#amwriting, A Dog's Life, Animals, Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Dogs, Grief, Labra-doo-dad, The Inner Landscape

I am terrible at grieving, or an armored heart

I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”

As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.

I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.

Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.

Molly was brilliant at eye contact.
Molly was brilliant at eye contact.

Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.

After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)

I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.

To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*

Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!

Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**

Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.

Hoagie, my last Berner
Hoagie, my last Berner

Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.

“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.

I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.

Teddy at 3 months
Teddy at 3 months

At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.

He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.

He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.

An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.

********

*Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. Never Pray Again (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2014), p. 110. Check out their blog, Two Friars and a Fool.

**Becca Stevens. Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), p. 32. I received a copy from her publicist, and an advance copy, too. If you’ve read this far, and are interested in the book, leave a comment and I will send you the extra book.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Photos, reverb10

Wonder — #reverb 10 day 4

December 4 – Wonder. How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year? (Author: Jeffrey Davis)

This morning I left the house with snow melting off the eaves. It was really just a little snow that fell in the night. The snowfall total was more impressive on my Gmail page (the theme called Tree changes with your local weather). I could hear dripping. The temperature was just above freezing, and as I drove out of Portland toward North Yarmouth, heading to our book group meeting, the sky was grey and the ground was brown, not frosty at all.

I set my iPod to shuffle through my Christmas playlist, which almost always leads to some amusing musical neighbors.

A Handel-singing soprano announces, "And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly Host praising God and saying:" "Christmas Is children who just can't go to sleep." And thus Lou Rawls completes her thought.

I pass through the center of Cumberland, where high school athletes wave Christmas wreaths to get my attention for their fundraiser. I hear a recognizable voice singing a familiar song in an unfamiliar arrangement. Oh, I think, it's James Taylor with Yo-Yo Ma, and that's a Beatles song. And just as I put all the pieces together, the sun comes out to match the refrain. 

And it occurs to me that I cultivate wonder by paying attention to the details around me.

How can you experience awe or joy or love without paying attention? How can you know what's happening inside without also feeling what happens outside? 

Farmer's Market 001 When Sam was sick, he developed a little cough, and of course it terrified me, and of course it happened over a weekend. By Monday morning I was talking to a vet and hearing it was probably unrelated to the cancer, or maybe only in the sense that chemo made him prone to picking up a little something viral. But on Sunday night, long after dinner, when he tucked himself under the dining room table, I spread out on the floor with my face next to his and petted his paws. And it happened that the house was full of women, friends who came to show support and love in a challenging time, friends who let my daughter and me know we would not go through this alone. I could hear their calming voices and feel a comforting touch, a hand on my back petting me as I petted Sam. The rough wool of the Oriental rug, the soft paw of the dog, the strong hand of the friend all fix themselves in my memory creating a tapestry of gratitude and wonder that people cared so much, enough to interrupt their lives and join in mine at a time others might have preferred caring from a safe distance.

I cultivate wonder by paying attention to other people, because the Spirit of Love and Goodness acts through them, surely. 

(A friend who came from far away took this picture of Sam and me at the Farmer's Market on the weekend in question. You can see her shadow; it makes me think of the love that covered me then and continues to cover me now, truly a wonder.)

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Grief, My New Reality

Too soon

Berner wag Kind people are thinking of us when they learn of dogs who need a loving home. One was a Bernese, the other a Saint Bernard. (Seriously? As if a Bernese weren't a big enough dog for two little girls, no matter how mighty we are in spirit.) We would love another Bernese when the time is right, and I am grateful to be part of a breed club with an outstanding rescue program and to know the people who screen and foster those dogs. People who love a particular breed will understand how the one you know so well is particularly winsome and suits you better than any other ever could and leave a gap, in this case very large, that can only be filled with one silhouette.

There are a lot of ways it's too soon, and others in which it feels like too big a gap already. We ought to be fixing a dog's dinner at a certain time, or his breakfast, or refilling her water dish. 

It turns out that the walking schedule of an older dog who thought 20 minutes or so around Greyberry Woods in the morning and another 20 around the neighborhood in the afternoon was perfect was also perfect for the little joints in my feet affected by Rheumatoid Arthritis. 30 minutes at a time is just bearable. 35 minutes at once is a little too much. 

But it's too soon. We have other adjustments to make, LP and I, and I have things to figure out, like a new, one wage-earner budget. 

I really hope Molly and Sam aren't the only two dogs ever to be part of my life, but I can't say the way is clear. Not yet.  It's just too soon.