouble with the vamp.  She just seemed so cold.  When she acted out her sadness, her hidden vulnerability, she came across as wooden and whiny.  But whenever we took a break and put on the radio, if the song "We are Family" by Sister Sledge came on, she would dance around the room with joy on her face, high-fiving everyone, shaking her bootie, and we would get up there with her, boogying on down, singing how we were all sisters, all of us, so "get up everybody and sing!"

I later found out from someone that this woman, who had seemed so spoiled and difficult, had a father who was a big-deal producer in L.A..  Once she'd called him on the phone to ask for help about something and happened to catch him in bed with a young startlet who was probably her--the daughter's--age.  He said, "Sorry, honey, but I've got a pair of tits in front of me here and you'll just have to wait."

After that, whenever I saw this woman the earth mother in me softened.  I hummed her favorite song in my head.

That song is a mantra for a lot of people in all kinds of circumstances.  It's a little bit camp, as anything from the Seventies is bound to be, but it still reminds me of the power of friendship, of how sudden joy can overtake one and change the atmosphere in the room.

And it also reminds me of parasites.

I had them once.  Giardia, nasty intestinal parasites that give you bloat, nausea, headaches, misery.  I got them in Paris, of all places, when I was in graduate school.

To lighten the atmosphere, make the whole ritual of taking a stool specimen on the bus from Northampton, Mass to Amherst, a bus packed to the gills with anxious students and hipster wanna-bes in black, I sang this song, "We are Family," in my head.  To honor the colonizing microbes whom I would soon kill off, one by one, with harsh medicine I'd have to take every day for six months, I serenaded them later with this song and danced around my apartment: anything to make a dark comedy about bodily functions feel less heavy.

Zoe has had all kinds of critters inhabiting her gut over the years because she eats gross things in the woods.  When I thought her lack of appetite this week might be due to little bugs and not the anti-cancer drug, I rejoiced.

Thank god for small things.  Thank dog for small things.

Bad puns abound.

Now, back to the opening scene of this post.  I return from the vet's.  Later, after I give Zoe her kill-critters-in-the-gut medicine, I pick up my friend Rebecca and we head into Potsdam to run errands.  Rebecca's cat, Webster, now has a little kitten sister, a cute black-and-white kitty our friend Diane rescued.  "Webster's less lonely and needy now that he has a sister to play with," Rebecca says.

There is so much construction work going on in our town that the first road we go to is closed.  We try another, but there are flares in the road marking an accident.  So I turn around.  I was already running late, and now I'm really late.  Rebecca's going to be on time for her eye appointment, but I'm going to be late for my pedicure.

Now, not to be gross here, but when I get a pedicure, it's not exactly a blissful spa experience.  I have inherited my grandmother's ingrown toenails.  If you don't know what that feels like, imagine having little slivers of glass around the rims of your toes.  I have found the only person outside of a podiatrist's office who can and will get these awful internal claw weapons out while also massaging and buffing and beautifying, and she only charges $30 and won't accept tips.

She's a busy professional and has clients coming to her tonight until 10 PM.  I can't miss this appointment.

Rebecca calls from the road on her phone and then navigates as my wing-woman.  "Don't get behind that truck," she says, when we're finally on Route 11.  "He'll slow us down.  Good, now get ahead and pass him.  Go, go, go!"

My friend Rebecca is a director in the theater.  She read and critiqued the only other play I wrote in my life.  She's the perfect person to have along on this escapade.

After the conclusion of our appointments, we stop at Agway, where Rebecca found out a few weeks ago (I just linked to that post) that I could buy some rabbit for Zoe.  Rebecca is here to purchase a perennial flowering plant for her husband's grave.  I'm honored to be along for the mission.

That evening, at dinner with some of my soul sisters, one of them raises a glass and says, "We have to see each other more often.  We have to make more time to be together."

We all agree.  Schemes are hatched.  There's a lunch date coming next week.

And today, while I send this post out into the world, Zoe, my husband and I are packing up to go off to see my actual blood sister, who is hosting us this Memorial Day weekend with her husband and dog.

We weren't planning on spending the weekend together, but with Zoe's situation before us, it's carpe diem, baby, every single diem.

On the first trillium walk of the season, I called Zoe and she came running up with this dead thing in her mouth.  I forgot all about it, forgot even I had documentary evidence of her hunting prowess, but then a few days later, when she wouldn't eat, and she had the runs, I found this photo and rejoiced.  In a way, I have to admire her for taking the matter of what to feed herself into her own capable hands/teeth/paws.  She's getting tired of being force-fed medicines and here she is, reverting to her wolfy state.
We are kindred.  Even the critters who live in us that we don't want to feed.  Even the needy, difficult selves we can't accept when we're young, that take us a few decades to incorporate into our whole being.  Sisters, brothers, protozoa, with feet, with ingrown toenails, with tails.  My apologies if now there's a certain song you can't get out of your head.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Part II: Day 43: Sweet Things

After hearing bad news on Friday about Zoe's lung x-rays, I have made it a point to make note of something sweet or unexpected or lovely that happens every day.  I just don't want to miss the good stuff because in many ways, this is a very rich time.  So this is my version of a gratitude journal, an inventory of the little things that can buoy up a gal's spirits--this dog's person's spirits anyway--in a time of difficulty and change and impending loss. 

Saturday, May 19:

As I mentioned in "The God of Dirt," this is the day I planted flower boxes for Zoe's balcony.  And even though the sweat bees did not want to give up their dirt and moss for these pink snapdragons and purple pansies, when I woke up the next day, they were gone.

I’d read that to expel the bees I would need to dowse their dirt with three treatments of some poison that I don’t want around these parts at this time.  These guys just took the hint and took off.  I guess they weren't attracted to the smell of my sweat. I don't take it personally. 

Now Zoe and I start every morning out on this balcony together.  I've moved from my meditation corner inside to a spot beside her overlooking the river.   

Sunday, May 20:
Graduation.  One year it was so cold at this time of year that it snowed.  There we all were, outside in our folding chairs, the outgoing president of the board of trustees was speaking, and down came the white stuff on our mortar boards and laps.  The graduating women still had the pretty sundresses, bare legs, strappy sandals and new pedicures under their gowns that they'd planned on wearing in February: why change the plan?  The faculty were wearing sweaters and long johns.  The families had raided the bookstore for sweatshirts and hoodies and fleece jackets and when I looked out at them it felt less like a graduation ceremony than a hockey game, minus the ice, the athletes, and the jeering: go Saints.  A few days later it was summer.  The fact that the year’s honorary degree recipient, Bill McKibben, is an expert on climate change wasn’t lost on us. 

This year it's so soupy-hot under those robes I am dripping sweat through my underwear.  And before I walked here, I forgot to put on sunscreen.  But it's one of the best commencements we have ever had.  In addition to the cheering thoughts of one of my favorite students, Mike Petroni, who guest-posted here a week ago, I especially like the speeches by Garry Trudeau, who talks about the importance of really seeing, not what we agreed or expected to see beforehand, but what is right before us right now, and Martha Swan, an area teacher who hosted a lecture series a few years ago called John Brown Lives! who speaks about bearing witness to both the beauty and pain in this exquisite, broken world.

I was/am very close to many students in this graduating class.  Some I met in 2008 in the course I co-taught with Jon Rosales about Thoreau.  Others I taught in France.  Others came on the study trip to India.  Others have walked with Zoe and me many times through the woods on campus.  So the good-byes take a bit more time this year.  Former students and I linger in the sweltering sun posing for picture after picture, and no one seems to mind the way we all smell. 

The best part of the day, though, is what happens after the good-byes: coming home to the house and running through the yard with Zoe down to the river.  The best part of going anywhere is coming home to the sight of her.  I want to savor every single homecoming because I know that not so long from now, returning to an empty house will be one of the hardest parts of the day.

Cooper
Later we walk through the woods and run into Zoe’s best friends Maya, Harry Beagle Bailey, and Cooper.  While we fan ourselves and avoid mosquito clouds, we four women talk about nothing much more serious than the heat, and it could be any summer day from the past nine years.  How lovely it is sometimes just to move along, try not to get bitten, and talk about which of the dogs has the muddiest feet.  Sometimes the ho-hum normal is the sweetest thing there is.

Monday, May 21:
vanilla soft serve for dogs: what's not to like?
We decide to have our usual three-course Sunday lunch on Monday because we are free for the summer, because we can.  Is this legal?  It feels so decadent and summer vacationy.   I work on the novel all morning while Kerry cooks up a pot of rabbit with bacon and white beans and mustard sauce with local, farm-grown Swiss chard, and Zoe licks our plates.  We polish off the better part of a bottle of wine before 3 o'clock.  Afterwards we take Zoe to Morgan’s for ice cream—her third trip for ice cream in one week, but since we aren’t trying to preserve her girlish figure, why the hell not?

Then, Monday night, still a little full, I toddle into Sara’s kick-ass ashtanga vinyasa yoga class.  Tonight there are only four of us students here and I know all of them, so it feels like a few friends doing some pretty intense yoga together: a gymnastic girls' night out.  I love these women.  There’s mega-limber Linda, whose son went to school with our boys.  Then Val, who has been my massage therapist for over fifteen years, and before that, when she was a farmer who made her own yogurt, my students and I would interview her for class projects on the back-to-the-land movement and homesteading.  And then there's lovely Jane, an art historian-in-training who sparkles with vivacity and wit and kindness. 

At one point Sara has us do a dog down chain.  Trust me, it's both the loveliest and funniest thing, ever.  One person assumes the position, the next goes into a kind of handstand and rests her feet on the original person’s lower back, and on we go.  When we finally have all five of us joined and down doggified in a row, something gives way and I hop off, breaking the chain, taking everybody down with me, and we collapse in a pile of laughter.

In yoga sometimes, when I think about Zoe, I cry.  But I do it really quietly with my eye pillow on while we're supine in relaxation pose, and no one knows.  With all the laughing going on tonight, no one suspects a thing.

And sometimes laughing and crying within the same 90 minutes, along with all that marvelous strengthening and limbering and breathing, is a great workout for the heart.  It's all a matter of balance, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 22:

I wake up profoundly sad about Zoe.  This morning, nothing we put in her bowl tempts her.  Not even bacon.  When bacon doesn't appeal to my dog, the world has shifted on its axis.

If she won’t eat, we can’t feed her the Chinese herbs and the Poly-MVA which we hope will keep up her vitality and energy and immune system while she handles both the cancer and the hard-core drugs.  And of course she needs to keep up her strength.

We're scared about how she's reacting to this new medicine, Kinavet.  I'm still waiting for the oncologist to call or write me back with answers to all my questions.

But then Kerry remembers something.  On Sunday, Zoe disappeared for a little while in the woods.  This is what happens to Zoe when she eats a dead old maggoty critter: she's very pleased with herself at first after she lands this prize, and she struts around in pride.  But then for 48 hours she is like someone hungover after a binge who says never again.

You don't want to hear about what she poops the day after one of her "snacks."

Thoughts of Zoe's nasty foraging habits give me peace of mind today.  How's that for a twist? Since when would realizing my dog ate a carcass give me something to ease my worry.  I plan to take her to the vet's later this week to test for parasites.  Maybe it's not just the new drugs giving her digestive system a shake-down.

But the new drug still scares us, and we don't know what to do to make her eat, or what to give her to help her feel better.

Fighting tears, I drive out to Potsdam to the dentist.  A few days before Zoe’s checkup last week, I broke off a giant chunk of a molar in a well-traveled place.  I lost so much of it and underneath it was such a huge filling that I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep the tooth.

Okay, most people would not include a dental appointment to get an expensive crown on their inventory of sweet blessings from the week.  But here’s the thing:  I have always had a terror of dentists.  This dates back to when I was eighteen and I went home to Cleveland for Christmas and my mother took me to the younger dentist who had replaced the old guy we used to see and I went from having 0 cavities to 12, just like that.  That old dude I'd been to as a kid was either going blind or else, after my first semester of college, and all the gum I chewed while I studied, I had wrecked my teeth.

Young Dentist did all dozen fillings in one appointment.  It took hours.  Every now and then he'd come back and shoot me up with more Novocain.  My mouth was so swollen I couldn’t close it.  My tongue was like a waterlogged towel.  My speech impediment lasted for so much of the day it threatened to become the new normal.  Plus, the Novocain hadn’t worked uniformly everywhere.  I kept thinking of that 1976 movie, Marathon Man, with Dustin Huffman, where the Nazi torturer has a dental drill and keeps snarling, “Is it safe?”

Then for years I went to a dentist who did excellent work, but his personality type did not mesh well with mine.  That is, he was Type A, and I was a melange of Type Scared to Death and Type Feels Shame, Due to Childhood Woes, for Having Basic Human Needs.  Basically, it went like this:  He always had four or five people he would work on at once, and I always felt bad that I was taking so much of his time.  So when we were almost done, and it was time to adjust the bite, I would let him rush off because I could see him tapping his foot, looking around, wanting to bolt.  I broke five or six different teeth over a period of three years because my bite was always off, and he prescribed root canals for most of them.  So I dreaded going in there, knowing every visit would lead to four.  I started needing laughing gas every time, even for tiny fillings.  After I put this man’s children through college I decided to switch to someone a little more relaxing to be around and I found my dentist, Dr. Carvill, in Potsdam.

This man is so nice--I actually have fun on my visits talking to him and his various assistants.  This time they complimented me on my beaded necklace from Goree Island, in Senegal, and this got us talking about the horrors of the slave trade, and a novel that all three of us absolutely loved called Someone Knows by Name, about a slave who later becomes a speaker in the abolitionist movement.  The author, Lawrence Hill, came to St. Lawrence University to read a few falls ago.  Okay, it's not like it's fun to talk about one of the single most horrific chapters of American--and world--history, especially when you're about to have your mouth clamped open for a couple hours.  But I've never had rapport with a dentist before.  I've never been to one I could talk to about literature and history.  Plus, he's a fan of Jon Stewart.  He's a big-time NPR-supporter.  Do I need to say more?

I don't clench anything when the Novocain needle goes in and the drilling starts.  Dr. Carvill and his assistant take pictures of my tooth and design it on the computer and it's made and cooked up there while I read O magazine--the one with Oprah on the cover with four puppies.  The new crown fits perfectly.  I won't have to come back until my cleaning in July.  Some problems have easy solutions: isn't that a marvel to behold?
 
When I'm leaving, Laura, who handles the billing, and I have a long talk about our dogs.  When I tell her about Zoe, she tears up.  She lost a dog this year.

To get competent health care of any kind in this era is not something I ever take for granted.  Especially when I’m so uncertain of the path we are taking for Zoe. It's so liberating to lose a fear that once bordered on phobia. 

I laugh at myself on the drive home.  Going to the dentist cheered me up?

I mean, am I just scraping the barrel here looking for things to be grateful for?  No, I don't think so.  I honestly think I've changed because of Zoe, my furry guru.  I used to set such high standards and conditions for my happiness.  If such-and-such happens, I would tell myself, I will be happy.  Achievement almost always had to be in the picture.  Now I know that yes, it's really nice to accomplish what one sets out to do, but happiness is something else entirely from, say, getting a story published, or taking a trip to a beautiful place that only a depressive couldn't find enjoyable.  Yes, those things are wonderful, but happiness, like peace of mind, doesn't have an agenda.  It just is.

Later, the person who goes with the King Spaniel Who Thinks He’s a Greyhound drops by to give me a book about a dog that comes back again in another life as a puppy to the person he was assigned to, and we both hold onto each other and cry.  Her husband had surgery today, but she took the time to bring me a little gift to cheer me up.  This is the kind of person she is. We sit down on one of my Indian rugs on the floor because every surface now is covered with books and notebooks and maps that I'm using for my novel, and time seems to stop while we catch up on all our news.

Just before she came, I had turned on the computer and was reading the most heartfelt lovely messages from a number of friends.  A former student wrote something so achingly beautiful and sad and kind that my friend and I agree that it's probably the nicest thing anyone will ever say to me anytime in any context, and I need to save it for posterity.

Then a miracle happens.  I vowed this week to try not to spend another night of Zoe's life away from her.  A trip I was supposed to take to India for work got postponed.  But I didn't think I could do anything about the four nights I'll be teaching creative nonfiction at the Chautauqua writing conference that starts three weeks from now.  Then I thought, well, there's no harm in asking.  Without having any expectations at all, without the usual tight stomach and anxiety I have when I ask for something out of the ordinary, I wrote the organizers this weekend about what is happening around here and--I couldn't believe it--they got the people who run the conference hotel to let the Z-girl come with my husband and me.   I don't think they've ever made an exception, ever.  But these women are animal lovers.  One was leaving when I wrote her to go to the memorial service her daughter-in-law was holding for her dog.  The other was in the process of finding a home for a poodle that had just appeared on her farm.  Team Zoe, as they called themselves now, had formed, had moved mountains, and now our girl has an invitation to a lovely conference center on a lake.

If she's well enough to travel in three weeks, of course.

And from there, if all is well, Zoe and I are spending a few nights at a house on Lake Findley with some girlfriends I grew up with in Cleveland, and this is a house whose owners never ever allow pets.  My friend Sandy, who runs a hospital wing for at-risk babies, performed this magic.  This shows you how much my friend is trusted and revered--that the owner made this exception as a favor to her.  And it shows what happens when you (Zoe and me) are surrounded by good people, when the pack of humans is the best it can be.

I will book Zoe to get groomed the day before we leave on this vacation so that she can put her best paw forward.

On our walk in the woods later she takes a liking to the new treats I bought for her when I was coming home from the dentist's office.  Salmon-flavored little bone-shaped wonders. Feeling her snout reaching for them as we walk through the woods is the sweetest feeling in the world.

Then in the evening, I have yoga class with Alison.  Hearing this woman's voice, alone, is like taking a bath in lavender oil.  I just walk in her presence and feel myself begin to release the tension I came with.  And by the time I get home, Zoe feels a tiny bit better and wants to lick our dinner plates.

Wednesday, May 23

Noon:  I take a break from my work and look down from the deck to this sight of my husband and Zoe snuggled together like this in the yard, just chillin'.

I think the fact that I only took two pictures of these cuties proves that I am capable of some restraint.

3 PM:  Is there anything sweeter than watching dogs on a meet-and-greet sniff-fest?
the turtle was digging a hole to lay her egg
I drive to Indian Creek where we meet up with the shaman poet and her two dogs, Kole, the black lab mix, and a 13-month-old golden doodle whose name is—are you ready?—Zoe. 

Actually, it’s a little confusing for two dogs with the same name on a walk.  When we call for young Zoe to come back from her hunting expedition—she’s tracking a bunny—my Zoe sits by our side waiting to be rewarded for coming, even though she never left.

Indian Creek Nature Preserve
On our walk we see: a painted turtle and later, a snapping turtle laying her eggs; a frog frozen in a game of Statues who won, big-time, but still won’t move; a beaver swimming; our dogs jumping in and out of swampy water, the kind that will make them smell like they’ve been to a hot springs or a mineral bath.

Zoe after a 90-minute walk
How lovely it is to walk with my friend, talking about the things we care about most—our animals, our book projects, her health, and how the things we’re each dealing with are opening our hearts—and to watch Zoe run and play and hold her own with a couple healthy junior dogs.

And then, in the evening, I go to meditation tune-up class that is taught by the compassionate and inspiring yogini, Rebecca Rivers.

She has given us a mantra, but I think it’s a state secret. You would have to corner me in a scary dental office with a drill to get me to divulge it to you.  That's not only because I'm now in the more advanced meditation training, and the teacher who gave my teacher this mantra has established a certain order of things one needs to learn to do first.  It's also because I can't remember how to spell it, let alone pronounce it, even though I chanted it in my mind for twenty-five minutes.

But here's something I won't ever forget: As I meditate in this lovely studio, night falls.  My spine creeks as it straightens, but the sound outside of night birds and crickets enters me and creates a kind of opening.

And the color I see as I close my eyes is the amber of my sweet dog’s eyes.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Part II, Day 42: Writing with Others

Dear readers,
A lovely former student of mine named Charlotte Boulay, an accomplished poet and editor at the Fiction Writers Review invited me to guest-post on their blog this week.  I'm going to play hooky today and include that post here.  It's called "Word Salad" and it's a writing exercise I've used in groups of people and also by myself by playing around with the dictionary.  It always helps the writing get more fresh and playful.

I'm working on a really juicy post for Friday; it's been a very full week and I have much to report.  I hope you are all enjoying your spring/summer gardens and walks and pets today.  Namaste!


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Part II, Day 41: The God of Dirt

I told my atheist husband that I've started praying for Zoe.  He questioned whether someone with my solidly secular rationalist humanist credentials is allowed, opportunistically, to get in on the prayer circle scene, but then I reminded him that the god I already pray to is the god of animals and the natural world, so I don't have to be clandestine about the whole thing, I don't have to feel like a gate-crasher or poser, because in that realm I'm already a regular.


Today I pray also to the god of dirt.  I haven't planted anything in three years because I was traveling, so it felt good this weekend to revive my flower boxes on the balcony where Zoe sits to watch the river.  Here's a picture of her from the day before I got to work.  She doesn't know that some of us think there are serious problems afoot up here; she just says, "whatever" as I click away in what I hope isn't too obviously an elegiac way.  I don't think she notices the seedlings I've stashed under my chair for the time being, but then when she stands she is careful with her tail.

Later, in full afternoon sunlight, which is not always the best time for planting, I  get swarmed by the sweat bees who have occupied one of the pots and won't budge even when I dump out that dirt on the lawn below and start again with fresh topsoil.  They can't stop me.  They're a blip on my horizon.  I hum while I plant the snapdragons and pansies.  It will be lovely to sit out here with Zoe in the early morning drinking coffee or tea gazing at these flowers while watching the river, hoping the great blue heron will drop by again.  I picked purple to match Zoe's purple heart and pink and scarlet and white for contrast.

Here's an excerpt from a poem by Mary Oliver called "One or Two Things" that I have read every morning this week before beginning my morning session of meditation and, yes, prayer.

The god of dirt
came up to me many times and said
so many wise and delectable things, I lay
on the grass listening
to his dog voice,
crow voice,
frog voice; now,
he said, and now;

and never once mentioned forever,

which has nevertheless always been,
like a sharp iron hoof,
at the center of my mind.
I think that's how we live, isn't it?  With the now and forever inside us, the ephemeral and the eternal, pink petunias greeting pink rhododendron.  I look outside as I write this post and Zoe is posing in our freshly planted garden--which I'm not supposed to let her do--and even though she's quiet at the moment she brings her own dog voice, wise and delectable as ever, into the heart of this conversation. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Part II, Day 40: Pink Twilight Sky

Sometimes where we are when we get bad news adds to the dissonance of the moment.  I've been in cheerful restaurants where wine corks were popping and brightly lit stores with Christmas music playing when I've waited for the call from Alta Vista Animal Hospital.

Today I'm in a hair salon.  Sue is touching up the gray in my temples, even though my husband likes my hair as is and says it's sexy: bless this sweet man.  Strange how hair salons have always featured in my battles against mortality.  The day after my mother died I kept my appointment to go to the Aveda salon in Cleveland.  I was operating on some kind of weird principle, like, I must carry on, follow through with plans that were made before, even in the face of crisis and loss.  It was such a bad decision.  For one, it left fewer hours in the day for us to get everything done we needed to do.  And then the stylist gave me goth-black hair.  I made a dumb joke later that my hair was in mourning too.  I suppose I was partly looking for comfort and ablution and mothering in that act of surrender, of leaning back into the sink and letting someone hold my head up and wash my hair clean.  Anyway, that's what we are about to do, Sue and I, when I get the phone call.

So here it is: Zoe's lung tumors are getting big.  There are four of them now, not three. The biggest one went from 1.75 centimeters to 4.86 in a month.  This is shocking news.  It makes me wonder if we made the wrong decision when we decided to go back to Doxorubicin in April, the chemotherapy drug that had done wonders all winter.  On Palladia the biggest tumor had grown from 1.25 to 1.75 over a period of seven weeks.  We thought then that the drug was ineffective, but we also thought maybe it was just making the inevitable acceleration happen with brakes on.  Nothing to do now, though, but digest this news and try to make good decisions from now on.  If we got these grim numbers after another four weeks of Palladia we would second-guess that decision too and wish we'd gone back to Duxorubicin. This disease always wins.

If the cancer doesn't slow down its attack with the drug we're piloting now, we will only have a month to three months left with our Zoe.  This is most likely going to be our last season together.

I'm not going to write today, in this post, about the tears.

The new drug is called, alternately, Masitnib and Masivet and Kinavet.  It's an anti-cancer drug that has been on the market in Europe since 2009 and Alta Vista just started using it.  Dr. Bravo gave us a two-week supply and she's going to read up now on whether it's better to use it alone or in conjunction with another chemotherapy drug.  The drug is designed for inoperable mast cell cancer, which is not what she has, but there is a feeling that it has potential when combined with cytoxic chemotherapy.  Readers, if any of you have heard anything about this drug, I hope you'll write in.

photo by Tara Freeman
Before the call, all morning, I had tried to write.  That was why I stayed home and my husband went instead.  What a dumb thing for me to do.  Although I made some progress on the novel, I was too tired and wired and anxious to get more than a couple pages done.  I had woken up at 3:30 and stayed awake feeling change coming--knowing in my heart that despite all the hope beating in my chest like a bird too big for its cage, that I wasn't going to like this day one bit.  As I wrote, I missed Zoe so much.  I wanted to see her lying on her quilt looking up at me like this.

Whenever anyone asks me how Zoe is doing, I always say "really great, amazing, considering what she's up against," because she is.  By every external marker, she's thriving.  Coat healthy, appetite keen, she's full of energy and vigor.  She runs and swims and walks five miles a day.  And she's our happy girl.  Alive, content, and aware every moment that this is her yard, this is her grass, this is her river, those are her bunnies over there even though she can't get to them from here because of that stupid fence.

When my husband and Zoe pulled up at 5 o'clock, I was outside waiting for them.  Like a dog who senses when her people are driving home, I had that tingling feeling in my legs to bound out of the house right then, the moment of their arrival in the stealthy-quiet Prius.  Zoe wagged her tail at the sight of me.  She hopped out and we ran together through the yard.  My husband came to join us.  We tried to play a game of Bocce, but when Zoe charged over with that delighted, open-mouthed face to pounce on the balls, I didn't want to be in a game where only humans played each other.  She chased balls, a stick, then one of her old bones, and then for a long time my husband and I sat together on a flat rock on the river and watched Zoe poke around in the brush looking for things to sniff.

Later, we watched Zoe claim a spot in the grass to lounge in her queenly way.  She spread out and set her head on her paws, sphinx-like, as mellow as ever.  We joined her there.  My husband lay down forming a kind of protective C-shape around her, and I did the same around him, bringing my head over his body to give our girl a massage.  We formed a tableau of some kind, we three creatures lying around one another in the grass.  I didn't want to move from this spot, ever.  If I could just relive a moment of my life forever and ever this one would be near the top of the list.

When it was time to go in for dinner, Zoe bounded up the deck stairs.   She ate like a farm hand.  I topped up her bowl with more raw meat.

Then she pointed to the door again.  "Want to play?" I said, and the idea thrilled her.  It was as though I were proposing a rare and treasured activity, not something we'd been doing less than an hour before.

We ran back into the yard and she climbed down into some growth that reminded me of when my sister and I used to sit inside bushes as children and imagine we lived in log cabins in the Wild West.  I crawled in there with her and made my body get dog-tall.  Crouched beside her, I put my arm around her and listened to her panting happily.  We sat like this for a very long time, until the mosquitoes came out and all sunlight was bleached from the sky.  She looked as happy and content as I ever known her to be and I tried not to hold onto her too tightly.  Then, in pinkish twilight, we walked back up the hill, through the grass, into the house where the three of us live.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Part II, Day 39: Cap and Gown

Today the students are graduating, and I'll be there in a rental gown, one of the random extras the patient women in the dean's office ordered for stragglers like me who were not tuned into e-mail when the announcement came that it was time to commit to commencement.  My concern is the cap.  When it's too big I have to hope I'll find enough bobby pins to hold it in place, and even then I'll walk like a little girl in her mother's big shoes, trying not to wobble too much.

I've gotten close to many of the students receiving diplomas today.  Beyond the relationships we developed in the classroom, some have traveled with me to France and India (two have done both) and others have simply visited me in my office a lot over the years, gone on walks in the woods with Zoe and me, and shared much of their lives in conversation, if not on the page.  When I talk to them, I can still see the just-out-of-high school kid who told me he or she wanted to study in Kenya, or write music and poetry, or forage each spring for wild leeks and each autumn for wild apples in the North Country as a way to have a "sane life" while still being a busy student living inside four walls.  M. said the other day, "I remember when I was a freshman and we talked about me making a documentary film someday about the ugly side of college life."  And instead, she made a documentary film about the indigenous people in Shaktoolik, Alaska facing the perils of climate change.  She brought her eye for social criticism to tackle one of the most serious challenges of our century, and in the meantime, developed a knowledge base in environmental studies and a set of tools and skills she will bring to the next chapter of her life, including a hard-won confidence.

The mother in my novel tells her daughter that "everyone we've ever been is still in our bodies, walking along, admiring the view."  I think of this sometimes on days like this, when the students who march to the podium to receive their degrees--many of them giddy, elated--will still be recognizably the kids who skidded around corners on skateboards or hung upside-down from backyard tree branches or said when they were five that they wanted to grow up to be a fire fighter or teacher or rock star or veterinarian.  And when some of them shake our college president's hand I'll also see a glimmer of the peace-worker, parent, technocrat, gardener, artist, teacher, citizen they will become.

My ace tech assistant, Shelley, designed this blog to communicate the idea that the puppy that was Zoe when I first met her in the pound is looking at the mature dog she would become in her winter.  They face each other across a field of snow.  They are companions, litter mates, mother and daughter, teacher and baby student at once.

Not everyone graduating today is going to have an easy time of things.  Some already have illness in the family, money woes, and romantic relationships in flux.  These young people will have to locate their mature future selves a little sooner than the others will in order to become the "administrator[s] of [their] own rescue," in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert.  Near the end of Eat, Pray Love she writes:
"[Buddhists] say that an oak tree is brought into creation by two forces at the same time.  Obviously, there is the acorn from which it all begins, the seed which holds all the promise and potential, which grows into the tree.  Everybody can see that.  But only a few can recognize that there is another force operating here as well--the future tree itself, which wants so badly to exist that it pulls the acorn into being, drawing the seedling forth with longing out of the void, guiding the evolution from nothingness to maturity.  In this respect, say the Zens, it is the oak tree that creates the very acorn from which it was born.
I think about the woman I have become lately, about the life that I am now living, and about how much I always wanted to be this person and live this life, liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other than myself.  I think of everything I endured before getting here and wonder if it was me--I mean, this happy and balanced me, who is now dozing on the deck of this small Indonesian fishing boat--who pulled the other, younger, more confused and struggling me forward during all those hard years.  The younger me was the acorn full of potential, but it was the older me, the already-existent oak, who was saying the whole time: 'Yes-Grow! Change!  Evolve!  Come and meet me here, where I already exist in wholeness and maturity!  I need you to grow into me.'"
I like the idea that our future self is cheering on the younger one, hoping that seedling gets through the rough seasons to become a person who is "liberated from the farce of pretending to be anyone other" than his or herself.  I like the idea that the older self and the young one are working together as a team.

Today I'll be hiding in a forest of mature trees when the young oaks arrive.  Or, to switch to my other metaphor for today's post, I'll be in my pack of graying canines when these keen, curious, savvy three-year-old dogs prance up, at the height of their athleticism and vigor, to receive their prize ribbons.  As they charge through another of life's portals, I'll be there with my funky too big robe and slip-sliding cap cheering them on.

Namaste.  And congratulations today and all this month to graduates and their families and the teachers who helped them, here and everywhere.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Part II, Day 38: A Check-up, Two Rivers, Zen lessons from John Daniel and Mike Petroni


photo by Tara Freeman
Friday morning, May 18, 2012
Zoe and I rise early and spend some time together looking at the river.  It’s how we start most days around here.  The river is a constant for us—always flowing, never the same, a place where we both find stillness.

Today my husband is taking her to Ottawa for her monthly check-up at the oncologist’s. I have gone every time since September, and it’s hard for me to let go today, to be the one at home waiting for news, but it’s good for me to try. 
The Grasse River that Zoe and I watch from the balcony

For today’s post, I’ve invited Mike Petroni, a talented graduating senior who won our annual Joan Donovan speech contest at St. Lawrence University (which means he is speaking at our commencement celebration this weekend, along with our valedictorian, Erin Siracusa, who has also guest-posted for this blog) to share a short essay he wrote this fall in my class.  It was inspired by a memoir we read, Rogue River Journal, by John Daniel.  John Daniel spent five months in 2000 to 2001 by himself in the Rogue River Wilderness in Oregon, and the result is one of the most moving, insightful, lyrical, meditative memoirs I have ever read and taught.  It’s about many things: Thoreau, the natural world, Daniel’s relationship with his father, and Daniel's coming of age during the Vietnam war.  In the book he often visits the Rogue River, his steady companion in his season of solitude.  Daniel struggles with the Zen notion of detachment.  In the chapter Petroni references below Daniel explores a central paradox of life, as he sees it: that we are here on this earth to learn love, and we are on this earth to learn to let go of what we love.

Mike Petroni is third from the right, back row



Rogue River Meditation
by Mike Petroni

The day I turned 10 years old, March 3, 2000, John Daniel walked down to the Rogue River. Fitting, that on this day he finds time to reflect on rivers as we did just a week ago at the Grasse. In the Rogue’s flowing, he saw life, he saw death, he saw music, he saw love. His essay gripped me. For a while I had been thinking about Thoreau, about social hierarchies, about resistance, the Occupy hysteria, about “being men first and Americans only in the late and convenient hour.” But then I slipped into this day, this magical day 3/3 and into the river.
The Rogue gave Daniel mysterious and searching thoughts. Its murky going, its whispers, and its changing consistency probe the deepest and most private essence of his poetic mind. As he watches the river, all the social histories and conventional worries are stripped away from Daniel’s thoughts and what’s left is a conversation about what it means to exist with expiration. He puts his rod down and just listens to the water, which is “absorbed in its own enactment” and for a while he tunes in to the spiritual metaphor that is the Rogue River.
“Here is a creature of mystery, voicing rumors of distant places known to it and not to me,” he muses, accepting the mystical power of the unknown and entering into a mood and voice of fluid uncertainty. He mentions the river as the symbol of the boundary between the living and the dead. He admits to being afraid of death. He is in love. What honest person is not afraid of losing that? From this platform forged with a weave of heartstrings and a sense of a connection so deep with life, he dares call it love, Daniel describes, “the trouble I have with Buddhism is that I resist the notion of detachment” (243). He asks, “Why would I want to detach myself from these verdant boulders, this flowing river, this mild rain? From my wife and friends, my work? What good could be greater than this” (243)?
In asking these questions, Daniel rejects the religious projections of an afterlife and criticizes them for not placing emphasis on what’s right in front of us. Then he quotes Robert Frost for any who are still skeptical of the importance of this world: “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better” (243). It’s a simple quote, but it says a lot. Perhaps there is nothing else, perhaps what’s here is all we will ever have, so why not get attached, why not suffer in the moment for love, or become elated, why not take chances, go on adventures, and not leave all your enthusiasm for what comes next?
Daniel’s rejection of the detachment practice reminded me of one of my freshman year revelations. We studied the Kantian conception of beauty and learned, according to Kant, that beauty hinges on two things. First the observed thing must produce in the viewer, a harmony of the senses, a sort of “awwwhh” feeling which could in turn be equated with sublimity, being hypnotized, and being absorbed uncontrollably. Secondly this feeling must happen without any attachment from the subject, so that no preconceived notions or feelings will get in the way of the viewer’s response. I agree with Kant’s brilliant observations on how the mind and body can react to physical forms to determine their importance and beauty, but I was a bit skeptical on the second premise.
Why must viewers release their past conceptions? Yes I know that these attachments make it difficult to determine what we “all” think is beautiful, but I believe that they are needed, because this harmony of the senses, the tingles, and awe inspired feelings must originate somewhere and it’s hard for me to believe that they come from a pre-wired human conception of what is beautiful.
Yes, I am hardwired to think women are attractive, but a woman’s beauty comes from my own experiences interacting with her. Without a past attachment, the beauty is hallowed. I refuse to go by this rule. I want like Daniel, like Edward Abbey and like all the other writers we have read, to feel attached, to feel kindred, to find home in this world, not some conceived, or heavenly one. Our attachments come from our past, our actions, our feelings, and they create our identity. Without them we are shells, and the dramas and triumphs of life disappear, the story loses its tension and the vibrant energy connecting it all shuts off. 
“The crossing is life itself,” Daniel writes, “The crossing is the whole of living and dying, and that means, it has to mean, that I am already in the river” (244). This is a revelation; it is good to be reminded of this every single day. This is a personal testament, to the self, to life as a whole, the bigger picture and the tiniest of emotions. Here I am, living, and this is all I will ever know. His last lines parallel my own musings from last week and they somehow hit me and held me at the same time.
“Slip or stand, I want to be aware of the crossing. To reach the other shore with each step, I must realize each step I am taking. And somehow, to truly have known this familiar shore, to truly have loved it, to truly have been here at all, with every step I must let it go” (244).