RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: January 2015

A Butterfly Companion

 

Butterfly flits around like a ladybug. I always think she should be wearing ballet slippers and a tutu, the way she twirls and flies. She is gossamer. Her wings are so ethereal that they are almost invisible. Almost.

My Butterfly

My Butterfly

She doesn’t seem to be like any other dog I’ve known. I’m used to moody dogs, dogs with personality problems, dogs who use guilt to push me around, dogs who could be diagnosed using the DSM V. But Butterfly is a different. She poops and barks and begs for treats, yes, but she’s also untouchable in a way, so sweet as to be unreal.

"Gimme some sugar!"

“Gimme some sugar!”

In a way her butterfly-ness is upsetting, because she is always a bit out of reach. Cricket will jump on me and curl up on my chest, or my hip, while I’m sleeping. She scratches me and shrieks in my ear. She is solid and real and in vivid color. Butterfly is something other than that, an enigma at times, in deep thought about something I can’t know.

When Butterfly’s sugar is very low, she seems as light and airy as a butterfly; within moments she seems to lose most of her body weight; this is the most frightening thing, both for her and for me. Her eyes bulge and she alternates between staring into space and looking at me and shaking. She doesn’t know what to do. Even she thinks this is too much lightness to bear.

I feel so much safer when she is solid in my arms, or galloping down the hill. Then she is real and alive and none of her paws are reaching towards another world. But there is always this tendency to unreality with her. She drifts away, either because her physical health is shaky, or, more often, because she is lost in another state of mind, thinking of some other place, or thinking of nothing at all.

I wonder what she's thinking.

I wonder what she’s thinking.

My mom was kind of like this when I was growing up. When she was present, her love was obvious and full of joy, but then she would disappear, either leaving the house or just leaving her body, and there was no way to reach her. I always wanted to hug her, or yell at her, to bring her back to life, and to me. Mom also has the same sweetness and generosity of spirit as Butterfly, where you can’t quite believe how lucky you are to be loved so much.

I know that Butterfly loves me. When we go outside and she runs off for a minute and turns back, the joy in her face at seeing me, and the flying run she takes to return to me, is extraordinarily good for my self-esteem.

But she can be very independent. If she doesn’t want to be crowded, she’ll just walk away and find a place to be alone. When Cricket does this, she chooses a place nearby, where she can stare at me, and let me know that I have disappointed and annoyed her. But when Butterfly wants to be alone, it’s not about me; she’s not angry at me, or jealous of Cricket, or pouting, she just wants to be alone: on the mat by the front door, on the rug in my room when I’m not there, on the bathmat in the bathroom.

When Cricket is grumpy, she wants me to know about it.

When Cricket is grumpy, she wants me to know about it.

Butterfly prefers to keep her thoughts to herself.

Butterfly prefers to keep her thoughts to herself.

It would almost be better if she was reacting to something I’d done, because at least then I’d feel like I mattered.

It’s possible that a lot of things in my life have had this fleeting, ethereal quality to them, and I write it all down to capture it and remind myself that it was real and not just my imagination. I worry about that, about losing wisps of my life into the air as if they never happened, losing people and memories and emotions because I wasn’t quick enough to tie them down and secure them before the rains came.

I love Butterfly all the time, whether she is close and present, or dreamy and far away. But the pull of grief when she’s flitting away can be incredibly painful. There’s a reason why most people don’t have butterflies as pets.

White butterflies.

Butterfly’s white butterflies.

Advertisements

Looking For My Song

 

I used to write songs. This was a long time ago. I bought a Casio keyboard with my leaf-raking money when I was eleven or twelve, and tried to remember my years of piano lessons to pick out a melody. But I never felt like I could catch the song I was looking for.

I feel like being a musician, for me, is as impossible as being a dog. I don’t have the right internal organs to get there, no matter how much I might want to. I don’t have the right brain, the right ears, and the right fingers. I’m just not that person and I feel the loss acutely. Cricket and Butterfly have their own unique songs. They have particular patterns and rhythms and pitches that really get their message across, but I feel muted. I can write and speak my story, but I can’t sing it, and that leaves something essential unexpressed.

Cricket likes the sound of her own voice and uses it very specifically to express different emotions and needs. She rasps and squeaks, and cries and screams, she barks from her gut and shrills through her nose. She is a diva. She sings variations of the same song, using the same instrument, all day long.

Cricket, mid-Aria.

Cricket, mid-Aria.

Butterfly listens very closely when we’re outside. She collects sounds: like an airplane flying overhead, leaves rustling, a garbage truck rolling down the hill, geese chattering to each other, birds whooshing through the trees. I wonder if she’s looking for her song too, and sampling all of these sounds to see what resonates for her.

Butterfly, listening.

Butterfly, listening.

In college, in one of my early attempts at jumping around the curriculum, I took a class in music composition. I’d taken voice lessons and piano and felt like there was a whole segment of the musical world that I was missing, huge parts of the language that I could not understand. I did well in the class, because it was basically math with musical notes, but I felt like I was being starved for the real stuff, the “aha” stuff, because I couldn’t connect the math to the music. Maybe if I’d tried to stick it out and become a music major I’d have eventually found what I was missing, but most schools require proficiency in a musical instrument and a willingness to perform and I didn’t have either one.

I have a cousin who plays the cello professionally. She plays a regular cello and a baroque cello (don’t ask me what makes them different). She has spent her whole life becoming the cello and limiting the space between her body and the music until the music really does come through her and the cello at once. She inspired me, and I spent a year and a half trying to teach myself how to play the guitar, but I couldn’t make my fingers tolerate the work. My knuckles kept clicking and jamming, because, as one doctor told me forever ago, my ligaments are too loose to hold my bones together. And you would not believe how painful it is to press your soft fingertips against heavy guitar strings.

The most electric experience I’ve ever had with music is when ice skaters have been able to skate as if the music is coming through their bodies, Michelle Kwan could do this, and Kurt Browning and Torvill and Dean. I remember watching Julie Kent at American Ballet Theater, just watching her arms as if the music was living in her body and she was setting it free.

Julie Kent

Julie Kent

Michelle Kwan

Michelle Kwan

Music just seems so forlorn and naked without visual accompaniment. I feel lost, like I’m swimming in too-deep water, when I listen to music sometimes, as if the ground has fallen out from under me. I feel like I will be trapped in an emotional state I can’t identify, can’t tolerate, and can’t get out of. How is the music doing this?

Music is one of the most powerful things I know, and I feel this great need to create it, and control it, and I can’t do either one. I can just sample it, like Butterfly, and pick a sound from here and there to add to my collection. I think this might be enough, for now.

The girls are thinking about it.

The girls are thinking about it.

Yin and Yang, or, How We Resonate

 

Some people resonate with each other, not because they are objectively the same but because they complement each other in interesting ways. We often talk about yin and yang, where two people create a whole circle, but I tend to think more of melody and harmony. It’s not a circle with no holes, it’s a song that resonates and echoes.

Cricket and Butterfly are not a perfect match. First of all, they look too much alike. They have the same color hair, both white with apricot markings in mostly the same places. And they both bark, at different pitches, but not in a harmony of beautiful sound; they are not a choir, they are a cacophony of noise. They are not the same height, but also not opposites, like big and small or fat and skinny. They are just small and smaller. They don’t fill all of the possible spaces in the world with their two personalities, but sometimes they harmonize in interesting and beautiful ways.

Butterfly was very excited to meet Cricket on her first day home.

Butterfly was very excited to meet Cricket on her first day home.

Cricket was less excited.

Cricket was less excited.

"Okay, maybe she's not so bad."

“Okay, maybe she’s not so bad.”

Cricket is much more of a protector, wild with noise and ready to lunge at friends and strangers alike, and Butterfly is more of a conciliator, but not always. She is not always slow and Cricket is not always fast. But they have worked out, as sisters. They have not camped out at opposite sides of the apartment, hissing at each other like cats. They do not ignore each other. Sometimes they snuggle or sleep close by each other. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes one is going crazy and the other stands by with a lifted eyebrow, but then the roles reverse.

Cricket, protecting the world from the inherent violence of sticks.

Cricket, protecting the world from the inherent violence of sticks.

Butterfly, meditating on the absence of chicken treats.

Butterfly, meditating on the absence of chicken treats.

They often like to walk in opposite directions, to see how far my arms can stretch away from my body.

Sometimes the girls even work together.

Sometimes the girls even work together.

I think we have this unreachable ideal of perfection in love, of black and white, all or nothing, that two people either match perfectly or they don’t match at all. But what if it’s not supposed to be just two people completing each other? Maybe no one person is the perfect and whole complement to any other person, because that wouldn’t leave room for anything or anyone else. Even the happiest couples crave children, or friendships, or dogs, teachers, or coworkers, or clergy. There has to be some room left over in a couple for the rest of the world to filter in – not like a great flood whooshing through the relationship and wiping everything out, but room for more people, more ideas, more emotions. There are so many couples at my synagogue who have lasted 40, 50, and 60 years together and they still leave room for other people and activities and ideas. They accept that there are unfilled spaces between them, and that that’s a good thing.

Both of my dogs resonate with me (I did choose them after all). Cricket’s Sturm und Drang and high drama and need for closeness speak of the volume of emotion coursing through me all my life. The noise of her happiness and pain and excitement and rage, and her unbearable joy in love and curiosity and new things, resonates with me. And the way she studies the things she loves so carefully and with such attention, is just like me.

"Food!!!!!!!!"

“Food!!!!!!!!”

Butterfly is this sweet grief, this place of joy and pain mixed together that I remember from visiting my grandfather, and going out for ice cream sundaes at six in the morning because Grandma couldn’t stand to wake up to children in her house. Butterfly is joy tempered by patience, and when she knows what she needs, endless stubbornness and knowledge that she is right. We are the same! This is me! Well, not all of me, but some. And I could make room for more soul mates like these, because there is more of me to be met.

"I think I can...I think I can."

“I think I can…I think I can.”

I am always on the lookout for people who will resonate with me and I’ve had to learn to give the chemistry more time to grow – but there are still people who, right away, glow for me; people whose energy reaches across the room to me so that I can feel it in my fingers and on my face. I don’t understand this. I worry that I can’t live without this kind of glow.

What if, in two or three ways, you have that full on orchestral sound in your ears with someone, but on the fourth note: cacophony? Or, you’re both in sync, but your families hate the sound of each other? Or what if your families like each other and you have no major cacophonies, but the harmonies between you are only middling, is that better?

I don’t know. Maybe I should just leave it to Cricket to decide.

She's ready.

She’s ready.

The Writing Workshop on Aging

 

I started a writing workshop on aging at my synagogue. I didn’t plan to do this. I just went to a meeting on aging because it looked interesting. I had the idea that this could lead to visiting people at the hospital, or reading to patients at nursing homes, and could count on my application for graduate school. My ideal would be to walk dogs at the animal shelter, but I don’t think they’d count that as social work. I could be wrong.

So I sat in the meeting and listened. Stories flooded the room: of women at sea after the death of a spouse of fifty years; women manipulated by insurance companies while signing papers at the hospital; women looking for help for their parents; women wondering how to help their friends. The meeting was very low on men.

I took notes and listened and felt the chaos roll over me.

The decision at the end of the first meeting was to have a second meeting, and a third, and a fourth if necessary, until some ideas could start to coalesce.

I went home, exhausted, and fell asleep, and then went on with my life, writing for the blog, going to class, writing my research paper, studying math for the GRE (because not only did I forget every bit of math learned in high school, but I have even lost my short term math memory and I forget it all over again each day.)

I don’t remember looking over my notes from the meeting. I just thought about one of my synagogue friends, recovering from back surgery, and I thought about my great aunt Ellen and the interviews I did with her a few years back to try and catch some of her magic on paper, and I thought about the short memoir my grandfather started before he died, giving us a glimpse into his childhood. Bits and pieces of the stories people had told me over the past few years of Friday nights at synagogue started to bubble up. I wrote a few notes to myself about people whose stories I’d want to read, but told myself it was just a passing idea, and I’d never have to follow through and actually talk to people.

I’ve learned so much from keeping a blog and writing memoir. It forces me to really deepen into my life, to settle into the crevices of it, and not just feel like I’m a character in my own imagination. I feel like I am taking good care of myself by writing about my life, instead of letting the moments disappear into the ether. I especially like that I have a chronicle of my dogs’ lives. I don’t worry that I will forget important things about them, the way I did with previous dogs. It felt so painful to forget things about Dina and Delilah, as if I was disrespecting them, and the value of their lives to me.

Delilah the Doberman

Delilah the Doberman

Dina, pensive.

Dina, pensive.

Butterfly and Cricket

Butterfly and Cricket

I found myself writing notes for an idea of a Friday night service where people read their own stories to the congregation. And I thought about how I could make that happen, or at least help people to write some of their own stories down.

I wrote a proposal, feeling very self-conscious and a bit like I was walking into a black hole from which I would never be able to return. I would be shunned from my synagogue. They’d hate me for thinking I was so special that I could teach anyone how to write; they’d resent me for thinking I had anything to offer. I could barely breathe.

I sent the proposal to the woman who runs the aging meetings, and she loved it! And then she sent it to the social worker helping the congregation, and she loved it too. And when I read it to the group in person at the next meeting, face turning purple, hands shaking, I got applause, and six people signed up to take a writing class with me on the spot.

I think I could be good at this, but I’m still terrified. Every step forward feels like jumping from one cliff to another. I’m thinking about how to help people who have trouble seeing, or trouble with arthritis so that writing or typing is difficult. I’m thinking about how to help people who are not natural writers, but would be great interviewees. I’m thinking so much that I have little pieces of paper floating around my room like confetti. Butterfly is loving that.

Butterfly even listens with her tongue!

Butterfly, full of joy!

 

 

An Elephant In The Living Room

 

My brother and I had a fascination with elephants when we were little. It’s possible this started when we went on an elephant ride. You had to climb up to a platform and be placed on the elephant. It was not like a horse; the elephant almost didn’t know I was there, like I was a fly on his back, but the idea that the elephant was alive, and moving, and not a bus or train but a real live being, seemed magical to me.

Happy elephant! (not my picture)

Happy elephant! (not my picture)

I might have been four years old, because I can’t place when or where it happened. I don’t know if it was at a circus or an elaborate petting zoo, near home or away. I just remember the moments of elephant, and the plan that started to form: we wanted an elephant to live at our house.

We never wanted chickens, that I know of. I thought about a goat, but Mom said no right away, because of the smell, and the inevitable destruction. She knew from goats and didn’t want to live near one again.

I really wanted an elephant, or another big animal, someone who could take up more space than my father and fight off any monsters who dared to invade my room.

I didn’t want a lion, really, or any kind of cat. They struck me as a little too changeable. I never really thought of having a cow. They just didn’t seem that interactive, and, they were steak. I didn’t want a pet who could be confused with food. A giraffe would have worked great. She could have hung her head out of my bedroom window to snack on trees and keep watch over the neighborhood, and then she could rest her head on the porch roof whenever she got tired. I think my brother would have been okay with a giraffe, but for some reason Mom said no to that too. Something about the ceilings.

A lion would be a bit much. (not my picture)

A lion would be a bit much. (not my picture)

A cow would always have been suspicious around dinner time. (not my picture)

A cow would always have been suspicious around dinner time. (not my picture)

A giraffe would have been wonderful! (not my picture)

A giraffe would have been wonderful! (not my picture)

We had an eighty pound Doberman Pinscher named Solomon when I was little, but even though he towered over me I never thought of him as a good elephant substitute. A friend had a slobbering blue mastiff named Bruno that was more what I was looking for; someone slow, and friendly, and soft, and smiling at me. I wanted him to go to school with me and sit at the next desk during spelling tests. I wanted him to go to summer camp with me and do the doggy paddle while I tried to stay afloat.

A blue Mastiff, just like Bruno. (not my picture)

A blue Mastiff, just like Bruno. (not my picture)

My therapist, and, from what I gather, many other therapists as well, uses the elephant in the living room metaphor, i.e., there’s an elephant in the middle of the room and everyone is acting as if it isn’t there. The elephant could be incest or alcoholism or mental illness or domestic abuse, but whatever it is, the family denial is so potent that it makes something the size and weight of an elephant invisible.

I hadn’t heard this metaphor when I was little, there was just something about an elephant, so majestic, with rough skin, not trying to be colorful or beautiful, that felt right to me. They are matriarchal, and have long memories, neither of which I knew at the time, but maybe I sensed it. There was something about elephants that calmed me. I could maybe ride my elephant to school, and slide down her trunk, and set her up under a tree while I was in class, and bring her milk and cookies during snack time.

There was a book I read all the time about a boy who had a dinosaur as a friend, and I thought an elephant would be more practical.

Danny-Dinosaur

The biggest argument against an elephant was, how would you get it up to the second floor so it could sleep in your room? So that’s when we started planning the elevator. We started scouting locations where the elevator could go without disrupting the floor plan too much. When my father complained about the cost of electricity, we thought about a dumbwaiter contraption, but we’d need a second elephant to help us lift the weight. Two elephants. One for each of us!

Of course, sadly, our parents prevailed, and we never built an elevator or brought home a baby elephant to raise in the backyard. I know we would have been willing to share the chores, and take turns having her sleep in our bedrooms at night, but it’s possible we wouldn’t have known how to handle the poop. That’s probably what made the decision. Everything else about an elephant living in a house on Long Island would have worked out fine; but not the poop.

I had to settle for two mini-poopers!

I had to settle for two mini-poopers!