Putting the Big Rocks in First

Like a lot of you, I write a to-do list every day. I do this partly because I am not traditionally employed, so I can’t fall back on routine to make sure things get done on time. Also, I am easily distracted and if left to my own devices would flit around from room to room all day like a drunken gnat, so the list helps me focus. And of course, I am middle aged. My memory is already stuffed with decades of expired information and there is very little space for anything new. If you want to know the names of all my grade school teachers or the color of our kitchen floor on the farm, I remember those details — but current material must be written down.

My to-do lists are often unrealistic. There were 12 items on my list for last Tuesday, including several errands, a hospice visit, and an appointment on the other side of town. I ended up recycling the TUE list into WED. One of my sewing projects got carried over for 5 days before I finally finished it yesterday. Vacuuming likewise started out on FRI and eventually got done — but not by me — on SUN. I know the fate of the free world doesn’t depend on my crossing everything off the list everyday. There isn’t even a paycheck riding on my accomplishments. Still, leaving the list unfinished bugs me.

What bugs me most is what I leave undone. The words meditate and write top my list every day but are the most likely to get bumped when I am short on time, even though I really want to do them both. It would make sense, then, to do them first, before I go to the bank or answer phone calls or help Milo do his knee exercises. Instead, I usually look up sometime mid afternoon and realize that those top two didn’t make it into the top ten of what I’ve done that day.

Quiet, reflective time and writing are both important to my interior life. They’re good for me. But there’s a lifetime of habit compelling me to move those things further down the list every day. Our cultural expectations about what constitutes an accomplishment do not include sitting and doing nothing, or writing in a notebook that likely no one will ever see. If I make something tangible happen around our house, out in the world, or in other people’s lives, that’s an accomplishment. These things I do only for myself feel indulgent. Maybe I could justify doing them every now and then, but every day?

This reminds me of an analogy. It’s probably been around for awhile.

I can think of my time each day as a jar. A jar, like a day, can only hold so much. Into it, I need to fit several rocks (the most important activities) and a lot of gravel (all the other things I spend time on). I think the original analogy calls for sand but ironically, there is not a lot of sand in my desert so we’re going with gravel.

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I can put the gravel — the less important activities — into the jar first. There is an endless supply of gravel, I’ve noticed.

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But that will likely mean that there’s not enough room for all the rocks — the things I care about. Some will inevitably get left out of the jar.

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The way to make sure the most important tasks get done is to put the bigger rocks into each day’s jar first, and let the gravel fit in wherever it can. 

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I love this concept, but clearly I have trouble putting it into practice. I do crazy mathematical manipulations to convince myself that a handful of gravel is equal to one big rock. Or sometimes I pick up rocks from other people’s piles, stuff they are perfectly capable of taking care of, and try to fit those into my jar too. I really, really need to leave other people’s rocks alone and focus on the big ones in my own pile.

Every day lately, I discover something that could make my life easier if only I could change some habits. I’d expected to have everything all figured out by this point, but there is a shocking amount of stuff left to work on. My grandmother used to say it took a lifetime to learn how to live. I guess she was right because here I am, more than halfway through my time here, still trying to understand how to get rocks into a jar.

Published in: on July 28, 2014 at 5:08 pm  Comments (4)  

The Last Word

In my work with hospice, I have done just about everything a volunteer is allowed to do. I stay with patients while their caregivers run errands or catch up on some sleep. I make phone calls to the newly bereaved, and I help facilitate a grief support group. I sit with the dying if they don’t have family with them at the end, and a couple of times, I’ve been present with patients as they passed on. After nearly two decades, I thought I’d done it all.

A few weeks ago, one of our bereavement counselors called. A patient had died, the family situation was strained, and the widower needed help writing his wife’s obituary. Not just help, in fact — he needed someone to write it from start to finish.

Well. This would be new. Neither of my late parents had wanted an obituary, so I’d never written one. I was particularly challenged by the paradox of writing something so personal about someone I’d never met. But the husband couldn’t do it, and I do love to put words together. Whatever I came up with would be better than nothing, which is what he’d have otherwise.

Having no experience, I did what I always do when I want to learn something: I googled it. The internet has a vast array of free templates for obituary writing, so I could see what information to include and how to format it. Like any savvy plagiarist, I took a little from one and a little from another. The bereaved husband helped me fill in the blanks with names, dates, and locations, until we came up with a draft that was…well…boring.

I know obituaries are not great literature. They’re not supposed to be exciting. But as I read through the dry facts — dates, places, jobs, and the number of children she’d had — I was sure there had to be a better way to sum up an entire lifetime. Let’s face it, those bare details are rarely interesting because they’re a lot like everybody else’s. We’re born, go to school, have jobs, maybe get married, sometimes have kids, and then at the end, someone is left to write about it in a way that attempts to make us seem unique.

So I saved the most important questions for last. After we’d gotten the date of their marriage, the correct spellings of the children’s names, and where she went to college, I asked the husband two more things about his wife.

What did she care about?

What will people remember her for?

The answers he gave changed the entire tone of the obituary. When we added those details, his wife’s final tribute illustrated her humanity and made the reader understand just what had been lost with her passing. It wasn’t literature, but for what it was, it was pretty good. He was pleased, and that assignment was done.

Except that, as often happens in hospice, it has left me thinking. Those questions have dogged me, perhaps because the answers illuminate what gives meaning to an otherwise average life.

What do I care about?

What will people remember me for?

The bereaved husband thought these questions meant the same thing, but they don’t. You can care deeply about something that no one else knows about, or be remembered for something completely different than the values you hold dear. My father, for instance, probably loved me to the limits of his ability. Unfortunately, that is not what I most remember about him.

This makes me wonder how I’m doing at getting the answer to the first question aligned with the second. If I care about something (or someone), does it show? Will anybody remember me for that? I’m not sure. Still, it’s something to work on, if only out of consideration for that person who someday will be writing the last word about me.

Published in: on July 17, 2014 at 5:42 pm  Comments (11)  
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Sitting Still

One of the things I realized during the Difficult Events of last fall and winter is that the territory of my mind is overrun by some very unpleasant thoughts. They are demanding, critical, mean-spirited, and there’s a whole division assigned to telling me terrifying things about what could happen in the future. They’re also liars. If these thoughts were people, I would never hang around with them. In fact, I’d cross the street to avoid them because they are jerks. Yet there they are, living in my head and sneakily running my life.

I’ve been hard at work to pull back the curtain so I can figure out what weird beliefs have been directing the show all these years. For instance, do I have the power to keep the people I love safe? (Short answer: no.) If things don’t go the way I expect them to, does disaster inevitably follow? (As it turns out, not always.) Do I really have to keep myself working on something all the damn time in order to be worthy of the space I occupy? (Also no.) Some of these ideas are so entrenched, I’d assumed they were part of my personality, but many of them have turned out to be nothing more than bad habits, like picking one’s teeth or swearing. The good news is that habits can be changed.

But it’s a slog. Six months in, working on this material nearly every day, I’m making tortoise-like progress in excavating the debris in my head and discarding what’s not useful. I’ve got a whole arsenal of tools now, and the most challenging one is also seemingly the simplest: sitting still for 15 minutes a day, trying to keep my attention on the here and now.

Neither the here nor the now are places where I have spent much time. Back when the New Age movement was strong, people would talk about “staying in the present moment,” and I truly had no idea what they meant. My mind was always occupied with the past, except when it was busy worrying about and planning for the future. At best, the present was an annoying obstacle to something better that might be around the corner. At worst, it could be painful and confusing. Who’d want to stay there?

I’ve tried meditation several times. When I was a teenager, I wanted to go to a class on Transcendental Meditation, but my mother wouldn’t let me, certain that TM was a front for a cult. (See where some of that catastrophic thinking originated?) I attended a centering prayer group at the Benedictine monastery, but then my lapsed-Catholic self got annoyed by all the things that caused me to leave the church to begin with. Then I took a meditation class at my yoga studio. We partnered up and were supposed to be “accountable” to each other by phone for developing a home practice, but that didn’t last a week. Other times, I would try to sit on my own, then give up after a few days when the voice in my head wouldn’t stop yelling at me about what a lousy meditator I was.

Now I’m practicing again. After the recent crisis, meditation doesn’t seem that hard anymore. Nothing does. The practice I try to follow doesn’t use a mantra, but if it did, mine would be, “Don’t make this a big deal.” The objective is not to clear the mind, which is impossible anyway, but rather to keep bringing my attention back to this moment, with the fan blowing cool air onto my shoulders, the clock ticking, and the phone ringing because I forgot to turn it off again.

Breathe in, breathe out. Maybe we can wait awhile longer to put Lily down. Breathe in, breathe out. White or chocolate frosting for Mike’s birthday cake? Breathe in, breathe…Remember to stop at the post office. My nose itches. Ugh, I left those towels in the dryer. I hope they’re not still damp. What am I going to write this week’s post about? Breathe. Come back to this moment, the one I am least familiar with. Repeat. Give myself credit for trying, and don’t make a big deal about it. This is all very unlike me.

Quite often, Milo comes in and flops down on the rug in front of me. At first, I thought he was lobbying for a few extra head pats, but he doesn’t pay any attention to me at all. He just lies quietly until I’m finished. Maybe he’s trying to show me how it’s done.

Sit. Stay. Breathe.

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Published in: on July 9, 2014 at 11:30 am  Comments (5)  
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The Cruelest Month

Already blazing at 8:30 a.m.

T.S. Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruelest month. For some of us who live in the desert, that title belongs to June.

Today is the last day of June. Nearly every one of the past 30 days had high temperatures in the triple digits, except for a handful of cool days between 97 and 99. Today’s predicted high is 107.

Weather like this is not for the faint of heart. Of course we have cooling in our homes and cars, but if you love being outdoors, this is a tough time of year. During monsoon season in July and August, we’ll get a little relief in the form of some spectacular thunderstorms, but June is just searing and relentless. Retirees and tourists flee the area in droves every spring and don’t come back until late fall. On the plus side, stores are less crowded right now, and what little traffic we normally have disappears. It’s our consolation prize, I guess.

So I make adjustments. Because I work at home, my days can alter with the season. Typically I am not an early riser, but at this time of year, I’m up before 6:00. Dogs need walking, and if I hope to do anything else outside, morning is the only sensible option. In fact, the heat dictates how I organize my entire day. Yard work to do, errands to run, and appointments to keep? Plan to finish them before noon. Clothes to wash? Wait until late in the day when the clothesline will be in the shade. Why not put wet laundry into the dryer, you wonder? Ugh. There’s enough heat trying to get into the house without adding to it from inside. Ditto for food prepared in the oven, so if we cook something, it goes into the crock pot — which goes outside.

June afternoons are long, hot, and boring, so that’s when I work on indoor projects like writing, sewing, and “spring” cleaning. Over the past few weeks, Mike and I have weeded out every closet and cabinet in the house, as well as two outside storage spaces — all without screaming or bloodshed. Among its treasures, the carport shed harbored two boxes of photos and slides that Mike hasn’t touched since we got married. Yesterday, we spent the afternoon sorting through our respective piles of family photos. We tossed out the blurry, the overexposed, the unrecognizable, and the downright ugly. I recycled piles of maps and brochures from our vacations, things I’d brought home as mementos but haven’t looked at in over a decade. We dated and labelled until our eyes blurred, and then we had a beer to celebrate our accomplishment.

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Sometimes when we need a change, we drive to Mt. Lemmon. Forty miles from home, we can go from this landscape

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to this one.

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If you live in a place where green is the predominant color in the summer, these scenes may not impress you. But for us, being able to reach the sound of running water and the smell of pine trees in under an hour is like a little miracle.

This is my 40th June in the desert. My ancestors came from a moister, cooler climate so I am genetically predisposed to be challenged by hot and dry. But it’s only one month. July and August bring the hope of rain, and by November I won’t be able to imagine living anywhere else. With weather, as with so many situations I find hard to tolerate, my comfort depends very little on my ability to change the outward circumstances and almost entirely on my willingness to change my habits.

Published in: on June 30, 2014 at 4:41 pm  Comments (11)  

Gray Area

In about two seconds, you’re going to be thinking, “Another dog post?” I know, I know. I need to get a bigger life. But until that happens, I have to go with whatever I’m most concerned about. Right now, the growing instability in Iraq and the welfare of child immigrants in U.S. detention centers occupy second and third positions on my worry list. The number one slot is occupied by an elderly dog.

Lily

Lily

Lily is a 14-year old Whippet who has been with us since we found her in the desert when she was a few months old. She has outlived one other dog and all the cats. If we were keeping score, she would represent my personal best in canine longevity. But as with people, old age leads to changes in dogs that are often unwelcome and hard to cope with. Unlike with people, this sometimes means that there is a decision to be made.

I do not have a lot of experience with doggy decline. All my childhood dogs died young, mostly because they ran loose where they could encounter speeding cars or other, meaner dogs. Lily is my first truly geriatric canine.

For the past few years, I’ve been proud of how well she was holding up. People would stop me on the street to ask about her as she pranced along on her walk, and they couldn’t believe she wasn’t still a puppy. Being prone to smugness, I would congratulate myself for taking such good care of her that she still had that much energy. She gets high quality food, regular vet checkups, daily exercise, and — despite her objections— toothbrushing. I am (Michelle says, reaching around to pat herself on the back) a conscientious pet owner.

But nothing I did could prevent Lily’s disc degeneration. The first symptom was an occasional shaking in her back legs that began a couple of years ago. Later she developed a tiny hunchback, like old folks sometimes do. Our regular vet said it was arthritis and prescribed Tramadol, which didn’t do much to alleviate her increasing discomfort.

IMG_4945By this time, she’d lost some of her sure-footedness and wasn’t hiking with us anymore, but she still enjoyed her daily walks. Then, about six months ago, she started having accidents in the house. Solid ones, if you get my drift. At first, it happened once a week or so. It was gross but infrequent, and we were willing to put up with it. By April, it was a daily occurrence, and I had had it. We took Lily to a rehab vet to see if there might be some hope of slowing or reversing this unpleasant trend.

Insert the ka-ching of an imaginary cash register here. Specialty vets have beautiful offices and state-of-the-art technology, all of which costs money. Mike & I were clear that we didn’t want to go nuts trying to turn back the tide of Lily’s aging, but we did want an accurate diagnosis so we could make a better decision about what to do next. Several weeks and several hundred dollars later, we have tried supplements, acupuncture, and two different medications. It got better for a week, then worse, then better for awhile, then worse again. We’ve done everything we can reasonably do, and Lily is currently having bowel and bladder incontinence at least once a day.

Now she sleeps corralled next to the dog door at night, rather than in our room. She hates it, but not as much as we hate waking up at 3 a.m. to the smell of dog poop because she’s had an accident in her sleep. I have replaced the squishy dog beds with towels from Goodwill because towels are easier to wash. All three of the dogs hate that. We go through Nature’s Miracle like we owned stock in the company; and every morning, one of us humans starts our day by cleaning up after her. Several people have suggested doggy diapers, but that seems even grosser than what we’re doing now. I would rather clean the floor than bathe the dog every day after taking off a diaper. Honestly, who would have imagined that I could put up with any of this? Maybe I’m like the frog that doesn’t notice that the pot of water she’s swimming in is heating up, until it’s too late.

I have no qualms about euthanizing a suffering animal. I think about The Shot every day, wondering if we are crazy for letting this situation go on, but it doesn’t seem like the right time to put her down yet. Here’s the dilemma: she’s not suffering. Thanks to the new pain medication she’s on, Lily is still an active and happy dog. She interacts with people, her appetite is good, and she loves her walks, even though she takes them at about half speed now. If one day she lost her mobility, her quality of life would be diminished and the decision would be clear. As it is, she’s still in the gray area: not completely well, not quite ready to go yet either.

Last week, I was walking alone and saw a dog in the park that looked exactly like Lily, which was a first. From ears to tail (except for the hunchback), they could’ve been twins. The dog’s owner said he’d picked her up as a stray 17 years ago. Seventeen. Not too long ago, I’d have found the prospect of that many more years encouraging. Right now, I just don’t know.

 

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Published in: on June 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm  Comments (3)  
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Out of Gas

Hello? Is this thing on?

Sorry for the long absence. The Readers’ Digest explanation is that a family crisis beginning last fall shoved blogging off the cliff of my priorities. For several months, I was so preoccupied that I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be back. But as the urgency of the situation abated, the writing itch has returned and so have I. Thanks to all of you who expressed concern and good wishes without really knowing what was going on. Maybe someday I’ll write about that experience in detail, but not today.

Today’s topic is gas. No, not the embarrassing kind — I mean the stuff that comes through pipes into our homes to fuel our appliances. At our house, the dryer, stove, furnace, and hot water heater all run on natural gas. Or at least they did until about two weeks ago.

Recently our local gas company offered to move the meter from its location in the alley to a spot next to our house. We are currently responsible for repairing any leaks in the line from the meter to the house. If we permitted this modification, the gas company would move the meter at no charge to us, and assume responsibility for the line leading across our yard up to the new meter location. A money saver! What’s not to love?

Before the meter could be moved, the line had to pass inspection, and here’s where the money saving part of the plan began to unravel. The inspector found a leak just inside our yard — where we are still responsible for fixing it. You know how long it can sometimes take to get a utility company to flip the switch to turn your gas or electricity on? This was the opposite of that. The inspector had our gas turned off almost before Mike could walk into the house to let me know what was happening.

It’s good that we have camping experience because it has come in handy over the past two weeks. We have no stove or oven, no clothes dryer, and most inconveniently, no hot water.

In some respects, we couldn’t have picked a better time of year to be out of gas. Today’s high in Tucson will be 105 degrees, so we’re not missing the furnace. The water coming out of the cold faucet in the shower is lukewarm, although we could shower with hot water if we want to drive to the Y. So far, that has seemed like more trouble than it’s worth. We wash clothes in cold water and hang them to dry anyway so there’s been no change there.

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However, you cannot run cold water through your dishwasher with good results. Mike likes to wash dishes by hand (yes, that is one of the reasons I married him), but you can’t get good results with cold water there, either. So once a day, one of us — and by that I mean not me — heats up a couple of large bowls of water in the microwave to clean our dishes with. I do not love dishes piling up in the sink, but I do love the sight of my husband with his hands in soapy water, so there they sit until he can get to them.

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Since cooking has fallen out of favor in our culture, except for watching someone else do it on television, you’d think not having a stove or oven would be a minor difficulty. However, we are throwback hippie types who concoct meals from scratch, so cooking has been the most challenging part of our natural gas-free experience. We can heat up some foods in the toaster oven and microwave. We could make more meals in the crockpot if eating soups and stews wasn’t so unappealing during a desert summer. The other day, we baked bread in a borrowed solar oven (more evidence of our hippie tendencies). However, we had to keep rotating the oven as the sun moved across the sky, tipping the box to catch the rays. It led to an edible but somewhat unconventionally shaped loaf.

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The main thing that has saved us from having to eat out for every meal is the Ancestral Stove. Dad gave me his old camp stove about 20 years ago, along with several canisters of propane that are at least a decade older than that. Apparently propane doesn’t go bad. Or if it does, we haven’t blown up the kitchen with it yet. I never expected to use this little stove inside my house, but it’s been our biggest asset since the gas went off. Pancakes, anyone?

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The plumber came today, and we agreed that he should cap off the ancient, code noncompliant gas line and run a new one. After permitting, inspection, reinstallation of the gas meter, and the writing of a very large check, we hope to resume our natural gas-powered life by sometime next week. When I told Mike how much it would cost, he sighed because this project was supposed to be a money-saver. Instead, it’s been a lot like getting a free dog.

 

Published in: on June 12, 2014 at 3:11 pm  Comments (9)  

Dog Years

Many years ago, we were on our way to take the kids caving. (Caving is the exploration of tight, dark spaces where bats live. What’s not to love?) As we drove through another long stretch of uninhabited desert, I saw an animal running near the side of the road. A deer? No, too small. I made a u-turn and went back to look.

A puppy, alone in the desert. There were no houses nearby so she wasn’t lost. Dumped, most likely, and bound to become coyote food if she lived until sundown. She was terrified but she didn’t bolt, so my son offered up his ham sandwich as incentive. Pretty soon, she was in the van. We already had three kids, three cats, one dog, and a rabbit. What’s one more? We named her Lily.

It's hard to remember Lily (or the kids) ever being this small. June, 2000.

It’s hard to remember Lily (or the kids) ever being this small. June, 2000.

She’s a Whippet, a breed I’d never heard of until Lily arrived. A Whippet looks like a 30-pound version of a Greyhound, with the same lean build and affinity for speed. I have never owned a running breed before but with this dog, the feet are everything. In her prime, Lily was incredibly fast. It was a joy to watch her zoom around in circles, outrunning every other dog at the park and doing what she was made to do.

The joy wore off as soon as it was time to take care of her talons nails. Long nails make for good traction, but they also have to be clipped more often, and this dog said No. She only weighed 25 pounds, but two adult humans could not hold her still for a nail trim. I resorted to sedating her for each nail trimming and after several months, she finally gave in to letting me handle her feet. She still loathes it, but when she sees the clippers she drops her head and trudges resignedly toward me, as if on her way to the Inquisition. It’s just like that, you know — terrible torture, followed by treats.

Because of her foot fixation, Lily is highly suspicious of slippery surfaces. Glazed tile floors are evil. The linoleum at the hardware store is not to be trusted, so she drags behind me through the aisles, stepping gingerly like the floor might burst into flame. Foreign objects in her feet are also traumatic. We live in a desert and stickery things abound. Goat heads, tiny burrs that lodge between the pads of a dog’s feet, are the worst. I always know when Lily steps on one because our walk comes to an abrupt halt while she frantically bites at her paw until she loosens the offender and eats it. It is not enough to remove the thing. It must be destroyed.

Karma & Lily running in the riverbed, 2010.

Karma & Lily running in the riverbed, 2010.

Of all our dogs, Lily is the most sensitive and high-strung. A little weird, even. She dashes  out of the room if I raise my voice, even if it’s not at her. Unlike most dogs, she hates riding in the car and will refuse to eat for a day or two if subjected to a road trip. She will also skip meals if we go away and leave her with the house sitter. Then there are the “babies.” Over the years, she has developed strange attachments to a string of stuffed animals stolen from the children. She will carry the “baby” around in her mouth, drop it at our feet, then pick it up and take it outside. Her current favorite is a stuffed dog nearly as big as she is, missing an eye and part of its nose. Every night, for reasons that only she understands, she takes it for a walk around the yard before putting it to bed.

The baby can also be used as a pillow.

The baby can also be used as a pillow.

Now she is old.

What??

What??

Next month Lily will be 14. She’s given up running circles in the park and long hikes leave her limping, but she still takes a 40-minute walk every day with lots of stops for sniffing. Her eyes are a little cloudy and when I call her, she doesn’t always hear  — or maybe she’s just ignoring me. Her fur is more gray than black, and she’s a little hunchbacked from arthritis. Every evening, in a kind of demented doggy ritual, she stands in the yard and barks incessantly at nothing until our nerves are shot and we bring her inside. In the springtime, while the younger dogs are losing their minds over the baby bunnies hopping across our walking route, Lily shrugs. Like, I’ve already had my bunnies. They’re not that big a deal. 

Old age is not pretty, and it is filled with daily affronts to her dignity. Her eyes are constantly runny, her coat is greasy, and she sheds like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so she ends up getting twice as many baths as the other two dogs. Once or twice a day, a human stuffs half a Tramadol down her throat for pain relief from the arthritis. And then there’s the halitosis. We love her, but as one of the boys says, her breath smells like butt. So now, in her golden years, she must endure toothbrushing in addition to the hated baths, pill-stuffing, and eye-wiping. And did I mention the sweatshirt? Because she is skinny and arthritic, I have overcome my disdain for animals in clothing and put a doggy sweatshirt on her when the weather is cold. It is so embarrassing. It is also warmer and makes her a little more comfortable.

As compensation, there are no rules for Lily. Like a 500-pound gorilla, she can have anything she wants. The other dogs have to sit and wait before coming into the house. Lily just walks inside. The others are expected to sit or lie down before getting meals or a treat. Not Lily. She gets treats for being alive. Yay, you woke up this morning! Good job! Dogs here do not beg at the table, yet tonight I ate my dinner with one hand while petting Lily with the other as she rested her head on my leg. According to a BBC calculator, she is about 88 years old in human age. She’s in pretty good shape, but we’re on borrowed time. She doesn’t know it, but I do. Anyway, there ought to be some perks for getting to be that old.

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 9:41 pm  Comments (13)  
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Holding Pattern

Dear Reader,

I just wrote another new post. Then I moved it to the trash, as I have done with each of the posts I’ve written in the past month. It’s a little hard writing for an audience at the moment because I’m focusing on some matters that are too close to the bone for me to share here. Given that my earliest posts were nothing but too personal, it may be hard to believe that I’m drawing this line, but I really do have some boundaries. When my mind is so occupied and I try to write something for you about a different topic, the result is a rambling mess that has no point. The only thing worse than reading lousy writing is writing it.

So for now, this blog is in a holding pattern. I’m not giving up. I’m just turning my attention in another direction right now. When I’m done there, I’ll be back. I hope you will be, too.

~MY

Published in: on October 7, 2013 at 8:45 pm  Comments (7)  

Big Kids

3/26/1989

1989

A lot of things I believed to be true when I was young have not played out. At 18, I moved beyond my parents’ reach but discovered I still couldn’t do everything I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. Despite the optimism of the speakers at my graduation, I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be, either, mostly because I didn’t know myself well enough yet. Over the years, I have learned that love doesn’t conquer all, that my dad was wrong about — well, a lot — and that no moisturizer yet invented will get rid of wrinkles.

Here’s another one. Several years ago, during our kids’ adolescence, I clung to the idea that if I could just get them to their 18th birthdays, my work would be over. This notion, too, has proven false.

Our three younger children are all living away from home. One more is married with children of her own. I imagined I’d be wiping my brow and calling this a job well done by now, but truth be told, parenting is not over. It’s just different.

One of the hardest things about adult children, at least for me, are those minds of their own, which we intentionally fostered. Mike and I have over a century of wisdom and hard knocks between us. We can see pitfalls from a mile away because we’ve already fallen into them. We could save our kids a lot of pain and aggravation if they would only learn from our mistakes. But guess what? Our insights are worth exactly nada. The kids still call us for advice. They even listen to our opinions when they haven’t asked for them. But unless we are confirming what the kid already believes, our great advice goes nowhere.

To adapt to this new phase of parenting, Mike and I have devised a strategy. When we feel frustrated by our adult children’s choices, we ask ourselves, “Does this decision affect me directly?” Usually, the answer is no. If a kid takes a job that doesn’t pay enough, then s/he will have to find a way to supplement that income. When one of them decides not to take antibiotics as prescribed, I give a brief warning about superbugs and then try to remember whose health will be affected — as in, not mine. After one of them adopted yet another dog, I had a few things to say about priorities, but then I let it go. Why? Because that extra dog doesn’t affect me directly. Car registration lapsed? Not my car. Sheets not changed for months? Gross, but still not my problem.

Much as we’d like to save our kids the trouble of learning everything the hard way, the hard way seems to be a necessary part of becoming an adult. Despite all the knowledge we have to share with them, they have to experience the grownup  world for themselves, not just take our word for it. I am positive that their lives would be infinitely less messy if only they would follow our helpful suggestions, but I also know it would be weird if they did. We want our adult children to stand — or fall and get up again — on their own, without looking back over their shoulders for our approval.

One of our sons is currently mourning the end of a long-term relationship, going through all the misery that comes with that kind of loss. A few days ago, I offered some (solicited) advice about how to meet new people. He came over for a little extra moral support last night, and I heard myself repeating what I had already suggested.

“Hey, I’m getting deja vu here. Didn’t I say all of this the other day?” I asked.

“Yeah, probably,” he said. “I don’t remember.”

I was a little peeved. “Why should I even bother talking to you if you’re not paying attention?”

He grinned. “I don’t know, Mom. Maybe I feel better just listening to the sound of your voice, as it goes in one ear and out the other.”

Published in: on August 28, 2013 at 2:15 pm  Comments (11)  
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What the Body Knows

In some recent posts, I wrote about the back pain that had begun to dominate my waking hours. Its onset in June was not precipitated by any event or injury. It just showed up. By the time I wrote about it in July, the pain had pretty much unpacked its bags and settled in, demanding constant attention and crowding out most of the activities I normally enjoy. After several unproductive visits with the physical therapist, I started seeing an acupuncturist. Acupuncture lessened the pain but didn’t get rid of it completely.

In early August, I went to the pain specialist to see if my symptoms warranted an MRI. No, he said, what I was describing didn’t sound much different from the episode that had sent me to him two years ago. He recommended that I continue with the acupuncture, and I left feeling both relieved and frustrated. Great — it’s not getting worse. Hurray, I can still feel my legs! But it’s also not going away.

One of my readers suggested a book titled Healing Back Pain by John Sarno, and since I was spending so much time lying on the couch, I had plenty of time to read. The author is a physician, and he believes that most low back pain is emotional, not physical, in origin. He proposes that unresolved pain in the body serves as a distraction, keeping us from dealing with “unacceptable” emotions that have been repressed, like anger and resentment. I read with great skepticism. I finished the book thinking that he might have a point, but I still didn’t buy it entirely. Or at least, I didn’t think it applied to me.

Here’s why. To the dismay of those who know me, I don’t repress much. When Mike and I were newly married, a woman we knew was in the process of ending her 14-year marriage. When I asked her what had gone wrong, she shrugged. “Shit builds up,” she said, like resentment was an unavoidable pitfall of any relationship. I took her words as a warning, so I try to address problems and aggravations as they arise. My loved ones probably pray every day that I might become a little more repressed, but one thing is true: very little shit builds up around here.

Shortly after that doctor’s appointment, someone criticized me during an argument, and the words hit so hard that they practically left a mark. I couldn’t believe how much it hurt. The person apologized, but days later, I still could not let it go. My reaction didn’t feel proportionate to the insult, so I asked Mike if he would sit and listen to me as I tried to talk my way through it. (Some people have therapists; I have an excellent husband.) I had to do my talking from the couch, though, because my back was killing me. Again.

It took about an hour of saying the same things over and over until I got to the root of what was bothering me. It’s typical of women, I think, that we start off feeling upset about one thing and find, after some circular conversation, that the origin of the problem is something else. That’s not news. What did surprise me was the realization that I had been carrying around a load of resentment for several years, one that I hadn’t even been aware of, and the earlier criticism had struck right at the core of it.

The other surprise was that when we finished talking and got up to make dinner, my back pain was gone. G-o-n-e. Like your basic Jesus-type miracle. For the past two weeks, I have been pain free. There used to be a chronic ache in my right shoulder and one in my right foot, too, and now they’ve disappeared as well. Over the past several days, I have moved furniture, repainted a desk, sewed, and sat through a two-hour movie without having to get up. I find this sudden resolution a little eery and unbelievable, but I’ll take it.

It would be simplistic to credit this recovery to one thing. I tried several approaches to managing the pain, and each probably contributed incrementally to its improvement. Still, it’s hard to ignore a dramatic change like the one I experienced. We already know that chronic stress impacts the body in a variety of ways, from cardiovascular health and the immune system to hormone levels and digestive problems. It’s not too large a leap, then, to make a connection between emotions and physical pain.

We don’t like emotions much. They’re not rational, they arise at inconvenient moments, and their intensity makes us uncomfortable. We don’t trust them, so we train ourselves to put them away where they can’t bother anyone, including ourselves. And some of this is necessary. A little teeth-clenching goes a long way toward the functioning of a polite society. I shudder to think of the awful consequences of expressing all our feelings. We have to keep some things to ourselves so that other people will let us hang around with them.

But now I wonder about the emotions we bury so deep that they’re hidden even from our own awareness. After half a century or more of buildup, they probably start to wear on the body. I’d have sworn that I didn’t have anything tucked away like that, that I knew everything about how I felt. Apparently, my back knew something different.

Published in: on August 22, 2013 at 4:43 pm  Comments (13)  
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