Author: mallorygaylegraham

Wildflowers: On Grief.

We’ve been singing a song about my dead dog lately, and it’s a real doozy.  It took us months to work up to performing it live, with starts and stops of lumpy throats and staring at the ceiling.  Now, we can get through it fine most of the time, and leave the feelings for the audience.

And our audience is feeling it.  They are replacing our dog in the song with ex-husbands and dead wives, their own dogs or their parents, and sometimes their children.  It’s a world of grief out there, and we are grateful to be the ones facilitating a catharsis if it’s needed.  The conversations following the show are similar.

“You never stop missing them,” they will say.

“We never do,” I say, not sure whose loss we are speaking of.

“And they are always still there,” they will say.

“It’s true,” I say, and then add something I think is wise, “the grief never goes away.  It’s just a space you learn to work around, occasionally bumping into.”

“Yes,” they say.  And then, they are gone, bumping into the grief space on their way out the door.

magsbuttholelessBut maybe it isn’t like that at all.

When our friend Josh died, it was sudden and intentional, and we were speeding to Chattanooga late at night to catch a funeral we never imagined we’d attend.  At the funeral, the space of grief widened as we listened to a recording of Tom Petty singing–

You belong among the wildflowers…

I don’t listen to Tom Petty, anymore.  Maybe it’s more than an empty space.  Maybe it’s a black hole, sucking up those songs and next day hangovers and lit candles into a mass of memory you have to work very hard to avoid getting caught in again.

Last month, we watched our friend Thomas direct a choir of children at his school in a medley of songs ranging from Beyonce to Jerry Garcia.  When they sang Wildflowers, I tensed.  I thought about leaving.  I thought about covering my face.  Instead, I cried.

Grief is a space you bump into on occasion– a space you work around.  It is also a black hole, sweeping you down a long tunnel of old church pews and a mother bent over her son’s coffin.  Grief is also a room, lit brightly, that you choose to enter and walk through again and again, changing the flowers in the center table vase before closing the door again on the other side, occasionally with a choir of children or a little folk band guiding you in and safely out again.

I Was Here First: On Belonging.

In Maine, you’re either from here, or you’re from away.  Those that are from here have no trouble telling you you’re from away.  In fact, they will likely tell you before your first sip of beer, as they are already on their second pint.  They don’t care that it was your grandparents who first settled here.

“It can’t happen in just a generation or two,” John told me down in Cornish, a small town in the Southwest corner.  He’s owned his music store there that we played last Saturday night since 1974.  “You’ve got to have had family here for much longer than me.”  Charlene, his wife, is from here.  She inherited her grandparents’ house, who worked hard for it after their parents settled here.  Marriage is not a transferable ticket for being-from-here.

I don’t belong anywhere, but Maine is one of my favorite states.  I’ve had long dreams of becoming a waitress in a diner someday when I’m hard on my luck and need a place to recover in solitude.  I’ve got a bad attitude and nothing to lose, and potentially a dark secret that the town can only wonder… but, hell, if I ain’t a good worker.  In that alternate life, I don’t contest that I don’t belong there.  It’s part of the a-stranger-comes-to-town narrative.

But I don’t need anyone to tell me so.

netsIn Bangor, we woke up in a movie theater parking lot in hopes of catching an early showing of the latest superhero movie before our show that night in Ellsworth.  I love superheros, but I’m late to the game.  I didn’t grow up in Batman pajamas, or even attempt to care about Saturday morning cartoons that contained anyone with a flimsy mask and a cape.  I didn’t belong there.

Until someone told me I belonged.

By my late twenties, I’d taken to reading graphic novels– but only the kinds about the oppression of women in Pakistan, or the illustrated retelling of the life of Margaret Sanger.  You know, important stuff.  Stuff that didn’t group me into the nerd category.

My comic-curiosity appeared to my friend as a cry for help.  So one night, after babysitting his cute kid, he handed me the start of the New 52 Wonder Woman series.

“Just try it,” he said. “I think it might be what you’re looking for.”

“Oh, I don’t really do comics,” I said.

“You will.”

I came back the next week, strung out from lack of sleep and asking for more.

“This stuff is for everyone,” Justin said, checking his stash to see what else he could entrust with me. “You belong here.”

timeIt goes like this–

I spent half of my childhood laughing at jokes, some I didn’t know the meaning of, because it is good to laugh, and laughing makes me part of something.  Until I was told that the joke isn’t for me.  In fact, the joke is on me.

I then spent my next two decades holding my laughter carefully, just in case it wasn’t meant for me.  I scan the jokes in the ridges of my brain, ensuring its intent, its audience, its landing before letting out what is now a deflated, dissatisfying chortle.

It also goes like this–

As a kid, I am generous with my tears.  I dole them out for other peoples’ parents splitting up, for the evening news, for the broken robin eggs on the sidewalk.  I name and write poems for the dead German Shepherd I found on the railroad tracks.  I am an endless source of empathy.  And then I am told that it’s not mine to carry.  That I am too sensitive.  That I don’t belong with those who are grieving, because the grief isn’t mine.

I then spent the next two decades churning each devastation carefully inside, allowing it to filter through the cogs and see if I have any right to elicit a single tear.  I hear myself say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” but feel nothing inside.

There’s a traffic jam of feelings inside, and they are separating me further from anywhere I might belong.

keepoutI am calling bullshit on belonging.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

I suspect this isn’t just for the benefit of those who are rejoicing and weeping directly.  You are laughing or crying, too?  You belong here.  You’re laughing and crying because you haven’t been given adequate tools or space to express your empathy for decades for fear of making a fool of yourself and being outcast?

Oh, yeah, you definitely belong.

I do, too.

sexiststuffThere’s a funny scene with a taco and a spaceship in the new superhero movie.  I laughed so hard I got a popcorn kernel caught in my throat.  I didn’t have to assess if there was more to the joke or not.  Taco spaceship physical comedy is hilarious no matter who you are.

Two nights later, just before our show in Stockholm, Maine, my Someone told me that one of my favorite Christian social defenders died at 37.  I took the news stoically, beginning to assess the appropriate reaction for someone who I don’t know personally.  I tried to measure my grief to the correct ratio compared to, say, her grieving husband and children.  I scrolled Twitter to find out how others, more worthy than me, were responding, so I could respond to a lesser degree, being that I am not a Christian, nor a regular Tweeter.

Then, I stopped and just felt sad.  With everyone else.  If you’re feeling sad, too, you belong here.

We trudged downstairs to the bar for dinner, where a from-here man sat next to me, talking to the guy next to him.  I chewed slowly and read my book, their conversation getting louder and drifting onto my pages.

“You’re not from here, are you,” the Maine man said.  It wasn’t really a question.

“Well,” the other man said, “no, I’m from Connecticut, but…”

The Maine man laughed audibly and shook his head.

“…but!” the Connecticut man said, “I’m 60 years old!  I think I’ve been around long enough to learn just a little bit…”

It was too late.  The Maine man finished his second pint and turned straight ahead.  The conversation was over.

He looked my way.  I stared steadily at my book.  According to him, I wouldn’t belong either.  He hollered to the bartender in a familiar way, lurched from the barstool and left.  An ease replaced his space.

So maybe it goes like this–

Belonging here is to laugh and cry.  But sometimes, it’s just to take up space at the bar with whoever else is there.  It seems that those who are busy deciding who belongs and doesn’t belong squeeze themselves out of belonging themselves.  Even if their great-great-grandparents were here first.

The Top 5 Saddest Things: On How Much I Am Loved.

My Someone keeps a mental running tab of the things I say that make him feel sorry for me.  He calls it The Top 5 Saddest Things Mallory Has Ever Said, and takes the opportunity to recite it when I am sick and pitiful and down on my luck.  The recent list, in ascending order from least to most sad, went like this–

5. “I don’t belong anywhere.”

4.  “Since my mom doesn’t call me anymore, I sometimes pretend she is trying to tell me she loves me through the books she lent me.”

3.  “Even though we just ate lunch, my belly rumbles because I am future hungry.”

2. “If I only had four wishes, I would spend a wish on a hotel room tonight that doesn’t smell like cigarettes.”

1. “Sometimes in the bath, since we can’t afford bubbles, I just make the bubbles with my butt.”

I like the recitation for at least five different reasons, because they remind me:

5.  …that I belong somewhere when I am with my Someone, and that my future belonging is mysterious but certain.

4.  …that I am working on my relationships even if they are hard.

3.  …that someone is tending to my hunger, and that my hunger is not a threat to my life.

2.  …that I am able to take care of my body in ways that are bigger than the bare minimum, anymore.

1. …that I am not as poor as I used to be.

scottGuess how much I love you?  Guess how much I love youuuu?

I was standing over a boiling pan of curry in Kelsey’s kitchen, cooking dinner with my Someone while Kelsey’s almost-three-year-old watched an adorable program in the next room.  It’s a cutesy tune they sing at the end, and one that had been catching our brains in repetition for hours after.

I checked the rice while my Someone stirred the curry, when my Someone started humming, then singing–

Guess how much I love you?  Guess how much I LOOOOVE you?

Something in me rattled, and then burst like water pipe after a long, cold winter–

“I don’t want to guess anymore!” I cried, “I’m tired of guessing!  I don’t want to guess anymore how much, or even if anyone loves me at all!  Why can’t they just tell me?  Why can’t you just tell me how much you love me?!”

My Someone turned to me, surprised.  Then, he hugged me.

“One,” he said, “sometimes I just make the bubbles with my butt.  Two, I don’t want to guess how much you love me…”

“It made the list,” I said, relenting.

“It definitely made the list.”

I guess that’s how much he loves me.

On turning 33.

000383760010Today I turn 33.  I cut my own hair in parking lots with kitchen scissors, and then ask my friend or my Someone to help clean up the mess I made of my head.  I am closer to shaving my head completely, and realized last week that if I don’t do it, it would be a lifetime regret on my deathbed.  I think about dying less, but of my deathbed more.  I hope it has soft sheets and good lighting.  In the last year, I’ve unraveled half a lifetime’s worth of shame, and the tremors of it are still frequent, but fading.  I am dissatisfied with most of my wardrobe, but happier in my skin, so I don’t care as much that I am dissatisfied with my wardrobe.  I miss how sensitive I was when I was a kid, back when everyone told me I was too sensitive, and I am scraping callouses to get back to it.  This means that I spend more time doing nothing, wondering if trees transmit messages telepathically, and chewing my food more slowly.  I eat less sugar and drink less alcohol, but not from my enormous restraint and self discipline.  I just kind of forgot.  I’ve given up on having a stringent schedule, and have somehow become more productive, anyway.  I still love spicy foods, but now they make it hurt when I pee.  I think less of the life I want to live and more of the life I am living.  I am keenly aware that my frustration with my new dog is often in direct correlation with my frustration with myself.  My favorite colors are still yellow and brown.  I’m learning how to bind books.   I think about where I belong almost every day, and have no answer.  I am starting to believe that I’ve never belonged anywhere.  I’m not tired all the time, anymore.  I prefer chocolate chunks to chocolate chips because chips are for babies and I am a grown up now.  Also, chunks taste better.  I use the words “generous” and “grateful” more, but not in a Zenny yoga lady kind of way, even though I’m a lady who does yoga all the time.  I think frogs wearing hats are hilarious.  I am less afraid of snakes.  I don’t think snakes wearing hats are hilarious, but maybe they are less scary.  I managed to restrain from making any 33-year-old Jesus martyr jokes for this post.  But all the jokes I thought of were so funny.  I guess maybe 33 isn’t a step in the right direction, but a step in direction, and that’s good enough for me.

Lost Dogs: On Answered Un-Prayers

My big dumb dog is lost.

We’d been training her over the past few months to come when called, her response time getting better each day, her loyalty near bursting.  We were parked alone in DNR land in Michigan, literally recharging our battery in freezing temperatures, and helping ourselves to a pretty lake view on an entire campground completely empty.  And then, we helped ourselves to a long trail hike after a morning of hunkering over computer screens.

We practiced off leash calls, our smart little dogs responding quickly with every whistle, leashing them back up and trying again later down the trail.  Perhaps we are idiots, but we were building trust, and our new pup had risen to the occasion for days.  Until she didn’t.  Training dogs always feels like a crapshoot, an incomprehensible act of inter-species communication building, vulnerability abounding– Do you love me enough to come back?  Do you trust me to still be here?  Do I trust you to not be angry when I return too late?  But there are few woods safer than Michigan’s.

Then, Magpie lifted her head, took a sniff, and bolted.  Our other pup, Puddle, followed her.  I didn’t panic– they’d be back.  Sure enough, I whistled, and Puddle popped herself over the crest of the hill.  Magpie did not.

“Magpie!” I yelled, becoming impatient while I leashed our other dog.  “MAAAAAAGPIIIIIIE!” I yelled again.

I walked up the hill, stopping to look and listen.  I called for my Someone.  We split up and crawled through the brambles, combing the woods until we met again back at the trail’s split.

“She’s gone,” I said calmly.

“She’s gone?” my Someone responded.

“She’ll be back,” I said.  It felt true.  But right now, she was also gone, gone, doggone.

Dog“He has brown hair and a beard, like Uncle Scott, but his eyes are brown, not blue, and he wears, like, a white dress with buttons.  You can’t be God and have blue eyes.  They have to be brown,” my niece said.  I asked her to draw me a picture of God, and now she was explaining it.  She’s been dabbling in religion as a 6-year-old, mixed with a few Sunday morning church drop-ins and her endless imagination, I was endlessly fascinated with her perspective.

“Where does he live?”

“In the middle of the woods,” she said promptly.

“Who lives there with him?”

“Well, his wife.  And his children,” she said.

“Who are his children?”

“Well, there’s Jesus, but then also Jesus’s brothers– the three guys who came to see him when he was born?  With the presents?  And also, his other siblings, a goat and a cow.”

It was a surprising number of boys in that family.  Also, a shocking number of beasts.  I then uncovered that God, in fact, was in the woods in the United States.  He worked from home.  If he needed something outside the woods, he sent Jesus or one of his other sons.  Jesus would sometimes leave to go talk to animals, but not the ones with sharp teeth.  Only rams and bunnies, mostly.  Cheetahs and wolves and our new dog, Magpie, were out of his jurisdiction.  Her confidence was persuasive, and I felt like I was really learning.

“So,” I asked, “what exactly does God do in the woods for work?”

“Oh,” she said, “He writes papers all day to send out– the papers just say ‘Help me!  Help me!  Help me!’

BlogHelp me, help me, help me, I started muttering.  We were leaving the woods, heading back to our camper to conjure a game plan to find our missing dog.  Help me, help me, help me…

And then, Who am I talking to?

I’d been here before– in the woods with a missing dog, talking to someone whose name I didn’t know.  When my first dog, Butter, went missing for hours after being hit by a truck, I made promises to this Unknown, swearing to quit smoking and go to church.  When she was found, I was grateful, but celebrated with a cigarette on a friend’s front porch.  I quit just a couple years later, when I had enough and believed in something better for myself.

Now, just like then, I didn’t know who I was talking to.  And somehow, it seemed more likely that the someone I was praying to was just a hermit lost in the woods crying out for help, too.  Someone whose jurisdiction didn’t cover my big toothed, unruly dog.  With every vapid Help me to the sky or the Woods God, my panic began to grow.  I needed something better.  I needed someone who could actually hear me.

We got back to the camper to retrieve our phones and scan the map, marking a definitive plan to scour the woods.  But first, I texted Kristie.  Kristie has become my mental health buddy, checking in on me regularly, and me returning the favor.  She’s heard every confession from me, all the way down to the night I melted a brick of cheddar cheese on a stack of day-old movie popcorn and ate it with a fork on my couch.

So, Mags ran away.  We can’t find her.  I texted.

The response time was immediate.

Omg noooooooooo!  Where????

My heart rate dropped.  It was going to be okay.  Someone out there heard me.  She didn’t tell me I was a bad dog mom.  She didn’t judge me for losing my dog.  She didn’t say she had all the answers.

Oh man!  I’m going to pray you find her or that some nice person does and takes her for her chip to be scanned.  Are you ok?  Freaking out?

I was okay.  If there was a God who wasn’t just a lunatic in the woods, he would definitely listen to Kristie.  Saint Kristie, Intercessor for Those Who Have Lost Their Dog and Don’t Pray, Anymore.

churchMy head was clear when we hopped in the truck, and my intuition was keen.  I dropped pins and plotted between driving, stopping the truck, and listening.  I was impressed with how much better I could hear when my head wasn’t pounding with prayers.  My Someone kept a sharp eye between stops.  We drove to the nearest houses lining the woods and knocked on doors.  They hadn’t seen her.  But someone heard her– out there in the woods.  I checked my map– it checked out.

She’d been gone for only an hour and a half when my Someone caught sight of her from the road.  He hopped out and ran into the woods as I parked.  Her tongue was hanging low and she looked tired, but relieved.  Like she’d just nearly met her maker in those woods, and was glad to be home.

Found her!  I texted Kristie.

Oh thank god!!!!!!!!!

I went over the details of her recovery, how she seemed to have followed the sound of our voices, how we circled with our maps and followed the direction of the people we’d met.  And, I thought to myself, how I didn’t simply fall to my knees in fear.

Smart girl.  Kristie texted back.  I wasn’t sure if she meant me or Magpie, but it rang like a voice of confident Love.  The kind of voice that can’t echo back from a vast sky, but from a real person, eyes wide, heart open.  A real answer to prayer.

On Living.

My Someone and I were practicing for the studio– we’ve been in a time crunch to work up the new songs before we put our dollar down to record them, and we’d reached the final one.  Something about maple trees and springtime– a song we wrote under snow in Vermont and now, in Florida, felt like the future entering.

I jumped up from the bed, crammed between instruments, clapping my hands and making a spectacle of myself.  The dogs caught the feeling and began howling and jumping with me.  My Someone was laughing by the end.

buddha“I don’t think you should play any instruments on that song,” he said, “just dance with dogs, that would be good enough.”

“It just felt so happy!” I said, “Like praising Jesus, but without all the guilt.  What’s that called?”

“Living.”

“Yeah, let’s do more of that.”

God Bless America: On Grief Tolerance.

“I swear to baby Jesus, if I hear ‘God Bless America’ one more time I am going to lose my ever loving mind!” I said, lowering my voice to a stern rumble.

“Or ‘Walking After Midnight,’ or ‘Amazing Grace,’ or…” my Someone said crazily.

“I’m off Leann Rimes.  That’s it!  I’m off Leann Rimes and I’m off Patsy Cline and I’m off Perry Como. Forever!  And I love Patsy Cline!  But I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”

We’d been parked in my sister’s driveway in Tallahassee for two months, leaving weekends to play shows.  Weekends are usually when Dick plays his music across the street.  We’ve never met Dick, but we know that he built his own alarm system that occasionally sounds off at 11PM, having us duck and cover like a couple of Cold War kids under our desks.  According to our brother-in-law, Dick can fix almost anything.  He fortified his daughter’s Keurig machine to become unbreakable.  And he also found an old stereo system, completely busted, and rebuilt it.  The stereo system is now, according to my brother-in-law, set to play in two main areas of the house– the backyard and the garage– or both at the same time.  It’s complete with a 5 disc CD changer, of which Dick has filled each one and has fixed to go on an endless loop so that he never has to touch the stereo until he turns it off for the day.  And he never changes the CDs.

But we were gone most weekends, so what did it matter?  Except that early on Monday morning two weeks ago, I heard the blare of Leann Rimes wafting into our camper.

“Dick must be taking the day off today?” I said.

“He’s retired,” my Someone said. “Maybe he just needed an extra boost?”

For the rest of the day, we listened to Dick’s 5 discs, looping over and over until after dinner time.  I hummed “She’s Got You” until bedtime.

On Tuesday morning, we walked the dogs, ate our breakfast, and started our day of working in the camper.

Oh, say! Does that Star Spangled Banner yet waaaaaaaaave?

“Why is Leann Rimes singing the National Anthem right now?!  It’s Tuesday!” I said.

“I don’t understand what’s happening…” my Someone murmured.  We worked the rest of the day outside, listening to Dick’s 5 CD’s until just after dinner.  I asked my sister about it.

“He only plays it on weekends– usually for Sunday Funday,” she said.

“But it’s NOT just Sunday, it’s been for three days straight now!” I said.

“Oh dear,” she said. “Maybe it’s the only thing that keeps his wife soothed?  She’s dying, you know.”

Dammit.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, just after dinner I hummed “Walking After Midnight.”  It was the least irksome of the lot I listened to all day.

It’s been two weeks.  Yesterday, my Someone cracked.

“I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS ANYMORE!”

“What do you mean?” I said, smiling like an insane person.

“We are hostages!  We are living in a permanent Leann Rimes hell!  We’ve got to talk to him!” he yelled, waving his arms like a Muppet.

“You know his wife is dying, right?”

“Dammit.”

000431630018“I don’t think it’s right,” Elizabeth said, “I don’t think they should be putting those little white crosses on the side of the road.”

I liked Elizabeth.  She’s a native German, but has sweet drawl of a South Carolinian, having been planted there since she was 10.  But Elizabeth has no problem saying whatever it is that’s on her mind, whenever the thought occurs to her.  I had the distinct pleasure of being the recipient of these thoughts for all of November while my Someone and I house sat our Vermont friends’ Air B&B.  Elizabeth had been there since March.  She spent her day as a nurse, traveling to clients in the area, and she spent her nights tucked in her room.  We hardly saw her except when she made coffee in the morning and pasta at night.  But she lingered more and more as I lured her with fresh baked cookies and vegan pot pie.

I took a real delight in Elizabeth– mostly because I never had any idea where the conversation was going.  Lake Monsters could be in the same breath as Chinese Conspiracy in the same paragraph as universal health care.  And always delivered with a cheery, tinkling voice and a smile.  This particular abrupt opinion didn’t shock me nearly as much as her idea of Trump’s Master Plan.

“What’s wrong with the crosses?” I started, a little eager, “aren’t they for people who have died in accidents at that place in the road?”

“Exactly,” said Elizabeth.

I stopped stirring my oatmeal and turned around.  Elizabeth was rustling in the refrigerator, pulling out the organic non-GMO soymilk for her local coffee.

“What’s wrong with that, though?” I pushed, genuinely curious.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said, “when all I am doing is driving down a street– a street that everyone drives on!  I’m sorry they lost someone and everything, but I don’t think it’s right that have to reckon with their grief.  I don’t want to be thinking of that stuff.  I just want to enjoy my drive and get to where I am going without having to think of their dead person and how sad they are.  I don’t put a picture of my dead people in parks and stuff.  It’s public space.  It’s just not right.”

I turned back to my oatmeal and stirred.

“You know,” I said hazily, “I guess I’ve never thought of that before.”

“Okay, well, have a good day!” she chirped.

And then Elizabeth was out the door.

000431620020It’s Day 16 of Dick’s 5 CD changer.  My Someone and I have moved our work to a local coffee shop in the morning, letting the whir of espresso machines and the chipper soundtrack of the Beach Boys and ‘N’Sync drown the sound of Leann Rimes singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” still ringing in our heads.  We try to stay busy indoors in the afternoon, or take the dogs for a walk, or our niece and nephew to the movies to avoid it.

For all we know, Dick has always played his music this loud.  But I can’t help thinking that we are darting our eyes away from the crosses on the side of the road.  Confronting someone else’s grief– or even the potential for someone else’s grief– is awkward business.

But then I think of the Joan Shelley record I played again and again after my dog died two Novembers ago– how my Someone endured it three, four times a day, back-to-back– not even a Patsy Cline song to break the monotony.  Then I think of the other hundreds of little white crosses I’ve put up.  The songs I write.  This blog.  Photographs.  Learning to play the accordion.  A few paintings.  To avoid my grief is to take apart significant parts of who I am now.  To leave our grief in a cemetery may give us fewer roadside crosses, but we may also lose out on too many beautiful living relics.

I’m not sure what that means for the highway crosses, or if Elizabeth is right.  But maybe it would help to think, not of the tragically dead, but of the gratefully alive, stirring their comfort foods and listening to their favorite sad songs, and going out walking after midnight…

Word Games: On Old Tricks for New Dogs.

“How are you feeling since your surgery?” I asked Michael.

Michael and Gloria are two fans-turning-friends around Atlanta, and have popped in on our concerts nearly every time we’ve been in the area.  Usually energetic, Michael sported a cane, fresh out of knee replacement replacement surgery.  A recall had been issued, and his was one of many unlucky caps that broke shortly after his surgery.  He’s spent the last few years with a bum knee replacement.  Though you’d never guess it.  He’s the first one to the stage after our last song, lugging our gear in the rain at 10 o’clock at night to our truck.

“Even better than it’s been!” he said.  Had he not had his cane, I would’ve forgotten entirely.  He’d already attempted to help me carry an accordion.

“He needs to use it,” Gloria said, “And he’s been doing so well.  He doesn’t even feel it anymore– not like before.  Even when he slept, it was bothering him.”

“How painful,” I said.

“No,” said Gloria.  “We don’t use that word.”

“What?”

“Not painful.  Uncomfortable.  He felt pressure.  Was ill at ease.  But we don’t like to use the word pain.  It colors your thoughts, you know?  To know that you are ‘in pain,’ it debilitates you.  Now a bit of pressure, that’s manageable.”

I smiled.

“But we are in a big case now with the manufacturer of his old knee,” she continued, “and the lawyer doesn’t like it.  If we don’t use the word ‘pain,’ we’re never going to get any money out of it.”

No pain, no gain, I guess.

000431620007My bad dog is turning good.  And it’s not because she’s stopped barking at people.  Or stopped accidentally nipping the ends of my fingers when she takes a treat.  Or even done anything I’ve asked of her in the last two months since we adopted her.  She’s turning into a good dog because it’s all that I call her, anymore.

We were at the end of our leash when we went to our free 30 minute training at the commercial pet store.  My Someone and I swished back and forth between feeling like martyrs and feeling like idiots, adopting this unruly 100 pound animal.

“She’s just so baaaaaaad!” I started crying.  “She’s just so terrible!  She’s never going to learn!”

My Someone listened to me, but he knew better.  This is the way of falling in love for me.  We just needed to figure out how to funnel all of these big bad feelings into loving ones.  And Magpie wasn’t helping.

“Well,” I said to him as we walked in the store, “I guess this is our last chance.”  We met our trainer.  And then I watched as she taught my big dumb animal two important tricks.  It wasn’t the second try that she learned– it was the first.

“You have such a good, smart dog,” she said.

“I have such a good, smart dog,” I repeated.  I felt relieved.  I had done nothing but say no for weeks.  Eight weeks of no, no, no, no, no, no, no.  The sound of yes swung like a broom through my gut, sweeping out the chaotic dust that no had laid down.  I tried again.

“What a good dog I have!” I said.

The trainer looked at me and my Someone, a surprised smile on her face.  My Someone started crying.

“Yes,” she repeated.  “She’s a very good dog.”

“You have given us a tremendous gift today,” I said slowly.

“Okay,” she said.  “Let’s try leash walking, then.”

My Someone and I followed the trainer and my dog happily around the industrially lit store.  Two big dumb animals following helplessly after their patient leaders.

000431620018“What are you going to do?” I asked Gloria, “about the case?”

“We aren’t sure, yet,” she said.  “But if we don’t say painful, what does it matter?  What about his quality of life?  Doesn’t that matter?  His sleepless nights?”

I thought of my good dog.  It had been a month since we’d last seen Gloria and Michael.  One month ago, I was restless, too, waking up to a bad dog growing only more bad.  I dreaded them meeting her then.  I dreaded taking her anywhere at all.  I had scolded her before she met Gloria the first time.  “No, Mags, stay down!” I’d said.  She jumped anyway.  I dug my heels in.

This time, I didn’t have that dread.  I wasn’t nervous as we approached them, knowing she would likely bark her head off anyway.   I didn’t feel the dread I’d felt the month before– the pain of judgment I gave myself and my just-learning dog.  Having a bad dog is painful.  Luckily, now I only have a good one.  Which means it’s only occasionally uncomfortable.

“Hello, dogs!” Gloria called through the window.  I winced a little, waiting for her to snarl.  I heard nothing.

“What good dogs I have!” I said.

“What good dogs you have!” Gloria said back.

I felt the remaining dust of no sweep its way outside of my heart.  We said goodnight to our friends and settled in for a long drive to Florida.

“That was painless,” I said.

“Super easy,” my Someone replied, petting our dog’s head.

“I guess everybody’s a good dog, now.”

“Yep,” he said, “everybody’s a good, good dog.”

Bark Your Head Off: On Being Blue (Together)

“She’s driving me binoculars!” I cried out.  Our new dog, Magpie, was cute, but never stopped barking.  She barked when the truck slowed down to pull into a gas station.  She barked when a new person walked into the room.  She barked randomly in the middle of the night when nothing was happening at all.  It had only been one week, but the sound– a combination of feedback and thunder in my ears– was digging a pit into my patience.

And everyone was watching my depletion.

On our near final trek of the year on I-40 East, we burned up our axle on our camper and found ourselves homeless with our brand new 110 pound dog, borrowing some Western North Carolina friends’ upstairs bedroom.  We attended a Christmas party and went to dinners between calling Billy, our repairman in a town two hours back.  And we waited.  All while our new dog wouldn’t stop barking.

I started with kindness, fancying myself a saintly dog trainer who would cure this minor setback with a few treats and a spirit of goodness.  But as we squeezed ourselves smaller, our Christmas Day deadline to make it to our family in Florida looked weaker by the hour.  “Billy,” I heard my Someone say into the phone, “what we are hoping for here is a Christmas miracle.”  I laughed.  Magpie barked.  I cried.  I yelled at her.

“We’ve made a mistake,” I said.

“It’s only been a week,” my Someone said.  We traded this call and response back and forth over the weekend.  But by Monday morning, I was despondent.  I sat in the kitchen chair of my friends’ home, staring.  We were packing it in, going to play the last show of the year three hours east, and hoping by the time we returned, we would have a home again and be moving.  We were going to get a hotel.  We were going to take some time to breathe.  I hadn’t slept a full night in weeks.  I couldn’t trudge through the thick well of anxiety that my pit of patience had succumbed to be.  I remember my friend entering the room.  I remember crying.  But I can’t remember a word we said.

Magpie barked.  I folded myself into the car and wept.  There was no end.

69860017“It’s a Christmas miracle!” Billy said the next morning.  We were driving back to our temporary stead.  The sun was bright behind us driving West, and it was enough to pull me from the depression.  We decided to get coffee to celebrate.

“We’re gonna be okay!” I said.

The car slowed into the parking lot.  Magpie barked.

“Maybe.”

000268790002We salvaged our stay with our friends with a big dinner, pouring generously and laughing at our misfortune.  I grew calmer, but still on edge.  I felt embarrassed of my despondency.  I felt judged being so hard on Magpie.  I felt tired.  We kept talking around our lives, dodging in and out of jokes until we finally called it quits.  We were shipping out tomorrow, we hoped.

In the morning we had coffee and tried to fit in a few last words.  I was ill at ease.  I tried to over explain myself, making amends for my out-of-ordinary behavior, and apologizing for my lack of mental health.  I prodded my friend to see if it landed.

“I just can’t be around other people’s anxiety,” my friend said. “I have enough anxiety of my own.  Other people’s stuff is just too much.”

It wasn’t pointed, and it wasn’t intentional, but it landed as a blow.

I’m just too much right now.

I looked down at my barks-her-head-off dog.

She looked at me, a little flinching.  Ah, there’s the empathy I’d been looking for.  She must know exactly how this feels.  I pet her big head, wrinkled up in anxiety.

000431640017Our home was on our back again, and we were heading south.  We tried our new freedom out, turning on the radio and scanning for a celebration.  LeAnn Rimes wailed from the speakers–

Bluuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue, oh so lonesome for you–

We joined in, turning it up and singing our guts out.  Then behind me, Magpie picked up her head and lifted her chin, making a hound dog oh with her mouth.

Ooowwwww, oooooh, owowowow!

She sang along, with more gusto and less shame than I’d seen her all week.  We laughed and kept singing til the end.

Why can’t you be blue over me?

I turned the radio down and looked at my pitiful pooch.  She had a couple wrinkles fewer on the top of her head.  She sighed.  We weren’t so different.

“You aren’t too much,” I told her, “I can take all of you.”

She barked only twice the rest of the drive to Florida.

New Year, New You: On Baptism & Other Bullshit.

My friend Kristie is keeping her head down to avoid the New Year’s headlines.

New year, new you.

I decided to stick to the trench, too.  I think she might be right.  I’ve had plenty of new me’s, and I’m not convinced I’ve liked any of them.

I’m not against New Year’s goals.  I started my list mid-November, skating my eyes across the imaginary horizon of January 1st hopefully, with the same feeling I get after scrubbing the gross stuff from under the kitchen sink knobs.

I blame Jesus, of course, with all his old-made-new philosophy, scrubbed with blood and impossibly comes out clean.  After I was born, I had to be born again.  I’m afraid I jumped the shark, though.  Baptized at age 12 gave me a lot of time, as in the rest of my life, with no additional scrub downs.  At least not in an official capacity.  You don’t get a celebratory cake in the church basement for crying on your knees on the last night of Christian camp.  And the dirt seemed to keep accumulating, regardless.  And the quick fix to getting clean feels, well, glorious.  Addicting.

One of my sisters was baptized twice– a re-dedication.  She still shriveled into an unhappy woman who has committed near villainous proportions of relational crimes.  Maybe the double baptism had an inverse spiritual reaction.  Either way, I’m glad I didn’t go that route.  Getting two spiritual birthdays might mean twice the cake, but the responsibility for maintaining the clean new you is buckling.  But for that minute after she came up out of the swimming pool baptism– that moment that feels like New Year’s Day– I envied it.

000431620010The trouble with New Year, New You is that it wastes so much time.  The baptism, the diet, the programs, the memberships– they take at least a January’s worth to weed back down to the you that you are.  Which only gives eleven months to figure out why you felt you needed to be a new you.  And eleven months is not nearly enough time to get to the heart of any matter– especially when the heart of the matter is the human heart.  Because the heart doesn’t say “I want to lose 20 pounds.”  That’s what the New You says.  The heart says “I don’t feel good in my body.  I feel worthless at this weight because of social and personal experiences that have sculpted a belief that I need to take up less space, and that even if I meet their impossible standards, I will fail in some other way.  So maybe what I really want is to create better pathways in my brain to food and exercise, and quit disassociating it as the ’cause’ when my real cause is my lack of love for myself, and part of loving myself is taking care of myself and sometimes to eat cake, too.  But first I have to get to know me– oh!  Hello!  How are you feeling?  Are you hungry?  Tired? I want to know everything about you.”

New You doesn’t ask that shit.

Maybe it goes like this: that when Jesus invited us along, he didn’t mean “come as you are so I can fix you,” but rather, “come as you are because everyone else– including some dumbass theologians down the line– is going to try and make a new you, but I actually need us all to continue to be who we are as we are, but even more as we are, because the better we know ourselves, the better we can love ourselves, and the better we can love each other.”  Maybe Jesus is less about a New You, and more about You.  And maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus at all.

I’m with Kristie.  I like the old her.  Or rather, just her.  Which makes it likely that the old me is pretty good, too.  Clean isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, anyway.  I believe I am falling in love with this mess.