august 2, 2020…what do caterpillars have to do with anything anyway

Last night, I attended our Mentor Series wrap-up gathering at Hidden Falls Regional Park on the banks of the Mississippi, in St. Paul. Like everything in the world today, though the setting looked familiar, it was an unsettling, aberrant affair. No potluck dishes to share, masks hid faces and muffled voices (it was a surreal Kubrick endeavor, trying to find my group in an expansive park where nearly every group was wearing masks), wide expanses separated bodies, a twisted mirage of realities converging in one space, I had a hard time separating what was real and what was not.  

Just beyond the space where our cohort was spread out on the grass, about five lifetimes ago, my husband and I wandered down to the river, in wedding attire, to take our own wedding photos. It was a week after the actual service, we were so young, had so little money, our belongings a cobbled together collection of hand-me-downs, thrift store finds, tender new careers, unreliable cars. I was almost rabidly insistent on not falling into the financial trappings so typical of weddings—our love was more valuable than a superficial performance, I proclaimed. A dear friend made my dress in exchange for hair services (many, many hair services; 25 years later, I must still owe her more haircuts and spiral perms, with accumulating interest, for that stunning labor of love), the last stitch completed and the dress handed over the day before the wedding, to the horror of my mom, Bob’s mom, many aunts, and several friends, all of whom had been offering their old wedding dresses as my plan B. I wasn’t worried. I knew my friend well. The insanely gifted, self-proclaimed poster woman for women with acute ADHD would come through, I knew it. And she did. At the 11th hour, flying in all frazzled and wild-eyed, like Kramer on Seinfeld, fueled entirely on Marlboros and caffeine, with a dress that dazzled even the dry cleaners who had to pressed it for me, because Cate didn’t have time—she was racing out of town to be at the side of her dying grandmother.

What had started out as a simple sheath dress morphed into a breathtaking artifact, imagined on the fly, without a pattern, after a Valentino design we’d torn out of a fashion magazine and taped to the wall of her basement studio, for inspiration. Encrusted with glass beads and intricate lace that Cate had antiqued in a tea bath to add vintage esthetic, draped in raw silk, cleverly topped with a 1940s bustiere, camouflaged by more beads and lace and somehow attached to a hidden body suit that kept the whole damned, glorious enterprise together, which also made going to the bathroom a tricky endeavor. The bustier had belonged to Cate’s very busty grandmother, who’d taught Cate to sew, to whom my dress became a living tribute, because she was actively dying while Cate was furiously sewing, which had to be severely modified to fit my not-so-busty bust, but the thick, stiff layer of beads and lace gave the illusion otherwise. Bob’s mom was horrified, after hearing about my dress, that her son was going to show up in his best Dockers and a button-down shirt and one of four ties in his possession—the only formal-ish formal wear he owned. His parents rushed up and whisked him off to somewhere—maybe the Men’s Warehouse—to be hastily fitted for a suit worthy enough to accompany my wearable textile sculpture.

I refused to wear a veil, I wrapped stems of dried flower bouquets with long satin ribbon (hey, it was the mid-90s), told my bridesmaids to find a dress they loved in the color of wine. I designed our wedding invitations on an old MacIntosh (which wasn’t old at the time), and adamantly refused to hire a professional photographer. I hate being the center of attention and a traditional wedding photographer would have demanded this ridiculous performance of me. Besides, Bob was a photographer—why buy the cow when I can get the milk for free, right, Dad? wink-wink…the wedding night ended in a fury of thunder, lightening and high winds, tornado sirens tearing up the night skies around the metro area, and if one were superstitious and believed in signs from the universe, that storm could absolutely have been read as a heralding one.

It was an odd night to be out taking wedding photos, twenty five years ago, I remember that. There we were, on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening, traipsing around with me in obvious wedding clothes, Bob in a somber suit, photography equipment slung over his shoulder. Surely it must have looked strange at times, like perhaps I was a jilted lover abandoned at the alter, draped in mourning clothes meant for a celebration, that I’d hired my own photographer to document my dramatic fall, propped up against trees, laying out on the grass, the river as a backdrop. Still, people strolling by melted into smiles when they saw us, boaters floating by waved wildly, their shouts of good wishes carried across the water and up the river banks to us. Even with the absence of facts, others knew what was what.

If you had told that young woman version of me, standing against a tree in that more-art-piece-than-dress, how life was going to turn out, twenty five years down the river, she might have dropped dead from shock right there on the banks of the Mississippi. At the very least, run screaming in the other direction to try escape this fate, maybe she would have scrambled to try to change some of the endings for some of the chapters…last night, all of these thoughts were more liquid in form, this morning solidifying with my morning coffee and a cool, after-storm breeze…I’m just letting them roll like a river, see where they take me…

It was an odd night last night, our end-of-the-year Mentor Series gathering. Everything, on the surface looked just like our old world did, but the pandemic has stirred everything under the surface up, nothing is what it seems, no one knows what’s what anymore, but we keep applying old world rules to this strange new world, and we keep coming up with incongruence, false truths, incoherent storylines, as though if we keep trying, something will finally, suddenly make sense.

Straining to hear others talk across the spaces, I finally gave up on the group conversation and settled into a one-to-one with the poet sitting next to, but not-very near me, who had hosted our last in-person potluck before the pandemic mangled everything near and dear to us into a distorted, incomprehensible mess, who had read with me at the Mentor Series’ first strange, virtual reading a month or so ago…we shared battle-weary stories of how we’re getting by in our respective, myopic, isolated lives. She talked about the ache of not being able to hold a brother’s new baby, of missing the children who used to come to the summer programs at the library where she now works remotely. She spoke wistfully of the beloved dog who belongs to her partner’s parents, who whines plaintively at the window when he sees her in the yard when they stop by for visit, but isn’t allowed out because of the fear that even a family pet could transmit the deadly virus. Can there be more disorienting, damaging place to live, than in a world where willful separation is an act of love and mercy, and physical closeness is not just selfish but a potentially deadly act? Who can even begin to make sense of this, much less be okay in it?

My sisters made a surprise visit last night, arriving just before I was to head to the Mentor Series gathering, bearing pickles from the farmer’s market and a fresh supply of poop bags for Rocco (it’s the little things in life these days, right?). I invited them to join me, as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen them with my own eyes, and I didn’t want to short-change our real-life connection. They were in town because Jill’s daughter had been invited to a social-distance birthday party of a friend from their old life in Golden Valley; Gretchen decided to tag along with them, and take a chance that I was free for an unplanned visit (which is usually a safe guess in my severely restricted world of the past five months).

Jill lamented the agony of deciding whether to send her kids back to school, fraught with logistic snafus and very real, inherent risks in the fall, or continuing their near-impossibly stressful but much-safer home learning environment; as of last night, their warped version of sheltering in place has won out. Gretchen struggles with the dichotomy of being gratefully employed in an environment that is in the heart of the viral beast, with Mayo Healthcare Services in Mankato, but like anyone, lives in fear of losing her job to the impetuous whims of a lethal virus…at the end of our visit, yearning for a real hug, and because I’ve also lost a chunk of my mind, I took the blanket that we had been sitting on at the park, draped it over myself and clasped each of my sisters in a covid-appropriate embrace, which was captured on camera and if this doesn’t look like yet another strange Kubrick moment come to life, especially with Gretchen in her corgi face mask, I don’t know what does.

As each month slogs on, it’s getting harder to write about this experience that doesn’t end, with unfathomable consequences that keep rolling out in unforeseeable unforgiving ways, but writing is the only thing I have helping me through a time where I have a hard time writing about what isolation means in my isolated language, from my isolated perspective. When I begin to lament, I immediately bump up against others’ realities, and it all feels so absurd and pointless…speaking of which, I just finished Albert Camus’ The Stranger, and now I’m an absurdist, as Camus was. Everything is absurd, nothing matters, what’s the point of anything can be our battle cry in this pandemic world. And with it, one can either decide, well, nothing really matters, what’s the point of anything—we might as well die? Or we can say, nothing really matters, what’s the point of anything—then we might as well not let the absurd get in the way of life, love, compassion, doing the right thing, and making good trouble…yes, a respectful nod to the wise, late John Lewis, because nothing is random…

But, what else can I do but use this time to knit together string of events of past and present lives, and this thing I’m knitting is billowing out of control, and now feels now more like an affliction than affection…I’ve had images of fire and destruction coursing though my mind, song lyrics of necessary destruction, ideas of complete collapse, which make me ponder the etymology of apocalypse which is not an end but truly an uncovering, time to make a few small repairs, if you will.

The current world events raging across the globe in a breathtaking all-encompassing manner that we can hardly keep up with, are revealing so much that is wrong with our world in horribly painful ways—we simply can’t continue to brutalize our planet and its inhabitants as we have been, we simply can’t…and the fiery imagery that i’ve been obsessed with lately slowly eased into the softer idea of a caterpillar-to-butterfly, which pissed me off immensely, like I’d suddenly given up—we need fire and brimstone in an apocalypse, not flowers and butterflies, dammit!!! 

To deferred to a lame-ass cliché of a metaphor to describe this epic, indescribable, apocalyptic, catastrophic epoch? You’re growing soft in isolation, Jen….so, of course, I began a little armchair research on the process of biological metamorphosis, which began with the question that is often skipped over, “do caterpillars feel pain when they turn to butterflies?” which lead my down an entomological rabbit hole (can I use two different species to describe this process? You bet, I can. We are living in a lawless land, which is not a terrible thing, I assure you. Everygoddamed thing needs to be dismantled and defunded. We need to start everything back at the beginning. Everything. BackBeginning.).

Which made me realize how careless we are with metaphors, when we don’t know their origin or their full truth, when we use them as a casual shorthand for a monumental, holy thing, an easy way around something that demands deeper interrogation. We miss their larger purpose, as real, profound tools of navigation in unsettling times, harbingers of past lives that help us move forward in a disorienting landscape, like the stars and the lunar pull,,, when used in this more complex way, metaphors’ messages won’t give you the answers you want, all neat and tidy, predicable and easy. Instead, they’ll take you down the dark and rambling path which won’t be pleasant, aand you will fall too many times to count, and when it’s finally over (spoiler alert, it’s never over) you’ll probably be a little uglier for the efforts, by conventional standards, anyway. Take comfort knowing that your smile will be more visible and welcomed with wrinkles no longer masked by derivatives of botulism, your wild hair will be out you as a comrade for truth and justice, your lost job a worthy sacrifice…rewrite the rules.

What if I told you that that metamorphosis isn’t a choice in the matter, the way we propagandize and bastardize the process, but is, instead a primordial duty to you shed your own skin and make yourself raw, four times, then wrap yourself in a fifth and final version

and inside this crystal bag of yourself, you will dissolve your own muscles in a bath of caustic enzymes, leaving only your breathing apparatus, maybe your heart and a fistful of residual cells carried from the pockets of your old clothes into this new mourning cloak

the imaginal discs that lay dormant in the gooey mess that used to be you, have been patiently waiting for this necessary destruction, this transformative moment to turn your sticky, broken down mess into something more solid, still trembling and raw, with the strength to split the old old version of you down the middle

you are your own escape hatch 

you slide out of yourself, a stream of your own waste pouring out behind your like the tail of a comet igniting the earth

Just before my sisters showed up, I received a seemingly random, completely unexpected text message from a woman I don’t know very well and haven’t talked to in literally years: “Hi. i have been so inspired by your FB posts. Your AFAF (alcohol free as f*ck) posts have hit me in the heart. This week, I joined Annie’s program…thank you for your honesty and your amazing writing. Love across the miles.” I was equal parts shocked and deeply moved. Being alcohol free in a pandemic has felt like the only super power I have in a time where we’ve been stripped of everything we once knew, but it also feels kind of useless…I mean, who cares, anyway? Does it really even matter, when we’re all hurtling toward a most certain death, at the very least, massive destruction, anyway? There’s very little I’m sure of any more, but in spite of that very real truth, that nothing has ever been certain—we’re fooling ourselves in a terrible way if we think otherwise, and still, I want to watch it all burn with a clear mind and eyes, and heart.

We exchanged a few more messages until my sisters showed up, until I started treading dangerously into a nutzo-buttzo religious zealot territory (kinda like I am now). For those few moments, via a few random text messages—my absolute least favorite form of communication— of all places, I felt a sense of connection and peace, that settled my racing heart. Every now and then, in this distorted new landscape, I find evidence of this truth, that things still really matter, we just now have to work harder and do things differently than we did before…of course, we already know that nothing is random, right? Sometimes that’s easy to forget, especially in these severely disconnected times that are forcing all of us to seek connections in strange and wondrous and sometimes inconvenient, infuriating ways—hell, my sister’s been worshipping at the church of TikTok these days…we will find our sources where we can, or they will find us.

And that, dear teacher, is what I’ve done on my summer vacation. Now, I’m tired and need a nap. xo

july 18, 2020—200 days w/o alcohol in the middle of a pandemic. WTeverlastingF.

200 days ago, on January 1, 2020 (that’s a decade, in Pandemic Years!), I embarked on a 30-day online experiment with a program developed by Annie Grace, called the Live Alcohol Experiment, along with 2000+ amazing, inspirational, badass souls from around the globe. Weird, maybe, but I’m also known to hop down strangers’ window wells to rescue baby rabbits, so…nothing dramatic happened in my life forced me to this decision—I have no titillating stories of self-destruction or rock bottoms—nothing that would make a good story (unless you consider the slow death of one’s soul dramatic and titillating, which I do, which speaks volumes to the fucked-up, dysfunctional mythology our culture has created around alcohol, which will have to be another post for another time, because this is long enough as it is). I didn’t make any promises to myself except to fully commit to the 30-day experiment—no more, no less. But I was also more than ready to challenge my own personal version of insanity as it relates to alcohol and try something new. I was tired all the time, a constant, low-grade sort of depression hung over my life that wouldn’t go away, I was fast losing interesting in everyone and everything. I suspected (maybe, hoped) the Live Alcohol Experiment would lead to this elusive “something new.” I had read Annie’s book, This Naked Mind, and had one non-live AE under my belt already, so I at least had a vague, filmy idea what I was seeking.

Today is my 200th day AFAF (Alcohol Free As F*ck became our group’s battle cry, we even joked about getting matching knuckle tats—AFAF4LYF—on January 31). Fittingly, as though to remind myself exactly what I’ve been missing out on, I bolted wide awake at 3:30 a.m. this morning, my heart racing, mind set to puree, anxiety tearing through my veins, something I haven’t felt in, well, about 200 days, give or take a few. I lay in bed, breathing deeply for several minutes as my pulse came back to earth, retracing the night before’s events, until I finally convinced myself that, no, I did NOT say “f*ck it, this pandemic life sucks ass!” followed by a string of IPAs at party last night. It was, literally, just a dream that woke me. Funny it should happen on this milestone of a day, but holy wow, it was nerve-rattlingly realistic.

 
I’m definitely feeling the strain of the pandemic like never before—I’ve essentially been alone for months (I don’t have children, and my partner (and all my immediate family) live an hour and a half from me. He’s been solo caregiver for his 88 yr. old terminally ill father who came to live with him in hospice care at the beginning of the pandemic. Just last weekend, his father passed away, a beautiful, grace-filled story of its own), I’m barely working (though I am working on setting up an online restorative movement biz), I live in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the world-wide revolution sparked by the horrific lynching of George Floyd by a despicable excuse for a police officer back in May, the daily news headlines are enough to send anyone over the edge…and now, summer brings a host of new AF challenges, even in a global crisis—socially-distanced gatherings, Zoom “happy hours,” (talk about an oddly intense way to observe others getting drunk), outdoor music and other events. Hell, just sitting on my big ol’ front porch with a bottle of sauv. blanc was an any-given-day ritual many summers in a row. Back in January, when my life was relatively drama-free, when we were all so innocent and naive, I wondered how I would handle a crisis without alcohol, should one arise. Oh, the gods and goddesses of the universe have a wicked sense of humor, don’t they?
 
My partner (for the record, I don’t use that term, partner, regularly or naturally; I don’t really know what to call us any more, being so severed from each others’ lives as we’ve been these long months) announced the other day, now that his caregiver role has ended, his keto and mostly-abstinent efforts have also come to an end (granted, what he did for his father was nothing short of breathtaking and heroic—I’m of the mindset that all caregivers should be given a year off of life, with pay, and a live-in chef, massage therapist, whatever the caregiver wishes; I was my husband’s caregiver when he had cancer—the most intense and sacred job one will ever have and it’s also, incidentally, when my drinking escalated); friends are posting endless photos on social media of beautiful summer gatherings centered around drinking, a friend shared the drunk Twitter feed of author Susan Orlean from last night, who’s now celebrated as the world’s “endearing pandemic inspiration,” which admittedly, was quite entertaining…to say that there isn’t some serious FOMO floating around my brain lately would be an outright lie. No wonder the dream…
 
I’m sitting here this morning with my coffee, windows open to a cool breeze after a wonderful thunderstorm rolled through earlier, quietly reveling in my 200th day AF. As fuck? Not so sure anymore. Physically, I feel like I could kick Chuck Norris’ ass. Mentally, bring it on, Neil Degrasse. Emotionally, I could out-zen Eckhart Tolle. (just kidding. don’t send any of them my way, I’ll run away crying). I haven’t experienced this level of clarity in I don’t know how long—ever, maybe? Still, in the grand scheme of things, it is only 200 days and that piece of shit is still in the White House… Suffice to say, a lot of thinking and writing is going on over here, and it’s only 10 am. Once we become aware of our cognitive dissonance (how our thoughts and action cleverly belie one another) in one area of our life (in this case, alcohol), it starts to become more apparent in other aspects—about to our choices in the pandemic, about our views on systemic racism, the environment, relationships, our overall health and wellbeing…suddenly what started out as blissfully easy experiment becomes an overwhelmingly complex way of being, leaving us wondering how the hell does anyone even DO this?! Forever?!
 
As countless who’ve gone before us have said: quitting drinking is easy. Maintining sobriety/an AF life is the hard part, and no wonder. Our culture is literally soaked in booze (and other addictive behaviors); from birth to death, it’s at every life event—good and bad and all the ho-hums in between—there are so many difficult obstacles littering the path to sobriety, it’s a wonder anyone is able to achieve it. The one thing I will focus on, on this 200th day going forward, is grace, forgiveness and compassion (okay, that’s three things, but they’re all intertwined). Glennon Doyle nailed it when she said, “You are not a mess—you are a feeling person in a messy world.” We’re living in some really intense, really messy times, like we’ve never before experienced. I think back to when my husband was sick—nothing in the world could have prepared me for that experience, but thanks to this program and others that it’s led me to, I can look at that time with a softer heart—I did the very best I could with the tools I had at the time; frankly, I don’t know that I would have survived or had stayed with Bob had I not numbed myself to the shit-show we were dumped into…up until 200 days ago, I never thought of that experience in such a compassionate way; this level of truth and grace has not been a part of my life, ever…nothing in the world could have prepared us for a worldwide pandemic, but here we are, and I will allow myself, today, the same grace, compassion and forgiveness, as I give my past life…I know a lot more today than I did then, but there’s still so much more learning to do. I’d venture to guess that no matter if someone is just starting this program or starting over again for the nth time, or 200+ days into it going strong, or 200+ days into it and ready to say “fuck it, this pandemic life really does suck,” we are already better equipped to move through these challenging times than we were before we knew of TAE, and we can be kinder to ourselves along the way, obstacles, triumphs, flaws and all.
 
I’m grateful that Annie’s program has given me a solid foundation to my AF journey, a new lens to look at the world and my life, and has brought me to a point where I can think about and talk about alcohol with more wisdom, insight and compassion than I ever knew possible. Today, I feel Annie’s message of ridding myself of residual shame, guilt and judgment is going to play a more prominent role in my life than it has been. We really are simply that—feeling beings in a very messy world. I can’t even guess what the next 200 days will have in store for me (I can say, that if that POS in the WH is elected to a second term, all bets—alcohol and otherwise—are solidly off), but I can say (in addition to the 100,000 words I just said), that the 2000+ strangers who joined me on the Live Alcohol Experiment in January have impacted me deeply. I’ve learned so much through their brave stories. Please keep taking and sharing and learning and living. Even at 200 days, especially at 200 days, I need all the stories—I learn from them and love all 2000+ of them. xo

July 11, 2020—dem bones

In these pandemic times, I’ve segued, kinda-sorta, to online teaching—just a handful of private clients (I’d love to come up with a more dynamic, less power-structured word than “client” or “student” because truly, I’m right on par, learning alongside everyone I teach. Any suggestions are openly welcomed…)—to sustain me in these unsustainable times. Like everyone, I’m waging my own version of internal kicking and screaming against this fucked up “new normal” and its fucked up “new rules” that no one can agree upon. Other than a handful of Facebook Live classes in the early days of the pandemic, I’ve shied away from teaching classes online for a variety of reasons, mainly these two: 1. as soon as the shelter-at-home edict was announced, literally every single movement teacher on the planet (along with every single {fill in the black} on the planet) scrambled to the virtual world and I was left trampled and bewildered in the stampede and 2. to me, “online movement classes” can’t be any more oxymoronic if they tried; my mission is to help people move away from the things that are disconnecting us from our very essence, that are turning our divinely designed bodies into chair-shaped, computer-collapsing lumps, and online classes seem to openly, outright defy this mission.
 
But, we’re all making concessions in these fucked up times (I saw a meme yesterday, “I’ve come to a point in my life where I need a stronger word than fuck” and I couldn’t agree more. Again, any suggestions are openly welcomed). I’ve decided to not return to teaching in a studio or have clients in my home—instead, I’m taking this time to learn how to set up for an online presence. In this process, my handful of private clients and other teachers encountered along the way are opening me and moving me in ways I never anticipated, but am profoundly grateful for.
 
Dan and Susan are two such people; we’ve known each other for longer than the pandemic (which sounds like infinity, doesn’t it?!). Dan is a quiet, pensive man, known to take daily, meditative 10 mile hikes along the river and through the woods that intersect the city. Susan, his wife, is more effusive, a gardener, baker, artist/painter. Both are in their 70s, but move in bodies that are ageless; I’d like to take some credit for this, but they came to me with an already finely tuned mind-body connection. They are incredibly receptive to the restorative work I teach, and have been some of my most passionate supporters and profound students-as-teachers-to-the-teacher. I love their company, in person and on screen, our sessions are as dynamic and restorative in conversation as they are in movement.
 
Almost never, do I plan a session ahead of time with anyone; instead, I let their lives and their bodies guide our hour together. Earlier this week, Dan had asked a specific question about his shoulder, some tightness he’d been experiencing that seemed to affect his breathing (already, you can see how highly-tuned Dan’s brain/body awareness is—most people would never make such a grand shoulders-to-breath connection). Now, I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet, which means I can’t diagnose or prescribe. I can only offer observations, and guide people to move their parts in more nuanced ways than they might be otherwise used to, which often yields stunning, profoundly healing insights.
 
After a short, attentive warm up that starts with our feet (quick aside: if your feet aren’t moving well—a quarter of our skeleton resides in each!—be assured that everything above your feet are bearing the consequence. Grab a lacrosse or tennis ball and start rolling it under your tootsies now!), I suggested we have a seat on cushions the floor and start exploring the aptly named “shoulder complex.” As we began teasing out the question: where does shoulder movement reside in our own body? we started connecting the dots and extrapolating parts—to simplify, our session sounded a lot like that ol’ song: the arm bone’s connected to the shoulder bone, the shoulder bone’s connected to the neck bones, the neck bone’s connected to the rib bones…(the fascinating evolution of which I just learned this morning, link below…now do you see why I’m always late for everything? Every single thing I encounter in life is an opportunity to dive a little deeper—itself an act of resistance to the status quo if you think about it—always, so worth it…)
 
As we moved our hands, arms, shoulder blades, spines, we focused on how our breathing is dramatically, directly impacted by the various positions of all dem bones, and that when even just one is is outta whack, the whole is impacted—circulation, respiration, digestion, neurology, lymph flow…i often use a tent analogy to describe how our body parts work—but not just a simple ol’ a-frame, I conjure the image of something more complex, like the stunning structure of Cirque du Soleil, and how every nook and cranny isn’t managed in a balanced manner, the tent will sag, buckle, collapse…in other words, you will likely not move in a typical ass-kicking, fitness-classs way in my sessions, but you will likely feel your ass (or shoulders, or head, or…) in ways you never have before, if you ever have before.
 
At one point, Dan interrupted our session by saying, “Okay, when I get things in place on top, I start to feel a pull down into my lower back, toward my pelvis—my hunched forward upper back and shoulders is a compensation that really does affect everything doesn’t it? I think I need to sit up on a higher stack of blankets…” and proceeded to stack up blankets to a more comfortable height. I wish I would have screen-shot the visible ease that settled into Dan’s body once he elevated himself higher, as well as the goofy grin that nearly split my face in half with his glorious a-ha moment. Such a profound, embodied moment to witness—John Muir’s words in action—when we try to pick apart anything by itself, we find that it’s hitched to everything else in the universe” which is why I so love what I do—continual reminders that everything is truly connected, continual challenges to find those connections, and strengthen them.
 
This level of awareness knows no bounds, but certainly does make life more complicated and outright inconvenient—we are confronted by our own limitations and restrictions, which can be humbling, if not outright infuriating. If we view our bodies as intricate ecosystems in their own right, then where does it end? I’m telling you, it doesn’t. Every move we make radiates out into the world we inhabit, and vice versa, and we are either working toward opening our consciousness, to create balance and ease for all, or we’re fighting against that balance, if we only focus on a select few parts, which results in compensations, restrictions pain and dysfunction. If you’re starting to see the metaphor of the body to the universe, you’re onto something pretty cosmic…It’s really as simple as that, but you know that by “simple” I mean anything but. We messy humans have an annoying habit of fucking shit up, all the time. The cool thing is, the universe offers these lessons over and over and over again, all day, every day. Though, given the events of the first half of 2020, I’m starting to wonder if we’re running out of chances…
 
The lovely side effect of Dan and Susan’s session this week, is that they are softening me to the idea of an online teaching presence; I’ll keep you posted on the progress of that idea and the connections as they develop. Right now, I gotta run, I’m late for a social-distancing date with my sisters. xo.
 

july 9, 2020—a tale of one bunny

On my walk with Rocco early this morning, a block from home, we happened upon a tiny bunny in the middle of the sidewalk. Having recently added “tiny bunny window well rescue” to my covid-resume, I knew something was not right with this li’l bun, given its statue-like presence even as we got closer. But, I could see it was still breathing, its little body puffing in and out, in and out, in and out.
My hands were full of trash, and a poop bag, and a dog on a leash. My first thought was, “keep walking, there’s nothing you can do, Jen,” quickly followed by, “you can’t *not* try to do something,” followed by, “just scoop it up, put it back in the bushes, let nature take its course,” followed by a louder bossier thought: “open the fucking poop bag, stuff all the trash in it, free up a hand and bring the bunny home, figure it out as you go,” all of this in a matter of nanoseconds, as thoughts are wont to do.
Cupped bunny in one hand (my god did it stink!), clutched bag of trash and dog leash in the other, I quickly walked home, hoping my mask hid my crying face, thinking, good Lord, now what? I imagined eye-dropper feedings, harvesting grass from the front yard, little rabbit turds dotting my apartment, a bewildered Rocco wondering “what the hell kind of torture is this—invite my favorite prey into the house but don’t let me eat it??!!” When we got home, how still, how smelly, how matted its fur was, maybe a cat or something had tried to do it in, maybe it was already too late. I emptied a decorative box on my dresser, lined it with an old towel, and placed the bunny inside, propping the lid with a lotion bottle. It was still breathing, its eyes would grow wide then slide narrow, again and again.
I hopped online, to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center’s website, only to find out they didn’t open until 9 am; I had an online Zoom client at 9:30, another at 11. Things were not looking good for the fuzzy li’l dude, why didn’t I just mind my own biz? I thought, just as my phone lit up with a message from my first client, she’s not feeling well, needs to reschedule our morning session. I send up a prayer of thanks to the bunny gods, grabbed my purse, the box, and out the door we went, leaving Rocco staring out the front window, probably thinking, “wait! Where you going with my breakfast!”
Of course, I cried all the way to the center (this is why my husband wouldn’t let me watch Animal Planet—”why do you DO this to yourself?” he’d ask, grabbing the remote and flipping the channel to the Food Network), thinking what an idiotic thing to do, maybe the bunny’s mother was freaking out, maybe it’s all for nothing, maybe maybe baby bunnies are a dime a dozen and the WRC has bigger and better animals to worry about, maybe the bunny’s already dead. I kept flipping the lid of the box up to peek on the way to Roseville, its little belly still puffing in and out, in and out, in and out.
When I got to the WRC, I remembered another lifetime ago, when this place played a more prominent role in my life, when Bob and I lived in a nearby apartment complex early in our marriage, when Gretchen Hildebrandt and I had our sweet little Harmony Salon, not far from here. WRC is connected to the Harriet Alexander Nature Center, a lush oasis in the middle of the busting suburb, a spectacular place for birding, wild flowers and wild life, a true sanctuary in the city. I entered the building and was greeted by the staff, “Come on over, what have you brought us this morning in that fancy box?” A tale of one bunny tumbled out as tears started again, “I’m sorry, I’m such a crybaby,” I babbled.
“it’s okay, cry all you want, we see that a lot in here,” she said, her eyes crinkling into a smile behind her mask as she passed the box to another woman behind the desk, who disappeared behind a door with it.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” I rambled off all the options that ran through my mind, wondering aloud if they even took little rabbits, if it was the right thing to do.
“Trying to help another living creature is always the right thing to do,” the masked woman behind the desk assured me; immediately, her words flooded my veins with peace, and at that moment, became my official life motto. “We’ll check it out—maybe it’s just stunned—if that’s the case, you can bring it home and put it back where you found it. If it’s not, we’ll do what we can to help it.” A few minutes later, the other woman reappeared; as I suspected, it looked like the little bunny had a run-in with another animal, maybe a cat or dog (that explained the smell); it’ll be a few days before they’ll know for sure if it’ll survive. “It’s about the age that it’s ready to leave the nest—old enough to wander out on their own for food, but not always so savvy about predators,” she told me.
“Is there some way I can check up on it, see how it’s doing?” I asked, feeling kind of foolish, but also suspecting that like tears, the question was common in these parts.
“Of course—just call or email in a few days, we should have an update by then. Oh and make sure you take one of our bunny magnets, since you seem to have a bunny theme running through your life lately!”
I had some time to kill before my 11 am Zoom client, so I took a meandering walk along Harriet Alexander’s boardwalk trail, still crying as I absorbed all the sights, sounds and sensations of the world around me, the songs of redwing blackbirds, gold finches, chickadees, so many other birds I don’t know the names of, filling the air; swamp milkweed, cattails, arrowhead plant (which produce edible tubers, once an important food source for indigenous people), knowing the tears were more than just for the bunny. They were for a past life, a present life, a world that has unplugged me from so many loved ones, for a future unknown. I just let them flow.
At the end of the trail, a little bunny stopped me in my tracks; this one was larger than the one I brought in, though still small enough to be considered a bunny in my book. I crouched down and watched it for a while, it kept hopping closer and closer to me, chomping down grasses and other greens with abandon. Every now and then it’d stop eating, and flip a back foot up to its ear, furiously scratch for a few moments, before resuming its meal. I imagine the little bunny I brought in living its life out like this; not entirely safe, but at least in a more natural setting with far fewer dogs and cats, lawnmowers and garden rakes to contend with.

I know some people are not fans of rabbits—they destroy gardens and such—or think that saving a tiny animal is such a minor blip in the grand scheme of it all, a useless expenditure of energy, that for every tiny rabbit, or ant, or spider saved, actual human lives are lost, all of which has the potential to render me a sanctimonious, hypocritical asshole, I know … I hope people realize that’s not the point of all this rambling; I’m never really sure what the point is, other than we all do the best we can, with what we have at any given moment, and it all somehow comes back to the words of the woman behind the desk, “Trying to help another living creature is always the right thing to do.” xo.

july 6, 2020—four years later at Philando Castile’s Peace Garden: let justice roll down like water

Four years ago, Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, the horrifying event broadcast on Facebook Live by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, while her tiny four-year-old daughter sat in the back seat. Bearing live witness to the egregious injustice, the Twin Cities erupted in protests. I think about Philando Castile often, especially when I drive down Larpenteur Avenue on my way to my bank, or to one of the best-kept secret dog parks in all the land. Falcon Heights was first, forever imprinted in my DNA in 1986, when I moved to the inner ring St. Paul suburb just out of high school. My friend, Jen Bochman and I shared a one-bedroom apartment at the intersection of Fry and Larpenteur, back in a time where my life was difficult for a lot of legitimate reasons that did not include the color of my skin. Thirty years later, directly across the street from that tidy, unassuming brick apartment building, Philando Castile was killed.

Without a doubt, this singular event (which was, as is everything, an inexplicable alchemy of endless forces and sources converging into a single a-ha moment), cracked me wide open. A shocking, yet necessary and long over-due bitch-slap to my consciousness—a sudden glaring awareness that there are two starkly different realities playing out in America. One I didn’t have to think about because by design, it took great care of me; the other, I didn’t have to think about because by design, it didn’t directly affect me. Membership definitely has its privileges; you don’t even have to think about them to benefit, all you need is the right skin tone. I was just another run-of-the-mill case of “you only know what you know,” a convenient, easy, yet rampant, debilitating malady—when you’re not forced to interrogate further, when you exhibit no overt symptoms, you get to claim innocent as the disease progresses, continuing to claim lives while hiding in plain sight in your life. Philando’s death forced an existence into my consciousness that I could no longer, easily or conveniently ignore.

I am not the first to experience or write about such epiphanistic (<–I just made that word up!) moments in a life. For Susan Sontag, it happened when she discovered photographs of WWII concentration camps: “One’s first encounter with the photographic inventory of ultimate horror is a kind of revelation, perhaps the only revelation people are granted now, a negative epiphany. For me, it was photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July, 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously. Ever since then, it has seemed plausible to me to think of my life as being divided into two parts: before I saw those photographs (I was twelve) and after. My life was changed by them, though not until several years later did I understand what they were about.”

The universe continually present us with such profound, life-altering, teachable moments; it’s our responsibility as humans occupying this planet, to not just look for them, but once we find them, fashion a semblance of meaning from them. This work is not for the faint of heart. I wonder if this is why I abhor the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason,” because most people skip out on the hard, necessary work behind “the reason,” and instead use it as a cop-out, a distraction of sorts—if we’re victims (perhaps more accurately, beneficiaries) of circumstance, “the reason” can be brushed off as a mystery that no human will ever figure out, no need to interrogate further.

I consumed news coverage of Philando’s murder, which talked at length about who he was, how loved he was by his family and friends and his community at the JJ Hill Montessori school in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood where he worked, which was just down the street from where I was living at the time. Philando Castile became not just another headline or statistic; instead, he materialized as fully human, a decent, loved and loving, flawed being, as we all are, who did not deserve to be murdered over a traffic stop. I read the comments after the articles (I’ve since learned that if I don’t want to not just ruin my day, but completely obliterate all hope in humanity, DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS); I saw on social media what people—people I knew even—were saying about Philando and his girlfriend, about the newly emerging Black Lives Matter movement; that, coupled with the toxic energy that the 2016 election campaign was stirring up, added fuel and nourishment to my newly-forming awareness.

I marched in peaceful protests, I wrote to and called my representatives to express outrage and support, I read, and read, and read—newspapers, online articles, essays by known and obscure authors, so much reading…in the process, I am learning, piece by piece, about the systems of oppression that binds our nation tightly to a debilitating status quo. Even though I’d lived in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood for over three years, the first and only time I stepped foot inside the neighborhood’s namesake was for Philando Castile’s funeral. These seem like useless acts, but we have to begin somewhere. One of my favorite sayings is, “in order to be great at something, we have to start out sucking.” Right now, I have a blackbelt in sucking, as far as knowledge about systemic racism in our culture is concerned, but I’m working to change that. Each step I take moves me a step away from privilege, and closer closer to a more profound empathy and concern for people and reality I will never, truly understand, yet by the effort, increases my love for all of humanity exponentially. I’ve never been good at math, so you’ll just have to take my word on that equation.

I’ve developed an annoying, enormously inconvenient affliction over the years (that I think it’s always been with me, but took off in earnest after the death of my husband in 2011, and has been taken to new heights with Philando’s death, then the 2016 election, and then, and then, and then…), trying to trace connections between seemingly unconnected things; sometimes it takes a long while to untangle the threads, sometimes I think I’ll never get to the end, but it doesn’t stop me from trying, because the payoff is always worth it. It’s in the trying that life-altering events begin to take shape. My life has become a living testament to the wise words of naturalist John Muir: when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

I quit drinking in January of this year, and by “quit drinking,” I don’t mean that something horrible happened to force me to this place; I mean, I finally acknowledged that things have been uncomfortably, inexplicably incongruent for a long time in my life; I mean, I decided maybe I should stop doing what I’ve been doing and see if doing something else might yield different results. I mean, I’ve done and continue to do behind-the-curtains work to face-off with my long-held beliefs about alcohol, to hold them up to the light of facts, which curiously, often results in these long-held beliefs disintegrating into vapor upon exposure, because they’re just that—beliefs, not facts. When exposed, they have no substance, no structure or scaffolding to hold them together; it is a magic show that I’ve conveniently, willfully played along with—pay no mind to the man behind the curtain, ignore the sleight of hand. To learn otherwise, that alcohol has really done nothing except suck the soul out of my life has been heartbreaking, heart healing, mind-blowing, mind mending, soul wrenching and soul-freeing work. In other words, fucking hard (because it’s everywhere), but the results continue to be profoundly worth it.

I’m not saying that this is an anti-alcohol campaign, I’m not saying that I’ll never drink again. Today, I have no desire to drink, even in the midst of the neverending shitshow churning around us (if that POS in the WH gets elected a second term, though, all bets—alcohol and otherwise—are off); today, I’m the curious observer, collecting new data in the form of new, alcohol-free experiences, taking copious notes about what my life can be like, pure as it was when I was a kid, it seems, before alcohol came into the picture. Today, even as alone as I am in the middle of a pandemic, it’s about as peaceful as it’s ever been in my head and heart, and for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

I’ve learned that addiction is not a hard line, but a continuum: if you can’t imagine your life without alcohol (I’m not talking about a 30-day “dry July” stretch; I’m talking for the rest of your living, breathing, heart-beating life), you are on that continuum. Simple as that. This is not a judgment call or fear mongering, it’s just a fact about how addiction works, that there are gradients to the fall. Maybe you don’t drink—if not, you’re not on the continuum; maybe you never move from your place on the continuum or you move so slowly it’s barely perceptible. Maybe something happens in your life that pushes you so hard, you lose your footing and stumble deeper into addiction or maybe nothing really pushes you, you just suddenly find that alcohol has insidiously taken your life hostage without you even noticing; maybe you live your life like everyone else, hovering around the “normal” or “not that bad” or “but I’ve never” or “I’m not an alcoholic because I took an online test/I quit for 30 days/I’ve never had a DUI/I’ve never lost my job/fill in the blank” territory on the continuum—if what you do is no different than everyone else you know, there’s no motivation to change. Maybe you don’t question why wine has somehow become entwined in every facet of your life, from birth (yes, you can buy wine-themed baby onesies), to mommy wine culture, (Laura McKowan, in We are the Luckiest, speaks of the special vitriol reserved for mothers who drink) to yoga class, to widow and other grief experiences. Maybe you fail to make the connection between alcohol and your insomnia, or your glucose or cholesterol levels, or your dried up sex life, or that strange stubborn skin issue or gut problem that won’t resolve no matter what you eat or don’t eat or what prescription you try to cover it with, or the undercurrent of low-grade depression that never leaves or the nagging dragging feeling that “this is all there is?” to life, even if you’ve accomplished spectacular things. Maybe you buy into the adage that all of that is just the inevitable consequence of a stressful life, genetics, getting old. Or maybe you really like things just as they are—don’t barge in here uninvited with your sanctimonious temperance bullshit, missy—because ignorance really, literally is bliss, and we all want to desperately believe that everything really does happen for a reason. If you take away alcohol, the real reasons might be exposed, all those beliefs you’ve held tightly to, that (barely) held you up, or hid you, will disintegrate in thin air. Then what? And by “you,” I hope you recognize I really, only mean “me.” Any resemblance to you is purely coincidental.

Words matter, significantly, in every aspect of our lives. For reasons I’m still working to understand and am not sure I ever will but I’ll keep working at it because I’m a persistent li’l missy, alcohol has been extrapolated from all other addictions and treated as its own separate thing, with its own separate language. Instead of recognizing alcohol as a toxic substance that’s potentially addictive to every single human (anyone who has ever been drunk or experienced a hangover, knows, at least implicitly, of its inherent toxicity; anyone, under the right circumstances can become addicted), we’ve divided the world into two groups—the majority who can drink, and those few who have a disease, or a genetic problem, or a weakness, or an allergy, who can’t, a dangerous dichotomy that keeps so many people from seeking help because they’re not “that bad.” We say that the alcoholic wages a lifelong battle against alcoholism. We don’t apply this twisted logic to, say, cigarettes, or heroine or cocaine; we don’t say that those substances are fine, hell even great! in moderation for most people, but not for a few select, flawed individuals who have a disease, or who can’t handle cigarettes, or hard drugs. Holly Whittaker posits that this has to do with the culture that’s been deliberately built around the substance; it’s so infiltrated every aspect of our lives, we don’t even notice it until God forbid should we challenge this culture and decided to quit it. Instead of saying the culture is the problem, and normalizing addiction, we’ll narrow it down to a few problematic individuals, and keep the party rolling.

Addiction arrives in our lives by many vehicles; alcohol is just one way. It shows up in other disguises—food, gambling, power, sex, internet, religion, exercise, drugs—the list goes on. Often, some kind of trauma precedes addiction, though it’s not a necessary ingredient; success can be as likely a culprit. I sometimes think of addiction as a protective measure gone haywire, a coping mechanism that serves its intended purpose but then didn’t take the hint to take a hike after the crisis had passed; instead, it settled in for a long stay. Addiction is a response to a desire that can never seem to be filled, most often, the root of addiction is a significant feeling of loss—of control, of connection, of peace, of love. I can see now that, given where I was at the time of my husband’s illness and death, drinking effectively numbed the horrific images of what I saw him endure—the fucked up side to fight cancer that no one ever tells you about, that might have very well killed me, too—and helped me stay by his side and fight for him, when he was unable to do so. I don’t know that I could have done what I did, where I was at that time in my life, had I not had that coping strategy. For a very long time, I harbored tremendous guilt about this, which only served to drive drinking even deeper into my life; today, I can look at that time with authentic forgiveness, grace and wisdom—that I did the very best I could with what I had available to me then, a significant turning point for my thoughts about drinking and my motivation to do different, and better, going forward.

The parallels between addiction and racism are at once startling and so obvious, it’s almost comical if it weren’t so deadly. I’m coming to believe that America is addicted to racism—that we’re all afraid we’re going to lose something, should we do different, whether that loss is a perceived loss of power, of a familiar life, of control (who wants to be exposed as an ignorant jerk? No one, that’s who)…we are all sitting at various points on this continuum and until we come to terms with this reality, it will continue, like a terminal disease, to destroy us. I’m still painstakingly making my way through this tangled mess of an idea—racism as an addiction—trying to find where I sit on the scale, what my role is in being a part of the change that is desperately calling out to us, what I need to do. Maybe Im completely off about it, but at least it’s giving me some traction to my thoughts…Awareness is a powerful tool to instigate action; I recognize I have a place on the racism continuum; that, like my relationship with alcohol, I still have a lot of work to do, that right now everything I do or don’t do is going to feel sucky. It’s exhausting, frustrating, infuriating, humbling, and foreign, but like quitting drinking, every step I take moves me a little farther away from sucking and a little closer to something more divine.

Today, a memorial garden has blossomed at the place where Philando took his last breath, an organic, evolving symbol of agony, outrage, grief, community and hope. While at the candlelight vigil last night at the garden, honoring and commemorating Philando’s life, I listened to his mother, Valerie Castile speak, in awe of how this woman has been able to take this epic tragedy and turn it into a living, breathing movement that’s taking on a life of its own. Still, I heard the agony in hers, and other speakers’ voices, over the most recent, senseless loss of George Floyd’s life, and too many others, by the same oppressive system that robbed her son of his. I’ve been reading WEB DuBios’ The Souls of Black Folk; I think about how his words, written in 1903, are the same age old laments and outrages forcing people to take to the streets today, and I understand, at least a little, why protests and riots happen. This compels me to join. I think how, for all the astounding advances in technology, medicine and other systems of our world, the systems of oppression of his times are still very much alive and doing better than well—they’re not just still running the show, they’re now in the white house, not much different than when DuBois was alive.

Still. I learned from Valerie Castile and others last night, that there are forty Black women on the 2020 ballot for various seats in our government, that a significant reason for the rage and the riots are that by the people, for the people, even today in 2020, does not include all the people. The city of Falcon Heights declared July 6 Restoration Day and July 7 Unity Day, community-wide efforts to start bridging the expansive gaps between residents that became glaringly apparent with Philando’s murder. In light of the loss of life, it seems like such small step toward unity, it hardly seems worth it. The only thing we can do is trust that it is.

 

 

 

july 4, 2020…no one is truly free until everyone is free

I was coaxed out of a book and onto my front porch tonight, while my thundeshirted dog hid in the darkened bathroom-cum-panic-room. I’d normally sit out 4th of July fireworks, but tonight, I sat on the front step in the dark, feeling neighborhood rumble in all directions, a garbled Morse code of sizzles, whistles, crackles, pops and booms…an occasional blossom of light unfolded above the treetops, baptizing the Earth in petals of fire, and through the smoke veil, a buck moon lunar eclipse shimmered rose gold. Yes, all of that, on my front steps tonight! The longer I sat on my steps, the explosions began to sound less like random noise, and more like an uprising of voices bursting in thunderous anthems and elegiac hymns of freedom, revolution, fury, joy, rage, elation, grief, sorrow, anguish, urgency, defiance, courage…

My husband used to sign letters to me with, “life is an emergency!” words that never felt more true than they did tonight, sitting on my front steps wrapped in the turbulent, urgent, prophetic night sky.

june 30, 2020—thunder and fireworks and cars, oh my.

Rocco’s new/used Thundershirt, 5$ Craigslist score over the weekend—sporty yet functional, the clingy fabric not only accentuates his chiseled physique, but seems to be helping with the poor fella’s fireworks/thunderstorm/car-induced anxiety—and I lived to tell the tale.

I told both my sisters, on separate occasions, about my recent fabulous find: about how Thundershirts are around forty bucks new, about how I tried one years ago which didn’t seem to do much for Rocco, about how evidently, the 4th of July starts in May in my new neighborhood, about how, between fireworks and thunderstorms of late, poor li’l guy’s a basket case and nothing has helped to settle him down—CBD oil, Rx drugs—nothing. Instead of buying new, I thought I’d give good ol’ Craigslist a try; it’s served me so well in the past. As luck had it, I found a few Thundershirts listed, sent off a few emails to the sellers, then took off for the dog park. Got a text from one of the Craigslist people who happened to live in south Mpls, close to where we happened to be at the dog park. After our frolic, we swung by the seller’s house, tried on the shirt; not a perfect fit, but hey, for five bucks, we made it work.

I hand the masked (yay!) woman a five, she asks, “Hey, how limber are you?” Not gonna lie—she caught me off guard with her curious question. But, before I can answer, she tells me that she was weeding her front flower beds and scared a baby bunny out from her hostas, which leapt into an egress window well and was now trapped. She walks me over to the window, we peer over the edge. Sure enough, down at the bottom, a tiny ball of fur sat motionless in a corner. “I’ve got bad knees and a bad back, there’s no way I can get down there to rescue it,” she tells me, as though she could tell that I am a climber of trees, a saver of turtles in the road and ants trapped in my bathtub and wasps in my bedroom and stray dogs on the street. Or maybe I just looked like the world’s biggest sucker. “Of course I’ll climb down and scoop the little bunny out,” I said, as I put Rocco back in the car.

When I get to this part, about lowering myself into the window well that’s almost as deep as I am short, about 5 feet, give or take a few inches, BOTH of my sisters, on separate occasions, interrupt me with a piercing shriek. “What the HELL is WRONG with you, Jennifer Kay Hildebrandt??!! What part of ‘how limber are you?’ don’t you understand?!” they both cry out. “That’s how people get MURDERED! Baby rabbit my ass—don’t you remember Silence of the Lambs—’It rubs the lotion on the body or it gets the hose again!!!’??!!! She was going to club you with the shovel and someone in the basement was waiting to drag you by the feet into the house through the window!”

I burst out laughing, “Well, I’m sitting here telling you the story, so obviously murder didn’t happen—I wouldn’t have done it if I felt at all unsafe! Do you want to hear how my story ends or not?” It’s anticlimactic, really, other than I had no idea that baby bunnies are so fast and have an astonishing vertical jump—the terrified li’l bun almost launched its own escape up and out of the window well a few times. After several failed attempts, I finally caught it in a dish towel and released it back into the hostas.

I climbed out of the window well, unscathed, shook hands with the seller, sanitized my mitts in the car, then headed for home, happy in the knowledge that Craigslist is still a source of strange joy for me. In these challenging days of covid-19 and righteous revolution, most of us are trying to stay as safe as we can, while staying as connected as we can, helping each other whenever we can, however we can. Keep on keepin’ on, y’all. And don’t forget about Craigslist for all your household, yard, creative and thrill-seeking needs. xo.

june 20, 2020—catching my breath

(author’s note: I wrote this essay shortly before my dad’s death, in 2007; can’t believe I was only 39—I’m 52 now. It’s been hiding in a file on my desktop for years; I’d forgotten about it,  until I was reminded of it tonight when I went looking for photos to share for Father’s Day. It’s a long one, guess I have a lot to say about my dad. He was a good man, with a rough exterior. For all of our differences, there was never a day in my life that I didn’t believe my dad loved me. Happy heavenly father’s day, Pappa D. xo)

I’ve become obsessed with the act of breathing. I ponder the mundane: the scientific, mechanical, repetitive act of gases exchanging via the various components of the respiratory system, replacing carbon dioxide with oxygen by inhalation and exhalation. I marvel at the divine: a wondrous, miraculous, cyclical act of filling up then wringing out the lungs; waves of refreshing, renewing oxygen rushing in to dispel dirty, spent carbon dioxide, like washing clothes in a good old fashioned wringer-washing machine. In and out, all day, all night, over and over. An involuntary, monotonous act I’ve performed without previous consideration, much less, gratitude, for 365 days a year for the past thirty-nine years of my life. That’s roughly 14235 days (not figuring in leap years), and counting. A thoughtless act, so to speak, the ability to breathe. You don’t have to think about it to be good at it. Until your lungs start to fail you, and you can no longer breathe on your own. Then, all you think about is: how the hell am I going to catch my next breath?

My father was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease nearly thirteen years ago, at age 51. COPD is an umbrella diagnosis that includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis and asthma, I read in the literature that describes my father’s disease. I break down the acronym: Chronic – unremitting. Obstructive – disruptive. Pulmonary – the lungs and all that is connected to them, from the mouth down to the alveoli, the tiny air sacs deeply embedded in the lungs, at the very end of the line. Disease – an impairment of health. The opposite of ease – dis-ease. My father has been in a state of dis-ease for over a decade. His condition will never go away; he will never recover from this. His lungs and the components that make up his respiratory system are deteriorating, disrupting the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of his lungs. In other words, he is slowly, very slowly, suffocating.

The diagnosis of COPD was traumatic, though not a real surprise. At conservative estimates, he was a three-pack a day smoker at the height of his smoking career, which lasted over thirty years. He told us that he started smoking when he was 13 years old. I recall sitting shotgun in his red and white Ford pickup as a child, trying to catch the packs of cigarettes that slid across the dashboard and tumbled to the floor when he turned a corner; the smell of his truck that filled my nostrils and clung to my hair and wool coat was of dust, grease, smoke. Cartons of smokes stashed on the kitchen counter alongside the Rice Krispies and Cheerios boxes. Full flavor, 100’s: Kools, Winstons, Marlboro. My father was an indiscriminate smoker, impartial to any particular brand. He bought whatever was on sale. Over the years, the colorful boxes were eventually replaced by the bland packaging of generics he switched to when the prices of smokes dramatically increased. 

Regardless of the brand, he was never without a cigarette pinched between his lips or dangling dangerously from his fingertips. My father could work on a car engine, pitch on his summer softball team, fix loose bicycle chains, haul five kids in his black-green Chevy Impala to the lake to drop a line in the water, with a smoke in hand or in mouth. He would do everything he could without putting his cigarette down, as though it were as necessary as his hands to completing any action. On the rare occasion that he simply couldn’t perform the task at hand with the cigarette attached to him, he’d turn to whomever was closest, adult or child, and say, “Here, hold this while I tighten this bolt,” passing the burning cigarette like a torch. He’d finish the job and in a singular, fluid movement, retrieve the smoke, take a long, deep drag to make up for lost time, drop the burning butt on the gravel, crush it with the heel of his dusty work boot and reach into his shirt pocket for a fresh one.

When we were young, he’d send one of us kids down to the grocery store or gas station with a fistful of bills, calling ahead to let the clerk know one of the Hildebrandt kids was coming down for his Kools. Fights erupted over the task because there was always change left over for a Baby Ruth, a can of soda, or a pack of candy cigarettes that puffed chalky “smoke” from the end when you blew on them.

After a double shift at the Land O’ Lakes plant in town, my father would crash on the sofa in front of a “horseshit-and-gunpowder” show blaring from the TV, a cigarette burning down to the filter in the ashtray that spilled over onto the armrest with stubbed out butts. The fact that my father didn’t kill all of us in a cigarette-initiated house fire is itself a miracle. The armrest of the sofa was pock-marked with blackened holes, edges hard and rough like a scab, from cigarettes or ashes that didn’t quite make it to their final resting place in the ashtray. Often, after my father had nodded off, I’d quietly and carefully pick up the smoldering cigarette and push it deep into the pile of ashes and lifeless butts until the smoke disappeared. I’d carry the ceramic ashtray to the bathroom, dump the dead butts into the toilet and flush, then scrub my hands with the bar of Zest at the sink before returning the dish to its rightful place on the armrest of the sofa. 

If he could have, my father would have smoked in church. Maybe that’s why he didn’t attend. On road trips, my mother sat in front with my baby sister in her lap as the smoke from his cigarettes trailed to the back seat where three of us kids were lined up along the black Naugahyde seat of the Chevy Impala and later, as the number of kids increased, various station wagons. Winter was the worst, with windows closed and the heater on full blast—at least in summer, the open windows carried some of the smoke out into the countryside whizzing by. We complained loudly, with well-rehearsed dramatics thrown in for effect: coughing and gagging, opening windows, falling across one another’s laps. He’d holler back at us, “Close those damn windows, for crissakes—I’m not heating the goddamned countryside!” 

Four out of five of my father’s children became smokers as adults. I started smoking when I was maybe eighteen. Smoking was my appetite suppressant, my stress-relief, something for fidgety hands to do. Funny, that the act of smoking mimics the relaxation breaths of yoga or other holistic practices. Deep inhalations, slow, intentional exhalations. I was a “real” smoker for nearly ten years – through my college years and beyond, though I never thought of myself as a real smoker. I never had to have a cigarette, never graduated to more than a half a pack a day, maybe a pack on finals weekend. I made many excuses for my smoking: I’m not a ‘real’ smoker—I can quit any time, I just don’t want to yet. . . I don’t need a cigaretteI’m not one of ‘those’ smokers who is running out for a cigarette every other minute . . . I enjoy smoking.  

August 2005
For the past few years, my father has lived in a subsidized apartment complex, a non-smoking development, dictated by the city of North Mankato. Violators of this law can be evicted after three warnings. My father is the most vocal complainer of the smoking transgressions that occur at his building. “Those goddamned smokers sit right outside my window – the smoke drifts up into my apartment. I can’t even have the windows open in the summer. They’re supposed to be out back, twenty-five feet from the building – that’s the rule.” 

We’re having lunch in his tiny, one bedroom apartment– pizza delivered from a local joint. I’m sitting on a stool at the kitchen counter, looking across the tiny, cramped apartment at my dad, who sits at his cluttered desk where he’s cleared a place for his plate and coffee cup. 

“—and I know that that horse’s ass, Jerry from down the hall, sits in his apartment and smokes – I can smell it when I walk by. Too damn lazy to go outside – thinks the rules are for everybody but himself.” He shakes his head. His breathing becomes more shallow and labored as he gets worked up about the situation.

Dad, chill. Take some deep breaths through your nose, out through your mouth. Remember that ‘pursed lip’ exhaling exercise your therapist taught you— 

“I’m having my doctor send another letter of complaint to the managers,” he ignores my directive and continues to rant, stabbing into the air with his fork. “If they don’t do something about those smokers soon, they’re gonna be sorry they didn’t listen to me the first time.” He takes big gulps of air through his mouth while fumbling for the inhaler he keeps in the pocked of his shorts. A few quick shots and he’s settled down for the time being. Perhaps too many years have passed for him to realize the irony of his statements.

It was Easter, 1994, when my father was diagnosed with his illness. My parents had been divorced for over ten years. It was our holiday ritual, at that point in our lives, to celebrate the holidays with each of my parents separately; all five of us kids had traveled to Mountain Lake to be with him. When we walked in the front door, I was startled by his appearance. He was sitting backward on his chair as usual, but his skin was ashy-grey, sagging like burlap bags under his eyes. He could hardly keep his head up or his eyelids from dropping, as though he hadn’t slept in days. I cried out when I saw his blue-purple fingertips. Almost in unison, we insisted he be seen by a doctor, now.

“It’s just that rib bothering me again,” he weakly protested, referring to a rib that had been dislocated in a car accident several months prior. “I’m seeing my chiropractor again this week.” We weren’t convinced. Instead of helping him with the traditional ham dinner, we helped him into the car and off to the ER.

~~~~

Take your hand and place it firmly over your mouth and nose. Make sure it’s clamped down good and tight. Now try to breathe. Take in deep breaths and fill your lungs, if you can. Then, try to expel all the air from your lungs. ALL of the air. It can’t be done, not without enormous amounts of straining, not without starting to feel lightheaded, maybe even a bit panicky, until you remember, feeling kind of silly, that you don’t have to breathe this way and you remove your hand with relief. 

This is how your father breathes all day, every day, one of my father’s nurses tells me. He can’t inhale enough oxygen to dispel the carbon dioxide that is taking up precious space in his lungs, nor can he completely empty his lungs of carbon dioxide when he exhales – the alveoli, tiny air sacs embedded into his lungs, where the gas exchange occurs, are weakened, the elasticity gone. If left to his own devices, the carbon dioxide would build up in his lungs and quickly kill him. That is why he has a tank of oxygen at his side all day, every day. 

If he exerts himself at all, if he simply becomes agitated or excited, he has to work even harder to try and get air into a respiratory system that simply won’t allow for it. Even if he simply breaths through his mouth instead of his nose, his breathing becomes even more labored and challenging. Circumstances that leads to panic attacks, vulnerability to every virus and bacterial infection floating around, revolving-door trips to the ER, week-long stays in the ICU at St. Joe’s until the medical team can re-regulate all the affected systems in his body. He is then released from the hospital to go home and wait, until it starts all over again. It’s a slow suffocation that can last for years. 

~~~~

The fact that my father lived with this disease for this long is nothing short of a miracle, though, I feel “miracle” is too holy a word to describe my father’s experience. Miracles happen to people who’ve suffered unfairly; miracles are an unexpected interlude after struggling with circumstances beyond one’s control. Miracles are for those receptive to suffering, because they’ve acquired the knowledge that suffering is necessary in order to create change and move to another, higher, purpose in life. My father’s suffering has not been unfair or necessary, nor is he receptive to the opportunity for change being demanded of him. It is the result of lifestyle choices he made over the years. He has done nothing to change his lifestyle after his initial diagnosis of COPD. How many near-death experiences is one allowed before God decides enough is enough? Maybe God doesn’t decide any of this.

And, maybe I am mistaken about my father’s role on this earth. Instead of student, perhaps he is an unwitting, accidental instructor. Maybe we, as his children are his students.

~~~~

My father continued to smoke after his initial diagnosis of COPD, even after being prescribed continuous oxygen administered through a tube in his nose, and a laundry list of prescriptions to treat his symptoms, symptoms of his symptoms, and side effects of medications, as well as to keep him alive. He’d just unhook his nostrils from the nasal cannula and step outside for a quick one. He continued to smoke until he wound up in the hospital, shortly after his initial COPD diagnosis, this time hooked up to a ventilator. A long plastic tube entered his body like an alien tentacle, through his mouth, down his throat, to his lungs. His eyes were closed but his eyelids fluttered spastically, his facial muscles contorted continuously in what looked like painful grimaces and winces. His limbs, bound to the bed frame with buckled straps, shook and shuddered periodically; his large, swollen abdomen sharply contracted then released, over and over. Occasionally, a nurse appeared to mop up blood and saliva that pooled, then spilled from the corners of his mouth. They constantly reassured us that he was in no pain, that he was on very strong sedatives to keep him in this induced coma until they could regulate his oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and fight the pneumonia infection raging in his lungs. The wincing, grimacing and muscle contractions are coughing responses, they told us, his body’s attempt to expel the mucous and phlegm built up in his lungs. The straps were necessary because even in a highly sedated state, a reflexive reaction to coughing is for the hands to go to the mouth and try to pull out the ventilator. 

The other end of the tentacle led to a box at his bedside, a collection of dials, buttons and red LCD numbers that changing constantly, lines that jagged up, down, sometimes spiking sharply before leveling off again. The numbers and lines meant nothing to me, but told the hospital staff all they needed to know about my father’s condition. For the time, this machine had to take over my father’s ability to breathe on his own – forcing oxygen into his lungs, drawing out carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide had built up to dangerous levels in his system, the doctors told us. He doesn’t have the strength or lung capacity to expel the CO2, nor can he draw in enough oxygen to dispel it on his own. The CO2 was slowly suffocating him. The machine will do the dirty work until my father’s body can take over the job again, if possible.

 During one of his early hospital stints, my father had an other-worldly experience that he’d only mentioned once, a visit by his deceased mother, which set him on the not-exactly straight and narrow. He was eventually awakened from an induced coma and taken of the ventilator, almost a week after his admission. Once coherent, he asked about his mother coming to visit him in the hospital. 

Dad, you know Grandma isn’t alive — she couldn’t have been here. He looked at us each of long and hard, then looked away, shaking his head. What is it? What did you see, Dad? “Nothing. Never mind.” He quit smoking for good after that visit.

~~~~

Since that first extended ICU visit so many years ago, my father has been to the ER and to the hospital in Mankato more times than I could ever try to count. Some have been quick, in-and-out visits, to adjust medications, to treat a new symptom of his illness. Others have been repeats of that first extended stay, with the ventilator taking over his body until the CO2 levels can be controlled and his feeble breathing ability can take over again. We joke that he has a frequent patient’s club membership, that they know him by first name and greet him like Norm on Cheers. He winks and says he does it on purpose, so he can have those cute little nurses at ISJ fawn over him and give him sponge baths. I am told these health crises are just a part of dealing with COPD, and that as the disease progresses, the visits and stays will get longer, more frequent. 

The National Emphysema Foundation tells us that emphysema is the fourth leading cause of death in America. An estimated 16 to 30 million people suffer from the disease – the vast discrepancy in those numbers is because emphysema is a silent, slow-moving yet stealthy invader, symptoms stay well-hidden until the disease has progressed to a debilitating degree. In other words, by the time a diagnosis is made, the disease has taken a stronghold on the respiratory system, and symptom management is all that can be done. A cure is not available. The only hope is to find temporary relief, to find ways to catch one’s breath, or in my father’s case, to simply get by.

My father is a pro at getting by. He has trudged through the past decade-plus with a portable tank of oxygen at his side and a pocketful of inhalers. He sleeps with a mask strapped to his face that is connected to a machine which delivers a strong, constant stream of oxygen into his respiratory system at night. I’ve learned to call the machine a Bi-PAP like he does, though I don’t remember what the letters mean. Another acronym to add to the alphabet soup sloshing around in my head. The machine hisses and whirrs as it forces oxygen into his compromised lungs while he sleeps. I have read that breathing with a Bi-PAP is like trying to breathe with your head out the window of a fast moving car. How this method of vigorous, mechanical therapy can possibly help anyone with compromised lung function breathe better makes me short of breath just thinking about it. Yet, without it, my father would unlikely survive the night. When he is reclined, in addition to the lack of strength in his lungs and diaphragm, it’s quite possible his airway could collapse under the pressure of his huge belly. Sometimes when I call him in the morning, when he’s just woken up, I can tell that the mask is still strapped to his face. The person who answers sounds hollow, nasally and raspy, nothing like my father’s clear, booming voice.

~~~~

My father is nothing if not tenacious, which is probably why he’s so good at getting by. Everything he has done in his life has been done with the gusto and ferocity of a pit bull. He is barely five feet tall, but despite his short stature (or perhaps in spite of it), he was a Golden Glove boxer, bantamweight, back in the early sixties. In a photo album stashed away somewhere is a yellowed newspaper photograph of my father at nineteen, his stocky, muscular frame draped in a baggy suit, arms squared up, fists curled, his hair greased to the side in a perfect coil at his forehead. He is standing next to a man who towers over him by nearly a foot, clad in similar attire. The caption, if I remember correctly, reads something to the effect of, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” a quote by my father, taken from the article that accompanied the photo. 

Several decades later, his reputation still holds strong. I met a man at my salon a few months back, the husband of a client of mine. Late 50’s, he’s a few years younger than my father. His wife told him that I’m also from southern Minnesota, near where they were originally from. When he asked what my last name was, I replied, “Hildebrandt.” 

“Hildebrandt,” he cocked his head to one side and repeated the name slowly. “Say, are you related to Duane Hildebrandt by chance?” 

I smiled. “That depends on what you know about him.”

“Is that your old man?” He broke into a wide grin. “Well, by God! Me and your dad used to run around with the same crowd back when we were a few years younger, got into a little trouble here and there.” He chuckled and slipped into reminiscing about my dad, mutual buddies and the good ol’ days as I continued to cut his wife’s hair. 

“He was a Golden Glove, wasn’t he? I tell you, nobody messed with Hildy back then, that’s for sure – not unless they wanted to get a beating they’d never forget. I remember one time, outside of the Fox Lake Ballroom—” I smiled as he continued his story. “—a bunch of rowdies decided to pick on your dad, not sure why anymore – knowing your old man, probably a woman involved,” he paused to wink at me before he continued. “Anyhow, they didn’t know he was the Golden Glove champ of the area,” he chuckled, talking more to himself than to me. “Man, three guys against your ol’ man – they thought they had ‘im, he was so damn short, but your dad came out swinging like the Tasmanian devil and no one could stop him till those three assholes were running for their car . . . those were some good times.” He looked back at me and asked, “Say, how’s he doing these days?”

I asked my father why he quit boxing after a few years, when he seemed to be so good at it, and had such an impressive reputation. 

“I woulda had to give up whisky and women,” he says with a wink. Boxing was replaced with booze and carousing, both of which he approached with the same gusto and bravado of his former athletic pursuits.

After his short-lived glory days in the boxing ring, my father retreated to the world of blue collar workers – working hard and playing hard. He got my mother, a seventeen-year old high school student, pregnant, and they married in June of 1964, after she graduated and my oldest brother was born. Four more children in less than ten years followed. My father was the embodiment of the “good ol’ Midwestern work ethic.” He worked in factories his entire adult life, where racking up overtime was a worthy cause. He worked at the local Land O’ Lakes plant for nearly twenty years, throughout most of my childhood. But weekends were for getting out, cutting loose, losing control. For a short while in between the factory gigs, he farmed. After seventeen years of marriage, working hard, playing hard, cutting loose and losing control, my mother divorced him. He responded by quitting drinking, but working even harder. Left the farm to work at a local meat processing plant, where the wages were rumored to be the best in the area, with plenty of overtime. That was followed by a gig as a materials handler at a paper product plant. 

He took masochistic pride in the fact that he worked 60-plus hour workweeks, racking up as much overtime pay as his employers would let him get a way with. He continually had the biggest overtime check of all his co-workers, he’d proudly tell me. Ten hour days were a light day; he preferred double shifts, when the overtime really piled up. He was constantly exposed to chemicals, dust, vapors, powdery substances, fumes, paper fibers, pollens. If the smoking didn’t get to him, environmental conditions would surely to do their work eventually. 

We’d come to visit on weekends home from college. You kids are spoiled – you don’t know the meaning of hard work, he’d chastise us through the cigarette pursed between his lips when we’d shuffle downstairs nearing the noon hour after a late night out with old friends. Other times, in more introspective moments, he’d tell us, Keep up the studies, finish that degree. You don’t want to end up like me, working in some goddamned factory the rest of your life.

~~~~

This is the man who taught me to fight. When I was ten years old, I came home crying because a neighbor boy had hit me. I was seeking sympathy from my dad, hoping he would march across the yard and give the kid hell. My father sat me down and said, “Listen. If you’re gonna to run with the big dogs, you gotta piss in the tall grass, Jen.” He held my head with one hand as he wiped the dirty tears from my cheek with the sweatshirt sleeve of his other and continued, “Don’t ever take the first swing, but if it comes down to it, make damn sure you’re the one who has the last hit.” And one last bit of advice, “Next time, whatever you do, don’t ever let that little bastard see you cry again. Ever.” That bit of advice carried me well into my college years, when drunk, groping young men in the bars would grab my ass as I passed by. I considered that “taking the first swing,” and usually answered it with a swift crack across the face. 

This is the man who took me to take my driver’s license test when I turned 16. After I passed, I drove to the insurance agent’s office so he could add me to the policy. I was giddy with thoughts of road trips with girlfriends and carting carloads of friends to football games as I floated along side of him into the insurance office. I must have been thinking of that and the many other things having my license would bring me when we got back into the car to head home. In other words, as my dad would have put it, I had my head up my ass.

I slowly pulled out of the parking space at the agent’s office, carefully checking my rear-view mirror as I backed out. Ignoring what was going on to either side of the car, I heard the crunching of metal on metal before I realized the front end of our station wagon was carving out a deep gouge into the passenger’s side door of the car next to me. “Stop the car! Stop the car! STOPTHEGODDAMNEDCARJENNIFER!” My dad’s booming voice filled my ears, but I had lost all mental and physical functions at that point. The car kept rolling. Dad flung his cigarette out the window as his foot shot over to my side of the vehicle and stomped down hard on the brake. He grabbed the wheel and jerked it to the left, then jammed the transmission into “park” and emitted a long string of expletives.

“Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!” My hands covered my face, I began to hyperventilate. “I can’t believe this – I just got my license! Ohmygodohmygod, I can’t believe this is happening!” 

My father lit up another cigarette, took a deep drag, then exhaled long and hard, sending a stream of smoke swirling inside of the car. “Stay right here.” He glared at me with the fury of a Baptist minister. “Don’t touch anything. I’ll be right back.” He got out of the car, slamming the door so hard that the car shook. “Christ almighty, can’t even leave the insurance office without getting into an accident,” he muttered as he marched across the parking lot toward the agent’s office. When he returned, I was sitting in the passenger’s seat, still sobbing into my hands. He yanked my door open and barked, “Get the hell out of that seat.”

No!” I shook my head furiously. “I’m not driving – ever again! You drive home.”

“Jennifer. Kay. Hildebrandt.” He said my name slowly and deliberately, each word driving a spike into my heart. “Get your ass back behind that wheel. You will drive home and you will get us there in one piece, if it’s the last thing you do.”

He stood at my door until I finally slid out of the car and slunk around to the driver’s side. When I got in, I turned the ignition on with trembling hands, tears burning my eyes.

“Now. This time, check all your mirrors, check behind you, check to the side of you. Check your blind spot, and do not pull out until you’re absolutely, positively sure there’s nothing in your way, on all sides. And when you’re think you’re clear? Check again.”

This is the man who gave me a tool belt and power drill for Christmas the year my husband and I bought our first home, who eagerly dispensed DYI advice whenever I’d call. When he’d come to visit, he always honed in on something that needed fixing—a leaky faucet, a temperamental light switch, a door that didn’t fit quite right in its frame. Instead of doing the work for me, he’d stand off to the side and tell me which tool to use, how to hold it, and guide me through the process. He always asked for photos of projects I’d done when he wasn’t around—the new storm door I’d installed, the kitchen cupboards I’d repainted, the pedestal sink we put in.

~~~~

In my early days as a hairdresser, I read in a trade magazine that one of the top ten reasons clients don’t return is a stylist who reeks of cigarette smoke. Made sense—even for a smoker, the idea of working so close to others, breathing dragon breath on them was a huge turn-off—I’ve been subjected to the funky breath of fellow hairdressers of which this article spoke. I wanted to succeed at my new career, so it was enough to get me to quit smoking at work. Money making pursuits, not my father’s struggle with getting through life with a tank of oxygen, became my initial motivation to cut back.

~~~~

My father was diagnosed with his lung disease shortly before I was married in 1995. My husband was not a smoker, but never hounded me about my smoking, even though he was a childhood cancer survivor. The only thing he said to me, early in our relationship, was, “I would have a very hard time feeling bad for you if you got sick because of your smoking, because it would be the result of a lifestyle choice you made, not some random illness that you had no control over.” I never smoked at home, and only rarely around him, maybe after a few cocktails with friends.

My dad’s diagnosis and subsequent dependence on forced oxygen were still a new adventure for all of us. He was extremely self-conscious of the breathing apparatus he now had to lug around, and he experienced frequent anxiety attacks that morphed into terrifying episodes of gasping for breath, that could be triggered without warning, sending him to ER and Urgent Care. My sister, Jill, quit smoking right after my wedding. I cut back to “social” smoker” status (which meant I became one of those annoying people who wouldn’t buy cigarettes, but bummed them from others), and kept that act up for another several years. Just a few with the girls when we meet for after-work drinks isn’t “real” smoking, I easily convinced myself. I can go weeks, hell, months without a cigarette. I’d feel like shit after a night of drinks and smokes – short of breath, dehydrated and tired—but I exercise and eat well on days and weeks in between, so I could easily ignore the errors of my ways.

In spite of my father’s precarious condition, lung capacity and quality of breath are topics that didn’t occupy my thoughts or enter my conversations with others to any great degree over the past decade. Until recently, I’ve been blissfully and voluntarily ignorant of my lungs and their monumental occupation until recently. Why this newfound curiosity and obsession of a bodily function that jump-started humankind? Why now, when I’ve watched my father trudge through the past thirteen years with a portable, two-liter tank of liquid oxygen slung over his shoulder, liquid oxygen that is pressurized into gas which travels through the tubes to his nose, and forced down into his lungs, administering life-giving, artificial breath that keeps my father alive? That, and a laundry list of medications that he must take several times a day: Albuterol, Atrovent, Serevent, Flovent, potassium chloride, Fosimax, Prednisone. Primary medications to treat his immediate health concerns, secondary medications to thwart the side effects of the primary medications, tertiary medications to supplement the gaps that the other medications don’t treat, stand-by medications that come into the picture as needed, supporting actors in a long running drama. Why do I care now? Why didn’t I years ago?

~~~~

My father rides shotgun with my oldest brother and his family to our house for Thanksgiving dinner last November, an hour and a half drive away. When he walks in the door, I am alarmed at his whitish-gray skin tone and swollen face. The skin around his eyes seems looser, sagging even more than I remember; his chin bulges out of the top of his t-shirt like a bullfrog’s throat. He makes his way to the head of the dining room table, pulls the chair out and turns it around, straddling it backwards, his large belly pressing against the spindles of the chair back, as he always has, for the past thirteen years. It takes pressure off his legs and supports his breathing, he’s always told us. He sits at the table for several minutes, his large belly rising, then dropping sharply as he quietly focuses on catching his breath.  

When dinner is served, he loads up his Chinet plate with a glob of mashed potatoes, turkey, dressing, baked corn, cranberries, a heap of sweet potatoes. He drowns the entire heap with thick brown gravy, and tops it off with a dinner roll. The stiff paper plate bows under the weight of his meal. This is the way this man has eaten his entire life, sick or not, as though every meal were his last. I scowl at him, tell him to go easy on the food. Why must you pile on the food like that, I snap, as I do at any meal I bear witness to his eating habits. You know what your doctor said. He looks at me over the rim of his glasses and says nothing as he puts the dinner roll back. I feel like an ass. I‘lll shut up. Just take the roll, I say repentantly.

Several hours later, after dinner, card games and visiting has worn everyone out, after the last of the pots and pans are wiped dry, everyone is saying goodbyes, in various states of leaving. My father lumbers out to my brother’s van in the sharp, bitter November wind. He makes it to the open van door, where Mike already has the van running and warmed up. My father clutches the inside of the door handle and stands, gasping for air. I am standing outside, without a jacket, at my father’s side. He is looking straight ahead, eyes glossy, gasping. I urge him to get into the van where it is warm. We’ll help you dad – just a quick jump up – it’s better than standing out in this cold – the cold is what’s making it hard for you to breathe— my brother and I count to three and heave him into the front passenger seat. I stretch the seatbelt across his stomach. He automatically grabs the belt and pulls it toward the clasp, but doesn’t buckle it. I don’t think he can buckle it across his swollen belly. Call me when you get home, okay, Dad? Make sure you call me before you go to bed tonight . . .    

~~~~

It was this last visit that made me quit my “social smoking” habit for good. I am still very healthy and active, but I’ve suddenly developed an ability to fast forward my life ten, twenty years from now. Will my own smoking history eventually show up like it has my dad’s, like the Devil himself, and rob me of all the things I currently take for granted? I can’t continue to make excuses. The evidence is right in front of me. My husband does not know the man who played slow pitch softball, who helped me and my siblings move countless times while in college, who worked as a heavy laborer for decades, who could fix anything. He only knows a decrepit older-than-his-years man who seems to always prematurely end a family gathering by a frantic health crisis. The other man, also my father, is a stranger to my husband.

No doubt, I miss it. I enjoyed smoking. The ritualistic elegance of the act of lighting a cigarette. The coupling of weekend cocktails and a smoke. The calming, soothing nicotine weaving through my bloodstream. Smokers are always the fun ones in the crowd. Take a look at any party or gathering – they’re the ones laughing the loudest, telling the raunchiest jokes, staying the longest, while the non-smokers huddle in their pocket of pure air, snidely commenting about the smokers contaminating their lungs, that all restaurants and bars should be smoke-free, about their right to breathe clean air.

~~~~

As time goes by, the effects of even my part-time habit are starting to appear. I notice that even just one beer and a smoke or two has the same effect as an all-night bender. I wake up short of breath, dehydrated, foggy-headed. Tiny lines around my lips match exactly the act of pursing my lips around the filter. Squinty-wrinkles radiate from the corner of my eyes, that may have been deepened as a result of peering through a cloud of smoke. 

My obsession with the act of breathing has found me observing smokers at various ages. People in their teens and twenties are cool and casual with a cigarette at their lips. Young women are elegant and carefree, men more dangerous and wild. But something seems to happen to people who smoke as they reach their 30’s. I think it’s the coloring of the skin that gives it away, a subtle ashen quality to the skin tone of smokers. Faces are either gaunt or puffy, but definitely showing more wrinkles and depressions than non-smokers, definitely lack the healthy glow and elasticity of a non-smoker. Many of my friends who are in their 30’s and still smoke seem to have a constant catch in their throat, as though they need to clear something from it, but the something never clears.  

As smokers reach their forties, the consequences are even more evident. The ashen tone is more pronounced, skin appears parched, puffing and exhaling of smoke etches deeper lines and wrinkles across the face. Coughing and hacking is constant, shortness of breath is clearly detected even in such benign activities as carrying on conversations. By fifties, smokers can be painful to look at. Often inconsistently overweight, especially thick through the middle, spindly limbs, wheezing and labored breathing while reaching for another smoke. Many women who smoke into their 50’s appear so frail – painfully thin, no muscle tone, with skin that has lost all elasticity, hanging like delicate fabric draped over bones. I’ve decided that smoking in one’s twentiess is indeed, cool, sophisticated, wild. But unfortunately, by the time it becomes a habit, the “cool” morphs into deterioration that becomes more apparent with each decade.

Vanity, more than quality of life, became the main motivator for me to quit smoking for good.

February, 2006
My father has just been dismissed from a two-week stink in Immanuel St. Joseph’s Hospital in Mankato because his potassium levels are out of whack, his oxygen levels drop dangerously low at night when he sleeps, the causes are unknown, his doctor says.

I have elected to join my father at his follow-up medical appointment, to hear first-hand what the doctor knows about my father. According to my father’s primary physician, it appears that his condition is getting progressively worse (as though the past twelve years haven’t been bad enough). At four feet, eleven inches tall – my father has always been very short, but he’s shrunk at least an inch or more over the years – he is also morbidly obese, weighing well over two hundred pounds.

I stare at him, shaking my head. “Are you kidding me? Look at my dad. Look at his health history. How can you even say that—of course you know what’s causing this.” I’ve gone round and round with this doctor before, when I’ve accompanied my dad to other appointments. I’ve been reading up on COPD and what can be done to manage the symptoms. I’m convinced that with dietary guidance, if he can lose some weight, it will help with his quality of life—breathing, sleeping, his bad knee, he’d have more energy to be more physically active. His doctor isn’t convinced. 

“Your dad needs to exercise to lose weight—he’s got to burn more calories than he consumes—but he can’t because of all his health issues,” the bespectacled, disinterested doctor says.

“That’s ridiculous—you could at least try to be proactive, instead of just pumping him full of medications while you wait for the worst to happen. Addressing his diet would make a significant difference—my dad doesn’t know how to eat well. He needs help.” We’re talking as though my father isn’t siting right next to me. My father sits silent.

During his hospital stay, a test reveals an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Because of my father’s precarious health, he is not a candidate for surgery. However, we’re told the Mayo Clinic in Rochester performs a non-invasive procedure for abdominal aneurysms and my dad might be a candidate. We set up an entire day’s worth of appointments, to meet with doctors, specialists, anyone who might have some say as to whether or not my dad could benefit from the procedure. Our trip to the Mayo Clinic verified the aneurysm measures six and a half centimeters in diameter (surgery is recommended for aneurysms five centimeters or larger), located very close to the renal arteries. However,  though the aneurysm is at a size that needs immediate attention, because of my father’s precarious health, he isn’t a candidate for any type of surgery, no matter how minor. 

I am overcome with emotion at this news. I vacillate between deep sorrow for him, when I see the look that settles on my father’s face after the team of specialists tell him that, regrettably, there’s nothing they—world-renowned miracle workers—can do for him, and acute fury at him, for allowing his health to deteriorate so severely, for dragging us along through his self-induced hell all these years.

On our drive home from the Mayo Clinic appointment, I can’t hold back – he is my prisoner for the next hour as we drive back to Mankato. I hear my husband’s words in my own, as I tell him that it’s hard to feel sorry for him because 100% of what is wrong with him is his own fault and that he’s had all the chances in the world but has done nothing to make his situation better in the twelve years that he’s lived with this disease. I call him a hypocrite because he made his children suffer for years on end from second hand smoke and now he’s writing letters and complaining to the apartment manager about the smokers below his window. I ask him why I should care so much whether he lives or dies, because he doesn’t seem to care much himself. I tell him that when he decided to be a father, he should have known that every action he does to himself directly affects five other lives, not just his own. Let’s not even talk about what you’ve done to your own mother, sisters, friends, over the years I spit words at the windshield. The agony of every single ER visit and ICU stint and hospital stay seethes from my body, hanging in the air like a smog. It’s like all these years, you never once gave one shit about us, I heave the words into what little space is left between us.

He sits quietly as I rage on. My mouth is thick with saliva, my eyes pool with the tears that I’ve been fighting to hold back, blurring the road in front of me as I speed down Highway 14, toward Mankato. A throbbing at the base of my head builds with intensity, my eyes burn hot and wet. After miles of unmemorable miles, my ranting begins to lose steam and finally, I’m reduced to sobbing, as I speed along the two-lane highwaay. After more miles of telephone poles and farms and empty fields, my father reaches over and places his hand on my shoulder. I’m gonna be okay, baby. This time, I’ll work harder to get better. Don’t worry about me. I can’t look at him because I know what will come out of my mouth if I do, and I can’t do that to him, even in my justified rage: You don’t get it, do you? You will never get better. You are going to die soon.

My husband is a tertiary victim in my father’s health saga. I slip into bed after the long day spent in Rochester, wheeling my father through the arteries of hallways that lead us from one doctor to another, each one performing a specific test on my father as they try to piece together the puzzle of his health situation. At the end of the day, at home, I lie in bed, my body exhausted, my eyes still puffy and sore, my mind spinning wildly, unable to slow down. I try breathing exercises. I try visualizing my body calming down. I try to focus on the rhythmic breathing coming from my husband next to me in bed. I fidget in bed. I finally get up and go out to the sofa, so he can get some sleep.

~~~~

I am becoming adept in the medical world of abbreviations, sounding important and informed as any seasoned social worker or medical professional as the acronyms fly off my tongue. COPD, CO2 and O2 levels, MA, Medicare part A and B, SSI, Bi-PAP, DNR, MRI, C-PAP, EKG, ENT, ICU pepper the alphabet soup that has taken over my language. I visualize my conversations in capital letters and find myself retrace my dialogue, filling in words that have been reduced to letters. I am an armchair social worker, can spew out the basic qualifications of someone on disability who is applying for Medical Assistance. I am learning what Medicare will cover and what it won’t. It is becoming apparent to me that Medicare is a reactive program, not proactive. It will not pay for many preventive services my father could benefit from, yet it has no problem paying the thousands upon thousands of dollars of emergency room visits, week-long stays in ICU, when his health state plummets to critical stages. I am beginning to see that our health care system is a system so screwed up, highly reactive rather than proactive, I don’t know if there’s even a way to change it in this lifetime.

~~~~

Lately, I’ve become acutely aware as to how I breathe, the quality of my breath and how I breathe under various circumstances. My breathing is barely perceptible when I’m deeply engrossed in something, such as reading the newspaper or working on my laptop. If I eat too much, my lungs don’t have room to fill completely, and I feel the discomfort of obstructed breath. When restless at night, I quiet my mind by taking slow, deep breaths that stretch my lungs followed by long, cleansing exhalations that slowly release my lungs. When I run with my dogs, my lungs expand and contract deeply and fully, they are pliable and elastic. I wonder about my lung capacity and the quality of the air sacs buried deep within my lung tissue, at the tips of the bronchi that spread like tributaries of a river across a continent. What do mine look like, I wonder.

I think about the quality of the air that I breathe. As a hairdresser, I am in constant contact with volatile chemicals: ammonia and its countless deviations, peroxide, acetone, formaldehyde, sodium hydroxide. Hairdressers are blissfully ignorant to many health-hazards of the industry. We tell each other and clients confidently, “If our industry was so bad, every other person in this business would be sick.” But, what are the statistics, really? I know many stylist who have severe  seasonal allergies; my favorite sales rep (who, incidentally, had to quit doing hair due to severe product-related dermatitis) was recently re-diagnosed with breast cancer. Have my ten years’ exposure to these chemicals begun to eat away at my air passages? Am I inhaling tiny bits of cut hair into my lungs as I cut and clipper my clients? I have a mental image of my lungs during an autopsy, that they look like porcupines, spikes of hair embedded into chemical-atrophied tissue. Ah, yes, the forensic scientists will say. She was a hairdresser. 

I wonder about my own years of smoking. No, I wasn’t a “never without a cigarette” smoker as my father was, but the severity and susceptibility of COPD and related illnesses affect people differently. I think about people who are diagnosed with lung disease, or lung cancer, who never smoked a day in their lives. I think of people who are diagnosed with the disease who lived with smokers, the victims of second-hand smoke. I think of people who smoke their entire lives and live to the ripe old age of 99. I think of my dad, who, at 64 years old, would have a far different life right now, if he had quit smoking, or better yet, had never started. I wonder what my dad thinks of at night now, when he’s alone with only his thoughts. Is he filled with immense grief for the pink lungs of his younger days? How do you go to sleep with such a death sentence hanging on you.

I think of the man I encountered while walking my dog last spring. He was getting his mail from the road-side mailbox as we walked by. I couldn’t tell if he was 50 or 80 – he had weathered, leathery skin, white razor stubble sprinkled across his chin, and was hunched over and shuffled as he walked. But beyond the leather skin were young eyes, handsome, even. Beautiful dog, he said to me in a tired, gravely voice. I stopped to let him pet my 110-pound Alaskan malamute. I had a dog, till just last year. He speaks to my dog more than to me, gazing at Gaia as he scratches her ears. A Golden Retriever. Died of lung cancer. He turned his intense gaze toward me for just a moment. I killed her. Smoking. I sucked in my breath sharply as he turned and shuffled back toward his house.  

June 13, 2020—stay with this

Screen Shot 2020-06-12 at 1.51.40 PM

The skies are quiet in my neighborhood these days. The incessant throbbing of helicopters have disappeared, the sirens have scaled back to everyday ignorable background crises, the stunning graffiti-art-political-statement plywood is coming down from storefronts. Phase 3 of reopening MN is here (I think, I might have lost count somewhere along the way), which apparently means the pandemic has been called off because of good weather and bad hair, based on the absence of masks, shoulder-to-shoulder gatherings and all the snazzy new ‘dos. People are anxious and antsy, I get that. This is the most unnatural, uncomfortable, abnormal state most of us have ever known, every variation of sheltering at home comes with its own unique set of challenges. People are defiant or suspicious of Fauci, Walz, BLM, et al—I’ll never get that, but some battles are worth more energy than others. Maybe it really was all a hoax, or a bad dream. Maybe everyone’s finally succumbing to the fact that we’re all gonna die anyway, so we may as well take our chances with corona. Where other people’s lives are concerned, I’m always going to err on the side of caution and care.

I’m sad more than inspired, tinged with suspicion, about the plywood removal, the quiet skies, the absence of masks. The virus is still very present, and it’s only been three weeks since George Floyd’s murder, followed by marches and fires and looting and choppers and sirens tearing open the collective unconsciousness of the Twin Cities that quickly tore across the globe…our cities burned as a fury of bodies raged along Lake Street, Longfellow, Midway, Broadway, so many neighborhoods bear fresh, gaping wounds on top of centuries-deep scars that no one except the ones who live there, along with the scars, notice or really care about. How quickly we, without generational scars, can forget, so desperate we are to resume our lives that were so rudely, inconveniently interrupted first by a bullshit virus that’s been dragging on far too long for our comfort or patience, then a murder that has nothing to do with us in spite of the truth that everything leading up to the murder has everything to do with every one of us. And by us, I should be clear, I’m really only talking about myself here; any resemblance to anyone else is purely coincidental.

I was jarred awake in the middle of one of those nights of the past three weeks, when a helicopter’s throbbing broke into my dreams, so thunderous I though it was landing in my backyard. As I sat upright in bed, my heart rattling against the cage of my chest, my first impulse was to run—where would I go? Then, the words “sit with this” shimmered into my abruptly-awakened cells. I got out of bed, still rattled by the too-close-for-my-comfort helicopter, found a pen and paper and wrote those words:

sit

with

this

again and again, until my heartbeat smoothed out and my breathing slowed, until I could write without trembling, until the essence of the words: sit with this grew into something more familiar and clear, something strong and meditative, like a mantra, something I have known before, but not in this form.

Sit. With. This.

I’ve been sitting with the memory of this rattling, for the past few weeks, wondering what it would be like to be on high-alert like this, every day of my life: reading, listening, watching, talking, aching, thinking, breathing, seeing, connecting, examining, crying, feeling, marching, observing, asking, protesting, learning, loving (the collective consciousness broken wide open), gasping, working, cleaning, writing, digging, sitting, sitting, sitting…

I’ve been sitting with this, the impact of a pandemic, for even longer, wondering how comical and easy the universe can be with her prophetic metaphors, like she’s literally giving us the answers to the universal SAT, yet here we are, still smack dab in the middle of the metaphor and everyone’s giving up already: listening, masking, worrying, isolating, loving (from a distance), Skyping, thinking, dreaming, calling, working, hand-washing, reading, learning, texting, breathing, observing, questioning, connecting, longing, reframing, crying, hugging (trees), redefining, sitting, sitting, sitting…

I’ve been sitting with this, what it means to be sober for nearly six months, while eyeballs deep in a global shitshow smothered in WTF sauce, astonished at how different (and ultimately, harder but for all the right reasons) it is to be clear-minded and connected to all my senses, rather than numbed and cut off while in crisis mode: learning, reading, aching, confronting, challenging, replacing, listening, crying, reflecting, feeling, sleeping, watching, breathing, moving, unearthing, planting, recognizing, dismantling, reframing, replanting, nourishing, hydrating, walking, observing, sitting, sitting, sitting…

I’ve been sitting with this for far too long, as I continue the hard work to bring love and connections, compassion and grace, forgiveness and understanding back into my life after the senseless loss of my husband: grieving, hurting, crying, hurtling, reaching, moving, thrashing, grieving, reading, raging, running, gasping, crying, writing, walking, talking, learning, questioning, shifting, running, raging, moving, stopping, starting, falling, grieving, reading, rebuilding, learning, stumbling, fumbling, trying, raging, denying, grieving, bartering, raging, redoing, destroying, uprooting, reinventing, writing, reading, growing, sitting/collapsing, sitting/collapsing, sitting/collapsing…

It’s only been by sitting with all of this, that I am able to see the connections from my personal experiences to the larger picture…this might be why I’ve always had such a visceral aversion to “everything happens for a reason” platitude; because it’s used more like an excuse to not do anything different, rather than a call for real growth (which requires real, hard work).

Prior to Bob’s death, I didn’t sit with much of anything for very long. I’m 100% certain I believed and vehemently proclaimed, “everything happens for a reason” back then. I’m also certain that I’ve said things like, “I don’t even see color/I don’t care what you sexual orientation is!” or “I’m not racist/homophobic,” or “I don’t understand why blocking a highway is going to change anyone’s mind—they’re only pissing people off.” If it was too uncomfortable, too complex, too overwhelming, too humbling to reveal how little I knew, too embarrassing to admit when I was wrong—where/how/why do I even begin to confront the beliefs? My answer to conflict has often been the opposite of sitting—any variation on the verb run (it’s stunning and sometimes sneaky, the various forms that running can take. It can look like silence, or obstinance about opinions, or staying blissfully, willfully ignorant to things that don’t directly affect you; it might be overworking or over drinking, or eating or medicating, or dismissing or going to church or any other possible incarnation). I learned my running/turning away skill at an early age, a coping mechanism to a turbulent upbringing that included not just my own immediate family but the community in which I was raised. While it did well to protect me as a young child, this well-honed skill became more of a liability as I got older. It took the death of my husband to initiate a rite of stillness, the ability to stay with something instead of bolting at the first sign of discomfort. But it didn’t come easily. It still doesn’t. I have far more experience running than I do with staying. I will forever be a dilemma of motion and stillness, but I’m also coming to recognize that staying is essential if I really wish to be a part of the change that is desperately presenting itself to us/me right here, right now. In spite of all that, I’d still bitch-slap anyone into next week (metaphorically, of course) if they told me my husband’s gruesome death was the reason I came to this stage of enlightenment.

It was crawling-out-of-my-skin excruciating to sit with Bob’s death; I would have done anything to escape the rage and sorrow that engulfed me. God knows I tried. I’d never known such a great and gruesome loss, I was a one-woman riot, full of anger (never at God, for the record—you have to believe in God to be mad at such an entity; at that point in my life the only thing I believed in was my righteous, if at times, misdirected fury at the U of MN medical center, and basically everything else in the world, and my God is 100% okay with that), fueled by grisly images of what I watched my husband endure—that I was a willing participant of—that dirty little secret of “fight cancer” hat no one talks about. I wanted to destroy everything, including myself, it felt like the only way to purge myself of the experience. I’d go out to my back yard in the middle of the night and scream until I was hoarse, I’d barrel down I-94 at 90 mph, wishing the 18-wheeler in the opposite direction would sway into my path. I’d down bottles of wine to blur the sharp ragged edges, collapse night after night in a pile of tears and nightmares, lash out at my family, cut friends from my life. I’ve moved six times in the past nine years, always on the run. I wished and cursed the worst kind of loss on everyone I knew and didn’t know, I wanted the world to know, intimately, what it was like to experience such a loss. Maybe then, they would stop saying and doing the stupid shit everyone says and does when they’re not even trying to understand what this was like. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have felt so alone.

But, they were just grateful it didn’t happen to them, I could hear it in their words. I was furious that everyone else got to keep moving on, when I was stunted by the thick sludgy shitpile of my loss. But I did other things, too. I went back to school, I began writing, for real. Even though my experience was so myopic,  when I started talking and writing about it, it plugged me back in with the larger world; my experience nurtured a new form of empathy and compassion, a “same but different” perspective that I hadn’t been aware of before. Even though it’s been nine years (and this is an almost insultingly condensed version of the long, ugly, mistake-riddled process), it’s easy to invoke the memory of those intense, early feelings, if I sit with it long enough; I hope I never forget those raging emotions; while I didn’t know it at the time, they are still the catalyst and connection for immense changes of perspective, and ultimately action, in my life.

I am not comparing my loss to the collective loss of whole generations of people who have been grieving and raging, trying to play by mysterious rules that forever change without warning, begging us to listen for generations (clearly we haven’t done any of that, given the events of the past few weeks). Or maybe I am. What else do I have to go by, other than my own experiences, that inform and guide (or prohibit growth by reinforcing old ways—they have the capacity to do that, too). Our personal experiences have the capacity to transcend and connect with others who have a very different life experience than our own, if we finally stop running and learn to sit with what they have to teach.

I think my sadness and fear about the plywood and masks coming off is encapsulate by the succinct yet profound words of a physical therapist I follow on social media, Dr. Jpop, who just this morning wrote, “when the mania dies down, the work will still be there and our voices will still be needed.” I fear the new phase of reopening, the silence in the air, the removal of the plywood and masks might give us (remember, I’m talking me here) permission to slink back to the safety and security of our old lives and ways. I know too well, the immediate relief of running. But I now also know the profound, sustainable, life-changing power of staying. The issues never go away, no matter how far or fast we run. They will keep reappearing in new forms, offering endless opportunities for growth. Running is way easier than staying, but for all the effort, it never yields much. The rewards are far greater in the staying.

After all these words, I still don’t really know what I’m saying or what it means or looks like to stay, or what it’ll inspire me to do, but curiosity and interrogation is also part of dirty work. Today, I’m going to sit with it, and see where it takes me.

 

may 23, 2020 — carpenter ants, covid and me

black ants

Photo by Syed Rajeeb on Pexels.com

When asked how I’m holding up “in these strange times,” I probably answer a little too quickly and honestly, “I’m doing alright, all things considered.” Which is often followed by, “Yeah, but you’re—alone,” eyebrows skew, head tips with heartfelt concern. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be now. At least I have {my kids, my spouse, a job…}” Voice trials into a long sigh. I shrug, nod in agreement to keep things simple, suspect that their concern might speak more of their state of affairs than mine. I may be a lot of things lately: scared, unsure, awestruck, sad, amused, lonely, downright pissed off sometimes—just wear the fucking mask, you ignorant fucks—but I’m hardly alone.

Do I tell them about the carpenter ants that live in my bathroom? That I rescue any ant that I find frantically, futilely scrambling-sliding-scrambling up the slippery sides of my tub, by dangling a length of toilet paper for it to cling onto, then I airlift it to the spider plant or peace lily perched on the windowsill? That tears spring from my eyes every damned time I see one struggling, knowing it’s not long for this world? The first time that happened, I was startled—what strange force compels me to perform teary last rights as those tiny limbs go sluggish and its segmented body curls into itself? Surely it’s not simply because I’ve been literally alone for ten weeks and counting (is anyone counting?), that I gently pinch the ant between folds of TP and lower it into a plant with a blessing. (I once flushed a barely moving ant down the toilet and immediately regretted the careless act; surely, even to a lowly ant, to be surrounded by green leaves and moist dirt is a far more peaceful place to die than succumbing to the turbulent rush of toilet water). 

It’s not an infestation or anything—just a random ant now and then. But what do I know about ants and infestations? I live in a charming, borderline-decrepit, one-hundred-and-twenty-year old house that’s been reincarnated into various configurations over the years; nowadays it’s a triplex. God knows there’s more than just four humans contained within these walls; to report errant ants might warrant an over-the-top extermination that results in burning down the house. I’d hate for that to happen. So I watch for signs of infestation, and keep plucking errant ants from the tub.

But the bigger question is: why do I care so much about something so small and seemingly insignificant? Is this how it happens? I wonder. That I’m losing my mind in self-isolation? Maybe it’s best not to admit any of this publicly. When my landlords (who are also related to me) learn that I’m not using the ant traps they bought for me, or the mouse traps they left under the sink for the mouse that appears in winter, for that matter, I imagine a family conference where I am suspiciously absent, before they kindly ask me to pack my things and go live with one of my sisters. I anticipate someone else reading this will say, “You have to kill! all! the ants! or your whole house will! collapse!” or “You don’t have to use Raid—there are organic ways to kill! all! the ants!” As writers, it’s a risk we always take, that someone will miss the point of what we’re trying to say. But someone else might say, “oh my god, I so get it…thank you for writing the thing that I have such a hard time expressing.” It’s why I keep at it—to find better ways to say what I’m trying to say, to examine if what I believe is truly what I believe, if for no other reason than to know that I’m not losing my mind—that ants matter to one other person, even if that other person turns out to be me. It’s for that person, whomever they may be, that I keep trying. Oh, and for the ants.

You won’t readily find good news about carpenter ants if you Google them, which yes, I did because 1. I have ridiculous amounts of time on my hands these days, 2. I am truly curious—are ants as wicked as we’ve been lead to believe? and 3. for real—have I lost my everlasting mind because I don’t want to intentionally mass murder crawly things with more than four legs?

Number one is a given for many of us lately, I won’t belabor the point. Number two took a bit more work. Loads of negatively-biased assertions from endless pest control companies populated my Google search, hammering the point over and over again, in graphic detail, that ants of any kind are a threat to humanity and must be eliminated at all cost: seek and destroy before they seek and destroy us. We accept this as gospel truth in part because repetition is a simple yet highly effective way to get any message across. So is fear. 

To learn anything objective about the carpenter ant (who coincidentally, I might point out, shares the same trade as a certain savior of a certain religion whose commandments include thou shall not kill, and passionately lauds all creatures great and small; not that any of that means anything, just a thought I had while researching carpenter ants) you have to be persistent and industrious, channeling deep to get to the facts—not unlike the way a carpenter ant channels into wood, one could say. Did you know that carpenter ants are indigenous to many forested parts of the world? That they excavate intricate tunnels in wood worthy of the name galleries. Their appearance isn’t a personal attack — to a carpenter ant, wood is wood. Like anyone, they just want a place to live; when you see them scurry like mad to escape your wrath, you can’t help but know on some deep level that they, like us, are capable of something akin to what we might call anxiety or even terror, as any creature, great or small would in the looming shadow of a fast-approaching shoe heel. 

Curiously, one pest control company contradicts itself about the very creature it’s hired to assassinate. From their website: Let’s set the record straight: Carpenter ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus) are not “evil” or “bad.” They play a positive role in forested environments, nesting in both living and dead trees, as well as rotting logs and stumps…carpenter ants have a significant role in starting the degradation process in dead trees. By tunneling through wood to excavate nest galleries, the dead wood is opened to fungi, bacteria and other wood-destroying organisms to begin decomposition and natural recycling of materials.

Their galleries and passageways have a smooth, sandpapered appearance…carpenter ants also are a vital link in the forest food web. They play a key role as predators of forest defoliators and other insects — and in turn, are prey for fish, reptiles and birds such as the pileated woodpecker.

All of that is captivating but this line is what stopped me cold: When houses are built in and near forests or natural areas, carpenter ants may become a threat—wait a minute. This story sounds suspiciously familiar, an unintentional parable—who encroached on whose land here? And for the love of God and all creatures great and small—after extolling the virtues of these tiny critters, how can XYZ Pest-ridders possibly go on to make a living slaughtering whole communities of these environmental do-gooders? I mean, I get it—we don’t know what we don’t know, right? But once we know, we can’t go back to not knowing, y’know? At the crossroads of not knowing to knowing, what we do from that point on becomes a conscious choice. I’m gonna be working through this thought for a while…bear with me…

Validation, if not an outright answer, to my third concern arose serendipitously as I rooted around the internet for more facts about the carpenter ant. I came upon an essay titled On Smushing Bugs, where author-cartoonist, Tim Kreider ponders my very dilemma. He writes: “A bug may be a small, unimportant thing, but maybe killing or saving one isn’t. Every time I smush a bug, I can feel myself smushing something else, too — an impulse toward mercy, a little throb of remorse. Maybe it would feel better to decide that killing even a bug matters. Does evading tiny, insignificant lives lead to callousness about larger, more important ones, like a karmic broken-window theory? People running for cover on the ground must look ant-like from a bomber or a drone. As flies to wanton boys.”

Indeed, it seems the farther removed from our own existence another being is, the easier it is to not think of that being as something worthy of existing. I’m still in the process of processing so many connections to other facets of life—something about the worth of an ant’s life and the current state of the world, but I’m gonna need more time…I haven’t yet made up my mind about the lost mind part, but at least I now know I’m not alone in my odd compulsion to rescue ants from the tub (and turtles from a highway and implementing my Operation Spider Relocation program, and one day hope to start Prosthetics for Footless Pigeons of Chicago nonprofit—another essay for another time). And probably explains, at least in part, why I’m no longer a homeowner and am alone in a pandemic.

Maybe carpenter ants are too weird to relate to; I continue to ruminate my state of aloneness and others’ concerns as it relates to current affairs. Maybe I should tell them that the early morning tree hugging man and I have taken our relationship to the next level—that I saw him again the other day, hugging that same tree in the same park in the same early hour of the morning as the first time I saw him, a few weeks ago. This time, bandana masks hanging around our necks, from a good twenty feet apart, we make eye contact, smile. I flash my dead mother’s signature peace sign, he gives a little wave, then hops on his bike. I continue walking with my dog in the opposite direction, gliding my hands along rough bark, drawing a branch down to my face to take a deep inhale of lilac essence. I stop to wrap my arms around the waist of a tree, and I swear, I feel its spirit move through me, and I know I am not alone. But all of that sounds weird, too.

Do I tell others that I stopped drinking at the beginning of the year and when I did, I felt a stirring in the nucleus of all thirty trillion of my cells, a collective whole-body sigh, like the heavy loneliness that has occupied me for too long finally drifted up and away from my body and for the first time in maybe ever in my life, I never felt so light, a quiet foreshadowing: keep going, woman, this superpower is going to come in handy very soon, just you wait and see. That when I was drinking, even when I was around people, I was unbearably alone, but at the same time, it was the only way I knew, to stave off the acute loneliness that was gnawing at me from the inside out. Kind of like a carpenter ant, I guess you could say, but another part of me says, no, it was not at all like a carpenter ant—they break down old to encourage new life; drinking eroded me from the inside, out, leaving nothing but a barren wasteland inside. That now, even in the middle of a fucking pandemic, I’m constructing a net of support, through family, online communities (who knew thousands of strangers online could be a source of so much empathy, encouragement and even joy?). Like a spider—yeah, that’s it…(okay, another essay for another time…) I may be alone but I’m far from lonely—don’t you see the difference? I want to say, but I already anticipate the bewildered, “Shit…sorry I said anything” look in their eyes.

Right now, when someone asks, “How are you holding up in these strange times?” I find it easier to say, “I’m doing alright, all things considered,” and leave it at that. It’s still true. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell the more complicated story, about the difference between alone and lonely. For now, I will continue to rescue ants, I will continue to wear the fucking mask, I will continue to allow myself grace for things I did not know at the time, and  continue to always, keep working to know more, and in turn do better, the next time.