How Hard It Is

My dog died. She was 11 years old. It’s a short life, even in “dog years,” by whatever formula.

Ginger was adopted from a Humane Society in Hawaii. She took her last breath in California, far from her island home. Her first two years appeared to have been rather troubled, and she wasn’t what I thought I wanted in a dog. I went seeking a pocketbook dog, the kind that snuggles quietly into a shoulder bag and looks adorable riding shotgun down country roads.

The first time she saw me, all 20 pounds of her went nuts. She barked, jumped, and executed several squirming spins: a red whirlwind. Definitely not the well-mannered teeny pal I anticipated. Her info said she was an Irish Terrier mix. Her enthusiasm convinced me of the terrier-part. Every time I visited the shelter, she would greet me, but in an increasingly well-mannered way.

In the end, after months of weekly visits seeking the right match, I selected her because she was at the top of the kill list at the shelter and because volunteers told me she had a delightful temperament. They didn’t know she got car-sick, so the fantasy of cruising around with her in the passenger seat never came to pass. But they also didn’t know she was house-broken, so she had a quick and painless transition to condo-dweller.

She loved children, without reservation, and seemed giddy in their presence. That she spent most of her life with an aging woman in a community where the neighborhood children (before we moved to the Mainland) threw rocks at her is a little sad, but she made up for it. She spent her last year chasing two boys, trying her best to unearth gophers, and sleeping in the lush grass that grew beneath the trampoline. She had a blast loving those boys up-close. Even in the days after she became ill, she would disappear when the boys were gone and I’d find her either in one of their bedrooms or stretched out in the hallway near their bedrooms, watching for them to get home. She even had an in-house cat-friend with whom she somehow negotiated a peace agreement.

The only time in 9 years that I saw her behave defensively involved a large Rottweiler. The dog got in her face while the owner chattered. I asked the person holding the leash to move the dog away from us as Ginger cowered. I explained that she didn’t like big dogs. The owner commented about him being harmless, though invasive, and when the big dog didn’t back off, Ginger let out a sharp bark and snapped at him, convincing me she had some gumption. But with the kids who threw things at her? She always watched them longingly, tail wagging, ready to join in.

Sage from the Past

For years I carried around a newspaper article. I believe it came from the San Francisco Examiner before it merged with the Chronicle. It was written by Herb Caen. Every Sunday, after Mass, we’d pick up some freshly made linguiça and a copy of the Sunday newspaper. My dad referred to San Francisco simply as The City; to him there were no others. During my teens one of the few things we shared was the love of The City and that journalist’s columns.

I know I’m not doing the piece justice. The article was about the loss of a pet. In this case, I believe a dog. The title I remember was “How Hard It Is to Care.” There had been an airline crash and the column compared and contrasted losses that are very personal with ones that are distant. Without disrespecting anyone’s loss, it pointed out the challenge, after thinking about how awful each disaster was, to feel as deeply sad about the fate of strangers while profoundly easy to fall apart over something more personal but small in the grand scheme of things, like the loss of a pet.

Ginger was an active older-girl, though she loved her naps as well, and after she became ill she seemed to disappear rather quickly – in a week. Sparing a recitation of her physical symptoms, the medications she took helped in some ways, but the side-effects left her miserable. The only thing she would take voluntarily was CBD Oil (the vet had suggested this as a possible option), water, and a little chicken broth. Within 5 days she couldn’t stand or walk, though on day 6 she still crawled on her belly to get around, turning limp by the last day.

The veterinary hospital treated her well during the few visits we made. They thought she had gotten into something toxic, but we couldn’t figure out what that might have been.

The last few days she was always nearby, so we did have a chance to tell her goodbye, thank her, and call her a good girl a lot, though the pats and strokes and words, as time passed, elicited less and less of the usual tail-wagging. Meanwhile, the weather was not pleasant, the news sucked, and from my little cocoon with all focus on my dear dog, it was very hard to care about much else. From a focus of self-compassion, I remind myself that’s human and okay.

I did learn a lot from Ginger, I realized. Now’s a good time to share.

Lessons from the Furred-4Legged-World

=Ginger spent a lot of her time chasing lizards and chickens. She never caught a single one, but never tired of trying.

Lesson: Sometimes it’s good to do things you know you won’t succeed in. Maybe doing so will sharpen your senses, or perhaps it will increase your appreciation for those who can do those things. After all, not everyone can be in the NBA, but most folks can play with a basketball.

=Ginger enjoyed rolling in the grass, even when her fur picked up leaves, dirt and sticks that she wore like jewelry.

Lesson: Sometimes cutting loose can be a beautiful thing, even if it requires a little messiness.

=Ginger liked to run, though she seemed more of a sprinter than a long-distance fan, she could keep moving when motivated (like when someone left the gate open and ran after her).

Lesson: Don’t wait until someone is chasing you to do things you enjoy, even if you can only do them for a few moments.

=Ginger got along well with cats. Even feral cats warmed up to her.

Lesson: Reaching out to others who seem very different can be difficult but spending a life close to creatures just like you can be really boring and unimpressive.

=Ginger’s topcoat was curly, and she hated getting it wet. She didn’t even like to get her paws wet so hated leaving shelter on rainy days. When forced, she’d run outside, stay as close as possible, relieve herself quickly, and rush back inside.

Lesson: It’s good to put ourselves outside our comfort zone now and then, particularly when we have the luxury of a place to return to that feels like home.

Money, Grief, and Transitions

Years ago I met a young woman, a hairstylist in a high-end salon, who told me she had one credit card. Every few years, she paid it off and then maxed it out again. For example, the previous year she and her partner quit their jobs, bought tickets to Bali, and stayed for months. They used the magic credit card, and when it reached the limit, they returned home, secured jobs, and worked hard to pay it off. As soon as they made the last payment, they would begin planning and packing for their next no-frills adventure.

At the time it seemed a bit extreme to me. I saw it as quitting jobs and flying off to another continent to roam around for a few months, leaving behind some new friends, and returning with a lot of debt and a bag full of memories. I thought, why not save for the trip?

Then I realized, despite decades of saving for retirement, all I have to show is a paltry 401k that wouldn’t pay a monthly utility bill, let alone rent. It’s scary to me that even those funds are subject to the whims of Wall Street and politicians. Having lost my retirement savings more than once in stock market meltdowns (with bailouts ironically rewarding only the failed banks with showers of our collective tax dollars), I’m not the one to give financial advice.

But I am certain that financial burdens are inherently stressful. And I know sometimes the best plans just don’t work out. For example, if I had delayed my move by one year, I would have been debt-free and that would be far less stressful for me. But doing so would have negatively impacted my son, grandsons and others. Tough choices, for me.

In the end, the decision to move was the right thing for family. Like the stylist, I always knew my priorities. It doesn’t mean it was easy for me. For some reason, though, I convinced myself it would be easy. A strong, intelligent, hard-working woman can handle little things like major life changes, right?

After nearly a year with super low income, even with a roof over my head and food in the fridge, something felt Off. I felt a little raw, too emotional, and half-blamed the weather, the physical challenge of chasing two young children around, and the lack of financial resources.

I recently realized it wasn’t any of those dragging my spirits down.

I’ve been experiencing grief. The death of my dog kicked it off, and then it hit me like an anvil. I’ve been grieving for almost a year.

Why I didn’t notice it, I could explain away (busy-ness is great camouflage). But I see it now. And it makes sense.

I lost my way of life, my island home, my job working with people who were homeless (people I respected and, in most cases, deeply admired their strength and resilience). I walked away from work-related commitments that I took seriously and coworkers I loved. That I did so voluntarily and for a good purpose (to help other family members) didn’t take the edge off as much as I thought it might.

In his book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” Dr Gabor Mate points out that emotional pain fires up the brain in the same way physical pain does. Kicking myself while reflecting on my before- and after-lives exacerbated the pain. And I’ve done plenty of kicking in the name of Being Real.

Kicking myself for not wrapping up my work life well enough. Kicking myself for failing to be the Mary Poppins-like happy-go-lucky care provider for the grands that they deserve. For not having enough resources to assist my son more. For not having a part-time job (because my schedule remains so complex that my availability is currently limited to blocks of only a few hours now and then). For lacking the energy to do more than the basics. Even for not being able to afford things like the brand-name shoes I once took for granted that better support my feet.

Since that realization, I’ve taken more time to feel things. I’ve intentionally sat down and wrapped my attention around “negative” emotions like sadness and anger. Held them. Inspected them. Sat until they dissipated on their own.

And I asked myself what advice I would give someone I cared about in this situation.

Here’s what I would ask: (1) What have you been doing that feels healthy, healing and helpful for yourself? …and… (2) What would you like to do differently moving forward?

I’ve taken more helpful actions than I realized. Studying intuitive eating/HAES* and incorporating that framework (addressing eating, activity, rest, acceptance, and self-compassion). Expanding the tools I use, including mindfulness and sitting with difficult emotions. Reading about childhood development and learning ways to deal effectively with munchkin meltdowns and toddler dramas. Meditating most mornings and writing most days on projects. Going to the Y to engage in positive movement 3 times a week. Donating to nonprofit agencies. Enjoying free spaces and activities, like the public library and parks. Researching to understand how the culture in the USA got so far off the rails (focused on the upper-crust rather than we-the-people, and particularly ways people of color have been denied resources).

What I’d like to do more? To gratefully acknowledge all my advantages. To focus on an external priority area (climate change, voting laws, antiracism, intuitive eating/HAES). I’d like to continue time in the swimming pool but add more outdoor time and something that includes music. I’d like to increase my income and think that will be more likely when my youngest grandchild starts elementary school next fall. I’d like to continue to visit my son a few times a year but also arrange for him to visit me so I don’t do all the travel. I’d like to have more friends and an Encore Plan (for whatever comes next).

One of the lessons this recent journey has taught me is about flexibility. It hasn’t been an easy-peasy lesson and my life has not taken a path I would have imagined. Sometimes that’s scary and frustrating. That’s life. Sometimes everything appears gloriously open to change.

Another recent lesson relates to longing. I can think of a simple example. I’m here with family and missing my work life. But while I worked, I missed my family. I choose to accept that longing as a blessing. How fortunate to have had two good options that satisfied me, even when they may have been mutually exclusive.

Sometimes self-care requires we look back and acknowledge what we’ve accomplished. Even the “small” things can be big wins. Getting out of bed every day. Going to the doctor when ill. Connecting somehow with the outside world. Being there for plants, pets, friends, family, self, and/or all of those.

And sometimes self-care includes taking time to sit with uncomfortable emotions to acknowledge them. Or considering the possibilities in next steps to take us forward in this perfectly imperfect world.

*HAES=Health At Every Size