Friday, December 31, 2010

once more to the attic

For the past couple of years, I've been writing what I call the Facebook Poems. I ask, as a status update, for my friends to submit words, and each supplies one until I cut the thread. I like to keep it rule-less, but I have to remind people to keep the words simple. The goal is not merely for me to write a poem; it's for people to like poetry; somehow, if they have invested a word in it, they are more interested in watching it come to life. To some extent, I think they are surprised by how beautiful a poem can be—intelligible, too, and enjoyable.

Still, I get oddball words—words even I have to look up, words that sound icky, like my least favorite of all words, refrigerator. It troubles me to use "forthwith" in a poem because no one says forthwith in daily conversation. Banana is hard, too, especially for a serious poem. Bananas are insanely funny.

I got this set of words a few weeks ago, and I've been stifled. But I was determined to end this year with a new poem. And it brings me to my goal for the new year. I am hoping to write the rest of my Facebook Poems and send the complete book off to a publisher or an agent or something. I'm tired of my poems languishing while my blog flourishes.

Of course, my goal for last year was to get into a recording studio with a few of our best songs, and that never happened. So I'ma make it happen, hear me? This year.

Best wishes to you out there in space and time. I hope to see you again—always better in real space and real time, but I'll take what I can get. Without further ado, the words and then the poem.

humble (kim g), loquacious (tamelyn f), gold (beth mvb), lost (julie h), wicker (jane t), caress (sarah b), strength (gail d), fervent (lynne f), quixotic (sandra r), forthwith (jason d), magenta (randy s), rime (sarah m), phoenix (julie f), warmth (beth s), parchment (michele d), scumble (craig h), lactation (jamie c), banana (mindi s), banal (peggy b), serenade (patrick p)

once more to the attic
for Bruce Ansley and Cleopatra

in the golden space between house and tree
—now magenta, now indigo—
in that space of fiery fervent sky,
I swim, lost in the bleeding striations of sunset.
In the attic, with its wicker chairs, old floors, and new heat
that squeak and hiss and settle, loquacious
as an eager child, I test my strength:
if I climb, I live, though it sounds banal.

in the rimed space between house and tree,
we bury the dog in a caress of old blankets,
pacified momentarily by the gesture of warmth,
like an infant suckling water for lactose,
a serenade of rush-hour crows poking holes
in the blurry scumble of greys above us.
we are raw as parchment’s deckle edge,
small humble mourners trembling.

in the quixotic space between house and tree
the scent of banana bread wafts outside, licks the bleak air
and, forthwith, shoots embers to the heavens.
like a phoenix, and once more to the attic I climb, I live.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

rest her soul

For a little while yesterday, her body was shaped like a crescent in her bed beside the desk.  I would stop my work and look at her and hold completely still and, unblinking, watch for movement.  Marty was standing in the doorway, and we confessed to each other that we both could see her body rise and fall in a regular rhythm, the black coat playing tricks as the radiator heat and leaky windows blew her hairs gently.  Cleo’s eyes were open—a result of the anesthesia—but they were dark enough to seem closed.

Where did she go, Marty wanted to know.  Her body got cold almost right away, all that leftover heat from circulating blood and physical energy just dissipating in the air like vapor.  We’d all like to think some clump of soul goes first, intact and at some perfect age of wisdom and agility.  If Mary Roach couldn’t prove it in Spook, I’m not inclined to believe in that perfect soul leaving the body’s building at thirty-four seconds past death.  I think it’s the job of your memories to reconstruct the souls of the departed.  They visit you sometimes via the corner of your eye, when the light hits just right, and a shadow flits, or when a heavy truck goes by and shakes your house and your bed, and you sense an impression on the mattress; the apparition, the disappearance—there’s your ghost, their soul.

I’m moving slowly for a few days.  I’m missing the sound of Cleo’s labored breathing, the struggle of her toenails against the wood floor.  I can pull my kitchen chairs out at will.  Chance is missing her, too.  We put his bowl where hers used to be, and he looked at us as if to ask for permission, and he ate cautiously.

In the early afternoon, against yesterday’s bitter cold, Marty finished digging and wrapped her in my old electric blanket.  He covered her with garden dirt and tears, and then it was done before I even knew.  Marty came inside, and I went out to stand with her and thank her. 

More than sadness and grief, I feel relief.  We can live with pain or indignity or loss of senses or limited mobility, but should we have to live with all of them, even when our ability to make that choice—especially when the ability to make the choice—is gone?  For all this talk of “quality of life,” why is it still the quantity of life that we attempt to preserve in the face of all of these ills? 

For some, it’s a religious belief.  It would seem that a major world religion was borne of the suffering of one man.  “It’s not the Christian way,” someone at the Catholic school said of euthanasia. Then she leaned in and whispered, “I don’t care; I wouldn’t want to live like that.”  Sometimes man learns the wrong lessons from history.  For me, the sin is in the suffering, the godliness in the compassion.

Monday, December 13, 2010

to sleep, perchance to dream

I haven’t slept in six months. If there wasn’t a dog beside my bed, snoring through thickened airways or panting heavily with pain or wandering the hallway, clunking the water bowl with her collar, pacing, peeing on the hallway rug, then there was a dog at the bottom of the steps, scratching at the barrier to come up, panting so heavily I could hear her through a closed door, above the din of the 1:00 a.m. TV. I’d get in bed and watch some cop show or The Good Wife, and I’d hear clunking and have to run downstairs, where I’d find Cleo stuck under a table or in a corner, trapped, frustrated. I could feel her panic and embarrassment.

My hearing and smell are already hypersensitive (something that happened when I was pregnant and never left me), but from the moment I got into bed each night, my whole body would tense up with anticipation. I knew she’d want to come up or need to go out or something just as soon as I’d start to drift off. Getting in bed has not been relaxing for a long, long time.  And despite the frustration I've been known to express  and the tears I've shed, I never once resented my dog. 

I lie here now, some lame singing show (why are the women in these shows too lazy to think of words for things [“you owned it, you killed, you rocked it]?) on the tube, just an hour after saying our goodbyes to Cleo. Her limp body is lying in her bed in the dining room, and she looks more comfortable than I’ve seen her in two years. Yet my body is still tense, my ears still pricked, waiting for the panting and the moving furniture.

At eleven every night, when the news started, I would go down and lie with her, whisper loving things to her that she couldn’t hear but I’m sure felt, make sure she was comfortable, check that the basement door was closed and the barrier was up. I won’t have to do that anymore. I won’t get to do that anymore.

I poured a shot of brandy while Marty threw back a last sip of beer. “I’m going up to bed,” he said. Already? “And you should go to bed, too. You need to sleep.” I do need to sleep, I said. I haven’t slept in six months.

But first, one last goodnight.

RIP, Cleopatra Queen-of-Denial Miller.  You were a very good dog.

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Thank you, everyone, for keeping my family in your thoughts.  We appreciate it more than you can know.

the queen of denial, part two

In the summer, we thought it might be time. Cleo was sleeping 23 hours a day, snoring loudly because of a thickening in her throat. She was suffering from arthritis, maybe a disc or other neurological issue. She was deaf, sometimes disoriented, incontinent with increasing frequency. It was difficult to wake her sometimes, and she was having trouble keeping her footing on the slippery tile floor. Then she couldn’t get up the steps by herself. Then she started falling down the stairs. We got a barrier and kept her on the first floor at night, but she’d stand at the bottom step and scratch on the makeshift gate for an hour. We'd sometimes give in, depending on the strength of Marty’s back. But she grew more restless at night and wandered the hallway, panting and knocking over things. She seemed to suffer from dementia and would get herself stuck under chairs or in corners, unable to back up—she’d just stand in the corner and pant.

My living room is now full of barriers—big foam core walls—to danger. I feared she’d burn herself on a floor lamp or start a fire with electrical cords. She got her head stuck between the fridge and the wall, where we stored some folding chairs; they tipped a little and seemed to pin her head—gently, but she didn't know the difference.

Still, she seemed to enjoy going to the park and would often perk up to see Chance and Marty getting ready. She was always hungry, too, and didn't that mean she still wanted to live? So that made it hard for us to agree on the time. Perhaps my family felt that my fear of a second back surgery (the first a result of having to lift Cleopatra each day to put her in the truck for a walk at the park) made me more eager to be rid of this physical burden—pulling her out of corners and lifting her onto her feet. And who could blame them for their love?

From the moment this five-month-old puppy wandered into our back yard in April of 1996, Cleopatra Queen-of-Denial Miller has been a loyal and delightful companion. Where Beowulf King-of-the-Geats Miller was a favorite among certain menfolk in our lives, Cleo was one of the most beloved dogs at the park. This is no hyperbole. Our dogsitter never charged us to watch her. My sister, who is highly allergic, would often bury her face in Cleo’s fur. My brother-in-law would have taken Cleo for his own, despite his wife's allergies. In fact, we got a lot of similar offers. People loved our dogs so much that when Cleo had Beowulf’s puppies, our vet took one. A neighbor took two. We kept Buddha.

Cleo’s always told us what she wanted or needed. She’d scratch at the back door to go out or come in; she’d fetch sticks and drop them at our feet or put balls in our lap. She didn’t take no for an answer, either, and would bark at us or paw us until we played. She spoke in a sweet little trill, slept on her back with all four paws in the air, licked our faces, played a mean game of tug-o-war (often snatching sticks from other dogs). She never bit us, not even by accident. She was only really sick once—with Lyme disease. And she took care of us, waiting for whomever was trailing behind.

In the last few weeks, it’s been clear to me in her pleading eyes. I’ve been waiting for my husband’s realization to catch up with my own. We’ve done this before—lost three dogs and two cats during our twenty-eight-year relationship, never mind those pets that came and went before we met. So it was never a question of whether it was the right thing to do.

When our daughter, Serena, was born, Beowulf was dying from kidney disease. We were waiting for the sign that he was done, and it came on a cold February morning. Marty took Wulf to the picnic table outside and covered him, spoke to him, kept him warm with hugs while we waited for the vet to come to the house. The shot that usually goes to work in a few short seconds took more than two minutes to work. Wulf let out a howl that is forever etched in our memories. I let it get to me sometimes, let myself believe that Wulf was trying to stop us instead of thanking us for his wonderful life and saying goodbye. His body had completely shut down; he couldn’t even metabolize the euthanasia agent. No question it was the right thing.

I had a feeling this final image was clouding my husband’s judgment, just as it haunted me. But Cleo’s decline over the last few days has been swift. She can no longer stand on her own and is often found trying to scramble away from her puddle of pee. When we stand her up and put her in the yard, she wanders around in crooked, slanted circles, stumbling. At least once every day, I am alone and having to wrap Cleo’s pee soaked body in my arms to move her. And she has finally lost her appetite. On Saturday, she refused her bone, and I called the vet.

It took that, I think—the indignity of lying in one’s own urine and excrement coupled with lack of a desire for food—to make her condition urgent. I have been crying, with small periods of clear speech (usually to yell at someone), since Saturday. Last night at midnight, I heard some furniture moving in the kitchen and rescued Cleo from what I hope and wish is her last puddle. I slept fitfully.

This morning, before he left for work, Marty stood in the kitchen and cried. If you think something is already a big pile sad, set a crying man on top. Serena left her homework in the dining room, so I took the opportunity at school to inform the staff that my people are fragile today. As if they couldn’t already tell.

The vet will come tonight, and we will bury Cleo in the morning. This is as right as our hearts are broken. Our dogs have always been beloved members of our family. They celebrate our joys and comfort us in times of grief. When they go, pieces of us go with them.

Their people will be fragile for a little while.

Monday, December 6, 2010

harford road

If you live in the area—or in Baltimore (city or county)—you might find something of interest on my new blog about local businesses on Harford Road. It's all about doing all you can do in your own neighborhood. You keep your house from being devalued. You reduce your dependence on oil. You keep your neighbors from losing their businesses and their homes. You show larger businesses and Internet stores that you value human contact and personal service.

Harford Road

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Things. Objects. Junk. Stuff. I have a lot of it, and sometimes I feel as though it has me.

In the rooms where I write, I am haunted by great writers; the floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelves packed with books in various stages of use by authors who question my worth behind my fancy Herman Miller desk chair. A three-year-old copy of Ginsberg’s Collected Poems still makes a cracking noise when you open it, while Mila 18’s title on the spine is indiscernible. Hundreds more books live in the bedrooms—and even the bathrooms—upstairs, while thousands breathe life into the attic, many snoring from boxes under the eaves, still packed from our move here 18 years ago.

Atop the bookcases in my dining room are no fewer than seven glamorous cake plates, as if I’ve ever made more than two cakes at one time. From where I sit, I see three acoustic guitars, a DSLR camera, some high-tech speakers, and lots of art. Never mind the tchotchkes.

Last year at Christmas, we decided that we have everything we could possibly need, including a brand new iMac, our family gift. We didn’t even get a tree for probably the second time since we moved here. It’s not that we were all bah-humbuggy. We just thought: enough’s enough. Christmas (and Hanukkah, though it’s a little quieter) seemed absurd.

I thought it would change this year: some cold days would settle in to let us know that winter was arriving, and I’d get the bug to hang some balls on something, maybe a tree, and light a fire in the rarely used fireplace. But the holidays still seem absurd to me.

This season, I’m feeling a little bit of revulsion. I get anxious when I hear the phrase “door busters.” I am queasy over extended shopping hours. Indeed, the thought of some stores opening their doors at, gasp, three a.m. on Black Friday gave me a migraine. I’m angered by the people being trampled on their way to get a deal on a Wii. I am super pissed off at the TV husbands (obviously from a well-off planet) who give their wives a new Lexus. And I am creeped out by Stinky the Garbage Truck.

I tried to stimulate my holiday appetite. I hosted Thanksgiving and made homemade eggnog and eggnog cheesecake and carrot cake. I had my own turkey for the first time in a decade (we’re still eating it a week later as salad and stew and sandwiches). I had friends stop over the next day to help make a dent in the sweets and the troughs of stuffing and mac and cheese my sister left here. But I am missing the spirit that makes me want to shop. And I can’t think of anything I want. The kind of stuff I need—new tires, new windows, new kitchen cabinets—are not gift material.

My kind of Christmas comes as a card in the mail with a personal message to me, like “I love you, Facebook Queen” or “Can’t wait to drink a Dead Guy Ale with you on Good Friday and a Resurrection with you on Easter Sunday” or “I sure hope you get a job in the new year, because your FB status updates kinda freak me out.” I mean, sure, your family/kids/dogs/reptiles/even cats are cute in the photo on your card, and I guess the post office really needs that forty-four cents, but while you’re at it, tell me something good or something funny or something happy about yourself. I already know your name.

My kind of Christmas stars the little kids who still believe in Santa, while I drink a cocktail in Kim’s massage chair next to her beautiful tree and sing along with Chuck Prophet. My kind of Christmas is heading down to the basement with my own family band to play real live Guitar Hero.

Did I just outgrow the holiday? Or am I simply responding to my inability to finance it? How have your feelings toward Christmas changed, if at all?

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If you're not feeling Scrooge-y, someone you know would probably love a calendar.