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Archive for March, 2012

There is just no pretty way to say it.  My dog is dying.  The glass half-fullers may jump in at any time and say “But she’s had 11 good years,” or “Aren’t we all dying really?  Isn’t that the process of life?”  But no, it’s cancer.  Cancer.  It’s a word that speaks of endings in its beginnings.  For my dog Maggie, it means that her front leg is infected in a way that can’t be fixed except by amputation.  And that, I will not do to her because both back knees have already been replaced.  Have I mentioned yet that she might be the world’s most expensive mutt?

                And so I will tell people that she is dying and tell them why I must let her do so.  And I will question myself as to whether I am giving up on her….because that’s always my thing—“Have I tried hard enough?”  And in a hugely selfish way, I will know that to lose her will be a bigger crush to my life than it is a celebration of her eleven long years as a semi-well-behaved dog.  She has always had personality, though, even when she’s attacking other dogs and eating things off the counter.

                So this week, Maggie is back at the beach, in what very well could be her final visit.   There will come a time, most likely sooner than later, when I will have to make that decision that I shouldn’t have to make.  The “it’s time” decision.  There will come a time when she will tell me that she is no longer enjoying herself.  But this is not that time. 

                Maggie turns into a puppy when she is at the ocean.  She runs around in circles in the sand and stalks seabirds just like she did when she was six months old.  She picks up pieces of kelp in her mouth and tosses them into the air.  She wants to sniff dead jellyfish in the sand.  She never quite gets the hang of getting out past those waves that break in the surf.

                Part of me thinks that if I could just keep her on the beach forever that our time would never end.  But I’m working on embracing the hard stuff in my life.  So instead, I will pull her close to me in the sand and nuzzle my face into her big ol’ head.  I will tell her a million things with my thoughts alone about how much she has meant to me and how much I will miss her when she’s gone.  I will then let her run, without fear of further injury to her legs or beach police, and I will watch her go. 

                I will watch her breathe the ocean air and exhale it with a big doggy smile.  I will wonder how I will ever be able to have a good walk on the beach again without her by my side.  And I will let her go, when it’s time.  But I will never forget that big, goofy brown dog that ran on the beach that looked back occasionally for reassurance…..telling me that she was OK, telling me that I would be too.

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When running on the beach, the best place to be is the part of sand where the tide has just receded.  Here the sand is firmly packed and smoothly polished and bounces back easily from footfalls.  Further up on the beach towards the pastel houses, the sand is sinky and pliant and better served to leisurely shorewalkers looking for shells. 

But today I want to run.  I want to turn my upbeat music on just loud enough so that I can still hear the waves crashing.  I want to feel the sweat rain down my face and my breath come ragged.  I want to hit the sand and see my footprints stretch behind me to show that I have come and gone in quick succession.

And here’s the thing.  My footsteps will quickly be erased by the water or by other footsteps.  Proof gone so soon as if I was never there. 

Here on the East Coast, these tides are happening constantly.  It was low tide at 5:30 this morning and will be again right at about happy hour.  The waves are constantly going in and out, creating this smooth line of sand where footsteps can fall anew.  As I ran, the tide was coming in, pushing the walkers further and further up, erasing evidence and taking shells in its wake. 

It’s one of the many reasons that I have always found an extreme beauty in the beach.  It’s the constant cycle of footsteps and erasing of footsteps, the promise of new beginnings with each tide.  It’s the uncovering of new shells, new discoveries with each wave.  It’s a beauty that comes throughout the day and the same beauty has been occurring over the eons of time. 

The erasing of my footsteps was something that I loved when I first discovered the ocean as a child, it’s the thing that I love now as my feet grow older and my face starts to show some wrinkles.  It will be the thing that I love, if all works out, when I am walking the beach thirty years from now.            

It’s the gentle reminder that wherever my footsteps may take me, I will always get the chance to look back and see them, take comfort in their presence but knowing that they can be remade with each passing tide.

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                I think the most heartbreaking things in this life are the ones that are as sad as they are beautiful.  That being said, my heart was broken into a thousand little pieces this morning.

                This morning, the town had finally rid itself of an early spring heat wave and for the first time in over a week, I had to put on a jacket to head to the park with my dog.  The air was thick with the threat of rain.  This past week, the mile-long gravel path that surrounds the greenery of the park had been packed with walkers and joggers and the expanses of grass had been clogged with soccer games and ball-fetching dogs.  However, today there were very few people taking advantage of this cool morning so as I crossed the street, I was quickly able to notice that there were some strange shapes under some pine trees in the middle of the park.

                As I got closer, I saw that I was looking at a dog lying under the tree.  After a few more steps, I realized that he was not alone.  There was another dog sleeping beside him.  Ten feet away, under a different tree, were three more dogs, all sleeping soundly without a single person nearby.  And then, on the other side of the first tree, between the sleeping dogs and the parking lot, there was a sixth dog, sitting straight up, ears alert, glancing around slowly.  The dogs seemed to be all covered by the mist that hung over the park and I stopped, wondering if my eyes were playing tricks on me.

                I had heard about the pack of homeless dogs that wandered the city and I gasped when I realized I was seeing them in person.  I began thinking about who I could call and it was then that I saw the red Animal Control van pull into the parking lot.

                The tan dog that was standing guard began to bark.  The other dogs woke quickly and stood up.  The Animal Control officer got out of the van, one man with one dog-catching device.  He didn’t stand a chance.  The group of dogs started running away from the man and crossed in front of my path.  One of them was hopping along on three legs, one hind leg held aloft and another looked like my dog Bayou, except his coat was nearly dreadlocked.  They paid me no attention as they crossed the street towards escape.

                I saw the Animal Control officer throw out a cuss word and head back to his van.  I watched as the pack of dogs headed down a sidewalk running close together with a large whitish husky mix in the lead.  And then, I lost sight of them.

                And it was sad because it is always sad whenever a dog is without a home and without someone to take care of it.  And it was beautiful because though the dogs had no human companions, I could tell that they loved and took care of each other.  And it was breathtaking because I was glimpsing an animal’s return to its natural evolutionary beginning.  Stranded, these dogs had become like wolves, travelling with each other, no leash, no soft bed to sleep in, taking refuge below trees while one stood watch over the rest.

                I got that burning feeling in the back of my throat that comes when you force tears back when they want to come.  And as I walked back home, the tears started to fall.  I want to do something to help these dogs but I don’t know what that is.  To separate them from their pack would be to deprive them of something beautiful.  But to let them keep wandering in streets where hunger and danger await them doesn’t seem quite right either.

                I know that I will never shake this morning’s image from my brain and though in some ways I wish I hadn’t seen it, I also know that I would have missed out on something by not seeing it.  In that one scene, I felt great sadness that these dogs had been left in their situation but I also saw the beautiful display of survival and love shared amongst creatures.  And if that’s what heartbreak is, then I gladly welcome it to return time and again.

                And if you hear in a future post of my seven dogs, you will know that I figured out a solution…

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I used to live in Aspen, in a place where no one really did what they were trained to do.  The bartender had gotten sick of trading on Wall Street, the ski instructor was hoping to get a great tip to pay off her law school debt.  For me, it was a constant struggle to reconcile what I was supposed to be doing in life versus what I was currently doing there in Aspen.  I managed retail stores, I worked at a bank, I waited tables.  

                And it was cool because I lived in Aspen.

                When I returned to my hometown, I decided that waitressing would be the best way to go job-wise for a few reasons.  1)  Its usually good money, 2) I would have my days free for writing, and 3) It could be flexible and short term.  And the truth is—I usually enjoy waiting tables.  The social aspect is energizing, the camaraderie between co-workers is unlike anything I’ve found at any other realm of work and I get too fidgety sitting at desks.

                But it leaves me in a strange position here in the town that I come from…standing in my uniform t-shirt, peering down at a table that suddenly contains someone I went to high school with.  In school, I was one of the smart kids so I see the look of shock that passes over faces when they recognize me.  Most of the times, this fades easily.  We catch up, they are happy to see me back in town again, and I’m OK with just being in my moment of who I am and what I’m doing.

                Monday night was an exception.  The girl passed by me and I gave her a smile of recognition.  She looked away.  Then she sat in a table that should have been mine to wait on.  “I can’t wait on that table,” I told the hostess.  “Find somebody else to do it.”  And so I got through the night without having to face what I was feeling by seeing this girl.

                And what exactly was I feeling?  It was all the feelings from high school, carried over and multiplied by the years since.  Was I prettier than her?  Did she have any wrinkles yet?  Was she happy having a margarita out on the patio with a friend?  Was I good enough?  Was I proud of who I was?  In that moment, I didn’t quite feel sure of anything anymore.

                But the next day I did some work on an essay that I was revising for class and I was proud of the writing that I did.  That night, I went back to work and my parents came in to eat  at the restaurant for the first time.  They met all of the co-workers that I had been talking about for the past few months and my manager gave them my employee discount.  I then waited on my TA from class and she told me that she waited tables for six years.  Then we talked about writing.

                I went back to my parents’ house late at night to pick up my dog.  “It’s an honorable profession that you have, Ashley,” my mom said to me.  “You make people happy and I saw that by watching you tonight.” 

                We can tell ourselves affirmations a million little times and sometimes they don’t make sense until we hear it from others.  And it makes sense because we hear it from people that love us, people that we respect.  And that margarita-drinking girl from high school?  I don’t know what she thought but I imagined the worst; it was the negative loop that had been playing in my head.

 The challenge is to turn off the voice of the old high school cheerleader, the one that might be happy seeing me fail.  And the challenge is to listen to the voice of MY cheerleaders, the people who know me best and have confidence in the path that I am taking, and to make that my loop instead.Image

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Bedtime Stories

When you were young, someone told you bedtime stories.  They were stories of princesses and far away places and worlds where the good always prevailed.  And you drifted off to sleep feeling comfortable in your small bed.  You didn’t have too many worries in that little world and those stories fueled the possibilities which were endless. 

                As you grew up, you started listening to different stories from those around you and they became the stories which you told yourself.  Perhaps a teacher told you that math wasn’t your strong suit.  I am just no good at numbers, you tell yourself.  Or perhaps someone told you that it was a good thing you were smart because you could take care of yourself.  I will never be beautiful, you told yourself.   Someone told you that the princess sits in the castle until a strong knight comes along to slay the dragon.  I must wait for someone to save me, you told yourself.

                It’s a weird thing these stories.   Because they are really hard to get rid of.  In the same way that Little Red Riding Hood keeps you wary of strangers well into adulthood, these other stories keep you from living to your true potential.  You believe you are inadequate due to something that happened long ago and you turn that into truth.  These new stories limit your possibilities rather than create them.

                The thing is— these stories are not truth, rather they are ideas that someone put into your head.  But they become the like sunglasses that you wear, viewing your entire life in honor of that story.  Listen for a while to the story you have told yourself and see it as just that….

                Because where bedtime stories get passed down from generation to generation, the princess staying eternally young with every reading, you can rewrite these other stories.  If the ending doesn’t work for you, you can close the book and create a new ending.  Suddenly you discover you are good at math.  Suddenly you look in the mirror and see beauty.

                Suddenly you see that the princess waits on no one, that she will slay that damn dragon herself.

 

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The Cherry Tree

Yesterday the cherry tree in front of my parents house blossomed.  I greeted spring as I looked up into the branches and felt a sense of renewal and hope.  Isn’t that what the spring brings us every year?—a chance to welcome awakenings and new blooms that seemed so far beneath the surface for far too long.

I don’t remember planting that cherry tree.  I could lie and come up with some sweet story about going to the tree nursery to pick it out and how it was a time of bonding with my parents to put the small tree into the ground when I was very young.  But the truth is, that in my memory, it has just always been there. 

It’s been the backdrop for prom pictures…for family pictures…and so in the photos, the tree ages just as I do.

And I do remember it being a fragile thing, having a trunk so thin that, as children, we were told to keep our games of tag away from it.  But now the cherry tree reaches past the second floor of our house and the branches must be trimmed back every now and then.

Over Christmas, my parents hang oversized decorative ornaments from the branches of the cherry tree and one branch sports a birdfeeder year round, feeding the squirrels and finches and jays.  A few weeks ago, my mom and I looked out the window to see a hawk perched at the top of the branches.

But this tree, when it truly asserts it’s presecnce, is when it blooms pink flowers.  It happens overnight so that yesterday it took my breath away.

Spring is a time of warm air, bare feet and pink cherry blossoms.  All of these things whisper in our ear to tell us to keep pushing, keep growing, keep stretching our branches.

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Dance Recitals

When I was young I took dance classes.  Ballet, jazz, tap, you name it.  I loved the way dancing made me feel.  I loved the soft pink leather shoes that I wore to class and the girlfriends that danced along beside me.  I loved feeling like I was good at something, that with enough practice I could master a move.

                Each year, we had a recital in the springtime and all of our hard work during the year would lead up to this one event.  As a class, we would pick out our costume and then order our sizes.  We would practice the steps over and over again so that on that one magical night, we would perform them flawlessly.

                When the night of the recital arrived, I would take the stage with the class, the old wooden boards of the performance center not nearly as slippery as the ones in the studio, lights shining up from in front of me, masking the faces of all those grinning parents that sat in rows of folding chairs.

                And I would dance, the steps mastered over months and months, knowing that this was the proof that those classes had worked.

                At the end of the performance, the sound of applause would take over and our class would bask in it, knowing we did well.  And then it was done.  We wished each other happy summers and knew that we would do it all again the following year.  My last recital, during my senior year of high school, I bawled at the end of the performance, knowing that I would never again take that stage. 

                There was just something so gratifying about seeing that the steps I had learned, the practice that I had put in, would culminate in one moment of perfection.

                I feel like my life has been a series of dance practices, of soft pink shoes slowly treading through experiences and moments.  My decisions are pirouettes; my eight counts are the years that weave in and out. 

                And I’m left to wonder about the recital…when the lights shine on my face and the audience waits with their breath held and their hands waiting to come together in praise, will I be ready?  Will these steps make sense? 

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