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The Search For Meaning

 

At my synagogue, and in the liberal Jewish community at large, there’s been discussion lately about the search for meaning: that the previous generations came to religion for peoplehood and community, and the current generation is looking for meaning. But I don’t know what they mean by “meaning.” Alternately they use words like “spirituality” and “purpose.”

During my latest social work class, I read an article (Wong and Vinsky, 2009) about the use of the phrase spiritual-but-not-religious in social work. Its authors argue that the word spiritual, as we use it, reflects a Euro-Christian, largely Protestant mindset, just stripped of the trappings of religion. The authors of the article come from Buddhist and Jewish backgrounds, and both see spirituality, as they’ve experienced it, as based in the history and community they come from. They feel that when you try to divide spirituality from that history, it loses a lot of its power.

We want to believe that finding meaning in life is an intellectual pursuit, and a solitary pursuit, but usually we are searching because something has been missing from our relationships.

My journey to find meaning in life has been pretty literal. I needed to go through every event and person in my entire life, and find out what the hell happened. Was this person really as mean as I thought, or was I exaggerating? Was I a melodramatic kid, or was my life actually as dramatic as I thought it was? I had to work at organizing and parsing my life, so that the chaos I experienced the first time around could come into focus. I looked for paradigms and frameworks and theories, to help make all of those relationships become clear.

David Brooks recently wrote an article in the New York Times, arguing for the value of covenantal relationships among communities, and societies. With all of the globalization technology has brought, he says, many people have lost the social bonds they used to live by. People live more fragmented and isolated lives than they used to. The idea of a covenantal relationship is that it’s not a choice you make each day, it’s a choice you try to live up to each day. Brooks talks about a social fabric, which resonates for me, because my mom is a quilter, taking scraps from everywhere and sewing them together to make something new, and whole.

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Butterfly is working on a new design.

In a world where we have Tinder, and swipe-left-if-you-like-the-looks-of-him, we forget that relationships are about time and effort. It’s not that you should stick with a synagogue or religion or marriage that is wrong for you, or hurts you. It’s that you should make sure you’re not giving up on a good thing too quickly, or because it requires more input from you to keep working.

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Relationships take work? Or more treats, at the very least.

When both of the rabbis at my synagogue went to Israel for a conference two summers ago, just as the Gaza war began, many of us were holding our breath, wishing they would have stayed home. The conference was a way to give Liberal American rabbis a sense of the current tensions within Israel, between men and women, between ultra-orthodox and liberal, between Arab Israeli and Jewish Israel, and between Israeli and Palestinian. As soon as our rabbis returned, even though it was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, when we usually get twenty people at services at most, the room was filled to bursting with emotions and hugs and delayed fear – and we made meaning together. We brought our offerings into the soup of community and each took home what we could use.

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Where’s MY soup?”

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“I like soup.”

For dogs, meaning comes from their relationships too. They are dependent on their people for food and walks, yes, but it’s more than that. They depend on us for attention and structure and the basic feeling that they matter. We humans like to think of ourselves as independent, and able to take care of ourselves, but it’s a sham. Just ask Cricket. She can have a warm place to sleep, plenty of food, and frequent trips outside, but if Grandma isn’t with her, she becomes deeply unhappy. She can pull herself up to mildly unhappy, by spending extra time with me, leaning against me on the couch, following me from room to room. An outsider might even think she was fine, but that’s because they’ve never seen the absolute joy she can feel when Grandma returns, or the peace on her face when she can fall asleep on Grandma’s lap.

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“Grandma!”

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“You’re home!!!!”

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All better.

Brooks, D. (April 5th 2016). How Covenants Make Us, New York Times, Op. Ed., A27.

 

Wong, Y. & Vinsky, J. (2009) Speaking From the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the            ‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ discourse in social work, British Journal of Social

            Work, 39, 1343-1359.

 

p.s.   Kristina Stanley, fellow author, blogger, and dog Mom, has written The Author’s Guide To Selling Books To Non-Bookstores, which is both a how-to on how to be more pro-active in selling your books, and a good friend spurring you on to more success. Her expertise in this area is hard won, and she wants to share it. We all dream of the perfect writing buddy who’s there with us for the journey and prodding us along the way, well this book is your marketing buddy, giving you advice and encouragement and letting you know you’re not alone.

https://kristinastanley.com/

 

 

 

The Sounds of Spring

 

Allergy season has been blinding me. I go outside into a fog of loose green flying things, and the dogs take advantage and drag me where they will.

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Cricket is very proud of herself.

But it’s made me more sensitive to the noises all around me. For example, there is a woodpecker somewhere in the backyard who sounds like he’s using a jackhammer to knock down all of the trees, at seven o’clock in the morning! The woodpecker’s name seems small for the sound he makes. His job is to peck at the wood to find bugs to eat, but I wonder, sometimes, if he’s got a megaphone attached to the side of his beak, to make himself sound more impressive, or maybe woodpeckers really have started to use power tools, just to mess with our minds.

My nose hurts in sympathy whenever I hear that woodpecker, but I’ve never seen him. My idea of a woodpecker is probably distorted, though, because I’ve only ever seen one animated in cartoons, so I may have seen him without realizing it.

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I have not seen anyone looking like this.

Butterfly loves to stand still and listen to the noises all around her. She’s equally intrigued by a beautiful bird song, the sound of the wind through the trees, and an airplane flying way too low over our heads. The only sound she specifically dislikes is the bus that stops on our corner, and the mechanized female voice that announces each location.

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Butterfly in listening pose.

There are some odd creatures out in the woods. I don’t know which animal makes the strangled baby noise, but the first time I heard it, I thought it was actually a baby, being strangled, and I looked everywhere to try and find it. There’s also an animal out there with a smoker’s cough, though that could actually be one of my neighbors hiding in the woods, choking to death. I can’t be sure.

I like the swish of the wind and the traditional birdsong, a little tweet here, a little twitter there, but the variety certainly does keep things interesting.

And then there are the two feral cats, Hershey and Gimpy (named by the human residents, not by themselves) who take up zones at opposite ends of the yard and avoid each other religiously. Hershey likes to climb the retaining wall and look down on her fiefdom. Gimpy likes to hide in the manicured bushes and climb through hollowed out trees.

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Hershey, on guard.

One day I saw Gimpy leaning against my mom’s temporary green house (like a pup tent, but for plants) trying to steal some warmth on a chilly day.

The girls have been taking advantage of my frequent need to stop and sneeze. Cricket has been eating extra grass and sniffing extra smells, and Butterfly has been doing her sound meditations, letting the wind curve the sound around her ears in a new way each time.

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Butterfly listening from another direction.

But at least they don’t seem to mind that I use their poopie bags to collect my used tissues, so that I don’t have to stuff them back into my jacket pocket after use. Maybe they remember that day, early in the season, when I had forgotten to fill my pockets with fresh tissues and had to sneeze into my t-shirt. Cricket looked at me funny when that happened, which is rich, given that she actually eats tissues filled with snot. Harrumph.

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“I can hear you, Mommy.”

 

Cricket’s Ears

 

Two weeks ago, on Friday morning, we took the dogs to the groomer for their regular appointment. Butterfly’s hair was turning grey around the ears (she’s a white dog) and Cricket’s eyes were disappearing into a mop of hair. My biggest concern, though, was the hair in Cricket’s ears. I’d asked the groomer to pull the matted hair from her ears, every time, but somehow it rarely happened. So this time, I was insistent. Whatever else you do, I said, make sure to deal with her ears.

When we picked the girls up that afternoon, everything seemed fine. Cricket was flapping her ears a bit, but that seemed reasonable given that they’d not only plucked the hair from the inside of her ears, they’d shaved the mats off the outside too, making her look even more like a little lamb. Butterfly started sniffing at Cricket’s ears almost immediately, but it’s something she tends to do, sniffing Cricket’s ears, nose, butt, etc., for secret messages, so I didn’t take too much notice. On Saturday, though, I noticed that Cricket was still flapping her ears. I managed to feel the inside of one of her ears, for a second, and I felt something hard, as if the skin where the hair had been plucked was scabbed. Cricket wasn’t interested in letting me look more closely, though, and I figured it was probably no big deal.

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“Mommy, why does Butterfly keep sniffing my ear?”

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Ears mid-flap.

By Sunday afternoon, Cricket was flapping her ears so much that I thought she was going to give herself whiplash, and then I noticed this strange smell. I wasn’t sure if the smell was coming from Cricket, though. In fact, I assumed there was some food in the garbage can that was beginning to rot.

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flap flap flap!

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“Mommy, I think Cricket’s ears are going to fly away.”

On Sunday night, after emptying all of the garbage cans to no avail, I was finally able to look directly inside of Cricket’s right ear, and I saw a ring of brown pus, surrounding livid red skin. My stomach dropped, from the guilt, and the smell, and an incredible amount of anger at the groomer, for doing this to Cricket, and for not telling me what she’d done.

At eight thirty Monday morning, when the vet’s office opened, I called and got an emergency appointment. There was just enough time to wake up everyone before we had to leave (Cricket was sleeping on her grandma’s head, and Butterfly was sleeping-guard next to the bed). Cricket was excited, as usual, to go outside without her sister, and get in the car without her sister, and climb behind my head in the passenger seat. But as soon as we got to the vet’s waiting room, she tried to run back out the front door, and failing that, she hid under the bench. Cricket is a terrible patient. The only part of illness she can handle is taking a pill, slathered in peanut butter. Going to the vet and being man-handled? No way.

We were called in quickly, and the vet took one look at her ears and almost gasped. He’s not really a gasper, by nature, but he came close this time. He had to clean out both of Cricket’s ears, with cotton balls and long Q-tips, and then he gave her a shot to calm the redness, and drops in her ears, all with a muzzle on, because she was not handling the stress very well at all. He asked, twice, if we’d rather have her put out during the ordeal, but, knowing Cricket, I thought she’d be even angrier waking up from anesthesia.

The vet gave us ear drops to give Cricket at home, twice a day, and Mom said, of course we can do that. The vet said that if we couldn’t get the drops in her ears, the second best option was to put something else in her ears (at the office) that would last a few weeks. No, we can do it, Mom said, as she looked at Cricket on the stainless steel table, wearing her muzzle, with her eyes bugged out, and clearly imagined a completely different dog.

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Peanut butter!

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Peanut butter tongue.

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“My turn!”

I actually managed to get drops into one of Cricket’s ears, in fifteen attempts, but not in the really bad ear. Cricket bared her teeth at me each time, and swung her head around 360 degrees as if she was possessed by Satan each time I got anywhere near her with the medicine dropper. So we had to go back to the vet, in defeat, the next day, and have him do the second best option. Cricket had to be dragged into the examining room (it’s a good thing the floor is slippery), and then she ran into the corner of the examining room, trying to avoid the reality that she was in the vet’s office, where who knew what horrors could come next. The vet dropped the lotion into her ears in two seconds, before Cricket could build herself up to full hysteria, and then off we went.

The doctor checked Cricket again on Thursday morning, and pulled some more hair out of her bad ear like it was so much fluff. Cricket’s eyes bugged out, and she had to be held still by the vet tech so that she wouldn’t jump off the table, and then the vet told us to come back for one more check-up the following week. I’m not in love with watching Cricket panic as she’s called into the examining room, but I feel like we’re really well taken care of by this doctor, and I wish that we could find a groomer who made us feel the same way. I thought we had, actually. This was the first groomer (after many tries) that Cricket could tolerate long enough to get an actual haircut, and she’s been going there for years.

The thing is, I still don’t understand what went wrong. How come Cricket wasn’t whimpering in pain, or bleeding, right after the grooming? Did they put something on the wound to stop the bleeding and numb the pain, and just not tell us? The other thing is, the scabs were already growing out with new hair in less than a week, and that seems really fast for new growth. The hair inside of the ear is supposed to be plucked at the root, to keep it from growing back so quickly, so, did the groomer shave the inside of Cricket’s ear, and push too hard, shaving off layers of skin?

The vet actually knows Cricket’s groomer and usually trusts her. He said that, from now on, we should come to him every two months to have him remove Cricket’s ear hair, and never let the groomer do it again. I’m sure Cricket will be thrilled when she figures out that she’ll be going to the groomer and the vet on a regular basis for the foreseeable future.

When we got home from the third vet visit of the week, Butterfly had to sniff Cricket all over, to second check his methods and diagnosis, and she seemed satisfied with his work.

I could tell that Cricket was starting to feel better when she scratched her ear against the floor, a sign that her ears were not quite as sensitive anymore. And then she felt so much better that she risked scratching her ear with a paw, though she did sniff the paw afterwards, to check for lingering infection, or just because. She’s like an eight year old boy in a dog costume.

 

Sitting Shiva

 

In seventh grade, when I was still new to Orthodox Judaism, the general studies principal at my school lost his mother, and the students were bused, grade by grade, to visit him at his home, where he was sitting Shiva. After the funeral, in Jewish tradition, comes Shiva. Shiva means seven, and the idea is that, for seven days, the mourners remain at home and visitors come to them. Maybe seven days was the limit people could consider taking off from work. Maybe seven days was the limit before people became restless and overwhelmed. If you are very observant, there are countless rules to abide by during Shiva – no shaving, always wear a torn piece of clothing, cover mirrors, sit on lowered seats (boxes are specially made for this purpose), etc. Visitors come at pre-set times, to help make a minyan (ten people) for communal prayer.

It was frightening to imagine that we were supposed to offer comfort to the principal of the school, someone so much more grown up than we would ever be. It was scary just to think of him as someone who might need comfort. And yet, my memory of that day isn’t full of fear and darkness. Somehow, the ritual of the visit, the way we each wished him well as he sat on his low chair and he let us see him be sad, and crying, and smiling too, made the day feel full of light, though it could just be that we happened to be there at the right time of day, so that sunlight was shining in through the windows.

I’ve had to go to a number of funerals and Shiva visits in the past few years, as I’ve become more active in my synagogue and gotten to know the older members. When you make friends with 90-year-olds, funerals become more common occurrences.

A friend of mine lost her father over Passover. His death had been a long process, and in large part she had done her grieving and letting go over the last few years of his life, as she lost pieces of him to illness. The last thing to go was his conviction that he had to stay in order to take care of his wife; that commitment outlasted hunger, even the ability to swallow, by months.

Shiva had to be delayed until after Passover, and then only lasted one day because an unofficial mourning period had already been going on, with friends calling from all over the country for a week. There were so many people at her house that I didn’t know, and I felt out of place and uncool. But then, before the Mourner’s Kaddish, my friend read the eulogy she’d written for the funeral, and as she read it I felt like she was conjuring her father into the room. I could almost see him in the corner, with a bemused expression on his face, wearing his white doctor’s coat and his college tie, and complaining about the driver who cut in front of him on the expressway.

I think that the value of a ritual like Shiva is that it forces you to ask for the things you really need, but maybe don’t think you deserve. When I’m depressed, I lose most of my social skills. But for those seven days, the idea is, your rabbi and friends and family and neighbors are given a schedule for when they can interrupt your isolation. They have a clear mandate to visit you, and bring you food, and pray with you. This is one of the benefits of belonging to a synagogue; there are set practices and communication paths to go by, for everything related to a death in the family, if someone calls and asks what you need, you can tell them. I wish there were more of this for other life events.

There’s a rule that you can’t sit Shiva on Shabbat. If you are three days into Shiva and Friday night comes along, you change out of your mourning clothes and wash and dress and go to the synagogue to say the Mourner’s Kaddish with your community. Maybe the message is that happiness and community will be there waiting for you when you are ready for them, or maybe it’s to remind you that the grief will not last forever, because all around you are people who were in mourning at one time, and now they are singing the prayers and smiling at friends, and one day that will be you too. But I’m not sure if I could bear it, seeing other people’s lives going on all around me, seeing happiness.

Ideally I’d have a sleep over starting from the moment of loss. I’d have people in sleeping bags in every corner of the apartment to help me through every moment. But then I think, if my mom actually died, I wouldn’t be able to host people at all. I’d be curled up in a ball, with Cricket, under the couch. Butterfly would have to take care of both of us.

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Cricket hides under the couch, a lot.

 

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Butterfly is very good at offering comfort.

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But paperwork might be too much for her.

Just like there is no sanctioned way to do a Jewish funeral for a dog, or to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for a dog, there is certainly no Shiva for dogs. Right after my last dog, Dina, died, my mother had a long-scheduled trip and had to leave town for two weeks, so I was home alone with the death, in silence. I cleaned obsessively, and having that mindless physical task to do was helpful, but I think I would have liked it if my friends with dogs could have come over and filled the house with their voices, and their dogs’ voices. Maybe I could have offered up the last of Dina’s dog food as a ceremony, or given away the leftover pee pads. But, in the event, I didn’t know how to ask for company, or accept help when it was offered. Maybe if there’d been a set ritual to follow, I could have forced myself to follow it. It would have been such a relief, to tell my Dina stories, and share my grief, and have people all around me who cared that I had lost someone so important to me.

 

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My Dina

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Grandma’s pretty good at offering comfort too.

The Shul Rat

 

I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

I also liked that after services we could wander around the synagogue, until Mom got there, and it was like wandering through the White House without supervision. We’d sneak around and make it feel really mysterious and dramatic. The ceilings were high, and the setting was so formal, and everyone was quiet so as not to disturb the goings on in the main sanctuary. There was also something wonderful about having a community outside of my family, and a building to explore. My extended family was not next door, or down the block; we didn’t even have big family dinners more than once or twice a year, so the synagogue was my sense of family.

I liked the older people at shul. They weren’t always warm, but they paid attention and looked me in the eye. I felt like my best self there. At school I was a good student, but got teased constantly. At dance and gymnastics classes, I was barely keeping up and certainly not a star. At home…eh. But at shul, I mattered.

When I was seven, my father started to go to Saturday morning services regularly, and not long after that, my brother and I stopped going to afternoon activities and just stayed for the rest of the adult services with our father. The main sanctuary was a big deal. There was a high ceiling and stained glass windows, and tapestries on the walls, representing the twelve tribes of Israel. I liked the smell of the prayer books, and the hard covers, and the golden type on the cover. I liked that I knew who was a regular and who was new. I liked having a set seat that I went to every time. I loved when the Torah reader, the mother of one of my brother’s good friends, would sing harmonies, and I could sing along with her, and learn from her.

 

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My synagogue was not quite this grand, but I can dream.

For special occasions, like an engagement, bags of candy were made up and thrown onto the bima, and the kids ran up to get as much candy as they could reach. I never see this at my current synagogue. Maybe it’s been outlawed because someone could get hit, or someone could miss out on candy. Better to just have a table full of candy to choose from after the service, they think. Phooey.

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Bags of candy! (not my picture)

After my father got involved in the synagogue, we started to go to Friday night services, which were a formal affair. Kids came with their parents, and the cantor sang his complex loops of song, and everyone dressed up.  After the service there was a sit down oneg (dessert and talk) in the social hall. Tables were set up in a u-shape, and tea and desserts were set out. There were always non-dairy brownies with chocolate frosting, and I always ate off the frosting and left the brownies behind. Then the rabbi would hit his teacup with his spoon to start the discussion, and the kids would rush out just in the nick of time. The rabbi resented this, and forced his own children to stay put, but the other adults seemed to understand that kids could not sit through a long and boring discussion so late at night, when there was a whole building to explore.

Sometimes we’d end up sitting in the dark, in the far reaches of the building, looking through the toys left out by the preschoolers, or telling ghost stories. Other times, we made up elaborate games that required running through the building, and hiding under benches in the small sanctuary, and even sneaking up onto the bima in the main sanctuary to see what the rabbi kept in his lectern.

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“Are there toys at shul?”

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“Or pizza?”

I would have loved to bring Cricket and Butterfly to shul with me, to run through the halls of the building and play tag and have an excuse to laugh and jump and not be so self-conscious. But I never struggled to feel “spiritual” at shul, it was just there, in the building, in the occasion, in me. I wish every kid had a place like that, where God is infused into the walls of the building and doesn’t have to be spelled out; where history is just there all around you, waiting to be discovered.

Cricket would be more interested in searching for the left over bags of candy, but then I’m pretty sure God is in the candy too.

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“Candy?”

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“Candy!”

The Tango Lesson

 

More than ten years ago now, I went to a group dance lesson at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, because I had to do an attempt at literary reporting for my creative non-fiction class. I was not ready to write non-fiction at that point, and anything that smelled like journalism made me hyperventilate. But I’m a follow-the-rules kind of girl, so I did the assignment.

The first Saturday of each month, the museum opened its doors, free of charge. You could view the exhibits, or watch a movie, but most of us were there for the dance lesson. This week’s dance was the Argentine Tango.

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picture from taste4tango.net

A crowd had already gathered on the third floor when we arrived. The willing dancers gathered in the center of the floor, around the small circular stage. There was a woman in a conservative black skirt suit, with stiff white wings on her back, and children running through the maze of casually dressed adults. Another group, the circumspect, sat on the steps at the edges of the floor, holding pocketbooks, legs crossed. The last group, the voyeurs, mostly well-dressed twenty and thirty-somethings, leaned over the railings on the floor above.

In the center of the room, the four dance instructors stood on the podium, each facing a corner of the room. The two men wore black suits, one wearing a microphone headset. He welcomed us in a broken stream of words until the microphone was adjusted. The two women wore low cut black dresses and chunky heeled black dance shoes.

“Everyone step to your right,” the man with the microphone said. “Feet should be together – is that true for you?” he asked, and many people looked down at their feet to check. “Step to the left.” Everyone moved in the same direction at the same time, like a dial clicking one notch at a time.

The instructors demonstrated the next steps forward, hugging in the center of the stage as the rest of us tripped over each other trying to imitate them. The next part of the lesson: arm position. “This is the dance of passion,” the instructor said. “So whoever you’re pretending to hold, pretend to hold them in a passionate way.” He paused, then added, “For you youngsters – just hold your arms up.”

The music started. The main instructor, with an eyebrow raised, asked the single dancers to partner up. Two teenage girls with long blond hair and various piercings held onto each other and giggled. A grey haired couple stood side by side, wearing sensible rubber-soled shoes.

A mother danced with her young daughter. An older white man was paired with a little black girl looking for a partner. A little girl danced with her cabbage patch doll.

“The Tango is all about getting to know someone,” the instructor said. A teenage girl in a black dress and high heels pointed to her arm position and said to her boyfriend, in his jeans and ratty t-shirt, “This is my dance space, this is your dance space,” a line from the movie Dirty Dancing. He seemed to know the reference, because the next thing he did was to lean in to her dance space and kiss her.

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from Dirty Dancing

My dogs would never be able to make sense of a Tango, with its sidelong glances and quick flicks and tension. They’re much too straightforward for that, but they have created their own dance forms. Cricket has a “Grandma’s home!” dance that involves a lot of hopping on her two back paws and reaching up into the air with her front paws. Butterfly has an outdoor dance with a lot of skipping and hopping and galloping, before she finally stops to poop. They also have a few partner dances, where they cross leashes and sniff each other and run side by side and then pull apart.

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Dance with Grandma!

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Dance in the leaves!

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Dance in the snow!

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Dance together!

The dance floor at the museum began to look like an oversized game of Twister after a while, with a widening gap between the serious dancing couples and everyone else just playing around, snapping fingers, running instead of dancing, shimmying when that was not what the instructor called for.

A man in a long black coat, black hat, and beard, danced with a woman in a modest red dress on the outskirts of the crowd. He leaned down after a complicated step, and she reached up, to kiss him on the lips. Their teenage son, in the same kind of plain black suit, with fringes dangling out of the corners of his white shirt, wandered through the couples, wind-milling his arms, dancing on his own, twirling his coat like a black dancing skirt.

His parents watched him, but let him be. I noticed the couple because they were obviously Jewish and therefore familiar, but even more than that because they looked so comfortable in their bodies. You could see their relationship in every move they made: the private jokes, the comfortable fit of one hand in another, the playful kiss on the cheek. When I watch Dancing with the Stars, or So You Think You Can Dance, they’re always emphasizing the sexuality and formality of dance, but this was something more real and down to earth; this was like watching a long-married couple do dishes together, or listening in on a gentle disagreement about the color of the curtains.

This is what I love about watching Cricket and Butterfly dance, every move they make is real and expresses something they actually feel in the moment. It’s not formal or theoretical, it’s down to earth and full of life. If I could ever create a dance for myself, that’s what I’d want it to be like, especially if I could include a swirling dance skirt, and a few puppies for good measure.

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And then rest.

Olivia and Dina

 

Olivia Cole was one of my mom’s good friends in high school. They were both in the theatre group, at their girls’ only school in the city. There were girls of every shade and religion there and none of that mattered. I got the sense that they were in a safe haven in that school, where the limitations placed on other girls in the fifties just didn’t apply to them.

Mom went off to film school in California after that, and Olivia went to RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Then Mom went on to work as a film editor, and got married, and had kids, and found that film work was not on the right schedule for parenting two little kids, and one big one. And Olivia moved out to Los Angeles, married, divorced and won an Emmy.

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Olivia wins an Emmy!

I’d seen Olivia’s picture in the yearbook and heard her name, but I’d never met her myself. And then North and South, the miniseries, came on TV, and I was busily watching Patrick Swayze and listening to southern accents when I saw Olivia. I started screaming and calling for my Mom – Is that her?! And it was. I knew (of) someone who was on TV!

When I was in seventh grade, I got to see her on stage in A Raisin in the Sun, and then I saw her in three episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and a miniseries with Oprah Winfrey. But all of this time I still didn’t know her. I saw her in another play a few years later and she came out to meet us, and I was shy, and she smiled and called me “A tall drink of water” or was it “long” drink of water. Not sure. But she was still a stranger, a mirage even. When she was on stage or on my TV, she wasn’t really Olivia, and I wasn’t sure who she might be in real life. She wasn’t the kind of actress who played herself over and over, she played characters who were nothing like her, except that they used her eyes and her voice. They even changed her body, making her walk, her body language, the shape of her, unrecognizable.

olivia cole - the women of brewster place

Olivia in the Women of Brewster Place.

And then, when I was in my twenties, she came to stay with us. She had to sell her father’s house on the island and Mom offered our apartment as base of operations. Normally Olivia would have stayed in the city with her mother, but this was more convenient, and, more importantly, a chance to catch up with an old friend.

We had Dina then. She was probably ten years old, a black lab mix from the shelter, still in good health, and calmer than she’d been for the most of her life. I was still at my shyest back then (and only a few steps removed from that even now). I think Olivia was the only adult who ever slept over at the apartment (nephews, no matter what they might think, do not count as adults). Olivia was this mix of grand theatrical wisdom and down to earth, plain spoken quiet. And she loved my dog. And Dina loved Olivia.

dina smiles

Dina

Dina did not have many friends. Little children were as frightened of her as she was of them. They would see her black hair and sharp teeth and hide behind their mothers. Dina would see their quick movements, and short stature, and sit down by my leg with her back hair raised up. When people asked if she would bite, I had to say yes, she might do that. She’d tried to bite me, for picking her up when she didn’t want to be moved, for leaving her home when she wanted to come with me.

I took her to therapy with me for a few months, when she was suffering from unbearable separation anxiety, and maybe just knowing where I went without her, knowing what the place smelled like and sounded like, calmed her down. By the time Olivia visited, Dina was doing better, but she was still Dina. So Olivia’s matter of fact and immediate friendship was disarming and surprising to her. She wasn’t used to being liked by strangers. The two of them went for long walks together, down to the beach, keeping stride, breathing together.

IMG_0544

Dina loved to listen to Olivia’s voice.

With people, Olivia was a talker. She had that dramatic raconteur voice, with a touch of her southern Mom and her time in London coming through, and a lot of her time on stage filling out her voice so that even her whispers filled the whole room with a low smoky sound.

I don’t know if Olivia talked to Dina out on their walks, telling her stories of her own dog, Oro, or her trips around the world, or the characters she’d played. Maybe they were just quiet together, breathing in rhythm, walking towards the water and feeling the slight breeze in the air. Whatever it was, they came back content.

Dina had a friend. She didn’t know anything about Emmy awards and Hollywood and pilot season and table readings, all she knew was that this presence had entered her life and offered love of a gentle, fresh, relieving kind.

dina dances

Dina, the dancer.

I have to believe that’s part of what changed things for my Dina. She never became a social butterfly, but something in her anxiety seemed to slow down. As if she’d decided that it was all okay. She didn’t have to get better to be loved, she just had to be.

 

Olivia Cole is currently in a two-woman play about the Delany sisters, called Having Our Say, in Hartford, Connecticut. If you’re in the area, or plan to be there before April 24th, stop in and see her. She’s magical.

Olivia in Having our say

Olivia in Having Our Say.

This is a review of the play when it was at the Long Wharf theater:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/06/nyregion/review-2-sisters-navigate-100-years-of-black-history-in-having-our-say.html?_r=0

Link to Hartford Stage:https://www.hartfordstage.org/?gclid=CLiIobSOh8wCFUokhgodKvYGXA

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