Dog Days

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My pandemic “don’t feel like it” has been compounded exponentially by weather-related “don’t feel like it.” It is HOT. And dry. I know not that many months ago I was cursing the clouds and the rain, but I would give a lot for a rainy day or three right about now. This morning there were just enough clouds while the sun was rising that I was able to get the horses tended to without also sizzling in the sun, but now the sun is out and making up for lost time.

The list of things I don’t feel like doing is long. I don’t feel like cooking, or working, or writing. I don’t feel like weeding, or picking vegetables. I don’t feel like vacuuming or dusting, though to be fair that was true before the heat and the pandemic. Also true of working out, which it probably goes without saying that I don’t feel like. It’s just as well in some ways that it is dry, because I don’t feel like mowing or weed-eating and if it were wet and this hot I might be living in a jungle by now.

I don’t feel like walking the dogs or even touching the horses. Luckily, the dogs don’t feel like walking either, nor do the horses want to be touched. I offered the horses a nice cool hosing, but all they want is cold water in their trough, the shade of their shed, and to be left alone. I know how they feel.

The dogs and I have been on our own in the house for nearly a month now. We have a routine, because we all like routines, but lately more and more of our routine involves lying on the sofa, or the floor. I think they have the right idea with the cool basement floor, or the kitchen tile by the air conditioning vents. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s only a matter of time till I find myself splayed out on the concrete with the rest of my pack.

When the pandemic stay-at-home orders began, my social media feeds were full of suggestions for what to do with all our free time. I spent the first month being puzzled by this, and much of the time since then being annoyed by it. I’ve been working from home for sixteen years. I am not a social person. I have the same number of animals I had before the pandemic. Basically, nothing has changed in my day to day routine. I have no more or less free time than I had before. I do not have the time or the inclination to take up new hobbies, start a new workout routine, meditate, or begin any other form of self improvement. I almost want to ask who HAS been doing any of these things (outside of talking about it on social media), but really that’s just one more thing I don’t want to spend time paying attention to.

Now, with Rose away, I have one more layer of what-I-could-be-doing-but-I’m-not. If you have been in a house with someone else, or more than one someone else, since the pandemic began, do you think there are things you would do if it was just you in the house? If you had all the alone time you haven’t had for the last several months? I’m not sure where I thought more time might appear in my day, but once again it did not. I do all the same things I was doing before, only now I do all of them by myself. I probably talk to the dogs even more than I did before.

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Most of the time, the dogs tell me to chill out. Occasionally, they tell me to take them outside, but they usually remember why that was a bad idea as soon as they get there. If we are out early enough, Quinn can sometimes talk Boo into a game of zoomies, but not very often. Scout is emphatically not interested, and who can blame him? He and I are in no mood to run as fast as we can. Or at all.

Dogs have no need for self-improvement projects. They think they are just fine as they are, and I have to say I agree. One of the very nicest things about dogs is that they think we are just fine as we are too. We are at our best when we calm down enough from all the human things to just sit on the sofa, with maybe some popcorn we are willing to share. That is enough.

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Biscuits

biscuits

I have made biscuits – proper southern baking powder biscuits, not drop biscuits – exactly twice in my life. When I was in college I invited some friends over for dinner, and agreed to make biscuits to go along with the pot roast or whatever the main part of the meal was. I only remember the biscuits, though I don’t remember what recipe I followed. Since this was back in the days when cookbooks were our only option, it was most likely from The Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer, two old faithfuls from my mother’s kitchen. Not that my mother ever baked biscuits, but there were many other useful recipes and equivalents (for the student who tended to not have ingredients and therefore was always trying to figure out what she could substitute) in both books.

The biscuits did not, shall we say, turn out well. Because I don’t remember the recipe I can’t say if I followed it exactly, but they did not rise or expand in any way as biscuits are supposed to do. They went in the oven looking like white flat disks and they came out of the oven looking like brown flat disks. They did not quite make it to the texture of a cracker – it was something closer to quarter inch plywood. For reasons that escape me now, I did not throw them in the trash but instead hid the tray of biscuit coins in the laundry room, which (student housing being what it is) was more of a laundry closet, and also immediately adjacent to the kitchen and right outside the bathroom. “Hid” may not be quite the word I’m looking for here.

My guests dug happily enough into the meal and did not ask about any missing elements – that is, until after we finished eating when one of them asked if I had decided against the biscuits. I confessed that I had tried and failed, and we pulled the pan out of the laundry to inspect – and laugh at – my inedible results. When I think of those biscuits I think of a book I loved as a child in which the main character makes biscuits for her parents, pounding out some of her teenage frustrations on the dough. When her mother sees that she has baked biscuits she says with some surprise that their daughter has become domesticated. Her father, however, while chewing on a mouthful of tough biscuit, says something like “Tamed, maybe. Domesticated, not quite.”

This book, and this character, were part of a long line of books I read and loved about girls who were tomboys or loners in one way or another. Girls who were not skilled at – or interested in – the girly things that other girls enjoyed. My oldest sister was always a fan of dolls, and dreamed of nothing more than being a mother. She planned to have four children when she grew up: two girls and two boys, and she had their names picked out by the time she was ten. I had stuffed animals, not dolls. When I thought about being a grown-up, I always pictured myself alone.

I chalked up biscuits as one more frilly skill that I did not have. Some people, I reasoned, are bread people, and some people are pastry people. I am bread people. I’m not sure why biscuits go in the pastry category, or even if they do for anyone but me. Fiddly things that require a delicate touch that I obviously lack, was my point.

Yesterday I decided to get over my thirty year fear of biscuits. I’ve learned a lot about baking since I was in my early twenties, and I’ve made things that are a lot more fiddly than a biscuit and had them come out well. I did some internet research, found a recipe that looked like it had all the right ingredients and steps, followed the recipe exactly, and half an hour later I had a pan full of perfectly risen, flaky, delicious biscuits. The main thing I had to do was stop thinking I couldn’t make them. The second thing I had to do was make them. It was that simple, and it – well, the second part, anyway – was that easy. Stopping thinking I couldn’t make them was what took the thirty years. Making them took the thirty minutes.

I am eating my biscuits alone, not because I have in fact grown up to live alone but because Rose is away visiting our oldest and youngest children. The youngest child is now eight years older than I was when I had my original biscuit disaster. July is anniversary time for me and Rose. We have quite a few anniversaries, but I don’t know the dates of them all. We have the day we met – and though that was one of the very few, if not only, times in my life that I can remember the exact moment I met someone, I don’t remember the date.

We have the date of our first horse show together, which we sometimes count as our anniversary though we didn’t actually get together until over two years later. We met through horses, and paired up to show together because our horses were at the same level (level zero, I think it’s called – they were both complete novices). We actually had two shows that first weekend, and it was the weekend daylight savings began, so 6 a.m. on the Sunday of the second show was an hour earlier than 6 a.m. on the day of the first show on Saturday. I called Rose and when she answered I said “Rose? Why aren’t you here?” She said “It’s not 6 a.m.” and I said “You’re right. It’s 6:15.” We do still wish each other a happy anniversary on daylight savings, even though the date keeps moving.

We have the anniversary of our first official date, and the anniversary of when we moved in together, and the anniversary of when we moved in together again after we split up for a few months. The anniversaries that I know the exact dates of, both in July, are the anniversary of our commitment ceremony after we had been together for twelve years (our hairdresser asked “Are you sure, though?”), and the anniversary of our courthouse wedding after we had been together for twenty years (I mean, why not get married for your twenty year anniversary?).

Despite the improvements in my biscuit-making over the years, I think Rose would agree that “domesticated” may still not be the best word to describe me, and I’m not too sure about “tamed,” either. This winter will be thirty years since we first met. If someone asked me to create a metaphor for marriage, I’m not sure “biscuit-making” would be at the top of my list. But when I think about the process for me, maybe it’s not too far off. It’s simple to do it, but it’s easy to do it wrong, and you need to find that balance between stopping believing you can’t, and just doing it.

 

Everyday Magic

Magic hosta

Many years ago, the bagpiper we hired for Rose’s father’s memorial service looked around our property and said “This is the kind of place where if you are sitting down, you should be doing something.” I’m flying solo here for a few weeks and I am reminded of that every day, as I try to keep up with all the things that two of us usually do.

It’s hard for me to see this property on a macro level sometimes. If I look at once at all the things that need to be done, I just want to go lie down in the basement with the dogs. Especially when it’s over 90 degrees every day. The thing about having horses is that there’s no option about whether to go outside and do the chores, regardless of the level of heat or cold. Once I get out there and start doing things, I don’t have time to think about whether or not I feel like doing the things, I just do them, whether it’s weeding or mowing in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, or feeding, moving hay, or mucking in all weather. With the exception of weed-eating, which I can’t pause while doing or I know I just won’t start up again, while I’m doing chores I keep one eye out for the small bits of magic that remind me why I love this place so much.

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I take a lot of photos of the things that catch my attention while I’m doing chores. I usually have my cell phone with me because it fits in my pocket. As often as I wish I had my binoculars or my actual camera with me, I don’t like trying to wrangle horse feed buckets with things clanking around my neck, and I am almost guaranteed to get hay or water in some key part that should not have hay or water in it. I used to buy my cell phones based on call quality, but now I buy them based on camera quality and as a bonus, it makes phone calls. I assume. Making phone calls is by far the least used activity on my cell phone.Magic Spiderweb

Every so often, like yesterday, I look around at the trees. When we moved here twenty years ago, the only trees were evergreens that bordered the property on three sides. There was no landscaping; there was just grass growing right up to the edge of the house, and one azalea bush near the front door. The first things we had done when we moved in were to have fence put in for the horses, and to have the barn built. The first thing we did ourselves was to plant trees. The ground is quite rocky here, and digging holes for trees is no easy task, but it’s extremely satisfying. I am routinely amazed that we planted all of these trees, some of which tower over the house or the barn, and some of which my hands no longer meet around when I hug them (because of course I hug my trees).

The trees are almost all different – there are very few varieties we planted multiples of – and in addition to looking different, they seem to attract different birds. The mockingbirds like to sing from the top of the dawn redwood, and they nest in the Alberta spruce. There are hummingbirds in the Crimson King maple, grey catbirds in the yews, brown thrashers in the Autumn Blaze maple, and bluebirds in the willow. The hawks and crows battle it out in the tall pines. The sycamores hold house finches and seemingly endless varieties of sparrows. This year, for reasons I do not understand but I’m not about to question, the green herons have decided to nest in the weeping cherry tree right outside our bedroom window.

Magic Tree

I grew up in the city, and it’s taken me a lot of years to progress past thinking every red bird is a cardinal, every brown bird is a sparrow, and every yellow bird is a goldfinch. I don’t reliably wear my glasses and I think my eyesight is better than it is, so my experience of birds is often a flash of color or movement. If they sit still and I can get a good look, I can now identify many of them. Sometimes they kindly stay put long enough for me to go get the binoculars from the house, and identify a yellow warbler, a scarlet tanager, or last month my first ever pair of cedar waxwings. The things that don’t move also catch my eye, and give me time to get them in focus: frost on the fence boards, spiderwebs shimmering with dew, raindrops on the hosta leaves, and a far more varied and beautiful range of fungus on the horse manure than you might expect.

If I am sitting still, it is true that I should be doing something. Often that something is paying attention. The weeds on the fence lines can wait for another day, but the spiderwebs and the dewdrops and the horse manure fairy garden are transient. The real shame would come if I didn’t take the time to notice them.

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Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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Cowbird

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“Cowbirds,” people scoff.
Parasites. Intruders.
Eggs laid in others’ nests.
Overlarge mouths
Awkward bodies
Crowding out
Bright bluebirds
Sweet singing warblers.

But what
of the cowbird babes,
Born in the wrong nest,
Raised by unfamiliar wings?
When do they know
This is not
Where they belong?

How do they find
Each other?
When do they learn
Their own songs?

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Carpe Poopem

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My old dog is getting older. He turned 15 in early December, and just before then I thought we had reached the end. He was struggling to get up off his bed and walk to the door. His hind end didn’t hold him up reliably. He sometimes fell backwards and couldn’t get up without help. Getting old is not for sissies. I gave him some more rugs near his bed for traction. We tweaked his meds, added new pain killers, upped his dosage.

He did really well for almost two months, but then he had another bad spell. He either fell or had a seizure, and for about 24 hours every time he moved more than ten feet he wheezed and coughed as if he were choking. But after a day, with no changes in meds, he was fine. The turn-around came on a spring-like early February day when instead of holding himself still so as not to fall over or cause any more pain, he dropped to the grass for a good roll. It’s been another month since then, and he’s been going through another bad spell. It’s apparent that they are coming more frequently, and lasting longer. So far, he keeps getting better, but each “better” is not quite as good as the last one.

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This is not my first rodeo. I am a rodeo pro, at this point, with dying loved ones of both the animal and human variety. I have nearly lost count of the rodeos. I know that at a certain point with any aging animal I begin to feel like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

With the old dog, I keep watching him, wondering if tomorrow will be the day. I am fairly confident it will not.  For most of the last two months he’s been remarkably perky for a 111 year old guy. Barking at the roofers. Bossing the puppy. He still sometimes gets excited when he sees I am going to throw the tennis ball, and he bounces in front of me – “Throw it! Throw it!” – and then I throw it and he watches it go and looks back at me – “Hey, there goes your ball.”

When my father was in his last few years we had similar ups and downs. He fell down the stairs. He fell up the stairs. He wound up in the hospital (oddly, not from falling), completely disoriented and not fully aware of who or where he was, and then he came home to celebrate his 85th birthday with good cheer. He went into hospice, and then he came home yet again, and went to the Adams Morgan Day festival and got up out of his wheelchair and danced. My aunt – my mother’s sister – said “He’s like Whack-A-Mole, isn’t he?” and we laughed and laughed. Because he was.

For every pet I have had to let go, I have wondered if the time was right, was there something else I could have done, did I notice too late, what if, what if, what if? There’s an article kicking around social media recently written by a young vet about giving animals a good death. The crux of it is that waiting too long is much worse that taking action too early. I know that when I state my feelings about this I risk being accused of anthropomorphism, and to that I say two things: one, there are worse things to be accused of (and I’m not sure who ever decided that only humans are capable of certain feelings), and two, I think it’s less me viewing my dog (or horse, or cat) as human as it is me scrutinizing my own humanity.

If we let an animal keep living into old age, where by definition infirmities start to creep in, who is that worse for, them or us? If we euthanize them early enough to avoid or limit their pain, whose pain are we really eliminating? Who are we making it easier for? I wake up every morning (and often multiple times a night) wondering if this is the day I will have to make the decision. Will I sleep better when this dog has died? Yes, I will, because I will not have that decision hanging over my head any longer, and I won’t have to worry about him any more. Is that a reason to make the decision now? Not for me, not today. But maybe one day it will be.

Sweet

I have said before that this old dog reminds me so much of my old father. As they both aged, their tendency to put their heads down and plow forward, keeping up the momentum so they don’t fall down, increased. The old dog has had as many ups and downs and “This is it, the time has come” moments followed by inexplicable improvements as the old man had. Was it easier for me when I got to stop wondering every day if today would be the day my father died? You bet it was. Would I have wanted that to happen sooner because it was easier on me? No. Actually not. A friend of his told me about the last time she saw him, maybe a week or two before he died, as she was leaving he raised a glass to her and said “L’Chaim!” and that was my father in a nutshell. Both the wine and the words – To Life!

Is the old dog enjoying everything about today? I’d venture to say no. But he enjoyed his breakfast, and he enjoyed greeting the crew that came to cut down the dead trees, and he enjoyed his peanut butter and kibble-filled Kong. He clearly likes the fact that we finally separated him from the other dogs today. He gets special treatment AND he doesn’t have to listen to their barking or worry about being jumped on or bumped. The old dog has his own version of toasting this life. Rolling in the grass. Wandering off because I think he is beyond getting into any serious mischief and turning up in the horse pasture eating all the poop he can before I notice. Tomorrow may still be the day. But as for today, Carpe Poopem.

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Out Loud

My mother cleaned the house every Saturday.
She took all the pillows off the sofa
To vacuum it, and piled them on the armchairs
Where I would sit and fish for my stuffed animals
From my pillow island, and when she was done
I would make a fort of the sofa pillows on the clean sofa
And play until I got tired or distracted
And my mother would put everything back where it belonged.
When we had my father’s friends over for dinner,
My mother polished the silver, and the copper casserole,
And she washed every single wine glass and liquor glass
And returned them, sparkling, to their shelves in the dining room.

When my mother cleaned the house every Saturday
I would sometimes hear her yell “Son of a BITCH” when she
Stubbed her toe on the bed while vacuuming
And I often heard her say “Jesus Christ!”
When my father was driving, but beyond that,
I rarely heard her swear.

When my mother turned fifty, she said
She was going to be old, or she was going to be fat
But she was not going to be both. She planned to be
Not the sweet soft grannie who baked cookies
But the mean skinny grannie who whacked the hoods of cars
With her umbrella when they inched too far into the crosswalk.
She stopped cleaning the house every Saturday. She started
Walking, and she lost enough weight to scare my sister.
We started having HER friends over for dinner
And before they came, she did not polish the silver and copper
And she did not wash the wine glasses.

My mother worked at the Smithsonian for over twenty years.
She managed a museum shop, and supplied it with the most
Eclectic book collection ever to grace the shelves of an art gallery.
When they began to push out their older and probably higher paid staff
She retired, and went to volunteer as an invertebrate interpreter
At the zoo, where she explained the exhibits to curious visitors
And sometimes sang The Octopus’s Garden to the octopus,
Even after one of her fellow interpreters informed her that sometimes
The exhibited animals, their visitors, and their singing interpreters
Were live streamed on the internet.

When my mother was clearly dying of cancer
Her neurologist wanted to insert a shunt in her brain
To deliver chemo directly to her brain and spinal column.
I asked my mother what she wanted from treatment,
And she said “Not to be in pain any more.”
So I asked the neurologist what this would do for her
And I relayed the information to my mother:

This will not help with your pain. It will not help you walk.
It will give you, at the most, six more months to live
Pretty much the same life you are living right now.
She looked past me as I sat on the foot of her hospital bed,
Staring at the wall for a minute, before her eyes returned to me
And she said “Fuck it.”

It was the first time I heard her say it
Out loud.

One Bird at a Time

bluebird

In the spring a friend told me about a 100 Days of Creativity challenge she saw on Instagram. She mentioned it not in the context of posting anything, necessarily, but just in setting yourself a challenge like that, to do a creative thing every day for 100 days. I decided to take on the challenge by taking photographs of birds. Well, originally I decided my project would be that I would take one bird photograph per day, and then I would draw the bird, and then I would write something about it. Because if I’m going to plan a project, then I’m going to plan to do it times a thousand in a way that is almost guaranteed to fail. I realized before I started that that wasn’t a good idea (progress!) so I backed it down to one bird photograph per day. I don’t actually know how to photograph birds, and it turns out to be not at all like photographing dogs or horses.

Almost immediately I realized that I needed to set some other parameters.  First: it didn’t have to be a great photograph. It didn’t even have to be a good photograph. The point was that I was learning this, so any photograph at all was a step in the learning process. And just by the way, when you have a camera that you don’t know how to operate and it has a continuous shutter feature (I’m not even sure that’s what it’s called), you can take A LOT of bad photos in a very short amount of time.

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It took me about two days to realize that bird photography was going to be my gateway to meditation. I have written here before about my ambivalent relationship with yoga. My relationship with meditation is even more tenuous. I occasionally dabble in various forms of yoga, even if I grumble about it the whole time. I THINK about meditating. I don’t think I have actually ever even tried meditating, though I have almost downloaded a number of guided meditations and I have almost signed up for some meditation … classes? Is that a thing? Gatherings? Clearly, I haven’t done it.

And so the birds. The lessons started immediately. Once I got past “it’s ok to take bad photos,” I got to “look at all the things I don’t notice!” My first three weeks in the 100 days were dedicated to birds that showed up in the background (or sometimes foreground) while I was trying to focus on something else. And because I had no idea what I was doing with my camera, sometime the only in-focus bird was the one I didn’t realize was in the shot.

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One thing that is true, it turns out, is that there is a lot of standing around and waiting in bird photography. A lot of becoming really still. A lot of observation. While being still. And waiting. Really, these are not my strengths. I know – or at least I think I know – that part of meditation involves clearing your mind, and letting go of any distracting thoughts that come up. I’m sure my bird photography would improve faster if I were better at this.

Another thing that is true is that I started this project about six months after my oldest sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. When I talked to her after she had the biopsy but before she got the results, she said “The best case scenario is that it’s the Jimmy Carter kind and I take a pill and I’m fine. The worst case scenario is that it’s the John McCain kind and I die.” The biopsy came back the John McCain kind, or more technically but no more correctly, glioblastoma. It’s not one of your more treatable cancers. The five year survival rate is extremely low, and life expectancy even with aggressive treatment is 11 to 14 months after the onset of symptoms.

My sister set out to learn everything she could about glioblastoma and treatment. She read articles and studies. She found and connected with long term survivors. She applied for clinical trials and got into one, planning an aggressive sequence of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. Her goal was to live long enough for someone to find a cure. She died on May 27, 6 days after her 59th birthday and 13 days after her 37th wedding anniversary. Less than 9 months after her diagnosis.

I didn’t have much of a relationship with my sister in our adult lives. We weren’t particularly close as children, either – not in that “my sister is my best friend” way that I hear about sometimes. She was seven years older than me, which doesn’t sound like a lot now, but when I was 11 and she left home for college it was pretty significant. She was kind of like a big sister in a book. She was almost magically creative in areas ranging from decorating cakes to naming dolls and stuffed animals, to choreographing, directing, building sets and making costumes for, and starring in annual neighborhood productions of The Nutcracker, to inventing complex and time-consuming games that keep us all occupied for hours on end. She was also just a sister, with all the sqabbles and jealousies and meanness that go along with being siblings.

For the last four or so months of her life, my sister wasn’t recognizably my sister. That is one of the many, many horrors of glioblastoma – it eats away your conscious mind before it kills you. I did not spend days at her bedside. I am eternally grateful that her husband was able and willing to care for her because I could not and did not. I went to see her sometimes, or to stay with her for a few hours so her husband could get a break. I thought about her every day. I continue to think about her every day. I have probably spent more time thinking about my sister in the last 9 months than I did in the previous 40 years.

I was, I am still, stumped about why I am so, so sad. I am sad for my sister, because it is complete bullshit for a person to die of something like this at barely 59 years old, and because she studied so much about it that she knew exactly what would and did happen to her, and it must have been terrifying. I am sad – and mad – that she didn’t get another 20 or 30 or 40 years to do exactly whatever she wanted to do. I am also sad for me, because my sister died. I think the part of me that is most sad is the part of me that lived with her and experienced her as that magical, maddening, creative, crazy-making big sister. I’m little kid sad. It’s a big kind of sad.

And so I spent 56 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dying. And I spent 44 days waiting for birds to appear, and thinking about my sister who was dead.

One of my favorite books is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the title of which comes from something her father once said to her brother when her brother was overwhelmed by everything he had to write about in a school paper on birds. Anne uses it as a metaphor for writing – you don’t have to know everything you are going to write in order to start writing. You just have to take it bird by bird, one thing at a time.

Lady Cardinal

Bird by bird is something I often thought of when I started my photography project. Every day there are many birds, and the more I move to try to capture them on film, the faster they fly away. It’s also been something I think of while I wait for the birds and thoughts and images and memories of my sister cross my mind. Some of my memories are things I have been told, or family legend, some words or a sentence or a moment recalled without context. Some of my memories are mine.

I remember my sister’s perfect penmanship that never stopped looking like the writing of a precocious 4th grader who had just learned cursive. I remember the three of us sisters in my middle sister’s bedroom (it was the biggest) singing songs from a falling apart book of old folk songs. I remember being on the outside of that bedroom door, furious and heartbroken that my sisters wouldn’t let me in on whatever they were doing. I remember running down to the corner to wait to see her walking home from the bus stop in the evening after her ballet classes, and walk the last block with her. I remember her fingernails digging into my arm when I said something as a joke that she didn’t find funny at all. I remember the two of us laughing and laughing over a drawer of our old childhood drawings and letters in our grandmother’s house. I remember watching my mother while she was dying, and I am shocked at how much my dying sister looks like her, when I had always thought she and I looked like our father.

One bird at a time, the thoughts and memories flit by. Some of them I am able to capture, and some I just have to let pass. Sometimes when I go outside I can hear the birds but I can’t see them. If I wait, they will begin to appear. It’s often not that they are hidden but that my eyes are just not able to see them until I settle into looking. Similarly, when I try to reach for memories of my sister I think they are few, but while I want for the birds to appear, they begin to flutter around me. Like the birds, what I see at first isn’t always all that is there. Like the birds, what I think is one thing sometimes turns out to be something else. Like the birds, my memories come and go as they want to. I hope they will keep showing up, and I hope I will keep remembering to look for them.

Tanager

 

 

 

Blue Ridge Lullaby

Blue Ridge

I love it when people I love make art that I love. Music in particular grabs me. Listening to live music does for me what I gather church does for other people. There’s something about the connection I feel to the performers, and also the connection among the whole audience, and a general feeling of joy that really does lift me up. I have a similar unspecified feeling of connectedness to everything when I’m out in nature, and especially when I am in a place like the Blue Ridge mountains. I didn’t grow up there but I do have family roots there. I also have ties there to some of my favorite chosen family, the Allen family chief among them.

The first time I heard Holly Renee Allen’s Appalachian Piecemeal, I was driving, and I felt that same heart pull listening to it that I feel when I am driving in the Blue Ridge. I listened my way dreamily through the whole album three times. In the album intro, George Allen describes his fiddle playing as having flavors of bluegrass, country and mountain music. He passed all that along to his daughter, and she adds her own dose of blues and southern rock. Holly can sound red hot momma, and she can also sound like the whispered voice of all the women who wove the fabric of your life. Sometimes, both at once.

I have listened to the album online but I have no liner notes (are liner notes still a thing?) or any other information besides the song names. I don’t know which are covers and which are Holly’s own, and I don’t much care except that whoever wrote Matt’s Candy can write me songs forever, please. My money is on that it is Holly.

I don’t pretend to know anything about music beyond what I like, but that I know without question. Many of the songs here have a familiar ring to them, but I don’t know that I actually know any of them besides the beautifully rendered Ring of Fire. I don’t know who the artists are but I believe and hope that all Allens available had a part in this.

Listening to this music as I drove down the road gave me the feeling of curling up in the corner of a porch swing while listening to people I love play the evening in. The first time through I nearly had to pull over at the start of the last song, which is appropriately titled Last Song. It’s short, it’s a capella, and while I know it is Holly, it sounds just like what I believe it would sound like if, as I lay in bed with my window open on an early spring night with the redbud trees blooming outside, the Blue Ridge herself sang me to sleep. If the Last Song was the last lullaby I ever heard, I would drift away joyfully on its tune.

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http://hollyreneeallen.com

Watering the Horses

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About four weeks ago while watering the horses at feeding time, I dragged the hose to the end of its length to reach far enough to water Guinness. I stood there for about ten minutes, spraying him down. After a while it dawned on me that I didn’t need to wait for it to soak down to his roots, and if in fact it soaked all the way down to him that was quite a bit farther than it needed to go to water the grass seed I had just finished spreading on his grave.

We now have more horses below ground (five) on this property than above (three). Each of them has a grave site planted and tended slightly different from all the others. Three of them are outside of the pastures, and one is in a fenced area within a pasture. All of them are planted in flowers of different kinds, and each has a tree that volunteered on their grave, or somewhere else on our property that we transplanted. Those trees range in height from Cookie’s five foot maple (4 years ago) to Wy’s twenty-plus foot oak (18 years ago).

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Guinness was a horse’s horse, and he was Finn’s other half. We decided we wanted them to stay together, and for Guinness to be part of the horse landscape. So for the first time, we just covered a grave with grass seed and chopped hay to give it a chance to stay in one place and grow. For several days, the biggest challenge for the seed was that Finn kept rolling on Guinness. I don’t know if he liked the feel of the chopped hay, the fact that we were watering it so it was a nice cool spot, or if he just wanted to be close to his buddy. We will plant Guinness a shade tree in the fall, outside the fence so Finn can’t eat it.

Twice a day in the summer heat, we water the horses. They have hundred gallon troughs, but we don’t fill them all the way because that way we can keep adding a little water to keep it cool for them. We also offer to hose them off, so when they want, they get the sweat showered off. After doing the living horses, I dragged the hose to Guinness. We were in a bit of a drought – hard to believe, now that we’ve been getting flooded out for the past two weeks – and Guinness is buried at the top of the hill in the back field he shared (and still does) with Finn. That spot has the best view on the farm, but it is a lot of hoses away from the nearest water source.

F and G BW

My family does not run to grave sites. My grandmother was cremated, and buried in a graveyard next to my grandfather who died long before I was born. But after that, all bets were off.

My father gave me custody of my mother’s ashes, with instructions to scatter them by the tree we planted for her on my property. I did that with some of her ashes, but before she died she told me that she would be sad if she never got back to New Hampshire, or to Rehoboth beach. She didn’t, so I got her both places posthumously. I took some of her ashes to Rehoboth, and scattered them in the ocean. My aunt buried some of her ashes in her garden in Virginia, and sent some to my uncle in New Hampshire, where he paddled them out to the middle of Squam Lake and scattered them in her favorite childhood place. It was only much later that my father remembered she had told him she wanted her ashes spread in Rock Creek Park, though as her best friend recalled it, what she actually said was “Fling ’em off the Calvert Street bridge,” which seems more likely.

It was my father’s ashes that we scattered in Rock Creek Park, in the end, in the creek itself. There’s something vaguely furtive about scattering ashes in public places, be it the ocean or Rock Creek, but probably no one would in fact arrest you for it. Still, it’s hard to be solemn and ceremonial while looking over your shoulder as if you’re handing off the money to the drug dealer and hoping no one notices.

My aunt was scattered in a few places, too. The day of her memorial service we scattered some of her ashes in her beloved Blue Ridge mountains, in one of the prettiest spots I know. I believe some went up to New England, and some were scattered in a memorial garden at a wildlife sanctuary in Virginia – a certain blessing to the animals there.

I wouldn’t want anyone stuck in a graveyard, and I certainly don’t want to end up in one myself, but I’m starting to understand their purpose. We have planted trees on our property in memory of people and animals who have died since we moved here. We celebrate our own version of Dia de los Muertos each November. Sometimes we clean up the memorial (human) and grave (animal) sites, and plant flowers, and sometimes we just light luminaria for each of them, but it’s a ceremony we hold dear.

Standing over Guinness’ grave twice each day, watering the grass seed and letting my mind wander, was a meditative exercise for me. It was also a transition time. I know there are sudden deaths, but with most of my animals and all of my relatives, dying has been a process, with a lot of activity and attention needed over a fairly long span of time. With Guinness, for example, he was sick for about six weeks. We tried everything we could think of to diagnose and treat him. Like any sick room, our feed shed was full of supplements and medicines when he died. I checked him, treated him, and tried to get him to eat four to six times a day, all the while watching him fade away. Throwing away the useless prescriptions is something I’ve done a few too many times now, but I’m sure I will do it again. Watering his grave was a way for me to keep tending to him while also gradually letting him go.

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