Dog Days of Summer

Happy_19_585975_20100501083158[1]In appreciation for the dog days of summer and our little furry friends who remind us to relax and savor them, my guest blogger is my sister, Karene Hughes. This is part of her chapter from our anthology of stories by 30 women, What We Talk About When We’re Over 60. Karene reminds us of the simple and yet most important pleasures our dogs offer us. Enjoy. ~ Linda

By Karene Hughes

I’ve never thought of myself as a patient person.  I did, after all, inherit that embarrassing family temper.  Remember the dad in the movie Christmas Story, down in the basement having the “conversation” with the furnace?  Yup, that was my dad.  My mom used to have her own conversations with the sewing machine and I was well into adulthood before I knew sewing didn’t involve #$%X@# words.  My sister once told me of the time she was putting up curtains in her bedroom, conversing with them as well, when her husband came into the room, calmly looked at her and asked “Do you need a pill or something?”  And me?  Well, I’m the one who has a little conversation of my own with the MicroSoft gods who have pre-determined that I can’t possibly know what I really want so they auto correct for me.  Don’t even get me started on cable and all those remotes.

So, imagine my amazement in learning that I do indeed have a very patient side.   All it took to discover it was 14 pounds of spunk and tenacity named Chelsie.

Although I grew up with a variety of dogs in our family, I had never adopted one as an adult.  Living alone it’s quite a commitment, always having to adjust your schedule around them.  So when my sister-in-law Val suggested I adopt her sister’s 11 year old Westie Chelsie, I hemmed and hawed.  Val and my brother Tom had two dogs of their own, which I often dog sat for, and they knew I loved dogs.   Val’s sister had remarried, had several children and had started a day care in her home, so Chelsie, being an older dog, was having trouble adjusting to all those children and their commotion.  I knew Chelsie from our family get-togethers and yes, I finally adopted her, but only on a trial basis.  I wasn’t at all sure how this would go.  Well of course, I absolutely fell in love with her in no time at all.  Loving and loyal, she was such a curious and happy dog that she was a delight.  I went from worrying about adopting her to worrying about the family wanting her back or her wanting to be with them and not me.  As it turned out, she was always very happy to visit them, but right by my side when I headed for home.  It was a perfect match for all of us.

If you know anything about terriers, you know they come with a surplus of personality.  While they may be stubborn, that stubbornness can also represent a tenacity that I came to deeply respect and admire.  Little dogs don’t see themselves as little.  They’re ready to take on the world.   Chelsie was such a character, she always made me laugh and I never grew tired of watching her watch the world.  She was very territorial.  In fact, she would leap off the couch and bark at any animal that appeared on TV.  I was amazed she could even recognize them, but she could.  Even a horse in the background would warrant a bark.  It was actually quite fascinating.  One day, though, I was sure she had it wrong.  A commercial came on with a man fishing from a boat.  Chelsie planted herself in front of the screen, stomping her feet and barking ferociously.  I laughed and told her “Sorry, Chelsie.  There are no animals in this one!”  Just then, the fisherman’s cell phone rang.  He answered it and heard “meow meow meow” and the screen changed to a cat on a cell phone calling him.  OK, either Chelsie was way too smart or had been watching way too much TV!

Chelsie and I spent almost two years together and she became an important part of my life.  I never tired of her adventures and grew to love simply watching her confident, adventuresome self while in the yard or on our walks.  Often I watched her in awe.  How on earth could so much attitude, affection, and just pure life be encompassed in that little 14 pound body.

When Chelsie neared 13, she developed kidney disease.  Hospitalized for several days, I was so in fear of her dying.  Once home, on meds and a new diet, she required subcutaneous saline injections several times a week to keep her hydrated, a necessity due to her disease.  During this time, as I knew her health was declining, she became slower and slower on our walks and in our activities.  While I always appreciated a good steady walk, I now slowed down, letting her set the pace.  The truth was, I grew to admire and respect her tenacity and attitude.  Here she was, having come so close to death and now in declining health, and yet she was still curious about the world around her and anxious to get out there and be a part of things.  As she became slower, stopping more often to sniff (her way of resting), I came to appreciate this slower pace myself.  I noticed this interesting tree with wildly twisting branches that I’d never really noticed before.  I’d stand and watch birds building a nest or see the first little crocuses making their way up through the snow.  All things we’d simply marched by before.   I came to appreciate this gift Chelsie was giving me.

Chelsie started to lose her interest in eating.  Each meal, I sat on the floor next to her, putting morsels of food in my palm, offering them to her and encouraging her to eat.  Meal time now had to be planned for and could span a half hour.  Instead of just letting her run about the yard on her own, I’d stay close, keeping an eye on her in case she needed me.  My whole world slowed down along with hers and more and more, I found this to be a blessing of its own.   I enjoyed simple moments in a way I hadn’t in quite some time.  I quit rushing so and became more patient with life itself.

When I realized Chelsea was failing and there was no more the vet or I could do, I took the day off work and spent it with her.  It was a beautiful, sunny day in June.  I got a blanket and we laid in the sun.  I stroked her, sang to her, napped with her and even sketched a picture of her.  When my brother and sister-in-law got home from work, we all went together to the vet’s. It’s hard to explain, but I know that Chelsea knew and that she really was ready.  The vet put her to sleep with us all stroking and talking to her.  She went very, very peacefully.

I learned a lot from Chelsie.  I had worried so about it being too much of a commitment (OK, a bother) to have a dog on my own, yet quickly found that the companionship, joy and unconditional love she offered was so much more fulfilling that I ever imagined.  It truly amazed me to discover that patient side of me, as well.  I’ve thought about that a lot since.  Part of it is that our dogs are truly so vulnerable and dependent on us.  How could I be impatient with that?  They have no hidden agendas, no ulterior motives. That’s the great thing about dogs.  They live in the moment with absolute honestly. Somehow, that makes whatever they require from you so much easier to give.  I learned a lot from Chelsie.

Oh yes, I eventually got a new dog, another rescue mutt. I knew I needed another little four legged friend to come along and teach me what I don’t even know I have yet to learn.

I’m Quirky. How about you?

EA-59When my life coach Jan Rose Distel asked me to list ten ways in which I’m quirky, my first thought was, “Who, me? I’m as normal as boring dry toast.” But after a few moments of reflection, I realized that I could rattle off a list as quickly as I could twirl my pinky finger ring for good luck.

What about you? Are you quirky, too? Think about that as you read my list.

1. I talk to dead people. All the time. I’ve always felt, rather than seen, that they are around me. I have no problem with that. So far, they’ve been friendly. When I was a child I had a friend named Karene. My mom called her my imaginary friend but I knew that was ridiculous. Karene was right there. When my little sister was born and mom named her Karene, I liked that little baby okay but I knew she wasn’t really Karene.

2.  I channel stories from dead spirits. I know, so far this all sounds weird. When my psychic friend wanted to hypnotize me to do a past life regression, I thought that was weird and that it would never work with me. I told her I’m too strong a personality to be hypnotized. Never mind, a few minutes later I was out and telling amazing stories from dead women. The psychic thinks those were my past lives; I think other women, maybe my ancestors, were sharing their stories with me. Those stories are the crux of my ancestry quest novel Becoming Jessie Belle.

3. I do indeed twirl my pinky finger ring for good luck. I’m very superstitious about this. If I were to leave the house and forget the ring, I’d be afraid of having a bad day. I’d even go back for it; it’s that important to me.

4. I’m a Coca-Cola addict. I mean, like a drug addict on crack. I used to have a favorite saying when things went haywire: “I just need a Coke!” A nice, cold, glass bottle – not can or plastic as I was a purist connoisseur – always did the trick and made me feel better no matter what. A year and a half ago I gave it up cold turkey because soda really isn’t good for us. Do I miss it? You bet. When I see a Coke ad or see someone drinking one, my mouth salivates for the taste. I consider it one of my biggest accomplishments to have given it up.

5. I get style advise from my dog. I let my Sheltie LuLu help me pick out what to wear. When I can’t decide what to wear, I hold out two choices. Whichever one my dog noses first gets worn. So far, no one has ever appeared to be appalled at my appearance. And LuLu seems pleased with her choices.

6. I’m claustrophobic. I don’t do enclosed small spaces like elevators, MRIs, or small planes. But remote old cemeteries in the dark of night don’t bother me at all. Go figure.

7.  I’m a rabid Zorro fan. Old, modern, film, television, book, or comic book – it doesn’t matter. I have a Zorro collection, including my own movie replica sword. I fell in love with the “Fox” when I was a child and thought I’d grow up to be Lolita Quintero. (The dark-eyed, dark-haired, beautiful heroine.) I wore a  Spanish comb with an old curtain on my head for a mantilla veil. I didn’t exactly grow up to look like Lolita – not even close – but the story’s message about striving for social justice stuck and will be with me always.

8. I’m a Gemini with a genuine dual personality. I want to be everywhere all the time but don’t want to leave home. Let me explain: Wanderlust hit early and led me to a career where I traveled the world. I felt like a child of the universe, feeling comfortable just about anywhere, and loved my homes away from home. There is definitely a gypsy in my soul. But at the same time I love nesting, and want to be in my cozy house with my husband and pets. I want it all.

9. I have a favorite shirt. It’s so old the fabric is about to disintegrate. But I can’t give it up. It’s my shirt. It’s a blue New Orleans House of Blues twill that was given to me by a bartender at church one Sunday in 1996. I’m not kidding! The House of Blues rented a church in downtown Atlanta during the Olympics. A typical bar with live music at night, it held a gospel brunch church service on Sunday morning. The bar was open. When I commented to the bartender on her cool shirt, she took it off and handed it to me. Literally, the shirt off her back. I’ve treasured it ever since.

10.  I’m phobic about germs. Usually. I use hand sanitizer like water. I wipe down my computer, phone, and iPad with antibacterial wipes. I do the same with the kitchen counters, then wash them with soap and water to get rid of chemicals. I use my own pen when signing a credit card receipt. I use toilet paper to cover the handle when I flush the toilet in a public place. In a hotel I use my wipes everywhere and barely touch the comforter as I pull it off the bed so other people’s germs don’t get on me. But when I’m working out at my health club I can tolerate any amount of sweat, dirt, and even rap music. Totally unlike me. Must be my Gemini personality at work again.

Okay, fess up. How are you quirky? Anything like this, or do you have weirdness all your own? Think you’re not quirky? Think again.

Comments are welcome.

Outlander’s Inner Lessons

OutlanderAfter a week of ruminating about the season finale of Outlander, one of my favorite television shows, I want to write about some of life’s harsh realities, those that we often want to ignore. That episode of the same-sex rape of Jamie Fraser, our hero in the story, by his nemesis the evil “Black Jack” Randall was so prolonged and so authentic viewers were drawn into experiencing Jamie’s pain.

I know I felt it.

I trust that this was Diana Gabaldon’s purpose in creating such a devastating scene: to make us not only think, but feel. To awaken in us a fervid desire to right the injustices of the world. To insist that human beings be treated with care rather than callousness.

Considering the feedback on social media since, most viewers were simultaneously appalled at the brutality of the deed and enthralled by the authenticity of the acting by Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, and Tobias Menzies, Black Jack. Outlander on Facebook assures us that Tobias is a nice guy and lots of fun. That’s impossible for me to imagine right now, but speaks to the skill of his performance. And Sam allowing himself to be so vulnerable, so beaten, “broken” as he said, took unimaginable dedication to his craft.

So think about this: Jamie is a strong man. He is a leader. He supports his wife’s strength. He believes in the inexplicable. He is smart. He is highly skilled. He has people who love him and who help him in his emotional as well as physical recovery.

Now imagine a child: Not yet grown. Doing whatever adults tell him to do. Not understanding gender roles. Believing only what he is told to believe. Not yet educated. And with no skills for survival on his own.

Imagine that child being raped, as Jamie was, by a Black Jack.

It happens every day. If our strong, independent Jamie could be broken, that child doesn’t stand a chance.

The child sex slave trade is, sadly, alive and well in this world. And it’s not fiction. There are no television crews, no warm trailers, no escapes. It’s the only world the child knows.

And it’s wrong. Outlander shows us how wrong it is when it happens to an adult. It’s even more so with a helpless child. Outlander made us sit up, grit our teeth, and pay attention. It slapped us in the face with the knowledge that we can’t sit by and idly watch a rendering of rape. We must act, in our own neighborhoods, in our towns, in our country, and in our world to stop it. No one – man, boy, woman, girl – deserves to be treated so inhumanly.

Thus my long-held believe that child sex abusers should be sent to prison for life, with no possibility for parole. I have no problem with the death penalty, either.

Let’s hope that’s just what comes Black Jack Randall’s way. Let’s hope for justice for Jamie. And then let’s go out and work for justice for all.

Writers and Wrongers

typewriterLong ago I heard that title – a woman was describing herself as a wannabe writer who was really a wronger – and I loved it. After periodically seeing that phrase and mulling it over for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most writers are probably wrongers, too. I know I am. That’s what makes good stories.

I’ve done a lot wrong in my life. An early college career that had no meaning to me. Giving up on my own hopes and dreams in order to please others. Occasionally falling into the despair of depression. An unhealthy second marriage that resulted in devastation. Being next to homeless except for the generosity of my sister. Assuming someone somewhere would take care of things and it wouldn’t have to be me.

Wow. That’s all great stuff for writing. Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That’s what we as writers do. Rather than hiding our most embarrassing, dumb, and inexplicable life decisions, we open ourselves up and let them spill out all over the place. In the process, we figure out what was going on in our minds and what we can do to learn from it. We do this by putting bits of ourselves into each character we write. And by writing characters who are the people we aspire to be.

The reader, of course, never has to know. For example, a villainess in one of my stories, the bitch no one can stand, took a letter that had come in the mail for her friend and steamed it open to see if it was from a guy she herself had a crush on. When it turned out to be from the friend’s dad, she carefully glued it shut and put it back in her friend’s stack of mail. Now I’m not confessing that I ever did such a wretched thing; I’m just sayin’ I got the idea somewhere.

Writers get ideas everywhere. Every time something goes wrong in my life I catch myself saying, “Oh! That would be a good story.” Good stories, after all, are about overcoming life’s obstacles. They are about prevailing. They are about finding an inner strength you never knew was there. They are about discovery!

Although I couldn’t write about it until years later, some of my erratic behavior after the death of my first husband at age thirty-three is revealed in my novel Homecoming Queen. My thankfully short-lived, wacky second marriage can be found in soon-to-be-published Home Body. A trip my sister and I took when we were in our early twenties, where we camped from Michigan to California and back because we wanted to see the Pacific Ocean, is hilarious in Tough Rocks. Although we’d call home and lie through our teeth, telling our parents that everything was “fine,” in truth we ran into a hail storm that demolished the hood of our car; a flash flood that holed us up in Boulder, Nevada, for three days with nothing to do but watch the free movie of how the Hoover Dam was made; a dust devil that destroyed our tent; and melted tires when we drove through the Mohave Desert at noon on the hottest day in July. It’s that kind of adventure that makes for good writing, if you just let it roll rather than refusing to admit you were ever that stupid.

Writer Sylvia Plath said, “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

So if you’re a writer or want to be a writer, go ahead and have the guts to spill out your life stories. Take your wrongs and let them write.

Examples and comments are welcome.

Image found on ruffledblog.com

Strike a Balance

Balance-640x360Every time I read the phrase “life balance” I’m amazed that it even still exists. The first “Life Balance” seminars I conducted were thirty-five years ago. It was a hot topic in the late ’70s and early ’80s with books like You Can Heal Your Life and The Feminine Mystique being big hits. My own book from 1983, The Saga of a Superwoman, about not trying to be all things to all people all of the time was bought by corporations in bulks of hundreds to give to their female employees.

So way back then I assumed that by now everyone would be so informed we’d all be as good as Olympic gymnasts on the balance beam of life.

Me, too.

But the endless popularity of the topic is evidence to the contrary. That evidence is all around us with frantic parents, droopy-eyed commuters, and store clerks who can’t stop texting. Do you see yourself in any of those? Too many people are mired in what writer Nancy Forbes calls “the cult of busy-ness.”

I used to spend an entire day in my seminars doling out advice about how to streamline our days and find that elusive life balance. I’ve since decided that it isn’t all that hard.

There are some obvious tips, like start saying “no” to your kids every time they ask for one more activity to join. Sometimes teaching them that they, too, shouldn’t get caught up in busy-ness is the best parenting you can do.

Apart from that most obvious tip, there are three things that you can easily do to begin tuning down your lifestyle. The first are free and the last will cost a nickel or two, but is well worth it.

Firstly, take a walk. Yup. That’s it. Get out of your house, apartment, office, gym, classroom, shop, car, bar…. and walk somewhere. Look at what’s around you. Touch a tree or two. (Hugging not required, but feel free if so inspired.) If you’re in the city, look at the people on the street. The key is not only to get your body moving but to get your mind moving, too, away from the ordinary. Let yourself take in nature, clouds, people, animals, and uncirculated air. As corny as it sounds, reconnect with nature.

Secondly, read a good book. Let your mind escape to new places and your thoughts encompass new personalities. Use your imagination. Get lost in the book. Leave your life behind. You don’t need to buy books or own a Kindle or even search too hard. Just go to your local library and ask for recommendations.

Thirdly, try yoga, if you don’t do it already. If you do, make sure you let yourself leave your daily schedule, mental reminders, family harassments, work woes, and everything else on the other side of the door. Let your yoga mat be your place of peace, your escape from the rest of the world. This is a place and time just for you, just for renewing your soul. Remember your soul? It’s that part of you that so easily gets lost in the chaos of daily life. Get it back on the mat.

Don’t worry if you think you can’t do yoga. I’ve done it for years and am still quite  clumsy at it. I don’t care. I love it. My instructor, Sue, is marvelous at doing a basic pose and then saying we can stay there or go to the more advanced version that she demonstrates. Ha. I usually “stay.” At age sixty-six, the stretches feel fantastic and smooth out this body after other workouts during the week and far to many hours sitting at a computer. Go ahead; give it a shot. If I can do it, you can, too.

Best of all is that I have to focus so hard to do the poses that there isn’t one moment to worry, fret, or bitch in my head about anything. For one hour my entire existence is focused on not falling over. It’s a great metaphor for life.

Strike a balance of your own. Do whatever it takes to stay out of the morass of busy-ness that consumes so many. Take a walk, read a good book, and try yoga. Let your mind and body belong to you, not the rest of the world.

The Story of a Storyteller

lindaEverybody has a story. What’s yours?

I’ve loved telling stories ever since I was a little kid. It was an inherited skill. As Linda Ellerbee once said, “My family believes that telling one story when two will do is a sign that someone isn’t really trying.” With my Irish and Scots-Irish heritage the legacy of seanchi tales seemed to be imbedded in the marrow of our bones. My parents and their twelve siblings rivaled each other in telling tall tales. I heard about my own birth so much I was stunned to eventually learn that my mother had been in labor for only nine hours. I thought she’d broken the world record for prolonged birthing agony.

Truth is many of us baby boomers grew up with stories being bantered about over the dinner table, long before we had outside entertainment drowning out our own voices. A favorite for us kids was Aunt Jane’s rendition of her neighbor Jeb’s “unfortunate” run-in with the police on the night he forgot to put on his pants before running out to the gas station for a tin of snuff. He’d been schnockered, of course. We’d titter and roll our eyes every time we heard it, embarrassed at hearing about a man’s bare ass at the same time it filled us with naïve glee. I loved writing up that one when I was a fledging writer!

So with my childhood love of writing, and my twelfth-grade teacher and college English professor both telling me to never stop writing, it might seem a conundrum that I chose to get degrees in sociology, counseling, and education. Why did I quit writing?

Why did any of us women in the ‘60s and ‘70s choose our careers? We didn’t see a lot of options. Nurse. Teacher. Stewardess if we were really outrageous. New career paths were opening up but for too many of us they had no connection to our everyday lives. I couldn’t figure out how to make a living by writing.

Was there something you loved to do that got lost for you, too? It could be anything that completes your life story: writing, poetry, painting, swimming, business, orienteering, baking, sculpting, joking, singing, performing, architecture, tatting….

If so, here’s the exciting part: Now is our time. Now is the right time to rediscover your hopes and dreams. I’ve rediscovered my desire – indeed need – to write. Now is the time of my life when I can draft words into stories without worrying about what others will think because I don’t give a rat’s ass what they think.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, young or old, wise or wising up, this is the right time for you, too. No more waiting. No more cogitating. Now.

Is there something that you once loved doing that you want to revive?

Go ahead. Find your story and live it out.

Make it worth retelling!