Insomnia


I have a lot on my mind: an unfinished and recalcitrant book, the usual tribulations of book sales—or lack thereof—a family reunion that includes children, grandchildren, five dogs, and one bathroom at our lake cottage, and a baby shower focused on the joy of the occasion, but whose logistics are complex. In case anyone doubts the (self-imposed) complexities of my life, I have three big dogs whose various health needs have led me to commit to giving them homemade dog food, and the coming family visits suggest that preparing  8 days of dog food in advance might be advisable. There’s a full day’s work, including the scramble to find affordable meat for them. It’s a nuisance, but the dogs are healthy, vital, and unappreciative.

I’m not sleeping well.

I defy myself in my wakefulness: I will not do laundry in the middle of the night.

I just poured myself a bourbon at 2 am, which is in violation of my own protocol, but an emergency method of acquiring some sleep before a day with many tasks.

Even in the depths of the night, the sky here is brighter than the trees, and the abstract pattern of their leaves against the pale night surrounds and engulfs the house. I lie on the couch in our library and am consoled by the sky. The dogs breathe; Pete, fast and shallow as if he is racing; Moses, deep and sonorant.. Both follow me in my restless wanderings through the house, and we share our love and our wakefulness. Auggie, in his youth, sleeps through.

I found Pete around midnight, curled up in an odd place on the kitchen floor. Yesterday morning I found him lying among the piles (no, mountains: two houses, visitors, bed linens, beach towels, clothing) of sorted laundry, far from his sleeping family. I wonder whether he seeks solitude, or whether he is actually lost: befuddled by deafness and blindness.

Pete has much joy in life. He eats with gusto, he runs and romps. He protects his interests. He polices his younger brothers. But he is an old dog, and his quiet demeanor means he is easily pushed aside by the exigencies of the moment, and each day I resolve to spend time with Pete that is only his. Each day I fall short.

Whose kid is playing booming bass on his car stereo at 3 am on our sleepy rural road?

I get up to start a load of laundry.

I am awake because my dreams were of my father’s death: explicit; agonizing. I rose from our bed and went to where my stirrings would not disturb my hardworking husband. Moses smells my tears and licks my face. I tell myself that my troubles are small. The world is filled with tragedies and pain, and my life is easy, rich, and full. But still, it is an act of will to find the right messaging for my troubled mind. I have a good life, it’s true. But even so, grief holds hard on a heavy heart.

Long Goodbye

This essay is excerpted from my new book, Reflections on a Life in Exile, due out May 1, 2019.  It is the story of Reggie, our beloved golden retriever.

I am lying in bed with 170 pounds of dog: one big, one medium. I do love them both. But the big one, the one who lives inside my soul; he is dying.

Tonight we did the last thing: a rescue protocol of chemotherapy used only as a last resort. The vet said there was a fifty-fifty chance that it would give him a few more weeks. But no chance that it would save him.

I listen to his breath. The blissful thing is that he doesn’t know. Among all the deficits and injustices and hard things of dog life, the one great blessing is not to know your mortality. So to him, a hard day is just a hard moment, maybe not an oppressive forever.

Golden retrievers are gentle creatures. They are born sweet. Their docility is not a lack of character, though, as Reggie has demonstrated. He is an artist. His summer days at the lake are not for lounging. They are for a determined and relentless search for the perfect shape, the perfect addition to his sculpture. Tail high and wagging, he scours the floor of the lake with his feet, treading back and forth in a deliberate grid, fully engrossed in his life’s work. When he finds what he needs, he pushes it into place with his feet, and dives down to retrieve it, emerging triumphant to the shore with a rock the size of maybe half a soccer ball. He places it on the lawn in his own pattern, discernible only to him. Every morning my husband picks up the rocks—including those stolen from the neighbor’s shoreline—and throws them back. But by the end of the day a new work of art—a kind of Reggie Stonehenge—has reappeared.

Struggling to straddle the good days and bad days, to balance his happiness and his pain is my job; watching the progression of the evil cancer, and desperately trying to weigh my needs against his. Trying not to think of my deepest wish—to have him forever—and only of his—not to suffer. That’s all. Just no suffering. No nights in the scary hospital, only nights at home with his people who love him. He doesn’t understand if we abandon him as we did for the surgery on his torn knee. He trembled uncontrollably when we returned to that place for a routine thing.

Among the blessings is the kindness of those who care for him. His vet who returned to the exam room while we waited for blood tests with a flowered quilt to lay on the floor for Reggie and for me; the lab tech who smuggles him extra treats; the oncologist who wraps her arms around him and kisses his face before she begins her work.

We cuddle. I let him lie on the white couch. I rub his tummy, he puts his head on my shoulder and we comfort one another, as we do. We feed him rotisserie chicken and imported sausage because he will eat it while healthier things go untouched. And who cares. It nourishes him, and he will eat it. It makes him happy. That’s all.

This big dog, my puppy dog, at seven weeks used to put his whole self into my arms when he came back inside from his outdoor responsibilities. I would hold his small body in my arms. He slept on my pillow so I could carry him outside when he stirred. As he grew, he still remembered how to express love, and would lay his massive paws on my shoulders as I knelt next to him, his head towering over mine, and he would lay his enormous chin on my shoulders. I always held tight; but sometimes distractedly; sometimes hurriedly; sometimes without the same level and intensity of love he had to give me. I had other thoughts. But he always thought about loving me first.

The loss of this love, not human, but canine, may not seem important to everyone. But to me it is the intimate, personal and once in my life love of this soul; entrusted to me as a gift I did not deserve or fully appreciate. With all due humility about myself, I wonder if anyone could deserve this trust, this love, this kindness, this full and open heart. Anyone other than another soul like his.

I owe him the most reverent, beloved, happy and respectful days I can offer him. In his innocence he is both my king and conscience. He is better than me. And he was born to break my heart.

 

Blurred Lines

Last night, just after dark on Ash Wednesday, I took the dogs out for a little ramble. The first thing I heard was a coyote in the distance, and then, later than usual, church bells, signaling the seven o’clock service for the Lutherans. Each, in its way, calling the community to assemble. It was a curious juxtaposition: the two sounds, one of civilization, one of the wild, both of God.

We walked in the dark, the dogs and I. Old man Pete and I walked gingerly, careful not to fall on the ice. Puppy Auggie raced and slipped, and slipped again, joyous and without care. Moses loped ahead, making sure all was secure. It was warmer than it had been, but the wind cut, and the coyote made us watchful and tense. Pete paused to point into the dark ravine. We all stopped to look, and then moved on.

With my hood up, I could hear strange sounds behind me. With my hood off, I could hear the unfamiliar crunch of my new boots. The sky was clearing, and a few stars shone. We walked only a little way before returning to the warmth of the house to sit by the fire.

One way or another, we were not alone.

Morning in the Dark

It’s hard to get up in the dark. I want to stay under the covers, next to the big dog who comes up on the bed as soon as he hears me stir. The fireplace in the bedroom is lit, and it is tranquil and warm. But I know if I don’t get up and write, I will have missed the fundamental purpose of my days, and so, goaded by some kind of literary jackal nipping at my heels, I drag myself up, lured by the prospect of coffee.

And yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm, once I am there sitting before my keyboard, I find myself racing against the sun. There is some mystical thing that happens when I’m writing in the dark. It’s as if I have a direct line to the muse who hides in my heart somewhere, only bold enough to emerge in the dark. The writing and the dark go together, and I have to get as much done as I can while I can.

With the light, too, comes the household activity: the chores, the dogs needing to go out and to have their feet washed, the dishwasher needing to be emptied, the bed made, the calls to the insurance company, the roofer, the trips to the dry cleaner. These kinds of mundane things scare away whatever inspiration I am fortunate enough to find, and the day slips away in the routines of living.

And so, against my will, I find myself rising earlier and earlier, reluctant and eager at the same time, dragging myself to my desk, hoping to write faster than the earth turns.

This morning it is bitter cold, and the trees are still outlined in the snow from two days ago. A pink line of the sun is showing, and a few brave birds have arrived to feast on the seeds and nuts I’ve left for them. The turkeys still balance on their precarious perches high at the tops of the trees. I am hesitant to stir, because that will signal to the dogs that it’s time to move, and then the brief moment of opportunity will be gone. I look at what I’ve written, and vow that tomorrow will be earlier still.

The Island by Night

When I am on the Island, every night, before bed, the dogs and I go out for a long walk in the dark.

There is nowhere else on earth where I could walk alone, in the dark, in the woods, and feel so completely safe. It’s true I have my dogs with me, but they are even less worried than I, and frequently slip away into the trees to leave me to the sound of my own footsteps. On a cloudy night like this, it is so dark that only the melted dirt paths of this January thaw distinguish where to walk from the white snow everywhere.

Moses, who still carries the echoes of lupine ancestors in his soul, likes to disappear into the woods, projecting my course, to silently stalk me, later to charge out onto the path in front of me, in an unnerving fashion. It is a delightful game for him.  Auggie, his apprentice, has begun to follow him deep among the cedar trees.

Their stealth is remarkable, and their ability to judge the intersection of vectors is proof that dogs understand geometry. Each has a red light-up collar: Moses with a slow blink, and Auggie with a fast one, so when they walk with me I can tell who is who. But when they dissolve into the woods and turn dead-on, their collars are no longer visible, and I cannot hear the sound of their padded feet, their bodies long and low, in stalking mode, until they are immediately in front of me, delighted by their prowess and by my praise. Their happiness shifts them from predators to pets, but there is an inner reality that is vital to remember.

These night walks are essential to their well-being and to mine. For them, it is a chance to reassess the activities of the local wildlife. The fox has been out since we walked this afternoon, and the raccoon and deer and possum. The turkeys are roosting in a tree somewhere near, and the deer are no doubt nearby, waiting for the dogs to go in before they come to feed. Their game with me exhilarates the dogs and empowers them.

For me, it is an expansive moment of the soul. Alone, in the dark, but utterly unafraid, I walk along almost invisible paths, listening to the lake, to the occasional cries of owls or foxes, and I feel that I am in my life.

Nowhere else on earth.

Idle wishes

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Over the course of the nearly twenty years we have lived here, there is a particular route I often took with the dogs, through the woods, and around an open field. It used to be an uncivilized, practically forgotten place, where we never met anyone except skunks (see preceding posts), raccoons, and the occasional squirrel with a death wish. But, sadly, the woods have been upgraded with wood-chipped paths, new signs with rules that forbid unleashed dogs, and other niceties which are not improvements. There are always people there, now, so we don’t go very often anymore. There aren’t many places where big dogs can just run free without other dogs around.

When we do go, I choose odd times of day and bad weather, hoping to improve the odds that we won’t encounter anyone, and we can flout the rules with wildly happy, romping dogs. There are a few other stalwarts who seem to take the same approach.

One is a runner whom we have met on multiple occasions. He is not a young man. He has a long, grizzled beard, twinkly blue eyes, and a deeply genial and sincere manner. He drives a beat-up old pickup truck, which I have come to know. There is a place in the trail where people coming from opposite directions can suddenly encounter one another without warning, and the first time we met, it was there. The dogs were happily rummaging and trotting ahead of me, when suddenly there was a figure running toward us.

Immediately, I called Moses, the scary one, to my side, and he obeyed. But Pete, who is deaf, and Auggie, the headstrong puppy, would not come. Auggie throws himself at life in general, but also at turkeys, deer, strangers, and me, in particular. I once looked out into the woods and saw Auggie joyously flying first at one line of turkeys–all four feet in the air–and without waiting to see their startled flight into the trees, turning to hurl himself at the other line behind him. There is no malice in it, just pure exuberance, and even after two levels of obedience, it’s a personality trait that I am having the devil of a time training out of him. He has a characteristic German Shepherd stubborn streak that makes him very different from Moses.

At nine months Auggie was already well over ninety pounds, and once launched, he is a projectile who can take a person down. Now–to my horror–in his customary expression of puppy enthusiasm, Auggie ran to the man and joyously flung himself at the his chest, paws first. I was expecting threats and anger, but instead the man laughed gently. “Hello, puppy!” he said, and kept running to the sound of my increasingly urgent commands mixed with profuse apologies. “It’s okay,” said the man as he ran past. “I like dogs.”

Since then we have met several times a month. Never at the same time. I take care now to take a different route so we can’t accidentally encounter anyone. When I see the runner, I call the big dogs and keep them off the path until he passes. He thanks me each time.

On Christmas Eve, on one of our solitary walks, we met him again. There was a little bit of fresh snow on the ground, and the dogs were filled with energy and eager to run. We went off on our different paths, and all was well. We were almost back to the car when I heard myself being called. The runner was coming toward me with his hand extended. “You dropped one of your leashes back there.” I thanked him, surprised that he had come all the way back, out of his way, to do this nice thing.

The logistics would have been tricky, and it would probably have been a little odd, but I would like to have given him a Christmas present.  He’s a fairly random stranger, but I feel as if our encounters are important. Life’s texture comes from these small things.

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

Well, it’s happened. Book Three, Robert’s Rules (Beaufort Books, Spring 2018), is finished, and off to the publisher. I say that in passive voice, as if it miraculously wrote itself. Not so. Over the course of the past year, and most particularly of the past six months, I have neglected friends, family, and dogs, and reduced my life to work, writing, and basic human survival. A trail of entropy lies behind me.

IMG_5146So, you ask: Now what will you do? Revel in the freedom? Drink champagne, or possibly bourbon? Walk the dogs? Go to Disney World?

Well, some of the above, except for the Disney part. But mostly more mundane things like do laundry, overthrow the reigning chaos in my office, and remind my family and friends that I still love them (the dogs, being dogs, still knew that). For both my dear readers, I will also go back to writing my blog.

On the other hand, I have, unintentionally, but apparently irresistibly (again that misleading sense of the passive), begun work on Book Four, A Small Earnest Question.

Life has its cycles.

 

Adding to the Menagerie

We were walking the dogs the other night, and we saw something ahead of us in the road. The sun was going down, and it was shining in our eyes. “What is that?” my husband asked. “Is it an animal?”

He held the dogs, while I went up to see. It was a tiny black kitten, sitting in the middle of the road. At first, I thought its eyes were not yet open, but as I peered into its face I had the terrifying thought that perhaps it had no eyes at all.

I picked it up reluctantly, and cuddled it against my sweatshirt, while my husband took the dogs and continued on the walk, figuring that their feelings toward the kitten might not be especially altruistic. The kitten and I went home.

I dabbed warm water on his eyes with a paper towel, and wiped away the crust that was keeping them shut. He had been completely blinded, but now his eyes were open.

I found some powdered milk in the pantry, and made some warm milk with brown sugar, and he lapped it up, trying, as Auggie does, to put his feet into it. 

Out in the country at our cottage, the township had no contract with the local humane society, so the Sheriff’s department contacted an emergency number, and somebody from the humane society called me back. They wouldn’t pick up, so we would have to bring him in.

By now he was getting lively, and didn’t want to be held, but I was afraid he would disappear under the porch or a bush and we wouldn’t find him again. When the dogs arrived the kitten stood on my shoulder and hissed and spit. Moses just looked puzzled. Pete and Auggie didn’t even notice him.

We drove him to the humane society, where nice people took him in, assured us that he wasn’t seriously ill, and made us sign a statement that he didn’t belong to us. “What’s his name?” asked the woman.

“Doskar,” I said. “Felix,” said my husband.

We missed the sunset, which had been the whole reason we had gone to the cottage, but we didn’t really mind. That kitten had a lucky, lucky day. I doubt he would have survived a night blind, in the woods, with raccoons and foxes and coyotes, swamps to get stuck in, water to fall into.  I can’t help worrying about what happened to his littermates.

Every time we left the house we found ourselves looking for kittens in the road. Hope they are safe somewhere, and warm.

 

He’s all right

After multiple treatments, Moses still smelled like skunk around his eyes and muzzle. I couldn’t put any of the harsher treatments near his eyes, so we went with the old-fashioned method of tomato paste.

Moses made it quite clear that this was beneath his dignity, but after he had wiped his face on Pete and splattered tomato paste all over Auggie, he contented himself with licking off some of the residue. He got several very big pieces of chicken for his patience. And he actually smells better too.

Meanwhile, I think we have his Halloween costume in the bag.

Sith warrior, anyone?

QUICK NOTE: If you would like to read my first novels in preparation for the release of the third in the series, Robert’s Rules, next spring, they are both on sale for $1.99 each on Kindle this month.

Skunked

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So at 4:56 pm yesterday, four minutes before my you-can-stop-working-now alarm went off, I was done. My husband was away, I had worked all day, and I was a little stir crazy. So were the dogs.

I combed my hair, put on some lipstick, and decided to go to the local farmers’ market to see if there was anything tempting. The dogs had already had their big walk of the day, but it was cool and cloudy, so they could come along and sit in the car if I stopped. That way they wouldn’t sulk at being left behind.

We all piled into the car, but when we got there, everybody had already gone. I needed to see the sky, so we went for a little drive. After some random driving around I ended up at the grocery store. Not as good as the farmer’s market, but I’m always happy with a fresh rotisserie chicken.

As I returned to the car ten minutes later, I opened the hatch to put the groceries in the trunk. Moses was leaning his face on the backseat looking soulfully at me. “Oh, you big baby,” I said. “You are such a good dog. I know what you want.” He sighed, his eyes never leaving my face. “Ok. Just one little spin around the woods. Would you like that?”

So we went to the woods. I in my new jeans and new suede espadrilles (I know) and dogs in their usual attire. The woods have trails that make successive circles with intersecting paths. One long route around would make everyone happy.

As I walked I was very pleased with myself for having made this decision. I had needed this as much as the dogs, but they especially deserved something extra nice for having been so patient all day. The sun had come out for a bit, and it was a beautiful night.

Why is it that when I get all sentimental and self-congratulatory something bad always happens?

Pete is always the pack instigator. He’s the one who ran off the path to sniff at something interesting. Moses immediately followed, and Auggie galloped after them with his adolescent enthusiasm. At first I thought it was a routine disgusting thing, and then I thought it was a squirrel because I could see the white tail flashing. It was not a squirrel. Squirrels do not have white tails.

Thank God, Auggie listened to me and did not get close. Pete, too, managed to get away. Who knows how.  But Moses, who is particularly fond of squirrels in a way that squirrels don’t quite appreciate, got a full frontal spray of skunk. I think he must have gotten a mouthful of it. I was so concerned about getting them away from there that I barely attended to his misery, which was profound. But by the time we ran back to the car he seemed better.

Let me tell you that skunk smells much, much, much, much, much, much worse than you think. My dogs have had minor skunk encounters, so I had been lured into thinking that these situations are not all that bad. I was wrong. It was a very long five minute drive home.

Then began the fun part.

Today we did a re-treatment with the anti-skunk enzyme, which is pretty good, except for the fact that you can’t just spray it on a dog’s face, where the worst smell is. Then we will wash Moses again. And probably again. And we will wash all the towels and things with the enzyme too. If that doesn’t work, the towels will have to go.

Possibly we will repeat the process. I may also buy some tomato juice for his face. Maybe tomato paste.

I suppose I should be grateful that I only have one skunky dog, not three.

Did I mention my car? And the suede espadrilles?

I’m not sure this counts as procrastination for the novel, but the results are the same.

UPDATE:

And then I noticed the lump on Moses’s leg. Skunk Bite. Vet visit. Rabies booster. Antibiotics. Rotisserie chicken dinner for Moses. Wine for me. Possibly bourbon.