Somehow it’s almost February. Earlier today I was trying to figure out if it was Wednesday or Thursday, and then I realized it’s Monday.
Dogs know how to bring the drama. Let me begin by saying that Scout is fine now. I, on the other hand, will be recuperating for a while after he gets his sutures out next week.
It started, as so many things do, with dog vomit. Around the middle of the first week in January – no wonder I can’t figure out where January went – Scout started vomiting. And then he stopped eating. I’ll leave out all the graphic details but over a week and a half it involved a trip to the dog ER, a trip to the regular vet, another trip to the regular vet, a trip to a different dog ER, surgery, and a couple nights in the dog hospital. It didn’t really start with dog vomit, I guess – it started with the dog eating something he had no business eating, which eventually needed to be removed, hence all the other things.
Anyway, he’s home now, he’s fine, he’s off all his meds, he’s eating, his incision looks great, he’s acting like himself. All good news!
And yet. I AM SO TIRED. I’m sure it’s not just because of the dog-related anxiety, and more that all my free-floating anxiety from the last year got a focal point during the dog-related anxiety. At first I was sleeping with one ear open to listen for Scout asking to go out, and taking him out in the middle of the night when needed. Which was probably once, maybe twice, but I didn’t want to miss hearing him. I’m not sure I can exactly call it progress when this turned into me going downstairs once an hour to make sure he was not dead. Full disclosure: I can make the vomiting and the not eating and the surgery sound scary, and it was scary to me, but he never really acted that sick. The likelihood of him dropping dead was pretty minuscule. But the worry about it was real, and the lack of sleep was even more real.
I have two primary go-to activities for major stress: eating and baking. It’s been a baking kind of weekend. Yesterday, in between baking three loaves of two different kinds of bread, I told Rose that I wanted to do nothing but bake for about a week. I’ve been going to sleep reading recipes for complicated layer cakes, and waking up with plans for my own recipes which might be really bad ideas. Then again, the actual cookbook I’m reading in bed has things like green curry banana cake, and I’m not sure I can do much worse than that. It didn’t even occur to me until today – Thursday? Wednesday? – that my inability to think about much besides baking is stress related. In related obliviousness, it hadn’t occurred to me that the anxiety about the dog was super sized because of all the general anxiety I’ve been trying to pretend I haven’t been feeling.
I’m happy to report that even though my brain is full of fog, I can still bake bread. True, one of the loaves bears no resemblance to the shape it is supposed to have, but it has all the right ingredients, it’s baked well, and it’s delicious. It has cheese in it, which may be cheating (of course it’s delicious!), but still. The other two loaves look perfect. But about the time I was ending my yoga practice this evening and realized that during savasana I was doing a little supine dance to the music, I decided that I don’t care so much about the form of things right now. Including, apparently, this blog post. Hug your dogs, keep them from eating their toys, bake bread and cake and enjoy it even if it’s weird, and dance even when you’re supposed to be doing corpse pose. Those are my lessons from January, if that’s even what month it is.
Boo and I went to a training class for the first time when he was three. He already knew the basic things I need all my dogs to know: come, sit, down. He knew roll over and high five because I thought that would be fun. When I said “Boo, what do you have?” he would merrily bring me the thing he had snuck from a surface somewhere and was chewing up in the middle of the floor – a sock, a hat, a bill, a packet of tomato seeds. He was like a one-canine scavenger hunt, but he was happy to share his findings with me when I asked.
The class we signed up for was a tricks class, because again – fun. He is the happiest dog I know and he loves to play, so I figured this would be a good place to start. Plus I wanted him (and me) to get out of the house some, and be around people we don’t know in places we haven’t been before to try new stuff. Spoiler alert: this is a very human definition of “fun.” It’s not even my definition of fun for me, but for some reason I thought he would feel differently.
Because I had never taken him to a class with other dogs before, not even a puppy class, I did not know what to expect, but he was super good. He ignored the other dogs, he stayed with me when I let him off leash, he obeyed all the commands he knew just as well as he did at home. He willingly went with the instructor and obeyed the commands he knew from her too, and did his best to follow her instructions when she asked him to do something new.
He was also extremely subdued, which is not a state I am used to seeing him in, not even at the vet’s office. When I take him to the boarding kennel he runs happily into the arms of whoever is working in the office. He’s just a happy little guy, and he was not his normal self in class. Aside from the newness of other dogs, strange people, and a new place, it was an indoor place. We do have some house rules, and while any amount of zooming and wrestling and jumping is fine outside, the dogs tone it down inside. Boo and Scout mostly do what we call “whisper-play” in the house. The training facility was a small indoor warehouse and maybe he thought there was a rule against romping. Or maybe he just didn’t feel like it. All the newness and all the learning had one effect I am certain of: it made him tired.
Just like how I have struggled to find a yoga class that works for me, I have struggled to find dog training classes that work for me and my dogs. In both things I can go pretty quickly from the logistical difficulties (it’s too far away, I don’t like the way the teacher teaches, it’s too crowded, the other attendees get on my nerves) to an existential crisis (Why am I doing this, anyway? Is it even my idea, or just something I think I should do?). This also happens with my horses, though it’s been years since I felt like taking a horse to a lesson.
For both the horses and the dogs, my existential crisis is around the “why.” In theory, classes are a way of getting out with other like-minded people with the same interests, a way of giving a horse or dog experience with new situations and other animals, a way to keep them (or us) from getting bored or stale at home. It’s also less expensive to take a group lesson a private lesson.
I’ve been to many barns and dog training facilities where the focus is on competition. Competition is encouraged as an opportunity to put what you and your animal have learned into action. Students of a facility who perform well at competitions are also an advertising tool for the facility, but that’s another story – or maybe it isn’t.
All of these reasons for attending classes and for competing sound really people-centric to me. Exactly one of my dogs likes being around strange dogs, and even he is wary at first. The rest of the reasons, from showing what you know to being exposed to new stimuli to alleviating boredom – all human. I read an article recently about managing stress in agility dogs and I was somewhere between amused, intrigued, and mildly outraged that at no point did the article even mention how stressed humans get at competitions and the effect that will have on their animals. I feel like I should throw in a statement here that I know people and dogs who purely love agility. I know this is not about the sport – it’s about me, and how I feel about both competitions and group activities. Maybe everywhere in this post I should replace “human” with “extrovert.”
There are humans – perhaps the extroverts, perhaps others too – who enjoy all of the things above, plus they also like competing. For me, the stress is the most notable thing – certainly at competitions, but sometimes even at classes. I know I will pass that on to my dog or horse, and the alleged up side for the dog or horse doesn’t outweigh the down side. I’m still not convinced the up side is an up side from the perspective of the actual animal. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are definite potential benefits to training a dog or horse. I say “potential” because it’s so easy to start pushing too hard and cause more problems than we solve. But there are benefits: physical strength and endurance, mental stimulation, connection with the animal. That last one, though, still maybe more of a human desire. I have brought horses and dogs into my life and I interact with them daily, so I do think developing a connection and a relationship with them is key – because they are stuck with me. I don’t think that in the abstract there’s a horse out there saying “If only I had a human” in quite the way I might say “If only I had a horse.”
One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic restrictions has been that I finally found a yoga practice that works for me. A little over a year ago, I discovered that I actually enjoy yin yoga. I found a teacher I liked, in a studio about five minutes from my house. Even so, I managed to dread going to class almost more than I enjoyed having been to class. The tie-breaker was how I felt during class, which had a lot to do with who showed up on any given day. This is strikingly similar to how I feel about going to the dog training facility that’s five minutes from my house in the opposite direction. I freely admit that my inability to keep other people’s energy off me is entirely my issue, but it is my issue and I can’t just ignore it and hope for the best. I tried that for the first 53 years and now I’m ready to try something different.
In this year of Zoom everything, I know a lot of people who feel they have been saved by the ability to take Zoom yoga, or or pilates, or whatever classes they were taking in studios before. They have been able to take a class with the same people they are used to taking classes with in person, and they are still able to feel connected to those people. Since I did not have people I was used to taking class with, or even people I particularly wanted to take class with, this was not a big motivator for me.
What I started with was Youtube videos. I found a yoga instructor I liked who had videos I liked. Rose and I did one of the videos a couple of times. What we both found we like better, though, is to create our own sequence of yoga poses, whether yin or restorative, put them in a yoga timer app, and then pick our own music and do our own thing. There are some drawbacks. We got terrible giggles when I misspelled “savasana” as “shivasana” and the yoga timer app voice yelled “SHEEva-sana,” and every time she blurts out “BANANA” I think of the grocery store self check out voice saying “Put your BANANAS in the bag,” but a little laughter during yoga isn’t such a bad thing. This homegrown yoga practice is the best I have done with getting what I’ve been looking for from yoga: a combination of relaxation, meditation, and very gradually increasing flexibility. It is, in fact, the first time I can actually say I have a yoga practice – one which I do every day.
At the same time as I have figured out a yoga practice, I have also found a Zoom group that I like. It’s a breath work group, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sense of community I get from it. I didn’t know what to expect since I’ve never done breath work except in the context of riding horses. It’s the first time in a long time I have done a group activity that actually did give me the feeling of being around like-minded people, even if the only way in which we are like-minded is that we have committed to doing the same thing – and it is a commitment, six days a week. I don’t think that is the only thing, but it’s useful for me to recognize that even if it were, that could be enough.
It took me nearly a year of not being able to physically attend classes I didn’t really want to attend anyway to figure out what works for me. I’m pretty sure I can apply that to my dogs and horses as well. There aren’t really that many criteria: it has to be something we all enjoy, something we find relaxing, something that everyone gets something out of. There are a lot of different ways to learn things, and I can live with being creative about that, even if we do it all at home. If it also makes me giggle, so much the better.
My friend Elaine died last Tuesday. I knew it when I woke up that morning, but having it confirmed still took my breath away. The first thing I thought when I heard the news, right after “damn it to hell,” was “I need to make her a cake.” I am quite sure it is the memorial she would most have wanted from me, and it is the one I most want to give her.
Her death from cancer was no surprise. I met her through an online writing group in which many of us began blogs. Her blog was called a horse, a husband, and cancer, and in it she openly discussed her 30 year battle with cancer. More than anyone I have ever known, Elaine recognized the relationship she had with her cancer – the actual til death do us part nature of it. Before I even knew her, her doctors had deemed her cancer incurable, terminal. So no, it was not a surprise. And yet. How can she be dead?
We met through our writing. We bonded through our shared interests in horses and baking, and our dark senses of humor. We became friends through our blogs. In Ann Patchett’s Story of A Happy Marriage, a friend asks Ann of her first husband, “Does he make you a better person? … Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?” And to all of these things, but especially the last one, I can say a resounding yes about Elaine.
Ours was a writing friendship, something I didn’t even knew I needed or could have. We were motivated and inspired by each other because of how much we loved each other’s writing. Each blog post, each comment, each tangential discussion was fodder for our next writing efforts. Reading each other’s work was a pleasure in itself, and it also made us both want to write more. We never tried to be editor or critic for the other; we were just enthusiastic readers and sources of more material. “Just,” I say, as if those aren’t the things we writers want most. Fairly early on Elaine said to me, “But most of all I want you to write more because the subject almost didn’t matter, I just want your words,” and that is exactly how I felt – how I feel – about her writing.
Elaine began posting a weekly blog last spring, and I was inspired to do the same when I realized how eagerly I read her words first thing every Thursday over my morning coffee. It was like getting an anticipated letter in the mail (and oh, I miss letters), ripping open the envelope and starting to read right there at the mailbox, the letter in one hand and the torn envelope in the other. When I started posting on Mondays, she read and responded to my work as avidly as I did hers. We said we had a biweekly tea date – well, tea for her on Mondays, coffee for me on Thursdays – as we sat down with a hot drink (and maybe cake) and each other’s words. When I was stuck for an idea I would sometimes think, “What do I want to tell Elaine about this week?”
We grew up in different countries, different decades, different families, different schools. Sometimes we wrote about the parts of our lives that had no intersection, and we learned things from and about each other. Sometimes we wrote about the same topics – cake, for example – cake was always central for us – and all the things that baking represents, and the people and rituals it connects us to. Birds, and how they helped us find our way to dead relatives (my sister, her mother). I often wrote about death – of family members, of beloved animals. Elaine often wrote about her cancer, her own death looming far or near on the horizon.
Of course we wrote about our horses. We each had a truth serum horse – the kind of horse that doesn’t let us get away with any of our shit, the kind of horse that requires us to be our truest, most honest, most vulnerable selves in their presence. We both had a tendency to armor up with humor and a veneer of toughness when facing fear, and those truth serum horses have no patience with that. Last summer, Elaine wrote a multi-part series about her horse, Bruce: his life prior to her, and his life with her. Part fact, part conjecture, all truth, she brought him to vivid life for her readers. Less than two months later he was dead from colic. Shocking, unexpected, heartbreaking. And yet I also see that Bruce blazed the trail for Elaine to follow not long after. Shocking, expected, heartbreaking.
In her last message to me, just a few days before she entered hospice, Elaine related her recent terrifying hospital visit in a typically dry yet hilarious way. Her last words to me were “I miss Bruce like my heart is breaking and I might never get to meet you.” My last words to her were “I miss your voice,” and I always will. Until I heard of her death I held out hope that I would get to see her in person for our long promised tea and cake visit, but I know us. Bruce was waiting, and we would both agree with a paraphrased John Muir: “The horses are calling, and I must go.”
The last thing I wrote that I know Elaine read was my Christmas Bat piece, which I wrote because it was a story she asked me for. It began, though, with my explanation that I was giving her the story because I was not able to deliver the 10 layer Russian honey cake she had also asked for. I also wrote of my sadness over the prospect of my friend’s death. Her reply to that was “I expect your friend will change her mind and decide to wait for the layer cake. I know I would. And with covid restrictions, exchange rate, costly flights etc, it might take a looooong time til you deliver the cake to her?” I wanted that time. I can’t separate how much I wanted it for her and how much I wanted it for me. I can honestly say that I would have traded ever meeting her in person for her getting as much life as she wanted. I also know I would have wanted to keep sharing that life, even if only from across the ocean.
I started this piece the day she died. I almost posted it that day, but I knew it was not finished. I revised, and rewrote, and chainsaw-edited. I almost posted it on Thursday, Elaine’s day, but I was still revising. By Friday I realized that as long as I am working on this, I have her with me in a way I won’t when I finish it. Part of me can still pretend that she will read it. The rest of me is grieving daily as I write. I need both the illusion and the grief right now.
When I make Elaine’s cake, it will most certainly be that 10 layer Russian honey cake. It is complicated, time consuming, and it will give me many hours of preparation and baking and construction to commune with her in my kitchen. I will cut it into thin slices and freeze it, to make it last for as many Thursdays as possible.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” E.B. White
Rose doesn’t love it when people ask how we chose our farm name and I say it was bestowed upon us by a drunk man at a party, but it’s true, and I do kind of love the way it came about.
The barn we were running at the time of the party was our first farm together and our only boarding barn. Our then dressage instructor had been leasing the farm for several years, boarding horses and teaching lessons, but she had bought her own place. Rose and I decided to go into business together – this was before we were together together – and lease the farm ourselves.
The name of the farm under our dressage instructor was Centerline, and while fitting for a dressage barn, it was also her business name and was traveling to her new home with her. Not to mention that, inherited boarders aside, we were not all that interested in running a dressage barn. The farm was on the border of two counties, and there was a lot about it that was held together with duct tape and baling twine – or in the case of the fences, multiflora rose bushes and wishful thinking. We settled on the name Borderline Farm, which I thought brought just the right amount of snark to the dressage clientele, and which exactly none of them found at all funny.
Things only got more dressagey after that, as not only did we have the dressage instructor who used to lease the barn coming back weekly to teach lessons to her clients who were now our boarders, we brought in another dressage instructor and several of his clients to board as well. He was a well thought of rider from a well known local dressage program, and also young and very handsome, and he had quite a following of older women with expensive horses that mostly he, not they, rode. Let’s just say if I had set out to attract boarders who I will loosely call “my people,” these would not have been they, but there were stalls to be filled and bills to be paid.
The young dressage instructor threw a Christmas party for his clients, and Rose and I were invited and attended. We were by then together together, and not just running the business together. We all took the excuse of being away from the barn for once to wear something other than our barn clothes. I had on an actual dress and, as I recall, eye make-up. Near the start of the party another woman and I started to introduce ourselves before we realized that a) she was one of our boarders and b) we had known each other longer than probably anyone else in the room. Horse people in party clothes are often unrecognizable.
There were people there that we truly did not know, however, in the cases where a boarder had brought her husband along. It was one of these husbands who had been talking to me and Rose for some time, when suddenly he pointed to me and said, I thought, “Tara.” I sighed and pointed to myself and said “Tessa,” because the two most common names people confuse my name with are Tara and Teresa. He shook his head harder than I thought wise for so drunk a person and pointed again, saying “No, Terra. You’re Terra — ” and then, pointing to Rose, “and she’s Firma.” I still don’t know where that came from – it was a complete non sequitur even by drunk party talk standards – but it had something to do with that talking to us was a very different experience than he had found talking to anyone else in the room. Whatever his level of drunkenness or his skill at observation, he had hit on something we instantly recognized as true for us.
We moved on from that farm to lease another farm, and changed our business name to Terra Firma Farm. It has remained so through several other moves until we landed here, at the property we bought and which has become our true terra firma. The drunk dressage husband at the party was right, though – the two of us together are our own, and each other’s, terra firma.
Nothing has reminded me of that so much as the past year when it’s been just us and the animals here. I got to thinking over the weekend about an intention word – I’m not a big fan of resolutions, but I like the idea of picking a word as an intention for the year. Unfortunately last year my word was “pause,” something I would like to learn to do more, but then the so-called normal world came screeching to halt and I got a little nervous about the power of manifesting intent.
The word that popped into my head for this year was “faith,” and I still think it’s a good one – not like religious faith, but more like faith in the workings of the world, faith in other people, and – particularly challenging for me sometimes – faith in myself. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a terra firma kind of year. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. As Anne Lamott, and probably many others, said, the opposite of doubt isn’t certainty, it’s faith. Last year was a year filled with doubt, and a distinct lack of solid ground. May this year be filled with faith in my own terra firma, faith in my ability to be terra firma for my loved ones, faith in my ability to manifest more terra firma in the world. Not such a bad thing to reach for in the new year.
First let me say: I love Christmas. I love the decorations, I love the lights, I love some of the songs, I love picking out gifts, I love watching old Christmas specials on TV, I love making stockings. If I could get a full time job choosing things to put in Christmas stockings, I would be delighted. One of the things I have grown to love the most is watching my kids watch each other (and us) open gifts. They are all thoughtful gift givers, and they all enjoy seeing the reactions to their gifts, and I enjoy their reactions to the reactions just as much.
I don’t love tradition for tradition’s sake. I have said at many, many jobs that the worst reason to do a thing is “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” and I stand by that statement at holidays. I don’t come from a family with a strong attachment to traditions. Our kids grew up with two households, one of which was entrenched in tradition around all major holidays, and the other one (ours) was a lot more anything goes.
The basis of most holiday traditions is the family gathering, and of course sometimes that’s the hardest part. Even when everyone wants to spend time with everyone else (which is rarer the bigger the gathering is), the group is not always greater than, or even as great as, the sum of its parts.
When my parents were still alive, for a lot of years I avoided family holiday meals. If we don’t ordinarily communicate, and we didn’t always through those years, I didn’t see the sense in getting together as if we had been longing to see each other all year. I also didn’t love us when we did get together, and in particular I didn’t love myself. With our relationship and communication patterns established in childhood and then not updated much because we weren’t a regular part of each other’s lives, we fell back into old patterns too easily.
My own kids are better friends than my sisters and I were at similar ages, and I still watch them struggle with this when they are all together with any of their parents. The more parents are there, the worse it is. Someone always gets their feelings hurt. In my family, it was usually me, and though when I watch my own kids I can see a logical way to solve that for them, I couldn’t often put logic into action for myself, so my solution was to not go.
This year, of course, was the Christmas of the non-gathering. We had a family video call with all the kids, but we were each in our own households otherwise. Next year, maybe getting together will be an option, and maybe we will, and maybe we won’t. I want my kids to start their own traditions, and to actively decide what traditions they want – because they love them, and for no other reason. They may not all love the same traditions, and I hope they will be able to mix sharing traditions and going their own ways in a way that works for them all. I want us to all get together because we want to, and to be able to say when we don’t want to. If we are going to resume a tradition, I want it to be the tradition of the non-tradition. Do what you want, don’t put the weight of the year on a day, figure out the best way to love each other, take care of yourself. It works on holidays, and it works on non-holidays, too.
When I first signed up for the job I’ve now had for five years, a colleague from my last job said “Wow, are you going to get to travel to lots of places you’ve never been to that you’ve always wanted to go?” and I said “Well, I will get to travel to lots of places I’ve never been to.” While I’ve heard of almost all of the countries we work in, I do sometimes have to get out a map to see exactly (or even approximately) where they are. Few of them are on the top of most people’s tourism lists, though I have learned that those lists vary a lot depending on what your originating country is. Anyway, I did not have a life goal to see all the countries I’m unfamiliar with. I’m not a huge fan of airplanes and the very closest place I’ve been for this job is eight hours if you can get a direct flight, but there are almost no direct flights to any of these places. Mostly, though, I don’t like being away from home. I miss my people, I miss my animals. I have a vague fear that I will be forgotten in the week or so that I am away (note to adults minding children: if you accidentally walk away from a five year old at the zoo and they look up to find they are surrounded only by hippos and strangers, they may in fact remember it for life).
But for the last five years, I have been traveling. I have done the bare minimum of travel and have still managed to go to six countries, three of them twice, in that time. For the last two weeks of February this year I was in two different countries. I came home a week before the US started limiting flights from Europe and about two weeks before everything shut down. After two weeks away, I was ready to stay at home. In fact, before two weeks away, I was ready to stay at home. Over nine months later, I’m still ready to stay at home. And yet.
Today is the start of a two week vacation. It is the ideal kind of vacation – the whole office is closed so I won’t even have a backlog of work to come back to in two weeks. I love the idea of a staycation, but I’ve been doing an awful lot of staying already this year. If I were to go anywhere right now, it would be to Colorado to see my two kids who live there, and my friends, and just Colorado in general. I haven’t been there since January and like many things this year, it seems like years ago. I know that technically I could go, but I have zero interest in getting on a plane right now, and I don’t want to spend that much of my time driving. I also know that I will continue to stay at home until it’s less of a health risk to travel. All this time to think about traveling without having to travel has got me thinking about the travel I think I want to do and the travel I actually want to do.
In my mind I’m a much more adventurous traveler than I actually am. I want to go to more exotic places, and I want to do more things while I am there, and I want to travel for long periods of time – in my mind. In reality, when I travel I alternate between bursts of wanting to do things and bursts of wanting to curl up in my hotel room in the fetal position. I want to spend time getting to know the people I’m working with, but I also can’t wait to get away from them and be by myself at the end of the work day. Most of the time when I go somewhere I’ve never been, I try to do and see some things I will otherwise never have the chance to do and see, but I have about a day of that in me and then I’m done. I’m never going to be a person who tries to fit in a lot of activities in the end of the day after work. I do like to walk around anywhere I can, and my last trip before lockdown that is mostly what I did, usually in the mornings before the work day started. I really did enjoy both people-watching and nature-watching on my last trip – it’s nice to be in a city with big parks so it’s easy to do both.
Because I’m at home now, I get to dream about traveling. Because I don’t have to actually travel, I can look at the dreams against what I really like to do. I’m missing my people – my actual people, not my work people. I’m probably going to become one of those RV people, because I love the idea of traveling with Rose and the dogs, taking as long as we want to get places, and staying wherever and for however long we want. Part of me still wants to want to be the person who wants to get on the plane for the 20 hours or whatever it takes to fly to New Zealand. Part of me is still the person who thought peace corps sounded like a good idea, though I think that version of me also wanted to be a bull rider or a steeplechase jockey. I have an adventurous soul and a homebody heart and I’m learning to accept this.
One of the things I really do love about the work travel I have done is that it has given me perspectives I would never have been exposed to. I’ve encountered some eye-opening attitudes and questions about Americans. I’ve learned about history of countries I would have never learned about. I’ve heard personal stories of people who lived through things I’ve only read about in newspapers. I pay attention to world news in a different way because I know people who are living in the places the news is about, and that makes me hear and feel it differently.
I’ve decided to focus on other perspectives during my staycation, in particular the perspectives of the other inhabitants of my home, whether human, canine, feline, equine, or avian. Two weeks of listening and traveling in someone else’s shoes (or feet, or paws) seems like a good place to start my next travel adventure.
I’ve been trying for some time now to write the story of the Christmas Bat because a friend wants to hear it. The same friend also wants twelve layer Russian honey cake, but she lives on the other side of an ocean so I can’t make that happen right now. The main reason I’ve been unable so far to give her the story she wants is that I’m too tied up with what I want: for my friend to not have cancer, for there to be more than a tiny chance that we will ever get to meet in person, for my heart to not be so full of grief from all the other people I’ve loved who have died of cancer that I freeze just a little when I am faced with another potential death.
The accumulation of grief is a tricky thing. In between losses I feel like I’m doing ok, I’m processing the grief, I’m mourning and honoring the people. But then I’m faced with another loss, and I realize the grief that was sitting next to me is now something I’m treading water in and it’s getting harder to catch my breath, partly because instead of breathing all I want to do is scream. My accumulated griefs include friends with terrible diagnoses, and friends whose parents or siblings or spouses or children or friends have died are or are dying. They also include a lot of anger on behalf of the people I’ve loved who have died. Anger that they had to go through it – each member of my family who has died of cancer has had a different kind of cancer and they are all fucking terrible – and anger that I have lost them. I know this is a wave of feeling and even though it feels like a tidal wave it will become manageable again, but today I’m having a hard time writing about anything else.
But. If a friend asks me for a thing that is in fact the very least I can do, and it is also all I can do, then damn it, I’m going to do it.
The Christmas Bat is now on top of his 33rd Christmas tree. Last year he got a break only because we took a break from having a tree. We did not have Christmas trees in my childhood, but we had neighbors who got theirs every Christmas Eve from a cut-your-own tree farm in northern Virginia and who let us tag along for the tree selection and tree decorating. I haven’t strung cranberries and popcorn since those trees, but I still think Christmas Eve is a good time to get a tree. I am the only member of my family on this bandwagon, however, so we always get ours earlier, and this year I was the one pushing to get the tree before Thanksgiving. Rose and I have both moved off of our early Christmas tree positions – she spent several years asking me if I was sure I didn’t want to use a star or an angel as the tree topper, but this year while we decorated our tree that I brought home nearly a month before Christmas, she was the one who put the bat in his place on the top of the tree.
For many years my mother managed a museum shop. They sold the usual kinds of things you would expect in a museum gift shop – things related to current or past exhibits, like books about Maria Martinez pottery, or honey and bee pins from the Utah: The Beehive State exibit, or postcards of the paintings in the Grand Salon upstairs. But because of my mother, they also had a wonderful collection of eclectic children’s books which had no relevance to anything ever seeen or exhibited in the gallery. The King Who Rained was a favorite of mine when I was in elementary school, as was A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, but my very favorites were the Edward Gorey books.
My mother gave me Amphigorey, the first of the Gorey anthologies, when I was in middle school, and I began memorizing Gorey stories. My best friend from 7th grade and I recited them gleefully and often, and when she moved to the other side of the country we traded lines from The Gashleycrumb Tinies or The Object Lesson back and forth on the many envelopes we sent each other containing 20-page letters and cassette tapes. Not mix tapes, but just tapes of us talking in our ongoing conversation when long distance was still charged by the minute and we were too young to have jobs to pay the phone bills.
Gorey came with me to college in the form of a book of small posters of his work (also from the museum shop) which I cut out and used to paper my dorm room wall. After the dorm they followed me from one room to another for years, growing ever tattier around the edges from all the thumbtack holes.
As far as I know, the Christmas Bat is the only one of his kind. He came into being in the museum shop one Christmas season in the 80’s. In addition to all the books, my mother also stocked the shop with Gorey bean bag creatures, especially the cats in their little striped shirts, and the bats with their red eyes. She dressed one of the Gorey bats for the season in a tiny knit Christmas hat, a miniature brass horn, and a bright red tassel, and placed him by the cash register. When the season was over she gave him to me. I put him on top of my first Christmas tree and he has held that place ever since.
I know I have found a kindred soul when I find someone else who grew up on Gorey stories. The Wuggly Ump may not be a soothing bedtime story (“How uninviting are its claws! How even more so are its jaws!”) but anyone who knows it – or any other Gorey story – by heart likely has a dark sense of humor I will recognize. I have a book that my mother gave me for my 17th birthday, inscribed with a quote from Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. She wrote “To Tessa, who came seventeen years ago and to this day has shown know intention of going away.” I still find this perfect, if maybe a little hard to explain as a birthday sentiment.
When my most favorite aunt was dying and we said our goodbyes, we first said “I love you” and the major things we wanted each other to know. She then drew a shaky breath (she was less than 24 hours from dying of lung cancer) and said “It was already Thursday,” so of course I said “but his Lordship’s artificial limb could not be found” and she said “Therefore, having directed the servants to fill the baths” and I said “He seized the tongs and set out at once for the lake, where the Throbblefoot Spectre still loitered in a distraught manner.” I kissed her, said “I love you” one more time, and we said goodbye. Quoting Edward Gorey at each other may not be how everyone says goodbye to a favorite relative, but what my aunt called “the quoting gene” runs strong in our family.
Like most of my stories, the story of the Christmas Bat is wrapped up in a lot of other stories. Some of them are funny, some of them are sad, some of them involve death, and some of them involve life and friendship. I’m breathing a little better now, but damn it, I want my life and my friends’ lives to have so much less of the sad and the death, and so much more of the funny and the life and the friendship.
I’m sure there’s a joke to be had about how I like my male horses – tall, dark and handsome, yes, but also – gelded? troubled? – but what I do know is that the geldings I have picked as riding horses tend to have a lot in common. The three I have chosen have been bay with strong black points, similar height, and with no interest in the job they were trained to do before I met them.
Soldier was a thoroughbred trained to foxhunt. I got him as a lease-to-sell project, with the intent of training him as an event horse. As it turned out, a horse who will run and jump with a group of other horses does not necessarily have any interest in jumping when he is alone on a cross country course, and a horse who has only ever seen natural fences on the hunt course may not have any idea what to do with painted jumps in an arena. His approach to a stadium jumping course went something like this: gallop towards the first fence, screech to a halt, take off from all four feet at once, land on all four feet on the other side, bolt to the next fence and repeat. After it became clear he would never be an eventer at even the lowest level (Super Chicken, they call it locally, or Ever Green), his owner sent him back out on a foxhunt with an interested buyer who Soldier promptly dumped and nearly put in the hospital. He eventually found his way to a great home with a woman who wanted mostly to do dressage and trail ride.
Wy came along about 5 years after Soldier. His full name was Wy’East, the native name of Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon where his breeder was from. He had been bred and trained to be a dressage horse (his breeder had dreams of him taking her to the Olympics) but was deemed neither sound nor sane enough for that job. That put him squarely in my equine specialty of what a friend once dubbed “the lame and the insane.” His first owner was my dressage instructor at the time she had him up for sale. When I rode him for the first time in a lesson with her I wound up on the ground pretty quickly, as his riders often did. I don’t remember landing, but I do remember getting up and saying “You son of a bitch, get back here” as I went to get him from the other side of the indoor arena. His owner, used to people sitting on the ground and crying after coming off him, agreed to sell him to me on a payment plan.
I had no designs on Wy as a dressage horse, and I let him show me what he was interested in, which was mostly trail riding, though he also loved jumping tiny fences as if they were Puissance walls. With the pressure off he got a lot saner, but he didn’t get any sounder, and I still had vague ideas at that time about having a horse I could compete in some discipline. I decided that he might be happier in a home where all the person wanted to do was trail ride, so I sold him to a nice man who wanted just that.
Several years after I sold Wy, and several farms after the last one where he had lived with us, we were house hunting again, looking for a place for us and our three mares. We were thinking about a house that had the right amount of land, but the land was mostly wooded. While we investigated how much it would cost to turn woods into pasture, we looked at barns where we might keep the horses in the interim.
There was a good sized boarding farm close to the woodland house. We arranged to visit, and the owner – something of a cowboy in the middle of hunter/jumper, eventer, and foxhunter territory – showed us around while we told him about our mares. I was explaining about my slutty thoroughbred mare Trappe, and telling stories on her mare-in-heat behavior, when I said “Of course, that was when we still had Wy.” The cowboy said “You had a horse named Wy? We have a horse here named Wy.” I said “Is it ‘Y’ as in the letter Y, or ‘Why’ as in ‘Why Did I Buy This Horse?'” He said he didn’t know; the owner just called him Wy, or sometimes Beast. Even though Wy’s most common nickname when I had him was Wy Beast, I still didn’t make the connection. “He’s a big, bay Hanoverian gelding,” said the cowboy as he pointed behind me. This finally sunk in, and I turned around and saw my horse looking at me over the fence of his paddock. I ran over to him and he buried his big head in my chest.
Wy had come to this farm through two different owners after he got sick while with the guy I sold him to. The diagnosis by the time I saw him was possibly EPM (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis), but no one was really sure. Some kind of degenerative neurological condition, definitely. He was not rideable, and his owner was trying to decide what to do next. I wasn’t sure what to do next either. I did nothing for about two weeks, and then one Sunday I woke up and said to Rose, “I had a dream about Wy last night and he told me to come get him. I want to go back to the farm to see him.” When we got to the farm I told the cowboy about my dream, and he looked at me like I was a little nuts, which I had expected. I said “I know it sounds weird” and he interrupted me and said “No, I don’t think it’s weird at all – it’s just that his owner just had the vet out yesterday and he said there’s nothing else they can do and she was asking if I knew how to reach you to talk about having you take him back.”
Wy came home to us and the three mares he had lived with before, though at a different farm. When we first put him out in the field with them, he spent a couple of days with a look on his face like “I had the weirdest dream – but here we all are together so I guess it really was a dream.” The mares – especially the slutty thoroughbred – were thrilled to have him back. We didn’t buy the woodland house, but we did buy the house where we live now. By that time we had acquired one more filly and we also had a foal on the way. They all lived at our vet’s farm for a few months while we put in fence and a barn here, and then they came home.
Less than two months after we brought the horses home, Wy had gone downhill enough that we had to put him down. He couldn’t reliably stand up without his knees buckling, and he walked like an old drunk man. With Trappe standing close at all times and trying to prop him up, I was worried that I would come home to find them both on the ground with her squashed beneath him. Our vet, who hadn’t seen Wy since he came home to us, took one look and said “You know you don’t have a choice about this, right?” which, true or not, was what I needed to hear. We buried Wy near the barn, and everyone that drives onto our property drives by his grave. A year after we buried him, an acorn sprouted in the middle of his grave, and that oak tree is now about 30 feet tall.
Wy left a lot of legacies. One of them is one of our family mantras: “Don’t pick up the reins.” It took me until the second time I came off of him to realize how he got people off so consistently. He would wait until his rider had a good hold of the reins, and then he would duck his giant head down between his knees and pull the rider off balance, and then he’d throw in a buck with a twist and off the rider would pop. The thing was, he always had something a little off in his back and hind end, and his buck really was not that athletic. I discovered that if, when he put his head down, I let go of the reins, he could buck all he wanted and it would not unseat me. It was that rein yank that created the problem. It became something Rose and I would say any time anyone verbally tried to knock us off balance in an argument – don’t pick up the reins and you won’t find yourself getting into a fight.
Finn is a legacy of Wy’s. I’m sure it’s no coincidence how much they look alike, or that Finn was another horse that someone tried to turn in to a dressage horse when he neither understood what was being asked of him nor was he interested in it. I don’t know that I would have brought Finn home if I hadn’t known Wy, and I don’t think I would have listened to him as much as I have when he tells me what he does and does not want to do and what he can and can’t handle. I still needed some reminders, like the first time I asked Finn to trot and he said “I can’t” and I mistook that for “I need some encouragement” rather than “I really can’t do that right now.” I said “Come on, you can do it!” and then I was up in the air looking down at his back, and then I was on the ground with him looking down at me with a look that said “I told you I can’t and I really meant it.” I got up, dropped my pants to get the sand out of my underwear, pulled myself together, and got back on with a different attitude. Finn is the Truth Serum Horse in his own right, but I know how to listen to him because of Wy.
Wy’s biggest legacy for me is to pay attention and to trust my gut. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that we went to look at one house so that we’d meet the realtor who took us to see another house that was the reason we went to look at the barn where I found the horse and was able to bring him home. Life doesn’t always run in straight lines, but I find that if I just keep moving forward – and if I don’t pick up the reins to try to control something I have no business trying to control in the first place – I end up where I need to be.
Scout, still a puppy himself, was not convinced when we came home in the middle of the night with an eleven week old ball of fluff and put it in a crate in HIS house. I imagine if he could have, he would have said what my sister reportedly said when my parents brought me home from the hospital wrapped in her blankie which my father had grabbed on the way out the door: “What is THAT in my blanket?”
Scout spent some time barking an alarm, and some more time grumbling, but it was late, so eventually he slept.
The next morning quickly became Christmas in early May, as the possibilities of having a younger brother began to dawn on Scout. They have been best friends ever since.
Dog best friends means a lot of playing and a lot of loving, but it doesn’t mean no fighting. Scout is more than twice Boo’s size, and a full year older, but they take turns being the bully in their own way. Scout loves to chase anything he is (or isn’t) allowed to chase, and when he is thwarted from his preferred target (No, you can’t chase the horses. No, you can’t run after those deer.) he turns his attention to Boo. 110 pounds of intense dog running at you at top speed is an intimidating proposition, and Boo knows how to make himself as small as possible to prevent an actual attack.
The flip side of this bullying usually happens when Scout gets the giant dog zoomies. Boo is also very fast but his legs are much shorter, and he gets frustrated and annoyed when he is left behind. He is a herder, though, and he knows how to cut corners. When he catches up to Scout he throws himself against Scout’s side until he rolls him over (though there is some evidence that Scout throws himself to the ground). In either case, it often ends with a lot of hackles raised and one of us having to separate the dogs until everyone cools down.
We manage a lot of things about our dogs to maintain the peace. We feed them all separately, in closed kennels. We have a dog yard and an auxiliary dog yard, so if they are not playing well together outside we can separate them and they can still be outside in a safe space. The auxiliary dog yard is also farther away from the horses, so we have somewhere to put Scout to avoid having the horses ramp up his stress. The dogs are not allowed on “our” furniture, and though they have sofas of their own in the basement, we keep an eye out for anyone who is guarding a sofa, or a toy, or one of us. We also keep an eye out for when they are peacefully sharing space, and we give out lots of treats for good behavior.
Even with all of that, they can and do find things to disagree about. Sometimes it’s just that something that’s fun for one dog isn’t fun for the other, or something that was fun at first isn’t fun any more. I understand all of this. It works the same way for the humans in the house, whether there are five of us or, as now, just two. And not all of us have someone around to separate us when our hackles go up about something and we start picking on each other.
This year has been a tough one for relationships. Most externally imposed boundaries have been eliminated. We don’t have travel, or going to an office, or even going shopping as artificially enforced time apart. It can be hard to find things to talk about when we’ve spent all day on top of each other and we already know everything the other person did. Especially this year, a lot of the things to talk about from the outside world are scary or irritating or contentious. Just like the dogs, it’s easy for one of us to get sick of something the other one is doing, or for one of us to get irritated at something else and then take it out on the closest person.
I once read a novel about a marriage counseling service that sent a linguist to live with a struggling couple on the theory that the root of their problems was in the words they used to speak to each other. I don’t disagree with this (and it was a great premise for a book), but I wouldn’t mind having a good dog trainer in the house on some days. Not for the dogs – for us.
Rose and I have been together for 27 years, and we know by now that in every relationship there will be times you and your dearly beloved will drive each other completely crazy. Mostly we can laugh about it, and we are also good at finding activities we enjoy doing together. I feel like this year has made us better at both things. Sometimes, though, it would be nice to have someone else to read the warning signs for us, and put us in separate yards. Or better yet, someone else to note when things are going well, and to offer us a cookie.
I’m looking forward to an uneventful Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving was our main holiday when I was a kid. Christmas was exciting for the gifts (which Santa left on our dining room table, since we had no tree), and we had a meal for each holiday – roast beef for Christmas, ham for Easter – but it was usually just my parents and us three sisters. I get to make up my own stories about why, since I didn’t ask when my parents were alive and now there’s no one to ask. I assume it had to do with religious holidays being a loaded topic in a family of mixed religious background where no one in fact practiced any religion. Plus both my parents came from small families, and neither of my parents much enjoyed spending time with their own (or each others’) parents.
My mother worked at one of the Smithsonian galleries from the time I was in first grade, and the Smithsonian is open every day of the year but Christmas. This was something my mother often objected to – “The Smithsonian is an American institution so if it is going to be closed on just one day per year it should be an American holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, and not a religious holiday like Christmas” – but I don’t recall her actually objecting to working on the day. Maybe because when she did, my father had to do most of the holiday cooking.
We had very traditional foods when we were all still living at home. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, canned cranberry jelly, Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing from a bag. Probably green beans – it seems the vegetables have not stayed in my mind. Something green, for sure. Not sweet potatoes; I think I was in my twenties before I ever tasted a sweet potato. My favorite things to do to prepare the meal were making the roux for the gravy and ricing the potatoes for the mashed potatoes with the already ancient potato ricer which lives on in my kitchen today, discolored metal, chipped orange paint on the handles and all.
We were more likely to have friends of my parents over for Thanksgiving than other holidays. At some point when I was not much older than ten, we started having all holidays with my father’s friend Stan, after his wife died in her early forties. The holidays I remember more specifically tended to involve Stanley (I wrote about one of my favorite Stanley Thanksgivings in The Pack – it was Rose’s first holiday with my family and I’m still amazed she didn’t run screaming into the night).
We also started to drift from the more traditional elements of the Thanksgiving meal. My oldest sister married a vegetarian, my middle sister moved to the other side of the country and then to the other side of the ocean, Rose and I started to develop our own traditions at our own house. A fairly common Thanksgiving meal at my parents’ house became a chicken, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce from Boston Market, several tofu and vegetable options from a Chinese restaurant, and pumpkin pie made by my brother-in-law.
Rose and I have gone back and forth with the traditions. More often than not, we have made the traditional meal, though not always on the traditional day. Our kids often had the actual Thanksgiving meal with their father’s family, and then we’d have our celebration with them on Friday or Saturday. Rose makes the world’s best stuffing, and I think any of us would be just as happy eating only that. One year we were all fed up with holidays and we ordered Thai food from a local restaurant. The restaurant was closed on the holiday but the owner insisted that the spring rolls would not be good the next day. He and his wife came in on Thanksgiving just to make our food despite our best efforts to talk them out of it.
By the time both of my sisters and I were doing our own Thanksgiving things, my parents started going to my mother’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. It was during these events that the individual years began to earn names. There was the Ten Cat Thanksgiving, when my aunt was fostering seven tiny kittens in her jacuzzi tub, in addition to her regular three full grown cats. There was the Appendicitis Thanksgiving, when my cousin’s husband had to have an emergency appendectomy. We unwittingly continued this tradition three years ago with the Home from the Hospital Thanksgiving, when my middle son (then 29) had a stroke four days before the holiday, and thankfully recovered brilliantly and was released on Thanksgiving day.
So yes, I’m looking forward to an uneventful day. I know it will be the Pandemic Thanksgiving just by definition, but I’m hoping for a low drama day. It will just be me and Rose. Our kids are now doing their own things, too, though in a normal year we would see at least one of them. We are going to have a scaled down traditional meal. Well, at least the turkey will be scaled down to a breast. I look forward to doing something called spatchcocking it, which sounds far more entertaining than it is. Rose will, I sincerely hope, make enough stuffing for the whole family. And if we need a little excitement, maybe I will cook another spaghetti squash whole. The Exploding Squash Thanksgiving has kind of a nice ring to it.