Building Fences

garden fence

Some lessons have come to me late in life including the importance of a good fence. My daughter and I recently replaced our vegetable garden fence – formerly a patchwork of flopping metal. It had no gate which meant leaping over the prickly wire, sometimes catching clothes or skin. Fixing that fence had long been on my endless home improvement wish-list.

I hesitated to spend money on materials when there is so much else that needs to get done – but Molly said, “You love gardening, it makes you happy – let’s do this.” And so we did. We bought posts and a few rolls of small-mesh wire fencing and borrowed our neighbor’s electric staple gun. We took turns hammering in the posts. I love swinging a hammer. Remembering my days as a sculptor, letting the weight of the head do most of the work, watching and feeling the nail settle into the wood, and finally, the satisfaction of making something strong. Molly was better than me at handling the staple gun, shooting them in with a pop as I held the fencing taut. I’m particularly proud of the gate. We don’t have a drill so I twisted the screws into the hinges by hand then hung it by myself after leveling the base just-so.

Now, my tomatoes, lettuce, herbs and flowers will be protected from ravenous rabbits and the resident bully of a groundhog.

I look at our handiwork and realize another reason I wanted to fix that fence. The process and completion of this simple, imperfect structure affirms what feels like a new stage of my life – clear, strong boundaries built with love – and a gate that easily opens when needed.

beach fence

 

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Carrying Air to the Lungs

I’d been thinking a lot about breath lately, trying to breath better – if you will. Which is why getting hit with bronchitis feels like some weird message from the cosmos. What do I need to pay attention to? Am I going about this all wrong?

My mornings begin with at least a few minutes of meditating. I focus on my breath in between thinking about going back to sleep, what was my dream, or what do I need to do today? If my mind is particularly squirrel-y, I count and perhaps pause at each inhale, exhale. During the day, I do my best to breath from my diaphragm not my chest.

Being so conscious about my breath, I feel WTF? about getting this diagnosis. No cold, no sniffles, no flu – just all of a sudden a weird sensation of wheezing and a cough as if I smoked – and I never have. What am I missing, universe?

I know I need to do it harder – to more vigorously exercise beyond my preferred yoga – to make myself breathless. Aerobic exercise increases the body’s need for oxygen and the benefits to the body AND brain have been impressively proven, etc. etc. I try to walk sort-of fast around the track with my friend although we’ve been slacking. Still, I rarely sweat. I never run and I a haven’t ridden a bicycle regularly since before Molly was born.

Now that dear Tetley is gone, I must intentionally go out to walk. Without my dog companion I feel naked and am missing so much in my little hood: the up-close view of bluebells in bloom on my neighbors’ lawn, the glorious full moon glimpsed only while driving, fresh morning air of spring, the early, the late light of day as I trail after his wagging tail. Oh, don’t get me started on how I miss my little guy!

I told you last time how I listened to him dying, counting his last breaths but leaving him be because somehow, I felt he wanted to be left. And what could I do anyway? We die alone and I think, dog or human, it is rarely easy. I sat, respectful and moved by being witness to his death. And oh, the beauty of my uncomplicated grief! He loved, was loved and now, he is missed. Terribly. But even the sadness, feels rich and dear.

I am not used to uncomplicated grief. And breath feels profound for me – my mother died of lung cancer at 64. Diagnosed in Spring, she died the following Autumn. My husband chose to end his life by halting his breath. I cannot think long about breathing, the finite-ness of our inhalations and exhalations without launching into such musings, loaded like my bronchial tubes today, sticky with grief.

So what is there for me to learn here? Perhaps to not approach breath with just reverence, but to expand my lungs, thus brightening my brain, pumping my heart. This sounds so simple – exercise? Then why do I feel almost moved to tears by the notion of pushing myself beyond where I am comfortable, beyond my calming breaths, that there’s something more, something I have been missing and now it’s time to make a run for it. Or something.

How’s your breath? Any suggestions?

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Tetley: Love Letter from a Reluctant Dog Owner

Neil fancied himself a Doctor Doolittle and if he had his druthers. would have made our house into a menagerie. Although I was never a cat person, he persuaded me to adopt a total of 3 in our first year together in Croatia. During our stint of living in Italy, he once rescued an owl from a barbed wire fence, and regularly welcomed ratty dogs to our villa until he could find homes for them. I found this endearing until we moved to Connecticut and I struggled to pay the bills. A full grown Golden Retriever needed to be spayed and ate weird things then left putrid puddles that as the early riser, I always got to clean up. After someone told me about a friend who spent $10,000 on their Retriever for surgery after it ate socks and a Brillo pad, I nixed this Golden – and any more dogs. Anyway, we had Katty who’d moved in on us when we first arrived back in the States. No dog, we agreed. So I thought.

tet and katty

On a December night, second grader Molly sprawled across the foot of our bed watching television. I was reading, propped up  against my pillows when Neil, blustered into the room, just home from work, his coat damp from the snowy night. I knew he was hiding something. After a quick kiss, Molly turned her attention back to her show. I peered suspiciously over my glasses and he opened his coat revealing a tiny gray dog. I couldn’t believe it. “No!”, I mouthed, gesturing for him to go downstairs  so we’d be out of Molly’s earshot.

molly and tetley

Neil handled the tiny, bedraggled puppy to me. “I’ll take him back if you want.” But he knew, he knew that as soon as I held that little beating heart to mine, I’d fall in love. We went back upstairs and presented Tetley to Molly who burst into tears of joy. Neil trained him brilliantly and this sweet Cairn loved us fiercely. Our corner plot surrounded by a hedge was his kingdom. I have lived in this neighborhood for close to 20 years and Tetley lived for 14 and I wager, more people know his name than mine.

tetley

He’s been gone 2 weeks and still I expect him to greet me when I come home from work, I look down, expecting to see his hopeful gaze as my knife hits the chopping board. My feet search for the warm lump of him at the foot of my bed. I think I hear the clicking of his nails against the hardwood floors. I leave time in the morning to take him for his walk before going to work and in the afternoon, I look out the window forlornly, missing our jaunt up the hilly streets, him proudly strutting beside me. What will I do without my guy?

Tetley faded fast. Molly and I had been bracing ourselves for years – we know loss well and this time, hoped to be prepared. He’d stopped eating his own food 2 weeks earlier, swallowing only the most savory treats: a rotisserie chicken was a big hit, steak, bacon – everything drenched in beef broth. He still loved a walk – even as he barely managed to step over the threshold, he wagged his tail furiously and announced himself to the squirrels with a few barks. But eventually, it was all he could do to toddle drunkenly into the yard, take care of his business before collapsing in exhaustion on the damp lawn.

Molly came down from college to spend the night that Sunday, knowing it would be her last opportunity to hold her beloved dog. When I returned home Monday afternoon, he still lay in his bed – the egg and bacon I’d left him in the morning, untouched. With my fingers, I offered a tidbit but he turned his head away and I knew this was the end. Molly and I had agreed that if he became like Katty – unable to even stand, I would bring him to be euthanized. The thought of his terror of the vet, the coldness of the metal table and scrubbed floors, made me ill. I didn’t want that to be his lot. Kneeling before him weeping, stroking his sweet head, I pleaded with Neil, gone 12 years this May, “He’s yours now! Please take our dog, please take him, Neil, please take him!”

With night, his breathing grew more labored and I thought – this is it. Finally, life is about breath. I counted his. In the early hours of the morning, I woke to hear him making his way under my bed so lifted and held him, smelling his fur, his now knobby spine against my chest. After a few minutes, he seemed to pull away, straining to get off the bed so I put him back down and again, he dragged himself as much under my bed as he could.

As a child, I loved a series of books about Collies – and recalled reading how the dogs knew when it was time to die and disappeared into the woods, under houses. They hid, wanting to be alone. Remembering these stories, I resisted the urge to hold him, to touch him, to let him know I was there – that’s not what he wanted. Instead, I listened to his inhales and exhales until there was silence. Then, I sat and said a kind of prayer, filling my own lungs, counting my own breaths, and with every beat of my broken heart, realizing his absence. And I thanked Neil for taking as he brought to us, this beautiful creature, finding comfort in imagining somewhere, somehow, him with the little Cairn and perfect love he delivered into our lives one snowy December night.

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A Winter Walk at the Beach

beach benchI sit a lot, don’t you? And now, with winter cold and my aging dog, I move even less. For 14 years, Tetley has enthusiastically forced me up and out a few times a day. Alas, he is fading. The days of him pulling me the long route up hills for a real work-out, are over. Now I can barely cajole him half a block. I anticipate heartbreak ahead…

Tet

But enough of that – it’s just that Tetley is content to sleep and last Sunday, I too could have lolled on the couch with the newspapers all day.

But I needed a good walk – to move my bones and get my heart pumping —  hours of sitting at work, at home, in the car, makes my hips ache. Although I love moving through the world by foot, on a wintery day when I don’t have to do anything, I’m often content to never step over the threshold. But look…

beach sandTen minutes drive from my house, I get to walk here!

Unlike this frigid weekend, last Sunday was balmy for February, the light squinting-bright. I walked alone, breathing and thinking and enjoying the crunch of snow, sand and the squish of mud underfoot. I walked down to the shoreline so I could hear the lapping waves. I passed fewer than 20 other walkers. We greeted each other with bright smiles as if we’d landed in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory together – a shared glee at being here on a February day.

sunny viewFilling my lungs with the cold sea air and the light, oh the changing light! Why am I not up at 5:30 every morning to walk briskly around this sweet course, breathing deeply, absorbing the beauty and peace in this city where I landed by accident, 20 years ago? Or at least at 5:30 PM when I’m done with work and catch a sunset while I’m at it. I should do that.

trees beachSometimes I think about venturing back out into the wide-world again, to find a warmer, less expensive life maybe? Maybe. Then I recall that when I wandered the globe I longed for a place. On this Sunday walk, with a surge of joy, a breath of cold winter air, an earful of seagull screams, I recognize – I am here. And for now, it sure will do.

Where do you walk?

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This House, This Home

 

tree top

Armed with addresses of houses within our budget, I’d drive-by properties to take a look on my own. Pulling up to this sweet place for the first time, the atmosphere seemed to change and I felt like I’d gone back in time. It was late summer and the white cape dwarfed by trees with a hedge setting the property apart from the quiet street, called to me. This one, I told Mary Lou, I want to see this one.

An old woman named Mrs. Henderson lived here before us. Her only son lived down south and somewhat reluctantly, she was moving to be closer to him. She’d lived in the house for 45 years. We quizzed her about the yard – Azalea shrubs, a Dogwood (that has long since died) Forsythia and a long bank of Peonies. She and I sat on the porch together. With every breeze, the leaves seemed to applaud. It’s been a happy house, she told me as she watched Neil lead Molly across the lawn. I knew she liked us and wouldn’t dicker about our lower bid. Charming Neil and earnest me with our darling daughter, almost two. They will be happy too, she must have thought.

living room

This 1938 Cape with charming glass doorknobs and a fireplace, hardwood floors badly in need of refinishing and a water tank barely able to accommodate one of Neil’s hot baths became ours. The place needed a lot of work but our budget was limited so we did little to improve it. The year Neil died, I somehow managed to put a new roof on.

When I fantasize about winning the lottery, I don’t imagine buying some fancy joint, I’d finally fix up this one. I would put in a new bathtub, finally refinish the floors, replace the drafty old windows, maybe add second bathroom on the first floor. And I’d definitely tear down the garage of such sad history and replace it with a sweet live-able studio.

house in snow

At times, I wonder about remaining here – mostly because of money, doubts about whether I can do it all myself, but also, because unlike Mrs. Henderson’s years, on our watch, this house has seen great sadness. Within a only few months of moving in, money began disappearing, Neil started sleeping all day, losing jobs and ignoring home responsibilities including his wife and daughter. Finally, I learned of his addiction. Years of struggle followed – cycles of hope and despair until he ended it all here at our home. Someone else might have moved away but I never blamed this house and memories fade with time. Somehow, we always come back to joy here because, there is our love, Molly’s and mine. One I dreamed of.

chair window

My journals written in my twenties and early thirties are full of longing for a home, a craving for a place, for love. And even with sadness, old and new, this place has been that. Next year Molly and I will have been here 20 years. Our home, this house, remains rich with the most profound love I have ever experienced – for my daughter who I have raised within these old walls. And this is her home as well as mine, this house where the floors have never been refinished, where the old pipes leak and that cast iron boiler just better hang on for at least another winter.

I have spent these last snowy days inside this shabby, beloved house watching the light change through the hours, sitting in the warmth of sun pouring in the windows. Later, I will light a fire and finally, climb the creaky stairs to bed and with sweet old Tetley curled at my feet, I will sleep. And I think, this is a house of happiness. In fact, sheer joy. And when Spring comes and the leaves come out, I know they will applaud again.

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Sunday Silence

I lived without a television from the late 1970s through the early 90s and thus have lots of television related social gaps. Dallas? Laverne & Shirley? Mork & Mindy? Missed them all and didn’t miss them.

The boob-tube, or idiot-box as my father referred to it, came into my adult life when I got together with my late husband in Sarajevo. He loved it even risking his life for his favorite television shows. To placate the the journalists who made up most of the guests at this Holiday Inn smack on the front line, the satellites on the roof were carefully angled for best reception of CNN, ITV and Sky News. Neil figured out that if he could shift a dish just so, he might see his shows. Donning his flak jacket and helmet in case any snipers spotted him, he crawled across the hotel roof. Armed with a walkie-talkie, he communicated with a friend stationed in his hotel room. Neil shifted the dish until Captain Kirk and Spock were in perfect focus.

When Neil and I moved-in together in Zagreb, he insisted on having a television with the necessary dish. I settled easily into watching his English comedies (and I sheepishly confess to still being hooked on Eastenders). Initially, like all beginning romances, it felt cozy and fun especially after living without electricity and minimum home entertainment for over a year.

From having no TV presence, my life soon became dominated by it. It was constantly on. I learned to tune-out the canned laughter and Rocky machine gun fire. But I never liked the constant noise. Eventually, I asserted myself and demanded that Sundays be TV free until after 5:00 PM. No cartoons, no morning news programs – no irritating commercials!

Sundays became blissfully silent. I still stick to this rule – even when Molly’s at school and I am alone in the house. While I confess to now having my own addiction to shows like Downton Abbey, Homeland, British Mysteries and the news, I never turn it on until the evening, no matter the day. Even so, I still watch too much and it’s an incredible time-suck, don’t you think? But never on Sundays. That silence feels sacred.

When do you watch television?

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Enough IS Enough

Christmas tree

Today I assessed the gifts I’ll be giving for Christmas. Laid out across my bed in little piles by person – most for my daughter, a few things for siblings who will visit on Christmas day, and another  group for dear friends, it looked paltry. Especially Molly’s pile. I imagined them wrapped and under the cute little tree we bought the other other day and thought, “There’s not enough!” and off I went out into the fray to buy more stuff.

I know better. Molly doesn’t care. We’re more of a team than ever, working together on saving pennies where we can. There’s a year and a half left to get her through college. We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel of funds I’ve saved. She knows that. Still, I’m insecure about my ability to deliver on Christmas. Why? It’s ridiculous, I know. My kid is 20. She works. My family and friends work. We are all adults. It’s nice to get and receive things but none of it is necessary. Still, some mother-gene in me cannot imagine disappointing my daughter.

But then I really think about it. I think gratefully about how we all have roofs over our heads, good food to eat. How fortunate we are to flick a switch for light, turn a tap for water. How lucky we are that no one is bombing us. The little piles on my bed (slightly bigger after my outing) are enough.  We have enough and that really IS enough.

Enjoy your holiday! (and give books!) xxx

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A Good Start: On Dreams and Meditation

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I would like to do a better job of remembering my dreams. I rarely do. I’ve tried all sorts of tricks – telling myself pre-sleep: “remember your dream!” Nothing. At best, I manage a snippet. My intention is to learn more about my subconscious, to improve my discernment in every sense of that word. I’m tired of making the same mistakes in my life but if I don’t understand where they come from, I probably will. Hey, it’s only taken me to the other side of 50 to fully embrace this idea. Better late than never, right?

Recently, a pretty mundane remembered dream-scene inspired me to start meditating again — a discipline that in the past has been helpful. In my dream, I am searching for a different wake-up sound on my alarm clock, something besides my usual bird twitters. While the choices on my real clock has only said bird sounds, rushing water (effective perhaps in hurrying one to the bathroom) or horrible beeping noises, my dream clock included the mesmerizing chants of Tibetan monks. In my dream state, of course I choose to be woken by this chanting.

And when I actually woke and (eureka!) remembered this, I took it as very clear guidance. Wouldn’t you? Now, when my electrically tweeting birds wake me, I hit snooze but instead of burrowing deeper into my pillow, I scoot up into a lotus position and for 10 minutes or so until the birds start singing again, I focus on breathing, on silence. With each inhale I imagine filling up a reservoir of peace that might sustain me through the day.

Sitting for a few moments after opening my eyes, I like to observe the night change to day. This week, mornings were either shrouded in fog or spectacularly red – once in particular, the world beyond my windows seemed on fire, the crazy reds almost tangible so densely did they fill the atmosphere. In half-consciousness, I basked in those magic rose hues until they were absorbed into the normal light of a day. A good start.

Do you remember your dreams?

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Sunrise, Sunset, the Moon, the Stars and My Dog

 

2013-01-20 15.05.19My breath is visible and a cloud of steam rises from Tetley’s pee as he lifts his leg over a pile of leaves. I look up at the brilliant blue sky promising a beautiful day. I follow the flight of a little bird as it bounces through a shrub with golden leaves – the last foliage left in the wood. Yesterday’s wind cleared most of the leaves and now I shuffle through them as I follow my sweet old Cairn Terrier down the street. He pulls me forward then stops, lingering a long time to smell a suspect rock. So I stand and look around, listen, fill my lungs with fresh air – my initial grumpiness about getting forced out into the world earlier than I wanted fading. Like most of us, although I’d love to, I rarely get to loll about in bed past 6 AM and it’s now just after 8 on a Sunday – a little later than our usual circling of the neighborhood.

2013-01-20 15.06.19

Multiple times a day, Tetley leads me to moments of meditation. He gets me OUT. Even when I’m cranky or the weather sucks. And so I see the sunrise, the sunset, the moon and stars, the passing flock of geese honking through the sky, rabbits, and once even a coyote. He gets me closer to the subtle change in the season, I speak with my neighbors rather than just waving at them from my car. I watch the light, hear the bird songs. We sometimes go to the beach in a neighboring town where he can climb on the jetty in search of rodents and I watch the tides, hear the waves, smell the salt air. He greets strange dogs and I talk to their owners.

Tet color profile

Tetley makes me move when I’m inclined to hide at home, not leave the couch. And once outside, there is no purpose but to be there with him and see the world around us.

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In Praise of Dark Mornings and a Vote Against #DaylightSavingTime

Tetley shoots out the door ahead of me, barking at shadows cast by streetlights and a waning Moon. Dark mornings extend my dream state as I move almost immediately from bed into the street with a coat thrown over my pajamas, a hood pulled over uncombed hair. Recently my breath is visible in the chill.

tetley in leaves

Last week Venus, Jupiter and Mars gathered each morning like a gossiping trio on the Eastern horizon, a bonus for my early ritual of searching the still-dark sky for the glow of planets, lingering stars, a sliver or a some part of the Moon. Seeing these wonders gets me thinking about being on planet Earth, part of an extraordinary balancing act and the thought simultaneously dizzies and centers me. Breathing, shivering in the cold of a dark morning, I feel intrinsically part of the magnificence – one of billions on this incredible, flawed place in the universe with other spinning planets and stars.

The night sky at morning gives me a bigger jolt than any cup of caffeine, setting the stage for my day – a glimpse of something bigger than myself before I get sucked into daily requirements.

We turned the clocks back last night. I’ll miss my mornings in the dark.

How do you feel about Daylight Saving Time?

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