Most of my mandalas are far from perfect, but this one is more imperfect than most. I decided to embrace that imperfection instead of starting again. This is also one of the dangers of using a smaller sketchbook.
My relationship with Quick was far from perfect. On one of the multiple occasions when she kicked me out of the house, I packed up our cat Loki in a carrier and took him with me. She cried over Loki’s departure, not mine. More than ten years after our breakup, we came together to be with him — and with with each other — in his final hours.
I was visiting a good friend in Hartford, CT on a fine spring day in 1998 when a passel of kittens tumbled across her neighbor’s driveway and onto the grass, mewing and scratching and generally working their kitten magic. From that litter I adopted Loki, a tiger/calico mix with kohl-like markings around his eyes. It seemed appropriate to name a kitten after the Norse god of mischief.
He lived up to his name. On Saturday mornings he would skitter over the hardwood floors of my apartment and under my futon, scratching the underside of it and then running away again. He and Leo, the cat who adopted my mom while she was loading newspapers into her car in the dead of night, would roughhouse in that apartment, jumping three feet or higher at moths, flies, and — in one case — a bat who flew in through the chimney. Other times he would sit and stare at a blank wall for hours. At night he would plop his soft body down next to mine and purr and rub his forehead against my face.
When I moved to Boston to live with Quick in 1999, Loki began sleeping on her side of the bed. She would nudge me and say, “Look at this little animal.” I would grumble that he used to be my little animal.
My relationship with Quick was far from perfect. On one of the multiple occasions when she kicked me out of the house — or when I tried to leave her — I packed up Loki in a carrier and took him with me. She cried over Loki’s departure, not mine. I finally succeeded in breaking away in 2003, just a few months before gay marriage became the law of the land in Massachusetts. When I did, I left him with her. A lawyer, she used to say (more than half seriously) that we had joint custody, but she had physical custody.
Loki developed many health problems later in life. Quick’s obsessive tendencies proved a boon for Loki. She kept him alive through FLUTD, diabetes, lymphoma, IBD, and cancer. Loki was a faithful companion to her through all of it. His health really started to deteriorate in November. Quick kept him alive for six more months,.
Quick called me from Angell Memorial on a Friday night at about 5:30. When I arrived, he was panting in an oxygen tent, unable to raise his head. He’d lost about one-third of his body weight. I could see by his eyes the prison that his body had become. Quick and I had both wanted him to die at home, not on a metal slab surrounded by the cries of other sick animals. But he was so sick, there was no way for us to take him home without causing him even worse pain. Over the course of the next few hours, I helped Quick make the difficult decision to end his life rather than prolong his suffering. Sixteen years after I saw him tumble across my friend’s back garden, Quick and I said our goodbyes to him in that oxygen tent.
I used to say that lovers come and go, but that kitties are forever. They live shorter lives than us though, and it’s inevitable that we will be with them from birth to death. The inevitability doesn’t make the pain of their passing any easier though. Loki’s passing underscores the passing of my own youth — my maiden years. I’m happy to release some of the pain and bewilderment of those years, even as I become aware of my own life’s finite nature. I’m grateful that Quick allowed me to be there with her and Loki, to make those difficult decisions with her and for her, and to be his other mother again during his final hours.
Not everyone understands why I hold on to relationships with ex-lovers. I’ve always found the traditional “straight” approach to love relationhips rather troubling: here is someone you’ve spent most of your waking hours with, for years or even decades, and then you’re supposed to pretend like they don’t exist? I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a period of separation, but at some point in the future I think it’s healthy to remain on at least civil terms with an ex. It’s a way of validating the beauty and connection that happened between you, even if it didn’t result in shared property or kids or whatever else society tells us it means to win at love.
The world of lesbian and queer women is so small, there’s extra pressure to remain on civil terms with an ex. Otherwise, you’d very quickly run out of friends and hangout spots. But there’s another, deeper reason why I hold on to my relationship with Quick. We both know what it’s like to be a woman living alone in a city with no family nearby. Even though we’re no longer partners or lovers, even though we don’t see one another very often anymore, I still consider her to be my family. She’s shown up for me during some very trying times and I’ve done the same for her. I view maintaining the relationship as a way for me to make living amends for the ways in which I wasn’t able to be there for her when we were together. And as I get older and friends move away — or die — I value more and more the longevity of relationships.
When I was in my 20s, I was so full of my own suffering — and my own vision of how the world should be — I couldn’t really pay attention to the experience of other people. Since that time I’ve become more comfortable with ambiguity, more accepting of the world’s imperfections.
I’ve learned what a gift it can be to have someone witness your pain and suffering without trying to fix it, deny it, or appropriate it. Since experiencing that gift myself, there have been a few occasions where I’ve been able to pass it on. This time was particularly powerful. I felt that I could be present not just for Loki, not just for Quick, but also for all those younger versions of myself who fell in love with Loki, who raised him, who met and fell in love with Quick, who suffered through the breakup, and who came out the other side.
Ever since moving to Boston in 1999, I’ve been keenly aware of the ways in which I am separate from the city’s mainstream culture. As a queer woman, as a poet, as a [insert any one of a variety of labels that apply to me], I’m used to feeling different, apart, separate. About this time last year though, an odd thing happened.
In the hours and the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, I began to feel like I was part of a unified whole. That the Boston portrayed in the national press, the Boston of skinny white women sporting Tiffany bracelets in the Back Bay, the Boston of drunken Red Sox fans on the Green Line, the Boston of disaffected immigrants in search of a reason for living — that all of these Bostons — was also the Boston that I know: the Boston of slam poets congregating at the Cantab in Cambridge, the Boston of nerds in black turtlenecks eating sushi and joking about obscure internet memes, the Boston of queers congregating in living rooms and church basements, the Boston of police brutality and entrenched segregation.
I’ve known for years that shared trauma will draw people together, whether they’re college freshmen or Iraq war veterans. But I’m not sure that I’ve ever experienced the phenomenon with such force. My childhood involved years of loneliness and neglect, highlighted by a few moments of abject terror. It’s not an unusual story; there’s piles of books written by people who had shitty childhoods. But what’s particularly crazy-making about my experience was the sense of isolation it engendered. I spent all of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life denying and minimizing what happened to me. It was a powerful tool, one that allowed me to excel academically, earn a degree from a good college, and scrape together enough marketable skills to pull myself out of the poverty I grew up in. But it had its consequences, which in their worst form can make me question the very nature of reality.
So to see a horrible thing happen, and to see millions of people all agreeing that it was a horrible thing, was a real revelation for me. Sure, some snarky New Yorkers bitched and moaned about the Amtrak shutdown. But most of Boston was happy to shelter in place the day after the Tsarnaev brother killed two more people the next morning. My poet friend Wendy Drexler describes it well:
…the city was a dark harbor,
hardened and congealed, the streets
furrowed with chase, with grief,
and turns — hairpin, wrong — and dead
ends, a desert of dead ends without
provision or cure
Shock, horror, and grief brought us all together that day, and in the days that followed. We could all agree that a terrible thing had happened and we were unified in that agreement. In particular, I remember seeing a video interview of one of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s classmates. The Tsarnaevs lived just a few streets away from me in Cambridge, and I used to walk past his high school several times a week. The young man apologized for his tears at the end of the video, but they touched me deeply. I understood his feeling of betrayal, because I felt it too.
Cambridge suffers from the same problems endemic to Boston: ridiculous housing costs, entrenched segregation, and a growing wealth gap. And yet Cambridge, with its zeitgeist of multiculturalism, lefty politics, intellectual curiosity, and community spirit, embodies for me all the best things about Boston. That someone could come of age in such a place, and then choose to create weapons of mass destruction from an object designed to cook food — it seemed unthinkable.
And yet not so. From what little I read about them in the press, the Tsarnaev family led a difficult existence. To feel isolated and alone in one’s suffering — especially when surrounded by happiness on all sides — is a terrible thing. It can warp a soul and lead a person to do something he’d never consider otherwise.
Most of us emerge from the experience just warped enough to be interesting. The most horrible thing we might do is bounce a few checks or yell at our loved ones. But it’s a year later and I’m I noticing all the ads for plastic surgeons, heterosexual meat markets, and half-million-dollar condos in Boston magazine. Posts about the Red Sox are cluttering up my Facebook feed. I stayed away from Marathon route and its draconian security measures. My sensation of being part of a unified whole is passing away. Which, as any Buddhist teacher would tell me, is what happens to all sensations.
November is many things: my least favorite month of the year, one long sugar hangover between Halloween and Thanksgiving, the void into which the long evenings of autumn light become the sudden dusk of winter nights. It’s Movember, when men, women, and cars sprout moustaches to remind us that men should have shower cards too. It’s National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo for those of us too hip to pronounce entire words). It’s Grateful November. In 2010, it was my own NaPoWriMo for about four days.
All of these 30-day, month-long commitments, all of these mutually supported do-good movements are great. They’re wonderful. They’re a sign of the in-gathering that is winter in the northern hemisphere: after the expansive summer and the exhausting harvest, the drawing together of the tribe around the fire to tell stories and… tweet about how many words they’ve written.
And for a perfectionist like me, they can also be a huge set-up for over-commitment and failure. Historically, November has been the worst month for me to do just about anything but plod along and show up day by day. The body knows this very well, but the mind forgets on a regular basis.
So this November, I resolve to do everything imperfectly. I will get my ass out of bed on a daily basis — imperfectly. I will express gratitude imperfectly, sometimes with mere gestures and sometimes with more sincerity. I will write haiku and journal imperfectly. I will update this blog imperfectly–perhaps weekly, perhaps less. I will join in the Dverse Poets community when it’s reasonable for me to do so, not each and every week, no matter how many times my calendar reminds me to.
I will conduct the next two sessions of my writing workshop imperfectly, doing my best to inspire and be inspired, enjoying the unfolding relationships developing among us all– and feeling lucky to be teaching writing, something so near and so dear and so close to my heart.
Imperfectly, I will accept the blessings and the gifts each day has to give me. And I will forgive myself for my own imperfections, give myself as many breaks and second chances as I need, and relax about whether I’m doing my imperfect November as imperfectly as I would like.
Gratitude doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes it’s a discipline, a practice. Sometimes I go through the motions without feeling inspired about it. But I do the motions anyway. Today’s gratitude list:
- daily reprieve from a chronic and deadly disease
- access to health care providers who assist when the other chronic and deadly disease rears its ugly head –I mean symptoms
- sunshine — albeit October sunshine, harsh and in short supply, still sunshine
- more clothes than I know what to do with
- fuzzy kitties who love me whether I go out or stay in
- a job that trusts me to do the right thing without breathing over my shoulder
- friends and family who call, text, and email
- a man who puts the kettle on for me every morning
Sudden violence (is there any other kind?) throws the world into sharp relief. Horror that doesn’t speak but roars in the head like the ocean. Magnolias blooming under the crescent moon.
It gives things the proper perspective, too.
Last night, laying on the bed, talking to my mother on the phone while Army Guy relaxed next to me, the younger cat purring between us, I felt utter contentment.
This morning I woke at 6:00 am to take down the emergency update on the hospital website that I maintain. Cortisol shot me awake, makes me drained and snappy today. The sun is shining, the air is crisp and lovely. The Copley Square area is closed from Mass Ave to Berkeley. Did they wash the pavement clean? Will they find who did this? Will the cycle of violence continue, into the end of the time? Is peace just a pipe dream, like dreaming for the end of hunger, the end of darkness?
All things in sharp relief, from one moment to the next.
I’ve heard tell that something happens when you just start typing (or writing, as I still prefer composing in longhand) and keep writing. Something begins to flow in your brain. I’ve experienced the most pleasing sensation of flow, so I know that it’s true. The experience of success in the face of adversity makes it easier to overcome all kinds of obstacles.
I’m also very fond of the artificial structure imposed by lists. It often creates the most delightful poems (I would link to one but Google and my memory both fail me at the moment). Of course, one must be willing to discard what doesn’t work upon rewrite — but in one’s own time.
The thing about gratitude lists is that if I make the list long enough, a kind of comfortable warm joy begins to open in my mind and in my body (around the vicinity of the heart but sometimes the stomach). And it becomes easier and easier to find things to be grateful.
So enough talking and let’s get to the list. The public, public list:
- I woke up this morning feeling mostly rested.
- My partner is a Nurse Practitioner, and when I complained of extra dizziness he gave me the standard neurological tests that confirmed there was nothing wrong with my balance.
- In spite of my inner critic’s whisperings I suited up this morning for a brisk November morning walk, through woods that I’ve walked a million times before but in which I always find new things to marvel at.
- The happy accident of the leaf-obscured paths, difficult to make out, led me to the top of the rocks that look out over the VFW Parkway.
- On the bare even sidewalk I began to run, inspired by the Foo Fighters.
- I have more than enough to eat, more than enough nice clothing to wear.
- Heat is included in our rent, so when the furnace is on the fritz and wants to keep warming the house past the thermostat temperature we just open the windows and smile.
- The morning walk made it that much easier to suit up and show up to work.
- I have a nice easy list of things to accomplish today.
- They had beets at the salad bar, which I love in combination with the other tasty offerings.
- I know that beans contain enough grain/carb (not just protein) to keep me well sated and don’t have to resort to the stale roles or croutons on order.
- We have finished 90% of our Thanksgiving shopping and won’t have to stand in line with a dump truck of food this Wednesday.
- There appear to be more of you reading this blog than there used to be. I still have no idea how most of you got there.
- I’m especially extra grateful that I can write about whatever I want on here and am not tied to the slave-chain of encouraging American consumerism.
- If the Internet has gotten crowded with stupid people, it’s still possible to create smaller versions of it.
- Community building happens, online and off-line.
- If I look back on this entry in a year or two, I can always delete it.
- I am a private citizen, toiling away in obscurity.
- I am loved — and I love.