Poor Thanksgiving

If I had a blog, today I would write about the sadness I feel for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Almost Home

Almost Home

I have always felt sorry for Thanksgiving. The sad truth is: It is the bastard child of holidays; the act that precedes the glitz and glam of Christmas as well as the revelry of ringing in the new year. What is a holiday to do when its foundation is in contemplation, not commercialism? Try as they might, the ubiquitous “they” have not been able to turn Thanksgiving into a gift-giving holiday (yet) and I suspect that is why the single aisle dedicated to autumn decor is dwarfed by the countless aisles of toys, ornaments, trees, and prepackaged gifts as soon as the Halloween bric-a-brac is stored away. Aside from the appeal of sanctioned gorging, time off work, and endless televised sporting events, I imagine few would miss Thanksgiving if it disappeared from our calendars altogether. It is just another obstacle in the path to Christmas, and that, my friends, is truly a shame.

At this point, you may be thinking: “Wow, is she cynical or what?” and, I suppose, to a certain extent that is true. Forty-five holiday seasons rubbing my introversion the wrong way certainly shaped my perspective. But it isn’t just cynicism that drives my thoughts. It is also my empathy for the underdogs in life. I actually like the Christmas season a great deal, but I feel a need to give Thanksgiving its due. After all, don’t we owe it to our lives to look for the blessings and thank whatever gods may be for the goodness, however small, that exists in our lives on this one, special day.

My Owain

My Owain

This past year has been a hard one for my family. In the space of a few, short months lost the companionship of three dogs who had shared our lives for more than a decade each. The loss of Emma, Owain, and Hank makes the approach to the holidays a daunting task, but I remain determined to give thanks anyway. If, as I have written before, my heroines, Corrie and Betsy ten Boom, could find reasons to give thanks while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, I can do no less. My pain and grief are nothing compared to theirs and a lack of gratitude on my part would not only be be rude to The Universe, it would also fly in the face of the miracle Corrie and Betsy experienced in that darkest of  all dark places.

Hank

Hank

And so, on this most auspicious day, I give thanks that Hank, Emma, and Owain lived such long, happy lives and that those lives encompassed me and my family. I am thankful that, when the end came, we were able to help our companions slip the “surly bonds of earth” with dignity and make The Crossing without fear or pain. I am oh, so very thankful for Bree, the Great Pyrenees who still resides with us. Bree has risen to the challenge of being an only dog and now accompanies us to the barn twice a day, sleeps by Mom’s bed at night, and is a constant companion in all that we do. At the age of ten, Bree has taken on new life. Just a hint that we’re headed for the barn and she starts dancing in anticipation. No one can be sad in the face of such joy. I am also thankful for my four cats, my beautiful horse, Rain, and, of course, my human family as well. It has been a hard year, but the love we share is a balm to our aching hearts and I give thanks for that love every single day.

Emma

Emma

In closing, I will share with you a quote from Robert Fulghum, that, for me, captures the very essence of the love I wish for everyone this Thanksgiving Day: “I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge — myth is more potent than history — dreams are more powerful than facts — hope always triumphs over experience — laughter is the cure for grief — love is stronger than death.”

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Arwen’s Choice

If I had a blog, today I would write about living through grief.

Winter Sun Over Mockingbird Hill

Winter Sun Over Mockingbird Hill

Living through grief is a journey through shades of gray. After the first blackness, into which we plunge when we experience loss, the pain eases and we come to rest in a place somewhere between pain and joy. Days pass softly, without the demands of desire, the need for excitement, or the drive of creativity to shatter our cocoon. If life permits us to submit to this lassitude, I think it is part of the return from grief, the journey back to a bright and joyful life.

Since Owain’s death, I have struggled to do more than get out of bed in the morning. I do my chores, my office work, and even take my photographs, but there is no energy behind my daily round. I’m not devastated anymore, I just don’t want to “feel” right now. I find comfort in a life without peaks and valleys, where I work and rest, eat and sleep, and demand nothing more of my battered soul.

November Woods

November Woods

In The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien writes of Arwen Evenstar, immortal elf maiden, who fell in love with a mortal man and, instead of following her people to the Undying Lands, she stayed in Middle Earth with her beloved, King Aragorn. After Lord Aragorn’s death, Arwen returned to the now abandoned Elvish kingdom Lothlorien. Tolkien writes, But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star…she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien, and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came. Galadriel had passed away and Celeborn also was gone, and the land was silent.

There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.

We who choose to give ourselves to an animal make Arwen’s choice: We give our heart, the entirety of our love, to one who will, most likely, precede us in death by many years. We are willing to love completely, all the while knowing the passing of our beloved will, for a time, bring us pain.

The coming of winter is a mirror of my mood this year. I don’t believe I could survive the flash and dash of summer or face the coming of new life that happens in spring. Right now, I am as mellow as the pale sun shining in my window, as somber as the leafless trees. It feels good to follow the year as it winds down towards its end. Like the circle of the year, I will come back to color and light, but now I am comforted by the sense of finality that the end of the year brings. For now, I am happy living in shades of gray until the day I am ready to make Arwen’s choice and fall in love all over again.

BC’s Anonymous

Owain's FIrst Day at Home

Owain’s FIrst Day at Home

If I had a blog, today I would write about my secret addiction. They say the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, so here goes: I am addicted to border collies. When my fourteen year old BC, Owain, passed away a few weeks ago, I knew I would eventually get another dog, but I had no intention of getting another border collie. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t that life with a BC was unfulfilling, its just that these are seriously high-maintenance dogs. They are brilliant, energetic, and demand entertainment from everyone around them. I thought one small consolation to losing my dear Owain would be a quieter, simpler life where I could do things like watch TV without also playing catch, sit at the river without my dog asking for a running commentary on the sheer awesomeness of the hold he’d dug in the sand, or have breakfast without shouting, “Wow! You’re the man!” every time my furry friend chased off a flock of songbirds. I thought life would be easier that way, but boy, was I wrong.

Finding the First Leaf

Finding the First Leaf

It appears that once a BC has installed himself in your life and become your best friend, workmate, and entertainer, you simply can’t live without that glorious energy humming around your life. I know I am grieving for the individual who was Owain and regardless of what kind of dog I get, it won’t be him, but even in studying other breeds (labs, corgis, golden retrievers), nothing but a BC can fill the empty place in my heart.

Ordinarily the solution to my problem would be: Get a border collie, but our farm has changed since Owain came along and I worry he (or she) wouldn’t have enough to do. At present, the only livestock we have are five horses, two old Jersey cows, one ancient sheep, and an assortment of poultry. We might get back into sheep in a few years, but would that be soon enough? Would I be able to provide enough stimulation to satisfy a border collie’s startling intellect. If an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, then a border collie without a purpose is the inner ring of Dante’s Inferno.

Owain Working Sheep

Owain Working Sheep

So here’s the issue: Do I go with my feelings and look for the next BC of my dreams or do I wait? My thought is to approach this as I have all my animal friends: I will send out a request to the Universe and trust that when the time is right, a border collie will fall into my life. It has happened with all four of my cats and my horse, so there is a good precedent to work with. I will set my compass towards all things BC and follow the arrow as it flies from my heart.

The Ocean of Grief

If I had a blog, today I would write about grief.

By the Sea

By the Sea

Life is hard, often too hard. Losing a loved one to death is the hardest test we face. It is the price we pay for being human, and sometimes that price is too high. On October 20, we lost our border collie, Owain. Owain had shared our life for almost fourteen years and he was family. Owain’s intellect, his zest for life, and his boundless love made him as “human” as a dog can be. Owain not only shared our home, he was our partner in every moment of our lives. Whether we were working sheep, herding cows, playing at the river, or watching television, Owain was there – all day, every day for thirteen-and-a-half years. And now he is gone. My mind can’t seem to wrap itself around the fact that his absence is permanent; that until I make The Crossing myself, I will have to live without my most beloved friend.

Since Owain died, I feel as though I am afloat in an dark and perilous sea.  I am overwhelmed by endless waves of emotion that send me down into darkness; a darkness where I can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t tell which way is up and which way is down. At first I thought i could keep myself atop the waves, but strength died with hope and now I just let the sea do with me as it will. If I was a selfish person, I would simply breathe in the icy flow and become bones on the sea-floor, but there are people and animals who depend on me, so I will do my best to keep my head above water until my rescue comes.

My Owain

My Owain

Today I found a glimmer of hope, a fleeting glimpse of  the beams from a distant lighthouse; today, instead of talking to God, I talked to Owain. I told him how bereft I was, how sad and lonely and unbearable my life had become. I told him I didn’t know if I wanted to go on without his shining face to greet me and his boundless love to guide me. In the silence that followed my catharsis, I felt him. I felt Owain’s presence within me, filling a corner of the empty space his passing left behind and I considered the possibility my life might go on.

Though I am still at the mercy of the Ocean of Grief, there are moments when I feel hope; hope that one day I will see a shoreline and the high hill on which my lighthouse stands. Someday the waves of emotion will lap at my ankles, unable to pull me out to sea. Someday The Spirit of Owain will fill the hollow cavern in my heart and I will begin to live with joy again. Someday.

Until then, I will keep talking to my Mr. True, keep remembering the beauty he brought into my life and years of bliss we shared. Those memories will be my guiding light, the beam of hope that steers me through the reefs and back to safer shores.

Take Joy

If I had a blog, today I would reflect on the words of a 14th century monk named Fra Giovanni, that he wrote to a friend on Christmas 1513.

Owain - Our Mr. True

Owain – Our Mr. True

Life is hard. Some days too hard. Earlier this week we learned that our beloved border collie, Owain, has cancer. He is fourteen years old, well beyond the normal lifespan of his breed, and it has been a joy to travel the road of life with him from the day he came to us as a pup. Owain is family and his passing will bring many, many days of tears, but I am lifted up by the words of Fra Giovanni, who assures me that behind every trial is the hand of an angel, outstretched to lift us up until we can stand on our own two feet again. All the wonderful things in life are before us, offered freely, for those who have the courage to believe in the light when all the world grows dark.

For the moment, Owain is as happy and energetic as ever. He’s outside this morning, barking at the songbirds, his voice drowning out our breakfast conversation. Such things might seem an annoyance, but under these circumstances, Owain’s eccentricities are a joy. A few days ago, it seemed as though happiness had slipped through away forever. Sitting at the vet’s office, hearing the awful news, I couldn’t fathom how I could face the days to come, but then I read Fra Giovanni’s letter and I began to look beneath the veneer of gloom for even the smallest glimmer of hope – and I found it. My time with Owain may be shorter than I had hoped, but they can be good days, days of richness and depth of feeling that I can store in my heart forever. They will be my touchstones on days that are more difficult to bear.

We live as mortal beings, our days numbered from the hour of our birth. Mortality can be a curse or it can be a blessing; the choice is ours to make. If we are have the courage to set aside our fear and grief, we will find moments of joy in even the darkest hours of our lives. Thank you Brother Giovanni for showing us the way.

I salute you.

I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.
There is nothing I can give you which you have not;
But there is much – very much – that, while I cannot give,
You can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today.
Take Heaven!

No peace lies in the future that is not hidden in this present instant.
Take Peace!

The gloom in the world is but a shadow;
Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.
Take Joy!

There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see;
And to see, we have only to look.
I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver.
But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard.
Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor,
Woven of Love,
By Wisdom,
With Power.

Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you.
Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty. . .
Believe me, that angel’s hand is there;
The gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence.
And our joys: be not content with them as joys.
They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering,
That you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage then, to claim it. . . .that is all!
But courage you have,
And the knowledge that we are pilgrims together,
Wending our way through unknown country. . .
Home.

And so at this Christmastime, I greet you
Not quite as the world sends greetings,
But with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you,
Now and forever,
The day breaks and shadows flee away.

A Keeper of Dogs

If I had a blog, today I would write about being a keeper of dogs.

As many of you know, I am a devoted cat-lover and I’ve shared quite a few stories about my feline friends in my blog. You may wonder why its taken me this long to profess my love of the canine clan and share some stories about that branch of the Fur Family, but the truth is, I don’t know where to start. Dogs have been my life-mates since I was old enough to say “puppy” and after forty-some-odd years its hard to carve out a tale that is shorter than War and Peace. However, because yesterday was National Dog Day, I’ve decided to give it a go and introduce  you to my wonderful world of dogs.

These days, my life with dogs revolves around caring for the needs of an aging pack. Owain, our border collie, and Hank, my nephew yellow lab, are thirteen years old and Bree, our Great Pyrenees, is ten. Caring for an old bunch of dogs is one of those situations where laughter is the best medicine, for both woman and beast. A sense of humor keeps at bay the frustration over irregular bathroom habits, food-fights, and a variety of somewhat neurotic behaviors. Getting old isn’t for sissies, whether  you are a human or a dog.

Owain - Our Mr. True

Owain – Our Mr. True

First we have Owain, who, despite his innate intelligence, can’t hear at all. Our morning ritual, is a game of “herd the birds.” Owain comes to the window by the breakfast table and barks at me. Then I say, “Wow Owain! Get the birds!” and he bounds off in full cry, scattering cardinals, goldfinches, and chickadees as he goes. After a few minutes, he returns to the window and we play it again. It worked just fine when Owain was a sprightly youngster, but now he can’t hear my rah-rah’s unless I shout and exaggerate my facial features so Owain knows I am overwhelmed with his awesomeness. Add to that the fact that Owain has a bad hip and our game looks more like aerobics for the insane. I only hope no one outside the family sees us or we’d both be put in a padded room.

Do I Smell Burgers?

Do I Smell Burgers?

Then there’s Hank-A-Dog. I can’t make light of Hank’s issues because his health is in a steep decline. He has a type of neuropathy that has taken away all feeling in his hindquarters and impinges on his breathing. What keeps me going with Hank is his utter dedication to table treats. In his youth, Hank was a real-life Hamburgler. More than once we caught him with his feet on the counter, snarfing unclaimed hamburgers, hot dogs, or ham steaks like there was no tomorrow. Even now, on a day when we’ve had to support Hank’s back legs just to get him into the yard to do his business, one whiff of frying bacon or broiling steak and he’s up and at ’em. If my brother comes to get Hank before we’ve finished our dinner, Hank pops up and, instead of running to the door to greet his best friend, he affixes himself to the table, ears up and eyes bright, as if to say, “Hurry! Feed me the good stuff before I have to go!” Its comforting to know some things never change.

Go Team Bree!

Go Team Bree!

Last of all, there’s Bree. We got Bree and her sister, Emma (who passed away this spring) to guard our flock of sheep, but Bree retired early, after she developed epilepsy at age three. Since then, Bree has been a house-dog, protecting our family from villains like  the pest-control guy, UPS and FedEx deliverymen, and the garbage man. This summer she got a hot-spot on her front leg and became quite obsessed with licking it. We gave her antibiotic, used a number of topical agents to help with the itching, and even bandaged the area to keep her idee fixe under control, but Bree refused to leave well-enough alone, so we got an E-collar at the vet. That plan was abandoned after three days of leg-bashing by our walking satellite dish. We were at our wits-end when I spied Anna’s sweatshirt. My ten year-old niece, Anna, had stayed with us the week before and as I was putting away the farm-gear she’d outgrown, I saw a hot-pink sweatshirt, with sequins and glitter paint, that looked just the right size for Bree. After making a few adjustments, Bree was decked out in a get-up that would make any cheerleader proud. We’ve drawn a few stares from passers-by, but Bree has stopped licking her leg, so I say, “Go Team!”

I know hard days are coming. It is the price we pay for loving deeply and loving well. I dread the decisions we’ll have to make and the emptiness that will come after, but I will have my memories to keep me strong. One day, when my grief has abated, I will be walking to the barn and I will feel a presence beside me, a familiar face will come to mind, and I will know my friend is with me once more. Then I will tell their stories and we will laugh and remember and be glad for the days when I was a keeper of dogs.