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The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

A snapshot of two dogs in a backyard, looking through a chain-link gate amid summer-green foliage. Our dog, gone almost two years now, and our then-next-door neighbors’ dog, of whose passing we just learned. Like pictures so often do, this one tells a story, probably mostly just interesting to those of us who lived it, of how our lives were then. We used to take care of Jackson, the neighbors’ dog, when they were out of town. I would take him on walks with our dog, Charlie. People wondered how I, a relatively small woman, walked those two big dogs, but I loved it. Jackson’s exuberance, his love of walking, was such a perfect counterbalance to Charlie’s somewhat less enthusiastic approach.

I remember a whirlwind trip to visit my friend Angie: it was a Saturday that began with getting up early to take those two dogs on a walk, progressing into an eight-or-so-hour planning session at the public library branch down the street for the small nonprofit for which I worked, then catching an evening stand-by flight to D.C. Angie didn’t have a car, which was fine; I was a seasoned traveler. I could get to her place via public transportation, as long as she gave me specific instructions. She lived in a brownstone several blocks from the nearest metro station, but I calmly walked all those blocks through the D.C. Saturday nightlife with my huge study-abroad-in-Europe backpack (Sam) and my pillow, which I’ve learned I should never go anywhere without. Angie was having a party (it was the birthday of one of her roommates, I believe), and I deposited my stuff in her bedroom upstairs, changed out of my flying-standby-because-my-parent-works-for-the-airline-and-I’m-dressing-up-in-case-first-class-is-all-that’s-open-oh-darn business attire, and joined in wholeheartedly, finally passing out sometime around six a.m. after being up for probably a full 24 hours. I was so groggy when we finally got up around noon that I nearly set the kitchen on fire trying to make tea, but hey, all’s well that ends well.

Another time, up early before my standard Sunday lunch shift at Cosmic Cafe, I walked both dogs all the way down to the other end of Worth Street (where we lived) near the hospital. The neighborhood gets a little sketchy down at that end--this was the case if you went too far in any direction, living over there in Old East Dallas--and passing through the parking lot of a park, I noticed a homeless person huddled at the edge, sleeping. This in itself wasn’t super alarming, but then some seemingly cruel person in a sports car came squealing and screeching into the parking lot just as soon as we’d passed through it, doing donuts that came very close to the homeless person, with what seemed to be the intention of scaring the person off. I dragged the dogs away as fast as I could and headed home down the next street, but once out of range of the deranged driver I felt so secure with both of them with me, one on either side, fairly certain that nobody was likely to mess with me. Charlie was an Australian shepherd/heeler/something else mix, and Jackson was a Rhodesian ridgeback, but everyone seemed to think they were a wolf and a pit bull.

I’ve been contemplating pets a lot lately with the recent passing our our 11-year-old cat, Oliver, for whom I’m in the process of writing a very long blog post (or possibly memoir?...because it's really long) covering some of these same themes, but what I feel most strongly is how much a part of our stories these animals are and were. I remember an article or blog post I read, I think when I was pregnant with Mary, about how having pets doesn’t prepare you for having kids, that that was just preposterous, etc. etc. The author claimed to be a pet owner/lover. I remember feeling a little taken aback but deciding to reserve judgment because I hadn’t, after all, actually given birth to my kid yet.

Now, three-plus years into motherhood, here are my thoughts on that. I think having pets does help prepare you, if you love and take care of them the way you should. Obviously it’s different. I didn’t think I could love any creature more than I loved those animals until my human babies were born, and what I discovered was that it was the same type of love but multiplied to infinity. For Jake and me, I think that loving and taking care of those animals together helped lay the foundation of our family. Our pets are part of that foundation, part of that story, part of who we were and are and will be, the stories we will tell our kids and those they will someday tell theirs.

"...Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."
W.B. Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion"

Crying Over Spilled Milk

Sometimes you don’t realize how tightly you’re wound until something happens to unwind you.

Someone walked in on me while I was pumping at work today, one of the student interns. It was totally innocent; he hadn’t realized I was in the vacant office, that that’s why the door was locked. Hadn’t put two and two together, because why would he? The other nursing mom and I had told the office manager, his boss, so I’d felt more secure than I should have, I guess. Hadn’t even remembered to put a chair in front of the (locked) door.

HR provided a “mothers’ lounge,” for pumping or breastfeeding or whatever, but it’s in another building, so lugging pumping equipment over there, getting set up, washing pump stuff, lugging it back—twice a day—it ends up taking some time. Staying in our own suite of offices was simpler, especially when there was an unused office anyway. But I guess I’ll be hiking over to the mothers’ lounge again.

The set-up is fine and more than some women get, I know, even though legally employers have to provide time and a space in which breastfeeding moms can pump. But it does still feel a little like we’re being stuck in the farthest corner possible, where we couldn’t possibly inconvenience anybody else or make them uncomfortable.

Even though I caught him before he even had the door open more than a crack, I still started shaking and then crying. I can’t even decide exactly why. It’s really not that big of a deal.

I mean, it’s hard, yeah, this “working mom” thing, and not what I think I would have chosen, had I had a choice. This striving toward an impossible balance. But everyone does hard things all the time. Staying home with your kids is hard in a different way, I know. A longer maternity leave probably would have helped, but people have told me I should be “grateful” for the six weeks I got.

I try to look nice everyday, and I have all these like-new hand-me-downs from my sister to wear this week, but now I’ve got dried milk on my black slacks and my make-up’s probably running. We have a three-day weekend coming up, though, and Mom’s staying a little later with the kids so I don’t have to take them to the grocery store with me after work.

I’m so lucky and happy and grateful for my life, truly. It’s just odd how small, seemingly not very significant moments can sometimes unhinge you, just for a little while. Apparently they did signify something, on some subconscious level, but it can be hard sometimes to explain or even determine exactly what.


The Scent of a Memory

Driving to work this morning, I smelled something that reminded me of the meals Sorenio, the cook at the first restaurant I worked at when I was fresh out of college and embarking on a whole new adventure, used to make me when the owner wasn’t around. He was sneaky about it, because Basha (the owner) wouldn’t have approved of me eating for free, even though I was making hardly any money. Mostly Sorenio made me sandwiches, as I recall, and French fries. I don’t even remember what kind of sandwiches, just that they tasted so, so good. It was a Mediterranean restaurant with a slight identity crisis: its name was Pasta La Vista/The French Corner, like they just couldn’t decide. Basha’s brother, Basil, was his partner, as I recall. I liked Basil better, but I suspected he had a crush on me, and that made me a little uncomfortable. There were probably specific incidences of awkwardness, but I don’t remember them now. I alternated playing Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday on repeat…those were the two CDs of the restaurant’s collection that I liked, and I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that I took them with me when I quit. I seriously doubt anybody noticed.

Anyway, I was reminiscing a little about that period of time…it has definite scents, feelings, songs attached to it like most seasons of our lives (well, mine anyway, but I imagine most people are the same) do…and I feel like these aren’t usually things of which you even become conscious until later. I was thinking about the passage of time…how is it that that was 11 years ago? It’s like Mary turning two yesterday…it feels like both longer and not nearly that long. My baby isn’t really a baby anymore, except in that she basically refuses to use the potty.

I already attach certain scents, feelings, and songs to the different periods of these two years of motherhood. I think it only seems longer than two years because it feels like I’ve always known her…she’s been my daughter forever, since the beginning of time. When I look back on Jake and me in the years before we had her—the eight and a half whole years we were together before we became parents—I feel like Mary was with us, even then.

She’s more adorable and amazing every day, and I know that in 11 more years I’m going to look back on this time wondering where all the years went, but still, hopefully, so glad to have experienced them.


Five-Minute Friday: Lost

Five Minute Friday

Lately, I’ve mostly wanted to get lost in sleep. My dreams have been especially vivid and entertaining…plus I’ve been so, so tired. A combination of pregnancy and mothering a toddler, I imagine. But getting lost, temporarily and not dangerously, can be a deep pleasure…lost in a book, for example, or maybe in a movie. I’ve gotten lost in a story I’m writing and lost in a box of mementos I’m sorting through. When I was a kid, I would get lost in Barbie “plays” and other games with my sisters, and sometimes our friends. I got lost when I was cleaning last week…one minute I was dusting the bathroom, the next I was cleaning out my bedside table drawer, not entirely sure how I got from one to the other, but those can be the most productive times for me, when I have the luxury of wandering from one thing to another as I feel moved to do so. I got lost in the memories I found in the bedside table drawer, similarly to how I got a little lost going through a drawer of tank tops the week before, tank tops I hadn’t touched since the beginning of my pregnancy with Mary. But not lost in a bad way…a detour, really, laughing affectionately at those tiny threadbare things and remembering the life of the girl who used to wear them as I stacked them in a give-away bag, enjoying the reminisces even though I love my life now, too.

My sister Stevie and me, lost in play on our toyroom floor. (I'm the older one.)


Five-Minute Friday: Messenger

Five Minute Friday

I can’t tell if it’s my imagination, sometimes, or the fact that I think too much in terms of books, of fiction, stories, novels, both as a reader and as a writer…but I’m always looking for messages, for signs…seeking my messengers in the eyes of others. But I do think God uses us as his messengers, doesn’t he? I don’t know that I believe in coincidence, exactly, or, as I’ve said before (and I probably can’t take the credit for making this up…I’m sure I adapted it from somewhere else, digging it out of the compost heap of imagination and memory), “I think coincidence exists, but I don’t think it’s what we think it is.” In other words, we think it’s random, but I think maybe it’s not. An example: Saturday night, we went to a wedding shower for my cousin and his fiancé at my aunt and uncle’s house. Mary found a little girl to play with pretty immediately, one almost exactly a year her senior, a niece or a cousin of the bride. The little girl was named Faith, the same name I call the baby we lost last January. Coincidence? Well, of course. But also, I couldn’t help but feel…maybe, somehow, this was a message. This Faith running and playing with my Mary was an unknowing messenger from my Faith, bringing a message that it will be okay, this time. Does that sound crazy? Probably. But remember I write fiction and cut me some slack.


Five-Minute Friday: Nothing

Five Minute Friday

I’ve never had much luck clearing my mind, thinking of nothing. The best meditation, for me, seems to be exercise, walking or yoga; then, the thoughts are less like monkey chatter and more like water flowing. I always feel like I’m processing everything then, filing it away. I remember, in Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, how he called it something like “rearranging the furniture” or…I forget the exact analogy but it seemed very appropriate. Another way that has been effective, for me, is to try not to focus on nothing so much but rather on one single something. Rather than everything, which is where I usually go wrong and start spiraling into anxiety. At one of my previous jobs, I would practice doing this while I waited for my lunch to heat up in the break room microwave. I usually had the room to myself, because we had more than one break room and I took my lunch break later than almost everyone else. So rather than focusing on the hum of the machine in expectation of its beep, I would close my eyes and find an image, something soothing. Sitting on the back porch steps of the house I always used to imagine someday living in, the quiet and peaceful house with woods behind it. In some ways, oddly similar to the house where I live now. I would try to focus only on that image, chosen from the box of serene, safe places I keep in my brain, try to imagine myself there, and sometimes it worked. That may, in fact, be the closest I’ve ever come to emptying myself of expectation, hope and fear and the jumble of thought and emotion that normally fills my mind…to floating, for a moment, in the deep calm of nothing.


Five-Minute Friday: Grateful

Five Minute Friday

[WARNING/DISCLAIMER: This post might contain a little TMI. I shouldn't be sharing this stuff right now, probably, because it's just way too soon to really know...anything. I'm not sharing this one on Facebook or anywhere else, not right now. it's just that when I started writing today, this is the only thing that wanted to come out.]

I’ve never had so much trouble peeing on a stick as I did this morning. Physically, I mean, it was problematic: the shadowy alcove where my toilet is, and the smudged glasses I accidentally fell asleep wearing and slept in most of the night, made it hard to aim properly. I ruined the first test—or maybe it would have been a dud anyway, but a line never even showed up in the control window. So I got out the second test, determined to have some answer today. This one was inconclusive. There was a second line, but it was…faint. You could see it, but just. Is it because it’s so early? I’ve never tested this early before when I was actually pregnant. With Mary, I tested, I think, two days after I was supposed to get my period. With Faith, it was maybe the day my period was due. This time, I’m not even supposed to start until Monday. But this time, it’s harder to be calm, harder to just “wait and see.”

So…I guess I need to buy more tests and try again in the morning. Because when you’re testing early morning is the best time, or at least that’s what they say.

The key is to be grateful no matter what. If I’m not pregnant again yet, if that faint line was just a fluke, to be okay with that, and have faith that it will happen when it’s the right time. To be grateful for all I already have, for Mary and Jake and our five aging cats and our house, for a job I like and supportive and loving parents, siblings, grandparents, in-laws, extended family, friends. If I am, well—being grateful won’t be the hard part. The hard part will be to focus on that and not on my anxiety, my fear of another miscarriage.

Five-Minute Friday: Mess

Five Minute Friday

I think I actually kind of like the word “mess,” and the images it conjures up. I don’t mind a mess, though I do mind dirt. But these are different things. A house can be messy but clean, you know? Toys strewn across the living room, but the carpet’s at least been vacuumed within the last week or so. So that’s okay. Mess and chaos can be good things. I’m bad at putting things away, because the second I do, I need them, or I forget them, like books I want to remember to read. We tell Mary affectionately that she’s a mess, tangled hair and sticky cheeks, but the best type of mess, like her first birthday party: a house full of noise and color and voices and laughter, little boys (was there a single other little girl there?...oh, yes, but just one) running up and down stairs and tossing balloons around. It wasn’t an organized party, because we’re not especially organized people, or not in that way, I guess. But it’s a marvelous mess. I think the appeal of a messy (but not, you know, dirty) house is that it’s easy to see the life being lived there. I’ve always had a “lived-in” house, but people tell me it feels cozy, like a home.

The messy fun of Mary's first birthday party last August, on our back deck.

Five-Minute Friday: Friend

Five Minute Friday

Friends are the ones who know us for who we really are and love us for that. Who see through our various masks, to the core and heart of us. A friend comes over randomly on a Monday night to eat with you and your daughter when your husband’s at work and help you pack for the work trip you leave on the next day. The same friend who introduced you and your husband, the friend who you used to see or at least talk to every single day but it’d been, this time, much too long since we’d sat and talked, just the two of us. But that’s the thing about true friends: the passage of time doesn’t matter too much. You can always pick up where you left off. You offer her some beans from the Crockpot to go with the salads she brought over, but remember she doesn’t like onions, and she laughs that you remember that when it’s been such a long time since you shared a meal…but you used to share so many, long ago. Time and distance don’t really matter much to kindred spirits. We’ll be there for each other in the best and the worst of times, we knew each other when we were young and a little wild and when we look into each others’ older and somewhat wiser faces, we can see all of that, glowing eyes of girls behind wearier eyes of women.

Jake's 30th party

Five-Minute Friday: Glue

Five Minute Friday

Bits and pieces, odds and ends, collected in chipped cups and cracked ashtrays, waiting for the day we’ll remember to buy glue. Some simple Elmer’s is what I’ve been missing, for years now…the last bottle I had, likely swiped from younger sisters’ school supplies, long since dried up and thrown away. Super glue we’ve had much more recently, and that’s probably the type we need; it works better, anyway, but I don’t like using it because of its tendency to also glue fingers together, to create a hard casing over tips of flesh that no amount of desperate scrubbing seems to weaken…only time and patience.

What glue holds a family together? Families are all cracked and broken in different ways, I suppose, some much more than others. Jake and I are lucky in that though we both have divorced parents, step-parents, half-siblings, we know strong bonds of love, of familial loyalty that transcends simple blood ties, of humor and shared memories, which we are creating together as well, with each other and with our daughter. There is a greater Love that flows over and around and through it all, named different things by different creeds and cultures but all the same, I think, that wraps us safely together and binds us, eternally.

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