Presence

I finished the book. It took me longer than I thought it would because it hurt, remembering what she went through, learning new details about the events and their impact.

I’m so glad I read it. I’m so glad she wrote it. I’m so grateful for her bravery, then and now.

But the book left my brain rummaging through the metaphorical drawers of that period of time, picking up the photos, the memorabilia of the upheaval of my early 20s and the wreckage of my family.

There was a photograph taken of PT (the writer), me and the third of our little pack that summer, sitting on a rock wall at the shore of Lake Charlevoix. PT and I were wearing baseball caps, Polo of course. Someone’s brim was backwards. Our arms were cast around each others’ shoulders, but our faces were far from carefree. PT later sketched the photo from the back. I’m not sure who has possession of the photograph or the drawing, but it is the drawing that remains the most vivid in my mind.

You can’t see our pain. You can only see the love.

The lyrics to that summer were Jagged Little Pill, or Candlebox, or the Indigo Girls. She taught me how to smoke, how to properly use the F-word as all parts of speech. I lost my fundamentalism, which later led to me finding my faith.

We stressed everyone out. Our sweaters were on backwards or inside out. We were sad but laughing. Brave but chicken shit.

She was struggling. I was struggling. Our friend, M, was trying to keep us on an even keel. M, the oldest, had a great theory of how to help people: If the person who is hurting is with you, they are safe.

I tried to do it for PT. I know she tried to do it for me. M did it for me. We were juvenile raccoons loose in a kitchen, emotionally, so it was messy and probably not always the BEST thing.

I survived it. I learned, through those girls, the value of presence. Of being with each other, even if there aren’t words, even if you can’t find your words. Especially if you can’t find your words.

There’s been so much discussion in recent weeks, necessarily, of how to appropriately respond to mental illness, to reach out if you are hurting, or how to find the proper resources, etc.

I know I struggled with thoughts of suicide during that period. There were times I wished that my family’s violence ended that way. It would have been neater. Simpler.

It didn’t. I didn’t. The reason I didn’t, in part, is because of two girls, arms draped across my shoulders, even in the midst of their own pain, their own struggles. We were with each other. We were safe, or as safe as we could be.

I know I wasn’t always as helpful as I could have been, or should have been. I wasn’t always my best self.  But I remembered the value of presence. I tried to be present for my sisters, and my mom as we moved forward. I try to be present for my friends now.

If you are with me, you are safe.

It’s harder as an adult. Work calls us in the morning, and we are no longer able to be awake until 4 a.m. and function. We have husbands, and wives, and dogs, and kids, or whatever, all things that take us away from the necessary sometimes.

Depression. Anxiety. Grief. Worry.  It doesn’t have to be “mental illness.” It doesn’t have to be diagnosed. It is the human condition.

Don’t wait for them to ask. Don’t wait until you’re “healthy enough.” You don’t have to be a therapist. You don’t have to have all the words.

Just drape an arm over the shoulder, and look out in the same direction. Sometimes that is enough.

God knows, it’s a start.

 

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Constellation

My friend wrote a book, a marketed-by-Barnes & Noble-and-available-for pre-order-on-Amazon kind of book.

I am in awe.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve seen this friend. There was no breakdown in the relationship, but there was life. The friendship itself, the proximity of it, was so very brief. Of course, when you’re 21, it seems like such a long time until you are 26. But then you wake up and you’re 44 and you realize that really was just a fart in a skillet, time-wise.

When I met this friend, it was right before the events of the book, and our lives diverged in the years following. During that chapter, I was unpacking and repacking the wreckage of my own experiences, so at times she felt like she might be just a little too hot, too much, for me.

I was in awe of her then.

The book came this morning, while I was out running Helo over a rubble pile looking for some remains. For now the book sits on my end table, atop a stack that includes a couple books on photography, a survey of classical literature, dog training books, a book on a local serial killer and a book on wilderness navigation.

I tell myself I won’t read it until I get this last set of papers graded, this week’s training logs caught up, etc. etc. But I know that’s not true. I know the minute I am done with this, I’m going to grab it and dive in.

Last night, I dreamed about my friend. She came to visit, as the adult she is now to the adult I am now. We were with the friend who introduced us, who worried over both of us during that period of time. We were talking, comparing grey hairs. We were different, and yet the same.

She was always much braver than I. That’s why she wrote a book. I tell other people’s stories, and hope someday to screw in the courage to tell my own. As I sit here, though, reflecting on the path my own life took–mundane in the main, but interesting enough in the small details to keep me entertained–I am grateful that that path crossed hers.

I know that as intense as that time was, as unhealthy in some ways and healing in others, I know I grew. I know I will grow by revisiting her story once again. Those are the very best kinds of friendships, that still propel you to the light no matter how much time has passed.

And if she reads this, I want her to know I never, ever, ever don’t see Orion and not think of her. Even after all these years.

No job that pays

Tomorrow is the first Monday in forever I won’t have anywhere to go. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do for anyone higher up the pay scale.

Last week I was fired when the non-profit job-that-paid eliminated its entire communications/marketing department. Conveniently, they let me come into work Monday morning (45-minute commute) and work for a couple hours before they did it. My coworker and I were unceremoniously tossed out, putting the contents of our desks in whatever bag or box we could find. I felt like I’d did something wrong, and still do, in spite of the lovely letter swearing to the contrary in my severance packet.

I understand the business decision, and in fact believe it was probably the right one for the organization at this current moment. And I wasn’t in love with the job. After a career, it was just that– a job. I was grateful for it, however it didn’t scratch any itch for creativity or exploration. It is also the height of irony since I left newspapers because of the increasing risk of having my job disappear. Life is hi-lar-eee-ous.

So now I sit here on a Sunday night, not sure what to do with my planner, my to-do-lists and my time. I have at least a few weeks and then whatever or whenever something presents itself that pays the bills. I am fortunate in that we are financially stable because my husband is good at that kind of stuff. And we have health. That makes all the difference and has nothing to do with us.

At 2 a.m. the morning after I got fired, the SAR pager went off. I was out the door in five minutes and a few miles up the road when the disregard came through. But it was enough of a reminder that with The Job That Doesn’t Pay I am beyond blessed for meaning and raison d’être.

I’ll be fine. But it is weird. I expect the house will be cleaner than it has been in years, I’ll plague you a bit more here. Say a prayer for my coworker and dear friend who was marched out of the building with me. She has kids and pre-existing conditions and all of that. Things are scarier always with kids.

All ya’ll going off to punch the time-cards in the a.m., good luck, have a great week and I’ll be thinking of you. 2017-02-20 10.06.01.jpg

I’ll be looking around for a job for a professional badger because that’s what I am to my core.

And I need a new place for this kick-ass mouse pad.

Capturing the moments, and living there

 

There’s a very common saying in working dogs: Train the dog in front of you. Not the one you wish you had.

Everyone knows it. Every new handler hear it constantly from their training directors, from their fellow handlers.

It’s a real temptation, this “next dog.” The mystery K9 you will pluck from the pound, or drop $2,000 on from a well-known working line breeder, the dog that will achieve certification in like two months, never have a bad day, never take a dump in the middle of a search problem, and probably won’t even shed.

We dream of this dog. We see this dog elsewhere on our teams, handled by those who clearly don’t appreciate these magnificent animals as well as we would if we had them. We know that the next dog will be amazing.

Meanwhile, our hardworking K9 sits dutifully at our side, waiting for whatever command we are going to give them, hoping we get the timing better on this next reward and that we don’t miss their cues and leave them out there too long by our misdirection.

There’s another problem new handlers face, and that is that they are new handlers. This is also news to us, er, them. So as new handlers, our timing is always off. We don’t understand enough to really get the training done we need. We know this, deep down inside. And it makes us grumpy. We are anxious. We are angry. We misplace our frustration and put it where it doesn’t belong: our partners.

The only thing harder than taking a pet dog and turning it into a working K9 is taking an inexperienced pet dog owner and turning her into a working K9 handler, a person with confidence, patience, wisdom, strength and humility.

It’s hard to be that inexperienced pet dog owner. It’s harder to make the journey.

My first few years as a SAR K9 handler have been unbelievably difficult, a Sisyphean exercise on the hill of my own ego. We have failed more than we’ve succeeded, and much of our struggle has been because I am very, very slow on the uptake. Did you know that you have to let go of control to work a SAR dog? Yes. It’s true.

Ugh.

SAR and training a dog for SAR works for my salvation. I say this a lot, because it is true. All those things that make good handlers good handlers are good traits for humans, godly traits even.

I’m hopeful that we are getting there. I think the photos below are proof.

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We’re not quite sure…

The above photograph was taken on a cold day in March. I was really distracted and angry at where we found ourselves, progress-wise. Helo knew it. Even though he found what we were looking for, the look on his face tells me that he does not trust me, he does not know how I will react and he’s really not sure he wants to be there right now.

When I first saw this photograph, I was embarrassed. There it was, in living color, for me to see: my strained relationship with my partner, my ego in the way of our work, my desire to work another dog, any other dog, was clearly felt by him on this day.

It broke my heart.

So for the past couple months, I stopped worrying about Helo and nagging him about the work he was doing. All of our training sessions were spent working on me, my attitude, my focus, putting my heart in the right place. I needed to control my emotions, my passions, in order to give him the space to succeed.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. Same place in the search problem, right before the final indication.

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I’ve got it!

Different dog. Different team. This picture brought tears to my eyes for completely different reasons.

For the past two years, I’ve been looking past the dog I had, and yet at the same time depending on his performance to validate me as a handler. How unfair is that to such a loyal, attentive and gifted creature!?

It has taken a lot of work. And like all journeys and trips worth taking, it’s going to take a lot more to get to where we need to be.

I share this tonight, a departure from my usual musings on the human condition, to share this bit of my condition. I ask for your continued prayers, your support as I work to be the handler Helo needs me to be, the wife my husband needs me to be, the human being that the world needs me to be.

For just like you shouldn’t look past your dog to the next one, we can’t look past the life we have right now to live the one we don’t have. This is our day. These are our choices, our moments. Live in them, fully.

Thankful thoughts

For my peeps, whom I love. The extended version.

 

I posted Wednesday night on Facebook about how grateful I am for the people in my life. I meant it, and I want to expand a bit on it here.

Believe it or not, I am an introvert. I behave like an extrovert for TJTP, but I do not find big groups of people enjoyable or energizing. However, I really do love people on a personal level. I love hearing their stories, seeing their scars, learning from them and watching them grow.

And I have been richly blessed by the people in my life, with genuine connections to so many people. It makes me tear up sometimes when I think about it. (shhh don’t tell)

The main difference between Orthodoxy and all other strains of Christianity I had explored is literally “Communion,” the sharing in the Sacraments. The Mysteries of God really do connect us in a way that is mystical and sturdy. I find an instant connection with those in the Church.

I often say that training Helo is working for my salvation. I believe that quite wholeheartedly. Training dogs is humbling work. Admitting you don’t know how to communicate in a way that’s understandable is embarrassing to a professional communicator. It’s humbling to fail so much at something into which you are putting so much. It is always very hard for me to ask for help. It’s hard to put yourself out there, with your dog, in testing, or competition or work. It’s even harder when you fail.

Helo and I have failed. Many many times. But we’re getting better. We’re growing.

I know that I have had the support of my Church people, through prayer and encouragement. Thank you all for that. Thank you for asking me at coffee hour how training is going, for listening to me talk about the joys of human remains detection over donuts, for praying for our safety in our work, and for praying for me and asking about the TJTP. That job gets a bit lonely at times and I know I have your love there. It means a lot.

My family and non-dog/SAR friends have been pretty awesome as well. I have been a total chatterbox for two years now on the miracles and wonders of lying in the woods and waiting for a dog to come and bark at me. I have badgered many about coming to hide in holes and boxes, regardless of weather or conditions. I have moaned about our latest struggle and babbled like a brook about any success we have had. Please know I am trying not to take you all for granted. We can’t do this without you and your patience. Thank you. Thank you.

At some level too, not the Mystical one of actual Communion, but at a very deep and meaningful human level– a way that I think it should be for everyone somewhere in their lives– my dog people have saved me this year too. There has been a true communion of connection and support.

When you are passionate about something, and you find others who share that passion and that drive; and who are committed to helping you cultivate it more in yourself, it’s just extraordinary.

New friends whose paths I crossed at seminars or elsewhere, for whom I felt an instant “THIS PERSON needs to be in my life”; Facebook friends who have trained and worked for years, who are quick to answer questions, to offer tips and patience; my teammates who deal with me with unfailing patience and humor, for you all I am so thankful.

Such connections are a gift. To those reading this for whom this is true, thank you. Thank you for investing in my life, in my skills, in my dog. Thank you for caring enough to check on us, spur us on, pull us up when we’ve been down.

I light candles in the back of the Church for those whom I love and who are on my mind. It’s been a veritable forest quite frequently in recent months for all of you.

Love,

Me.

Blame the dog

(Or How Dogs Change Everything)

There’s a sign hanging in the training building I have seen or heard with every trainer I’ve ever worked with: “It’s never the dog’s fault.”

It’s true. It’s not Helo’s fault if I can’t figure out how to get him to understand what I’m asking of him. It’s not his fault he’s a dog and not a person who walks on all fours.

But I blame him, and his predecessor Sunshine, for so much anyway. And it’s ok. I think my trainers will let me.

On April 15, 2006 I met my sister at the Hacienda Restaurant in Warsaw to collect a middle-aged Golden Retriever. Three days before I got the dog, I came back from Rome, having cancelled the wedding plans with the Great Italian A$$hole (it’s a great story, ask me about it sometime when we’re drinking adult beverages). It needed to happen, and one of the reasons it did happen was because I knew I had something waiting for me very soon.

I grew up with dogs, a dog specifically, a beautiful Lab from hunting trial lines who kept me sane and kept me safe from myself for more than a decade growing up in that house. But in my adult life in Fort Wayne, I had not been able to get (or was afraid to allow myself) a dog.  Sunny was the perfect dog to bridge that gap.

As I drove away from the restaurant, I looked into the rear view mirror and saw a scene I would see constantly for the next six years–that big soft red-gold head propped between the back seats, dozing as she watched out the window. That big sweet dog accompanied me to therapy sessions, got me off my couch and introduced me to my neighbors. My desire to give her more room led to the purchase of my house. 381512_10150514677219437_278700776_n

She slept under my desk in the bureau, and went with me to everything from fire scenes to school board meetings. She spent an afternoon with the Bluffton police chief while I covered a court hearing.

I know that her constant presence in my life healed my heart in a way I could not have predicted that day I watched her hop into my car. I know that what she nurtured in my soul prepared the way for A. When she became ill at the end, A came to my house and helped me put her on her bed. As Sunny was unable to stand or walk, my friend J came the next morning with me to take her to the vet. When it was time for her to cross the Bridge, I held her head in my lap and her leg in my hand as I thanked her and told her it was OK to go.

A week later, that little fuzzy ball of black fur with the speckled tan paws showed up, a polar opposite of that old Golden in every way possible.

With Helo, it became clear from moment one he needed a job. Sunshine possessed no motivation for anything beyond rawhide bones and belly rubs. Helo, though, he wanted to be with me all the time, assist me in whatever task I was doing, climb on my lap, chew on my hands and shred anything he could find.

Within a few months of his arrival, we were in obedience classes. We walked every day to the football field at a nearby college campus and I wore his furry little butt out with tennis balls and soccer.

When I moved in with A, Helo’s life became fields and groundhogs, barns to explore and new roads to run. But it wasn’t enough. So we got him another job (hopefully) and with it, more people for me to meet, friendships to build and adventures to have.

I blame Sunshine for so much of this, for starting me on this journey by being safe. I blame Helo for the rest of it, for needing so much more from me than I thought I could give.

In the book of Tobit, there is a dog. The dog came out with Tobit’s son and journeyed with him. That is all we know.

1426301_10151916285291743_240149804_nFor me, the dog has often led and I’m fine with that.

 

Humans (and dogs) being

My training coordinator got my blood pressure up tonight with a simple message asking about a picture of my dog training yesterday. I’ll spare you the inside baseball discussion about the picture and what the issue was. She was concerned about the picture itself. I was concerned about the behavior the picture may have portrayed (funny thing about pictures–they may be worth 1,000 words, but they rarely tell the whole story).  We take a ridiculous amount of pictures while we train — cell phone cameras, actual cameras, whatever happens to be handy. The pictures provide, not just fun pictures of dogs, but also provide instant documentation of how we work and what the dog can do and has done. Anyway, someone else took the picture and at that moment in time, that split second, it looked concerning. My fear was that the picture was the whole story and that we were done.  It wasn’t. We’re not. We’re fine for where we’re at. Phew.

But I did not climb off that ledge for hours. And while Helo nonchalantly shredded a box in the living room, I worried.  Are we going to get this done? Is he doing what he’s supposed to be doing? Etc. etc. ad nauseum.

As a bit of a control freak, this whole training-dog-for-search work is SO hard for me. There is this whole other variable here, and it’s huge. It’s like 80 percent of the whole equation. I am, to quote our leader, a dope on the end of a rope. This largely depends on Helo, a 50-pound fur covered animal with his own reactions, instincts, desires and ideas. This is his show, his work. And I am having the worst time getting out of his way.

All my life, the few dogs I’ve worked with in either 4-H or in our home, it was about getting the dog to DO something. To sit. To stay. To high-five. Helo’s early life (his first 18 months with me) was largely getting him to do things. He is extremely good at doing. He aced his obedience classes. He will wait for me patiently outside a coffee shop for hours. He is, officially, a Canine Good Citizen. Helo is a very good dog.

But this thing we’re doing together, I’m asking him to BE something — a Search and Rescue K-9. I need him to be 100% dog, 100% of the time AND to use that dog-ness to perform a task humans cannot perform. I need him to be willing and able to work away from me, to use his nose and his instincts in an extraordinary way.  There is talk in our group of “putting obedience” on the dog after the beginning of the search training is done, like a title. It struck me the first time I heard it — “putting it” — as an odd thing. But it makes sense now. It is restrictive to their being.  The obedience work is merely so we can live with them, exist with them in social settings, so they know what’s expected of them in public. Because we weren’t planning on this little adventure we’re on, Helo and I did it backward. Now we’re having to go back and undo some of what I did before, what I put on him–Helo, obedient family pet.

This whole work is so amazingly difficult for me, the control freak, the person who works largely on my own. I pick my stories. I cover my beat. I design my class and I teach it.

I have to slow down with this. I have to be quiet, like ACTUALLY QUIET, while he works and let him figure it out. It makes me want to climb out of my skin. Of course, he senses it and the “good dog” worries that he’s disappointing me. See? It’s a vicious cycle.

If you’re reading this, and you’re prone to praying, throw one up for us, for me, that I’ll let him just be. It’s a lesson I need to learn in just about every area of my life anyway — letting those living, free-will-endowed beings around me just do their thing without me worrying about them every minute of every day. I never could keep them all safe and sound, protected and whole, and God knows I tried. It’s no different with the people I love than it is with my dog. I can’t control. I can’t change.

Helo’s not the only one learning how to “be.”