Tag Archives: Grief

In Dog Time

Standard

img_367

The dark clouds keep hanging, don’t they? They have been in the city anyhow. The mood has not lifted for weeks, and as the marches and protests have lessened, there’s only the heavy feeling of resignation in their place.

 

For Thanksgiving, Z and I rode the bus to a friend’s house for a pleasant celebration and while we were there, the rain was pelting the house, some WWII big band music was on the radio, and I had this idea of what it must have been like in 1942 when Americans were fighting a war. What a great comfort that must have been to sit by a warm fire, listen to music, talk with good friends.

 

Then the evening was over and Z and I had to slog up a few blocks of a hill to get to the bus stop in a drenching rain, and as I walked past the little Craftsman bungalows with lights burning on dry interiors and where cars were parked in driveways and none of the inhabitants had to stand in the rain waiting for a bus, I thought some really uncharitable four-letter thoughts about those people.

 

So much for feeling gratitude.

 

Dogs and dog metaphors are my solace these days. My daily joy is when I leave the house between 5 and 6 in the evening to walk up to campus to meet Z. If you are a dog person who is without a dog, can I recommend walking in a city neighborhood between 4:30 and 6:30 when the dogs are being walked and all those tails are wagging?

 

You can have your sunrise or your sunset, but Dog Time is the best time.

 

img_0015

Mac, with snow nose.

A few weeks ago when I was feeling particularly blue, I ran into Higgins and his mom. Higgins is a Scottish terrier who reminds me of Mac. Like most Scotties, he’s not particularly interested in giving me more than a cursory greeting when there are bushes to sniff and vermin to patrol, so his mother and I say a couple of pleasantries to each other and then walk on. But the sight of him lifts my spirits just as much as a nuzzle from a more people-focused dog.

 

Z and I don’t have a dog for reasons that seem clear on some days and less so on others. This month it has seemed like a bad, bad idea to live a dogless life. I’ve followed so many dog groups and pages on Facebook that there are now more pictures of strangers’ dogs on my feed than there are of people I know.

 

The practical reasons we don’t have a dog for me are that we travel a lot and don’t have the disposable income right now to spend on a chic Seattle doggie retreat. The practical reasons for Z are that we have no yard and he suspects (probably rightly so) that I would not be the one popping up early in the morning to walk the dog in the rain. Also, Zimbabwean dogs are outside dogs and Z is not entirely on board with the way Americans push them around in strollers and dress them up like children. No matter how much I promise not to do these things, he doesn’t believe me.

 

ducktails

Skampy of Zimbabwe

We do have imaginary dogs: a Scottish terrier named Finley and an English bulldog, like the ones Z’s family raised when he was a kid, named Luigi. We have conversations about how we will train them, what our policies will be in off-leash dog parks, and whether or not we’ll let them eat table scraps. I do online searches about whether bulldogs and Scotties even like each other, but these dogs of ours, much like our imaginary children, are perfect: well behaved, best friends, come when called, and are terribly clever.

 

This next part is not a dog story, though it is about good behavior.

 

When I was an adolescent, Mom had one of those new-fangled decorative write-on-wipe-off memo boards on which she had written the Janis Joplin line, “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.” I studied this for ages. All of those “yous” seemed inelegant to me, plus I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or what my divorced, hard-working mother was warning herself against. Eleven-year-old me understood the concept of having to compromise between two ideas or two desires and settle on something in the middle that is mediocre. I understood having to compromise to get along with my gaggle of boy cousins, who always seemed to want to be outdoors when all I wanted to do was stay inside playing with our Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman dolls. (That compromise usually looked like me doing what they wanted because there were more of them and I was the only girl until I was ten.)

 

But I wondered, how do you compromise yourself?

 

img_1251

Mac and Lilly, being themselves on a ramble.

Because I’m from the Midwest, I am “nice.” Or I have a nice veneer anyhow. As I’ve written about before, to be Midwestern—at least from my perspective—is to get along with those you encounter, to smile when they say something you disagree with (or make a joke of it at the very least), to purposely not hear them when they say something rude or bigoted or misogynistic, to help someone move house with a smile on your face even though you’d rather be doing just about anything else with your Saturday, and periodically, you have to pretend that watching some truly untalented kids play T-ball in a cornfield on a sweltering evening is as good as life gets.

 

Is this a compromise, this good behavior? To tell these little lies, is that compromising myself?

 

I ask, because I’m heading to Indiana this weekend for the holidays. For the last few weeks, I’ve been walking around Seattle with the equivalent of an ACME safe hanging over my head, but it’s easy enough to feel a kinship with the people here whose paths I cross because I can see—sometimes almost literally because of their gender or skin color or disability—that they too have ACME safes over their heads as well. But I don’t know what I’m going to see or how I’m going to feel when I get home surrounded by people who don’t think they have ACME safes over their heads. Will the nice kick in? Will I growl at them? Will I hide in the house and go the Emily Dickinson route?

 

Once when I was a child I was at the Indianapolis Art Museum in the Impressionist gallery, and Mom and the adults we were with had moved ahead. I was hanging back, mesmerized by a small bronze sculpture, a figure of a person. I reached out and touched the toe. It was so beautiful and full of mystery. In an instant, a very businesslike (but not unkind) security guard walked past me and said, “Please don’t touch the art.” My hands snapped like I’d touched a hot stove, and I clutched them behind my back for the rest of the visit, afraid that I’d get mesmerized by another sculpture or painting. I was mortified that I’d misbehaved in this cathedral of culture. I didn’t even confess my sin to Mom.

 

bethxmasting

Future art toucher with Ting the Pekingese.

I tell you this so you’ll know that I know how to behave in an art museum. I am quiet. I touch nothing. I keep my critical comments to myself if anyone is within earshot.

 

This fall while Mom was here, we made our way to the convention center, which has rotating artwork lining the halls of the open third floor. As luck would have it, it was my favorite exhibit that comes around yearly of children’s book illustrations.

 

The Washington State Convention Center is no art museum. It’s often full of tourists and conference goers or people like me who primarily use it because the escalators make a trip from downtown up to First Hill effortless. Most other people there are oblivious of the artwork as they crowd their way from one conference session to another. The day we went it was relatively empty, so we could linger where we wanted without bothering anyone or being bothered by others.

 

bestducktail

Bubbles of Zimbabwe

All of the art is easily accessible with the exception of two short sections where there is a ramp with handrails. The incline is almost non-existent and I suspect the handrails are there purely as decoration, in case there is a lawsuit should someone fall. On the one side of the floor, Mom and I both stepped behind the railing so we could look more closely at brushstrokes and signatures. On the other side, just as I popped behind the handrail, the security guard—who sits on a stool by the restroom to make sure only conference attendees use the toilets there—told me I wasn’t allowed behind the rail.

 

I popped out obediently, but I looked around the expanse of the third floor with an eyebrow raised and asked her why not. What was so special about these five pictures that I couldn’t get as up-close to them as I could the others? I happily follow rules if they make sense, but this was senseless.

 

She settled onto her stool to tell me in great detail why. Two sentences in, it dawned on me she wasn’t a docent and the longer she talked, the more apparent it became that  everything she said was made-up. There was no logic involved, so I started to walk away. She raised her voice, calling me back sharply, “Do you want to know the reason or don’t you?” It was said in that voice that a couple of really officious teacher’s aides had used when I was in elementary school, as they tried to cow us into submission even though they knew (and we knew) they had no real authority over us.

 

I said, “Sure,” but I could NOT bring myself to turn my face or my attention back to her. What she was saying was boring and nonsensical. I let out a single non-committal noise, which she could interpret as understanding if she chose (but which secretly meant, “please shut up; you’re talking crap”). Finally, she was quiet and I moved on to the next set of rail-less illustrations.

 

img_0012

Mac & Luther, best buddies, would have sniffed beyond the handrail.

Mom was ten paintings behind me, and I heard the woman say something to her like, “That’s okay. I get it all the time.” Later, Mom insisted the woman was responding to Mom’s “thank you” and that she had not apologized for me. To the best of my knowledge, Mom has only ever lied to me about Santa Clause, so I’m forced to believe her. But when I heard that woman speak to my mother in that tired, nobody-respects-me voice, my face flamed and I felt nauseous because I knew—regardless of what Mom had said or what the toilet monitor was referring to—that I had embarrassed Mom with my rudeness. The Beth she raised is a person who would nod her head, do as she was told, and smile politely even if she knew she was right and the speaker was wrong. That Beth was raised to bite her tongue while ill-behaved children mistreated her toys. That Beth was raised to be, above all else, polite. I didn’t have to perform song and dance numbers for people. I didn’t have to eat vegetables. I had next to no chores. My single job as I was growing up was to be well-behaved, a guide that until now has served me well.

 

Yet here I was, a middle-aged woman, being shirty with a woman whose job monitoring the public toilets of Seattle could not have been pleasant.

 

img_0798

Seattle Irish Wolfhound, perhaps the most dignified dog on Earth.

Later, I made some excuse for myself to Mom about how living in the city has started stripping away my manners. That when you are daily surrounded by so many people who want to talk over you, cut into a line in front of you, hoot their horns because they think they know best how you should be driving your car or crossing a street, you lose the nice.

 

But probably the stripping away began before I moved to Seattle.

 

Several years ago a friend told me I wasn’t as nice as I thought I was. I can’t remember what it was in reference to, but it took me aback. This was in the days before therapy when my default setting was “how can I be the person who will most please you?” instead of being myself. I never thought of myself then as “nice” but certainly as someone who tried to give people the version of me that they most seemed to want. Slowly, layers of façade came off over years of talking to a shrink. Some people didn’t notice. Others did and didn’t like it.

 

img_0276

Man and dog in Central Park, big rain, no dark clouds.

So here I stand at the tail end of my own annus horribilis. No, my palace didn’t burn down, but it has been a year full to the brim with medical bills I didn’t ask for, a family health crisis that was terrifying, dead celebrities I’m missing, humans being ungodly to each other across the globe, Native Americans having to withstand tear gas and rubber bullets to protect their own water, forest fires raging in one of my favorite spots in Appalachia, a country—my country—making my husband feel unwelcome and my brother feel unsafe, and a president-elect who demonstrates with his own mouth and fingers the worst human qualities on a daily basis. And what I’m finding because of this year is that the last layer of that Midwestern filter has been peeled away.

 

After having talked to other female friends, I’ve learned that I am not alone in this. One friend who rarely cusses can’t keep the profanity inside herself. Another told me she’s done being bossed around by people or forced to rise to their expectations of her as a woman. A third, who has never been a gun nut, is seriously thinking about buying a firearm because she’s tired of not being taken seriously and thinks her state’s open-carry law might make her words have more weight. Others felt rifts around their family Thanksgiving table that they aren’t sure will ever be repairable.

 

img_0678

Hoosier Shepherd

My friends and I are being gentle with each other, but to the outside world, we are less so. At the very least, we are wary and self-protective.

 

So this trip to the heartland is going to be interesting. I’ve never been in Indiana without the bit of “nice” jammed between my teeth. Will I growl at people? Nip at their hands? Stick my head under the sofa with my backend to the world? Or will I fall back into old patterns without meaning to? Who knows.

 

bubbles

This is not a dog, but the same principle applies.

What I’m hoping for is to find some dogs to spend time with because the only real light I’ve gleaned from the world in the last three weeks (especially since the Gilmore Girls reunion was a little disappointing) is that dogs are always just 100% themselves. They don’t put on airs. They’re great judges of character. They are completely oblivious to politics. No one is their president.

 

They’re just content to be.

 

img_0389

Scottie puppy, Salthill Prom, Galway

I’m going to try to be. To enjoy my mother who knows my heart and shares my sadness, who gave me the twin messages of the importance of good behavior and not compromising yourself, and now the two are duking it out.

 

There might be some misbehavior. There might not. But right now, it’s Dog Time.

bethcryingbrowniehat

Be forewarned: this is what a tantrum from me could look like.

 

 

Keep Your Tail Up, America!

Standard

img_6267-1

You remember that one time when America managed to elect a new president who is the equivalent of the reprehensible James Spader character from every John Hughes movie ever made?

 

Yeah, well. Here we are. John Hughes is dead and there’s no re-writing a happy ending to this one. Duckie is not swooping in at the eleventh hour to save us.

 

Z and I are in Philadelphia for a conference of his. Tuesday night, we were in Seattle packing for an early morning flight while the votes were being counted.

Greetings from the Philly airport.

Z is an optimist and I am…not, so I was on my end of the sofa sobbing and squirming like someone I loved had just been put on life support by a grim-faced doctor, and Z was still on his end of the sofa shouting, “Come on Pennsylvania! Come on Wisconsin!”

 

Z had been so sure that Hillary would win that he hadn’t even conceived of an evening where she wouldn’t. He’d come home with a bottle of champagne and big smile on his face, even though the dominos were starting to fall. Because I’m female and I grew up in an era when girls were given their Title IX rights (no matter how capable and qualified they were, it would never be about them–the big game on Friday night was always only ever going to be for the boys), I was less sure.

 

So I became the realist in the house a full two hours before Z did, which is a rare occasion—Z is always the one winding my big ideas in. The sight of him cheering what was clearly a losing race, at least electorally, made me cry even harder.

 

One of Z’s more delightful characteristics is how much he loves this country. He’s obsessed with it. He’s ruined perfectly good lazy Sunday mornings in bed because it’s time to Meet the Press. He follows politics. He remembers names. He’s aware of processes I didn’t even know our government had, and he explains them to me regularly because I’m often distracted and can’t remember. Even today at lunch, he had to remind me why we call the press the Fourth Estate. I thought it must have something to do with William Randolph Hearst’s fancy house in California.

 

I knew the election was going to disappoint him before he did. While my friends were texting me about how they didn’t know what to tell their kids, I was wondering how I was going to explain to Z that America really just wasn’t that into him. In fact, half of America would very much like him and his ilk to leave so it could see other people exclusively: mainly the white people who were born here.

 

I am trying not to hold it against strangers who don’t know Z and voted the way they did, but I will admit, I am still struggling very hard with the ones who do know him, the ones who purport to delight in him, who made a similar choice. No one owes me or Z or anyone else (gay, female, disabled, minority, immigrant, whathaveyou) their vote, and I’m sure they had their reasons even though I can’t personally understand them.

 

But by the same token, I’m not feeling like I owe any of them my graciousness right now.

 

If you are here and suspect I’m some kind of whiny liberal cry baby who is speaking in hyperbole about how stricken I’ve been since Tuesday—an event that felt equal to my first heart break, or eerily reminiscent to how gutted I was when my father died suddenly in 2001, or only 12% better than the afternoon six years ago when I found out I had lymphoma—I assure you, I am not. This is not an issue of the Seahawks losing the Super Bowl. I’m not going to be over this any time soon.

 

This is grief.

 

The American story I thought was being written is most definitely NOT being written now, and it is going to take time to reinterpret how to view the country we live in and the people we live with.

 

Suffice it to say, by midnight neither of us ever wanted to speak to Pennsylvania again, let alone Philadelphia—which had looked so promising on Monday night while Hillary stood near Independence Hall, sounding all gracious, capable and ready. If I’d known that by Wednesday morning I’d be flying over the Dakotas weeping loudly and snottily as I listened to her concession speech, I probably wouldn’t have gotten on the plane at all. It would have felt so much better—still awful, but better—to stay snugly wrapped in my blue state, feeling blue, surrounded by people who were feeling similarly disappointed.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

Several years ago, I was od-ing on episodes of Cesar Millan’s show about dog training. I had no dog of my own that needed training. I just liked having dogs in my living room, even if they were televised ones.

 

I’d never train Cesar’s way because I don’t roller blade and I’m not comfortable with how much his dogs have to conform or be manhandled. But there was one episode I loved in which this really unhappy, anxiety-ridden little dog could not find her inner joy, no matter how much better her life was now that she’d been rescued. She was a mess, quivering and downcast. Cesar got the idea that since dogs that are content usually have their tails up, he’d tie her tail into an upright position to see if it would affect her mood. It looked ludicrous and the dog seemed both miserable and mortified now, her tail hoisted up like a furry sail. This will never work, I thought.

 

But then, the next thing I knew, that little dog was holding her tail up on her own. That tail was wagging, and I swear, she was smiling.

 

I like a story with a happy ending, especially a dog story, so I told Z about it.

 

I assumed he’d forgotten about it, and then one day when I was feeling down, as he left for work he said, “Keep your tail up.” It became short hand between us whenever I was in the dumps or was anxiety ridden. Truth be told, I liked the indirectness of it. If he told me outright to “be happy” I’d probably remain miserable for the rest of my life just to remind him that I’m my own boss. But somehow, the notion of keeping my tail up seemed both an endearment from him and a proactive step that I could use to get out of the doldrums: do something.

 

It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.

 

When I am upset or depressed, or in this week’s case, sad beyond comprehension, I am a proponent of sitting home and feeling my feelings. There is so much feeling I need to do some days that it is like a full time job.

 

Z, on the other hand, errs on the side of doing.

 

So yesterday—though I really did not want to because when I woke up in the middle of the night from a perfectly nice dream, the first thing my brain presented me with was a reminder that there was a president-elect and it wasn’t one wearing a white pantsuit—we did Philadelphia. Z started the morning with a conference presentation while I wrote in the lobby. Then we walked: through an alley once frequented by Ben Franklin, past the place where Jefferson penned the Declaration, past Independence Hall, past the Liberty Bell.

Ben Franklin walked here, and so did I.

Ben Franklin walked here, and so did I.

We made our way into Christ Church (“The Nation’s Church” where Revolutionary heroes once worshipped) and took in the simplicity of the sanctuary. We wiggled into a pew like congregants and settled ourselves. Up front, instead of a big altar and stained glass, there is a large window with clear panes of wavy glass that look out into the world, onto the idea of America.

Christ Church, where patriots prayed.

Christ Church, where patriots prayed.

While we sat there, Z did (prayed) and I felt. Mostly, I felt despair and I felt shame that I hadn’t done more to ensure leadership that would protect and cherish those original ideals constructed by the men who had worshipped in this church. (I also felt a certain amount of annoyance because the informal tour guide was talking about a car he had in high school while I was trying to feel all of my disappointed patriotic feelings.)

img_6219

What do you do with your disappointment when there is nothing to actually do? The election is over. There are no do-overs. The 90 million people who chose not to vote who could have turned this ship around if they’d been inclined, stayed home. We have an electoral college, so there’s no declaring the day after that we’d like to abolish it retroactively because its results don’t align with the wishes of the populace sometimes. The night before, Z and I had watched the protests on the news while we ate hotel restaurant soup and I said, “But what do they expect to happen exactly with their chants and signs? It’s over.” Z shrugged.

 

Back at the church, I wiped my nose on my sleeve and we went in search of Ben Franklin’s grave and Elsfreth’s Alley. When you are in Philadelphia, these are the things you do and we weren’t done doing.

Elsfreth's Alley

Elsfreth’s Alley

Elsfreth’s Alley is a narrow, cobblestoned street with tall, narrow, be-shuttered houses that look exactly how you think all the houses in all of Philadelphia will look. It is the oldest continuously inhabited street in the U.S., and it is not difficult to picture Ben Franklin swooping down it in his cape, wiping some steam off his glasses, maybe whistling or saying something off color or brilliant. One of the houses had a massive Republican elephant flag flapping in the wind and across the street there was a house with Democrat signs plastered in several of the panes. This is what democracy has always looked like, I suppose. Neighbor opposed to the political ideals of neighbor. More is just spent on campaigning now.

img_6230

The cemetery where Franklin is buried was closed when we got there (though there is a fire station across the street with Ben Franklin wearing a firefighter’s hat, which was worth the walk).

img_6256

I poked my camera through the fence and took a photo of Franklin’s grave, which is not impressive nor is it singled out amongst all the other graves, alerting us to his greatness. It’s just a slab of marble with his name, his wife’s name and no epitaph. It turns out that he, like all the others buried there, was just a citizen.

 

Like all of us.

 

Z and I walked up Market Street and rushed in to see the Liberty Bell fifteen minutes before the building closed. I’d had no desire earlier in the day to visit the cracked bell, but we went in on a lark. While I love the metaphor of a bell made in order to “let freedom ring” it has always seemed haunting to me that it is cracked and that attempts to repair that crack made the bell completely unusable. (I’d prefer a metaphor where fixing it gave it a distinct and beautiful ring.) Perhaps if we’d had longer than 15 minutes in the lead-up to the bell’s resting place, one of the helpful placards could have persuaded me that it really is a noble symbol of our country. (Since I missed it, I’ll stick with the Statue of Liberty as my symbol of choice.)

The puffy-eyed face of disappointed democracy.

The puffy-eyed face of disappointed democracy.

One of the placards that I did have time to read was about Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s personal slave, who, upon learning she was to be given as a wedding present to the first lady’s granddaughter, decided she’d rather run away.

 

Imagine that. Presenting someone with an actual person as a wedding gift.

 

It’s not that I didn’t know Washington was a slave owner, that Jefferson was a slave owner, and even Ben Franklin—before becoming president of the Pennsylvania Anti- Slavery Society—was a slave owner. I knew, yet somehow, during the course of the day while I was schlepping around the city mourning how far we’d fallen from the mark, I’d failed to remember that those men with their democratic dreams were not perfect themselves. Maybe some of them wouldn’t be as horrified as I’d previously assumed they would be by some of the racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-immigrant statements from the new president-elect. (Let’s be honest—they weren’t that many decades removed from the people whose primary method of testing the likelihood of a woman’s witchcraft was putting her in water until she drowned and then declaring her—or at least her corpse—innocent.)

 

Of course none of this made me feel better. The reason I can tolerate the ugly side of America’s history has always been my belief that we learn from mistakes and are perpetually becoming better about practicing those truths we supposedly hold to be self-evident.

img_6240

Our feet were tired, so we trudged toward the train station so we could head back to our hotel. As we walked up Market towards  City Hall, helicopters were hovering overhead eerily. We kept looking and listening for some indication of distress, but there was nothing.

City Hall

City Hall

Because we live two blocks from downtown Seattle, we’ve become well versed in whether a helicopter is there because of an accident, a crime, or a protest. There are a lot of protests in Seattle. Z and I might be with the protestors in spirit—we might lean out our windows and wave them on—but we aren’t joiners. Crowds of any sort make me nervous, and if I hear a helicopter hovering, my response is often to check Twitter to see where the protest is happening and then skitter around to avoid it.

 

Last night was different. My feet hurt and I was exhausted from our walking history tour, but my step quickened towards the City Building where I was sure we would see something worthy of the helicopters. We got to it and nothing. We looked around. Checked the phone to see if something was going on somewhere nearby, and then we heard a cheer on the other side of the building.

 

For the first time ever, my initial instinct was not how can I avoid this but instead, how can I get there the quickest? I felt called.

According to the president-elect, these are professional protestors.

According to the president-elect, these are professional protestors.

We dodged the rush hour traffic snarls and found ourselves in a crowd of a thousand or so who were ramping up for a march. The signs were diverse: Black Lives Matter, gay rights, trans rights, abortion rights, and some fairly graphic signs suggesting the new president-elect should come to terms with the notion that women’s bodies are not up for grabs. The unifying theme: you may be the next president, but we will not tolerate your intolerance.

 

Don't judge me--democracy is at stake. I can't be bothered to brush my hair!

Don’t judge me–democracy is at stake. I can’t be bothered to brush my hair!

It felt good, standing there and claiming my first amendment rights for what felt like the first time. I didn’t have a sign, but I held my (figurative) tail up high and proud. Will it change what the next four years look like? It’s doubtful. But I will tell you this: I have never felt more American.

 

This is what democracy looks like.