Racing to Find Death

 

This year has been one of the harder ones in my life. I have been surrounded by friends and family who have suffered in deep ways. The melancholy I feel as the year comes to an end seems honest and justifiable. The lingering mood is full of memories that encompass great loss that can only be accompanied by the reality that great love has been a part of each cycle that now rests.

A few months ago, my husband and I said goodbye to our six-year-old cat, Luna. It was sudden. She was a playful, fun, whimsical cat who was always comfortable in her surroundings, never needing more than what was present in all of us. She was our little Yoda, we often said. One day, we noticed she looked swollen in her abdomen, and twenty-four hours later, we learned she was dying of congestive heart failure. The cardiologist told us her heart was beating four hundred beats per minute, like that of a hummingbird. She would soon drop dead or have a violent seizure. The best thing we could do for her was to help her die and to do it as soon as possible. So we found ourselves racing. Racing to find death before it could find her.

Four years ago, I said goodbye to the most precious soul I have ever known. My dog, Lily. We had some time to prepare for this day, and she had lived a full life. Preparing to say goodbye was such a precious, tender time that I will never forget. It changed me forever. However, with Luna, there was no time to prepare. All we could do was try and get her to the vet as quickly as possible so she could transition with dignity and without any pain or trauma.

Racing to find death. To meet death. It was an experience I could have never imagined.

The marks the experience left—the scars—keep me grounded, grateful, and a little melancholy even in my most whimsical, lighter moments these days. Late now in the year, I prepare for the death of 2017 as the birthing pains of 2018 begin.

I am grateful for this transition. I am preparing for it in a precious way, trying not to race toward it. It isn’t necessary this time. It is time to harvest the gifts of love that inevitably bring losses and sorrow and to allow those love-gifts to be planted so they can grow in the new year. In the journey forward, the heart and the mood of the soul will be honored.

Twin Peaks: Another Day In My Teenage Life

Today is strange and profound. I have gone to the grocery store, put dishes away and folded laundry—completed Sunday afternoon types of chores. Ordinary tasks. It is pouring rain here in the mountains. There is a heavy, consistent rush in the stream that normally giggles. Like a waterfall. The sky is gray with an almost-fog presence. Birds flutter from branch to branch, and occasionally, from bird feeder to bird feeder at each end of my porch.

Everything around me feels “busy”. There is mysterious calm. I am surrounded by trees. All I can think about is, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Who really killed her? Leland. Bob in Leland. Bob? Who is Bob, exactly? What about the Black Lodge? I still need to know more.

I am 16 years old again. Everything around me is Twin Peaks, the imaginary Washington town that will come alive again on the same-named TV show this evening. I am not in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains. I am in the tall forest of the Pacific Northwest. The owls are flying. The giants are watching.

No TV show or movie has affected me like Twin Peaks. I remember watching the shows with my friends in high school, reading Laura Palmer’s diary, and spending hours in conversation with fellow fans trying to make some sense of the mystery. About ten years later, I would purchase the VHS tapes until I owned every episode, later journeying into owning the Blu-Rays and then streaming through Netflix while begging my later-life-friends to discover the story with me again. I never thought Twin Peaks would come back to me with a new story, although the original one never left me. Tonight, it begins again.

When I first watched Twin Peaks, I realized there were other worlds in the art of stories that were as interesting and weird as my own mind. I realized that my own strangeness was not something to keep hidden. I was more like people than not. Twin Peaks brought me that realization through its complex, eccentric characters and willingness to create a world that could not always be explained, yet fed the ordinary world with a push that brought out the impossible in everyday people. For the first time, as a teenager, I realized that my creative mind was a perfectly normal and valid place and that it is was okay to use it to inform my life, my world, and eventually, my career as an adult. Its darkness, its strangeness, and its whimsy, were all important and useful.

When I watched Twin Peaks as a teenager, I was experiencing the adult world for the first time in my own life. I was making mistakes, hurting people without meaning to hurt them, pushing past religious guilt and discovering a more imperfect and interesting world, and doing it all within the realm of innocence. I did not realize this at the time. It is something I only know looking back. The complex Twin Peaks world of spiritual mysticism and journey of people to keep faith while looking for worthwhile moments in their lives matched my own life. I fought and wrestled with both realms of existence, wavering, sometimes smashing in and out of them.

I do not know where tonight will take me. I am already in the woods. I am waiting and listening. It is already strange. I will meet myself there. Older. Wiser. Still innocent and dark. Whimsical and goofy. Ready for some pie in the cathedral of the unknown. Ready for the lessons to resume.

 

How To Smile Like a Dog



STEP 1: REALIZATION

Today is our first snow of the new year. The dogs run through the cold, white powder like they have had three shots of espresso and a few candy bars. They gallop, more like deer, above it and drop lower as their feet retouch the ground. Then, they race inside the house with their eyes wide like footballs, tongues hanging out, smiling like goofy super villains. An Elmer Fudd meets Wile E. Coyote combo. Five minutes later, they are calm, stretched out on my bed, posing as hibernating bears. The dogs are not exhausted or downtrodden. They are relaxed and content.

STEP 2: REFLECTION

Last year was a busy one, full of projects, jobs, and deadlines. Time was stacked like moving boxes that couldn’t be unpacked before a new destination was appointed for them. I pushed, focused my way through the year, making the most of the moments as I could allow myself to enjoy them, but I often felt smothered by the pressure of it all. The stress. I found few moments where I dove into the shocking snow, embraced coldness and newness, and jumped right back into my comfortable skin with a goofy, happy smile.

STEP 3: CLARIFICATION

New year resolutions have become cliché. For many, they are a source of animosity and resentment; they reflect projects half-finished or weakness for follow-through. I projected this mindset for many years. Then in retaliation, I told myself to forget about useless resolutions, to focus on the things I do well and not the things I don’t do well. Both mindsets were extremes.

STEP 4: AWARENESS

My realization this new year is that expectations and goals are not good or bad on paper. The underlying messages, motivating the goals, are what need introspection. Many goals for better health or functionality in general, are based on feelings of “have to” or “better do that before this gets worse”. My failure to follow through with these goals, no matter how beneficial they may be, is rooted in motivation via punishment and guilt. With the opposite extreme—the need to pacify and ignore weaknesses and growing edges—the same outcome holds true. I quit because neither approach is healthy.

STEP 5: DOGNESS

Diving into the snow, with unabashed whimsy, so easily mirrored by my dogs, comes from a place of curiosity, passion, and enticement. Not obligation. With stress no longer first string, but benched. For me, shed through an activity. An activity that has no bearing on “should” or “because it’s good for you”. An activity that is joyous and canine-inspired. I realize, after a year of searching, that I am drawn to the road as my dogs are to the snow. My whimsical activity requires no psychologist, fancy equipment or deep analysis, just a pair of good shoes and the road. A jog with no finish line.

STEP 6: FREEDOM

I move fast enough to think without analyzing things too much. The world is a blank canvas, and I am not stifled by fear of failure or the heaviness of the world. The jog isn’t prescribed exercise, and it changes the last letter of its name to “y” just for me, which is the best medicine I know. Joy. With joy in mind and body, my heart remembers that yes, I am enough and that I can build on that. Practical. Powerful. Grounded. Jagged. Simple. Like the road.

 

A Deeper Election

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I have decided to invest the rest of this year in personal work, rather than push so hard in my career. Spiritual work betters my connection with my instincts and the positive forces that drive me to do my best in relationships. I am involved in a virtual Celtic retreat that honors the new Irish year and the veil between the spiritual world and the world that is physical, when we can so easily connect with our ancestors and those loved ones who have crossed over into the mystical “beyond”. I have been in retreat with my Shaman friends who have reminded me of my sensory call to the divine feminine, through the dances of Peruvian goddesses, Mother Mary and Jesus, unity of women in the now-time, and feet planted in leaves on Appalachian soil, nursed by old rivers like the Swannanoa, that carry prayers and unwanted life roles into larger bodies so they can be repurposed, born again – back into the source.

In this work, I am reminded of my strengths, not my weaknesses. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes in her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, I am “finding that being good, being sweet, being nice will not cause life to sing.” I am remembering that speaking my truth and dancing in my inner child’s light is not the same as stomping on the ideals of others when those ideals are not harmful. It is not the same as holding preference to one way of thought or one person simply as a reaction to something I know I don’t like, not really understanding if the hold I have on that thought or person really serves who I am at my core.

With Election Day just hours away, I am choosing to stay in this work. Regardless of outcome, I don’t need to blame those who vote for forerunners in the race or those who vote third party. I do need to acknowledge the flaws in that system that have allowed the corrupt to come to power and have created a wedge for those persons who may have political callings, but don’t have massive financial gain—who ultimately may fall prey to being bought so that they may gain power. This age-old scenario is a lengthy, repeating human problem that rears its ugly head in a variety of ways throughout history.

In the meantime, I pray that I will be in congruence with the intensity of my own sacred space in this corner of the world in which I live. I can control that.  I can control that! We live in an angry time, when people are frustrated and feel a lack of foundation in their lives. I only need remember that my voice matters and I can listen to it. I can acknowledge that it, too, is important. The work is a deeper election, where I choose to remember what is beyond the veil, where I cast my vote for peace into the unknown, knowing the path will enlighten me.

Art Is Necessary

IMG_1324I consider myself an artist. A singer. Actor. Writer. I am immersed in a world full of creative people, often egocentric, who see the world through a different set of glasses. I have been thinking about that little three letter word a lot this week. Art. What does it really mean? Most dictionaries associate art with physical objects, tangible representations of some kind that are created with one’s imagination as the instigator. What struck me most, looking at various definitions, was the common association of art with beauty. Without delving deeper into the identity crisis of words and dwelling on the meanings of beauty, I will just say that I am troubled by these two words as cohorts.

In creating art, there are complicated images, emotions, thoughts, and instincts in the artist’s play that are often full of darkness, hope, loneliness, joy, and the plethora of words that can be identified with the human experience. In the theatre, we are taught that our art reflects the world as it is. Yet our world is far from beautiful. It is way more interesting than that.

Artists are often stereotyped as being passive, open-minded, accepting, peace-loving hippies who just need to write, sing, or paint their way through life. Perhaps that is one side of the coin. In reality, as an artist, I am judgmental, opinionated, and aggressive in my attempt to understand the world, or to reflect it through some medium. It is messy. It is sweaty. It is rarely beautiful—maybe more like the reality of dirty, bloody childbirth rather than the glossed-over romantic images associated with it in storybooks. Maybe the truth—the artist’s voice within the medium—is somehow beautiful because it has been born, until it can be judged for its worth, like the rest of us.

In singing, many terms associated with good vocal production revolve around the same word. Beauty. Bel canto or beautiful singing. Yet, as an interpreter of words—of character and situation, singing “beautifully” isn’t always the best choice. Transient singing that comes off the page and fully grabs its audience, is carried by the breath.  The wind. It can be brassy, biting, unpredictable…potentially glass shattering. For some, maybe all of those adjectives combined make the singing beautiful. In this case, the mere definition of beauty is in the ear of the listener.

But what about the art?

If I generalize the words too much, beauty loses its sting. Art loses its imaginative resonance. It becomes a politician rather than a bard. I need art. I need beauty. I also need ugly. And I need wind, even when it is not gentle.  I need to be an artist. It is who I am. Art is not always beautiful, but it is necessary. It keeps me awake in all the noise.

Just Shut Up: A Holiday Greeting

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I am sitting at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, looking out at the Great Smokies. It is just a few days before Christmas, yet the weather is brightly sunny, holding temperature in the mid sixties. Last time I was here, there were colorful leaves everywhere and the temperature was lower than today’s. It was autumn, and I was breathing in the air deeply, trying to hold on to what was left of the beauty and warmth of leaf season. The beauty has not disappeared; it has simply shifted. The beauty has not gone into hibernation in response to barren trees. I see the tree limbs curling in all directions, revealing more of the mountains than I could see earlier in the year. It is quieter because there is less traffic due to lessened tourism. My hound dogs, sitting in the back seat, are relaxing lazily, rather than panting anxiously in response to zooming motorcycles and camera clicking humans. The overlook is different from any place I can go in a car during the holiday season, and it reminds me of a contrasting moment I experienced a week ago downtown.

Last week, I was walking through a crosswalk as directed by the crosswalk indicator, while the opposing traffic sat stopped at a red light. As I was walking, I felt something pushing against my left side and realized that a car was rolling forward, touching me, and ultimately, heading into the oncoming traffic. As I realized what was happening and looked at the driver, I saw a woman on her cell phone looking down. She was not even looking out the windshield, and she had a small child in a carseat in the front seat beside her. I placed my hands on the hood of her car to get her attention. When she saw me, she hit her brakes and stopped the car. Dismayed, I said, “Please get off your phone!” She barked at me, “Oh…no! You are fine,” and then yelled, “Just shut up!”. I was shaken up by the experience and proceeded to share the story with friends later that day. I could not believe this lady would put herself and her child in so much danger by choosing to talk on a cell phone in busy traffic. I could not believe that I had been yelled at even though she had almost knocked me over with her car. And I could not believe that she was setting that behavior example for her child.

I worry about her. I worry about her child. I worry about all of us. We, in general, are greatly separated from each other yet overly connected by technology at the same time. We are angry. We are trying to do too much at once. If I could see that lady again, I would beg her to come up here, on the parkway, and sit with me so she could see the peace. So she could see tree bark and the seemingly still clouds framing the mountains. The cordless conversation of the wind. An inclusive bigger picture that need not be shut up. Perhaps a new way of navigating the holiday season, giving fresh meaning to days that are both merry and bright.

Wild but Kind

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Elk and deer live around me, in the woods of my neighborhood, but I only see them at moments when I am not looking for them—when I am looking for something else, like a road sign, insight, approval, or a reason to flee the moment. That is when they appear—on a road, in a field—playing, jumping, banging antlers or sniffing the leaves. Upon sighting them, my mind’s chaos quietens. My breath stops until I realize its hold and exhale the wonder of such majesty.

The world becomes clearer. Cleaner. Wild but kind. Messy but cohesive without my anxious thoughts scattering the paint on the budding canvas. The moment. In that clarity, I am no longer a spectator, but instead, I become wrapped in the fold of the activity of the elk or deer. I feel my hands and feet deep in the earth as if I could prance, too, just like them. I remember the feeling the next time I cross that physical path, and I look for the elk and deer, hoping they will return and welcome me into their worlds once more.

I return home, wishing I could remake the moment that I so dearly miss, and my dogs look at me—deeply into my eyes—they see my longing to return to my wildness. They teach me how to prance, to graze, to sift the leaves, to connect with them, not glossing over the forest of my own spirit. There is majesty there, even when I try to ignore the present, hoping for the past to return. I can almost see it. The antlers dancing. The paws praying.

How To Turn 40

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In the near future, I will turn 40. I will have crawled and walked on this planet for four decades! When my mom turned forty, her friends held a funeral for her. They all wore black. They decorated the house with black wreaths, black flowers and black streamers. And, of course, they garnished the cake with icing that gloated, “Over the Hill” in my mom’s face. I was a teenager, and I thought to myself, “It must be a terrible thing to turn forty. How sad.”

Over the last few months, I have been dreading turning the big 4-0. I have come up with imaginary scenarios where my friends and colleagues suddenly think I am too old to have fun, look young, have energy or contribute anything inspiring or new to the world. I even thought about sending my family members and same-age friends private messages on Facebook begging them NOT to write Happy 40th on my Wall. I even considered removing the ability for friends to post on my Wall.

Being a performer, I started looking ahead at theatre roles like Daisy in Driving Miss Daisy, assuming I would be blacklisted from younger roles and would have to go through a dry spell until I could play much older. (I’m not neurotic or anything.) I was convinced that my students would no longer relate to me because they would shelve me in that “much older person” category. I thought about lying about my age when asked in the workplace.

I lost sleep, indulged in Netflix shows that dealt with either immortals or female actors older than me who look amazing. One day, I needed assurance. Others, I needed denial and fantasy. Recently, at a party with newer friends, I decided to reveal my big secret, that I was turning forty, to a couple of trusty confidantes. When I shared the information, there was no shock. In fact, none of them even cared. They didn’t even seem surprised (somewhat do my dismay).

After thinking about the non-reactions of my friends and having a philosophical conversation with my rational, wise husband, my perspective began to change. My friends are comfortable being their ages. They don’t have a head-case-style issue with age at all. So, my age, even my character-age on the stage, is completely irrelevant to them. They care about my talent and my skills on the stage, not my age. They care about the person I am, not how old she is. 

My husband reminded me that if I were living in a more primal, tribal time in our history, I wouldn’t even have lived this long. Even if I had lived that long, I would not understand how to count time in the manner that we do today. Besides, no one thinks of 40 the way people did when my mom turned that age. And if I look back at pictures of Mom at 40, I look A LOT like her. She is beautiful, youthful, inspiring and full of energy at 40, so I must try to believe the same could be true of myself.

So, the best way I know to turn 40 is to say, “It’s my birthday, and I’m 40, and that’s awesome. And I am so grateful for all of the wonderful things in my life and that I have had enough years to put myself in this quandary. Bring it on!”

For now, I am still 39. One day soon I will be 40. I don’t think much will have changed. I don’t think I will have developed new fine lines or rhino-horns overnight. I don’t think my hair will have turned solid white or that no one will want to talk to me or hire me anymore. But maybe I’ll be a little wiser as I come out of this silly little age closet. Less afraid. Who knows? I might surprise you. Or even better…myself!

How To Buy a House Without Having Your Teeth Pulled

My husband and I just uprooted ourselves along with our two dogs and three cats and moved to a new house. Moving is supposed to be one of the most stressful life events, and although our move was one based in excitement and choice, it did not come without stress. Putting our old house on the market required a million tiny little updates that added up to weeks of tedious labor. Working with the bank and realtors on securing our new home was a wild experience full of mishaps and odd quirks that often made us question whether or not we were making the right choice. Yet, at the end of the stress storm, we signed our names thirty or so times on binding documents prepared in a musty attorney’s office. Amidst the fatigue and elation of holding the physical key to our new home, we began our journey. The big move.

So many times throughout the process of moving, we worried about our cats and the transition they would be making. One of our cats, Sugar Frances, is sensitive to change and would likely develop a bladder infection or mark territory everywhere. Another cat, Dobby, true to his Harry Potter house-elf-inspired name, is mischievous, and would likely jump off the balcony of our new porch, injuring himself. But our third cat, Luna, would be perfect, easy and accommodating to all. Luna is a Yoda-like cat and is often the wisest presence in our family—hence her Harry Potter Ravenclaw namesake. Luna would be the last one to worry about. She would even teach the dogs how to adjust.

During the buying and moving process, there was much pain. Emotional pain from stress. Intellectual pain from dealing with incompetent business people. Physical pain and exhaustion from the intense cleaning, home repairs and packing. My husband and I were always verbal about the pain we felt as we tried to give birth to our new house—our new home. We needed to curse, scream, laugh hysterically, dance like a troll—whatever needed—to stay healthy. Our success of health came from our freedom to acknowledge our pain.

Cats are different, it turns out. We learned this the hard way. Luna, the most resilient, agreeable House Ravenclaw cat in the world, turned out to be in serious pain. Just after moving, at a routine check up with our new vet, our doctor explained that over half of Luna’s teeth were severely decayed, many rotting from the inside out, making it hard to see. He explained that cats hide their pain, even more so than dogs, and that Luna was in extreme pain and would need surgery. Hiding pain is a survival instinct from the wild.

In all of the huffing and puffing over our move and worrying over our other pets, I never saw Luna’s acute pain. She had been covering it up brilliantly. I can’t imagine that—feeling like showing my pain or my stress would be a sign of weakness. A bad thing. Having had my share of dental surgeries, I am particularly empathetic to the stress of mouth pain and in awe of Luna’s ability to hide hers.

Today I am sitting in a coffee shop, watching people, wondering if they are able to share their pain with each other, or if they think they somehow must bottle it all up. I am thankful for my mouth and my ability to chew food. I am thankful for my new home. I am thankful for my ability to express my stress through creative means. I am looking. Looking at the people. Seeing cats.

Haunted Christmas Tree

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This holiday season, I find myself more fatigued than ever. I have become so busy over the last six months that it is hard to believe it is December. I keep saying, “Wasn’t it August just a few weeks ago?” Yet, my body tells me that much has happened. Many projects have been completed. I have been looking forward to this break—this time to stop for a bit and breathe in the holiday—before the new year throws me right into the fast lane again.

Now in my journey to stop and to rest, I find myself becoming agitated and downright grumpy. I am like Scrooge halfway through his nightmare with the Spirits. I am haunted. I am exhilarated. I am baffled. I am not completely at peace with it all yet. I am in my own Advent darkness hoping for the light that is always promised.

This Christmas, I am haunted by my Christmas tree. It is decorated with so many different ornaments. They reflect my Christmas past and present. One ornament is a nest of two birds that my brother and I reached for each year we decorated the branches of our tree as kids. There is a homemade paper ornament that keeps memory of a parakeet I had in my early twenties. It reminds me of my sweet little blue bird, but also those beginning years right out of college with my best friends. We had a simple tree with homemade paper ornaments and popcorn garland. It wasn’t a fancy-pants tree, but we were proud of it, and we poured our hearts into it as we created the ornaments. I look at that ornament and remember being silly with my friends and how much I miss them now that we live in different cities. There’s a stuffed Papa Smurf ornament in honor of my Grandaddy, who died twenty years ago. He was a great mentor and friend to me; I was always his “Smurf” and he was my “Papa Smurf”. The stuffed ornament makes me smile and remember how much fun we had together, but it also makes me miss Grandaddy even more.

At the top of this memory hill that I climb when I look at my tree, is the most painful, haunting ornament of all—a dalmatian in a gift box that represents my late dog, Lily. I realize this year, that after all of the crying and the terrible pain that has come as a result of her death 16 months ago, I still haven’t fully grieved her.

The tree haunts me. It teaches me that I must hang my present day grief on it. I have to allow it to break my heart completely open so that I can see the guiding gestures of the Spirit of What-Is-To-Become. I am grateful for the tree, and one day I will appreciate the pain. It is proof that I have known love, know love, and will continue to know love. In this season of celebrating miracles and birth, I am swimming in the inevitable cycle of death, looking for my own infancy to return. In the meantime, I am resting in Mother Mary’s womb, waiting for the contractions to begin.