Pasture Walk

I have, once again, been in a mood for the past two weeks. I thought about taking up the negativity challenge my cousin sent me a few years back when there were too many gratitude and positivity chain posts sweeping Facebook. The gist of the negativity challenge is that you name ten things that get on your nerves, the pettier the better. It is quite fun and even a little cathartic, but the problem right now is that the things that are getting on my nerves aren’t petty. The other problem is that when so many people are getting on my nerves with big things, it’s probably a pretty good sign that I have some work to do in those areas myself, and I don’t feeeeeeeeel like it. So there.

I had two different writing exercises assigned in this same two week time frame. One was a praise poem, and I got one of the projected five stanzas done because the only thing I felt like praising was coffee. I tried to move from coffee to other things in the kitchen that I wanted to praise, but I stalled out at:

“I give thanks for the dogs that lie under my feet
Tripping me as I gather ingredients.”

Looking back, even the coffee stanza is a little disgruntled.

The other exercise worked a little better, since it did not require me to be actively grateful, but just to think about something I do regularly that I take pleasure in. Here it is, in hopes that anyone else who has been having the same kind of April I’ve been having may feel better for a little walk through the pasture:

This is a walk I do every day, but not a walk from any particular day. It’s a walk that I do in all seasons, but for today I will walk in the fall, with its background music of geese muttering on the pond next door, the leaves on the trees changed or fallen, the still-green grass eaten down to a haze interspersed with patches of bare dirt.

I’m walking through a field, on my way from one pair of horses to the other, a fence on my left, a small hill on my right, a bucket of grain in one hand. The field, like all the fields around it, is a minefield of primarily horse manure, but also that of fox, goose, skunk, and any other creature who takes this path when I’m not on it. A lot of my looking is down.

My downcast eyes start to steer me around a pile of horse manure, but then I stop, and stoop. This pile is covered with something that from above it looks like a convention of tiny parasols. Each one is open and translucently striped, and I pull my cell phone out of my pocket to take pictures, which is the main reason I have a cell phone. I stare at it in paralyzed horror on the rare occasions it rings, but it is silent now as I crouch down to photograph the last signs of the fairy party.

The sun is up but not high enough to clear the trees in front of me, so the rays pierce the scantily clad limbs only to get caught and fractured by the chilly morning fog. The parallel lines of the fence boards are periodically connected by spider webs, which with all due respect to Charlotte have much more beauty in their rainbow sparkling dew concentricity than any words. I stop again, angling so that the web is clearly visible against the backdrop of the ground, and the light reflects off the dew droplets but does not shine directly into the lens. I’m interrupted by an indignant whuffing and the sound of fifteen hundred equine pounds landing from an impatient but balletic leap. I pause by the big bay body after I tip his breakfast into his bowl, trying to catch his whorls of hair in the dawn light but he steps his hind feet away, muzzle still firmly planted in his food. I settle for the silhouette of his withers, back, and croup against the fog: sunrise over Mount Finn.

On these morning walks, I feel compelled to try to record these sights as I see them. If I succeed, they will look not like what they are, but like what they feel like to me, a city child transplanted into these country fields more than half my life ago, starting my days on my knees in the wet grass amid nameless scat, trying to capture the view from behind my eyes.

No Excuses

My friend Anna got me thinking about excuses yesterday. Specifically about excuses for not writing, but generally about excuses for why we don’t do the things we say we want to do. Why I don’t do the things I say I want to do. And why I say I want to do things that I don’t really want to do. My excuses vary, but not much. At their root they are mostly shoulds or fears. I say I want to do something because I think I should do it, or because someone else wants me to do it (or I think they want me to do it, or I think they think I should – my mind can be a tedious spiral). I don’t do something because I’m afraid I won’t be good at it, or I will look silly trying, or I will have to choose between it and another thing. Fear of choosing is the worst because it usually leads to doing nothing at all.

For years I said I wanted to write. I took writing classes on and off so I would have to write, in theory. When I took a class and had a deadline, I often wrote, but not always. Sometimes I would skip a week, and sometimes I would just drop out after a few classes. “I don’t have time” is a nice blanket excuse that people don’t question much, but the truth is that I’ve always had the time. I just didn’t make the time. I didn’t really know how to take a class for the pure pleasure of learning and working on a thing. I didn’t see the reasons behind my excuses about time.

I took classes sporadically, and I wrote even more sporadically. A few years ago, I joined a writing group and I started this blog. For the first couple of years I wrote when I felt moved to do so, and months would go by without me posting anything. Without me writing anything. It’s not like I had a pile of writings I started and didn’t finish – I wrote nothing in those in between times. I wrote more than I had before, but I still didn’t have anything I’d call a writing practice. Then my friend Elaine started posting a blog a week, and I thought “what a good idea – I can do that.” And so I did. To my great surprise, it really was that simple. Now there’s no question about it. It doesn’t matter if I have a great idea or if I love what I’m writing or if I have other things to do or if I feel like it. It’s a thing I do.

I’m taking writing classes again now, with a whole different outlook. The classes are not the reason I’m writing, or the only writing I’m doing. They are a way for me to practice different techniques, to hone my work, to get feedback from other writers, to be in community with other people with similar goals, to be inspired. I no longer skip assignments, and I understand now that when I’m procrastinating it’s because the assignment is hard or I haven’t figured out how to do it or the topic I’m writing about brings up things I’d rather not feel. These assignments are short. I can do anything for a page and a half. And I’m always glad I’ve done it, even if I fight doing it every step of the way.

Over the last month, yoga (speaking of things I fight every step of the way) has also become a thing I do. Last night Rose said “Do you want to do yoga?” and I said “No, but I’m going to” and she said “That’s exactly how I feel.” Our daily breathwork group is another thing I just do. Committing to a writing practice has made it easier to commit to other practices. Seeing that tiny, incremental, almost unnoticeable changes add up over time has made it easier not to worry about whether I notice if I am making progress. Just doing the thing has become more important than making progress.

Getting better at doing some things has not magically made me good at doing all the things. There are things I say I want to do, and even put on my calendar, and yet somehow never get to. My new rule is that if I put something on my calendar for a month and I don’t do it regularly, it gets axed. Studying for additional work certifications, for example, has gone on my calendar for what are clearly “I think I should do this” reasons and not because it’s something I want to do or feel is necessary for my job. This study time is no longer on my calendar.

Sometimes I get distracted by something that looks cool. I am constantly exposed to cool looking crafts because Rose is an amazingly skilled and dedicated artist and artisan – she knits, and sews, and quilts, and plays multiple instruments, and sings, and draws and paints, and makes wonderful things out of clay. Some of these things she did before I met her, and some I have gotten to watch her learn, and I see how much time she puts into each thing. I enjoy a few of these things (clay and music), and when I feel like it I practice them, and I know I would be better at them if I practiced more. But when I want to practice something, I find it’s usually writing, baking, photography, or messing about with the dogs. My dog training method is very … informal, let’s say, but I am dedicated to it, and to the dogs.

Working with my dogs and horses falls into a mix of the “want” and “should” categories. I have mostly accepted that I do the things I enjoy and want to do with them, and I don’t do the things that are on my or anyone else’s “should” list. I had a friend once say, when Rose and I were talking about how easy our horses are to ride, “Well, sure, they are easy for YOU to ride.” A couple of years ago we were at a clinic where the clinician was talking about setting up your horse so that if something catastrophic happened to you, your horse could be passed along to a total beginner and it would be successful. I spent some time thinking that I needed to make it possible for my horses to schlep along with any old rider on their backs doing any old thing, but you can probably guess how many steps I took towards that aim: zero.

Today when I look at things I’m making excuses not to do, or things I’m not making time for, the conversation I have with myself goes something like this:

Do you really want to do the thing? If so, do it.
Don’t worry about if you do it well immediately, or ever. Do it.
Do you get pleasure from it? Do it.
Are you learning something you want to learn from it? Do it.
If not – don’t do it. The end.

Drama

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.

Let Her Eat Cake

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

To read Elaine’s words please go to her blog: a horse, a husband, and cancer

Eavesdropping

This week we moved from culling clothing to a full on cleaning and clearing assault on areas of the house where things have piled up for too many years. I’m writing now at my newly uncovered desk, having thrown the antique mostly empty tube of toothpaste in the trash, and otherwise gone through the exercise of throw away, give away, put away that goes with this kind of tidying.

One thing I have kept is every notepad or index card or paper scrap that I found that has a quote on it. Some of them are inspirational scribbles, like a quote from Anne Lamott I jotted down that says “I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.” She’s right, even though I sometimes forget to dance for far too long at a stretch.

Many of these quotes are from eavesdropping. I don’t exactly do it on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to overhear people in restaurants, airports, or pretty much any other public place, and once I hear one thing that gets my attention I start to listen harder. Sometimes I write them down because I think they will fit in a story (if hypothetically I start writing fiction one day) – like the guy I overheard in an airport security line who said “The last five years of my addiction I pretty much stopped watching everything but porn. Then I got sober and got out of the habit of watching any TV.” I still don’t know if the person he was talking to was someone he knew, or if he just had different ideas than I do about getting-to-know-you conversation topics.

I have one mystery note that just says “No one ever needs a ferret” and one that says “I’m surprised your phone still works with pictures like that on it.” There’s one I do remember – I was in a parking lot at a medical center, headed in for an MRI or an x-ray or a mammogram, and I overheard a woman saying to her daughter “You listen to me, Olivia” and the little girl said “I listen to mySELF.” Never change, Olivia.

In another overheard snippet from a medical appointment, this time at the dentist, a young boy was vocalizing how we all feel about being at the dentist and his mother said through gritted teeth “Listen – when we leave here I am taking you home, you are having a cheese sandwich, and you are going to bed” as if that were some type of punishment. I wanted to poke my head in the door and ask if I could come too. Cheese sandwich and early bed sounds like a cure for most ills.

There’s one that sounds like my mother but isn’t; it was an older woman in a local cafe, saying to her companion “I don’t like sticks and twigs tea. I like black tea.” At the time – and again now – this reminded me of my mother (and I have this written down somewhere that I haven’t tidied yet) when she told me that my father wanted her to go to his herbologist for something to do with her cancer or the side effects of her cancer treatment, and she said “I’m NOT going to the parsley doctor.”

I have an index card with something my father once told me about his friend Mary. She was an older friend from his office, and after she retired he used to pick her up on weekends and take her out driving – something he also did with us as kids that we all couldn’t wait to stop doing, but I trust he and Mary enjoyed their rides. Once when my parents and Rose and I were headed home from dinner, my father missed seeing a car coming when he turned out of the mall parking lot. As we all braced for the impact that somehow the other driver avoided, my mother yelled “Jesus, John!” A few minutes later when I asked him to slow down (in the dark on the curvy road that I knew well but he did not), he had had enough of driving criticism and said “Mary drives with me for hours every Saturday and SHE never complains about my driving” and my mother replied “Mary is old and ready for death!” None of that is written down (well, I guess it is now), but what I do have on a card is what my father said to me about Mary’s childhood: “She lived with an older aunt who was bludgeoned to death – BEFORE it was fashionable.”

It’s the things like Mary’s older aunt and the parsley doctor that make me miss my parents the most. Things that no one else will every say quite they way they would. I used to keep letters and cards, and at some point I got rid of most of them – one of the few clearing out decisions I sometimes regret. I did find two cards yesterday, one from my mother which includes a Garrison Keillor limerick that goes:

There was a young teacher named Deedee
Who went home and said to her sweetie
I’m worn out and wobbly,
So pour me a chablis
And don’t be emotionally needy.

The other card is from both my parents for a birthday I had sometime in the middle of my 30s – there’s no date, and it’s a lovely print of multicolored painted horses and a full moon, which I would have loved in a period from roughly birth to the present, so no clues there. My father’s birthday note, one of the few he wrote himself instead of just writing “Daddy” at the end of my mother’s message, says “Happy Birthday, Tessa. But then I think of you every day, so it’s Happy Birthday every day.” My mother’s note says “Tessa – asset backwards, forwards, and every other whichway, too.”

In one of my more insufferable childhood moods, when I first learned both what an asset was and that my name spelled backwards was an actual word, I believe I used to use it as a shield against sisterly teasing – something along the lines of “our parents think I’m an asset and that’s why they chose my name.” (“so there” is understood) Of course this was probably around the same time my sisters were doing a crossword puzzle and looking for a three-letter word for “self esteem,” which when your big sister says alound sounds like “self a-steam” to a young child. My suggestion was “hot,” and today I understand why they laughed so hard.

All I really planned to do was clear out my desk. It took longer than I thought, partly because there was even more stuff than I realized piled up here, but partly because I had to stop and read all the notes. I ended up with a lot more company than I expected, and now I’m surrounded by my parents, my sisters, Olivia, and the ferret people. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of sticks and twigs tea, and sit with them all for a bit.

Writing, or Not

Current Mood

Almost three months ago I decided I was going to post a blog every Monday. I didn’t tell anyone for a few weeks that I had a schedule, and since then I have told just a few friends, and my writing group. The down side of announcing a schedule for writing is that I then have to actually write according to the schedule and sometimes I don’t feel like (it’s ok if you read those last few words in a super whiny tone – you wouldn’t be wrong).

I mean to write, but I end up reading. It’s a lot like the detours I take looking up a word in the dictionary.  On the way to my word, I see another that is stranger or more interesting or otherwise more attractive or eye-catching.  On days when I have more restraint I mark that page with a finger and come back to it after visiting the spelling or definition or synonym of the word I was after.  Sometimes I wind up with my entire hand in the dictionary, each finger marking a different page.  I may then return to the word or words that caught my eye, or perhaps something else will have jumped off the page of the original word – another word, or in the case of my favorite American Heritage Dictionary, a usage note.  Any of these may – likely will – lead to other words until whatever drove me to pick up the dictionary in the first place has been completely lost.  This process is rarely derailed by the presence of another person, usually the person who asked me for the definition of the first word that I did not know precisely.  If I can I will pull them along with me through the dictionary maze, but I am not easily deterred.  Even when they throw their hands up and leave the room I will happily continue my wordly wanderings.

In high school my favorite parties involved the game Fictionary.  I believe this has grown to some kind of board game now, but to us it involved paper, pens, and a dictionary.  One person would look up a word that none of the others knew – no easy task in this group – and the others would each write down a definition they thought likely or that at least sounded plausible.  The holder of the dictionary would then read all the definitions out loud (including the actual one which was also written on a sheet of paper to disguise it) and the other players would cast their votes as to which was the real definition.  Points were given for guessing correctly, but more points went to those who wrote the incorrect definitions that were selected as real, and still more points to the word-chooser when no one guessed correctly. My shining Fictionary moment was when I made up a definition that was chosen by every other player. I don’t remember the word, or the definition, but i remember the feeling.

Given my love of Fictionary you’d think I’d have a better poker face than I do, but I don’t have one at all. I am best at keeping a straight face while saying something patently absurd, a skill I likely learned from my father who reportedly once convincingly informed a colleague at the newspaper that she should clean her typewriter with peanut butter. It helps if the fakery does not involve words, as in the time my son asked during dinner where the cat was, and I just looked at him with wide eyes for a minute, and then looked at the platter of flank steak in the middle of the table, and then I looked back at my son. He didn’t exactly believe me, but I freaked him out a little, and I was pleased. I am not all that good at misdirection when anything personal is on the line. Ask me why I’m treating my writing deadline like a term paper deadline – the kind where you stay up all night the night before because you did nothing all semester – and I will probably turn red and stammer.

Like my dictionary detours, when I start to write I often have a quote from some other writer in my head.  I go get the book to look it up for review or to quote it accurately.  On my way to the quote I may fall into a page more compelling and from there to another.  I may go right to my quote and instead of writing it down I just keep reading.  Depending on the book, the author may quote another whose book I must go get, or this may lead me to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations which is the like dictionary all over again. Months may go by if any of this leads to an internet search, which will usually lead to the purchase and subsequent reading of more books.  Meanwhile I have yet to put pen to paper but I still consider this part of my writing process.

With all that in mind, it’s probably not such a bad idea to have a day by which I need to get something on paper (so to speak). Like too many other things in life, it’s easier for me to commit to a thing when I’ve committed to someone else than when I’ve committed to myself, which seems backwards but I know I’m not alone in this. I’m pretty sure the three people I’ve told I’m writing weekly will not come after me with pitchforks for my weekly dose of whatever this is, but damn it, I’m going to come up with something. This week, this is it. Put your pitchforks down, friends.