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For My Birthday

 

This year, for my birthday, I wanted to write up a list of charities and foundations and organizations that I wish I could donate money to, like: Alley Cat Allies, North Shore Animal League America, The Anti-Defamation League, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and on and on. But I feel overwhelmed by all of the rights I want to protect. I’ve been exhausted lately and maybe that’s why the fear hit me so hard after the election. I know how little energy I have left, to fight for my rights and my safety, and I just wanted someone else to take care of it. Some people are out protesting, and others are donating money to good causes, and still others are signing up for newspaper subscriptions online, to support actual journalism over the fake news we’ve gotten used to in our post-factual world. I want to do all of those things, except the protesting. It just looks so exhausting to have to walk through the city like that. Maybe if I had a golf cart…

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“I’m good here, Mom. You go without me.”

I’d love to support an organization that helps people of all ages learn how to volunteer in their communities. This has been a lifelong difficulty for me. Where can I volunteer? Who wants my help? How can I find them? More often than not I feel rejected before I even apply, because the brochures are so complicated, and the application process makes me feel unqualified. I know there are groups for kids and teenagers that encourage them to volunteer, I just wish there were more of them, and that they were more sensitive to the less outgoing and confident among us.

I’d love to support an organization that brings pets to home-bound seniors, as well as seniors in nursing homes and rehab centers. Not everyone can take care of a pet full time, but everyone deserves the chance to absorb some of the joy my dogs bring to me.

I’d love to see better education, for everyone, about the services available at the local, state, and federal level, to help people in need – so that you don’t have to be at the end of your rope before you find the supports our society has to offer.

I’d love to see Human Rights and Social Justice classes at the high school and college level instead of just in social work school, so that we can learn the history of oppression in our country, and how we have worked to combat it, and how we can continue to work to move our country forward. Then maybe we could reach a point in our society where we don’t have to deny the history of one group’s suffering in order to take on the suffering of another group as well.

What else do I want for my birthday? I want to lose weight. I want a very long nap. I want to feel hopeful about the future. I want people to stop checking their phones every two minutes while they are talking to me. I want chocolate frosting to be good for my health. I want my dogs to be healthy and happy. I want my Mom to live forever. I want a Harry Potter coloring book. Better yet, I want to go to Hogwarts, or at least get a letter, delivered by an owl, telling me that I have all of the qualifications to go be a witch.

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“Mommy’s a witch!”

 

I’m pretty sure that Cricket and Butterfly have already received their letters. Cricket’s is probably hidden under the couch in the living room, and Butterfly may have eaten hers (she loves the taste of quality card stock). I have to say, I’m flattered that they have chosen to stay with me instead of going off to become mini-witches themselves. It’s just not the choice I would have made myself. I mean, magic wands? Spells? All kinds of new creatures to meet, some of them fluffy? Who could say no to that?

 

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“You can’t come in here, Mommy. Moose will stop you.”

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“Did you know that this one tastes different from the TV Guide? Not better, just different.”

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“I’m sorry, Mommy. I was desperate.”

 

The Social Construct

 

The idea that we create our own worlds, or choose our own lives, has been overplayed. Americans believe so deeply in independence and individualism that we don’t want to admit that we are dependent on anyone else, even for the way we perceive the world we live in. But our reality is a social construct. We create it piece by piece through the stories we tell, the media we take in, and the institutions we live by, and many of those things are out of our control.

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“Nothing is out of my control, Mommy!”

Somewhere along the way, our visions of the world we live in have become divided and foreign to one another. We can live in the same town and yet live in different worlds, with supermarkets and power lines in common, morning traffic jams and planes flying too low overhead, but otherwise, nothing is the same for us. It has reached a point where there is almost no common language among any two people. It is all negotiation of reality, in every interaction. It’s not just about having different religious beliefs, or opinions about politics, it’s almost as if the atmosphere, the oxygen content of the air, changes from person to person, on the same block.

I feel like I move between shimmering, mostly invisible, variations of the world all day long. I can’t keep track of how my point of view changes during the day, until I realize that the world I think I am living in at Five PM is nothing like one I thought I woke up to at Seven AM, when Butterfly licked my elbow and then barked at me when I refused to get up. Part of it comes from me and how I feel, physically and emotionally. The world can seem like a more brutal place when I am in physical pain, no matter what’s going on around me. But part of it comes from the people around me and what they assume about the world we share.

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“It’s not dark outside, Mommy. It’s time to pee.”

Do we believe that racism is a bad thing, or an obsolete thing, or okay the way it is? Are people allowed to be gay today? Or is it suddenly wrong again? Part of my confusion comes from relying so heavily on the people around me to tell me who we are and how the world is, and not feeling safe enough just to go with my own perspective. I rely on the news media, and Facebook, and TV shows, to help me figure out which world I am living in, and who’s in it with me, so when they mislead me or just get it wrong, I’m in trouble.

I am jealous of people who are able to hold on to their own vision of reality no matter what changes around them. Cricket and Butterfly are great at this, ignoring the news and the anxiety in the air in favor of their predicable daily schedules. For me, it feels like the world is always moving under my feet, like I’m on one of those treadmill-like walkways at the airport, so that even when I stand still and remain the same, the world refuses to remain the same around me.

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Cricket and Butterfly always know what’s important.

Even now, I admire the unmitigated gall of a sentence like, We hold these truths to be self-evident. We do? Self-evident? I could never have cobbled together that sentence, not in a thousand drafts. I would have had trouble imagining that I could speak for everyone, or believing that everyone might agree on any one thing. It has become clear over this past year, but also long before that, that truths are not as universally accepted as people would like to believe.

The problem is, no matter what we believe or see or recognize about the world we live in, we are all still living in it. Every day we make big and small decisions. We don’t have endless choices; but then again, the world is not given to us whole and complete either, we help form it, tiny piece by tiny piece: when we stand up against a bully, or stay silent; when we work harder, instead of giving up, because the goal is worth it to us; when we choose to stay home on Election Day, because there are only two choices and we don’t love either one. That’s a choice we’ve made, even if there are others who limited our choices in the first place, or rigged the system, or disappointed us. We can blame other people for the outcome, and we may be right in large part, except, we made our own choices too, and those choices counted, and they helped to create the world we live in today. You matter. I matter. We create this world together every day. And we can do better. Right?

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“Are you asking us?”

Empathy

Cricket is not an empathy expert. She tends to see the world through a fog of her own needs, interpreting others’ characters by how quickly and thoroughly they respond to her demands. I kept trying to help her learn to see the rest of us more clearly. When she bit me with her sharp puppy teeth I would yell “ouch!” like the teacher told us to do, but Cricket would go on biting me. When I was upset, Cricket would hop right over to me, not to offer comfort, but to steal my tear-and-snot-filled tissues.

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“You don’t need this, right?”

It wasn’t until we adopted Butterfly, an eight-year-old puppy-mill-mama from the shelter, that Cricket started to get an inkling of what empathy might be. Butterfly was about Cricket’s size, and her species, and she peed outside (eventually) and barked, and ate kibble and chicken treats, but at first, Cricket saw all of these behaviors as a usurping of her role as “Only Dog” and resented her new sister. Butterfly persisted, though, offering up her butt for sniffing, listening to Cricket’s rants with wide-eyed wonder, peeing only where Cricket peed, deferring to her sister on every big and small issue of dogdom, until, eventually, Cricket had to admit that there was something to this sisterhood business. Because Butterfly is all empathy. She listens to Cricket’s complaints and either offers comfort, or takes up the barking along with her. When Cricket seems grumpy or sad, Butterfly sits nearby to offer solidarity and a fluffy butt to lean on.

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Butterfly’s butt seems to be very comforting.

I’m not saying that four years with Butterfly have made Cricket into the queen of empathy, in fact, she still has very little interest in what other people, or dogs, feel or think, especially if it’s different from her own view of things. But she has come to respect the power of empathy when it is directed at her. She accepts her sister’s solidarity and comfort, and will even allow a small rebuke of her own behavior, as long as it’s cushioned with endless adoration.

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Only Butterfly could get away with telling Cricket to tone down the barking.

Butterfly sends warmth my way too, and notices when I am struggling, especially physically, but whereas she can clearly relate to Cricket’s issues, as a fellow dog, she sees my problems as too human, and therefore hard to understand. I feel that way too, a lot of the time. I don’t know how to have empathy for myself. I tend to judge whether I deserve empathy based on whether I’ve received empathy from other people. So if I happen to be surrounded by people who can’t relate to me, or can’t see things from my perspective, or if everyone who cares about me is busy, or in a bad mood, I’m sunk.

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“I love you, Mommy, but I don’t understand.”

My real world has been short on empathy lately, but as a result, I’ve been taking more and more comfort in the virtual empathy of my fellow bloggers. Even when I feel overwhelmed with school work, or the horrible, horrible news, I make time to write an essay for the blog, just because, selfishly, I want to feel the warmth and kindness that radiates from all of you in return.

Cricket is very lucky to have a Butterfly at her side, always ready to offer sweetness and comfort, and I think everyone deserves to have a Butterfly of their own, to keep them company through the rough spots. You, dear readers, are my Butterfly.

Thank you.

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The Third Act

The Third Act

 

I’ve always struggled with endings. I can write a beginning and a middle, and even a climactic confrontation, but actual endings, of stories, poems, songs, and especially novels, have been hard for me. I can write myself into a corner, like all of the experts tell you to do, with the stakes at their highest, and no hope to speak of, but I can’t write my way back out again.

We rely on stories to give our lives a more satisfying shape. We can tolerate the stress and conflict necessary in storytelling, because we believe we know that there will be relief and success in the end. But that’s never been my life experience. The tension never really abates. It just ratchets up and up until I get used to the higher level of anxiety. I may look back, a year later, and realize that I’ve solved a problem or learned a lesson, but I don’t feel the relief while it’s happening.

I’m always looking ahead. I can’t help it. Even when I read a book or watch a movie, and the happy ending comes along, I start imagining how badly the next part of the story will go instead of reveling in the joy. I must have accomplished things, or finished things, in my life, but it never feels that way. When I graduated from high school or college or graduate school, I was focused on the abyss ahead of me, rather than any sense of accomplishment at finishing something important. I never felt like I was really closing a book, or even a chapter, unless it was a chapter with a cliff hanger.

I am most comfortable with middles – where it’s just about doing the work in front of me, and not thinking about where I have to go next. But I’m not supposed to just stick to middles. I have to graduate, and start new things, and struggle all over again to figure out what to do, or why to do it.

The plan for my own third act (or fifth? Or ninth?), has been social work school, leading to a career, at least part time, as a social worker. But my third act is turning into a whole drama of its own, with a thousand catastrophes to overcome, and I’m barely a third of the way through the program.

One of the possible endings for a story, instead of a happy ending, or a tragic (everybody dies) ending, is simply getting up the next day to try again; the whisper of a hope of a happy continuation. This is what I’ve tried to tell myself, almost daily, of late: that it’s enough if I can get up the next day and try again. But I don’t really believe that. I want the relief of a happy ending. I want the denouement, the unknotting of tension, that I’ve been promised.

The dogs are so much better at shaping their stories. It’s the naps. Their days are made up of a series of short stories, conveniently separated by restful and rejuvenating naps. Cricket wakes up because she has to pee (inciting incident). She jumps on her Mommy, and cries and scratches, until Mommy agrees to take her outside (Cricket is the heroine of her own story). Outside, she sniffs, and barks, and chases squirrels and random humans, until she is ready to go back inside. Once inside, she stares at her Mommy and the treat bag, until the treat is given (the final climax). Then she eats her treat (denouement), and takes a nap (resolution). This neat structure happens over and over again every day, to Cricket’s great satisfaction.

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“Wake up, Mommy!”

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“Watch me, Mommy!”

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“Where are my treats, Mommy?”

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Sleepy time!

Butterfly hitches a ride on Cricket’s daily structure, but sometimes she gets to be the heroine of her own story: barking me awake, running free through the yard to finally relieve herself of her burdens. But she doesn’t mind being Cricket’s sidekick the rest of the time. There’s something satisfying in being part of someone else’s story, instead of always having to be the heroine of your own. But then again, it’s not like we have much of a choice. This is Cricket’s story and the rest of us are just her supporting characters.          Just ask her.

 

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Butterfly, the trusty sidekick.

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Butterfly, the star of her own show!

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And it’s sleepy time again.

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Until,…

Hershey is Gone

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Hershey, the last feral cat at my building, has died. I wanted to believe that I was overreacting to her symptoms, especially when I saw her meandering around the property for a couple of weeks after she’d first seemed sick, but I was right to be worried. I started to count days, since the weekend, that I had not seen her around, hoping that I just wasn’t looking closely enough. But then I saw her outdoor house, a box covered in a blue tarp, removed from the alcove next to my neighbor’s apartment, and wrapped up to be taken away.

I asked the maintenance man, sitting on the steps at the last building, if he knew why Hershey’s house was wrapped up, and he said that Hershey had died, and my neighbor had asked him to pack up the cat house because she wouldn’t need it anymore, and maybe because she didn’t want the reminder.

I started sobbing as soon as I got into my apartment. But I was also very, very angry, at my neighbor for not seeking medical help for Hershey when her symptoms began, and at myself, for not confronting her or trying to trap Hershey myself to get her to the doctor.

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I’ve been told that there used to be fifteen feral cats on the property, and the lawns were dotted with dead mice (and these are the same people who are worried about my dogs peeing on the grass?). One of my neighbors was proactive about trapping the cats, to get them spayed and neutered, and intervening with new litters as soon as possible to get the kittens adopted out if at all possible. He supports a group called Alley Cat Allies based in Washington, DC that advocates for trapping and neutering programs, and helps fund one nearby. He also personally rescued cats that could not survive the feral life, and sought medical care for them whenever possible. Maybe it was all of his work, or just a change in the neighborhood, but by the time Mom and I had moved in, there were only two or three feral cats left. It was hard to tell, actually, because a bunch of my neighbors had indoor/outdoor cats as well, and left front doors or window open for the cats to go wandering on their own schedules, but eventually there were just two, Gimpy and Hershey.

And now there are none.

I’m supposed to be grateful that Hershey lived as long as she did, and as well as she did, as a feral cat. I’m supposed to be philosophical about her death. “That’s nature,” the maintenance man told me, with a shrug. “She wouldn’t have been able to tolerate a visit to the vet, or the medical care required,” another said.

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I worry that Hershey caught whatever illness killed Gimpy (the second to last feral cat, who died a month ago, at age thirteen), or that, even worse, someone put out poison that killed both cats, and my dogs might be vulnerable as well.

Before the blue tarp-wrapped cat house was removed from the lawn behind the building, the girls had a chance to sniff their goodbyes to Hershey. They took a long time, checking each crevice, seeming to recognize her smell, and her story, in each corner.

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“Hershey has to be here somewhere.”

There are still squirrels, and raccoons, and birds and, of course the dogs, around the place. But there is no more Hershey. I’d gotten used to having her around, and spying her through the greenery of the retaining wall. I’m not used to her being gone. I keep looking for her, everywhere.

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The Purpose of the Sukkah

 

I don’t have a Sukkah at my apartment building; not only because the co-op board would frown on it, but because I really don’t want to. I have a lot of grumpy “I refuse” moments when it comes to religious practices. I don’t want to bow or bend during services. I don’t want to kiss the Torah scroll when it is carried past me at synagogue. I don’t want to wear a Tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, even though many liberal Jewish women now wear them, and there are beautiful ones to choose from. And I don’t want to build a Sukkah and eat and pray in it for seven or eight days.

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This is a drawing of a Sukkah that I found on google images.

I didn’t roll my eyes or make snotty comments in the Sukkah at my synagogue during services for the first day of Sukkot. I sat amidst the greenery and decorations and prayed with everyone else. But I refused to borrow the Rabbis Lulav and Etrog (palm frond and other species, plus a large citron) to say the prayer and shake the Palm frond in every direction, like the Jewish version of a rain dance. I didn’t have a good intellectually-driven reason for skipping the ritual. My internal monologue sounded something like, “I don’t wanna! You can’t make me!” One woman suggested that I didn’t want to do it because it was a man’s ritual. (There’s something to be said for that, but not in the way she thought. The lulav has a phallic quality to it, especially with the Etrog – only one bulbous shape rather than two, but still – right next to it.) Someone else said that maybe I didn’t like the magical thinking of it (eh, I tend to be a fan of magical thinking).

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Not my Lulav and Etrog.

I’m not an expert on the religious significance of Sukkot – the seven or eight days when Jews are supposed to eat and pray in a hut-like temporary shelter, with greenery overhead, instead of a roof, so that you can see the sky and the stars. There are various points of view to choose from. There’s the historical significance: to remember when we were nomads in the desert. There’s a social action interpretation: sit in the temporary shelter and think about what life is like for those without a secure home. There’s a self-awareness angle: to force us to think about the ways that we are too protected in our daily lives, and separated from nature and the world around us. It goes on and on. Just ask your nearest rabbi, who has to come up with new sermons about the holiday every year.

I remember putting together our Sukkah as a child, with my father and brother, and getting my fingers stuck between two of the flattened pipes that my father used as the frame for the temporary building. I remember having to carry full dishes of food, to and from the house late at night, while my father sat at the table in the Sukkah on our front lawn, like a king.

There is so much baggage left in my Judaism; personal, crummy, anecdotal baggage that I don’t want to have to relive constantly. It’s a funny mix. I love going to shul. I love singing the prayers, and being with my community, and studying. I love just looking at the Hebrew letters in my prayer book, as if they are my old friends returning to me. But then I hit these bumps, like the Sukkah, or candle lighting, or kissing the Torah, and I trip over the invisible rubble in my mind.

I’ve been told that, next year, our synagogue will be inviting animals into the Sukkah for a visiting day, as they’ve done in the past. There will be dogs, of course, but also snakes and gerbils and parrots and on and on. Maybe, when I can bring Cricket and Butterfly with me, I won’t find the Sukkah quite as intimidating. Or maybe Cricket will think the plastic fruit on the walls were put there just for her delectation, and I’ll have a whole new set of horrible memories of Sukkot to carry with me in the future.

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Cricket is ready to go!

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She’s training herself, to see how much she can fit into her mouth at one time.

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Butterfly is practicing her facial expressions, for after Cricket misbehaves in public.

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This is her “I’m the cute one” face.

Sacred Space

 

The Cantor at my synagogue has taken up a new topic to study this year: the technology of prayer. I can’t say that I understand what he means by that yet, but the first lesson was about sacred space, and how we arrange it. Butterfly is very often in sacred space, because she listens to the sounds around her and stands still and lets them encompass her. Cricket prefers hidey-holes as her sacred spaces. She feels safe and solemn in those small, enclosed spaces, and it allows her to rest and reemerge more whole.

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“You can’t see me!”

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“I hear everything, Mommy.”

But, I am not good at interior design. When I decorate, I basically put things where they’ll fit, no Feng Shui or harmony involved, so the idea of contemplating the use of space made me whimper with anticipated boredom. The cantor talked about how most sanctuaries, Jewish and Christian at least, are set up with the congregation in rows of seats, all facing one way, with the clergy up on a riser, and the congregation a step down, like an audience watching actors on a stage. Then he showed us pictures of Jewish synagogues that were set up differently, with the congregation on two opposing sides, or even three sides of the sanctuary, and the clergy in the middle. The idea being to focus attention on the community, rather than on the clergy, who are there to lead the congregation, rather than to be the show itself.

The Cantor’s class on sacred space happened the night before Slichot, which is a service that takes place a week before the Jewish New Year, late at night. It is a preview of all of the themes of the high holidays, with all of the atonement, forgiveness, and cleaning of old forgotten laundry intended for this time of year. But for this one service of the year, the clergy members placed themselves with us in the congregation, and some of the ideas from the previous night’s class must have stuck with me, because as soon as the Cantor began to sing from his seat among us, I felt the change in the shape of the space. I got it. He became one of us instead of separate, and he became a voice only, rather than a performer to be watched. It was a small group the night of Slichot (not a lot of people come out a week before the high holidays, at ten o’clock on a Saturday night, to pray), which meant that the Cantor didn’t need a microphone to be heard, so that his unamplified voice, so intertwined with our own, made him seem even more a part of us.

Over the summers, at our synagogue, we move from the formal sanctuary to the small sanctuary for Friday night services. It saves on electricity, especially for the air-conditioning of the sanctuary and the social hall, and it saves us from seeing all of the empty seats from the families who go away on vacation, or just don’t feel especially religious in the heat. But the side effect of moving to the smaller, less formal room, is that our whole tone changes. The clergy stands at our level, and not above. We sit closer together, instead of spread out across the room. We can hear each other sing, and breathe. The space itself, usually just an ordinary room, becomes sacred space because of how we live within it.

Maybe sacred space actually changes from person to person and moment to moment. A lot of the time, I think a space feels sacred because of the people who are in it with you. That’s why I wish that the dogs could join me at synagogue, especially when we are at our most informal and communal. Cricket could sit in my lap, or hide under my chair, and Butterfly could wander around the room and listen to all of the voices around her. That would be my ideal of a sacred space.

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That’s Cricket’s foot.

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Cricket in her sacred space.

 

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Butterfly’s not allowed in, but she makes do.