Tagloss

How we become more

In a nearby town there was recently a fire. Fires happen far too often in our area in the winter. Many of us burn wood for heat. Many old houses (there are plenty around here) have questionable wiring. And fires these days often burn hot and fast, thanks to the flammability of the synthetic materials used in furnishings.

There were seven members of the family home in this fire. Only two made it out of the building. The mother and four children were lost.

Friends of ours were among the first firefighters to arrive from the small volunteer force in this small rural town. The truck arrived promptly, and there was still nothing they could do to get inside. The fire had moved that quickly.

This is not a post about tragedy, although that is what I think of every day. This is about community. This is about empathy. This is about what we still have, and what we are forgetting, and why it matters so much.

In my husband’s family, two parents have lost children. In my family, two of my aunts lost adult children. On the highway I commute on, I’ve come upon the aftermath of fatal accidents more than once. On a twisty back road I take down to town, I once spent fifteen minutes of a warm sunny day slowing traffic around a still young man and his fallen motorcycle.

This is part of being alive, that death is always there. It is, in fact, the only promise we have, and yet we pretend it isn’t. The woods and fields know better. In the winter, the track of a mouse scurries across the snow to a point where it vanishes, the imprint of owl wings left to either side. The scatterings of bluejay feathers among the leaf litter on the ground, the smell of decay in along the trail on a hot humid day—there is nothing to hide.

We have a beginning and an end, all of us.

In this small town where a father and child escaped from a fire into a future without so many loved ones, this is what has happened. Town members have gathered, in church, at the school, and they have mourned and comforted. The fire department has asked for help and hugs for the volunteers who are grappling with their inability to save a family, and they have received both. Funds are being raised for new clothes, new furnishings, food and housing. A living space has been found for father and child. Children are supported as they try to understand how death comes for the young and the loved, not just the mouse in the snow.

This is the best of us. This is what we are born to be to one another. The volunteers who run into a freezing night to try to save their neighbors, the families who give what they have to help one another. The people who recognize grief—their own, others—and open themselves to feel it, not to turn away. The potential for pain in this world is legion.

So is the potential for grace.

Compassion requires one giant step: to acknowledge that loss waits for us all. We do not protect ourselves by refusing to take it. We simply make it easier to become the people who do not care, who see suffering and step around it, mock it, incite it. To become people for whom community is simply a misspelling of commodity.

Last fall, my husband and I stopped to help a young woman broken down on the side of the highway. She was traveling to visit a friend, and something on the road had punctured her tire and caused a blowout. As is the case in much of our area, there was no cell service. She’d managed to contact her mother via a hotspot she had rigged, and while we changed her tire in the soft ground of the shoulder, I could hear her mother in the background. Are you with good people? Are you sure?

We stopped to help because she was young, and a woman, and alone, and because we wanted to protect her. Because I could hear the fear in her mother’s voice, and because mothers know that when we send our children into the world, we are dependent on good people being there for the times we are not. Because tragedy waits for us all, and because compassion is the truest thing we can offer. I have rescued many birds trapped in buildings. There is always a moment, as you open your hands to release them into the world, that they sit stunned for just a second, weightless in your palm, and then, when they fly, you can feel their freedom like your own. Seeing this woman drive away, I could feel the same.

When I have hope, it is not in things. It is not in political thought. It is in the moments when we recognize our constant vulnerability. When we step into the grief, instead of away. We are made to care for one another. When we do, we become so much more.

Farewell, Callie Dog

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Callie, you were the very best of dogs. From the moment we met you in a stranger’s kitchen in Springfield, and we sat on the floor as your owner said “she’s afraid of all men,” and you immediately climbed into Jon’s lap, we knew we all belonged together. For almost sixteen years you took your self-appointed job of puppy tender very seriously.

Thank you for all the kisses, all the wearing of hats while the kids took pictures, all the dog laughs, and all the LOVE. I have never met another dog as in love with life as you. Even as arthritis settled into your bad hips, as your kidneys struggled with the arthritis meds, as the heart issues diagnosed six years worsened, you still loved life.

Or maybe you just loved us that much. We certainly loved you. When we gathered around you today and told you that we would be okay, that you didn’t have to hold on for us, that we were so grateful for everything you had given us, none of us really wanted to let you go.

Callie Dog, there was a rainbow as you were making your final trip today, and a heron by the side of the road. We will miss you tonight and tomorrow, and for what feels like forever right now.

Thank you. We love you, now and always.

Goodbyes. Hellos.

Warning: Animal death discussed.

About a month ago my Ripley Cat started going off her food. In fairly short order we discovered that she’d been hiding a large bony tumor in the fluffy hair along her jaw. She came home from the vet on pain meds. Last Monday her life ended.

Ripley came to us seventeen years ago as a week old kitten. Abandoned by her feral mother on the side of the road, she fit entirely in the palm of my hand. I fed her with syringes at first, then bottles. I named her Ripley because things were touch and go at first, and I wanted a tough enough name to get her through. What better namesake than Ellen Ripley? She came to work with me in the library, my compassionate library coworkers ignoring the large cardboard box by my desk, and helping us hide when administrators dropped by. As a bigger kitten, she would climb her way up onto the bed, and burrow under the blankets to the foot of the bed, causing us to wake at night terrified that she might have smothered there.

As an adult, she hated strangers, and talked to me in a creaky door stutter of a voice, and greeted me, always, by sniffing my breath. She had a long good life, and we were certain she would outlive us all through sheer determination. She would have, too, were it not for pain. As terrible and hard as it was to say goodbye, there was a moment as I sat there with her when I realized all the pain she would ever feel in her life was already behind her, and that made everything else bearable.

Death has visited us frequently in the past few years. We’ve said so many goodbyes that it’s become hard to remember that the world is made from more than loss, in all its many forms. The truth is that death is only one of the transitions that brings grief. We’ve dabbled in many of the others as well.

The other day a pigeon landed on the roof of our garage. This is noteworthy because we live in the woods, and pigeons are exotic birds here. This pigeon was very handsome, and somewhat bumbling as he hopped in the maple, and then came down to the walkway. My husband went out to look at him, and the bird followed the stone path down to the steps and waited there. My husband picked him up, and my daughter found a box, and we tucked him in it with food and water.

What do you do with a tame pigeon, particularly when you are not prepared to care for it? If you are lucky, you know a child who has recently lost one of her pigeons, and you drive to her house, fingers crossed, hoping against all reason that the bird in your box is hers.

It was not. But the bird in the box was beautiful to her, and she was delighted to see him, to examine his face, his tail feathers, to explain what type of pigeon he was, to admire everything about him. To take him in. And for a few minutes, standing there in the twilight, learning about the world of tame pigeons, I watched her and thought this is what utter joy looks like.

One pigeon goes. A different one returns. Beloved aunts and uncles pass away. Beloved nephews are born. Our paths through the world are always paved with goodbyes and hellos, even when the hellos feel so much rarer.

In keeping with that, we have a new family member. We are her third home in her short life. As a firm believer in the magic of three, I know that this home is the one that will count. She has the body of a little leopard, and the stripes of a tiger, and very little patience with things like typing at the computer rather than adoring her. Those are just the things we know so far. Hopefully we will have another seventeen years or so to learn the rest.

We love you always, Ripley.

We welcome you in, Coco.

A few truths

There are times I get very quiet here, and it’s because I’m busy, or uninspired, or not home. After all, if the only thing I have to say bores me, then I really have no desire to inflict it on you. Today I drove to buy groceries. Today I took a child for a physical. Today… You get the picture.

Sometimes, though, I don’t write because this is an odd space. The seductive thing about writing a blog post is that it can feel as though you are writing to yourself, or to a specific loved one. The truth is that a blog like this is open. It is a newspaper on a library shelf, one for the obscure country of Jenniferland, read by a few natives living elsewhere, and others–the curious, those interested in foreign policy, those dreaming of trips they’ll never take.

The question becomes, who do the editors of the Jenniferland Gazette seek to reach. To appeal to a potential tourist, one glosses over the matters of poverty, and hunger, and distress. One writes about sunny beaches and elusive birds and shrimp-mango surprise.

The trouble is, I’m really not that kind of writer. The act of writing begs honesty for me. Crossroads has been an exhausting book to work on because it wants to sit at that intersection of magic and reality, where deals sealed with a kiss can steal a voice, and ghosts can pilot a bus, but that magic walks alongside the fact that there are people–men, women, families, children on their own–living without homes in this country. Many of them. It’s hard to write a story and know how much you want to get it right, and also know you won’t. Not all of it.

That’s something of an aside. I came here to say that I haven’t been writing because writing has been hard because I don’t have those warm sunny travelogues to share at the moment.

A few truths. I’ve been waiting, a lot. I waited to see a specialist, and then I waited to get a biopsy, and now I’m waiting to hear that my thyroid doesn’t want to kill me. It’s highly unlikely that it does, but until I hear, I’m waiting. For now, I’ve traded my visible lump for a few tiny holes, the sort of thing a feeble vampire toddler might leave.

My aunt died. This was not unexpected. She had a terrible disease, and it took everything from her. She was warm and funny and loved to talk, and to sing, and to eat, and she stayed that way, even though she’d lost a husband young, even though she lost a daughter. Those things about her were eaten up by her disease, cruelly, because even though diseases have no intent of their own, their actions can feel as cruel, crueler sometimes, than the things humans choose to do.

I had not spent much time with her in years. But…there’s always a but, and in this case, it’s a selfish one, she was part of my childhood, as were my grandparents, with whom she lived, and her daughter. They are all gone now. One headstone, four names, and I miss them all. I miss the dairy my grandfather owned when I was a child, I miss the cows, with their big eyes and long tongues and curiosity, I miss my cousin’s dog, Daisy, and walking her, and I miss being young and having a place that felt as though magic sat everywhere. That was the way my grandfather’s farm felt to me.

It’s all vanished from my life. There are memories that are mine alone now–a wood duck perched in a tree, a flat slab of rock warmed in the sun–mine and the land’s, because I do believe there are echoes of everything–footsteps, water, sun, shadow–held by the earth.

Things happen, and while they do, the rest of life doesn’t pause. There are points in parenting when things continue relatively unchanged, and there are others when you cannot catch your breath, when it feels your children are growing into themselves so quickly, so…there really are not words to describe the combination of grace and awkwardness and need and capability, or to explain what it does to your heart to watch. And that growth can be happening in the midst of grief and fear and all the things life passes along.

Enough truth?

I’ll try to write more often. I have a backlog of wonderful interviews with very patient people to post, so you’ll being seeing those as well.

Peace.

On rereading Tolkien

My dear family gave me a new copy of The Lord of the Rings for my birthday. As those of you who have read my blog for a while know, I love books. Physical books, books that have weight and weathered pages and ancient stains and tired spines.

Unfortunately, books wear out in direct proportion to the love they’ve experienced through their lives. My original paperback copies of the trilogy are tattered, to put it kindly. The final straw was losing the last few pages of The Return of the King. I’ll keep them all, of course, but I now also have a shiny new hardcover version of the entire set in one volume.

So I’m reading it again. It’s been a very very long time. Yes, there are things in Middle Earth that are not as I would like them, as a woman reader in 2013. It doesn’t change the fact that I lived in these books when I was younger. I would read from beginning to end and then immediately start over again. I even had a record (yes, record, you know, vinyl, round, with grooves) of Tolkien himself reading some of the poems, in English and Elvish.

Back then, I wasn’t all that excited by Frodo’s journey. I liked the battles, the big ones. I liked everyone charging into the fray, and not all of them returning. Frodo? He simply continued forward. He endured. Everything rested on his shoulders, but they were very plain little shoulders.

I started thinking about that again a few years ago, when I read this post on PTSD. Somewhere along the way my feelings had changed. I still loved the sheer bigness of the action, but it was Frodo that seemed more compelling. That terrible weight he carried, that doggedness in continuing on, that sense of bone-deep weariness, with everything.

And at the very end, after traveling with Sam one last time, with Sam in tears as he says that he thought that Frodo would stay and enjoy the Shire forever, Frodo says this: “So I thought too, once. But I have been hurt too deeply, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Writing, the kind of writing that catches hold of readers in some inescapable way, often grows from troubled gardens. For me, the glory of Tolkien’s work is not so much in the details of orcs and elves and wargs, but in the sense of cost behind it all. That the action doesn’t end with a battle, or with the destruction of the ring, but with a return home to a country that no longer fits, with coming to terms with the things lost along the way to victory while always feeling gratitude for what was saved. The sort of writing that likely grew out of Tolkien’s experience of World War I.

At its best, fantasy is so much more than cool beings in fabulous places. It’s an invitation into life in all its splendor and messiness and pain and wonder. It acknowledges that magic and loss can walk hand in hand, not just in books, but in our lives as well.

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