The Luxury of Late Summer Lassitude

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

For the past few days, I’ve had every intention of writing something meaningful about Labor Day, but I was too busy being lazy. I told myself I had every right to wallow in sloth over the holiday weekend, but it’s three days later and I’m still wallowing. As a long-retired senior citizen, I’ve earned the right to indolence. Doing nothing used to make me anxious and guilt-ridden, but the older I get, the more those negative emotions fade away.

More and more, I find deep contentment in simply being in the moment, and isn’t that what countless self-help gurus say is the ideal state of being? I’m especially happy outside in my garden. Lying on my chaise in dappled shade on a perfect late summer afternoon, reading a book and sipping Pinot Grigio, my dog and my cat lounging in close proximity – life doesn’t get much better than that. I can gaze at a shrub or a single flower for minutes on end. And occasionally I actually get a little gardening done.

Then there’s the lake a few hundred feet from my house. I can walk down the public-access boat ramp and wade right into the water. I’m a slow, lazy swimmer, and I love floating on my back soaking up the sun. Or if I’m feeling especially ambitious, I can take out my spiffy little red kayak.

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Walking my dog Sirius is high on my list of humble pleasures too. He’s so fascinated by the world around him, especially its olfactory aspects, and so polite and friendly to the people we meet, that his positivity is contagious. Unfortunately, when we meet another dog walking its owner on leash, he goes ballistic, becoming instantly airborne, whirling in circles and barking wildly. At just forty pounds, he’s fairly easy to control, unlike some of my former dogs, so his fleeting mania doesn’t pose a major problem. I don’t believe he wants to attack the other dogs; he simply wants to get more intimately acquainted. And when we pass other dogs chained in their yards and barking furiously, he passes them by in quiet dignity with eyes averted, every inch the gentleman.

This immersion in the natural world that surrounds me is probably my most meaningful spiritual practice. Yet when I was in the depths of depression, the kind of despair I described in my post about Robin Williams, I was oblivious to these pleasures. For two years I ignored my garden, letting it go to seed and weed. I didn’t swim in the lake or launch my kayak. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we didn’t have a dog in residence at the time; dogs make marvelous antidepressants.

“Somewhere sunny and seventy-five” – that’s how country singer Joe Nichols describes the

Joe Nichols

Joe Nichols

perfect day and the woman who evokes those summertime feelings in him. Here in upstate New York, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of days like this. I’ve taken full advantage, here at home and with excursions to a few of this area’s many attractions: Tanglewood for classical music, Hunter Mountain for country, Saratoga for Steely Dan and the races, Lake George for the Americade motorcycle rally. I’ve been to two women’s retreats – one at a cabin at a Vermont lake, another for writers in Connecticut.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I’m deeply grateful for my good fortune. Measuring my existence in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m well above the midpoint. All my basic needs are comfortably met, I have a loving family, my self-esteem gets better with age, and I’m somewhere in the lower reaches of the top triangle of self-actualization. I have the luxury of contemplating a variety of choices. Some will bring me present-time pleasure and others will bring me closer to realizing my creative dreams. Should I go out to a movie with my husband or confront the last chapter of my novel? Should I do some gardening or finish this blog post? Maybe I can do a little of everything – but only after I watch this afternoon’s General Hospital. After all, I need to keep my priorities straight.

I’m well aware that billions of people around the world don’t enjoy my level of luxury. I began this blog post intending to discuss the growing division between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Not counting the 1%, there are millions like me who have paid our dues for decades in the educational system and the workplace and can afford to kick back and reap the rewards of our labor. Then there are the millions of others – and their numbers are steadily growing – who are desperately clinging to the bottom rungs of the ladder of Maslow’s pyramid. Those millions will never enjoy the luxury of mulling over the many pleasurable paths to self-actualization.

But forget about gloomy ruminations. Right now it’s time to turn on ABC and see how that kidnapping is coming along, and whether Silas’s evil wife will win out over his true love. After that, I’ll take my dog outside and play in the dirt. Today, while it’s still sunny and seventy-five.

 

Celebrating Animals at Easter

Garden - Lucky grave 2This Easter Sunday, daffodils are blooming in the back yard where we buried our golden retriever Lucky in early autumn a few years ago. I planted his grave with daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths, and a couple of years later, we buried our cat Beep beside him. A decade or two from now, we’ll probably have to leave this home for something more age-appropriate, unless of course we’re carried out feet first, but before then, chances are we’ll bury another pet or two beside them.

In any case, the spring flowers will probably flourish long after we’re gone. After this year’s brutal winter, they’re a bit scraggly, but they’re more robust than the other spring bulbs I’ve planted in our yard. I’m sure the nutrients Lucky and Beep have given back to the earth play a major role in sustaining them. For me, the cycle of life, and especially the way nature renews itself this time of year, is what Easter’s all about.

In our modern society, we seldom experience death first-hand, except of course for our own, but animals help ground us in the reality of mortality. I’ve been with beloved dogs and cats when they died, some at home, some at the vet’s, where they met a far more humane and gentle death than most of us can look forward to. I’ve grieved and mourned for them, even sunk into clinical depression over their loss.

Yet sooner or later I’ve welcomed other pets into my home and heart, and dared to love them even though I know that chances are

Sirius

Sirius

they’ll leave this world before I do. Lucky and Beep are gone, along with other beloved dogs and cats, but now we share our home with Sirius, a chow-Australian shepherd mix, and Lunesta, a beautiful tabby with orange patches modulating her stripes. Many studies have shown people with pets live longer, and this Easter I’m praying for a good long life for everyone in my family – people and animals alike.

Less beloved critters can teach us about mortality too. On Good Friday my daughter reported that my eight-year-old granddaughter Jasper watched one of their cats kill a mouse, slowly and with relish. Jasper composed a memorial tribute, which Stacey posted on Facebook: “Fred was a brave mouse. He survived many things – until he died.” She then buried him in a shoe box in their back yard, with no one else watching – “Eleanor Rigby style,” as Stacey put it.

The next day, Stacey mentioned seeing signs that there might be other mice in the house. Jasper’s response: “Then we’d better go shopping and buy a lot of shoes.”

On that happy note, I’ll sign off and wish you a joyful Easter, however you choose to celebrate it. Lacking any traditional rituals, I’m going to pour myself a glass of wine, take it out to the garden, play in the dirt and see which perennials have resurrected themselves after the seemingly endless winter.

Lunesta with mice

Lunesta with mice

 

 

Dogs I’ve loved in life and fiction

Congratulations to Karen Walker, winner of my 50,000 hits contest. Though Karen lives across the country, we’ve shared a lot over the past year through the Blog Book Tours group. I invite you to visit her wonderful blog, Following the Whispers. Here’s the post I contributed to her blog for my Blog Book Tour last November.

Truth can be stranger than fiction:

the tragic saga of Lucky, my golden retriever

Lucky and Me (Author photo for Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders) Courtesy Hot Shot Photos

Dogs have long played a central role in my life and my fiction but Lucky, the beautiful golden retriever in my author photo for Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders, may have been the last dog I’ll ever own. Six months after the photo was taken, he died of lymphoma, and in the years since then, I’ve switched to cats. Setting up this Blog Book Tour, reading my hosts’ reactions to the photo, I realized I’d never written about Lucky. Since Karen’s blog focuses on memoir and nonfiction, this seems like the perfect time.

But Rishi, the dog before Lucky, deserves pride of place. He’s a major character in Mood Swing. In fact, his image is in my cover illustration, and his name is the first word in the first chapter:

            Rishi was halfway out the window and onto the fire escape when I tackled him. Arms around my dog’s massive shoulders, I groped for his choke chain and yanked hard. Half a dozen pigeons flapped skyward, squawking.

            I described him on Page 2:

            He’s leaner and rangier than a German shepherd, stockier than a Doberman, bigger than a Rottweiler. Despite his forbidding looks, he’s a basically friendly beast, but sometimes it’s in my best interests not to let people know that.

That last sentence was literary license. Rishi was wonderfully affectionate and loving, but only to our immediate family, and he was never adequately trained. Despite a near-death experience with a neighbor’s hammer that left a permanent dent in his skull, Rishi lived nearly ten years, a good long life for a big dog. But his death threw me into a deep depression.

Enter Lucky, a year or so later. He came into our lives with what seemed at first to be joyous synchronicity. At a Woodstock party given by friends of my daughter Stacey, someone mentioned having a golden retriever who needed a new home. I was instantly intrigued – we’d owned a beautiful golden named Shawna when Stacey was a child, and except for her propensity to chew up the woodwork during thunderstorms, she’d been a wonderful member of the family.

Right after the party, I paid a home visit to meet Lucky, fell instantly in love, called my husband on my cell, and within a week we had a beautiful four-year-old male golden. He came with a tragic back story: he’d been the beloved companion of an 84-year-old man who lived alone in the Catskills, and when the man was hospitalized, one of the nurses befriended both him and Lucky. Shortly after the man’s discharge, he was brutally murdered by a neighbor he’d known and trusted for years, a handyman in search of money for drugs.

The nurse took Lucky in, and in turn passed him on to the folks who gave him to us for adoption. The poor dog was threatening the family’s togetherness. They already had a couple of young kids, a poodle and a cat, and a rambunctious young retriever sent them over the top. The husband’s job took him on the road a lot, but when he was home, he told us, he and Lucky slept together downstairs while the wife, kids, poodle and cat slept upstairs. Not exactly a prescription for marital bliss, so Lucky had to go.

Soon after the photo session with Lucky, his health began spiraling downward. He couldn’t seem to keep food down, and he was weakening and losing weight. After extensive testing, the vet diagnosed lymphoma. In a futile attempt to buy more time, we opted for extensive – and expensive – surgery. In retrospect, that was a mistake, but he’d been so young, so lovable, that we thought it was worth the gamble.

He died in early fall. We buried him in the garden out back, marked the spot with a marble plaque bearing an iris design my husband had carved years before. I planted dozens of bulbs – crocus, daffodil, and hyacinth – and they’ve bloomed luxuriously in the three years since.

Dogs play a major role in both my novels, but they never, ever come to a bad end. In fact the villain in my suspense novel Eldercide nearly refuses an assignment when he thinks it might mean harming the victim’s Jack Russell terrier. And I could probably never write that scene where the neighbor tries to murder Rishi with a ball peen hammer, with me coming between them, shrieking that he’ll have to kill me first, screaming bloody murder until the neighbors call 911 and the police arrive. On the other hand, maybe enough time has passed – and after all, the dog survived in the end.

 As I write, my cat Lunesta is writhing around on the desk next to my computer, tempting me to rub her tummy and doing her best to bat the mouse out of my hand and onto the floor. Does she sense I’m writing about dogs? Is she demanding equal time? For now, she’ll have to wait.

Post script five months later: it’s a beautiful spring day, and the green shoots of the crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths are pushing out of the ground atop Lucky’s grave. Lunesta is sleeping in a basket by my side, soaking up the sunshine.

I did the cover illustrations for both my books, by the way. The medium is pastel.

How about you? Any pet stories you’d like to share? Have your pets played a role in your fiction?

 

Mother Nature turns nasty, mirrors my mood

Charles Burchfield

Outside my office window this morning, the lake is sparkling in the distance and the sun is breaking through the gray November clouds. In the immediate foreground, there’s the rotting skeleton of a dead oak tree that really needs to come down. Caught in its branches are the severed limbs of a maple that came crashing down in a recent windstorm that whipped in from the south. Part of it landed on my little red kayak, which now has a concave bottom. It’s probably still usable, though I haven’t tried to find out. The tree bounced off the house, but didn’t do serious damage, and amazingly, it missed my beloved contorted filbert tree, also known as a Harry Lauder’s walking stick because of its twisted branches.

Technically, both dead trees are on our neighbors’ property. They’re nice people but they’re of modest means, and they don’t own a chainsaw. We’ve got a good one that’s been out of commission for years, and my husband finally dropped it off at the hardware store for an overhaul. If we don’t get that dead oak down before winter, it might fall smack dab onto the roof and into my office. Because the wind usually blows from the north, we’d thought it was in a protected spot between the two houses, but the storm in October proved us wrong.

Speaking of oak trees, there’s a living one out by the street. Raking up beneath it, I found hundreds of spiky little spheres clinging to the fallen leaves. At first glance they looked like baby wooly bear caterpillars curled into balls, but when I gingerly pulled one from a leaf, squeezed and examined it, I realized it was of vegetable rather than animal origin. But what was it? Some kind of gall or chancre, probably. In the ten years we’ve lived here, I’ve never seen it before. I need to do some online research, or maybe call the Cooperative Extension, to identify it and see whether it poses a danger to my perennials. Maybe it’s something that’s moved north with global warming.

Charles Burchfield

Back in the summer I identified another toxic invader I’d never seen before. Something stripped my cranberry viburnum bare virtually overnight, reducing the leaves to skeletal filigree. Looking more closely, I saw tiny caterpillars, less than an inch long. Master Gardeners of my acquaintance identified the culprits – viburnum leaf beetles, another newcomer to our region. Like the blight that has wreaked havoc with this year’s tomatoes, the nasty creatures migrated here from the west. Although I normally avoid insecticides, I bought a potion specifically designed for these and similar beetles, and drenched the ground in a circle around the bush. I’m supposed to repeat the ritual next spring, but although the viburnum bravely put out a second batch of leaves, it may already be beyond saving if live insects are wintering underground. I won’t know till next May or June.

All this destruction and disease seems apropos as an extended metaphor for my mood in the wake of the Sisters in Crime meeting I stormed out of last Saturday. I know there’s a name for this usage of images from nature to mirror human emotions, but I wasn’t an English major – maybe someone out there can tell me what it’s called.

Almost a week has passed. The rage that drove me to split from that meeting has abated, and that’s a good thing, because all those toxic emotions were having a devastating effect on my physical and mental health. Fortunately I’ve developed ways to banish negativity from my mind. The passage of time helped. So did the positive feedback and support I’ve received from my online community of writer friends, the wonderful day I spent with my daughter and granddaughters in Woodstock, and a Thanksgiving that reminded me of all the blessings in my life.

What fate’s in store for the Mavens of Mayhem, our Upstate New York Chapter of Sisters in Crime? It will probably survive, albeit without me, but like the diseased oak and viburnum, it’s under siege and currently on the verge of a long winter’s nap. I have some further thoughts on the subject, especially on the uneasy alliance between authors and fans, but for the time being, I’m consigning the Mavens to the deep freeze of a cryogenic limbo.   

Today’s paintings are by Charles Burchfield, a fascinating American artist of the generation of Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. Burchfield’s landscapes have an uncanny way of reflecting human emotions. There’s a new museum in Buffalo named in his honor, the Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College – well worth a visit if you find yourself in western New York State.