Blocked The downside of keeping our dogs, our dreams, and our exes at a distance

“It’s just a dog.”

I have considered that line more that I care to admit. When I began writing about loss and the ways in which dogs show us trust and connection, I felt almost guilty giving so much weight to my relationship with a dog.

After all, it’s just a dog.

Though fido is closer to family these days, downplaying the human relationship with animals has a lengthy history. Keeping animals out of our closest circle makes it easier to use them for sport or entertainment, or to place them in the category of property, not family. Diminishing the relationship can also make it seem easier to accept the finite life of a pet.

Beyond animals, relationships of all types can be reduced to an afterthought.

“It’s just another day.”

“It’s just a pipe dream.”

“It’s just a job.”

“It’s just an ex.”

When we say, “just a [ ],” we diminish the relationship and remove its power to affect us. Keeping our past lives, our current frustrations, and our dreams for the future at a distance also helps keep such thoughts from impacting and shaping our lives.

With technology, our ability to diminish relationships is now even easier. We’re able to block out the bad.

I’m a fan of the mute button, especially after a series of unexpected texts from a number I hadn’t seen it in nearly 10 years, though I recognized it immediately. It was my ex-husband’s.

I panicked. I handed my phone to a friend, asking for help. Without question, she turned on iPhone’s handy “Block this Caller” feature.

“There,” she says. “Taken care of.”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve turned over my phone. Like an addict finally admitting defeat, I’ve asked for help to block people from my life. An ex boyfriend’s streaming assaults on Facebook…BLOCKED. The man I ended things with on poor terms…DELETED. I’ve had friends dig deep into the bowels of my phone, pulling out missed calls and text threads, removing any recognizable bit of that person from my digital life so I can avoid the temptation of reaching out to them.

Too bad you can’t do that with brains.

Even though my ex-husband was successfully blocked, he was still in my head, as loud and as vivid as the day he left. What, though, did I expect, when I decided to use the Internet as my publisher? He’s summarized in my latest writing as “the alcoholic I married and divorced.”

I’d be pissed, too.

Actually, every relationship I acknowledged in a recent piece about detoxing from dating was summarized in one line or less. In glorifying my sabbatical from men, I diminished each of them to a few words.

The writer in me wants to defend my statements, to let the reader know this was intentional. It was written specifically to take the focus away from men and place it on my process and what I learned.

The human in me wants to say that it’s unfair to treat people who greatly impacted my life in this way. Each one of those men evolved my heart.

The “high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail” was the first boyfriend I truly loved. He remains one of my longest relationships and the first person I tried to date long-distance, making it quite obvious that I was terrible at being far away from someone I loved so much. We learned about heartwreck together, and I measured every relationship after him against the love I felt I lost.

I remember nearly every moment with the “Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend,” especially the guilt that kept me awake in the early mornings. Keeping that relationship going for as long as I did was a blind and dishonorable way for me to live, and a choice I am not proud of.

The “cover band rocker I took to small claims court” taught me about forgiveness. I found my strength after he left, and I found enough documentation to prove he owed me a good deal of money. I thought getting that verdict was the most rewarding part of our time together, but forgiving him was even more powerful.

The “Jack Mormon” gave me more love than I felt I deserved. After my dog was struck and killed by a car, he read me “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” and held me while I cried myself to sleep. He tried to carry all my heartbreak, and I didn’t allow it. I became that pair of ragged claws T.S. Eliot described, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I locked him out. I locked everyone out after that.

“The crier” taught me about the cruelty I contain. “The older man” taught me about energy and how it’s possible to move an entire room with it. The “ski-bum heartbreaker with the broken legs” taught me about total, utter, wild love and my tendencies to be overwhelming IN. The “grass-is-always-greener-architect” helped me heal after being very broken. He taught me how to end a relationship with kindness. When I finally called it, I did so knowing I wanted to still see him and hug him and tell him about my life. That was the first time I considered not burning the whole fucking thing down.

And the “overzealous writer,” well, I’ve been that person too. In the last message I received from him, I did not acknowledge his pain. I only felt my own, and I just deleted him.

Digital life continues on after being blocked. What happens on the other lines is something we may never know, and if we shut it out, we certainly won’t be able to understand how we behave in the process. But we also have the right to block people who choose to use technology to harass us. I’m not interested in being a punching bag for someone’s unprocessed emotions.

It’s more difficult to block pain. It’s not just a dog. It’s not just an ex. These are parts of our lives, for better or worse, which live within the folds of memory and affect who we are right now.

I’ve tried a lot of mute buttons. The acute and immediate nature of our digital lives does fade with distance. There’s nothing, though, that can quiet the memories of lost love. By turning my exes into my own punching bag, I just created more pain.

My new rule for texting exes: If you can’t say something nice…don’t commit it to the electronic sea.

Writing about them? Well…the poet Anne Sexton said it best.

“A woman who writes feels too much,
those trances and portents!
As if cycles and children and islands
weren’t enough; as if mourners and gossips
and vegetables were never enough.
She thinks she can warn the stars.
A writer is essentially a spy.
Dear love, I am that girl.”

Dating Detox Reflections on a one-year dating hiatus

Midnight, January 1, 2016: The ball drops, the champagne pops, and so many kisses! Arms around each other, once-a-year pronouncing: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Farewell, 2015.

“I love New Year’s,” someone says. “You get to start all over. Again.”

A clean slate.

My clean slate started a year ago. Being unable to make suitable decisions when it came to men, I decided to stop. It seemed logical. If I can’t make a good choice in a romantic partner, I won’t make a choice at all. One year. No dating. No sex. Nothing.

“Really? You made it a whole year, no nothing?” My friend raises a skeptical eyebrow.

Well…

“I had sex with my ex-boyfriend.”

More eyebrow.

“Twice.”

“I see.”

“I was bored. It doesn’t count if you’re bored.”

Besides, it was incredibly eye opening. It was the first time I felt oxytocin—that magical little brain chemical responsible for feelings of intimacy and bonding after sex—in all its glory and did not think I was in love.

I was so very pleased at my discovery. “I love oxytocin, but now I don’t have to think I’m falling in love every time!” I told this to a girlfriend. “It’s just brain chemistry!”

“Well, it’s a bit more than that,” she replied. “You don’t want to close yourself off to love, or reduce it to just brain chemistry.”

Shit.

Turns out, love is a lot more complicated than brain chemistry.

My decision to stop dating wasn’t rash, but it was necessary. And it wasn’t understood by most of my friends.

“I worry that you’re shutting yourself off.”

“But what if you meet someone?!”

“I just want you to be open to whatever comes your way.”

Problem: I’ve been open to whatever comes my way for a long time. Explaining my dating roster to my therapist was like opening a clown car’s door. They all came spilling out: the high school boyfriend I bailed out of jail, the Texas punk rock vegetarian who had a girlfriend, the alcoholic I married and divorced, the cover band rocker I took to small claims court, the crier, the older man, the jack Mormon, the ski-bum heartbreaker with broken legs, the grass-is-always-greener architect, the overzealous writer who said I left him, “as empty as a cardboard box.”

The final text I received from a man with whom I’d been romantically involved, when I asked if we could talk: “Fuck no. Fuck no with a cherry on top. Goodbye forever.”

Okay. I must be doing this wrong. So I’m going to stop doing it. It’s as simple as that.

Strangely, giving up men wasn’t hard. It was relieving. It removed the pressure I felt interacting with them. I stopped checking for wedding rings. I stopped marrying men I’d just met in my head. I stopped thinking that any day now, I’d meet Mr. Right.

I was uncomfortable being alone. So I went out alone. I ate at restaurants alone, went to parties alone, attended concerts alone. I tried to become comfortable being alone.

I also stayed home a lot. I wrote and I read. I drank. Sometimes too much. I watched Sex in the City re-runs and drank whole bottles of champagne alone. (Yep, it was awesome).

At work, I became distinctly aware that my job and my soul were misaligned, so I quit and started my freelance writing business back up. I started writing more poetry, mostly bad, but some gems.

I stopped wearing uncomfortable clothing. I donated or sold garbage bags of clothes that didn’t make me happy. I stopped shaving. I stopped wearing makeup. I stopped wearing a bra. I began to wash my hair every three days or so. I decided deodorant was a scam. I changed my chemical soaps to castile and traded in my 27 body products for coconut oil in an effort to detox my “beauty” routine.

I smelled, sometimes, but once away from harsh chemicals and makeup, my body found its rhythm. I started using essential oils for perfume. I wore “Balance.” “Elevation.” “Love.” They did not bring me balance, elevation, or love, but I was often told that I smelled nice.

I began to read labels. I cooked more food. I grew food. I bought more organic food. I changed how I shopped and where I shopped so that my money would stay local. I tried not to look at the higher price and instead think of the value. I began to treat my body more kindly. I went on a juice cleanse. I quit after day 3. I went on a tea cleanse (this is how I learned that some herbs can induce sudden vomiting).

I did cold yoga. I did hot yoga. I rode bikes. I crashed on bikes. I walked my dog more. My dog got cancer. I fought his cancer fiercely, and in the process I learned to love so much more intensely than I thought I could. I learned about my sorrow, and how the end of life can be the most beautiful, tender time we have with our animals. I started being more present and alert to the moment we’re in, because it’s the only one we get.

I found new ways to obtain oxtyocin: A hug you hold longer, holding hands with friends, looking someone in the eye when talking to them. I got massages (oxytocin jolts without the sex!). I tried cupping. I tried cranial sacral. I had my brain’s chemistry analyzed and found out why I wasn’t sleeping so well. I tried a natural remedy for stress called “Tranquility,” which made me feel like a tranquilized lion. I switched to “Calm.” I practiced meditation. I studied Buddhism.

I got big tattoos. I wore wigs. I traveled. I went home more. I set up my parents new computer and taught them how to use an iPod. I became an aunt (to a magic angel baby!). I had an I’m-35-years-old-without-children-or-a-husband crisis. I began mourning that life I though I’d have by now, then I decided I wasn’t going to think about that until I was on the other side of 35.

I practiced kindness. I practiced boundaries with unhealthy friendships. I strengthened healthy friendships. I volunteered. I made new friends.

I began to think about the kind of person I would want to date. I would want to date someone who knows me, knows the best and worst of me. Someone who loves me, who props me up when I fall, who carries me on their shoulders like a champion when I succeed. Someone I would want to live with and love with.

Yes. I want to date someone I would consider my friend.

Because, really, how can we possibly imagine a life with someone if we don’t know them? Know how they behave when they’re scared, or broke, or angry, or drunk? Know what their weaknesses are, know their beautiful strengths and also know the places they fear the most?

Shit.

I need to make more friends.

I ran this past my girlfriends when I still had six months on my sentence.

“You know, you don’t have to do this for a whole year. I worry you won’t be open to it, if it comes to you.”

“Okay,” I assured them. “If I meet Mr. Right, I’ll be open.”

But I wasn’t. My energy was bound up in me, in building a more self-aware, self-confident, self-controlled human.

That’s okay, one friend said. “He’s doing exactly what you’re doing. He’s getting clear. He’s got his head down. He’s focused on him.”

January 1, 2016. One year ago I gave up dating. Do I feel clear? Nah, but I’m closer. Do I know how to pick Mr. Right? Nope. But I do believe that we don’t pick. We’re just colliding molecules. We’re big brains with animal instincts.

But we do get to choose who gets close to us, what we share, how we share, and when we share. We contain the ability to open ourselves up for the right kind of connection.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Every person that leaves an imprint on our heart brings us that much closer to the right connection. Every day presents us with a moment for renewal and a clean slate—not just on New Year’s eve. It takes deliberate self-work, and it’s not easy. It’s wildly uncomfortable but completely worth the investment, because no one will ever take better care of you than you.

The rest, well, it’s up to the universe’s twisted sense of humor. It’s a bit oxtytocin, a bit chance, a dose of timing, and a whole lotta self-love.

For Trey

Spring, this brassy procession from Winter to Summer
lingers like early morning rain on branches.
Quivering leaves drip apprehension,
uneasiness in this change of season.

Pale and drawn, Spring’s first pipers shed their cloaks.
They tease us with announcements of warmer days ahead,
rediscovering their voice with the songbirds of sunrise.
April’s cruelty will soon become a distant memory.

Yet there are some of us who return to Winter’s well-worn path,
wearing lockets with memory neatly contained.
For we are still in mourning;
The Boy Who is in Love has died.

The Amorist, one who is in love or writes of love, feared the forgetfulness of others.
He was unable to leave the consequence of his life on paper.
Rather through suffering he worked each day for joy.
Through every moment of immeasurable pain he continued to be in love–
In love with winter’s silent snows and the swagger of spring,
in love with the swelter of summer and the cool nights of routine,
each furthering an unappeasable cancer through his bones.
He loved every day’s demise, even while knowing it brought him closer to the dead.

In these parades from beauty to bleakness, darkness to warmth,
it’s hard to believe he was afraid we’d forget–
Forget his tussle of his hair each time it re-grew.
Forget the warmth of his presence and the rogue curve of his smile.
Forget the sound of his pain, the ebb of his disease,
taking pieces while he continued his love of living.

When The Amorist passed onto the invisible beyond,
into the whitewash of painless days,
His wave goodbye came with a promise:
That death is not an ending.
That he’d returned to the expanse of the sea.
Through the churning of sand and in ripples against the shore,
he built sandcastles to hold our fear.

Our scars dissolve slowly with the each breath of morning,
drifting like threads across placid skies.
Across each season’s tease I find The Boy Who is in Love.
He grows under our feet, tickling our bare toes in the revival of spring.
He cools us as the shade trees of summer,
and holds our hearts in the dead of winter
as roots holding the earth in place.

The Editor

In silence I place your memories—
Tiny paintings of melody
Onto page
It makes me calm.

I cut away the pieces of loss you carry,
hide them in a weathered music box
that becomes lost in a mess of paperwork and dishes,
in the distraction of late night stereo and sharing keys.

Clumsily we shuffle through winter;
Our hearts lie dormant as spring’s first blooms.
Flashy robins, their red breasts bright in the morning sun
bring us from hibernation.
The season’s first sunburn follows as tulips droop toward the ground,
their fragile necks bending slowly as the days grow longer.

We pretend the yellowing walls and arching sun
don’t contain us to memory, bind us to routine.
Yet our creeping sadness follows the span of sunlight
passing across rooftops as sunburns fade.
Heartbreak impends like the march of a million ants
trying to find their way indoors.

Amongst unpacked moving boxes,
I hear a tiny twang of that forgotten music box.
Its covering is shabby, soiled with fingerprints of youth.
I once as a child filled it with treasure
and buried it to later discover the contents remained unchanged;
Only the meaning had been lost in routine.

Our hearts, like music boxes, are opened so rarely
As if the melody would sour, as if heartache would spread like an infection
Become a gaping wound, ripped open by a peckish lover
who begins to lap at the tissue, chew on ventricles until
slowly we become a cavity void of the songs that made us love

In the first breaths of morning, when the songbirds are the loudest
I hear those pieces of loss I cut away
scratching on the music box’s insides
Clamoring to be let out.

Accident Prone

Upside down on a highway
Broken glass beneath my fingertips
I pull at my roots.

Between windy screams
I hear your voice splinter in zero degrees
Clouds cut sharply the mountains by half
I whisper, is there more?
I want so much more.

Like chunks of dish blond hair
golden weeds tumble through air so thick
it tastes of sandboxes.
It tastes of childhood.

Within our breathing bodies
this warm blood slows until touch
is remorse, collapse is sensation,
longing is the only feeling.

I reach for your cold hands
Break your legs and
cover you with dust.
With the cardboard bison I place you
between cracks in hills
and bury our fears in dirt as dark as night.

When you awaken from the swells of hibernation
I place my hand atop your mouth
Feed you dinner platters of sawdust and sage
Cover your casts with signatures from all your lovers
and we embrace like old friends.

In towns between towns
where forgotten dogs are buried
in beds of dirty drifting snow
You remember.
Cloudy skies catch in our throats,
shifting guts and freezing nerves.

Relentless winds heave memory like black ice—
The tangled wreckage ripping across
miles of lonely pavement.
The way your fingertips transcended skin,
transferring blood from limb to limb.
The sound you made when you said we were through.
The bits of me that stopped moving that day.

I wish to capture all those thousand little deaths,
Suspend them between the advancing dark
and the morning after.
Build sandcastles around us at the Interstate’s end.

The Yelling Season

In this yelling season we bare our teeth
Devour each other like bottles of wine

I could tell you were drunk
He said
By the way you phrased your words
It takes an ocean, love
I will drown on your floor

Liquor in my coffee
Broken dishes, overturned tables
Behind closed windows
I am wreckage and ruin, love

I am an empty room
Leftovers. Linear bruises
The hallways of late nights, the thud on the floor.
I am pain unconsidered.

You.
You are the splinter for which
I’ve torn back skin
Cut into tissue
Relocated bones to find

At my touch it shatters
I shout for Vodka, Advil, Sanity
I am stitches and wine glasses, garbage of bottles
I am walking a straight line in my head

This is not a problem.

For the love of pets The role of pets in human lives

We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own, live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached. Unable to accept its awful gaps, we would still live no other way. We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan. Irving Townsend, The Once Again Prince

Animal companions provide us joy and heartache, love and heartbreak, and in many homes they are loved as family. We enter into relationships with animals in most cases knowing we will outlive our beloved animals, and yet we give fully of our lives, our time, and our hearts. While it seems at times animals are too fragile for this earth, our time together is repaid tenfold in the unequivocal love they give.

Dr. Jean Albright, DVM, has been in the vet profession for more than 35 years. She equates the relationship between pet and owner to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella, “The Little Prince.”

Citing a passage from the story, Dr. Albright explains her go-to reference for why people love their pets. The fox says to the Little Prince, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…

“‘I am beginning to understand,’ said the little prince. ‘There is a flower…I think that she has tamed me…’”

“When the little prince talks to the fox about his rose, it is so profound,” Dr. Albright said. “We value what we nurture. Where my cat to someone else is just a cat, to me it’s really special.”

Animals offer safety to children because they don’t judge, because they’re always there. Dr. Jean Albright

Dr. Albright grew up on a ranch near Custer, Mont., surrounded by animals. “When I was young and was upset, I always went to where the animals were. Animals offer safety to children because they don’t judge, because they’re always there.”

From the barnyard to the home front, historically pets and their owners have strong bonds. From these ties, pet ownership is thought to provide therapeutic and health benefits to the caregiver. Owning pets is theorized to hold a multitude of benefits, from lowering blood pressure to preventing heart disease and helping individuals fight depression. In studies, people who own pets have also been found to laugh more and have lower levels of stress than those who do not have pets.

Dr. Albright maintains there is a reason for every animal in our lives. “My needy little Australian Shepherd is there to teach me patience,” she said. “My ‘Steady Eddie,’ a greyhound mix, is like the rock in my life.”

For the love of dog

For the love of dog

Billings resident Amy Brown has opened her heart and home to many rescued dogs, and said the relationship is mutually beneficial.

“Animals reward our need to love, and you know that you’ve made their life better for the time that they’ve been with you,” Brown said.

Brown and her husband Bill have adopted or rescued eight dogs since becoming married, starting with their respective dogs.

“They were very happy we got married because they were best friends,” Brown said. When her dog passed away, she said Bill’s lab was so distraught she wouldn’t even go out by herself.

“She would just wait for him,” Brown described. They got a puppy and named him Jetson. This pup turned out to be a “nasty little dog,” Brown describes. “The ‘grateful dog syndrome’ (a term Brown uses to describe a rescued animal’s gratitude toward its savior) doesn’t apply when they are still puppies,” she said. Despite all the dog’s quirks, the reciprocal love made it all worthwhile.

“Love won’t conquer all, but love and training do help with most everything,” Brown maintains.

Brown grew up on a farm in Basin, Wyoming. Her desire to rescue dogs stems from her belief that animals need human companions as much as humans need them. “We had some great dogs,” she recalls. Her father—an animal lover—helped instill in her a compassion and love of animals. “My earliest memory is a dog that was always at my side. Sometimes I don’t know that she particularly liked me until I got older, but she was always there protecting me.”

Brown raised her children around dogs and had a Labrador that would lie beneath their bassinets, alerting Brown when the children would wake. As her children grew up around dogs, she found the pet/caregiver relationship taught them empathy. Brown does caution that “children are very curious, and dogs are dogs, and you don’t know when some ancient instinct is going to flip the switch, so you must protect them from each other.”

The Browns currently have three dogs, an old English sheep dog named Lexy, an Airedale mix named Dixie (after the children’s book of the same name), and a feisty and aging Bichon Frise named “Macho” Max.
“The only bad thing is that they aren’t with us long enough,” she said.

Saying goodbye

When animals pass on, they leave a vacuum in our hearts and small ghosts in our memories. “Another dog never fills that void,” Brown said. “They fill the space and the time, but not the hole.”

Brown lost two of her dogs at the sixth birthday mark. “Once I get past that, I feel like I’m on borrowed time,” she said. In the last months of one of her dog’s lives, Brown said she worked so hard to keep him alive. “When we finally had to let go, just what you do with yourself after it’s been that intense?”

As a vet, Dr. Albright is often asked when it’s time to let go, and she replies, “When you look at them and it hurts more to watch them than to let them go. Then it’s time.” She has “been around the block quite a few times with animals,” but said she still has a very hard time letting them go. “It’s like saying goodbye to a little kid because animals are little kids their whole life.”

Dr. Albright carried one of her arthritis dogs up and down the stairs, holding onto it longer that most people thought she should. “For everyone it’s different,” she said. “That’s one area that I am pretty nonjudgmental. Some hang onto them longer than others.”

Despite the heartbreak of losing pets, Brown can’t imagine her life without dogs. “I wish they would stay with me longer, but I have to believe that it is as worth it for them as it is for me.”

Originally published in Magic City Magazine

In the Bedroom

I long to hold your arteries
and cradle your veins
To carry blood from your barren core
to your desperate limbs.
I long to leave pieces of me on your mattress,
my stain you could not forget.
I long to suck oxygen from your gray lungs
that held that devilish voice, dirty
like the dive bars where I would find
pieces of you—needles draped
from your beautiful arms.
Instead I discovered pieces of you sprinkled
on the mattress like bits of brain in starless corners.
And like birds I wept at the morning
shining on your corroded heartbreak.
Atop your stone tomb mattress
I placed your palm, cold like death
to the blood pulsing through my temple.
I traced my fingertips along your tracks.
Those beautiful arms black with contempt,
the bile and venom and hatred spilling
from your veins.