Mary Oliver’s Healing Words

In times of heartache and failure, when you believe you are responsible for everything that is wrong and that it will be impossible to ever make things right because you’re not nearly as powerful as ought to be, read this beautiful poem by Mary Oliver. It will feel like your mother’s cool hand across your hot forehead.

Mary Oliver died today at the age of 83. What a remarkable sea of gifts she left us.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver, Dream Work

The Story of Romeo’s Return

I quit on him.

I filled out the surrender form late one night and the next day, around noon, piled him into the truck and, with my husband riding in the back to keep him from jumping into the front seat, I took our newly adopted dog, Romeo, back to the Humane Society.

I thought I would feel bad about it but I didn’t.

It had been three and a half weeks of Romeo tormenting our older dog and me thinking that it would get better with time. Oh, part of it was Romeo being very young (13 months) and our older dog, Minnie, being a lot older (14) but, as time went on, Romeo’s attacks on Minnie took on a rougher and rougher character, knocking her over, pinning her to the floor, biting her back legs, and, once, causing her to fall down the stairs.

The Humane Society told me to keep the dogs separated. So I did that but it seemed an impractical solution long term. It became harder and harder to protect Minnie without isolating her from the rest of us. And that felt very cruel to me.

Her eyes were beseeching. It was as if she couldn’t believe life had brought her to this point. But still I was determined. I kept Romeo tethered to me with a leash like I’d done years ago with another very energetic dog. It worked then but not this time. He chewed the leash.

So I worked harder on training, having him sit quietly with me in the kitchen by giving him treats every now and then and praising his quietness. But that only worked for a while. He would run off to attack Minnie and then come back, sit quietly, and wait for his treat. Meanwhile, breaking up his attacks became much more dramatic and wild. I began to feel like a cop on a domestic violence call.

And then, as predictably as winter following fall, Romeo came after me.

At first, I couldn’t believe I couldn’t handle this dog. We have had some rambunctious dogs but never one I couldn’t handle, never one I couldn’t trust not to bite me. His jumping at me and snapping were nearly constant and none of the techniques I’d used before with other dogs worked. If I quickly turned my back when he jumped, he just bit on my jacket. Thank God it wasn’t summer.

So I reflected on this. What was my commitment to a dog I’ve known three weeks compared to my commitment to Minnie who has been a gentle and sweet girl for so many years? What was I saying about myself if I took a dog back? That I was intimidated by a 28-pound dog? That I didn’t have the persistence or patience to train his aggression out of him? That I was afraid of him?

“He’s going to hurt somebody.”

As is so often the case, it was my husband, Howard, who distilled the issue into its most condensed, meaningful form. We live in a neighborhood with dozens of kids and Romeo had already learned to jump over the back porch railing. We couldn’t leave him outside alone. Ever.

So when the Humane Society worker smeared a mound of peanut butter on the floor for Romeo to zoom in on and took off his new collar and leash to hand to me, I was relieved. I told them about his behavior, that he probably shouldn’t be placed in a home with other dogs or children, but that he hadn’t ever really bitten us. He wasn’t beyond redemption at all. He was just too much and they nodded like it was something they’d heard before.

I waited to feel bad, thinking that I would have to confront and absorb my failure. But I only felt relieved and for days I settled into the peacefulness of my house and my life like it was a new thing just delivered to my door, something I’d never had before, it felt that strange and precious.

So this is my dog story, my story of taking Romeo back, of quitting on him. Maybe it’s not the happiest dog story around, but it is true, as true as I could tell it.

New Year’s Eve

I’m mindful at the end of this year that I could be bereaved, attending support groups and drinking weak coffee in a paper cup with powdered creamer, cracking the wood stirrer into fourths to hold in my hand while I wish I could erase everything that happened that was out of my control as everything is before and after but instead I am here drinking champagne and waiting for the ball to drop in New York, not worried about catastrophe because catastrophe passed me over like the Angel of Death’s blackness gliding by a house protected by an ancient mezuzah, the words on its scroll tiny and faded but spelling out saved and redemption and gratitude.

10 Things I Quit Doing in 2018

Working for money. This is a bigger deal than it sounds because what it means is that I disentangled my ego from how much money I make. Now the U.S. Government has set my value with its incredibly generous Social Security benefits.

Waiting for somebody else to carry stuff. I schlep an enormous amount of stuff between Time of the Month Club and Street Angels and I like it, I don’t know why. Five years ago, I’d be looking for a man or a donkey to haul all these bags and boxes but no more, man, I am my own hauler.

Wearing pants that aren’t jeans. I take that back. I wore a wild pair of gold and brown flowing pants to a reception during the summer. They were nice but felt like pajamas. There’s a reason why Levis are timeless.

Eschewing the phone. A big dose of ‘get over yourself’ came hurling at me from Mars one day and I fired up the phone attachment for my cochlear implant and called the damn dentist. Big breakthrough, folks. You have no idea.

Putting up with hijackers. If I own the plane and I am flying the plane, the plane is going where I want it to go. When you own the plane and fly the plane, you can go where you want to go. Meanwhile, take a seat in the back.

Buying stuff. I am done with stuff. My house is full of stuff. I don’t even like buying stuff for other people who haven’t had the time I’ve had to accumulate a lot of stuff. I’m really sick to death of stuff. This makes me not a great Christmas present giver.

Indulging timidity. My patience for people who don’t ‘want to make waves’ has vanished. At the same time, my admiration for people who call out injustice, hypocrisy, and all kinds of ridiculousness has soared. And, yeah, I decided to go with the cool kids.

Drinking wine all night. I was never a drunk but I could always drink a fair amount. Let’s just say – I’m a shadow of my former self.

Trying to control the relationships of others. I say this as old dog and new dog bark and nip at each other. ‘They will work it out,’ we were told and so they will. But it is a pain to listen to and not just with dogs.

Holding back. I don’t, anymore.

99 New: Small Can Be Beautiful

Every time I take the path from the bluff down to the shore of Lake Michigan at our beloved Doctors Park, I see the picnic table where, nearly forty years ago, I sat with my young daughter on Christmas Day as she pulled out the blades of her new Swiss Army Knife one by one.

It was just the two of us.

It was uncommonly warm for Christmas in Wisconsin, spring-like, the air carrying the honey of renewal and possibility, the sun shining and the water of Lake Michigan glittering like it does sometimes when you expect to feel lonely and alone, the water deciding somehow to erase your gloom and make you grateful to be alive at that moment.

What I’m saying is this.

Love what you have
Put your yearning in the drawer
Behind the sweaters you don’t wear
And the scarves your mother sent you

Sit by yourself on a bench
Smooth your hands on the wood slats
Let the sun echo through you
Like a medicine, a poultice on your soul

And go, feeling fine, feeling whole
Own yourself and your footsteps
The day that is here is yours
Nothing is lacking, you are full, your arms are full

99 New: It’s a Dog’s Life

As grief-stricken as she might have been, our old dog, Minnie, also seemed liberated by the death of her long-time companion and frequent oppressor, BowWow. For years, BowWow, a smaller dog by half, exercised his dominance over her as the alpha dog. He stood over Minnie as she rested on a bed or a blanket or a space of earth on the planet until she got up and moved to another spot. It didn’t need to be a prime spot, an especially cushy or warm spot, it only had to be the spot she had. His mission was to make her move from her spot. For no reason. Just because he could.

I tried to intervene. I yelled at BowWow and told Minnie to stay where she was. Stand your ground! I shouted. Sometimes I grabbed the smaller dog by the collar and took him to another spot to lie down, a nice comfy bed on the other side of the room. But BowWow returned within seconds and continued his silent, oppressive standing over her until she moved, a big dog slinking off to find a cold spot while the smaller dog curled his satisfied self into a ball on the warm spot she’d just vacated.

When BowWow died, I watched Minnie shake off her learned inferiority. She slept wherever she pleased. Because she was old and stiff, we often threw a big comforter on the floor of the living room for her. We turned the TV on when we left the house so she wouldn’t be lonely and soon seemed to replace her regular meals with snacks from the cupboard and our plates. She took to sleeping in, sometimes needing to be rousted at 9:00 am, a sign that she’d left the days of BowWow-mandated early rising behind.

You know where this is going, right? Romeo, the new dog, spent an hour in his new home being sheepish and deferential, well, maybe a day or two, but quickly grew into his 13-month old balls. He has perfected the warm spot steal and is working, not very subtly, on muscling in on Minnie’s food bowl. Minnie stands back now from the stairs if Romeo is going down or up, doing that standing aside and looking at her nails thing that women do when they want to convey their superiority in an environment where they are being trampled, like, oh, I meant to stop here in this nice out of the way spot so all the guys could hurl themselves down the stairs.

Don’t let this punk intimidate you, I want to tell Minnie but she has already gone back to the land of deference. We intervene to try to teach Romeo decent manners and to keep Minnie safe, mostly she steers a wide berth around him, finding spots that he doesn’t want to claim as her own. She is a big, old sweet girl, precious to us but no revolutionary. She has no interest in living up to our feminist dreams for her. She’s just going to keep living her dog life the way she has for twelve years, doing whatever it takes to have some peace in her world and get a decent nap. That’s her right, I guess. Or her lot.