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Training Cricket, Again

 

We are, once again, trying to intervene with Cricket’s bad behavior, but focusing small this time: just don’t bark on the way out the door. If she barks, I sit down and count to ten. The hardest part is remembering to follow through with the plan each time we take the dogs out. Cricket is very hard to train, and so am I. It’s usually the last trip at night, when other people are trying to go to sleep, that her barking is at its most inappropriate. She seems to think that I need to be reminded, even as I am getting her leash and putting on my shoes, that she really, really, really wants to go outside. And it takes her a while to notice that each time she barks, I sit down and start counting to ten, starting over at the beginning each time she interrupts the count. But I’m persisting with the plan.

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“I am Cricket. Hear me bark!”

It seems like a very small thing to try and improve about her behavior, especially because it has no impact on all of the other barking she does throughout the day: rushing to the front door of the apartment to tell the non-existent bogey man to go away; barking at boxes on our neighbors’ porches; and shadows on the grass fifty feet ahead; and, of course, barking at random humans who dare to walk in her yard. But it’s a place to start.

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Hmm. This method could work too.

Mom is trying to go along with the plan, but she’s set in her ways too. She tries to talk Cricket into being quiet, which just makes Cricket bark more, because she thinks they’re having a conversation. And Mom doesn’t like having to sit down each time Cricket barks, especially at night when she’s already exhausted. So I sit, and Mom stands, and Cricket thinks that means Mom can be convinced, so she jumps at her grandma’s legs and paws at her, in vain. Eventually, Cricket figures it out and quiets down, and we go outside.

I wish I could convince Cricket to stop barking at babies, and other random residents of the co-op, when they try to pass within five hundred feet of her; I wish I could convince her to keep her teeth to herself, especially when I try to wipe the goop from her eyes; I wish I could convince her that the bath tub is not a torture device. But my many, many, previous attempts at teaching her those lessons have been utter failures.

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Cricket has some anger issues.

I rarely try to train Butterfly in anything anymore. Early on, we had to teach her how to poop outdoors, and climb the stairs, and take pills. After that, I thought I’d try to work on basics with her, like sit and stay, but she looked at me like I was a crazy person. She has her own learning style and it doesn’t include responding to voice commands. I’d love it if I could teach her to be less stubborn when she’s walking on her leash, or maybe teach her to sleep past seven o’clock in the morning, but after numerous attempts she is still indifferent to my efforts. And she’s twelve years old. She never bites anyone, and only barks to tell me that she’s hungry or needs to go outside, so, I’ve decided to let it go.

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Yes, Butterfly knows how cute she is.

But Cricket is a menace. The noise pollution alone is at toxic levels, and I can’t, in good conscience, stop trying to protect my neighbors from the full panoply of Cricket’s behaviors.

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“Who me?”

One magical moment happened, though, a few nights into the new regime. After three barking eruptions, and three full counts of ten, with no sign of a let up, Butterfly walked behind Cricket and gave her a look that seemed to say, please don’t bark anymore, because I really need to pee, and that actually seemed to work. Cricket quieted down, and we all went outside in relative peace. But most of the time, Butterfly is too busy having one last kibble for the road to expend too much energy in teaching her sister how to behave.

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“Psst.”

So I guess it’s up to me.

The Baby Squirrel

 

When we went out last Thursday morning for our too-early first walk of the day, Cricket found something. At first I thought it was a dead mouse. Cricket has found dead mice a number of times, because we have feral cats on the property who are allowed to stay because of their great mousing skills. So, I thought it was a dead mouse and I yanked Cricket away from it quickly. It was curled up a few feet away from one of the huge trees on the property, up in the lightly wooded area where we are encouraged to walk the dogs. Butterfly did her usual standing around and listening to the raindrops thing – oh yeah, it was raining, lightly by then, after a night of heavy rain – and it was a lovely sound, the way the rain drops hit the leaves far over our heads. But I was still getting wet. The girls both did their business, and we were on our way back out of the woods when I thought I saw the dead mouse move an arm. I stepped a little bit closer, but I’m afraid of dead things so not too close, and that’s when I realized that it was a tiny squirrel and not a mouse, with a big head, and grey and white fur, and not only was one arm moving, the tiny squirrel was breathing. It was alive.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I had to take the girls back inside, out of the train, first and foremost. I left them standing in the hallway while I went down to the basement to throw away their bag-o-poop, and I looked through the pile of Amazon shipping boxes outside the garbage room. I like ordering things, but I am nothing compared to my next door neighbors (with the new baby) who have ordered so many things that they now have to move into a house to make room for all of it. I chose a small, shallow box, with the new-fangled air-pillow box-filler stuff, and I popped the pillows to use it as a squirrel grabber, in case it really was dead and only seemed to be moving because of the wind and rain, but also as a temporary blanket, in case it was actually alive.

The girls watched me through the glass front door of our building as I went back out into the rain, and up the hill, to where Cricket had found the baby squirrel. It was still there, and still getting rained on, and still faintly breathing and moving an arm, but just barely. I picked it up carefully, all the time worrying that I should leave it there, to die a natural death, or to be found by its Mom after whatever calamity had sent her away. But it was alive, and I couldn’t just leave it there to die.

I took the box of baby squirrel inside to the girls, and we walked up the stairs and into the apartment, and that’s when I realized that I had to wake up my mom. She’s not a fan of early mornings, and I would have let her sleep through the drama, except that I knew I’d have to leave for my internship in less than an hour, and I needed her help.

 

As soon as Mom saw the baby squirrel, breathing in the shallow box on the dining room table, she was wide awake and in Mommy mode. She took the baby out of the box and wrapped it in warmed up towels and held it while I googled. There are surprisingly specific and comprehensive baby squirrel manuals online. One was long and alarmist – with the basic gist being that I should have left her out there in the rain to die. The other manual was shorter, simpler, and more hopeful.

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Then Mom called our vet’s office to ask them what to do. The woman who answered the phone said that they’d stopped working with their wildlife specialist and had no other recommendations, and, really, the baby squirrel was going to die. Mom persisted, though, and looked up other wildlife groups she’d heard of in the area, and left messages for them on email and voicemail. In the meantime, we prepared the rehydrating solution recommended in the baby squirrel guide and then and I used Butterfly’s supply of liquid medicine syringes to start bringing the baby back to life.

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By the way, I am not an expert at identifying baby squirrel genitalia, but we later found out that she was a girl, so let’s just pretend I knew that from the beginning. We set her shallow box on a heating pad (on low), and filled the box with fabric from Mom’s quilting closet, because the baby squirrel guide said that regular towels could unravel and choke her.

I took care of Cricket and Butterfly’s morning routine, and made sure they got extra treats for all of their patience, and then I got myself dressed for work, charged my cell phone, and reluctantly left Mom to take on the burden of keeping the baby squirrel alive while I was away.

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Cricket sniffing the baby

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Butterfly, worried I’m giving her peanut butter to the baby.

I tried to talk about the baby with a fellow intern, but she looked non-plussed. “You brought a squirrel into your house?” She asked, looking at me like I’d slathered bloody entrails on my door posts. So I focused on being nice and pleasant and helpful all day, and tried to put the baby squirrel out of my mind. The room we work in is filled with windows, and I could see as the rain got heavier and heavier, so I thought, maybe, I’d done the right thing by taking the baby into a dry place. But my mind was still racing, telling me that I’d made a mistake bringing her inside, and she would die and it would be my fault. She had a fractured arm, and probably other injuries, she was cold to the touch, and her mother had abandoned her; who was I to think I could save her?

When I got home, Mom was sitting on the couch and the baby squirrel on her chest, squeaking away. Her eyes were still closed, but she was much more alert, climbing on Mom and grabbing her fingers with a paw. The baby had survived eight hours in our care, against all odds, and the next job listed in the baby squirrel guide was to move from rehydration to actual feeding. The guide said we needed Esbilac milk powder for puppies, and we should mix it with water and heavy cream to mimic squirrel mommy milk. I asked Mom if she wanted to go out and have a break from baby care, but she didn’t, so out I went again, in the rain and rush hour traffic, to find the puppy milk powder.

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“Squeak!!!!!!!!!!”

When I came back, it was my turn to watch the baby. Her body temperature kept cooling down between feedings, despite the heating pad under her box, so Mom told me to hold the baby in my hands and try to keep her warm myself. I had to keep Cricket from sniffing too close, but Butterfly was largely uninterested in the baby; as far as she was concerned, there was no squirrel in the house.

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After another few hours of rehydration, we mixed up a batch of the new squirrel baby milk, and watered it down according to the mathematical formula in the guide, and warmed it in the microwave until it was just right. The baby squirrel swallowed her milk through the syringe dutifully, only pulling her head away a few times.

I woke up every few hours overnight to feed her, and to check that she was still breathing, and when I woke up again at eight o’clock the next morning I realized that she’d survived more than twenty four hours with us. She even seemed to be a little more energetic, though that could have been my wishful thinking. Mom said, pointedly, that we shouldn’t name her and risk becoming too bonded, but she knew it was already too late.

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We were still waiting for call backs from the wildlife groups a few hours later, when a friend on Facebook recommended calling other vets in the area, to see if they could help. The first one we looked up had the number of a local wildlife rescue, and when we called, they told us to bring the baby over right away.

By noon on Friday, we were on the road, the squirrel baby in her box on my lap, on our way to the rescue hospital. I kept my hand in the box to keep her warm, and she decided to crawl into my hand and snuggle.

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When we reached the Wildlife center, I filled out forms about where I’d found the baby squirrel and the assumed circumstances of her injury (a fall from the nest in the storm seemed the most likely cause, especially when I found some of the nesting material a few feet away from where I found the baby). They gave me her rescue ID number and their email address and said that I could write to them for an update whenever I wanted, and then they took her away.

I was devastated, but also hopeful. I knew that the rescue hospital would be able to do a much better job than I could at treating her wounds and feeding her correctly. Giving her up was the right thing to do, but it was also awful, and painful, and I was starting to have trouble breathing. I was giving her the best possible chance to survive, though, and I had to hold onto that.

I waited a couple of days to give the wildlife center a chance to do their work, but then I got impatient for good news, and wrote to them.

This was the email I received from them on Monday morning:

Unfortunately, we had sad news about the baby squirrel. We brought her to our veterinarian right away who confirmed that she did have a fractured humerus (one of the bones in her arm). In addition to the fractured arm, she also had lung contusions caused by trauma from the fall. We began treating her right away for the fractured arm and respiratory issue, but sadly, she was so badly injured that she passed away overnight that night.

While not the outcome we had hoped for, we are glad you brought her to us so she was able to get treatment and passed away in a quiet and peaceful place rather than outside in the wild.

Thank you again for caring about her and bringing her to our center.

 

I read it over again a few times, to take it in, because the words were not making sense at first, and then I just cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.

On Tuesday Morning, Cricket found another squirrel, this time a full grown adult, and this time, it was dead. My first, and enduring, thought was that this must be the baby squirrel’s mother. Maybe they both fell in the storm on Thursday morning, and it took the mother longer to feel the effects.

We dug a hole for her, and covered her with dirt, to keep her safe from predators. I couldn’t think of a prayer to say, all I could think of to say was, “This is for baby squirrel.”

And it was.

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p.s. Many of these pictures were taken by Naomi Mankowitz (AKA Mom)

The Research Class

 

The administration at my online Social Work program decided to change the hosting format, right before the new school year began. The previous format for our classes was a bit stodgy, yes, but you could find everything you needed. The new format is not just new to the students, but also new to the teachers, and there hasn’t been any time to work through the bugs and figure out how to manage the new layout. So it’s a mess.

And maybe that would have been okay, if I were taking a less stressful class to start the semester, but I’m in Research One, and each assignment involves group collaboration and has to be finished in less than a week. I have bad memories of working in groups in high school and college, and having to either do all of the work myself, or spend all of my time gently, nicely, pushing my classmates to do their share of the work, or editing their attempts before the rapidly looming deadline. Some people think that ten o’clock the night before it’s due is the perfect time to start working on a project. I don’t. I really, really, really, don’t.

I want to use my insight and imagination and empathy and creativity, and none of those are allowed for a research class. It’s all about formatting and organizing other people’s work. I feel like a marathon runner forced to do finger exercises for hours on end, in a seated position. Every once in a while I may be allowed to move my whole hand, but rarely.

I want to scream. I want to throw things. I resent that it feels like the online faculty at my school is running a secret experiment on us – testing the impact of unpredictable stressors on student work quality and psychological wellbeing (I wrote that to my teacher in an email, and he seemed to take me seriously instead of getting that I was, sort of, joking).

My anxiety about the Research class and the new online format is making me obsessive. I’m overworking and under-coping. I feel a desperate need to control everything that feels chaotic to me. I can’t find restful or fun books to read. I can’t find anything decent to watch on TV. My mind just keeps filling the gaps with more work.

I need to take a nap and rest and recover and focus on other things, but my brain keeps telling me to re-read research articles, and do more searches, and try more databases, and do the whole group assignment by myself. But I know myself, even if I managed all of that, I’d just start obsessing about the reading and possible assignments for next week. It would never end.

It’s frustrating to have to see all of my flaws so clearly – my impatience, and rigidity, my temper, and need for control. I don’t want to know that there is so much still to fix.

For relief, I’ve been watching for the feral cats in the yard, and communing with them as much as they will allow. Hershey actually let me within five feet of her the other night, but then she scooted under the maintenance shed (her palatial estate). I also had a chance meeting with the neighbor-dogs, George and Zoe, and it made me unreasonably happy for a few minutes. Zoe barked a lot, and Cricket stared at her, in silence, as if this behavior, this barking at nothing, was completely alien to her. Then George clapped his front paws at me and asked for pats and a hug, and I willingly obliged. Zoe stood in her perpetual ballet first position and allowed me to pet her too. I even got to walk with the baby next door – or with his nanny, who was holding him as he slept – for a few minutes, and breathe in the utter, unspeakable cuteness of him.

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Hershey, hiding out.

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“Are you taking my picture again?!”

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Zoe and George

But mostly I work. I read and summarize and research, and I attempt to keep my emails to my fellow group members polite and reasonable. I try to follow the conflicting instructions from the teacher, and the disorganized new formatting, but all I want is for the class to be over, and for all of this self-knowledge and hitting-my-limits to end.

Cricket is doing her best to distract me by barking at every moving thing, and Butterfly has doubled up her requests for scratchy sessions (for my sake, of course), but it’s not enough to calm me down. Clearly, I don’t have enough dogs.

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“I’m doing this for you, Mommy.”

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“I work so hard to protect you, Mommy, and you never adequately appreciate my efforts.”

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“We do not need another dog, thank you very much.”

 

 

My Internship

 

My internship with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) patients, at an out-patient day program on Long Island, started recently. I get very anxious before and after my hours, but the adrenalin rush gets me through while I’m actually working there. One of my favorite activities they do there is chair yoga, though, because it gives me a chance to breathe again. I wish I could bring Butterfly with me, for my own sake but also for some of the clients, who could use some of her ambient joy. One of the guys used to have a dog, but he can’t have a pet at all now, because his aide has allergies. If he could just sit with Butterfly for a little while each day, and whisper in her ear and pet her back, it could really help him. I know that it does wonders for me.

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Butterfly, my therapy dog.

The purpose of the day program is multiple: one, just to give the families of our clients a respite; two, to get the patients out of their homes and into social situations, so they don’t feel isolated and lonely; three, to fight off boredom and depression in whatever ways we can; and four, to continue, on a more causal and social basis, the work of speech, movement, and cognitive therapy that they can’t do on their own.

I am most interested in that last part, if only because it holds the most potential for my active participation. But for the clients, I think the most essential part of the program is the socializing part. At the day program they can practice their speech and memory skills without being laughed at (for the most part), and their brain injuries are taken for granted; they don’t have to compete with “normal” people for attention, or be embarrassed or ashamed by what they can’t do.

The structure of our days at the program is a bit loosey goosey, but the clients’ favorite activities, over all, seem to be games: guessing games, Hangman, Pictionary, Jenga, Connect Four, Uno, etc. They’re laughing and testing their social skills and showing off. It reminds me of kindergarten, though, with games like Duck Duck Goose and Musical Chairs, which I found extremely stressful. Those games seemed to exaggerate the possibility of rejection for me, rather than mitigate it. But the other interns, and even more so our supervisor, are much more comfortable with this part of the work. They enjoy the games and know how to stay upbeat and playful, pushing back against the depression and stuckness that might otherwise prevail in the room.

I do well with the clients one on one, and in casual situations, because I’m genuinely curious about them, but I’m afraid of how I’ll manage running a workshop or exercise from the front of the room. I wish I could practice some of my group-running skills on the dogs, but, first of all, Cricket is not a joiner, and second, they can’t hold pens in their paws, or answer my questions in words, so a lot of the exercises would be lost on them.

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Cricket is not a joiner.

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Unfortunately, dogs can’t write.

My supervisor suggested that I use my writing background with the clients in some way: so I collected poems and song lyrics the clients might relate to; and I printed out a page of Cricket pictures so that they can identify the emotions on her face, and make up stories about what happened before the picture was taken (I’m hoping her faces will be a good instigator for discussions on anger and anxiety and joy and relief, all kinds of things they wouldn’t automatically discuss with each other out of the blue); and I made up a list of autobiographical questions for the clients to answer and turn into short essays; and then there’s a group exercise in storytelling; and then I did research on hand drumming and handclapping therapy; and I made up a quilting pattern exercise, using fabric and paper and glue. So, at least I’ve found an outlet for all of my nervous energy.

Early on, my supervisor warned me and my fellow interns that some of the clients can be manipulative, and we shouldn’t believe them when they say this or that, and they don’t want to be challenged, and they can do more than they’ll admit, and on and on. Even if all of those things are true, it’s never as simple as all that. Motivation plays a huge role in what people can and can’t do. That’s not being manipulative, it’s about genuinely needing a reason to take an action and not wanting to just do what someone tells you to do.

Depression also plays a big role. The brain trauma itself can cause depression, and so can some of the medications they need to take to control their symptoms, but there’s also the depression that comes from having your life plan obliterated, and your sense of your place in society taken away from you. It is much harder to figure out motivation when you know that you can’t meet your own goals, no matter how hard you try. You need to not only come up with a new set of goals, but you have to accept that those goals will be very modest compared to the people around you. There’s an expectation that these clients should feel grateful that they have a day program to go to, and people who will pay attention to them, but that kind of gratitude can be hard to come by when you feel like so much has been taken away from you.

I’ve learned a lot from Cricket about how to accept bad behavior that isn’t meant to be hurtful. Her short-circuited nervous system means that she has low frustration tolerance, so she will use whatever behaviors she can think of to relieve her anxiety. She doesn’t mean to be a hellion; she just wants to feel better.

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Cricket just wants to feel better.

I’m enjoying the work, but it’s exhausting. When I came home from my first long day at work (Nine AM to Three PM feels long to me), Butterfly was out of her mind with excitement. She’s not used to me being away for so long and it felt great to be getting such a greeting; those are usually reserved for Grandma after she’s been out gardening for five minutes. She ran around in circles and bumped into her sister, who was hopping and panting and trying to sniff my shoes herself. It’s nice to be celebrated every once in a while.

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“Mommy! You’re home!”

A Prayer for Healing

 

I have been very anxious lately, about the start of my social work internship and my research class, both of which I’ve been dreading since before I applied to graduate school. I haven’t found much that helps with the anxiety. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium just wipe me out, meditation makes me more anxious, exercise is good, but leaves me exhausted. I’ve gotten better at asking for help from the people around me, but there’s just so much they can do. When you have no control, what can you do but pray?

Part of me really does believe that prayers sent out to God do reach some energy in the universe. It’s an imperfect system, like tweeting out to the world at large and hoping that the right person, who may not even be on twitter, hears you. But there’s a chance, and it’s better than not sending the message at all. I don’t believe that God puts my request on a list and then decides whether or not I deserve the help I want. I believe that somehow my message ping pongs around the universe, and if I’m lucky, it snowballs and connects with other energies and comes back to me in some form, hopefully something helpful.

I pray for my dogs all the time. I used to pray for Cricket to find comfort and calm. I would put my prayers into her scratching sessions, hoping that the practical behaviors I could do for her would be transformed into something more. And I am always praying for Butterfly – that she will have a good life, that her heart will last a bit longer – and I believe that my prayers work for her. Butterfly is a very good vessel for prayer, because she absorbs energy into her body and spirit without much of a defense system, whereas Cricket is more circumspect and “rational.” It is harder for Cricket to hear the prayers said for her, and to absorb the love sent her way, because there is so much interference – so much static in her system. But she still needs the good energy to be sent her way, even if only one prayer out of a thousand gets through her tough hide.

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“Do prayers come with chicken treats?”

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“I refuse to be healed. Deal with it.”

The cantor at my synagogue was ill this summer (don’t worry, he’s better now) and had to take months off from work. He spent a great deal of time alone, but, he said, because of all of the people in the congregation who reached out to him, and all of the people he knew were thinking of him and praying for him, he never felt like he was alone. This is what prayer can do. Just knowing that someone is praying for you on a regular basis can be healing, and make you feel cared for and safe.

And reaching out to God ourselves can make us feel less alone, even when we are physically alone. It reminds us of the human beings who wrote the prayers, of the people who taught us those prayers, of the times we have prayed together, and of all of the people who may be saying those same prayers at the same time all around the world. There’s a humility to prayer, a recognition that we can’t solve everything on our own, and are not expected to. Reminding ourselves of that on a regular basis can be healing in itself.

I think dogs pray too. First they ask directly for what they want: a walk, a treat, attention. But when the request is denied, or when they are left alone – when they feel powerless – I think they must pray the way we do. Like Butterfly picking up one of my socks when I was a way at the hospital, and carrying it in her mouth. The sock could be seen as a transitional object, as a way for her to hold onto me and feel close to me – or it could be seen as a prayer, that she would soon see me again.

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“Where’s Mommy?”

Cricket talks to God all the time with her barking. She isn’t so much telling me, or Mom, that danger is at the door, she is calling on God to protect her family. And most of the time, God seems to come through for her, so, it works!

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“Of course God listens to me. I am Cricket, and I am always right.”

Music is the best delivery system for prayer, because it reaches our hearts so much more quickly than words alone. It works especially well when we pray in groups, because it brings all of those heartbeats into the same rhythm, the same space, so that not only can you hear the words being spoken to you, you can feel everyone in the room coming together.

Ever since the cantor’s illness this summer, and the string of national and international disasters that have been overwhelming everyone, my synagogue has returned to the practice of singing a healing prayer at the end of Friday night services. People have found great comfort in singing it together, and saying the names of loved ones in need of healing, out loud or silently. I want it to work for me, but it doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that I don’t believe that my anxiety is worthy of a healing prayer, or maybe my hide is just as tough as Cricket’s and it will take a lot more prayer to get through. We are related, after all.

 

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“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

The Summer Olympics

 

Cricket has been losing her mind even more than usual lately, and I’ve decided to blame it on the heat. Of course, I’m projecting. I can’t stand the humidity of summer in New York. As a kid, I went to sleep away camp in the mountains, which was just a smidge better, until they made us play sports in the middle of the day, and ruined it. I am allergic to the heat. I get sun poisoning, usually on my arms, so I end up wearing a light jacket all summer long, and taking it off when I get indoors, which drives people crazy. I put sunblock on my face year round, so as long as I don’t stare up at the sun, I’m alright without a hat for a few minutes at a time. But the worst part of summer humidity is when I feel like I’m breathing through a straw, but not a nice, normal flexible straw, one of those hard plastic crazy straws that look like a roller coaster for tiny ants. Oh, and I don’t like bugs either.

So, as I was saying, summer is clearly a problem for Cricket.

Cricket has been tossing Platypus around like, well, like a stuffed animal. The problem, is, even though I still take the dogs out four times a day, none of those trips takes them beyond the backyard. We don’t walk through the goose poop fantasia of the duck pond, or get into the car and drive to the beach to sniff seaweed and rotting fish. We don’t even walk up the hill past the Seven Eleven for a hint of cigarette butts and old ham sandwiches.

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“Play with me!”

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“Platypus likes this game, Mommy!”

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“Let’s go outside!”

Cricket is getting stir crazy. She is barking at the next door baby (she made him cry!) and she’s been using me as a trampoline when I try to take my afternoon nap. Butterfly has been fine with the current level of exercise, though. She might enjoy a few more minutes of staring into the distance and listening to the wonders of nature (those birds are such gossips!), but she comes inside willingly and goes back to sleep until real physical need hits again. But Cricket wants to run and jump and hip and hop. I’m afraid to let her watch too much of the Olympics because it will give her too many ideas (though she would never want to go swimming – it’s like voluntary bath time – are they insane?!). The dogs would be fantastic at the Treat Toss and the Chase-The-Mailman race, but somehow these events have not made it into the big competition.

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“There’s more room in my mouth, Mommy. Throw another one.”

Of course I am watching the Olympics. The TV stations have conspired to have nothing else on during the Olympics, so this is all I’ve got. It’s not really a relief from the political drama of the past year, though, because the broadcasters keep making each event and race seem like life or death, not just for their chosen protagonist, but for the masses of unknown people who never even made it to the Olympics and are therefore at home in deep dark depressions with no idea what to do with their lives. Woo hoo!

I try to be inspired by the Olympics, but certain sports make me feel vicariously exhausted. When I watch Michael Phelps flap his arms over his head, my shoulders hurt. And those long distance runners give me leg cramps. I can’t watch women’s beach volleyball at all, not because it’s too sweaty, but because in those outfits they might as well not be wearing clothes at all; there’s no safe place to look. I can watch the gymnastics and swimming pretty comfortably, because they are indoors and nice and cool, but the Track and Field events look too damn hot! I think there should be some breaks in the coverage for a nice ice skating routine so we can cool off.

My favorite place over the summer is next to my air conditioner. I wish I could carry my air conditioner with me everywhere, like one of those old time boom box stereos, right up next to my ear. Maybe someday they’ll make high powered air conditioners the size of iPads and summer will finally make sense to me.

I’m sure I will end up watching some sports that do not usually interest me at all, out of guilt, the same way I watch Luge during the winter games, because someone worked really hard to get to the Olympics in that sport, and it seems only fair to give them a glance. Though I haven’t yet given in to my curiosity about the boating races. There’s something about watching athletes dodge old couches in the middle of rancid waterways that worries me.

One night, I found myself sitting on the couch, kicking for dear life, willing Michael Phelps to the end of the pool – as if he needed my help! I don’t bounce around the room during the gymnastics events; somehow I feel like I have more control over the outcome in the swimming.

At some point in the evening, inevitably, I have to pause the action on the TV and attach the dogs to their leashes and brave the Sauna that is the out of doors. And of course the dogs meander and sniff and pee multiple times and drag me to the far end of the yard for every possible exciting hint of cat, until I am a puddle of sweat. And then we go back inside, and I sit down next to my air conditioner to watch the gymnastics, and I know in my heart that I have done my share of the work and can now revel in team USA’s success.

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Hershey likes to leave her smell in places the dogs can’t quite reach.

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Cricket can smell that cat, but Butterfly is ready to go back inside, just like me.

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Much better.

Yoga Shabbat

 

The junior Rabbi at my synagogue has been developing a yoga class for Saturday (Shabbat) mornings. She did her yoga teacher training last summer, and started the monthly classes last October. I was curious about what the class would be like, because I’d always been bothered by the feeling that, even in the most secular versions of yoga, there are remnants of the religious culture it comes from. The history of Jews being forced to convert or conform to the dominant religion of given societies is a big part of my discomfort. I see a lot to like in every other religion I’ve ever come across, but participating in another religion is a completely different thing. It feels like a co-opting of my Jewish soul, but more than that it feels disloyal, like you would feel if you were in love with one man and yet kissed someone else. Prayer, and yoga poses, are not just thoughts or feelings, they are actions, and they count.

My hope was that the rabbi had found a way to make yoga feel a little bit more at home with Judaism, or at least less at odds with it. But I put off going all year long. I told myself that the classes were too early in the morning, or that I would have to rush to get to therapy afterwards, or I just had too much school work to do. But really, the idea of sweating and stretching into strange positions in front of my fellow congregants brought up a lot of old fears. When I finally decided, no excuses, that I would go to the last session of the year, I spent the two days leading up to the class flooded with awful memories of gym class in elementary school, and ballet classes, in my ill-fitting gym clothes or mismatched leotard and tights.

But I fought through the anxiety, and went to the class anyway. I took a spot near the back of the room, up against a brick pillar, both to hide, if necessary, and to have a stable wall to lean against, just in case. I brought my own Pilates mat, which is a little bit more cushioned than a yoga mat, and has a few holes in it from the dogs. At home, yoga means trying to stretch while scratching Butterfly with my arm twisted behind my back, and tossing a tug toy for Cricket, while trying not to lose my balance. But at least they haven’t peed on the mat, recently.

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“This is my idea of good yoga, Mommy.”

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Cricket can’t talk here, but she agrees with Butterfly.

The rabbi started the session by summarizing the weekly Torah portion, and then she turned on her iPhone, attached it to a speaker, and played variations of the Saturday morning prayers as the background music for the class. She started us off with “Shalom breaths,” and then we did a lot of Sun Salutations and Downward Facing Dogs, with more advanced poses in the middle of each flow. I pushed myself a little too hard to keep up, because I’m not really up to an hour and fifteen minute yoga class, but I didn’t want to seem weak or lazy. I had to skip a bunch of the advanced poses, and come out of others early, and I ended up resting in child’s pose a lot of the time (though it still took me four days to recover from overdoing it). I missed having the dogs with me. Focusing on them takes some of the pressure off of the need to achieve something beyond my abilities. Having Butterfly with me, sniffing my hair or licking my arm, would have reminded me that it’s okay that I can only do what I can do.

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“Om, Om, I mean, Shalom, Shalom.”

But most importantly, the feeling that I was doing something wrong just by being in a Yoga class on Shabbat was still there. There is a school of thought among Orthodox Jews that yoga is avodah zarah, worship of foreign gods, which would be a big no-no. Some people say that if you avoid the mantras, and chanting, and skip the Sanskrit names for the poses, and maybe skip prayer pose entirely, that would make it okay. But the rabbi kept the Sanskrit names for the poses, and used prayer pose, which upset me. Child’s pose doesn’t bother me, even though it looks very much like a Muslim prayer pose, because I think of it so completely as a child’s protective pose, making myself safe like a turtle in a shell. But yoga’s prayer pose, palms together at chest level, feels so clearly like what it says it is; it forces you to breathe differently and focus your attention in a specific way and it is a very good physical representation of open-hearted supplication.

A lot of yoga is meant to put your body in a position to teach your mind something. Warrior pose is meant to activate not just physical strength, but emotional strength and resolve. Child’s pose is not only a rest from exercise, it is a self-protective break from being confident and open and visible. These emotional and physical experiences are meaningful to me and make sense to me, but I cannot find a reason other than prayerfulness and supplication for me to be in prayer pose, and that feels too much like praying to a foreign god, and being disloyal to my Jewishness.

There’s a lot of talk, both in yoga and in liberal Judaism, about “intention.” You need to be aware of your intention when you say a certain prayer, take a certain action, or do a particular pose, in order to make it meaningful. The assumption then, is that your intention is all that matters, rather than the intention of the original creators of the prayer, or pose, or series of rituals. But, if yoga is part of someone else’s religious culture, what right do I have to take it for myself and strip it of its history? Is it really okay to take yoga poses and imbue them with your own intentions, like flavoring your ice cream base with vanilla or chocolate or salted caramel? Religion, to me, is cultural history, communal ties, rituals and behaviors, and the stories of my people. If Yoga comes from Buddhism and Hinduism, is it fair to take it out of that context and try to imbue it with Jewish feeling? Is it even possible?

Maybe I should just ask Cricket and Butterfly to create some fresh poses for me, like: Begging-for-treats pose, which really strengthens your core; and Barking-at-strangers pose, which gets your anger flowing and makes you feel at least three times your original size.

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Begging-for-treats-pose.

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Barking-at-strangers pose.

That could work.

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Butterfly’s idea of a resting pose.

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Cricket’s version, on Grandma’s lap.