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I left my dog Bodhi alone today. Twice. And both times, she didn’t scratch at the door, leaving a scattering of paint chips on the floor. She didn’t bark and howl. She freaked out, but only a little, and it’s an improvement.
DSCN2034My journey in rehabilitating this dog, in helping her trust the world again, has worn on me in the last five months. In the last month especially, since I’ve had a regular babysitter come to the house who takes Coraline for walks, in turn leaving a helpless doggy mommy at home in a panic. I didn’t know this was a nightmare for her until it was too late, and we’ve had to start almost completely over in separation anxiety training.
I admittedly lost a little empathy for her then. Sometimes quite a lot. I’d get ready to leave, and she’d start panting and whining, and my first thought was, “Really? You’re really stressed again? Haven’t we been through this? Aren’t five fucking months of me coming home after I leave enough for you?” I’d get frustrated, and stopped calling her to me. Stopped petting her, when that was probably the time she needed it most.
What has interested me most in this process of getting to know Bodhi and in turn learning how to reassure her, is I find myself reflecting on periods in my life when I, too, recovered from trauma. I’ve gotten wise to the causes, and now live what most would call a solitary life, minus the two kids and scatterings of good friends. But at night, when I sit down to eat, when I have happy or sad events hive five me, or hit me in the arm or gut, I am the only one there to share them with.
These are the lonely times.
I’ve known Bodhi’s panic. I know what it’s like to watch the door close, the headlights shine through the windows and fade out of sight, and leave you in the dark. I know that panic of not wanting, not trusting yourself to be left alone. I know that feeling of complete loss of control. I know how she feels. I mean, as much as I can imagine, not being a dog and all.
But how do I tell a dog in human ways that I understand her? How do I tell her I’ll be there again in just five minutes because I need to run to the fucking store?
I can’t.
Maybe the training books have it a little wrong. The method’s not in trickery, confusing your dog so they never know if you’ll be gone for five minutes or fifty. It’s not in distraction of treats or toys filled with peanut butter. Maybe what needs to happen is confidence.
DSCN1992My dog’s on Prozac. She’s on Prozac because she acts like a woman recovering from years spent in an abusive relationship would act. She watches me for signs, trying to read my movements to give her a hint as to what I’m doing. She flinches. Hard. She constantly seeks attention, even when I’m mad. Especially when I’m mad.
When I first started reading up on separation anxiety, one website said to disengage yourself from your dog, to halt the connection, and possibly lessen it, so your absence won’t be such a loss. I tried this for a while, mostly because I tried everything, other times because I needed a break and couldn’t get one. This could be the worst advice I’ve come across. A dog who panics when you leave doesn’t need less love, she needs more. So much that when you’re gone, she still feels it, and maybe even starts to love herself a little, too.
That seems to be an important place to point to, and possibly the one we can pull from our memory and say, “This is when I learned how to be alone and that it was okay.” I can’t tell you when mine is, though. I’m still not sure if it is okay.
Because today I watched Coraline meet her paternal grandparents. They welcomed her with such love and joy and acceptance, and were so grateful that I brought her there. They followed her around and made her smile and whenever she walked on unsteady ground, a hand came out, just ten inches away, to catch her if she fell.
How better can family be illustrated than that simple gesture?
Instead of “What now?” say “How can I help?”
Instead of “What is wrong?” say “Here, come here. Do you need a hug?”
Loneliness, insecurity, and anxiety are the most primal of feelings, even in the family dog. Maybe especially in the family dog.
Bodhi has nightmares. She’s having one right now and I wonder what they’re about.
Maybe I don’t want to know.
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Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how it feels to live in poverty. I’ve been published or featured seven times in the last week. I’m waiting on three more to go through edits, and another two to go live. On Tuesday, I’ll stand on a stage in front of a class at the college where I just graduated and give a talk about freelancing. I took that class two years ago.
DSCN1960But that’s not even the biggest full-circle moment. I’m working my way out of poverty by writing about my experiences in it. By opening myself up and taking a risk of admitting to others (namely internet trolls) that I’m still struggling enough to qualify for government assistance, I am getting to a place where I don’t need it anymore.
My first piece through the Economic Hardship Reporting Project was published yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve ever published something that said the words “I’m on food stamps.” Yesterday I wanted to curl onto my knees and heave sobs because of those four words appearing on a website. It was admitting how hard this has been while knowing the journey is almost over.
The piece was about the stigma involved in being on government assistance, or welfare, as most incorrectly call it. It’s about being compared to a wild animal receiving handouts on social media. It’s about feeling that judgment and hatred every time I pay for groceries, or even select items off the shelf.
I can honestly say I’ve never felt encouraged to get a college education as a single mother. I especially didn’t feel encouraged to pursue writing. I felt encouraged to work. I felt like I needed to work as many hours as I possibly could, no matter how low the pay, to get ahead. This is an idiotic system. Why wouldn’t low-income people be encouraged to educate themselves to earn higher wages? Not only was I going to school, though, I was taking out the maximum amount of student loans to pay for our meager fixed expenses like rent, insurance, internet, gas, phone, and utilities. I worked my way through college, and received grants and scholarships, but still ended at $50,000 in debt. Graduating meant failing my family at a chance to own a house.
DSCN1965Without the degree, though, I don’t think I would have stopped cleaning houses. I don’t think I would have thought myself on the same level as the people whose houses I cleaned. I don’t think I would have set my sights on top of the mountain, instead of being okay with remaining in the comfort of the trailhead at a job that required little skill or brain-power. Not thinking, not going to school, only working, was easy.
In a sense, I still feel the pull to get a regular job. I’ve written about this before. I think it’s only because writing is such a hobby to me and I feel like I’m not truly working. What is work, anyway? To a low-income person, it means being on your feet, asking people if you can get them anything, and performing customer service in the most direct way possible. Even if you’re working behind the scenes as a janitor, you still have customers to please.
But we’re all working in customer service. We’re all freelancers. Nobody (hopefully) forces us to work and we can leave anytime. And somebody, somewhere, appreciates the work we do, even if they don’t notice it.
I’m sitting in a café right now. I have a store-bought coffee sitting next to my laptop. I’m waiting for emails from editors, sending off essays, and fielding comments on my social media platforms. Last night I stayed up until 2 in order to meet a deadline. The work is constant, a mad dash, and a delicious hustle.
I just found out The Guardian’s running my op-ed tomorrow.
I think I deserve the night off.
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DSCN1996Netflix recently made classic episodes of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood available, and I’ve been watching them with the girls. Or, more correctly, I sit on the couch, my mouth gaped open a little, a tear welling in my eyelid and balancing until I wipe it away while the kids putter around and play with the dog.
Mr. Rogers was a sort of hero to me. He was the grandfather I’d longed for. The friend down the street I wanted to visit, the answer to my uncertainty and angst at four-years-old. I used to stand in front of our huge, wood-encased television that sat on the floor, waiting for him to wave good-bye, and I’d kiss the static of the screen, leaving marks for my mom to complain about having to wipe off.
Watching the episodes Netflix chose to release, especially the one with the crayon factory, was to sit as a child again, remembering my small frame and long hair, listening intently to the nice man telling me I mattered because I was me and nobody else was.
I spent the entire month of August hustling to get published. I wrote stories about rape, edited others about abortion, and made lists of how Louis CK and Roseanne molded me in to the parent I am. I submitted, pitched, and submitted more. My rejection pile increased more rapidly than my accepted one, but as of today I’m forthcoming through eight publications, and most of them are new to me and large platforms.
In the midst of all of this, I got accepted to be a writing fellow through the Center for Community Change. This position is the equivalent of running across the room, leaping, and landing in a feather bed.  My boss is an enthusiastic cheerleader of my writing, my story, and talks me up to editors at lunches after listening to me talk for a couple of hours about my struggles over the last decade. Most of all, it comes with a stipend that, with the child support I fought hard to get and receive, pays my bills. My days of constant writing, hustling, and pitching for 12-14 hours a day were done for the time being.
Granted, I have very modest bills. I don’t have a smartphone, cable, a car payment, or high-speed internet. I only fill my gas tank once a month. I have housing assistance and qualify for other programs like free breakfast and lunches for Mia. Federal poverty level is at $16.50 per person, per day, and I’m still under that mark, but not as far as I used to be.
Currently, I just have one piece that’s due next week, and I’m waiting for instructions on another one. I’m taking an online writing class, but other than that I’m not writing. I went from writing over 1,000 words a day to hardly any. I had to take a break from myself. I had to stop reliving those painful moments. I had to shut down and stop being so damn open and vulnerable. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sometimes in a panic, asking “Why am I sharing these things?!” I admit, I’m an avid social media user, and have kept a blog off and on for years, but in this age of publishing online and facing scrutiny through dreaded comment sections, I often felt gripping anxiety over it all, wanting to hide, or pretend my online self wasn’t really me.
DSCN2018Most of all, I had to stop reliving those painful moments, editing my memories to form them into a story arc. Writing about heartbreak was putting myself back in that body, sitting with myself on that porch late at night, feeling that loneliness and isolation again. This wasn’t feeling the warm fuzziness from Mr. Rogers. This was lying in dark rooms, alone and scared.
Instead I’ve been giving myself permission to not write, not work, and take some time to read books or go back and edit pieces I’m passionate about. I take Coraline and the dog for walks, and Bodhi never pulls while we wait for the baby to catch up, holding a leaf or stick she’s found.
It was my birthday on Sunday. I meant to write something about turning a year older, or the fact that it’s the anniversary of conceiving both of my daughters. I wanted to recognize how far we’ve come in the last year, but I don’t need a birthday to meditate on that. I do it almost daily.
The only thing I wanted to happen on that day was allowing our dog, Bodhi, the chance to run without fences, long leads, or a nervous me calling her back constantly. We drove out to the mountains and I opened the door to the truck, watched her hesitate a bit, then run back and forth with the greatest doggy-smile on her face.
We got back to the house, and I ran to the store for dinner stuff. Mia sang “Happy Birthday” to me over cupcakes I’d bought. That night, everything was quiet, and I realized the only adults I’d spoken to all day were two cashiers and a friend I’d run into outside the grocery store. Years ago, this would have sent me in to a spiral of despair and sadness, but I didn’t feel that in the slightest. When I think of my life, minus the tasks of caring for all of us, I feel nothing but contentment. A freedom from want. A happiness. Maybe that’s what growing up means: finding your inner Mr. Rogers. Finding a way to be comfortable with, appreciate and love me because I am me and no one else is.
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Through a good amount of grace, giving, and pure luck, I have found child care for Coraline. Or, rather, it found me, really.
I’ve had a hard time lately. I have a list of several pieces I need to work on. Things I’ve agreed to do. Things I should probably be writing instead of blogging. But I need to write freely, without a numbered list with added sass or a structure and voice I’ve pitched and must maintain. I just want to have a minute to have a glass of wine and let my fingers tap and dance and let out a mental sigh.
DSCN1963Mia listens to a Taylor Swift album at night. I’d added that “Oh Darling Don’t You Ever Grow Up” on the end, and it plays about an hour after we’ve said goodnight. It’s playing right now.
We had a fight tonight and I told her she was being a jerk. I’d wanted to run to the store and she said I couldn’t because she was playing outside. Then later I couldn’t because I said I wouldn’t buy her ice cream bars. I told her to go to her room, but she kept calling out demands and asking questions she knew the answer was “no” to. I took away her Netflix queue for our television in the living room (we don’t have cable) and walked into her bedroom to take her netbook computer away. She asked why and I said, “Because you’re being a jerk.” She melted. And cried.
We’d played a board game after school. She’d freely told me things she’d learned that day and talked about her friends without me asking how things went. I fed the girls mac ‘n’ cheese and fruit and watched them eat. I had to go to the store. We were out of coffee and eggs and milk and hummus.
I know Mia’s been having a hard time lately. I know this because she starts having melt-downs and argues more and cries over little things and has temper tantrums that remind me of when she was two. She just started a new school. I know that can be rough. I did it when I was her age, too. And she won’t see her dad until Christmas after only seeing him for a few weeks this summer. I told her I know how that goes, too. I haven’t seen or talked to my dad in a few years.
I did make it to the store. I left Mia at home with the dog who still suffers from separation anxiety, even through the Prozac. Mia’s fine, though. She has a cell phone, and our good friends are right across the hall in case something happens. The store is a few minutes’ walking distance and I usually only grab a few things. When I got back, we all sat together at the table for the third time today.
The girls split a slice of cheese pizza while I gobbled down steamed greens and roasted chicken. Mia and I talked about our fight. My voice was silent and hurt, but hers was bubbly and normal. She asked if I’d play a comedy stand-up acting game.
“I don’t want to, Mia,” I said. “I’m sad, and tired, and really just need to sit and enjoy eating some food.”
She came over and hugged me then. I kind of wished she would apologize for being a punk earlier but she didn’t.
“I’m sorry you got so mad you couldn’t buy me ice cream bars,” she said.
But every night that god damned Taylor Swift song plays. It plays while Mia is sound asleep in her bottom bunk with a stuffed animal tucked into the front of her shirt so she doesn’t lose it when she rolls around so much. She’s in matching pajamas with cartoon horses and purple and pink and blue daisies.
Coraline’s walking all over and squats when she gets mad, straightening with a scream. I used to look at the contrast of Cora and Mia and think that I had such a short time of Cora being a baby, but now I think “Oh god, I have five or six years before this kid can be trusted to get herself a snack.”
0829152311My motherhood journey right now is of the days being long and the available time to work being short to non-existent. But somehow I get it done. With a baby sleeping in my lap on one of those “C” shaped pillows called a Boppy for some reason. That’s how I write. I take breaks sometimes to doze off with my chin on my chest, then wake up again and write a few more lines with blurred vision.
I wrote about 10,000 words last week, and did about ten pitches. I hope Coraline’s new child care situation is one that will give me solid time to work, and write, and maybe shower or nap or cook or shop. Tuesdays and Thursdays will be for Cora, and Bodhi, and me, who needs a good walk as much as the dog.
But, for now, I’m still struggling to teach my toddler and dog the concept of leaving and that I’ll be back. I’ll always be back. But bye-byes are good. Even necessary. For a little while, anyway.
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My daughter was four when I accidentally told her I’d die. We were snuggled under covers, reading a story, and for some reason she brought up a guinea pig she knew that’d died recently, and she wanted to know why.
“Well, everything dies,” I’d said, in my matter-of-fact atheist way.
“Even you?” she’d said.
I couldn’t go back, and she already knew what I was about to say. The tears started, growing to full-on wails. I couldn’t get her to sleep for another hour, and she slept in my bed for a week.
I’d never thought about the what-if scenarios of my death. Mia’s a badass kid. She’s resilient. We’ve been through so much, I think she can make it through just about anything.
***
For a few years, we drove around in a 1983 Honda Wagon that we’d named Pearl. This car, for her age, was a champ, but had an especially difficult time in the last six months we had her. She finally broke down on the freeway, heading west, at sunset. I knew the sun must be in the oncoming drivers’ eyes. Mia was with me, and I was seven months pregnant with a baby I’d decided to have on my own.
DSCN1562Semis rushed by at 60mph and rocked the car while we waited for the tow truck. This just wouldn’t do. I couldn’t have a car that broke down all the time with two kids. A month later, I found my dream truck, handing over the last few thousand of my tax refund that was my post-partum savings to purchase a 1987 Toyota 4Runner in near-perfect condition.
A little over a year later, I’ve noticed I’m still scared to drive on the freeway.
***
We adopted a dog a couple of days after Mother’s Day, and I’ve since been focused on her rehabilitation. If I get ready to leave, she’s at my feet, anxiously looking at me while I try not to make eye contact. She’s also not the greatest with other dogs. She wants to play, but if the other dog gets in her space too much, Bodhi’s place is on the defensive.
The dog trainer said a rescue is kind of like adopting a special needs child. I hadn’t realized how much Bodhi’s quirks either made me stay at home or fearful to bring her out.
This summer went by with only a couple of trips to the river. No camping, no rock climbing, and hardly any hiking. I sent Mia off to do stuff with friends quite a bit, but the three of us (with the added dog) hadn’t been out much at all together.
DSCN1916Coraline, the baby, is walking and beelines for the cupboards and fridge and especially my desk. I can’t afford daycare, so my days are spent doing twenty minutes of precious work before she’s gotten herself stuck in a box or needs a new diaper or the dog needs walked or someone is hungry again and what a process that is.
On the weekends when I’m not shuffling Mia off to camp, I have about fifteen things I do before I get a chance to make coffee. This morning I neared the level of screaming before I’d even boiled the water.
“Let’s go to a lake,” I said. Mia, the noisy one, jumped up and got on her swimsuit. I threw a bunch of snacks in a bag, packed towels and a blanket, and grabbed the dog leash.
I didn’t put on a swimsuit. I didn’t pack snacks for myself. I knew all my energy would go into wrangling.
We had to drive quite a ways, including a bit on the freeway. The truck ran perfectly, the baby fell asleep on the way, but I still had white knuckles on my hands, clenched to the steering wheel. My stomach had that familiar knot. I kept imagining a tire blowing out, an oncoming truck pulling a camper losing control, or me drifting, catching an edge, and flipping us into a ditch. Breaking down on the side of the road was no longer simply waiting with Mia until someone showed up to help. I had a baby. And a dog who’d most-likely be so traumatized it’d set us back months in training.
This fear had ruled my life for months and I hadn’t realized it.
When we got to the spot by the lake, there was a couple there with a dog off-leash. I kept going, down the dirt road that circled to the other side. Or, that’s what I assumed.
We were on that dirt road for at least an hour, making our way around to the main road again. I loved it. I doubt my phone had reception. The dog threw up twice. There were bumps and puddles and we saw two badgers by their den. Coraline woke up and chatted her happy baby noises while I drove through back woods with a general idea of where we were.
I’d forgotten how much I’d loved this. This throwing everyone in the car and finding some back road that lead to a spot only we knew about. It used to be my specialty.
Our truck came full circle, and we ended up back at our spot again. Mia found a sunny spot a little further down a path with a rocky, secluded beach. I sat on a blanket with a content baby in my lap in the sun, dare I say totally relaxed. Bodhi was tied to a tree and jumped after rocks and sticks. Mia swam completely under the water, looking for special rocks. She gathered at least fifty. The four of us huddled together when the wind picked up a bit and the girls ate their snacks.
DSCN1930“I know I’ll remember this,” Mia said.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Because of the badgers?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I remember weird things, like you licking a napkin and wiping my face before preschool one day. I’ll remember us sitting here on this blanket.”
I put my arm around her, pulled her in a little tighter, and said, “I will too, kiddo.”
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