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Monday, January 24, 2022

Off to Join the Circus

 



Once Jennie had everything. She slept on a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs. She had her own comb and brush, two different bottles of pills, eyedrops, eardrops, a thermometer, and for cold weather a red wool sweater. There were two windows for her to look out of and two bowls to eat from. She even had a master who loved her. 

 

-      Maurice Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life

 

So begins a modest little picture storybook for children by beloved Maurice Sendak, first published by Harper & Row in 1967. 

 

My son and I discovered many wonderful children’s books together when he was young, and of course I also introduced him to those I had loved in my own childhood, but somehow we missed Maurice Sendak. It was not until the 21st century that I became familiar his work, and even then the book that everyone talked about was In the Night Kitchen. I never heard or read anything about Higglety Pigglety Pop! until I ran across it later, quite by chance. 




The illustrations (by the author himself) are irresistible. But it always bothered me that the little dog who had “everything,” including “a master who loved her,” was so discontented that she packed up “everything” and left home. And she doesn’t go home in the end, either. I was sad for the master left behind. Long after my initial impression, I learned the story behind the story when an interview Terri Gross had done with the late author years earlier aired again on the anniversary of his death.

 

When Sendak’s beloved dog Jennie died, he rewrote her ending for a children’s book, having Jennie run off to join a theater company and become a star. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is dedicated “For Jennie,” and the story ends with a note Jennie sends to her old master that begins, “As you probably noticed, I went away forever,” and ends, “But if you ever come this way, look for me.”

 

Some dogs go to live on farms, some run off to join the circus or a traveling theatre, and many simply go over the rainbow. One thing they never do is die. They live on forever in our hearts.


Sarah

Peasy

Books Read Since Last Post

 

7. Carter, John. Taste & Technique in Book Collecting (nonfiction)

8. Sendak, Maurice. Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or, There Must Be More to Life (fiction – juv.)‘

9. McVey, James. Loon Rangers (fiction)

10. Bragg, Rick. All Over but the Shoutin’ (nonfiction)


This post is dedicated to Sarah and Peasy.



Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Companions of Time’s Short Day

Too soon, too soon, the sunset!

 

When I came across this quotation in a volume on book collecting, “The night of time far surpasses the day…,” my first literal association was with the psychological slowing of time during what someone else has called “dark nights of the soul.” Yes, those nights are long, and the coming of daylight a blessed relief. The quoted sentence, however, doesn’t stop there, and I had to search out the larger context to discover the meaning and how it might relate to the matter of rarity in old books. Here are two consecutive sentences that begin to shed light:

 

The number of the dead long exceeds all that shall live. The night of time far surpasses the day, and who knows when was the equinox?

 

There, we see, the “night of time” holds all the dead, remembered and nameless, that have gone before us, and the ancient and forgotten “equinox” would have been early in human prehistory, when the dead and the living were equal in number – if we can even imagine such a moment as real, given evolution and all. Where might a meditation on this idea take us? Seventeenth-century English writer Sir Thomas Browne began his own meditation inspired by the discovery of ancient Roman burial urns in the Norfolk countryside, and the quoted passage above appears in his Chapter V. 

 

Perhaps the most educated man of his time, Browne was not content to say merely that life is short and that almost everyone who lives is forgotten in time … or at most remembered as a name only or for some particular aspect or some act perhaps not essential to the living being who once walked the earth … and his “Hydriotaphia” is certainly worth reading and re-reading – which I shall do! -- but this morning I’ll return first to John Carter’s Taste & Technique in Book Collecting, because many other books await me, as well as letters deserving replies.  


Bookman’s (Brief) Holiday

Anyone who has read previous posts on this blog, the farewell to Peasy followed by the Artist’s medical crisis and its resolution, knows that seasonal retirement has not been exactly a picnic this time around but that we have been abundantly blessed with family and friends and good fortune. Postponing our return to Dos Cabezas until Sunday morning, we were enjoying such a relaxed Saturday at the Artist’s cousin’s Phoenix home, in fact, that I decided to steal away by myself for an hour to Books on 7th Avenue.

 


Whenever I first find my way to a treasure island of used books, it takes a while for my initial excitement to subside into the calmer mood necessary for discovery. Excitement in this case was heightened before I even made my way through the door, as there on the FREE cart outside I found a book for my Western collection, a public library discard copy of The Civil War in the American West, by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. Once indoors, I quickly came upon A Clash of Cultures: Fort Bowie and the Chiricahua Apaches, a tragic story set in Cochise County, and The Cattlemen, by Mari Sandoz, the latter without a dust jacket but definitely important enough in my eyes to purchase.





 

Happy with three additions to my growing home library on the West and Southwest, I explored other aisles and found other treasures, including a book for the Artist, one for our host, one for a friend back in Michigan, and two on French literary history for myself. Reluctantly but happily, I stopped with those eight and felt amply rewarded. 

 

What was it that the Chinese fortune cookie foretold for me back in 1986? “Your path will be arduous but amply rewarded.” I carried the little slip of paper with me for years and carry it still in memory.

 

 

We Get Letters – and Books!

We returned to the ghost town on Sunday, January 16. The Artist had not seen the cabin since January 5, and I had left it on the morning of the 8th. Expecting mail and not knowing how long we would be absent, I imposed on a neighbor to collect mail from our box down the road, and on Monday morning she brought the week’s haul. (Another neighbor brought food enough to take care of us for days!)

 

I love mail!!!

Almost all the letters included condolences for loss of Peasy but had been written before anyone had heard of our subsequent trials. Still, how good to get news from faraway friends and to be assured of their love and good wishes for us.

 

A friend in Kalamazoo sent me books, a large one on horses (!) and two paperback volumes of Rousseau’s Confessions. I have already dipped into Volume I of Rousseau, but the Artist and I are both more than eager to read the novel (copy inscribed to the Artist) by a writer we met years ago, when I copyedited his first book, a volume of short stories called The Wild Upriver. Jim McVey’s new book, Loon Rangers, like the first, is graced by a David Grath image on its cover, and I am confident that the story will transport us to the wild outdoors that Jim knows so well. Anticipation is yet another delight in the life of readers.

 




Thoughts of Peasy

One friend wrote that it seemed we had “found peace” with our decision to bid farewell to Peasy. Another hoped we were not “harboring guilt.” Most all understood the difficulty of the decision. At least one sent hugs. 

 

When I first posted about little Pea’s leave-taking and wrote about how much we had given him and the gift I felt he was in our lives, I meant every word, but I must say that I have yet to “find peace” with the decision or the good-by. It was, I know, the most “responsible” decision. And yet – our little dog boy was so full of life and joy, and the house and car and the vast range around the cabin are resoundingly empty without his presence. Despite all the anxiety he caused us, he was also a comfort in many ways. The other day I said to David that if by some miracle (and it would be, too!) we could have our practically perfect Sarah back with us, my heart would still ache for Peasy. Bless him -- he understood.

 

 And Yet, Gratitude, Of Course!

 

We two could not be more blessed with family and friends and, as I said above, good fortune. We have each other – certainly not anything to take for granted after the past week and a half! Out of medical limbo, we are once again looking forward, and that feels good.


We are alive and together!!!

But also, not to trivialize human life, there is that ever-present absence these days. The Artist and I have been fortunate in having had the opportunity to love and be loved by three dogs in the past three decades [I had to correct the time period there!], each with a different personality and all with permanent places in our hearts, so I’m sure the heartache I feel now for Peasy will subside in time to something gentler and happier. Just now, though, in the light of life’s brief candle, I am grateful for the understanding of anyone who has ever known and loved a difficult dog, because even a “dog with issues” is so much more than his issues and the difficulties he presents. 


Our sweet, clueless little Pea


Finally, Books Read Since January 1, 2022

 

1. Burke, Shannon. Into the Savage Country (fiction)

2. Flaubert, Gustave. Un Coeur Simple (fiction)

3. Paley, Grace. Fidelity (poetry)

4. Qoyawayma, Polingaysi (Elizabeth Q. White), as told to Vada F. Carlson. No Turning Back: A Hopi Indian Woman’s Struggle to Live in Two Worlds (nonfiction)

5. Green, Ben K. A Thousand Miles of Mustangin’ (nonfiction)

6. Doerr, Anthony. Cloud Cuckoo Land (fiction)

 

Friday, January 14, 2022

Much Too Much (Happening)

View from Paradise Valley to Four Peaks in the distance


A friend from Leelanau County, Michigan, called me a few days ago. I forget what day it was. She had been looking for a new post on this blog, and when nothing appeared she began to worry. What was going on? Were we all right? What a loyal blog reader! The thing is (I told her), I hadn’t wanted to put our family news out publicly until we were “out of the woods” and had answers to all the inevitable questions. In the midst of so much waiting and uncertainty, that was part of my way of dealing with things.

 

…Each morning comes along and you assume it will be similar enough to the previous one—that you will be safe, that your family will be alive, that you will be together, that life will remain mostly as it was. Then a moment arrives and everything changes.

 

-      Anthony Doerr, Cloud Cuckoo Land

 

So here is what happened in our lives.

 

 

The Ordeal (or, Life Throws Another Unexpected Curve Ball)

 

Exactly a week after we bid an emotional farewell to Peasy in the morning and then had a last conversation with a dear friend the same night -- Wednesday to Wednesday, that is -- Fate ambushed us again. The Artist, a.k.a. David, woke without feeling in his left hand, and when I asked if he could lift that arm over his head, he could not. So as soon as we could hastily pull our clothes on and get out to the car (he was able to walk to the car, which was a good sign), we were on the road to the emergency room of the little hospital in Willcox, Northern Cochise Community Hospital (NCCH). Before we even arrived, David was regaining feeling and use of his left hand and arm, and the first word to me out in the waiting room was further cause for relief. The relief was short-lived, however, as more tests that same day revealed a serious blockage in his right carotid artery, bad enough that the ER doctors did not want him leaving the hospital. 

 

Everyone knows hospitals are overcrowded these days (with COVID patients) as well as understaffed (partly for the same reason), so it was no surprise that he could not be moved to a regular room at NCCH. None was available. Nor was it a surprise that Tucson Medical Center (TMC), where the ER docs at NCCH wanted to send him, had no available beds, either. So he lay in the ER where he started from Wednesday morning until Friday night. The transfer then, by ambulance, was to St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix – more specifically (and miraculously), to the world-class Barrow Neurological Institute, where on the following Monday morning he went into surgery for a carotid endarterectomy. 


Good message!

At no time did David have any blurred vision or mental confusion. Speech was unaffected. His wicked sense of humor and quick thinking were and remain intact. When he was released on Wednesday, I was able to bring him back to the cousin’s house, where we could stay in the guest suite together. (Jim, the cousin, also has a wicked sense of humor.) So we were very, very fortunate in more ways than one, i.e., 

 

o  The stroke was a mild one.

 

o  We got him to the hospital within the hour.

 

o  Staff at NCCH were diligent in their testing, and the doctor there told us plainly that he should not leave to go home just because he was feeling better.

 

o  The next shift ER doctor at NCCH somehow managed to get David into St. Joseph in Phoenix – and not only St. Joe but the Barrow Neurological Institute, a world-class teaching and research hospital. 

 

o  I was able to stay with David’s relatives and eventually bring David back here, too.

 

o  The surgeon who performed the procedure was Dr. Michael Lawton, “head honcho” of Barrow. (David’s cousin and wife and their friends could hardly believe he was able to get into Barrow from Willcox – and so fast! – and to have Lawton as the surgeon had their heads spinning.)

 

o  I was able to be with David (no small matter in these COVID days!) in his double room over the weekend and in pre-op, recovery, and in the ICU Tuesday, in addition to his private room on Wednesday while we waited for his discharge (always a long drawn-out affair, as many of you know).

 

 

So all in all, if he had to have a stroke, this one may have been a blessing, revealing as it did a blockage that might well have caused a much more severe stroke if left untreated. And if he had to have major surgery so far from our Michigan home and friends, having it done in a world-class hospital, by a world-class surgeon, was a miraculous piece of good fortune. Finally, as if that weren’t enough good luck, he now has had the luxury of very comfortable recovery time here in Jim and Carol’s home before we undertake the long return drive to our ghost town cabin, which is a little over 15 miles from the little hospital in Willcox and over 200 miles from Phoenix.

 

 

The Different Week We Lived

 

Generally speaking, we are (to use the Artist’s phrase) “joined at the hip” all winter long during our seasonal retirement. It is rare that one of us goes somewhere without the other, and three hours is about the longest separation we experience even then.

 

This past week was completely different from our usual way of life, winter or summer. David was flat on his back for eight days, in two different hospitals and, between hospitals, in an ambulance. Meanwhile, I commuted between Dos Cabezas and Willcox, then trekked to Phoenix, and then commuted between Paradise Valley and St. Joseph Hospital. While I was by myself, navigating unfamiliar streets and heavy traffic in a strange big city, David was being asked his date of birth multiple times a day, subjected to sophisticated diagnostic tests, and monitored every minute. His attempts at sleep were fraught. My nighttime situation could not have been more comfortable, from a physical point of view. Of course we were in contact by cell phone and spent as much time together as possible, most of it waiting for one thing or another to happen.


Strategizing my route

Another sunset from the hospital parking garage


One thing about traveling separate daily roads was that we had a lot to tell each other when together. On Sunday (since nothing much was going to happen that day), I took an afternoon break from the hospital, giving David’s cousin Jim a chance to visit, and I went a short distance away to the Heard Museum, “world's preeminent museum for the presentation, interpretation and advancement of American Indian art….” What a fabulous place! The Art was beautifully displayed, and I didn’t even try to see everything. Sometimes I didn’t even read the information but only stood in front of a work and let its power move me.

Sculpture group outside Heard Museum, Phoenix

If the Artist and I were here in Phoenix for other reasons and both of us feeling tip-top, we would be visiting galleries and museums and bookstores galore, but such was not the case this trip.

 


Reading

 

The Artist’s cousin’s wife, Carol, is a champion reader, beside whom I feel like the rankest of amateurs. She not only keeps lists of all the books she reads but writes up an entire journal page for each book. (She is also a wonderful cook and gardener and sits on many civic boards and committees. A superwoman, in other words.) The first evening I was here, she brought an entire bag of books to my room that she had finished reading and was passing along to me, and by the next day four more books were stacked next to the bag, one being Cloud Cuckoo Land

 

It isn’t often that I am reading a book on the New York Times bestseller list, as I’m frequently years or even decades behind the rest of my fellow book-loving Americans, and in that context I have to admit that I have yet to read Anthony Doerr’s previous bestseller, All the Light We Cannot See. But Cloud Cuckoo Land has been the perfect book for me to lose myself in off and on during the past week. The time span of the story is incredible, and we are not simply flashing back and forward in a single country or family, but hopping from one country to another and even into a future far beyond our own, with a complicated cast of apparently unrelated “main” characters. The only link seems to be the Greek story of Ulysses. 

 

“Stranger, whoever you are, 

open this to learn what will amaze you.”

 

Will Zeno and Anna and Konstance and Seymour and Omeir all be somehow saved by books? By stories? At about the midway point in this 626-page novel, I cannot presume to guess, but I can tell you that these characters have been good company for me during a time of anxiety in my own life.





Monday, January 3, 2022

The Practice of Grief



Humans and Dogs

 

The very next morning after we said goodbye to our beloved little Peasy, a much-beloved human friend of ours took leave of this earthly life. We knew it was going to happen and had spent as much time as possible with her during the beautiful Michigan autumn of 2021, laughing, reminiscing, and also seriously plumbing life’s deepest mysteries – in short, having the kind of conversations one has with a close friend of many years. She had been through a decade of cancer treatments and had outlived her physicians’ expectations for her threefold, but now she was ready to go, and we had to continue to be understanding and supportive and strong for her. She had been through enough. It was a cruel twist of fate that had taken her own little dog from her only two months earlier.

 

Melanie called our weekly meetings in the fall “our special Sundays,” and we had five of them altogether. The Artist was with us for two of them, as he and Melanie had a special friendship dating back to the year her mother was dying (and died) of cancer, and David helped listen and talk her through that hard time. Melanie and I, on the other hand, when by ourselves, talked of family and friendship matters but also spent a lot of our time together talking about dogs.

 

“I think it’s harder when a dog dies than when a human does,” Melanie said to me one Sunday, “but you can get over losing a dog faster.” It broke her heart to lose Lulu, but even with Stage IV cancer and two broken legs, our dear Mel was seriously considering bringing another little dog into her life. And that was pure Melanie – always looking past present pain to future joy.



The only thing that got me over losing Sarah was adopting Peasy, so I think I know what Melanie was saying. Over time, the dogs we love tend to blend together in memory to a large extent, and taking a new dog into your heart crowds out the pain of having lost the one before, whereas one never really 100% “gets over” losing a family member or close friend, and the personalities of those individuals do not blur together over time. When I think of Annie or Linda or my grandmother, it is that person I want here at my kitchen table, sitting across from me, smiling and laughing and sharing stories. Melanie!

 

But there she was, only weeks away from the end, telling me that she thought it was “harder when a dog dies”! If she were here with me now, Melanie would not chide me for the grief I feel over Peasy but would understand it completely. A dog, after all, is an around-the-clock, constant companion. When you share your world with a dog, you are the sun and the moon to that animal. You never have to worry that the dog might have other plans for the day. He or she is there, rain or shine, whatever your mood.

 

 

Grief Practice

 

It is a new year.

The year 2021 brought countless deep losses for many people, not only us, and, as the Artist notes, at our time of life it is in the nature of things that friends will die. Another friend, blessedly (!) still alive in her 90s, made the suggestion the other day that perhaps grief is a practice. The way I heard her suggestion was understanding grief as a kind of meditation, with its own rituals, something we go to daily, like prayer.



Julia made her suggestion about grief as a practice after I had posted on Facebook a pencil sketch I’d done of Peasy. He was a beautiful, extremely photogenic dog, and I have a lot of photographs of him to use as models for sketches. Another friend (maybe the same day) shared the idea that grief is love that has nowhere to go, and that made sense to me, too. When the ones we love are alive, our love has their physical presence as its object. Now, with my little guy’s absence confronting me everywhere I look in the physical space around me, it is some comfort not only to look at photos of him but also to try to capture as many details as possible on paper with my pencils. The visual and tactile aspects of drawing give my love “somewhere to go” so that it doesn’t paralyze me. It is grief work. Soul work. 

 

Talk is a big part of the practice of grief, too. The Artist and I spend countless hours remembering friends no longer with us and also recalling the dear and beautiful and humorous aspects of our departed dogs. (“What do you miss about him most?” “The snuggling.” “Yeah, that was the best part.” “And his little ears, too.” The way his little rear end would wiggle with joy, since he had no tail to wag. The way he would run so proudly from one end of the house to the other with his squeaky lion.) We tell and retell stories of times spent with friends, as a way of keeping them with us. I also go back mentally, over and over, the meal menus of the “special Sundays” with Melanie: homemade muffins from my farmhouse kitchen; Polish sausage and sauerkraut from Bunting’s Market in Cedar, Indian food from NJ’s in Lake Leelanau, that fabulous “Figgy Piggy” sandwich from the New Bohemian Café; and Indian food again. Planning each Sunday meal helped to make those afternoons celebratory. And the Artist and I go over the conversations….

 

Talking often leads to crying, and crying is part of the value of the talk. There is no shortcut through grief, only the painful way through it, and the talk and the tears allow the feelings to be consciously and fully felt. Does that sound paradoxical? That a person could have “feelings” without feeling them? Think denying, repressing. Not a solution.

 

Talking and drawing invite grief to sit down next to me. I need to let myself feel the losses fully. On the social side, however, I am also forcing myself out to spend time in the world of other people rather than immersing myself in grief fulltime. Dropping out is no solution, tempting though it can be. -- In fact, quite honestly, it tempts me again and again, and I have to overcome it over and over….

 

 

Ambiguity and Dilemmas

 


I’m going to try to telescope and condense as much as possible other topics I wanted to cover in this post -- ambiguous loss, moral dilemmas, and negativity bias – so as not to exhaust readers’ patience or my own mental and emotional energy. 

 

Moral dilemmas,” the idea of them, is a large area of exploration and thought in the academic study of ethics in departments of philosophy. Some philosophers think moral dilemmas do not exist: there are only right and wrong choices, and if you don’t know what to do, you’re either not thinking clearly or trying to put one over on yourself. What world do these people live in? In my world, whether there are only two choices or half a dozen, sometimes there is no choice that comes without something to regret. 

 

“You had no choice,” people like to say, and yes, sometimes life decides for us, but other times we do indeed have to choose. “You did the right thing. You have nothing to regret.” Oh, yeah?

 

“Choosing under uncertainty” is also an area of study, not only in philosophy but also in economics. Well, aren’t we always? We repeatedly ask “What if?” questions. What if this or that consequence were to come about? Horrible! Need to avoid it! But what if it never would have? We cannot know.

 

A friend sent me an article on negativity bias (here is one article on negativity bias, though not the one my friend had copied and pasted into an e-mail to me) after I’d sent her one on ambiguous loss, and I’ll be reflecting on these ideas for quite a while. But putting them together, I wonder: can there also be ambiguous gains? I understand the idea that some losses are obvious and clear-cut, others hard to point to or recognize, but I’m wondering now if the same might not be true of gains and if it is negativity bias that gets in the way of our seeing ambiguous gains.

 

Deciding to end our young, happy, loving dog’s life out of concern for the safety of our human friends and family was a hard, hard call, and I would be lying if I were to say I am completely comfortable in thinking that I did “the right thing,” i.e., made the only ethical choice possible. It isn’t only that I miss Peasy dreadfully. It’s knowing how much he loved his life with us! His future was uncertain! Well, we “played it safe,” and he won’t injure anyone else in future (now that he has no future), but I can’t help the agony of second thoughts, the bleak, dark hours of wishing I had tried longer and harder and more wisely to rehabilitate him fully. Is that negativity? For me, I see it as trying to understand and to learn. 

 

Losing him was not an ambiguous loss. Damned obvious! What, though, about gains?




Pointing to the obvious gains of his presence in our life is easy (something about this, at least, is easy-Peasy!): the love we gave him and the love he gave us, all of it growing stronger and deeper all the time; the joy he took in being alive and in having a family and the joy we took in seeing him happy; satisfaction in being able to give shelter and security and a good life to the dear little creature. More ambiguous gains, perhaps, were the lessons we two human beings learned in being calm and patient and nonjudgmental. There were incidents of unacceptable behavior, but we never blamed our dog for what he couldn’t help. Can we carry this learning back into the world of other human beings? Should we try?

 

Now that he’s gone (and there is no getting him back again!), I don’t want to hear about all the horrible things that could have happened with him. None of those horrible things will happen now. It’s over. He’s gone. All I want to think about (if only I could control what comes into my mind! Because what keeps coming in are the second thoughts, the regrets!) is everything about my little dog-boy that was lovely, beautiful, cute, funny, sweet, joyful. His wonderful qualities were unambiguous.

 

So where am I now? Still alive, awash in ambiguity and uncertainty, gratitude and regret.

 

 

Books Read Since Last Listed

 

Here are the books I read in the last days of 2021:

 

174. Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl (nonfiction)

175. Benítez, Sandra. Bitter Grounds (fiction)

176. Charging Eagle, Tom & Ron Zeilinger. Black Hills, Sacred Hills (nonfiction)

177. Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (nonfiction)

178. Diffenbaugh, Vanessa. The Language of Flowers (fiction)

 

(In case you’re wondering, 174, 177, and 178 were all re-reads for me.)

 

The first things I’ve read in this new year have been:

 

1. Into the Savage Country, by Shannon Burke (fiction); and

2. Le Coeur Simple, by Gustave Flaubert (fiction)

3. Fidelity, by Grace Paley (poetry)

 

I had read none of these three books before. New year, new (to me) books. Onward and upward --



P.S. I hope at least some of this makes sense. I am not at the top of my game these days.