Harold the Handsome

Montpelier, VT. April 10, 2018

It’s Harold’s birthday. I have classes all day long. Therefore Harold – and Rosie- come to class. Jess laughs as the two dogs walk into the classroom ahead of me, tags jingling, tails wagging, off leash and free in an unfamiliar room. Kay, Riah, Lauren, Lindsey and Lindsay, Laura and Christa all call out the dogs’ names, wanting attention, giving attention. Happy dogs.

 

“He looks great,” they all say.

And he does. My ten-year-old boy looks great. Healthy skin, happy smiles, perky ears, tail wagging high and proud, that’s my boy. A collie and Husky mix by the looks of it. I’m here at grad school and it’s his birthday. I couldn’t leave them at home alone, not this birthday. I have to focus though, time to study and talk about writing so I plonk down my bag and pull out the water bowl and my notebook.

First though, Harold gets a bone. I’ve brought them both bones and they settle down in class, slurping and burping with tongues in the marrowbones, tails thumping softly on the floor.

He’s ten.

And he has cancer.

Cancer.
Yes, pets get cancer. I lost a cat, Kristie, to cancer a few years ago and it was hell. She took over my world and all I could do was lay around the home with her on me, wherever or whenever I stopped moving, she lay on me. And I’d truly stop. Pet her, read, or just daydream with her soft sad purrs rumbling through my body and hers.

Cancer.
Yes, Harold looks great. Harold has cancer.

Now what? Now what. I don’t know.

Okay, backtrack. He’d been into the vets for a sore bum, antibiotics, and a return in ten days. “What’s this?” the vet had asked. She held his mouth open to show a red growth in his front teeth, behind his teeth really, soft tissue, bulbous, and new. I shook my head. She touched it but he didn’t flinch at all.

“Let’s keep an eye on it. That was too fast for my liking.”

A month later, I drop him off at the vet for the lump to be removed, a biopsy performed. The vet was worried; it had grown more in the weeks. I was terrified. My car was broken down, and I had to get a friend from college to take us there. I took both dogs, Rosie the happy youngster, and Harold, quieter than usual. Kerry made jokes, kept me distracted and stayed with Rosie when I took Harold inside.

“I’ll need to you to sign a waiver.”
“What for?”

“If something should happen under anesthetic, do you want us to perform CPR or is it a DNR?”
“CPR,” I blurted and burst into tears.

I wanted to throw up. Harold was brave but confused when I walked away.

He’s not been kenneled, or left at a vet, or really, away from me. We’re together most days, and this broke me to leave him there. An unfamiliar vet in a town we’d moved to only months before.

A week later, the phone call comes early one morning. It’s cancer. The kind that doesn’t spread to other places in his body. It’s not likely to, that’s what I heard the vet say. Also that the biopsy didn’t have clean edges, so that means it’s still in his mouth, in his jaw, and is likely to come back.

“We’ll take care of it then, a more aggressive surgery if you like. But let’s wait and see.”

And that is all I know. I’ve tried looking up this cancer online but get overwhelmed so quickly. I can’t look.

I’ve told my friends here, at home in New Mexico, and in England.

“He looks great.”
And I feel guilty, as if I’ve made it up. Or that he should look and act a certain way. And it breaks my heart and I love my boy so much. Ten years together. Through the death of my own mum, the death of Gran, Viv, of so many friends, and he’s been there. My boy. We’ve done so much together over the last ten years.

Santa Fe, NM, May 2008

“What’s his name?” I pointed at the shy little black and white pup in the far corner. The one with his head turned away from his siblings, all running and barking and demanding attention. The one fluffy little bugger hid, half covered in puppy poop and ears flopped, tail tucked, a small little seven week old Collie mix.

“Harold,” said the adoption counselor. “He’s not so friendly. Too shy for his own good. Sensitive.”
“Can I meet him?”

She shrugged and climbed into the pen to grab the fella. I remember grinning. I remember holding him and how we looked into each others’ eyes. I remember holding him in my arms, there in the corridor, and how he nestled his nose into my armpit, whimpered, sniffed deeply, and fell asleep.

I remember you, Harold. You’re still such a sensitive soul.

Montpelier,Vermont, April, 2018

I race out of class. Every moment I’m not busy, I want to be near my boy. I pack up my books, don’t linger, and powerwalk down the hill back home. I will load him up in the truck and with Rosie, we will go for a walk in the trees. Is there anything else but trees? He’s a happy boy when I show up, jingle keys, and the three of us race down the stairs and into the Toyota. The sun’s out, rare here, and I have to make the most of it. Compulsion. Focus.
There’s nothing like a health scare to change a focus.

At school, everyone now asks about Harold. He’s a dog, I say, a happy begging dog. And that makes me happy. I’m so touched that everyone cares and asks after him. Rosie and Harold come to the library together and hang out with me, easy and welcome as they behave so well in there. I’m blessed.
And now it’s time for another walk in the rain. My pups. My heart.

Cape Cod, April 2018.

Thanks to Airbnb, I had a chance to get out of town. Five hours drive to Cape Cod but it was so worth it. My happy place is either on the empty coast or in the desert mountains. Both give that sense of space, openess, I’m a speck of sand and the world carries on without me: perfect.

We stopped at a beach. Doors open. Dogs run. Rosie hides in the sand dunes. Harold flies full speed along the beach, chasing birds with tail and tongue flapping. Full pelt. Unlike anything in Vermont, we’re free. No leash required, at least not right now in April. The beach is empty, they are all were. We went to so many, I can’t remember the names, and we were only there for a few days. The coast nearest Boston had the most signs saying, NO DOGS but Rosie peed on the posts and carried on. I took photos.

Harold tired out earlier than he used to, I’m putting it down to age not the c-word. We’ve not been staying fit in Montpelier, we can’t. Too contained. I can’t bitch about it there as my friends get defensive, protective of their chosen homes, and so I shut up.
This though, a beach, small villages, friendly people, open skies, running free, sun and rain, this is home to me. I could live here. Probably not in July and August but if I could be there during the off-season, I’d love it. The solitude. Space. My eyes relax. Body energised. Dogs happy. I’m happy.

Madrid, NM. October 2018.

Six Months later, the tumor comes back. I have to think about what kind of person I am. Will I do anything to prolong his life? At any cost to me or to him? No. Will I do what I can? Yes. But the choices I have to make, or probably have to make, are dragging me down, overwhelming me. It’s not the kind of thing you can ask others to make for you, the life and death decisions.
I’m online, on forums, support groups, wrestling with the options, and listening to strangers talk about their own processes.
Yesterday, Harold went in for another biopsy. The vet took as much of the tumor as she could see. The hope is for clear margins. A benign cancer diagnosis.
In the meantime, I have to accept that mortality is waking us up. Me up. Make every day count. That’s been the best advice so far. There are practical suggestions that I’m taking on board. Changing his diet to cut out carbs as cancer feeds off sugar – apparently. So if his food can slow down their regrowth, I’ll do it. CBD oil? I’m looking into it. Radiation and chemo? Aggressive surgery? No, we won’t go there. Quality of life is more important.

With this in mind, I feed him and Rosie a breakfast of ground beef, red cabbage, and green beans in a broth. They love it. Tails wag. Eyes beg for more. The fire flickers in the stove. Rain and snow beats against the window. The local radio plays in the background. The pups nap.

That’s enough.

 

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The Understory: my first few months in New England.

How to accept limited physical horizons and expanding creative ones.

The fridge: I’m seriously considering unplugging the fridge.

What can I say? It’s too loud. After twenty-five years spent in the Southwest, I crave silence. I miss those horizons as broad as the Pacific Ocean. I miss sticking my nose in the bark of a juniper tree in New Mexico and taking a big whiff of vanilla. I miss striding across the Ortiz Mountains with my two dogs roaming free through pinons, cacti, junipers and jackrabbits. Millions of acres all around, the sun overhead, and a dry desert heat that relaxes the muscles like a good massage: I miss my home. I miss sitting on the bench overlooking the Rio Grande valley with the ticking of a wrist watch and the distant paw prints the only sounds soothing me.

However, I’m in Vermont. A place of

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions,  poison sumac and poison ivy.

I’ve moved 2415 miles across country for a two-year MFA Writing and Publishing program. In New Mexico, I’d gone as far as I could as a writer on my own: Wide open landscapes and limited writing opportunities. Since coming to graduate school, my creative world has expanded in ways I’d barely dreamt of. My physical world though has shrunk like a badly fitting bra. Why does it have to be one or the other? Is it possible to create a life with such an expanse both creatively and physically? Truly be part of a literary world with room to fly in my mind and also on foot?

The Southwest is known both as the Land of Enchantment and Land of Entrapment. It takes you in or kicks you out. So they say. For me, New Mexico became a home. A place of firsts. First (and last) full-time job, it lasted a few months but hey, I tried. First girlfriend. First home of my own. First marriage. First divorce. First dog. First published book. You get the idea.

In New Mexico, when not writing at home, I took Harold and Rosie, my dogs, out in the beat-up old 4Runner I’d called Faith. We’d drive into the Jemez Mountains, Sangre de Christos, or head across Rio Grande valley, exploring dirt roads, back roads, empty roads. Apparently, that’s my happy place, in barren empty open land with a campfire, warm sleeping bag and a cup of tea. With no agenda, no deadlines, those roads took me places that few dare explore, not many people like to be too far from villages and people, too far comfort, theirs not mine that is. Out there, in the middle of nowhere/ everywhere, my sprawling imagination filled with stories and I strode free and at ease being alone in millions of acres of high desert and few people. Grass was bitter on my tongue and dandelions created a salad of fresh memories, as I discovered edible plants along rivers and in meadows. Incredible sunsets and sunrises thrilled me each day, as did watching storms build over distant mountains, smelling the snow coming in November. It was home to me.

I miss my home.

I’ve moved to a world that feeds me on creative and academic levels and starves me on others. I’m struggling here. Graduate school is demanding so much of me on all fronts. The question is this, can I make this work? And why does it lock me down so badly to see only trees and no horizons beyond a mile away? My work is with words yet I can’t find the words to explain this extreme reaction to such a constrained environment as Vermont. I remind myself daily:

I’m here to become a better writer.

To create a career and community.

I put the laptop away. It’s been another productive morning, coffee, walk dogs, and then another few chapters in the new novel, On her Feet. It had needed more tension, risks, conflict: I’d mistaken surprise for suspense. Yes, a productive morning. Pretty satisfying.

I pack Harold and Rosie, my two dogs, in the truck. It’s time to get out of town for a drive, find a meadow, trail, or pond where we can throw off the straight-jacket of small town life. Montpelier crowds in me with sounds of traffic on Hwy 14 a mile away, with the buzz of construction, conversations, electricity, and it’s like sticking my head in the rinse cycle in the washer in our damp basement, paying for the privelege, two dollars at a time.  Is this why my stories have turned dark and twisted, full of the unexpected? Is this what I have to do to write such absurd and strangely fantastical fiction? To confine the physical in order to release the imagination?

Sod it, time for a drive.

The Green Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountain Chain, run north to south in Vermont for 160 miles with four peaks of over 4,000 feet,  a spine holding together for this dense state. The forest closes in, thick branches fold overhead to form a tunnel along this winding country road as we drive towards Lake Champlain. Rain beats down on this summer’s afternoon and the wipers slap side to side. The sound of wet tires on paved roads pokes at my patience, already as worn as my favorite shirt with ripped seams and not at its prettiest. The weather turns even darker or is it the bloody trees? The signs are hidden by thick heavy branches. Traffic backs up behind me, breaking at my NM plates to give me the Look, too polite to give me the finger. Rain thumps on the roof. The wipers swoosh over and over. I snap at Rosie for sitting on Harold’s tail. When I reach for them to apologise, they cringe and stare out the windows quietly. We come out of the forest finally and follow a few softly rounded hills the locals call mountains.

The horizon broadens out to a mile at most. Briefly. The landscape opens up across  fields of corn or grass, with hints of ponds flickering and reflecting in the distance. I pull over at what looks like a trailhead:

NO TRESPASSING

Fuck it. The dogs lean away from me. Cursing, I drive off, tension like body odor filling the Toyota relentlessly. We’re back in the woods:

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions, poison sumac and poison ivy.

Claustrophobia refers to a fear of closed spaces. What would be the opposite? A fear of open spaces? Or a liking of closed spaces? Or a liking of open spaces? The thesaurus offers manias, phobias, and philias. So would it be agoraphobia? Agoracomes from old Greek for open spaces, although it originally meant market places. Was it then more suitable for a fear of crowds and groups of people instead of open land? So then would a liking of open space be called agoraphilia? Nope, that apparently refers to being sexually aroused in public. Not quite what I’m looking for. Not exactly the turned on state that applies for me right now. It’s not that I’m a prude, more like a prune. Kinda shut down in that department to be honest, this isn’t a juicy time in my life.

Finally, I pull over at Mirror Pond not far from Montpelier. The rain has finally stopped. No one is around. The parking lot is empty. The signs proclaim: No camping, No dogs, and No swimming. The Fish and Game folks keep these beaches for fishing and boating and nothing else unless you’re lucky enough, rich enough, to own a camp on the waterfront. How many of us do? It doesn’t help that State Parks also have huge signs across their gates, no dogs permitted anywhere near the lakes. I’m not usually a violent woman but I could punch a snowman.

This is not a dog friendly place,Vermont.

Rosie is an Akita/ Lab mix, six years old, energetic, and tops fifty pounds. Harold is an older boy of sixty pounds, Husky/ Collie mutt, and a sensitive soul. Walking the dogs on leashes around Montpelier three times a day is no life for them, after having spent their lives on thousands of acres, free to roam at will. This is a challenge for them as much as it is for me. A marathon runner told to skip to the traffic lights and back would be just as unhappy as Harold and Rosie.

There’s a narrow dirt road to the right of Mirror Pond that few drive down so I let the dogs off leash and we explore. The trees loom overhead, they practically throw themselves into the pond to drown. Harold races to the water and drinks as Rosie slams her body into a warm wave, taking off, free finally, she grins back at me. I drop my shorts, slip off sandals and dive in next to her. Harold guards the beach and Rosie and I swim along the tree-lined pond. The sun peaks out from behind the ever present clouds. But then a ranger shows up and parks next to Harold.

The fun is over.

We drive off with a warning. Not the first. We’re getting a reputation as trouble-makers in this land of constraint.

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions, poison sumac and poison ivy.

Vermont: Six million acres of which 4.5 million are forested.

New Mexico: 77.6 million acres of which 16.7 acres are forested.

Just thinking about all that open space I know so well, have explored for decades, it makes me cry. I’m going fucking crazy here. We drive home through the Green Mountains.

Sugar maple, beech, birch, poplar, and many kinds of evergreens, wildflowers such as trillium, bunchberry, lily, paintbrush, violets, orchids, black-eyed Susans, asters, clover, mushrooms, ferns, balsam fir, spruce, cedar, hemlock, mountain ash, white birch, blueberry, lichen, dandelions, poison sumac and poison ivy.

 If I scream in the woods, does anyone care? Or can I bring my weed-wacker and chainsaw, happy with my mad Englishwoman kind of contained crazy, mowing down the whole bloody state, cackling and singing aloud?

Back home in town, I feed the pups and change into clean jeans and shirt. Even as hard as it is to be in a small city that’s not my home, I remind myself how I’d needed to broaden my world. In Vermont, or more importantly, at this graduate school, I am in a world of other writers and artists, it’s all we talk about. It’s all we do. I’m hungry for it. I’m ravenous. I fill my days with words instead of walks. Head down, glasses on, books out, time to play with words. Is it enough though?
The dogs have claimed the sofa. Harold is curled up tight. Rosie sprawls with belly up. I make a cup of tea. Time for a little research? Yeah, why not, I have time and so I pull out the laptop again.

Am I the only one who needs to name everything she experiences? What would the word or term be for this physical reaction to a limited horizon? It’s funny how hard it is to find a term for this need to be in the empty (barren) outdoors. Various forums, both etymological and psychological, offer a term that seems to fit: Kenomania. It comes from the Greek word of ceno(keno) meaning empty. A mania is a strong liking or a need. Together then kenomania tells of a strong desire to be in open empty places away from people.

Yep. That’s it.

It’s not helping though. I still can’t breathe. How do I stay sane enough to last for the whole two-year program?

Focus on writing.

Focus on learning.

Focus on finding a community.

Write. Every day. Write.

Yes.

Knowing why I’m here in Vermont helps me, keeps me focused on getting as much as possible out of college and writing community but I’m still a bit of a mess. (Understatement.) I might shatter. I’m scared to stay buried alive in my body as my mind flies free.

I turn off the computer and stare out the window; trees and buildings surround my apartment building. Fuck.

Shaking off a desire to hide in bed, I grab my bag and notebook. There’s an event tonight at the college: Three visiting writers are reading from their work, two poets and a novelist, there will be wine and cheese, conversations and community.

After emptying and then unplugging the fridge, I stride up hill to the college to be around other writers. It’s enough for now.

 

 

Flash Fiction: I Don’t Notice

I don’t notice my dog growing old,

the way his eyes are cloudy

or how his hips stiffen up and how

hard it can be to stand up.

I don’t notice how he falls

down the stairs in the

dark or how he stumbles

when he leaps across a

small creek or how he struggles

to jump up into the truck.
I don’t notice when he doesn’t

join me in bed during the night

prefering to stay on the

couch alone with an old bone.

I don’t notice when he’s still

there in the early morning

and I put the kettle on, trying not

to panic, watching him for a

tail wag or an open

eye or something

anything.

Please breathe

Please wag

For me

For us

I’m not ready

And he opens his eyes and I notice how he lights up seeing me next to him on the couch with my mug of coffee starting the day together like any other.

IMG_20180517_204905_832

Craft: Writing Prompts

Writing prompts for specificity.

Exercises in specificity:

Use a simple sentence,  eg. Ken was angry.

Ask HOW SO? Write with more details, eg. Ken snapped at the cashier.

Ask WHY? Discover why he’s so angry, eg. Ken snapped at the cashier in the cashmere sweater that looked like the one his wife had dropped off at the Goodwill last month.

The goal is to get more specific for each emotion, show it in action and the cause. Be more detailed. Find the unique story behind your intial statement. Find the strangeness, idiosyncracy, empathy and troubles.Let that one sentence take you somewhere unexpected.

Writing Prompts: For each of the following sentences, expand until a story comes out that feels complete and full of such details.

– Kendra was angry.

– Mick was disturbed.

– Rodney saw no way out.

– Tarik felt alive.

Start with one of the above examples and rewrite for 10 minutes.

If doing this at home alone, pick one line that lingers from your rewrite. Come back to it another day and add another three sentences.

If in a classroom, everyone writes up a sentence of theirs onto a scrap of paper, scrunch it up and put it in a hat, container.

Pick one out, read it aloud, then all freewrite three sentences from same first line. Share.

Why do we do this? It’s a great lesson in developing characters and scenes. So, freewriting is playful, generative, and amazing to see how we all imagine and explore in our own ways. The best part for me was seeing how in class we all took the line given and how our imaginations took such unique and individual paths.

 

 

 

Limbo

Ungrounded yet camping. Sleeping in a truck yet I’m paying for the flat in town. Essays written and needing to be rewritten. Editing. Prose and poems combined. Campfires. Sleepy foggy mornings. Cat on a pillow. Cat in a tree. Cat out and about. Cat back for dinner. Dogs play sleep nap sleep eat play nap sleep deep. Dog on a pillow. Purring cats. Guilt at not working enough. Never enough. I need to let myself take time off, play nap sleep eat come back for dinner. I’m driven. Furiously working inside my head if not on the computer. Taking in ideas, gaining momentum, hungry for conversations to help me grow as a writer and as usual wanting more than is here in front of me. Dog on a pillow. Cat on my head. Waking up in a truck by a river in the fog needing coffee wanting to write but nothing to say beyond how this summer is different when the sun shines and you have goals and you get to laugh and play by rivers with friends in the muggy heat and full belly and it’s time for a nap but instead I do laundry and think about critical theory in my sleep.

Twenty-one Days to Change a Habit

Flash Fiction:

Can I go twenty one days? It seems like an awfully long time. I thought about three weeks and what it means, not as Mr Gerard Faulkner wanted me to consider it (as a time to respond the changes in the condo association ordinances number 201:45B and 201:45C) but as a dry time. I sat there at the new neighborhood monthly maintenance meeting at the up and coming golf club restaurant with a pint in hand, listening and throwing in my two cents worth, that is – not much–but I was speaking up every so often so my neighbors thought I cared as much as they do but I don’t. I don’t. I have to show up or I’ll have them screech to a halt on their way home down the cul-de-sac past the gatekeeper’s original home which is now my home and I’m no gatekeeper by any sense. I can’t be bothered and so I’m not bothered except I am but I don’t say anything because like I told you I don’t want them to stop and yell as me as I sit in my front yard sniffing my family heirloom roses as if the new development hadn’t magically appeared after Mom and Dad died. I’d sold the farm for a good price not thinking I’d miss the fields or the view of the Lindon Hills over past Mrs. Jarrod Hunkers place half a mile a way but I do miss them, Mom and Dad, and the farm and the fields, and the view and even Mrs. Jarrod Hunhkers who’s never forgiven me and neither have I and so I drink to keep it all in and I drink to shut up and I drink to be social and what would happen if I stopped?

The Bus Ticket

Her eyes lit up. Blue. Pale. Her skin was dirty, skin weathered, chin sunburnt, and a huge genuine smile that broke you open again. Again. Linda, you’d chatted a few times on Main Street over the months. Her and the backpack, talking of camping in the park out of sight. “I’ll be alright, won’t I?” she’d asked and you’d said yes. You think she was.

You waved at her this morning. She was walking slowly up State, the farmers’ market out in force. She stopped at your voice. She lit up seeing you. You chatted, glad she was okay. Then she asked you for money for a supposed ticket. Instinct kicked in and you said “no, I can’t help.”

But you gave her $3.25 in quarters from your front pocket.

“I’m going home to my mom. I need to catch the bus today, that’s what she said. She worries about me for some reason.”

“They do that,” you joked.

You talked about how much the bus ticket was – $35, how much she needed – $8 total, and perhaps she could ask at the market? Feeling shy today, she muttered.

She again asked for your help. You lied. You fucking lied to her.

In your back pocket was $25 in cash. You never have cash. You’d just bought and eaten a fresh ham and cheese croissant for $4.50. She’d only asked for another $5 for a ticket home to her mom and you’d lied? For fuck’s sake, Sleam. You chatted a bit more, crossed the road together and then she walked to the bus stop anyway.

You walked away.

The sun beat down.

Hot day ahead.

Your cool apartment.

Fans blurring the edges.

Fridge full.

Cash in pocket.

Croissant crumbs on your tee shirt.

And

You’d lied to Linda.

You walked around Bear Pond Bookstore, tempted by another collection of essays that you don’t need. You walked out. Linda sat on a concrete bench in the shade of an Ash tree, stretching out one leg, pack at her feet. You called her name and gave her a fiver.

Her face lit up. You chatted together. Again.

You walked away, crying. You? You… No, me, but you knew that, right? Yes.

I had lied to Linda.

Wishing her a safe trip home, I turned home and began to cry again because I’m so fucking angry at the world and life and me me me and for fuck’s sake, someone asked for help and you didn’t want-that is, I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone and I couldn’t shut down and so my heart broke again and I cried. I am now. I’ve been there: Broke. Homeless. Reaching out. And helped by strangers for their own reasons.

Linda gets to see her mom.

I wish I could see mine one more time.