Sunday, December 23, 2018

To the Moon and Back: A Revolution

Anjulie and Everett

My husband and I were at a small gathering the other night, when the conversation turned in the direction that conversation turns, somewhere through a second bottle of wine, to God.

Our host had already mentioned once or twice (as atheists do, with or without wine) that she was an atheist, a signal to me that the question of where I stood on this matter was forthcoming.

I have pondered my answer to this question ever since my Catholic childhood friends informed me about how easy it was to do or not do something that would intentionally or unintentionally land me in hell.  As a young child, I took that new intel to heart, and immediately sprouted a guilty conscience and a need to confess my sins to my father every night.

In my case, I confessed everything I had done or contemplated or suspected might be naughty to my own father, at bedtime.  My father, an imposing and intimidating figure, but having a good heart, made an ideal confessor.  (By contrast, my mom was a pushover.)

Incidentally, part of our good-night, tuck-in, save-my-soul ritual was that every night before closing the door to my room, my father would say,

"Sleep tight! Don't let the bedbugs bite."

Consistent with the weird and grotesque tales by Grimm and Aesops, (I would never forget the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson in which a young bird, unable to keep pace with the peloton, is skewered through the heart from behind), my father's nightly litany gave me one more thing to worry about: the threat of bedbugs.

Come to think, sometimes he said, instead, "Sleep as snug as a bug in a rug."

No wonder Millennials have more self-respect than previous generations: They were not indoctrinated with morality tales that concluded: If you're not fast enough, when the time comes, you will be murdered in mid-air by someone close to you, you will drop out of the sky, splat, onto the ground, and none of us will stop to mourn you; we'll all just keep flying south.

Instead of comparing their children to bugs, the Baby Boomers adopted a new bedtime litany, a benediction.

Do I have to say it?  You know what it is:

"I love you to the moon and back."

I remember the first time I read, "To the Moon and Back."  It had just been published.  I read the whole thing standing up in a bookstore.  It was really, really hard for me to not burst into heaving sobs, right out there in public.

Of course now, people are used to it.  Most people can tell their kids, without crying, "I love you to the moon and back."

But, for those of us like me, raised with bedbugs and pestilence, this new party line was a hard one to articulate.

I tried to read TO THE MOON AND BACK to my son, but I could never get through it without crying, and that was a burden to my son, so I just didn't read it.  

I told myself it was saccharine, instead of what it was, which was revolutionary.

What happens to a developing mind fed on such unalloyed outpourings of affection and deep regard?  Untempered by the acidity of bedbugs?  Unqualified by the threat of perfidy and extermination for the  failure to keep up with the flock?

They're going to grow up thinking they're entitled to meaningful work and personal fulfillment.  They won't put up with sexual harassment in the work place.

These kids are going to be a pain in the ass.

But what were we talking about?


So, I was waiting for my turn to answer the question: Did I believe in God?

So far, we had two waffling Agnostics and one strident atheist.

I had been waiting patiently my turn.

And wouldn't you know it?  The conversation veered off into a completely different subject. Gah!

I really wanted to tell them that after thinking on this question for most of my life, I had come to the conclusion that God was how we explained human consciousness to ourselves.  He was how we understood the enormous gulf between the smartest primate and what we, as human beings, are capable of imagining.

We can create multi-layered art that, labored over and imbued with genius, seems the very essence of God--evidence of  consciousness that, one hopes, may yet expand in the aggregate and improve upon itself; as in, for example, the shift in bedtime rituals from one generation to the next.

Is it not enlightenment when we progress from sending a child to bed with mixed messages, (I love you. Don't let the bedbugs bite.) to a new gospel that takes the qualifiers and threat out of saying good-night?

By this simple act, I think we are closer in human consciousness to what God is: Ourselves.

And hell would be a projection all the effluence and failures of that same human consciousness: The failure to love.  The failure to be mindful and caring.  The regret that comes from acts of unkindness.  The knowledge of our own moral corruption.  The wringing of hands, the gnashing of teeth...all around us.

Does that make me an atheist?

But I can't be an atheist, you see, because I believe in the spirit of life.  But that is another question entirely, and did not come up in conversation.  

Saturday, December 15, 2018

2018 Holiday Letter

Dear Family and Friends,

Thanks to social media, you know what we’ve been up to in 2018.  However, in as much as FB and Instagram convey only glimpses and soundbites, indulge me now as I attempt to squeeze out every last drop of meaning from the year in this brief summary.  

Like the weather in the throes of climate change, 2018 brought us extreme juxtapositions of joy and sorrow. 

In July, we traveled to Massachusetts and spent several glorious days with family on Cape Cod.  We try to make that trip every year, but, in 2017, I had to look after Belle, my horse, then recovering from a serious injury (unrelated, probably, to the insanely rare disease from which she died on July 25, 2017).  

In August, we were delighted to have Baptiste and Claudine Corno with us from France. It is difficult for our little family to break free of routine, and nearly impossible for me to counter all of that inertia. But, with the added motivation of our friends, we managed to travel as far south as Chicago (2.5 hours), and as far north as Bayfield (a whopping 4 hours), for two or three days at a time. In honor of our cultured visitors and their basic humanity, I even cleaned and detailed the minivan until it almost sparkled and didn’t smell.   

Unfortunately, by the end of August, Gretchen, our Basset-Lab, 11 years old, had been struggling with back issues on and off for over a year.  Basset Hounds typically die by age 9 or 10, because someone thought that stout dogs with short legs and long backs were cute, and that seemed to justify that the dog would, while still young, suffer chronic pain and die in middle age. 

If you take anything away from this letter, let it be Happy Holidays, come visit us, we send you our love, and please do not support breeding practices that compromise a dog’s long-term health. We did not buy Gretchen from a boutique breeder; we rescued her from a shelter, for which she repaid us by attending to my emotional needs for the rest of her natural life. 

Not even a Fentanyl patch could alleviate her pain.  The only thing left to do is what we did, at 12:30 a.m., at urgent care, hours after the three of us (Phil, Josh and me) had had a delicious and delightful meal with Baptiste and Claudine over at the Wonder Bar, in Madison. 

I’ve circled back to the overarching theme: the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.

Did I mention that we learned in late July that Hank had cancer?  He died one week after Gretchen, which sucked, but, on the other hand, I can assure you that Hank had THE BEST DEATH EVER.  Maybe not ever, but it was really great, you know, as far as dying goes.  

Hank got yummy treats for days in advance.  On the appointed day, Jill was there--Hank’s mom for the first four or five years of his life. We lavished Hank with attention. After an hour or so, a vet came to the house whose sole job is to orchestrate these types of really optimal dying experiences for dogs and their families.  

Hank was lying down in his usual spot, in the living room, on a thick folded blanket. The first drug took away his pain—all of it. The second drug made him sleepy. Very gradually, he fell asleep. The third drug was the closer. Over 15 minutes, Hank went from cheerful but in pain (and having difficulty breathing), to no pain whatsoever and very cheerful indeed, to content, sleepy, asleep.... 

This is how I would like to die, so please take note. I would like to go to sleep on the couch instead of on a folded blanket.

After many years of daily fantasizing about how much simpler, easier, and altogether cleaner my life would be with only one dog, or maybe no dogs…and having convinced myself that I could get along perfectly well with only five cats and three horses…it hadn’t been quite 24 hours since Hank had passed when we drove home from the shelter with the new puppy on my lap. 

No doubt, you’ve seen Zarya, in person or in pictures. She is the joy that followed so closely on the heels of our sadness at the loss of Hank and Gretchen.  

Turns out, grief and joy can live quite nicely side by side.  Grief is comforted by the presence of joy, and joy respects that grief is love’s shadow.

Come to think, that is kind of the essence of Christmas and Chanukah, and of the Winter Solstice, isn't it?  We rejoice at the birth of a baby whose future suffering grieves us. We celebrate the miracle of enduring light in days of paucity and darkness. And the longest night of the year yields, finally, to the certainty of brighter days ahead.  

So, on that note, and on behalf of Phil, Josh, and myself, we send you love and joy in timely abundance for 2019.  

Hank, Standard Poodle

Gretchen with Whosie

Zarya (aka, Z) mixed nuts
Zarya and Betsy, 11. Betsy is healthy and spry.

Francesca was reunited with her birth-mother and family in Paraguay! 
Josh is a freshman in high school!

Mom turned 75!

We still don't have goats.
The horses are fine, except that Tanner ripped his side open on the stall latch last Sunday night and the vet was here until 11 p.m. sewing him up.  It looked awful, but he is expected to make a full recovery. We have removed all of the stall door latches in the barn. 
Betsy, looking shellshocked after losing her pack mates 
Super-Duper Cooper
Zarya and I having a talk
At 6 mos, Z is bigger than Betsy.

Zarya and Whosie.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Two Sets of Eyes Are Better Than One

I'd been feeling kind of badly about my last post, which cast an unflattering light on the characters I met at the dog park.

Look at that: Calling people "characters," as if they were not human, or real(!).

And my intention had been to write them that way, in story after story in which I would always be some hybrid creature: author/character, bemused narrator. ("Narradoodle.")

Clearly, Zarya, my pup, wasn't the only one in need of socialization.  These are skills--relating to strangers, chatting up acquaintances, making friends--that require practice, like playing an instrument. When I stop practicing, I get rusty; I sound out of tune; my tempo is off.

I had forgotten how to partake of people, how to participate.  I forgot whether I'd ever known how to mix in, socially.

Slowly, I'm getting better at it.  Though still tempted to refer to people as characters, I no longer see them in the same flat way.

So, instead of becoming friends with my son's friends' parents, like everyone said I would, I am becoming friends with my dog's friends' parents.  It may sound weird, but, if I like your dog, chances are good that I will like you, too.

I walk along, chatting with people who own dogs that are compatible with mine.  Our dogs tend to be young, energetic, playful and nonaggressive. As owners, we are not necessarily young and playful, but we bring energy, curiosity, and humor to conversation. We enjoy some of the same dog toys.  Most of us have a Chuck-it, for example, though our dogs rarely return the ball.

We start out talking about dogs.  How old is your dog?  Is she an Aussie? Is she a Goldendoodle?  (I have seen Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Newfydoodles, and Berniedoodles.)

I have seen Norwegian Elkhounds, German Pointers, Australian Shepherds, Irish Foxhounds, one Basset-Shar-Pei, one Golden-Chow, Great Danes, Newfoundlands, one Spinone Italiano, and one pregnant Tibetan Mastiff.  I've also seen a Beagle-Pit, a Bijou-Frise-Papillon, and a couple of Airedales.

My dog Zarya (Z, for short), and I light up at the sight of her favorite dog friends and their owners. We light up at at the sight of their cars.

Most of my intel now comes from The New York Times or the dog park.

I am so habituated to the park community that I no longer dread encounters with the people who are out of their minds.

One such gentleman has two dogs--a Lab mixed with Shepherd and a Lab mixed with Pit and Beagle.  They are not especially curious or friendly. They keep to themselves.  They don't expect a pat or a treat from anyone.  They seem to understand that they, along with their owner, walk on an outside track--usually alone.

Surprisingly, this gentleman, strange as he is (the way he remembers where we first met--in the hardware store--and what we talked about: a place on Schneider Road; and where we've encountered each other  since then, like Papa Murphy's, and what we talked about there); despite all that mental hoarding, which can seem creepy, he also watches current movies and can offer a thoughtful review.

After our first few conversations about movies, his dogs began to acknowledge me as an acquaintance.  The expression in their eyes softened.  They are good, loyal dogs.

Anyway, it's nice to see people of all sorts, to talk about dogs, and to gradually wander off into other subjects. We're all fenced in together, here, hoping to get along.

Some days at the park are so harmonious and cheerful, it makes me feel happy and warm.  We watch the dogs wrestle and run.  Their antics make us laugh.  We talk about when, where, and how we got our dogs.

Suki's owners took two years to grieve for their Labrador Retriever before adopting Suki from the local animal shelter.

My family adopted 10-week-old Zarya from the same shelter, pretty darn quickly after losing two dogs in two weeks.  It was just too quiet in the house. Even the new puppy was not loud enough, though we seem to have made the adjustment.

Life stories seep into conversation; trust and friendship take root.

I lost my keys at the park the other day, just as it was getting dark.  A young man with a beard and  a son and a dog were leaving at the same time as we were.  When I realized that I didn't have my keys, I turned back toward the park entrance.

The man asked if I had forgotten something.  I told him I seemed to have dropped my keys somewhere in the park.

He returned through the gate with me, saying, "Two sets of eyes are better than one."

Friends of mine happened by, former neighbors with their dog. They helped comb the fields for three blue plastic balls on braided bungee cord attached to the key fob.

I told the young dad and his son that they should go home, since my friends were there, and my husband and son were on their way.

"The more eyes the better," he said.

It was getting more cold and dark by the minute, almost too dark to ssee anything in the grass, when the young bearded guy held them up high and called out, "I found them!"

I could not have been more grateful.  I couldn't express to him what it meant to me: that he was returning not only my car keys, but also some faith I had lost in humanity.

It doesn't always go well at the park.  Sometimes, there will be a bad combination of dogs, and things can go terribly wrong.

Sometimes, people bring dogs who are mild-mannered at home, but real shits at the park, and they just can't believe or understand why their dog gets so mean in public spaces.  They don't understand their dog's behavior, they can't predict it, and they can't control their dogs.  But they come anyway, hoping for the best. They unleash their dog, and express surprise and dismay when it attacks someone else's dog and injures it, or worse.  

Sometimes, like on the afternoon I lost my keys, there aren't very many other dogs at the park, and it is a lonely and rather boring walk for Zarya and me.  But when a stranger, who also happens to be walking his dog, turns out to be the kind of person who won't stop looking for my keys until he or someone else has found them...?  Well, that just makes me feel hopeful and happy, like some sentimental character out of a Frank Capra movie.