Friends are the family you choose, or you happen upon, going part of the way with you or years with you, precious as diamonds, rare as rainbows, more fun than a carnival. Sometimes they’re dogs. My friends are all very different from me except for ineffable qualities of heart, respect, affection and sympathy. In our cyber world, friends can live thousands of miles away. Wherever they are, life is much better with them than without them.
Frost per se is pretty rare here unless we get fog and that will coat every small branch, every wire on a fence, every stuck tumbleweed in crystalline magic. This is a high desert and usually there’s not enough humidity for frost to get a decent chance. When it does, it’s most beautiful on top of snow, making sharp small prisms. If we have a few very cold days in a row, the prisms grow, and it seems they will last forever.
It’s a cloudy morning here in the back of beyond, and I have company coming. Snow is in the forecast (from 4 pm to 5 pm) but it’s snowing in the San Juan Mountains so Wolf Creek Ski Area is getting a fresh dusting. That seems to be winter in the real west. Nothing happens, no one I care about is driving, until someone needs to go to the hospital or I have guests, then it snows.
I knew that when I moved here.
Yesterday we had a little tea party. One of my friends is facing some tough stuff and the tea party was a way — our way, I guess — of letting her know that we’re here and care very much. I think she probably felt that. I hope so. Messages like that are conveyed in offers of help and willingness to drive. It’s an oblique language that tries to say, “I’m really sorry you have to go through all this. I hope it’s over soon and that everything turns out well, but now it’s hard and we’ll do whatever we can to make it easier.”
The thing is, no one can really DO anything except be willing to do whatever we can when the moment arises.
Meanwhile life everywhere goes on. Life this weekend in my town means Christmas. Tomorrow we have a pancake breakfast, visits with Santa, a craft fair, caroling, a parade and fireworks. My guests will be coming down to partake in the wonder of it all and I will be very happy to see them. Bailey — my short-term golden retriever — will be coming with them for a visit as will Reina, a brilliant Australian shepherd who used to be my dog.
As they drive west over the pass, my neighbors will be driving east toward some of the difficulties they are now facing. I wish them all — and everyone else — safe travels.
Since starting real physical therapy this past Tuesday, and riding my Airdyne, I’ve finally been feeling that there really will be an end to this and again I will walk and sleep and cut grass and all the various things a person does every day without thinking about it. Still, I think for a long time I WILL think about it and for a while it will all be a kind of miracle, doing all these things without pain.
Yesterday at physical therapy, as I rode the semi-recumbent bike and listened to three songs (10 minutes), I thought about all this from another perspective. I don’t know how long it will be before I’ll really have come to a deep understanding of the changes in me and in my life apart from the repair to my hip, but there have been many. I came home from the hospital after my hip replacement with a list of restrictions beyond which I was supposed to do everything possible on my own, for myself. That meant I needed to learn to ask for help, to let others help me and also be very clear about what I don’t want help with. I learned that the people who care about me will do pretty much anything to help me; it’s my job to tell them how. This required two things of me that are difficult — asking for help before I get into a pickle and asserting boundaries.
I’ve also seen people in a way I would not otherwise have seen them. Every day something has happened that has made Washington DC and all of that so much less important or interesting. Who are we human beings anyway? Are we the monsters we read about in the news or are we the old Hispanic guy coming out of Safeway, using his cane to awaken the electric eye on the entrance so it opens for me making my life easier? Are we my UPS delivery guy showing up to see how I’m doing and offer his help? Are we the owner of my kennel who loves my dogs? Are we a woman I barely know offering to come and give me a ride to her house so I can use her walk-in shower? Are we my neighbors coming out of their houses to keep me company when they see me walking slowly down the street? Are we my neighbor and I discovering that going to the supermarket is fun if we go together? Without the hip surgery, we would never have done that.
Personally, I think that’s who we are. I think our better angels just want half a chance to come out of their hiding places.
Yesterday two of my neighbors came over for a pre-surgery tea party. We had a really nice time.
I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot since I moved to Monte Vista where I did not know anyone. It’s kind of a “different” thing to do (as I was told repeatedly). I did it knowing that if I never met anyone I’d still be OK. I’m nothing if not internally resourceful. But I did meet people — quite a few and most of them I like.
Friendship changes throughout our lives, I think. I remember as a kid wanting playmates, mostly, and that one BEST friend. Both of those things were hard for me to make. First, I was a little kid. Second, I was very sensitive and, since I was a little kid, I didn’t know that other people might be just as sensitive — or more! — than I was. I didn’t know then that people react differently to things than I might. It’s not that little kids think they’re the center of the universe. They’re figuring out who THEY are through the ecolocation of childhood. It’s pretty hard to figure out who OTHER people are when you don’t know who YOU are. I had a friend who sulked when she was mad. I didn’t understand that at ALL. I lived in a family where you threw tantrums and got it off your chest. I was always trying to go to Debbie to get her to talk to me. I always felt her silence was forever. My mom said, over and over, “Just leave her alone. She has to sulk. She’ll come back.”
Mom, of course, was right.
I discovered playmates through team sports (baseball, softball, kick ball, kill the man with the ball) and I found a best friend (finally!) in sixth grade. I looked her up a few years ago and we still like each other.
In high school I remember wanting a (male) soulmate (was I really thinking of my “soul”?) and girl friends to do stuff with. It was important that we UNDERSTAND each other in some ineffably deep way. In adolescence we don’t understands ourselves very well. Maybe that’s why we seek understanding from others. Any little bit of help, right?
In my working years, friendship was often transactional and transitory. It depended on the people with whom I worked, but I did, in my 20s, discover the second best friend of my life.
An we still like each other.
All this to say at this point in my life my understanding of friendship is completely different. By now I’ve known tens of thousands of people (many of whom wandered in and out of my classrooms). Friendship now is not about all the things we have in common, or shared memories, shared goals, as much as it’s about the actual PERSON inside the physical carapace. All of our lives are so different from each other, our experiences, our responses and reactions to those experiences, the disappointments we’ve had, the hopes we still hold, our responses to any given moment, that once you know who you are, you don’t expect to have all that much ‘in common’ with others. I know I am like an iceberg in the Atlantic — there’s a bit up on the surface, but most of it is below) and everyone else is an iceberg, too.
It takes a lifetime to learn who we are, I think, or maybe I’m just a slow learner.
Listening to my friends talking yesterday (I mostly listened) I thought about all this. I don’t have a lot in common (superficially) with my friends in Monte Vista, but on other levels that don’t come into the conversation over a pretty table with cookies on it, I do. The biggest thing is we are all survivors and we want to share the good we have with others. I think it’s one of the perks of being old(er).
As the party was breaking up, they asked, “When exactly is your surgery?” We knew why we were all there. I wanted to spend time with them before I go up for my “procedure.” Why? Because once in a while, people die in surgery. I know it, they know it. We know people who have died that way. You don’t talk about it, it’s nothing to be spoken of (though I am) but it’s there. You also don’t talk about being afraid, but you (and your friends) know you are afraid. I told them all the basic information when they asked, and the subject went back to dogs or something else.
There are the rare friends who know your heart, though. And I’ve been amazed — blessed — in my little town to have found that.
Since 1987, when I got Truffle, my first real dog (on my own; the family experimented a couple of times when I was a kid, experiments that lasted days, weeks or months) I’ve had upwards of twenty dogs living with me. Not all at once. My upper limit was always six, as defined by law. As soon as I learned that two dogs were less work than one, I always had at least two, and usually three, dogs.
My dogs have all been large dogs from most people’s perspective, usually between 60 and 80 pounds. There are larger dogs, but none of them ever made their way into my life. I don’t think they’re that easy to come by. Only one of my dogs was bought at a pet store and she ended up the saddest dog story of all. Big Puppy was an overbred, over sized, yellow Labrador retriever who killed her adopted mom (Cheyenne T. Wolf) and then tried to kill Lily. These events happened with no provocation, no food involved, no crowding at the door, nothing that normally triggers dogs to scrap. The fights were to the death, too, also very unusual among a pack of dogs and not typical of the Labrador retriever. I had to put her to sleep when she was only two years old. The vet suggested that maybe her mother was also her sister and her dad her brother. “It isn’t uncommon,” he said, “breeders are often in it for the money.” We both cried in that little room at the vets’ office as this beautiful golden dog slipped into death.
The rest were rescues. All of them, though two were adopted from their “mom” it was find a home for the pups or they go to the pound.
I didn’t set out to be a dog rescuer, either. Back in the day, there were no breed rescues or fostering or anything like that. I took in a lot of strays, cleaned them up, neutered them and trained them then took them to the shelter and pretended they were my own dogs and I had to relinquish them. The end result of that was that when I wanted to adopt a dog from the shelter, they wouldn’t let me. I fostered a springer/poodle mix who was happy, bright and loving and quickly found a home. I fostered a pure-bred English spaniel who was adopted while I was signing the papers “relinquishing” her. I fostered other strays, too, and found them homes by walking them at a nearby park with a sign around their necks saying, “Please adopt me.” A well-mannered, leash-trained dog in the company of a happy person is pretty attractive to someone looking for a dog. I always checked up to be sure the homes where the dogs were adopted were legit and the dogs were happy.
There’s no way to keep all the dogs.
I have loved dogs as long as I can remember and wanted one from the time I was born, nearly. I used to put my stuffed dog under my pillow at night hoping the dog fairy would replace it with a real puppy. My mom said I always “pet” things, velvet, fur, the satin edging on my blanket, and she always found it odd, but I think it was like the Dalai Lama who is “recognized” because of what he chooses as a small child. Once I finally had my own dogs I felt more at peace with my life.
And I can’t explain it.
I like being around dogs. Dogs also like being around me. I’ve had several experiences in which a completely unknown dog will see me from several yards away and come running to me with no encouragement at all. It’s pretty freaky when it’s a pit bull, but they’re a happy, enthusiastic and passionate breed and it’s been pit bulls more than once. My first year here my neighbor’s dog — who was tied to a tree 24/7 — broke free and came to my house. Why? He’d seen me walking with my dogs and I’d talked to him. What I’m saying is not that I’m Dr. Doolittle or something, but that it’s not only that I’m attracted to dogs, they’re attracted to me. I think I emanate a, “I love dogs,” pheromone and they sense it.
My mom said they were children replacements. That wasn’t and isn’t true. I’m not their mom and they’re not “fur babies.” My dogs are something else, not quite pets, either. Companions, definitely, but what does that mean? Living with so many dogs has taught me a lot, some of which is inarticulable. I think it’s in “dog” not human language.
So pet? Child surrogate? Friend? I’m dubious about all those terms. But having had not “one” but many dogs during some hard times of my life, and feeling their company was sufficient, has made me think about the canine/human connection.
When my alcoholic brother died, and I learned about it five months after the fact in a strange and unsettling way, I came home from work alone with that knowledge. I remember opening the door to my very cold, very dark house in the mountains, starting a fire, feeding the dogs — at that time five dogs — cooking dinner, all with a numb, sad, cold place inside of me for which I had no words. What do you do, what do you feel, when you learn about your brother’s death five months after it happens? How do you even think about where he might have been when he died? How do you face the questions you will have to ask? How do you even think about finding his remains or what you will do with them? How do you confront the absolute loneliness of that reality? There is no consolation, really. In time you’ll talk to friends, family members will call, there will be sympathy, flowers, even, but that first realization is as lonely and cold as a stone house on a dark night.
There were the huskies, Lily, Cheyenne and Cody. Dusty T. Dog, of course, and Big Puppy? I don’t remember, but I think so. When the initial bustling of a return home was finished, and I sat down to collect my thoughts (which was not possible) I noticed that all of them were there, as near me as they could get. Cody suspended his vendetta against Dusty, and sat quietly beside me, my Knight in Furry Armor. They were simply THERE. I am not sure that any person could have accomplished that much-needed companionable silence. There would have been words and in those moments, there were no words nor should there have been. There was sorrow, dark, purple, bleak, silent, exhausted sorrow.
There have been many times in my life when dogs have been “there for me,” so to speak. I’ve left my house and all my possessions in the care of my dogs during a few dark times, never imagining that there was any better way or any better guardians of our lives. It isn’t really strange. Shepherds trust their life’s fortune to their dogs and have for thousands of years. That I, a single woman, would entrust myself to dogs doesn’t seem that strange to me.
So I do not know really what to call them. Not pets. Not “fur babies.” For me it’s a relationship between equals who have different abilities in interpreting the world. That many of my dogs have learned I love watching birds and learn to show them to me is beautiful. I didn’t train them; they have the instinct as predators and they are aware of my behavior all the time. I’ve seen them work it out — most recently Bear. It’s as if she has thought it over, “Oh, Martha likes to watch hawks and cranes. We always stop to when she sees one.” Suddenly (it seemed to me) she was watching for them, too. Her breed is part “sight hound” and seeing that gift of genetics play out to help me enjoy birds is pretty wonderful. But most of my dogs — one way or another — have learned to read me and to relate to me with that knowledge — the same gifts that make some dogs guide dogs and helpers for handicapped people.
Cody O’Dog — above — was an exceptional being and someday I’ll write about him, but he embodied that human/canine partnership best of all my dogs, so I’ve put his photo here. In the photo, he’s in the backseat of my car and we’re heading for Montana. 🙂
“Did you trace that, MAK?”
“No, Dad. I drew it myself.”
“Tracing is stealing someone else’s drawing.”
“I didn’t trace it.”
“That’s very good. Can you draw that, MAK? It’s not easy.”
“I can draw it.” I sat down on the backyard sidewalk with my paper, a magazine (so I had a smooth surface), and my colored pencils. I drew my first iris.
They were all planted outside the back fence — now I know why. My two favorite plants — lilacs and iris — are land devouring monsters. Spring is as much about stopping their ravenous spread as it is about starting a garden.
My neighbor, K, is giving me some plants later today from what she calls her “jungle.” After my walk with Dusty and Bear last evening, and a brief chat with K, I thought, “I’m getting plants from her, I’ve gotten plants from E (my other neighbor). Our gardens are going to have all the same plants.”
Then it hit me how cool that is, and I saw a sweet quiet story in it.
Four days of fog, heavy wind, cold rain and what happens to people on what was to have been their dream vacation of riding horses, hiking, driving through splendid vistas?
Add to this the lack of a proper bed, aching, brutalized joints and a ridiculous load of laundry and you have, “I wonder what the suicide rate is in Iceland.”
Lois hit the wall yesterday; I hit it the day before when I couldn’t ride horses and had to go “home” in the sodden grey day. I had resources, but I still felt lousy because my body isn’t able to do everything I wish it could any more.
And it can’t be over soon enough.
Today the sky lifted some and as we drove from Hellnar to Rekjavik blue skies emerged, the wind died down some and it was altogether more pleasant. We went to Thingvellier — the site of Iceland’s government from Viking days. I learned of it from reading Njal’s Saga and it has fascinated me for more than fifteen years. It is in the geographical center of Iceland — which the Vikings knew — and it is, coincidentally an enormous rift along a fault line where the North American and European continents are pulling away from each other.
Travel is a great teacher, both of new lessons and reminders of those we have forgotten.
My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.
Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.
I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!
Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought.
I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice.
Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.
I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”
Daily Prompt Break the Silence When was the last time you really wanted (or needed) to say something, but kept quiet? Write a post about what you should’ve said.
My mom taught me a lot and one of the things she taught me was that I can yammer all day and it won’t change anything. In fact, later down the road, my own words could be used against me.
My theory — that if I express myself clearly and the other person really listens, they will understand and come around to my way of thinking — is bogus. No they won’t. They’re listening with their own words echoing in THEIR ears (as mine echoed in my own?). A true give-and-take conversation is rare.
Many “deep” conversations with wouldbe boyfriends taught me that, too. You know, “We need to talk,” the talks NOT leading to breaking up (those came, too).
I’ve also experienced that when people do things to me I don’t like, my objecting probably won’t matter; if they didn’t want to do what they’re doing, they wouldn’t BE doing it.
Recently I was forced to end a friendship. I would have avoided it. My (now former) friend insisted on talking it over. Her big thing is “communication.” Communication (for her) does NOT involve listening to me. It’s been months, and I still do not think she understands, “I don’t want any more contact with you. I don’t like you any more” — words I would far rather have kept to myself, by the way. It doesn’t always matter what you say to someone. More important is what they hear.
This all began when I attempted to tell her honestly what I felt I had to say — “You’re physically in very bad shape. You need help at home. Your boyfriend is not a trained carer and it’s not fair to him or you for you to use him in that way.”
I would have left it there and kept silent over the fact that her boyfriend is mean and abusive (boyfriend – 80 years old), but she pushed me. Since I’ve been closely connected with her for thirty years and with them as a couple for 20, I KNOW their situation. Finally, after hearing yet another recitation of the boyfriend’s verbally abusive behavior, I said, “Do you love him?”
“Of course I love him.”
“OK, then, well, I have to get dinner,” I said, and got off the phone.
Rationality has NO place in that conversation. It was the end. She loves him. He mistreats her. I have no place or interest in the conversation.
I suddenly saw why, over the years, I’d heard so many conversations complaining about why this or that friend or family member no longer responded to her phone calls, emails, etc. They were just not as dim or tolerant as I. I also knew that she would not let go (she hasn’t) because she can’t lose. I knew I was in for some residual unpleasantness.
Since then she’s gotten real care; she’s written me to tell me. In her letters she’s also told me what I need to do if I want her friendship back. She’s called my other friends purportedly to learn if I’m all right because if I were all right, I’d want to listen to hours of wailing on the phone, right? All of this is bait to get me to contact her if only to tell her to stop it. I don’t like being manipulated. She has turned my feelings from pity to active dislike.
And so yeah. If things reach a point between me and another person where THIS conversation is necessary it is also the moment when I am prepared to give up the friendship. I hope not to, but…
Daily Prompt Placebo Effect If you could create a painless, inexpensive cure for a single ailment, what would you cure and why?
Self-inflicted misery is one of the most prevalent ailments. I’d create a cure for that. A cure already exists, but it’s not painless and is not always inexpensive. My cure would allow patients to see things as they really are and to find the power to make choices that would allow them to escape the misery.
Why do I believe this is important? Life brings with it enough misery, miseries over which we have no control and with which we must contend. Adding self-inflicted misery to the misery already existent in life is just, uh, well, masochistic?
Many people who suffer from self-inflicted misery have no idea that they have created their misery culture themselves and are making it worse by identifying with their own suffering. It’s very difficult for these patients to see anything else, another life, other possibilities. They often use friends and loved ones for moments of pain relief and catharsis before they turn around and crawl back to the hell-hole they’re digging for themselves. Sooner or later, friends and loved ones give up, seeing there’s not going to be any improvement and that the patient seems to LIKE hurting themselves.
For example — a young woman is in an emotionally abusive relationship with a boyfriend she’s been with for a decade. She thinks, “Wow, every evening, when he’s about to come home, I get terrible anxiety. What do I do wrong? How can I fix it so he doesn’t get upset with me? I know he loves me and he always calms down after he smokes a bowl. I’ll just do better. Then it will be OK.”
If she had my remedy, she’d think, “Wow, every evening, when he’s about to come home, I get terrible anxiety. Why? OH it’s because he goes apeshit when he gets here, says mean and hurtful things, yells at me, and then he smokes a bowl and calms down. That’s a crappy way to live. He’s either mean or wasted. This is not a relationship. I don’t want to be in this situation any more.”
My cure would make the patient see that — for whatever reason (which doesn’t actually matter) — the guy is an asshole to her. My cure would help her realize that she can find a life without him. My cure would give everyone suffering from self-inflicted misery the ability to understand that the past is the past, and their life is in the future.
It would cure the incorrigible drunk; instead of thinking, “Oh man, I gotta’ get a drink. I feel awful,” the drunk would think, “Whoa, this shit is killing me. No wonder I feel awful.” The junkie, the meth head and other substance abusers would experience similar epiphanies.
My remedy would be not only a cure but a diagnostic tool. It could be administered to a miserable person and if they suddenly began to seen objective reality as it is, and begin preparing to take action, it would be clear that their ailment is self-inflicted misery.
My cure would save millions of dollars. It would repair broken families. It would empower pain addicts to transcend their solipsistic preoccupations by showing them that suffering is an absurd way for them to define themselves and is no more real than joy, enthusiasm, happiness, peace, generosity or kindness.
“Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Abraham Lincoln.
P.S. WordPress, a placebo is not a cure. It’s the illusion of a cure. I hope you know that, but just in case…