The corner of the heart

Back in 1998, country singer Collin Raye released a song called “Corner of the Heart,” which you can watch here. It has a good solid core idea, although the lyrics overall are weak, I think. Nevertheless, the chorus points to the fact that in most relationships there comes a time when one must choose to turn the corner—to recommit at an ever-deeper level to the other person, or to walk away.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to test this theory with another person in my own life. I have seen for myself, though, how it works.

From the day I got my girl dog, Reggie, she was, to put it mildly, a problem. She peed and pooped in the house, she ate her own and Rudy’s poo, she was an incorrigible mule on the leash, she tore up my stuff, and she chewed up and ate things that blocked her bowels. For the first two years of her life, I was in a nearly constant state of rage, frustration, and anxiety. I actually talked to my doctor at one point about getting some pharmaceutical help to deal with it (although ultimately decided not to go that route).

I admit, I did not love Reggie much for most of those first two years. Everyone who knows me got to hear all about my problem dog, and how miserable she made me, and how she was ruining my sleep and my carpets and my peace of mind, and how much I wished I could rehome her but how I just couldn’t because I’d feel too guilty letting her go to anyone else. There is no end to the variety of bad homes and bad owners for dogs, and neither I nor my home is perfect but we’re better than most. Besides, she could be so cute, and so charming, from time to time. I fell in love with her the first day I met her and was so excited to bring her home. But when she peed in the middle of my bed within minutes of arriving, I couldn’t help but think I’d made a terrible mistake.

After I stripped the blankets off the bed Reggie peed on, she promptly made herself comfortable in the laundry room.

After I stripped the blankets off the bed Reggie peed on, she promptly made herself comfortable in the laundry room.

When Reggie was about 18 months old, she developed a series of what appeared to be urinary tract infections. This led to the complete loss of her house training and pee everywhere—on the couch, on the bed, in the car, and on the carpets in every room of my house. It was a pee-a-palooza. It took several months and hundreds of dollars’ worth of tests to determine what was actually wrong with her, which turned out to be a congenital defect called a hepatic portosystemic shunt. She has an extra blood vessel on her liver that was shunting blood around her liver rather than through her liver to be filtered. Although she was very fortunate not to have suffered any long-term damage from her inadequately filtered blood those first two years, her life would have been significantly shortened if the shunt were not fixed.

Feeling guilty and hard-pressed but also hopeful that this could resolve her urinary problems, I opted to have the shunt repaired in 2011. It was a major operation, and Reggie struggled in her recovery.

In her crate immediately after surgery, her leg still wrapped where she had an IV and her eyes still shiny from the goop they put on them to keep her eyeballs from drying out during the surgery.

Reggie in her crate immediately after the shunt-repair surgery, her leg still wrapped where she had an IV and her eyes still shiny from the goop they put on them to keep her eyeballs from drying out during the surgery.

The largest struggle was with bacterial overgrowth in her gut, which gave her diarrhea. I had to keep her in a crate during the day when I was at work to keep her quiet, and it was bare empty because she would eat any fabric I put in there with her. She would poop all over her crate, then eat it, then poop it again. Every day. This pushed me to my lowest point of anger and disgust with her horrible habits.

Fortunately—by grace, evidently, because I can’t say it was by my conscious choice—this is when I turned the corner in my heart with Reggie. I finally realized that she was not “misbehaving” just to spite me and that her behavior was nothing she could choose to control. I stopped seeing her as a vexing burden I shouldered out of guilt, but rather as a small creature in my care who needed my help. In short, I stopped allowing her to make me suffer because I stopped seeing her behavior as any reflection whatsoever on me.

From that point forward, I willingly made arrangements to get Reggie out of the crate when she needed to go, even when I was at work, to break her coprophagia cycle and to help her heal. I administered her medications punctiliously, I kept her clean and dry, and I cuddled her close when she seemed to be feeling bad. I stopped seeing her accidents as affronts to me and damage to my home and started seeing them simply as a symptom that she was struggling. I did all I could to help her get better, but at the same time I accepted her for exactly the dog that she was instead of always pushing her to be the dog I wanted her to be and punishing her for not being that dog.

I’m happy to say that the surgery was 100% successful and that Reggie was once again fully house trained after all her medical issues cleared. She is in the very pink of health now and I expect her to live out her full normal life span.

She has not, however, become the dog I wanted her to be when I got her.

She’s become so much more than that.

reggie-bedlet

My best girl dog.

There was a time when I would have gladly handed Reggie over to the first person who came along and asked for her, but now I would not trade her for anything in the world. She is in my heart for life.

The story of us

We hold our dogs so close that parts of ourselves overflow and fall directly onto their furry heads. So when we look at our dogs we see our worst sorrows, our greatest joys and the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name. The story of our dogs is the story of us. ~ Will Kearney, “On Losing a Dog”

This quote is from a story about a man and his dog, a German Shorthaired Pointer named Dutch. The man is the author’s brother, James. I was moved by this account of love and loss, both for how it mirrors my own and how it doesn’t.

Like Dutch, my big dog Ruby lived with me for the best 10 years of my life before I lost her to hemangiosarcoma in 2007. I’ve said many times, on this blog and elsewhere, that she was the best dog in the world, as is every well-loved dog. Raising her well, giving her a good life, and caring for her to the end are among the best things I have ever done, and I will always be grateful that she was my dog.

Ruby_kiss_2003

Me and my big dog.

Kearney says of his brother, “When Dutch died, so did the some of the best parts of James. But before Dutch died, he gave all of the best parts of himself to James. It’s a painful trade but it’s one James, I and you never regret.” On this point, we differ. Ruby changed me profoundly for the better as she, too, gave me all the best parts of herself. And the best parts of me that she drew forth are still vibrantly alive, buoying me up through tough times. She gave me all she had, and I honor her gifts every day. I share them with my little dogs now, as well as with my friends and family and the world in other ways.

The little dogs, too, give me their best, and loving them keeps my heart open and warm and pliable even when it has every reason to shrivel up into a cold, bitter lump of nothing. Hey, I’ve been single for a long damn time, and while that has its advantages, to be sure, it does not foster open-heartedness as a general rule. I know that I cannot survive without an open heart, so in this respect my dogs are my lifeline.

little-dogs

Me and my little dogs.

People have always said that the greatest thing about dogs is that they love us unconditionally. I don’t think that’s true, actually, because I don’t know that animals actually feel what we call love. But I know that people do. And I think the greatest thing about dogs, and all pets, is that they allow us to love them unconditionally. The best human-animal bonds allow us to be who we were born to be: open-hearted, loving, understanding, trusting, patient, kind, and most of all, fully present. Most of us are too afraid to love other people that way, but we can love our animals that way because they place no barriers between themselves and our affections for them. Imagine how the world might change if everyone allowed themselves to love and be loved this way, sharing with one another “the deepest part of ourselves for which there is no name.”

“My dog does this amazing thing where he just exists and makes my whole life better because of it.” ~ Found on various internet sites without attribution

I’ve had separate conversations recently with a very dear friend and with my mother, both lovely women, to the effect that their greatest contribution to the world is simply to show up and be themselves because that, in and of itself, is a gift that the world needs. My mother, in particular, feels on some days that because she has such limited mobility since her stroke that she doesn’t have much to offer the world anymore. But in fact, her mere presence is a tangible thing, strongly felt by family, friends and strangers alike—in exactly the same way that her Golden Retriever’s presence is felt by and influences everyone with whom the dog comes in contact.

My mom and her dog, Sunny.

Mom and her dog, Sunny, who makes her laugh.

Sunny has no agenda in her interactions with the world; she takes people just as she finds them and loves them all the same. All she has to offer in any interaction is only herself, and nearly everyone she meets finds that to be not only sufficient, but actually quite delightful. My mother, too, is finding that all she has to offer now is herself, and well into her seventh decade of life she is learning, I hope, that this is and has always been enough.

Whether your pet of choice is a dog, a cat, a hamster, a rabbit, a horse, a python, or any other sentient creature, this is the simplest and yet the most profound lesson that our animals can teach us: Be present. Be yourself. Be.

A hand to hold on to

In the summer of 1980, shortly after Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State and I turned 14, I spent six weeks at a camp for overweight girls in Olympia, Washington—kind of a single-gender “Biggest Loser” experience but far kinder. We worked out a lot and took classes in exercise physiology and proper nutrition, among other things, and my time there set the foundation of whatever healthy habits I still practice today.

The director of the camp, whose name is Diane, was an especially kind woman who was firm, fair and fun in equal measure. She and her handpicked staff of counselors were good to us campers, and insofar as insecure teens and adult mentors can be friends, I became friends with her and a few others. I kept in touch with them for a few years, but after college, all my correspondences fell away. I never forgot her, but I didn’t know how to find her and just figured that I was one of her many, many former campers and students whom she had long since forgotten.

So imagine my surprise when I received a message from her on Facebook this past June, asking if I had attended that camp so long ago. We refriended one another on FB and I learned she had moved to a small town within two hours’ drive of my parents’ house. Since I am visiting them this week, I decided to take the afternoon and go see her today.

It’s funny how with certain people, the years apart don’t just fall away when you see each other again, but rather they seem never to have passed at all. So it was for us, or at least for me, to sit and talk with her again just as if we’d seen each other last week. Our memories of 1980 and after are blurred now, of course, but some parts still stand clear, and we talked about those. I told her that I’ve spent more than 30 years thinking that I would never see her again, yet there she was. And there I was.

One story I did not remind her about was a long phone call we had a couple of years after camp, when I was in high school and having a hard time. I was not standing on a high bridge over a fast-moving river, by any means, but I was emotionally on the brink just the same and I needed someone to talk me down, so I called her. I don’t remember anything else she said to me that night during the hour-plus that we talked, but I will always remember that she told me this: “You are brighter than the average bear, and you can work this out.”

It is almost a banal observation, but the fact that she saw me as intelligent and capable of solving my problems made me believe it for the first time in my life. In that moment, her hand reached out to me through the long-distance line, steadied me on my own two feet, and pulled me gently back from that abyss over which I swayed. And I’ve been holding on to that hand, that single sentence, ever since. Brighter than the average bear. It has gotten me through more struggles than you might expect. The help we need sometimes comes from the most unlikely places.

I spent about five hours visiting with Diane and her husband before I had to get back this evening. I wonder when or if we will see each other again. Until we do, I want her to know how much she’s meant to me all these years, and how dearly I hold not only the words she said to me on a very dark night, but also the faith she had in me and the bright circle of light within which she held—and still holds—me as a worthy human being with great potential. It made such a difference to me then. It still does.

Don't let her stature fool you. She's a giant of a woman at heart.

Don’t let her stature fool you. She’s a giant of a woman at heart.

Thanks, Di, for everything.

 

The change of life

Recent evidence suggests that my on-board egg factory either already has ceased or will soon cease production after dropping more than 400 payloads down the hatch. Which means that, among other things, all symptoms of unstable hormonal activity in my body will soon cease as well (I hope—Gott im Himmel, I hope!).

nightsweats

Knowhuttahmean, girls?

I am finally passing through the gates of the change of life, leaving my procreative potential behind forever. The maiden who never became a mother has now become a … crone.

lucy-ick-animated

Well, shoot, that’s neither a pretty word nor a pretty idea. But it beats the alternative:

tombstone

Heh. Not yet.

I read all the time in the women’s magazines how single women of reproductive age who haven’t taken that option are pestered constantly by friends, family and strangers to explain why they haven’t. Funnily enough, almost nobody has ever put that inquiry to me. If they have, my answer is this: I would want any child of mine to be born in wedlock to his or her two biological parents who love each other and who can together provide a stable, loving home for that child. Because I have never been able to provide that, I have not had children. (Note: I don’t care what reproductive choices other women make, which are none of my business.)

The biggest deal breaker, of course, was not having the partner and fellow bioparent, otherwise known as the father, with whom to create and rear that child. There was a young man, once, back in high school, whom I envisioned in this role, but he was never interested in playing the part. I haven’t met anyone since who might have replaced him. I’ve had relationships, of course, but no permanent romantic partner. I have no excuses, apologies or complaints to offer for this state of affairs (or lack thereof). It is what it is. This is the life I’ve made and the path I’ve chosen. A partner and child(ren) were simply not part of the plan this time around.

The other deal breaker, entirely apart from circumstances, was always knowing that I don’t have the energy to play the short game of raising children to get through the days nor the patience and foresight to play the long game to get through the years, so I am not mourning the passing of my fertility and my potential to send forth my own little arrows into the future. My sister has two children, and I see them as my arrows almost as much as hers. They are the entire next generation of our immediate family, in fact. I know I could not have raised them one tiny fraction as well as my sister has, so I’m glad they are her kids in that respect. I think I’m a  good auntie, though, and they know I love them just slightly less than their mother does.

When my grandmother was my age, she had two adult children who had graduated college and married, two children in college, a second-grader at home, and her first grandchild (my brother). When my mother was my age, she had one adult child, one college student, and one teenager at home. I think our family represents a larger trend in more ways than one. My grandmother had a high-school education and five living children out of seven or eight pregnancies. My mother had a nursing degree and three children. I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and no children. They say the more education a woman has, the less likely she is to reproduce. I never made a conscious choice to pursue my education or my career over partnership and family; it just happened that way.

Then, too, I always suspected it would. When that first early love of mine came to nothing, I really couldn’t see a partner in my future ever again. It always seemed to me that no matter how much I wanted it or how hard I looked for it or how hard I tried to make it happen with this person or that person, I just knew that no, this was not going to happen for me. They say there’s a lid for every pot, but I have seen that this is not true and I have finally stopped expecting it for myself.

I struggled against that realization for a long time because human beings are not made to be alone and not meant to be lonely. But some time in the past decade, without my noticing when it left, the intensity of my desire to be coupled has faded away to nearly nothing. I am still sometimes lonely in my heart, I will admit, but I am rarely lonely in the daily rounds of my life. I’m good at living alone and I enjoy it. I like having my own space my own way and making my own rules. Being single is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Being with the wrong person might be, though.

So instead of waiting for or dreaming about or feeling abandoned by love, I try to love myself and my life and everything and everyone in it with courage and commitment and integrity, just as I would a partner and child(ren), not holding back on living while I wait for The One to show up and flip my “on” switch so as to finally allow me to be the best potential version of myself.

When you’re younger, you have time to play that game, and perhaps a biological clock spurring you on as well. But once you pass through the gate, you start to realize that all you are is all you have and that all you are is enough.

i-have-done-love

 

Friends of the heart

A couple of years ago, I parted ways with a friend who meant rather a lot to me over what you might call irreconcilable differences. We’re not in touch anymore, but now and then I check her Facebook page to see that she’s doing okay.

Recently, she posted the following video of two old circus elephants who were finally reunited at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee after more than 20 years, with the message, “If only we knew love like this….”

These two animals obviously recognize each other, value each other, and want to be together. Clearly, they are not and cannot be mates. But just as clearly, they are the very closest of friends and companions. It might not even be going too far to say that they love each other, although with animals, who really knows what they feel?

Human beings do feel love for one another, though, and we can know love like this. But like these elephants, first we have to be set free to do so—free from the chains we lash around our hearts and our minds about what “love” is, how much of it we deserve, and who is “acceptable” to love, as well as who is not. I tend to think that the only limits on love are the ones we impose on it and on ourselves in an attempt to manage our own small fears: fear of connecting, fear of loss, fear of getting hurt, fear of change, fear of ourselves, fear of others. Everyone’s afraid of something, and nothing calls out the really deep, dark fears quite so strongly as emotional intimacy with another person.

close-your-eyes

They say, “an elephant never forgets.” I am not an elephant, obviously, but I am a Taurus, and that’s practically the same thing in terms of never forgetting. I can’t let go of every old hurt and hard time and bad scene I’ve ever known, but I also never forget anyone I’ve ever loved. I always tried to give my best to each of them. Whether I succeeded or failed in this endeavor, I cannot say. I know only that I tried.

love-each-other

I know that I gave the very best of myself to that friend I no longer have, and I regret the way things went between us because for about a minute out of our whole lives, we did have a love like that—not mates, but true friends of the heart.

Maybe 20 years from now, or someday, when we’ve both slipped our chains of convention and conditioning, we’ll meet and recognize each other as friends again.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day

I know most of you are coupled, or otherwise romantically involved, since that seems to be the rule rather than the exception. But whether you are happily married or, like me, a die-hard single (or anywhere in between), here are some useful tips and interesting facts about what is still my favorite holiday.

valentines-day-single

I want to send Valentine’s greetings especially to my family: my parents, my siblings, my niece and nephew (niblings?), my cousins and my aunts. Also, to my friends and neighbors, my Facebook friends, my friends overseas, and everyone who reads and follows Going Forward.

snoopy-woodstock

Hug someone you love today!

Still golden

In honor of my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary today, here is an encore presentation of last year’s post about their golden anniversary. I’ve added a new photo of them and a couple of links to the original version.

For better or for worse,
for richer or for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
for as long as we both shall live ….

Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad!

The older the violins, the sweeter the music.

The older the violins, the sweeter the music.


The Golden Ring

They met at a party circa 1960, she a shy country girl in her first year of nursing school in the big city, he a college boy who had lived nearly all his life in that city. Her nervous giggle that was immediately followed by an apologetic “oh shoot” captured his attention. He was charming and handsome. She was sweet and pretty. Neither of them had ever seriously dated anyone else and once they met, they never would.

The first picture of them together.

The first picture taken of them together, summer of 1960.

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