The Cowpatch

Rumen-ations from the Southwest

November 15, 2015
by Betsy
0 comments

Change of Address

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Dear Merlin,

I awoke from a frightening dream and found myself listening for the comforting rhythm of your soft breathing, for reassurance that everything would be all right. Silence filled the blackness of the night. You were there under my bed, but your presence was now contained in a box of ashes.

The memory of you makes my heart ache, yet I hug that heartache close, afraid to lose the memory, afraid that in losing that sweet ache, I’ll lose you. You’ll never have existed. So I’m writing you at your new address on the far side of the Rainbow Bridge, hoping that my writing will prevent you from vanishing entirely.

I found a derelict green tennis ball in the dog run the other day. It was the ball I threw for you after the Kong you loved so much got too heavy for you to keep clenched in your jaws.

For more than thirteen years my daily routine was dictated by your needs. Oddly, you reminded me of my mother. Like her, you were terrified of thunderstorms, and you needed structure and order to keep your anxiety at bay. Dinner was precisely at five o’clock every day, no matter what else might be happening. For months after you left us, I started out of my chair, heading for your food dish at five. I wasn’t ready to break our connection.

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Assisting in a Caesarean birth that Indian Summer afternoon was far from our minds. We expected to be raking maple leaves and picking apples while waiting for your mother to whelp. Guinevere had grown even more rotund than usual during her pregnancy. We expected a big litter, born at home as in the past, with puppies arriving one at a time. The pups would be squeezed through the birth canal, your mother would clean up each one, chew off the umbilical cord, and push each new arrival around the whelping box to get its lungs working.

Instead, all the puppies arrived at once.

The first puppy was breech, and your mother was in trouble. Without a Caesarean, you, your eight siblings, and your mother might have died. We made it to the vet on time, but the technician did not. Nine puppies had to suctioned and whacked to life simultaneously, with your human family, now instant veterinary technicians, working feverishly. It was no time to be squeamish.

You all made it. One of your human brothers slept in the summer kitchen with you for the first two weeks to make sure that each of you got equal feeding time. Your mother had evidently been traumatized in the litter, probably being pushed away from the teat by bigger littermates, and she ended up with a lifelong obsession with food. We didn’t want that to happen to any of you.

All your littermates passed the temperament tests with flying colors, but you and one of your sisters stole our hearts. Your sister Gypsy went to live with her human sister, and you became part of our core family.

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Three months later we moved cross country to the high desert. When the summer monsoons brought heavy rain, hail, thunder, and lightning, we discovered that you were terrified of storms. Nothing would comfort you. The ThunderShirt was advertised as having “a dramatic calming effect for over 80% of dogs.” You weren’t one of the 80%. It broke my heart to see you tremble so.

We tried lying on the floor and holding you. We tried creating a dark retreat in my closet. We tried letting you sleep with us, but you only paced back and forth across our bodies, pounding us with all of your seventy-five pounds. I had always loved storms. Now I dreaded them. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep some day when you were no longer with me. Now I look back and realize what an honor it was that you had such profound trust in me.   You thought I could actually control thunderstorms! You always turned to me first. I would be awakened by your nose pressing my pillow, your eyes wide with fear because you’d heard a thunderclap a hundred miles away. I am so sorry that I got irritated when you kept me up all night, best buddy.

You peed. In the house. If someone raised their voice slightly; if we were out and someone came to the door; if the day’s routine were disrupted. And where did you pee? Most of the time, you peed on my towel. Now I realize that you were just marking something that belonged to me to warn me that something was amiss. I’m sorry I griped so much about cleaning up your messes.

I miss you in a way I never missed any of your predecessors, however much I loved them. I miss the softness of your velvety ears, the way you closed your eyes in pleasure when your human dad scratched them in a certain way.

I miss the way you redistributed my shoes for me. I still wonder how you managed to retrieve shoes from the top of the organizer. I never caught you in flagrante delicto, and you never touched anyone else’s shoes. You delighted in hiding a shoe from me. I guess you thought the intellectual challenge of finding my footwear would keep me from becoming senile.

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I’m sorry I pulled so hard on the leash when, regardless of consequences, you were headed for the oleanders along the road, the ones attractive because they smelled like desert cottontails. They also harbored the neighborhood rattlesnakes. I was only trying to keep you safe.

I miss your feats of aerial acrobatics, your double axels when catching the Kong. I miss your running dreams.

People with small dogs feared for their pets because you were so big. It made me laugh because most small dogs terrified you. Big dogs were okay, but you cowered behind me when confronted with the little guys. Except for that one Yorkie, Willow.

I miss your friendliness towards people, the way you would nearly pull me off my feet to say hello to a stranger. When I had been egregiously wounded by life, I still had to walk you. When life as a hermit seemed ideal, you introduced me to people. You got me out of my shell in spite of myself. I always introduced you as Merlin the Magician, explaining that you could make food disappear. A stale joke, but one that helped me break the ice.

You loved me with all my flaws, always as excited to see me as if I were the Queen of the Universe. You comforted me through the hardest and saddest time of my life. You were so sensitive to my moods that I had to pretend to be calm when transporting a family member to the emergency room or when dealing with anonymous phone calls or when precious family pictures were destroyed by careless movers. I loved you so much that I didn’t want you to be frightened. Because of you, my pretense at courage became actual courage. No matter how traumatic my day, I worried about how you were doing. You were never absent from my thoughts.

I would clean up another thousand pools of vomit and rivers of pee if I could only have you back. I hope when I die, you’ll be there on the other side waiting for me. Maybe by then, we’ll speak the same language, and you can tell me what you were chasing in your sleep.

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November 10, 2015
by Betsy
0 comments

Unblocking Your Potential

What paralyzes you instantly? Freezes your ability to act? Spiders? Snakes? Public speaking? Writing?

Writing is scary, no bones about it. The ghosts of everyone who every criticized your efforts in the past come crowding into your creative space. Endless echoes of “Who do you think you are?!” carom off the walls. The grammar police are waiting in the wings to haul you off to heaven-knows-what dismal dungeon. Too young, too old, too late ricochet off every surface. You find it impossible to write the first three words. Or you’ve written the first sentence, but now you find yourself rehashing it, unable to move forward.

Like an athlete you have to push past limitations. An athlete doesn’t jump out of bed, throw on some clothes, and dash out the door to run a four-minute mile without loosening up first. She needs to warm up those muscles. Your brain is a muscle too, and here are some activities that can help get those synapses firing in new and unusual ways.

MORNING PAGES

Get yourself a copy of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. The book is packed with things you can do to unblock your creativity, including “morning pages.” Morning pages are not a journal. They are only for you. Since you write them longhand in a cheap notebook, others may not be able to read them in twenty years anyway. When you’re writing for yourself, legibility is not a concern. If you’re worried, you can always leave a note in your will to burn them after you cross the bridge to the Great Beyond.

Sometimes, my morning pages consist of the phrase, “I don’t know what to write this morning” over and over again, perhaps for half a page, and then suddenly, everything breaks loose, and I’m writing stream-of-consciousness as fast as I can. Sometimes I just whine and whine and whine. But after twenty to thirty minutes, I’m loosened up and primed.

Do not write morning pages on your computer. How often has your computer not behaved as expected? How often have you had to stop to change the battery in a wireless mouse? Years ago, when my other half and I were doing animated computer games for the New York State Department of Community Health, I turned up several studies showing when the computer hesitates, the student doesn’t learn as well. There’s a trust issue with the machine and it can disrupt your natural flow. You don’t need a spellchecker for your morning pages.

TAKE A WALK

Take a walk with plastic bag in hand and look for found items. I recently found a bright and shiny fishing lure in the shape of a little metal minnow on a trail in the Sonoran Desert. The nearest water was a sewage treatment pond several miles away. (And the quality of the fishing experience there is doubtful at best.) On other random walks, I have found a child’s miniature plastic toy, a bottle cap from a brand of soft drink I had never heard of and couldn’t find on the Internet, a shopping list, a javelina skull, a tiny rubbery plastic lobster, a glove, a cat’s collar, a beautiful piece of turquoise, and some ultra-creepy packaging from a child’s game. I’m not talking about the fast-food flotsam and jetsam that litters the verges of our roads, keeping company with beer bottles and soda cans. I’m talking about real treasures. Bring your items home, spread them out, make yourself a cup of coffee, sit down and write a story that brings your items together. It can be silly, it can be scary, it can involve supernatural events and UFO’s. Maybe the cat belonged to the kid that owned that creepy game, and it slipped its collar to get away. Maybe the glove belonged to a college guy who had finally worked up the courage to ask the girl of his dreams on a date. Perhaps he took his glove off to dial his cell phone and was so excited that she accepted that he didn’t notice he’d dropped his glove.

Just write.

LISTEN

Take yourself outside with a cup of tea and listen. Write down everything you hear. The more you write, the more you’re able to hear. An airplane. Distant thunder. A mourning dove. A robin. Don’t just write “a bird.” Write what kind of bird. If you don’t know what kind, then try to describe its song. Where was it? What color was it? Maybe you hear people talking. Do you smell anything? Exhaust fumes. Bacon cooking? A mysterious perfume in the air? A writer friend of mine was walking down Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, when a voice floating through an open window said, “Every time the doorbell rings, the bed falls down.” Bob found himself instantly writing the back story to that statement in his head.

EXPAND YOUR VOCABULARY

www.worldwidewords.org  An interesting site about words.

www.wordsmith.org The New York Times calls this free newsletter, “The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace.”

AND FINALLY . . . WHEN FEAR STRIKES, TURN TO NEIL GAIMAN

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.” ― Neil Gaiman

Watch Neil Gaiman’s University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2012 Commencement Speech to chase away any discouraging thoughts. http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012

 

November 2, 2015
by Betsy
0 comments

Same Dough, Different Oven

Why You Should Write

Everyone on earth is unique.  A Yiddish proverb has it in a nutshell. “We are all kneaded from the same dough, but not baked in the same oven.” In other words, we are unique through experience.  Identical twins may be genetically the same, but in their lifetime, they will not have the same experiences.

Everyone has the seeds of creativity.  After all, being creative is just thinking something no one else has ever thought or doing something in a way that no one else ever has before, maybe something physical that can be passed on to future generations.  Maybe not.   I have a box my grandfather carved for my grandmother. There are less roughly-carved boxes made of better materials, but there is only one box like this one.  I have a recording of Mama playing the piano and a tattered and worn quilt my Grandma made.  And a black ash basket made by the Sprague family, who were Potawatomi.  Each of these things expresses something unique about their maker.

Just as unique are the intangibles, and that’s where writing and art come in.  Grandpa Gus’s shenanigans and jokes at the dinner table were the delight of my childhood.  In his case, I am the kin keeper, telling the story of this unique European immigrant with a strange accent in my writing.

Not everyone will become a professional artist or writer, i.e., write or paint for a living, but there are many reasons to write that have nothing to do with fame or fortune. Here are a few:

Write to heal. Writing can help you heal from emotional wounds. You don’t have to share this writing with anyone.  Putting something down on paper can sometimes help you stop picking at your emotional scabs.  Of course, you can share your experience if it feels right.  Two people I know have published their stories after decades of secrecy and silence.  The telling of those stories not only healed them, but helped many strangers heal as well. These books were not bestsellers. They only sold a few dozen copies, but they gave courage and hope to those who read them.

Write to find answers. Got a problem?  Grab a pen, and the minute your feet hit the floor in the morning, get those questions and anxieties down on paper before your pesky, controlling conscious mind is awake enough to censor.  Write as fast as you can in stream-of-consciousness mode.  Give it ten minutes; give it twenty.  Just get it down.  It’s surprising how effective this can be in getting your “anxiety mind” to shut up.  Even more astonishing is how often a creative solution will zing you out of the blue later in the day.  You’ve just given your subconscious an assignment for the day, and now it will work away in the background while you go about your daily tasks.

Write to change your mental set point. It’s  easy to get into repetitive thought patterns that can be limiting and self-destructive.  Negative thoughts are like a nuclear reactor that melts down from overheating, destroying itself and everything around it. One way to break the chain reaction, is to personify that demon of negativity. Draw a picture of it. Write a description. Does it have thorns? Horns? Is it allergic to spinach?  Write a fairy tale in which that creature shrinks and shrinks and vanishes.  Now when you feel it sneaking back, just visible in your peripheral vision, you’ve got its name, like Rumpelstiltskin, and you can yell at it.  You can scold it and gloat that it no longer has power because you’ve taken that power away.

Another way to change your mindset it to write down, at the end of every day, three good things that happened. They can be the tiniest of events, but over time you will notice more and more good things.  Don’t focus on the tons of things that went wrong during the day.  What happened that was pleasant?  Sitting outside with your tea or coffee, you might have noticed a beautiful cloud or the song of a favorite bird.  You might appreciate the flavor of something you ate that day.  As you see the positive effect on yourself,  you might find you want to do the same for others.  You notice that the teller at the bank is wearing some nice earrings.  The more you notice, the more you see.  So you tell her you like her earrings.  You acknowledge her humanity.  You find that giving another person something good to write down at the end of their day will make you happier.

Write to record your personal story.  Let future generations know what your life was like, what made you laugh, what made you cry, what made you mad. What products did you use that no longer exist? Did you experience any natural disasters? A flood, an earthquake, a tornado? Share your wisdom and your worries. Don’t have any relatives? It doesn’t matter.

A childless man of my acquaintance, unrelated by blood, started writing to me after his wife died.  He had been very quiet when she was alive, not because she tried to be the center of attention, but because she was brilliant, very outgoing, and eloquent.  I had no idea of the depth of Danny’s interests or his knowledge until we started corresponding.  He wrote about classes he was taking, about places he’d visited, about people he’d met.  And he wrote poetry, very funny poetry.  He even won a poetry competition.  He was nearly eighty when he started writing.  I’ve kept every one of his letters for my kids.  It doesn’t matter that Danny never had children of his own.  He had me.

Write for fun.  Write stories.  Write to imagine a different world.  Write to express yourself.  My late friend Elizabeth wrote a short, very silly piece, a parody in which the lawyers were all rabbits.  Her husband was a published writer, and she had always been in his shadow.  Most of her energy had been spent protecting him from interruptions and dealing with a rare illness from which she’d suffered for many years.  On a lark, she submitted her rabbit piece to The Saturday Review, and it was published.  She had only been writing for fun, for herself, but after being published in what at the time was a major national magazine, she went on to write a wonderful children’s book before she passed away prematurely the following year.

Once you squelch your inner critic, your ideas will seed clouds of nourishing, creative rain. Just start writing. You’ve got the stories, fiction or non-fiction. And over time you’ll learn the technical skills to make your writing better

October 27, 2015
by Betsy
0 comments

Born to Write

We’re born with the ability to write. All of us. That ability can grow like Jimson weed over a septic tank, or it can atrophy like the brain of an infant deprived of sensory input.

Communication is natural. We use gestures and grimaces; we coo and cry and scream from the time we are hatchlings. As we develop motor skills, we draw on misted windowpanes, delight in new crayons, fabricate castles from empty cartons. Our curiosity is so intense that our parents must create a safe haven for us, lest we come to a premature end.

“Let’s pretend,” we suggest. Let’s pretend we’re astronauts, barrel racers, pirates, or, in the case of my cousin’s toddler, a cow. Elise’s cow thing has been going on for some time, complete with sounds and tail switches. I presume the latter activity is to keep off flies. I was a shapeshifter myself as a child, changing from underwater explorer to archeologist to Indian, the latter arising from my admiration of my Aunt Christine, who was Native American.

What is pretending? What is making up stories, if it isn’t writing? If we were all born storytellers, why did we stop? We left the downy comfort of our nest. When we did, we found ourselves in a world of expectations, of rules, of constant comparison to others. We were thrown into a world of shall nots, instead of a world of why nots.

For most people, it starts with formal schooling. My friend Terri drove a school bus. She was dismayed at the change she saw in her little passengers by the end of the first week of school, from insatiably curious and excited, to subdued or rebellious and sassy.

What do we learn at school?

  • There’s a pecking order. The littlest chicks are at the bottom and the cock-sure experts are at the top. They know everything. Plus, they are bigger than you.
  • Making mistakes is bad. Beyond bad. Never make mistakes. Kids who make mistakes are stupid and careless. They can’t be trusted to take care of themselves, to figure things out on their own. Those who make mistakes will get bad grades, demerits, and detention. They will be publicly humiliated. Never have a big house, loads of clothes, or a fine car. Won’t get into the right college.
  • In writing, form trumps content. You are penalized for every mistake you make, however insignificant. You learn that having a fertile imagination and telling a good story is nowhere near as important as the proper placement of apostrophes, correct spelling, or standard grammar, whatever standard happens to be at the time.
  • Only some people are gifted. This is one of the most toxic ideas in our society. It sends the message that if you don’t get immediate results with little effort, you don’t have talent. You might as well give up.  It doesn’t acknowledge the consistent hard work that leads to success in writing, art, music, cooking, sports, or any other field. In a debate about schools and creativity on a site called debate.org, a recent post stated that if a person isn’t “naturally creative,” they never will be, implying that it’s not the school’s fault, since nothing can be done about it. And if you are labeled as gifted, you may be haunted by the fear that you’ll never live up to the label. You will find yourself in a competition to determine who is the most gifted.

The words of others have great power to shape your self-image and your belief in possibilities when you are a fledgling. A young lady I know dreamed of becoming a lawyer and graduating from an Ivy League University. The response of the most important person in her life was, “Who do you think you are to think you could do that!” My friend who expressed an interest in becoming a doctor was told by an advisor, “Oh no. You can’t do that. People from here don’t do that.” A sixth grade teacher told my friend whose family worked a truck farm that the unabridged works of Charles Dickens were too advanced for him.

Psychologist Laura Huxley, in her 1963 book, You Are Not the Target, pointed out that if an adult accuses a child again and again of being a liar, that child may eventually become a liar. Often the child is simply fantasizing and in her mind actually seeing the fairies under the mayapple leaves in the woodlot.

The old childhood saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is simply not true. You have to learn not to let words damage you.

Sometimes the first step in writing is to exhume those words embalmed in your subconscious. You didn’t put them there. Someone else did. Maybe you need to have a funeral for them the way we did at band camp for the song “Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” It had been sung far too often that week. The words went into a cardboard box and were buried with great ceremony on a sandy beach in Michigan.