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Sheep Shifting: On Gaining and Losing Hell.

When I lost my sheep, I did just what the parable says.  I left my ninety-nine behind and recklessly ran through the woods, over hillsides, into caves, calling out to him, leaving voicemails, opening every portal of vulnerability– being a fool on a journey, looking more like a crazy person on a spin out– begging her sheep to come home.

In the parable, Jesus says that when the shepherd finds her sheep, she is so glad that she swings the sheep on to her shoulders and carries him all the way back to the other ninety nine left behind.  And there is rejoicing.

When I found my lost sheep– our best pal– I was told that the sheep does not want to be found.  In fact, the sheep had plans to build a fence, find a different flock, and– though he would quietly continue to follow me on Instagram and Facebook– he was otherwise uninterested in hanging in any more pastures connected with mine.  I went back to my ninety-nine empty handed.  A new hundredth sheep has been added, but there is still a missing sheep.  Like a stillborn.

While I see myself as more of a fellow sheep than a shepherd, the metaphor still seems to hold up.  And my wool was really in a tuft.  Even though my flock is healthier without that hundredth sheep, even though as I am recounting our history I see the pattern of a sheep who could not love the flock he was in, I am still missing a sheep.  It would take a major shave and regrowth for that sheep to fit in again.  But there it is– on the far side of the meadow– a tiny sheep-shaped hole I’ve cut into the fence myself.  Just in case.

And for this reason, I don’t believe in Hell.

It goes like this: God has a flock of sheep, and that’s us, and we wander around and get out of the fence sometimes and occasionally get eaten by wolves if s/he’s been careless.  S/He comes to find us when we are lost, and sometimes we say– nope.  Not coming back.  I want to hang in greener pastures for a while.  Maybe forever.

So what if this: if I have the capacity in my sheep brain to continue to hold a place for a missing sheep I don’t intend– and don’t even really want– to have back in my pasture, isn’t a God who is supposed to have more advanced feelings and capacity for love able to hold a place for me without, I dunno, hardening his heart or mine for the short span of a human lifetime?  I mean, s/he’s eternal, right?  What’s the matter with holding back the fence for the blip of a lifetime?  It’s no wool off her nose– she’s still got ninety-nine sheep to party hardy with in the meantime.  If I am feeling the distinct missing-ness of a sheep in my own flock I didn’t create, how much more would the God-Shepherd feel the missing-ness of a sheep s/he took the time to fashion each hair on its wool coat?

It’s his metaphor, for Chrissake.

If my sheep doesn’t want to hang with me anymore, I think he can still live a full and happy life.  God must be bigger than me.  So a fiery dungeon pit Hell as an alternative to being in hot pursuit of a higher power seems illogical.  Narcissistic.  And from what I’ve read, and what everyone seems to be saying (aside from the sign-carrying Turn-or-Burn variety) is that God is nothing if not loving and compassionate and selfless.  Hell doesn’t make sense in God’s own construct.

There’s a theory out there I’ve heard that Hell is actually the time we spend apart from God.  I think I could buy it.  I’ve formed a sort of Hell-shaped hole for my missing sheep, too.  It’s a hole that looks like hurt feelings and snarky comments and the time we are missing out on.  But it’s a Hell I can live with.  And I’m pretty sure he can, too.  In this way, I think we live in our own personal Hells all the time.  Occasionally, there is restoration.  Sometimes there’s not.  And out of those Hells, there grows a thorny wall that separates us from that person, growing thicker all the time.  We can choose to see that wall and believe it’s unsightly or painful.  Or, we can see it as potential.  It will produce some fine roses someday, and excellent shade from the scorcher of a summer we have coming up.

And in a strange way, even while we are in Hell, we are in Heaven, as well.  Finding ways to be happy in spite of or because of the one we are separated from.  We could live this way forever.  For eternity, even.  I think God would be as happy with one side of the thorn bush as the other.  After all, if we ever really needed to, there is likely a sheep-shaped hole in the bottom of the wall that makes it easy to crawl back and forth.  Because walls, just like the holes we put in them, are self created.  Kind of like Hell.

My sheep nosed his way under my fence shortly after I started unpacking this.  He said he’s ready to come around again.  I left the gate open, but I kept a safe distance.  A couple days later, he said he changed his mind.

No need to throw the gates open all at once.  All Hell might break loose.

Yucca Plants: On the Eternal Dunes.

We are wading through the thickness of it, trudging up hills and keeping an eye on the trail marker behind us and in front.  Every few steps, we are sure we’ve lost it.  It’s disconcerting and exciting and scary.  We squint through our sunglasses, occasionally lowering them for the exhilaration of the blinding light and blue sky.  I’ve only ever felt this way in the snow.  But here, it’s nearly 80 degrees and is only past noon.

“Is it up here?” I ask, unsure of the next few steps.

“I think it goes both ways– I followed it twice and didn’t end up in the same place,” a stranger’s voice responded.  I hadn’t realized we weren’t alone; but the backpacker, it seemed, had been alone for a while.  Here, in the White Sands National Monument in southern New Mexico, was either a version of Heaven or Hell.  And every person here staggered aimlessly, hoping for a way out the moment they walked in, while also looking for a deeper route in.  The long, rolling dunes threatened to wash us over with time– time marked only with an occasional Yucca or cacti or snake-belly pattern in the sand.  A real Paradise of Purgatory.

It’s a small miracle that anything can survive out here, the dunes like nature’s end credits– but with no end.  A wash of information scrolling up and over– a wild hare’s prints as soon brushed off screen as they were seen.  Animals manage, thanks to the adaptation of the plants.  It’s a sturdy system that takes all kinds– and all kinds are mostly reduced to three kinds.  The Hold-On-For-Dear-Lifers, the Live-Fast-and-Die-Young’s, and, my favorite, the Topple-Over-And-Start-Again’s.  Or, the Yucca.

The Hold-On-For-Dear-Lifers are mostly the stocky types– scrub brushes and a couple cacti.  They grow their roots in deep, refusing the change of the ever shifting sand around them.  Even when they’re held to the end of a dune, they hold harder.  For this reason, they grow in spite of their surroundings.  They know this isn’t their ideal condition, but they’re sure going to withstand it.  Desert be damned.  And, they do.  They are a source of water for some animals, and endure to provide a little more food, too– and they themselves can hoard what they store to last them on the hottest days and the coldest nights.  You can find them, bent and reaching, squat and firm, glaring into the whip of sand grains around them.

Then there are the Live-Fast-and-Die-Young’s– the grasses.  These little guys shoot up in clusters, immediately accepting their fate.  They grow up fast and straight, moving easily with the winds, indifferent to the moving dunes. Or, maybe not so much indifferent as open.  Ready.  Unshaken, even as they are being pulled from their roots.  These little buggers fly up wild and free, thriving and strong– and then they’re gone.  You’d never know they were there.  There’s no hole, no loss– just another shoot to replace them quickly pushing up behind.  Their ability to keep moving quickly makes them a easily replenished source of food, too.

They couldn’t be more different.  They couldn’t be more equally important.

“It’s just, I get so close– soooo eeeeeky close– to believing in the Nothing– to believe there’s nothing after this,” I tell my Someone.  We are driving after our show in Crawfordville, FL, where the trees all hang their heads heavy with Spanish moss and kudzu.

“And then what happens?” he asks.

“Then,” I stammer, “then… then I miss the trees.”

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“And then when I get so close to Christian Heaven forever, I can’t do that either,” I say.

“Why?”

“Because then, the trees here aren’t good enough, and I want to love them.”

“Hmmm, tough call.”

“I don’t know how to pick,” I say.

“Maybe you don’t have to.”

The Yucca is easy to spot– its long flower extending up from its jagged, leafy base– like a crow’s nest scouting out the sandy sea, watching the dunes around billow and deflate.  The Yucca has a strange little visitor– the Yucca Moth– who comes and whispers in her ears, pulling the pollen, then pollinating her in exchange for a place to lay eggs and rest.  The young moths, when they’re born, feed on nothing but the Yucca seeds before they go off in search of their own Yucca plant.  It’s a small, but symbiotic world, full of tiny births and rebirths within the plant.  Then, when the sands shift and the dunes decide that the time has come, the Yucca plant begins to shake, as well.  And with one last look at the world, with a warning movement slow to send the moths out– because this journey is only her own– the Yucca resists none of the inevitable pull, and pushes her long neck forward and dives face first to her grave.

It’s not over.

All those little relationships, all this craning of her neck, all this world within a world is for this: the stalk of her head digs into her grave, and the grave turns into a womb, and her death was only sleep, where out grow another stalk.  Another plant.  The same plant.  Again.

It’s so beautiful, I can hardly stand it.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what happens to us when we die.  Maybe I don’t need to decide.  But what I am starting to believe– the urgency– is that what happens when we are gone seems to dictate how we live.  With the Nothing– or Atheism or Live-Fast-and-Die-Young, the urgency brings an immediate call to love, love, love, now, now, now.  But it’s the urgency that twists my tummy.  All this pouring out– all this speed– and then… Nothing.

With Heaven– or Christianity, or Hold-on-for-Dear Life– it creates a hope that this is all for something later; but the later looms, and I am disappointed at the spitting sand instead of enjoying the movement of the dune below me.  I’ve watched too many friends– I’ve watched too much of myself– sneak slyly by the present with a smug smile that one day– on a better day than this– everything will be made right.  By someone else.  And these trees?  This Yucca plant?  All well and good, but the good hasn’t even started.

How sad.

The story I tell myself about the Later, it’s important.  It helps me tell myself how to live now.  And while I know it takes all kinds, I’m not sure I can survive these conditions with the speed or strength these two require.

There’s a fourth.

The trees in White Sands, they are connected.  Often several trees scattered that you would suspect least– they came from the same single tree.  The elevated water table in the park allows for a single tree to become tall and nourished.  And then, creating a standard for living for themselves, their roots follow the water through the ground.  When they realize how far they’ve strayed, they grow up– really up– out of the ground.  New trees are formed.  All of them connected to the same root base.  The Grow-Togethers.

I’m not sure what this does for my eternal perspective, but I am relieved to know there is a deep, warm embrace of many protecting and making strong the dark, watery underworld.

“I can’t believe it took us so long,” I said to my Someone.

“So long to what?” he said.

“To find each other.”

“Ah, yes,” he said, “it was a lot of hassle.  But at least we figured it out before too late.”

“Maybe we can do better next time?” I asked.

“If that’s the case, then we probably found each other in record time this time, compared to the last time,” he said, “So I imagine next time will be much sooner, still.”

“Until we are born closer?”

“Until we are born closer.”

My Someone and I aren’t sure that we believe in reincarnation.  In fact, we likely don’t.  But we might believe in magic.  And we definitely believe in love.  And somehow, it seems right that we regroup between each life and try to make a better plan this time to find each other.  So far, this life, the one we are in, is our best attempt yet.  And I’m doing my best to enjoy it at its every moment.  I roll over, and tuck my head into the the covers like a Yucca flower in a sand dune.

“Okay,” I say.  “Let’s start over tomorrow, too, as if we started at the very beginning.”

My Someone rolls over, tucking his Yucca head under our dune blanket, too.

“Sounds good.”

April 4: On Turning 32.

Today, I am 32 years old.

I am still working on liking Chardonnay because I think that it’s what thirty-something’s drink.  I am sorely missing my best pal this year, but am starting to see the benefits of grief, and how it opens up into sensitivity, which opens up to seeing, which opens up to falling in love again.  One of my favorite things is blending famous people or friend’s names with inanimate objects or activities (David DuCovies for my duvet.  Donald and Danny Glovey are my gloves.  Ellaphants Gerald is my elephant blanket.  When my Someone asks “Are you ready to quit for the day?” and I say, “Yep, it’s Quittin’ Tarantino Time!”).  I make an effort to do this at least once a day.  This morning I think I learned what it means to breathe into a feeling and release the bad feeling out.  It was my first time thinking it worked.  I have a love of putting my feet in water that doesn’t seem to be decreasing with age.  For the first time since I was young, I didn’t watch my birthday come in at midnight– I made it only to 11:45PM and conked out.  I was, however, up in plenty of time to see the sunrise.  My favorite city to visit in Savannah, GA, with a close second of Rapid City, SD.  I listen to more music, now, and am pretty sure it’s because I am able to hear again without worrying if it makes me cool.  I am writing more, and starting to believe that the universe isn’t against my effort, but is rooting for me, instead.  Celery might be becoming my favorite vegetable, but I’m not ready to admit it to myself because it feels boring.  I do yoga almost every day, and take classes without feeling like anyone is watching me, anymore.  This morning, I did it in the middle of a park where people were watching, and I didn’t care.  I consider stopping shaving my legs once a month, but I don’t.  I love hotel rooms.  I am actively working on ways to find myself lost in a project– so lost that I realize that I’ve forgotten to eat, or that it is suddenly nighttime.  I started wearing jeans again this year, but only the sneaky elastic kind that are more like tights but nobody knows it.  They are the same ones my mother-in-law wears.  I am a sucker for jokes, but not the practical kinds.  I want to drink more tea.  I want to drink finer wine is smaller quantities.  I want to go roller skating.  I want to go bowling.  I want to go on more walks in order to think, and think less about whether or not I should be walking.  I’ve made a new friend this year who was right under my nose, but I wasted too much time believing she was someone she wasn’t before I finally set my ego aside and loved her.  My biological clock still isn’t ticking.  I often think of my friends with food allergies when I eat the food they can’t have, and I feel sad that if they were here in that moment, we couldn’t share.  This then throws me into a mental scrolling marquee of each of my friends and their allergies (Alli can’t have beans, Zach can’t have peanuts, Steven can’t have almonds, Dad can’t have gluten, Sherry is vegan…).  My dog is so cute, and I sometimes cry or grit my teeth at the sight of her to keep from exploding.  My Someone is so kind, and I am working at looking directly at him to stop from getting too far in my head and blaming him for things he isn’t doing wrong.  I think I am becoming more patient.  I am exercising my flexibility.  Most times I feel afraid when I am content, because I believe that this emotional indicator is the Universe’s way of letting me know that it is my time to pass on, now.  I am working on not feeling guilty for happiness.

It’s a good start, at least.  Now, I will start preparing for 33.

Resting Emotion Theory: On Choosing Love.

I’ve been working on a theory of Resting Emotion.  The state in which a person has a moment of nothing– a state of neither bad nor good– the emotion that surfaces.  It’s the moment after a room is laughing together, the joke has already been told, the oh‘s and ah‘s and mmm‘s have fallen to the floor, and the silent lull takes over.  Sometimes just for a second, sometimes a few beats.  In that time– the transition– what is the emotion that a person naturally fades to before the next thing appears?  When I was conjuring this idea, I believed mine was Sadness.  We were parked outside of Kingman, AZ at a place called Coyote Pass, where we woke to rock structures that looked like Mars and spent our mornings hiking and our evenings seeing multiples of stars we swore we’d never seen before.

I traced back to my childhood– the crushing sadness of waking up.  The debilitating sadness of the third pew from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.  The seeping, serene sadness of a sunset.  My Someone and I named it one late night after a show– years before he was my Someone– as the Other Shoe.  We had been laughing til we cried, until the crying became crying.  Maybe it’s fear or nerves and some other neurotic phenomenon, but wherever there was bliss, my body prepared itself quickly for the Other Shoe to drop, padding itself with sorrow that could welcome whatever punishment was coming for my happiness.

This is my Resting Emotion.  Contrary to podcasts and science that tell me that emotions are social constructs, contrary to nurture, contrary to free will and change– I was born this way.  My Someone was born with the Resting Emotion of Anxiety, resorting to the what-if‘s and potential failings that keep him twitching in the transition.  My little dog, Happiness.  At least there is a little balance.

We were fighting again.  We fight a lot since our dog died, and I am suspicious that this is our Resting Emotion coming head to head.  Sadness and Anxiety clashing to make Anger.  My Someone said something unintentional.  I raged.  I prepared myself to retort, brewing a wiry, stiff cocktail of jab and truth.  And just as I was ready to pour it out, a voice in my head stopped me.

Choose love.

The sentiment seemed so cheesy, so unlikely, that I did stop.  I clenched my jaw, I tried again– and the voice persisted.

Choose love.

I stopped resisting.  I eased.  I took a deep breath.  My Someone eased, too.  We changed direction.  We made dinner, instead.

Barf, I thought, this could actually work.

The thing about Resting Emotion is that all other emotions are a surprise or a challenge.  They’re unnatural.  They are work.

This morning I was thinking of my Resting Emotion.  It was holding up.  My Someone was still resorting to Anxiety, my dog still Happy.  And me, Angry.  I’d been guzzling the emotion for a couple of weeks, now, occasionally voluntarily.  I couldn’t get enough.  At least, not until the voice started.  Now, my Resting Emotion was in a constant state of challenge by Love.  I didn’t particularly like it, but the pangs in my chest and shoulders were decreasing, and the crease in my brow was less severe.  And my Someone and I were fighting less.  Which was still a lot, but less.

We are halfway through a four day pact to not-fight-at-all-costs.  We are winning, in spite of my Resting Emotion.

Which is why, when checking on my writings of my theory from a couple months before, I was shocked to see that my Resting Emotion was first diagnosed as Sadness.

And in this way, I am debunking my theory.

This is the thing about the little Choose Love voice that is taking over.  While it is foreign to me, it is still the sound of my own voice.  Which brings me back to Resting Emotion.  I think it might hold up, after all.  What if our Resting Emotion is Love?  What if our Natural State isn’t the garbage we tell ourselves?  So then, maybe we really can’t change who we are, but we fight it.  We can fight it by believing that we will only ever be Sad or Angry or Anxious for the rest of our lives.  We can fight it by saying that our natural state is Not Good.  But, I can’t deny that in a moment of white hot fury, my own voice told me to Choose Love, and I instinctively knew what that meant.  The instruction was vague, but I already had it in me to do what it asked– to a T.

So maybe our Resting Emotion is Love– and maybe it’s not an emotion at all.  Maybe regardless of who we think we are, our real selves will persist.  And there are 100 tiny redemptions we perform in a day to uncover ourselves rather than what we believe we are.  To uncover each other.  To uncover love.  To choose it.

Made for TV: On Cures.

We were watching TV again, something we do when we are trying to think of how our camper roof is not falling off and our family unit is not missing a piece.  That’s when the commercial, for the billionth time, about fibromyalgia came on.

On the outside, I look normal.  But inside, the pain is real.

The lady in the commercial turns transparent, and the pain is marked and moving with red lines through her muscular blue skeleton body.

“On the outside, I look normal, because my pain is only in my head,” I say.

“What?” my Someone asks.

“My pain,” I explain, “it is only in my head.”

My Someone pauses.

“In your head?”

“In my head.”

“In your head,” he says definitively, “That’s still a real place.”

Plane Crashes and Murder Mysteries: On Loving Again (and Again).

“You think I baby her,” I said.

“I don’t think that,” my Someone said.

“Yes, you do,” I said.

“No,” he continued. “I know that you do.  She’s even more spoiled than the last one.”

“That’s because I have all this stretched out love leftover to share.”  Then, I gave my dog her third big treat of the day at 11AM.

“I killed my dog,” Charlie said.

The room erupted.

“Stop saying that!”

“No you didn’t!”

“It wasn’t like that!”

Daughters and son-in-laws and a wife all patted down the abrupt declaration.  The Iowa living room quieted again.

“But I did,” Charlie said again. “I killed my dog.”

The room erupted a second time.

“How do you mean?” I asked, when the shushes had cleared.

“I mean it was too hot out,” he said. “I kept pushing her.  She died of a heat stroke. And it’s my fault. I killed my dog.”

“That’s tough,” I said.  Something clarified in me.  

I had killed my dog, too.

My Someone and I were driving through Dayton, Ohio early in our touring days playing radio scan to keep us awake from an early Nashville departure.  We landed on a story of a stunt plane at the air show, which had crashed and killed both people on board.

The man driving the plane had years of experience.  It was all very sad. But the peculiar part was the woman who was doing acrobatics on the wing when the whole thing went down.  The woman was the man’s ex-wife. And they were set to be remarried after years apart just the next week.

I couldn’t navigate whether I was happy or sad for the couple– to end things before they had a chance to crash again, or to have it all go down in flames just after it had gone down in flames.  It was a difficult thing to hold in my head–whether they saved themselves from another failure or lost their chance at a second chance.

“Do you think he did it on purpose?” he said.

We paused.

“Maybe they both did.  Maybe it was their death love pact.  Like the last thing they said before they split up was, ‘We will get together over my dead body!’  And then they did it.”

This was easier.  To believe in the world as an elaborate, deliberate joke made by consenting parties is easier than the world of accidental fiery deaths or last minute revenges.  Or maybe it’s not.

“But I really did!” I told my Someone.  Our roof was coming off the camper again, and we were waiting overnight in a parking lot for someone in Omaha to fix it.  “I killed our dog.”

“I don’t see how that helps you to think that,” my Someone said.

“Because,” I continued, “all of this wondering– all this talk of a freak accident, that can turn circles in my head forever.  But I felt weird about that stupid bone she choked on. I had a weird vision of leading her to her death as we walked away with it.  We both felt a chill when you wanted to take it away from her in that hotel room. But we persisted. I persisted. I kept letting her have it against my better judgment.  And it killed her.”

“So where does that leave you?”

“It leaves me wanting to do better next time,” I said, looking at my other, alive dog.

“Margo is the platinum child,” Erin said.  Erin is Charlie’s step-daughter. Margo is Charlie’s 2-year-old golden retriever.  Charlie just smiled. He called the dog to him. He slipped her more treats and sat back.

“Our first dog, man, I thought– ‘This dog is the favorite child.’  Then, after she died, they got Sierra. Sierra was a yellow lab. And she got even more than the last dog!  Treats and rides in the car and walks. And I told them, I said, ‘She’s the golden child!’ Not even just a favorite, but really golden.  I thought no one would be greater than Sierra.  And now there’s Margo. She’s platinum. She gets on the bed and the front seat.  Margo is the platinum child,” Erin finished, feigning jealousy.

“Well,” Charlie said, “it only gets bigger.”

Love, he meant.  You can only love bigger with the next one.  Even if the last one nearly killed you with all the stretching it made you do.  And it’s more than the guilt of having not done enough. It’s the inevitable accumulation of love.  And you keep taking the risk, even if you will inevitably go down in flames.

And it only gets bigger.

Alternative Timelines: On Presently Dealing.

I wish I could step into the other timeline, now.  The one that carries on in movies– the one that comic books are making a killing on.  Where even if the hero dies, in a decade or so, a new timeline will emerge.  The one where your hero is more like you thought he would be, and overcomes the obstacle with less than a scratch.  And the first timeline?  The one where he died?  Well, that’s just the other timeline, now.  It’s not real life.  Not anymore.

“We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost…”

The really wonderful thing about grief is also the part that makes you wonder if you are losing your mind.  Suddenly, the possibility of alternate timelines seems almost tangible.  Afterlife.  Resurrection.  Marvel.  Undoing.  Jesus Christ in Hollywood.  It would make so much sense.  If I could just tap into the pattern, the prayer, the meditation, the loophole that would take me to the secret portal that would drop me into the video game that I could play to get my dead undead again.

I had a friend who loved La-La-Land— the kind of movie where it doesn’t work out, but with a little pluck and a little reframing, the other timeline– the one where the romantic relationship thrived– still somehow endured.  Even if in real life it didn’t.  Maybe I was a cynic or maybe I was a realist, but I didn’t love the lack of finality.  I’m exhausted by options and open doors and maybe’s and what-if’s.  I wanted to live my life now.  To love what I had.

What I didn’t understand was that my friend, at the time, did not.  Stuck in a place of indecision, working back and forth with a woman he wouldn’t love but didn’t want anyone else to love, either, he wanted the option of never having to make a real decision with real lives and real hearts and maybe even real love.  Multiple timelines meant no one was ever at fault.  And you never really have to choose.  Like in the movies.

I was annoyed with my friend at the time.  I was angry with his fantasy option while his real life option was treated so carelessly.  But I get it now.  Grief makes for the most wonderful fantasies.  And there are occasional real life casualties.

“…Sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost, and sometimes we take it upon ourselves to burn them to ashes.” —Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk.

My grief timeline is continuing, lately in circles.  I’ve exhausted alternate timelines, and my brain is piecing itself back together.  But with magic portals closing, I have stepped back into a timeline I’ve already lived.  My tiny, beat up heart is roused by songs from my childhood, Bible verses, and stuffed animals that remind me of something younger and older than I am.  I am resolutely in the present tense, just like a kid again.  I think that my curiosity of things that happened in my childhood is me trying to go somewhere far back enough where she wasn’t there, but I was still happy.  Full.  Interested in life.  Where every moment wasn’t a bleak underside of my life without her.

Time is moving so slowly and so quickly, like as a kid, that I am forced to take things on one at a time again– to be single minded.  To introduce new sensations slowly and to linger in them for fear that removing my focus on them will make me lose them altogether.  I am treating my senses as though the world is a mystery– as though this coffee cup in front of me has an entire history that I don’t know, and has somehow miraculously made it’s way to my table.  Who is to say it won’t be lost as quickly as it appeared?

I involuntarily apply this to everything.  Like reading.  Or hugging.  Or looking at the sky.  Or breathing long cool evening air.  I can’t even imagine the next part– writing.  Sex.  Daylight.  Summer.  It’s all a faint memory and a dark future at once.  And if I try to cram in the next with the now, it tips my already sensory overloaded heart– the one so full already– and the acid pus of grief spills to the rest of my body, burning.  And then my eyes leak again.  My throat burns.  So I am forced to stay in the very much now.

This is the wonderful and terrible thing about grief.  I am a child.  And a child can never comprehend how much growing up is left to do.  Only the long and short of right now.  Like a kid, even when presented with the next, if it’s too soon, I can’t hear it.  I can’t see it.  I resent it, or I block it out.  I cringe.  I turn my head.  I recoil.  I can’t embrace what I’m not ready for.

But then this.  It is daylight again.  I am watching my fingers type on a keyboard.  It is raining in Tulsa and I ordered coffee without crying.  I thought of her yesterday and didn’t feel the pang, anymore.  And she was not in an alternate timeline of resurrection, romping over a rainbow bridge.  Neither was she slumped on a gurney while I signed a paper with euthanasia in the title.  It was just a regular memory of her.  I didn’t feel her close or far away.  I must be growing up.  The timeline, it seems, has started again.

Corpse Pose: On Unashamed Public Grief.

“It’s embarrassing,” I told Danielle.  I was sitting in a parking lot in Albuquerque, my Someone inside the laundromat so I could have a couple of lone hours in our camper to talk to someone outside of ourselves.  “This is the embarrassing part of grief.  The kind that’s still there.  It’s embarrassing that I am still so sad,” I said.

I am still sleeping with that stupid dog’s smelly blanket in my bed.  I am still jangling her collar on harder days.  I am full to the brim with tears, and the wrong swing of my head erupts my eyes with them.  There’s a big brown dead dog sized pressure in my throat.  And now, I am angry, too.  This isn’t the cute and cuddly sort of sad that has me wrapping myself hungrily in my Someone’s arms.  It’s not the kind with Ben & Jerry’s new vegan ice cream in my lap watching Old Yeller or Megan Leavey.  This is the brutal part where the amount of shit on his side of the bed is suddenly unmanageable and taking over all of the space in the entire camper and MY ENTIRE LIFE.  It’s the kind of grieving that strikes a match on a gasoline trail toward my Someone.  A trail I leaked myself.  It’s the kind of grieving that is eating its own tail becoming angrier that I am still so angry.

“It’s been three months!” I said.

“It’s only been three months,” Danielle said.

It’s only been three months.

“After seven years,” she added.

I felt my anger subside.  Tears again.  This old hat.

Two weeks before, I was on the winning side of my losing cycle.  I had answers.  They looked like this:

  1. eating.
  2. doing yoga.
  3. breathing.
  4. petting my dog.
  5. drinking water.
  6. no thinking.

Armed with these forces, I was prepared to finally let go.  I was going to stop my crying.  I was going to be happy.  I was going to forget my dead dog.  I was going to take a yoga class.

I found one in Alamagordo, New Mexico.  This is a town of in betweens, a dusty monologue between the exclamation of high rolling mountains on one side and White Sands National Monument on the other– where the dunes are a perpetual hot winter snowscape.  And in the middle of the town, we found a perfect Walmart parking lot spot where our front door opened to a makeshift backyard,  just over the fence from a yoga studio.

Hannah was warm and welcoming and curious and calm.  In a small room of strangers, she instructed us to breathe.  She instructed us to find space somewhere.  She instructed us to think of a place we need space, and to breathe space there.  I placed Butter in my mind.  And then, I told her goodbye.  Go on, get out of here, I willed her, I don’t need you anymore.  My best attempts at White Fanging her weren’t working, but I was persistent through the practice.  I was going to let this dog go.

By the time we hit savasana an hour later, that damn dog was panting in the front of my mind.  And it was in savasana, also known as corpse pose, that it occurred to me for the first time: it’s only been three months.  Hannah reminded us to breathe again– to evaluate the place we needed space, and to accept the space.

“Spend time every day breathing space in.  Be intentional,” Hannah coaxed.

Every day.  Every.  Day.

Maybe in living with grief, just like living with people, it would get easier to co-exist if I just acknowledged it was there.  At the very least, it would make it less awkward.  Less shuffling and pretending and more eye contact.

I began breathing life into my grief instead of around it.  I let myself be sad.  I started crying onto my mat.  I didn’t flinch.  And then I felt something move in me that hadn’t been there before.  I felt the claws of this grief roommate untangle and uproot.  It felt less stagnant.  It seemed to be transforming from a heavy oak bureau in the middle of my chest to a floating ball of mud.  More messy, but less mysterious.

What was I thinking?  I didn’t want to be separated from Butter.  I wanted to be closer.  And I can’t be closer to her if every time I think of her I cry.  I can’t breathe life– I can hardly breathe at all– into our relationship if I’m always pushing it down or crying out the window quietly while we drive through a dark New Mexico sky.  It’ll rot my insides.  And she didn’t rot me at all.  Why would I have her do that to me now?  Why would I make her the villain?

It happens the same time every night.  And it was time to engage with it.  The grief.  Otherwise the sadness leaks into dreams which leak into mornings which soon will take over not just my days, but weeks.  Then years.  Then my life.  I began rolling up my mat.  There is no end in sight.  No goal.  Just breathing.  Just trying not to rot.

But the first step is to not be ashamed that I am so fucking sad.

“Mallory?  Can I show you something real quick?” Hannah said, “I think you are maybe hyper-extending your Downward Dog.”

You don’t know the half of it, lady.

It’s working, but it’s also not working.  Which makes me think that I am recovering at exactly the speed that I am recovering.  That’s the thing about grieving.  You can’t hurry it.

But I am also learning that while I can’t stop grieving, I can say that I’m sorry to my Someone after I lash out.  And now, sometimes, I can even keep from lashing out.  I can call my friend and tell her “I am so sad” and not have to add “still.” I can even, on some nights, talk to the night sky and almost catch the feeling of that missing big brown dog nearby.  The floating mud ball of grief keeps rotating and splattering around, but it might be getting smaller to make space for her.  She was never one to keep her paws clean, anyway.  So I think she feels welcome here.

Library Days: On Natural Disasters.

“We’ve gotta hurry, the librarians are going to miss me!” I say to my someone, cramming my To Return Books and my To Renew Books in the same bag. “And I don’t want to miss him!  He leaves by 10:30, usually,” I add with urgency.

My Someone laughs, but he knows I’m not kidding.  In fact, today my Someone is going to escort me in to fact check my ritual.  He’s not disappointed.  My guy is there, in his regular attire, clicking video after video.

I knew you’d be here! I thought.  I smiled at my Someone, pleased with my accuracy.

Consistency makes the heart grow fonder.

It’s Library Season, which usually means logging my calendar full of due dates and renewals, with a stack of books beside by borrowed room’s bed that dwindles slowly as the time for us to hit the road again approaches.  But this winter is different.  I am not only in a borrowed room, but also with a borrowed library card.  The stack of books is still the same, but the town is different.  I am taking Library Season to a new level of stillness, and have been spending every Tuesday morning here, in a small central California town’s library.  I sit at the same table in the same chair at the same time each week.

I’m not the only regular, though.  Aside from my friendly local librarians, there’s a man in a green track suit with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle backpack who beats me here every Tuesday.  The first week, from my deliberately chosen chair, I had a full view of his public computer screen.  At first, I went about my business.  Public library time is sacred time, I believe, and everyone has a right to explore in the peace of 1970’s carpet and thick wooden chairs without snoops over your shoulder.

Except that he was murmuring to himself.  And then he was laughing.  I glanced up.  This man was watching natural disasters on Youtube.  Landslides.  Earthquakes.  River floods.  Tsunamis.  Again and again, the man clicked, watched, and then murmured.  Back to landslides, and he laughed.

I froze.  I felt sick.  I made involuntary associations with his skin color and terrorism.  And then, I realized, the only act of terror this man was watching was Mother Nature’s.  God’s.  Climate Change’s (ours).  I felt sick again.  You racist asshole, I murmured to myself.  I went back to writing.  Then, with my presumptions out of the way, my curiosity was pure.  I couldn’t resist.

Why does he only laugh at the landslides?

“I can’t believe you two like reading the same things,” my librarian said.  “I’ve been married for 43 years, and we don’t read anything alike.”

My Someone helped me load up my bag of Renewals.  We delighted in the perceived compliment, agreeably.

“And music,” she continued, “you have the music that you share!  All he listens to is classical, and that’s a no go.  I’m really a rock’n’roll gal, sometimes folk– always stuck in the 60’s.”

“That’s a good place to be stuck,” my Someone and I said in unison.  You can’t make this cute shit up.  We all laughed.

While my new Hold books were being located, I nodded my Someone across the room.  My Natural Disasters Guy was finishing up his free hour on the computer.  I was disappointed to not see actual natural disasters on the screen, but instead a close second of horror movie previews, one after another.

I like your friends, my Someone texted me a few minutes after he left me here.

“I try to exercise every day,” my librarian said.  I stopped my pen to listen.  “He hasn’t exercised except after his heart surgery, but then he stopped.  I just think, well, that’s your problem, then.  I can’t make him do what I do.  We are just different, and now he’s paying for it– or at least he will.”

That’s a toughie, I thought, stretching my legs under the table.  My Someone and I walk every morning together, sometimes in the afternoon, too.  We take hikes and sometimes he’ll do yoga with me when he complains too much about an ache in his neck or shoulder.  I kept listening, feeling smug, feeling better, and feeling disappointed when she finished talking to her friend and went to recategorize the New Books section.

Truthfully, my Someone and I have had a tough couple of weeks.  I’ve been slopping through my grief and self medicating with working too much, while he has been haggardly aware, darting, and stressing to deal with his own and mine.  Only in the last couple days have we settled into some sort of lovebird normalcy.  But even in the worst of it, we’ve walked side-by-side every morning, throwing sticks for our pup and taking note of the progress of fruit rotting into the ground in the orchards.

How fortunate.  How lucky.  How much better I have it.

This is crazy, I realized.

These are my natural disaster videos.  These are my replays.  These are my sensors that sit on alert, craving someone else’s story of a life I don’t want so I can appreciate the one I have.  It’s a fear in the brain, a lift from the drudgery of the usual mountains I am climbing to watch the mountain next to mine shake with an avalanche.  I sit and I watch and I am taken somewhere I’m not.  Then I sit back to see my own mountain.  Still a climb, but at least it’s sturdy.  And I laugh.  Maybe it’s relief or maybe it’s malice.  With something of that scale, so unexpected, I don’t know how to distinguish fear from empathy from joy.  I do know that at any minute, though, my Someone is coming to pick me up again.  He’ll see me looking like a normal person, typing at my own computer with a few new books to take home.  But I’m actually just a guy in a green track suit who sits here every week at the same time in the same chair, hitting replay on a two minute clip of an earthquake in a Central California library.

Howling at the Moon: On Coyote.

Okay.  Okay.  Here we go.

I think God might be a Coyote.

In the middle of the summer, I was reading a book that talked about a Native American tradition in which the earth was created, somewhat inadvertently, by Coyote.  This wasn’t my first time reading myths and legends.  This wasn’t my first time discovering a new religion.  But this was the first time, without being told what is true or not, that the information was presented to me and I sat back, warm and cold at once, and thought–

Oh, my god.  This might be God.

In the days and weeks following, I found myself naturally praying to Coyote.  A small miracle, praying naturally.  Or rather, praying at all.

Coyote was floating along on his raft.  He came across a few ducks and called to them–

“Is there only water here?” he asked.

“As far as we know,” they said.

“We’ve gotta do something about that.  You mind to dip to the bottom and see if you can get me something I can work with?” he said.  Of course, the ducks agreed.

Three duck went down and found nothing.  The fourth came back with a pile of mud in its beak.

“This I can work with,” said Coyote.  “And for your efforts, there will be four trials before success in this new land.  Sound good?”

“Sounds great!”

And then Coyote took the mud and created the world.  Trials and all.

You can dig around the internet or the public library for bits of Coyote’s tale, swishing around in matters of making mates from mud for lonely ducks, or being disobedient to his call from the Great Creator and accidentally making Earth and all that’s in it.  He is the great imitator, the great trickster, the protector of humanity and the curator of life after death.  He is all of the things in between, too.  He is likely both responsible for the unexpected house guest you didn’t want and the moment you were glad to have company that same night when you were tossed a bit of bad news by way of a telephone call.

But at the heart of it all, Coyote is in love.  He is in love with you and me, he is in love with the world working itself out, and he is in love with interjecting to make it both harder and easier to become better.

Coyote sounds a bit like Loki.  And a bit like me.  Because the way he loves is by laughing.  Some of his jokes go too far.  And most of his jokes take a while to get.

Coyote is the favorite of the Great Magician/Creator, even if he almost never acts right.  Maybe the Creator knows this and uses Coyote.  If that’s true, then I think that must mean that Coyote’s joy in causing a ruckus is woven into everything he accidentally creates.  Like people.  When The Creator stuffed humans into a bag to be dropped at the far corner of the earth, he asked Coyote to take the bag to its destination.

“But whatever you do,” he instructed Coyote, “do NOT open the bag until you get there.”

“What’s in the bag?” Coyote asked.

“It doesn’t matter what’s in the bag, don’t open the bag.”

“But, what’s in the bag?”

“Coyote!”

“Oh-KAY!”

Coyote opened the bag.  He barely made it beyond the first hill.  People went everywhere.  He couldn’t get them back in again– it was too late.  And now here we are, not confined to the cliff of time, but scattered in this wild, watery world.  Misfits and escapees, every one of us, thanks to Coyote.

The Creator didn’t seem to mind.  He delights in us with the help of Coyote by his side.  Coyote, our intercessor, reminds the Creator that we are wonderful, lovable creatures.

What I know to be true of Coyote, as best as I can gather it:

  1. that the world was created by accident, imperfectly, and that every day we are alive, we are making it better.  This is in direct contrast to the idea that we ruined a perfect world and are every day trying to dolefully get back what we lost.
  2. that perhaps we were not made in Coyote’s image, but as a friend of his image– and we, in turn, make friends of his image (or, man’s best friend [does this further explain the extreme reaction of humans to cats?  To worship or to hate?  I digress…]).
  3. that the funniest solution is the chosen solution, should you be brave enough to laugh and let Coyote laugh with you.
  4. That to pray to Coyote is not to first say, “I am not worthy/I am sorry,” but rather… “Guess what just happened!” usually followed by, “How do you think we are going to get out of this one?”  Coyote already knows we are worthy.  That’s why he created us as friends.

I was a fool for him, a regular Jesus Freak of Coyote’s world.  I hesitated at first, but then I found myself leaking my newfound Coyote to my friend Bryan on his lunch break.  My Pad Thai got cold with the love of sharing the Good News–

“And, did you know, that we are not slovenly assholes who messed up a perfect world?  Did you know that we are actually loved?  Did you know that there is hope because there is still a joke to be told?”

I knew it sounded crazy as I was saying it.  I knew that I was reverting back to my days of carrying my thickest Bible around the halls of high school in case someone asked me to defend what I believe.

Except, that it wasn’t like that at all.  I wasn’t on the losing side of a God to make amends with through his dead son (be grateful, you hellbound sinner!) while simultaneously on the losing side of a world I should hate (in it but not of it, of course).  I was on the winning side of a tricky dog who loves without bounds and makes change without stipulations and who was inviting everyone (even me) to come alongside.

I couldn’t stop laughing.

“Oh boy,” said Bryan, “I do like this Coyote of yours.”

He may have been my first willing convert.

“Heya, Coyote!” the ducks called.

Coyote was on his regular trek through earth, fighting off monsters that we can’t combat on our own, accidentally killing someone from a joke gone too far, and fascinating himself with the movements of creation, imitating as he went.

“Yeah-ho!” he called back.

“We’ve been thinking,” the ducks said, “and talking to the rest of the gang, and it seems like we are feeling like there’s still something missing.  Any chance we could have something else?”

“Oh, this will be fun,” said Coyote, “Whatever you want!”

“Gentleman ducks,” said the ducks.

“Makes sense,” said Coyote, twirling his paws.

“And dancing,” said the humans sunning themselves on the rocks.

“I’ll do you one better,” said Coyote, “let’s make music.”

For the rest of the day, the ducks and lady ducks, the humans, Coyote, and the rest of living creation danced to the sound of music.  Even the plants swayed.

Since our trip to the west this year, Coyote has been everywhere, howling from Pennsylvania to lurking in daylight by our South Dakota campsite to yipping and barking in the California night.  I have been unable to escape him.  The reminder is welcome.

I’ve good naturedly scolded Coyote for his tricks to get the hecklers out of a room.  I’ve yelled at him while my dog laid in my arms, limp with death.  And by the end, he keeps emerging with a joke, with a laugh.  And never a joke at my expense.  It’s the elevated laugh of a creature who always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres, who always knows, these things work out if we let them.  Coyote doesn’t fail.  He just has a few hiccups first.  Often four.

While the loss of my own living Spirit Animal roils through me, I keep a small figure of a pink stone Coyote in my pocket.  Maybe it’s my rosary. Maybe it’s my idol.  But the palm sized consolation presses somewhere in the hopeful part of my heart, the part that says he was there waiting for my dog-gone the moment she left me.  Somehow, he’s the only one I’d trust with her.

I sent my friend Bryan a little Coyote of his own.  He doesn’t need it to know we are connected, but it’s nice to know these little Coyote figures are casting a laugh in the distance, connecting their howls miles apart.  Quietly, of course.  Coyote has a way of sneaking in the silence to make it less lonely.

Coyote watched the hawks flying from their trees, swooping to catch the mice below.  He was so taken by the freedom of the wingspan, the sound of their feathers cutting the air, that he climbed an oak up to the highest limb.

Then, Coyote jumped.  Flying was not what he thought it would feel like.  In fact, it felt more like dying.

Coyote lay on the ground, flat with gravity and breathed his last breath.  The birds, seeing Coyote dead on the ground, notified the fox, and they gathered around his body.  They worked their beaks and paw over his body until he sputtered and sat up.

“Come on, Coyote!” the fox said, exasperated.

“I had to try!” said Coyote.

“You always have to try,” said the birds.

“Worth it,” said Coyote.

The fox and the birds like to say they are tired of bringing Coyote back to life every time, but they always leave him with a smile.

“A Coyote who thinks he can fly,” the bluebird shook her head.

“This was easier than the time he drowned for imitating the whales,” said the seagull.

I woke up wide eyed and excited, straight back and peaking out my window blinds.  We were in Nashville, then, and Coyote had been on my mind now for two weeks.

“What are you doing?” my Someone asked.

“I can’t sleep, anymore,” I said.  “I’m too excited to see what Coyote will bring me today.”

My Someone stands with Coyote, but I know he still had a Book of Common Prayer stashed somewhere in the back of his closet.  Coyote doesn’t care, though.  There aren’t any One-Door-and-Only-Ones– there are just those who are laughing and those who are not.  There isn’t even just two sides to the door.  It’s a perpetually revolving door, welcoming anyone to step inside.  You can bring any sacred texts along– anything you can’t part with can come.  In fact, bring all of it.  We have time and time and time again to sort through with a deep curiosity and a smirk.

But then, we are to step outside, eyes wide and mouths open, and send our howls of joy and despair and confusion and delight up to the moon.  The world is a complicated place, where your friends are your enemies and your enemies your partners-in-crime.  When the sun comes up in the morning, we can leave those contradicting matters to nestle in the dark while we see what Coyote has in store for us in the new day.  Because likely, whether you’ve chosen to or not, the revolving door of Coyote has you swooped in.  It’s easier to walk with it and laugh along.