A Daisy Forever

I like tattoos. I’ve seen some really cool ones. But I never found an image that I thought I would want on my body for the rest of my life… until my daughter announced that she was getting a tattoo of a daisy. Not just any daisy, but one that was designed by my friend who had died unexpectedly a few years ago. Six years ago, to be exact. I knew immediately that I, too, wanted that same image forever placed on my body.

I sat with the idea for a few months. I don’t make big decisions impulsively. Time turned the idea into something that felt so right I didn’t even feel like I had to decide anymore. I reached out to my friend who has some beautiful tattoos and asked him who I should see. He sent me to a local artist and I booked my appointment.

I chose March 5th, the anniversary of my friend’s death, to get the tattoo. It’s been a shitty day since 2014. And while nothing can make the day not be terrible, I wanted something good to go with the awfulness. I wanted to make a new memory, a good memory that I could hold with the painful ones.

I invited her sons and my daughter to accompany me. I normally like to do things on my own. But not this. I wanted these three by my side. We each have had to figure out how to do life without Catherine’s physical presence. And we have leaned on one another as we’ve done that work. I wanted to share this moment of homage with them. They understood its sacredness. They would be able to grieve her and honor her by my side without effort or explanation.

Did getting the tattoo hurt?

Yes. Yes it did. It felt like a needle was being inserted into my skin and dragged. I guess that’s because a needle was being inserted into my skin and dragged. But eventually I got used to the sensation and it felt more uncomfortable than painful. The white knuckling subsided.

And I love the result.

For you, Catherine.

My Favorites

Sometimes I am with people who seem to bring out the best in me. Sometimes it’s the opposite. The people I’ve learned to hang onto are the ones who see the best in me. It’s not that they overlook my faults. But they see my strengths – my love, loyalty, deeply-felt feelings, intentionality, humor – in spite of my shortcomings – impatience, pushiness, tendency to correct whether one seeks a correction or not. These people are My Favorites, the ones I love more than life itself.

I think it’s a choice, that we can actually authentically be who we are regardless of who we are with. But that is a hard, maybe lifelong skill to learn. It’s normal to allow insecurities or uncertainties or hurts or anger to adjust our demeanor. In fact it’s really hard not to be defensive with someone you don’t trust. But what My Favorites teach me is that I can be my authentic self no matter who I am with. They remind me I am worthy, and in turn can make others feel worthy too, of love, of friendship, of kindness, of gentleness, of patience though God help me with that one.

Life feels very different when I am in that place of grace, even though circumstances might be exactly the same. My perspective softens. Hope is a bit more tangible. And with my ongoing existential crises, I’m deeply in need of both.

On March 5th, I’m getting my first tattoo. I’m 51 years old. I never really wanted a tattoo. I had a hard time imagining what I would want on my body for the rest of my life. And then my daughter, Liv, told me she was getting a tattoo of a flower drawn by one of My Favorites. I knew immediately that I wanted that tattoo as well. It felt right before the thought even fully formed. I asked Liv how she felt about her mom getting the same tattoo. Thankfully she thought it was a pretty great idea. March 5th, 2020 will mark six long years of Catherine being physically gone, a reality that still hurts so much.

This morning I’m realizing the tattoo will mean so much more than an homage to one of My Favorites. It will be my reminder to see myself as she saw me. It will be my reminder to be my best self no matter what. I think she’d like that a lot. I just wish she were here with me, but so continues the journey. She will always be one of My Favorites.

Hello. My name is Jennifer and I’m a Friendapist.

For years I had the luxury of time. I was raising kids and not working outside of the home. I had flexibility in my schedule and I had a fair amount of free time. Over the course of those 12+ years, I developed the practice of having meaningful one-on-one conversations. I appreciated the depth and the adult connection. I enjoyed the challenge of problem-solving. And the food and coffee that went along with the conversations were icing on the cake. Over the years, I became a friendapist.

Yes, it’s a real thing. There is no formal education required. I didn’t try to do this. It evolved over time. I got better at listening and talking things through. People would call and schedule another coffee to continue the conversation. I had some friends on a monthly rotation, ready to pick up where we left off to discuss what they were struggling with or working through.

I should’ve known this was happening. My husband would say to me, “If you were paid every time you met someone for coffee, we would have our kids’ college education paid for!” But I wasn’t getting paid and those 529’s needed funding somehow. Plus I always intended to go back to work.

And so about 8 years ago I went back to work full-time. Since then I have become increasingly busy professionally. I don’t have the flexibility I used to have or the time I had. But I realized recently that I still was trying to maintain my side gig of friendapist. I was continuing a therapeutic kind of relationship with several people, which is very different from simply being a person’s friend. It’s hard to fully explain, although I imagine the friendapists reading this know exactly what I am talking about.

I think this change will be good for me. My tendency has been to be what others needed me to be, which is what made me a good friendapist. But it’s time for my friendships to be friendships. That means I get to be me, which includes the surly, tired, salty, selfish side of me that is sometimes there. I get to fall apart when I need to. And most importantly, I get to say “No” – “No” when I don’t have the energy to be a listening ear or a theological/philosophical sounding board.

And so the breakup begins. I imagine some relationships will fade while others will take on a new structure beyond the friendapist connection. We’ll have to wait and see. It’s probably going to be hard to do. But it is time.

Honesty Isn’t Easy

A close friend recently said to me, “Some people will say something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ You on the other hand are more likely to say, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be okay, but we are going to get through it together.'” Initially I was surprised by what she said. As I continued to think about it, I realized this was an insightful observation.

Some people – maybe many people – don’t want to deal with the reality that life is fragile and unfair. Instead we want to believe the age-old adage that if we do the right things, it will all work out in the end. I am not pessimistic or overly cynical. I have simply learned that life doesn’t often work that way. People die prematurely. Bad people sometimes win. Health-conscious people develop cancer. Some are born into great families while others are born into terrible families. Poor decisions can sometimes have no negative consequences and good decisions can sometimes lead to trouble. And on and on and on. You can imagine how popular I must be, especially at parties.

The downside to being honest is that one then has to face the implications of this honesty. And this is why I believe many people prefer the easier-in-the-short-term answer of “It’s going to be okay.” They can keep doing what they have been doing and believe at some point that the outcome will be different. But what if the outcome never changes? What if you wake up tomorrow and things are exactly the same?

Believing everything is going to work out alright is really just a procrastination. Acknowledging everything might not be okay invokes decision-making. Instead of waiting for change, one seeks to change what one is able to change. We see this in nearly every survivor story, nearly every heroic story: letting go of the outcome and do what one can do in the here-and-now is often how we see a person make a difference for the better. But that takes work, painful work often.

I imagine all of us from time to time are too tired to really be honest, especially with ourselves. But if we avoid honesty altogether, we will find ourselves living superficial lives. And the superficiality is the first thing to go when life throws us a curveball. Maybe this is why I have found it helpful to be honest when things are relatively calm in my life. What do I like about my life? What is missing? These questions help me to see how I might reprioritize or what I would like to change. That begins with an honest look at how things are actually going. No bullshit. No excuses. What is working and what isn’t working? In this process, I am exercising the mental, emotional and spiritual muscles needed when tragedy does hit. Tragedy is still incredibly hard and painful. And it is a lot of work. But I have begun the conditioning that will help me through.

I don’t fault those who walk away from honesty. Perhaps if I could believe everything will always be okay, I would choose that too. But I have noticed that those who walk away take their pain with them. I have also noticed that the folks who espouse everything will all be okay rarely get their hands dirty, so-to-speak. They are supportive from the sidelines. I have been left behind by “supportive” people. I want people in my life who will stay beside me no matter how uncomfortable that space is. Hopefully you know what I am talking about: The friend who will sit with you as you ask the unanswerable questions. The partner who will hold you even when you are inconsolable. The family member who doesn’t take it personally when you lash out in your darkest moment. These are the people who will inhabit that difficult space with you. These are the people who provide love and hope when it is most desperately needed. I suppose that is why my mantra is twofold: I don’t know if it’s going to be okay and we will get through it together.

Yeah, I believe my friend was right in her observation. This has been a guiding principle of mine for most of my life, and I couldn’t really name it until she stated it so simply and matter-of-factly. I am so grateful for her honesty, which she has demonstrated time and time again. May we all have at least one person who chooses honesty over ease. Or better yet, may we be surrounded by many who do.

I wonder what it’s like to love without risk.

I wonder what it’s like to be able to walk away.

I wonder what it’s like to give without meaning it.

I wonder what it’s like to take without a care.

I wonder what it’s like to cause hurt without a bother.

I wonder what it’s like to have no regrets.

I wonder what it’s like to feel so entitled.

I wonder what it’s like to look away.

I suppose it’s like being forgotten.

I suppose it’s like having no one in your corner.

I suppose it’s like hating most of what you see.

I suppose it’s like always blaming another.

I suppose it’s like being stuck in the same vicious cycle.

I suppose it’s like frowning most of the time.

I suppose it’s like living without really being alive.

I suppose it’s like being so utterly alone.

Messy Relationships

I am frequently reminded of the fragility of life. I am often reminded of the fragility of relationships too. I came to a crossroads with a friend, someone who didn’t like what I had to say about how it felt being his friend. My words had been carefully chosen because I cared deeply for him and for our friendship. It was because of my care for him and the hurt I had experienced from him that I felt I had to say what I was seeing and feeling, and what was causing me concern. He didn’t want to hear my words.

A few weeks after that incident, I wrote the following about my work as a pastor:

My dream of a church came from my desire to be part of a community that goes deep. It is in the depths that relationships are forged that can last a lifetime and withstand the storms that can come with life. I also believe that it is in this depth God is most profoundly experienced. The heart of The Other Church’s vision is connection. Connection is fun, but in ways it can feel painful too at times, because in the depths we are most vulnerable, most human. Our flaws are laid bare along with our hopes and dreams and disappointments and hurts. I have felt this pain, along with great joy in these last few years as I have done a lot of my own work as a pastor, spouse, mother, chaplain, friend.

I wrote these words because maybe I needed to remind myself. To be deep, it will be messy. And painful. But it will also be healing and hopeful and sustaining. This is the kind of community I have been called to serve. This is the kind of person I am called to be.

Sometimes when we stumble upon a wound, we touch it and feel pain. I realize now that this is what I did to my friend. I didn’t look for a wound. I didn’t know I was touching it. I didn’t intend to cause him pain. But in my passion of connecting deeply, I did just that. We have a choice whether or not we want to tend to our wounds. My friend had a right to walk away, and he did.

I know the pain because I have felt it frequently in my own work of healing. And I will feel it again. I am thankful to have some people in my life who, when they touch my wounds, stay with me as I work towards my healing. All relationships are messy. But not all relationships are healthy. It is worth the work to find those who will take this journey with us. Jesus is quoted several times saying, “Follow me.” But he didn’t walk ahead of people like the leader of a parade. He journeyed with people. He ate with people. He got to know people. And he touched their wounds. He didn’t judge those wounds or shame the wounded. He offered healing. I think this is why I have so profoundly experienced God in this work. It is about connecting honestly, deeply, meaningfully, sometimes painfully, certainly safely and joyfully too.

I hope my friend is doing okay. I still sometimes feel my own tinge of pain when I think of him. But the pain is my reminder that I connected with him.

The Perfect Dog: an epilogue

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The Perfect Dog struggled to stand up. I helped and held her while she found her footing. She stumbled outside. When I tried to slow her down, she would only move faster, stumbling all the more. We reached the back yard and I sat nearby. She promptly relieved herself. She then walked a few steps and stopped, staring off into nowhere. I wondered if confusion had set back in. I continued to watch. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving. Then it struck me. She wasn’t confused. The Perfect Dog was soaking up her surroundings. The wind was lightly blowing, bringing all kinds of scents to her. I could see her nose twitch like it was tapping out a melody. The trees rustled, as if to suggest birds and other wildlife were just beyond reach. Her ears moved to capture as many of those sounds as she could.  There The Perfect Dog stood. There the Perfect Dog stayed. She was still but alert. Did she know? She must. She stayed until her legs began to wobble. She wagged her tail a few times as if to say thank you, then slowly and happily headed back toward the house. What a moment to experience. My heart was bursting with pain and gratitude to be its witness.

~~~~~~~~~~

Days have past since that occurred. I got Lucy inside and settled down, and immediately wrote about what I had just seen. I didn’t know what kind of time I would have with her, but I knew what I had witnessed needed to be remembered. I had never seen her stand that still for that long in such an alert state. I couldn’t help but think she was taking this in – her yard, her life – while she still could.

My Perfect Dog has passed away. She had three days of struggling, some hours where death seemed imminent and some hours where she actually seemed to be feeling better. Part of my sitting with her included reading to her The Perfect Dog, parts 1, 2 and 3. More than once, she would lift her head and look at me as if to say, “Stop blubbering on so.” But I couldn’t help it. I wanted her to know how much I loved her. I couldn’t expect to adequately convey my love for her in words or in such a short period of time. It’s a cumulative thing. But the compulsion was there nonetheless. The compulsion to make sure, to be crystal clear, to avoid any regrets down the road because you recognize that each minute counts.

As difficult as it is, I think it’s a privilege to be with one’s pet for his or her last breath. While I’ve been through this several times, this is the first time I noticed the last physical breath. Maybe it’s because each breath of hers was labored and therefore obvious. But there it was – one breath she was with us, and then she was gone. I held my breath wondering if there would be one more, but I already knew the answer. She would not breathe again.

I still head to the pantry to feed her. I still go to the door to let her out or in. I still look for her, listen for her, wait for her. I imagine that will be the case for awhile. Fourteen years of these habits don’t die as quickly as the ones who inspired the habits do. Yet I find myself grateful for that. I like to think of her as often as I do, even when it makes me cry. I am thankful that for over 14 years she was happy and healthy, and for a mere three days she was not. What a tremendous gift that is. Thank you, Perfect Dog. I love you. To the moon and back and then some.

A Rock Star for a Song

We were invited to celebrate a good friend’s upcoming 50th birthday. Mutual friends/fellow invitees secretly learned from his wife that when alone, the birthday boy loved to rock out to Bon Jovi’s 1986 song, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” No surprise he would want to keep that secret. So naturally our friends decided to perform the song at his party.

My husband and I were hanging out with these mutual friends/fellow invitees. When they mentioned their plans to do the song, we decided to collaborate. While I’m not a Bon Jovi fan, I’m a huge fan of both surprising and embarrassing friends. The men would play their acoustic guitars and the women would sing. Note that I am not a singer. But it sounded like fun so I decided to ignore my lack of talent.

I had two parts in the song that I took very seriously. One was the echo and the other was the final verse. (This would be a good time to stop and watch the video. For those of you who remember, it’ll be a nice stroll down Big-Hair-Glitz-Rock-80’s-Bands-Bad-Rock memory lane. For those who didn’t live through that era, it’ll make you appreciate it all the more. Although before you get too judgy, remember your own musical embarrassments. Every generation has them.)

The echo was a vocal strain but required commitment. The final verse, well, with these lyrics you either have to go all out or risk looking ridiculous. “I walk these streets, a loaded six-string on my back. I play for keeps ’cause I might not make it back. I’ve been everywhere, still I’m standing tall. I’ve seen a million faces, and I’ve rocked them all.” If you don’t sing it like you mean it, you’ll look like a joke. But singing with conviction just might make it appear you are in on the joke, and thus look very, very, very cool. Except to my kids because I am never cool to them.

The four of us practiced together and I sang the song on my own. A lot. I sang it on my way to work. I sang it at home. I sang it in my head and I’m pretty sure I sang it in my sleep. I was determined in spite of my limited musical ability to own my performance like I was meant to be there. Admittedly I questioned my participating, but I never wavered on my desire to do it and I never stopped having fun along the way. It helps when you are willing to look like an idiot.

The party night arrived. The ShuPots rehearsed ahead of time. (Yes, we named our band.) We arrived and settled in for a bit, wanting to allow everyone to get a drink or two in them before we did our song. The time arrived and we performed our hearts out. I could see the birthday boy’s face, which looked thrilled, mildly horrified by his secret being exposed, and touched by our gift to him. The crowd was gracious and sang along. Thankfully there were no videos taken which allows me to remember our performance as nearly perfect.

Happy 50th, AB. I know it’s still early, but I’m hoping our performance will go with you as you near that big day.

Blowing Up Mother’s Day

I had a wonderfully relaxing Mother’s Day. My oldest came home from college so both kids were there along with an attentive husband who took care of nearly all the day’s details. I relaxed. I received a beautiful gift. We ate. We laughed. We enjoyed being together. Or at least I enjoyed being with them. I didn’t ask if they enjoyed being with me because it was my day to not worry about what they wanted or needed.

While I indulged in being the center of attention, I couldn’t help but think of those I love who no longer have their moms around to hug or call. I found myself wanting to gather them together, to acknowledge their loss and give them the opportunity to say and do what they needed for this Mother’s Day. I wanted to do something fun with them to celebrate their moms. I wanted to laugh and cry and reminisce with them. But I didn’t want to invade their space or take from them what they needed in the day. Admittedly I can overdo something. It doesn’t take an elephant in the room for me to speak up. Even the anticipation of an elephant causes me to want to talk about it.

As I held myself back, I started to think about even the casual friends and acquaintances I know who no longer have a mom around. And I was surprised by how many there are. When did this happen? Why have I not thought of this before? As I processed my revelation, it wasn’t that I didn’t know. But I hadn’t thought what Mother’s Day would feel like for someone else.

What about the women who aren’t mothers but wish they were? The women who are mothers but with major regrets? The people with terrible mothers? The women and men who are mothers by way of their love and nurturing, but without the official title? The seemingly innocuous holiday began to scream out for more than a sweet card and dinner out. I found myself wanting to embrace the motherless, apologize to the abused, hold the unloved, laugh with the lonely, cry with the mourner, and celebrate with all the men and women who are surrogate moms. The mom in me wanted to do this not only for the children young and old, but for the moms who couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.

While I am all for being celebrated, Mother’s Day isn’t just about me. It is for my family and extended family. It is for my friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Mother’s Day should be a celebration of love and support. It should be a reminder that family can emerge anywhere. Moms are so much more than biology, legality, or gender. I think it is time to blow up Mother’s Day.

Of course this could all just be in my head. I might be trying to fix something that isn’t broken. The good news is I have a family who loves me in spite of my crazy ideas. If I find myself hosting an open house next Mother’s Day, I’m sure they’ll go along, if only because it is Mother’s Day.

 

The Perfect Dog: part 3

If you’ve read my previous posts about “The Perfect Dog” you’ll know that my desire for the perfect canine companion goes way back. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a dog could offer in friendship that I have always longed for and/or enjoyed. Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows that there is no such thing as a perfect dog in the literal sense. Each dog has its annoyances, its imperfections. But what is it, sometimes in spite of that dog, that does so much for one’s soul?

Here are a few aspects of what I love and value so much about my perfect dog, Lucy:

  1. She’s uncomplicated. I don’t need to understand her past. I don’t need to anticipate her future. She needs to be fed, played with, walked, and given affection. When she receives those things, she’s content.
  2. She’s a great listener. She never interrupts or tells me to hurry up.
  3. She’s always up for whatever I suggest, whether it’s a nap in the early afternoon, a ride in the car, or playtime at 10pm. When I ask, she always says yes.
  4. She makes me feel special. When I return home I’m always greeted with tail-wagging. It doesn’t matter if I was gone for a few minutes or several days. She’s excited when I return and she lets me know.

In this list, I see not only what I long for, but what I often fail to give to others. I’m complicated, sometimes excruciatingly so. I am not always a great listener. I rarely hear a suggestion without offering at least a slight amendment. I never wag my tail. My perfect dog has been perfect because she’s made me feel loved, needed, and special. She’s been a faithful companion in the good times and the not-so-good times. When I skimp on a walk because it’s too cold, she doesn’t hold a grudge. When I cut playtime short because I’d rather put my feet up, she doesn’t punish me. She enjoys what she’s given. She gives back without condition.

Lucy is well over 13 now. We have had so many wonderful adventures over the years. She has gone with us to the beach and the woods and the wide open fields, romping and chasing and playing all the way. She has never refused an invitation to climb under the bedcovers for a nap or full night’s sleep. She has protected us from countless squirrels and cats that have dared to step into her yard. She has run more miles than most, an eager companion to Jeremy and me over the years, although admittedly far more of those miles were Jeremy’s. She has rescued us from ocean waves she thought were dangerous and UPS workers she thought were sinister. She has given our family countless memories.

While my children have nearly grown up, Lucy has grown old. She has a heart murmur that causes her to cough deeply. She periodically has a leg collapse which often results with a faceplant to the ground. Why can’t dog years be the same as people years?  For the time we used to spend playing, I find myself petting her and thanking her for loving my family so well. She’s now got several lumps, “fat pads” the vet said, apparently common in aging labradors. The lumps used to gross me out, but now that it’s almost unavoidable to touch one, I pet those too.  She looks at me with longing eyes, almost confused by what she’s done to warrant the affection.

Because animals are easily cared for and unconditional in their love, one has a choice whether or not to do the bare minimum. I could have met Lucy’s basic needs and left it at that. But I wanted to do more for her. And I guess that’s one of my biggest lessons from this perfect dog. Just because one can get away with the bare minimum, doesn’t mean one should. I have also learned how important silence can be to another human being. I see the value in trying to put into words or actions what I feel, rather than assume my feelings are understood. It’s not that my humans lacked these traits, but a dog offers them without expectation of something in return. I don’t know any human, myself included, who doesn’t get in the way of a relationship from time to time. Dogs are different.

As I watch Lucy age, as I awaken more frequently to her coughing, as I see her struggle to sit her long legs down or get them back up, I find myself saying “not yet, don’t go.”  Letting go of what has become part of you is so hard. Because she has been part of our family for so long and is integral to who we are, it is nearly impossible to imagine “us” without “her”. And yet, life has been showing me for awhile what that will look like. We are reluctant to bring her along on our adventures, knowing she doesn’t have the stamina she used to. We are making memories without her. We are saying goodbye in little ways. But we are also a different family because of her, and so even when she’s not physically present, she’s still with us. I will give Lucy all that I can give, including letting her go when it’s time to say goodbye. It would be easy to ask more of her than I should by extending her life longer than she might want. But I won’t. I love that dog, knowing she deserves to live and die with dignity. I will be with her to the end. And until that last day comes, we will love her and play with her and pet her and tell her over and over how wonderful she is, giving her all the joy we can give just as she has done for us. Thank you, Perfect Dog, for being my perfect dog. Your human is so grateful to you and for you. Wag, wag.