Tiny Dots

It’s late. I’m not sure of the time, but it’s been night for a while—long enough for the dark to feel damp and for the scattered clouds to have a purple tint. In my jammies and boots without socks, I’m walking through the wet grass out to the barn where Bunny, Tee, and Baby Bodhi are likely resting.

With both hands, I slide open the barn door and flip the light switch just inside. Three sets of ears perk up high and like a burst of beautiful light, Bodhi leaps for me with his ears back and his tiny tail wagging. Bunny and Tee, from behind their stall door, begin to bray. Shaky, I kneel down and scratch Bodhi’s soft fur, his chin resting on my shoulder. He still smells like a baby.

It’s been three days since I’ve seen my sweet donkeys: I’ve relied on King Ranch and my parents to help care for them while I’ve been severely ill. In and out of the hospital and unsure of the time when I wake up from long rests, it’s been a blur of chills, lightheadedness, groggy sips of Gatorade, and much anxiety over what is happening in my tired body.

I stand, my head dizzy for a starry-eyed moment, before I open the stall door. Normally, Bunny and Tee race to reach me first (especially if it’s been some time since I’ve seen them) but tonight, they’re delicate in their approach. They know I’m unwell, I can see it in the wideness of their eyes and in the care of their steps. Bunny nips at my hair while Tee presses his head into my thigh. Bodhi stands against my other leg, his tail swishing from side to side.

In the dim barn surrounded by the quiet of night and warmth of my donkeys, I peer up at the light above which flickers with silhouettes of June bugs and moths. I draw in a deep breath, close my eyes, and surrender the walls I’ve taped up around my emotions to the midnight air. Tears begin to stream down my cheeks.

I don’t remember a time when I’ve been this sick, at least not as an adult. And to complicate things, my pre-existing heart condition is succumbing to the stress and making my movements and presence tedious and difficult.  The good news is, I’ve seen a host of doctors and have seemingly turned a corner to see a light at the end of this dark, dank, claustrophobia-inducing tunnel where I’ve left a scattered trail of my weight, strength, and optimism.

I’ve been unsure as to whether or not I wanted to write about this but the thing is, I write to figure out my feelings. I have to spell out thoughts to see them straight—to remove them from the neon nebulous of my anxious mind where I don’t have a single train of thought, but rather, a bustling train station buzzing with people yelling in languages that I can’t understand.

I have a friend, a wonderfully talented novelist who bravely moved her life overseas and is one of the most inspiring people in my life. She writes her stories and essays in a way that transfers the reader to the front lines—to the smells and tastes of places they’ve never been—and the other night, she messaged me out of concern to check on my health. It’s been years since I’ve seen her in person, but across the world, her concern and love of my feelings made way for a platform to begin to explore my own understanding of the depth in which this aggressive illness has dug. In talking with her, my heart touched by her words (because she’s just the kind of person who can be so warm and empathetic, even oceans apart), I realized that in this illness, there have been moments where I have actually feared for my life…like really thought it might be over for me. I think this must have been the first time I truthfully and legitimately feared that my end might be near and although that moment is now in my distant and hopefully unreachable past, it’s left me in a strange, emotional place. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but the swift severity of my condition left little room to feel like I had much of a fight. 

(To be clear, I am fine. I am going to be fine. There were just a few days in there where I really thought I might not be fine and those ripples are still splashing around pretty hard.)

As I stand here in the barn, these three donkeys doing everything in their ability to comfort me, I am overcome with…I don’t know what it is. Gratitude for sure, but something else. Purpose? Raw presence? I’m not sure. That very real fear has done something to me and even though I know I’m out of the thick of the threat, there’s this pulsing light from beyond my field of vision that’s reminding me of the fragility of all of this. It’s a blocked off area  that stays just beyond my sight with giant, red, boldface letters that says “RESTRICTED” because only those who are emotionally equipped to handle the reality of how temporary life is can enter without crumbling. This very human condition: that we are all momentary. 

Little Foot climbed up into bed with me yesterday and rested his curly head on my chest.

“Mommy,” he said, “I hear your heart going ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom.”

I twirled his hair between two of my fingers and said, “I think my heart is happy you’re here.”

And it was. It is. Oh my it is, my heart flips in my chest at the sight and even thought of my sweet, little boy. He’s barely three years old and already he helps me feed the animals, collect eggs from the chickens, tells me stories that are made up in his imagination, and reminds me that you don’t have to be of a certain age to really know how to love.

Bunny lowers her head and rests it against my chest. I wonder if she can hear my struggling heart, too. I look down to see tiny, damp dots freckling the donkey’s faces—my tears having dripped from my chin onto them. I think they’ve moved closer to me, the weight of their bodies giving me strength to stand even though I’m so, so tired.

On the shelf beside us is Tink’s bright blue halter. He was wearing it the day he passed. Little Foot asked about Tink for the first time in a while the other day (before I fell ill) and I told him that Tink died. I used those words….he died.  “But where did he go?” Little Foot asked with a puzzled look. I told him that I wasn’t sure, but I believe that even when people or animals die, they’re still out there somewhere in some way. I told him that I think they must be out beyond the stars, so maybe you can look up at night and see if anything up there reminds you of him and if it does, then he’s definitely still alive in your thoughts. Among all those twinkling, tiny dots are so much more than meets the eye, so look as hard and as often as you can. This seemed to satisfy him. He also asked if the slug that he accidentally stepped on the other day is up there, too, because he was very sorry that he smushed it, he just didn’t see it before he stepped. I told him that I’m sure the slug is up there.

After a while, I shuffle the donkeys back into their stalls, laying a kiss upon each of their heads, and close the barn door. Purple clouds glide across the sky which is nearly singing like a full choir with twinkling stars. So many tiny dots. I breathe in deeply, their light filling the broken parts of me, before exhaling deep gratitude, relief, and hope with a long sigh.

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Wide-Eyed and Waggy-Tailed

The sun’s just come up on an already warm Monday morning, although it’s not been up long enough to burn the dew off of the un-mowed grass that’s slopping against my rubber boots. I’ve got the remainder of a roll of gauze in my hand, a disinfectant spray, and a small, black boot that was specially designed for Tink, my sweet mini donkey whose hoof (or rather, what remains of a hoof) is deformed due to profound mistreatment by his previous owner. Luckily, he was rescued by the organization in which I volunteer, Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, and in time, I became his over-the-moon adoptive mother.

Tink the mini donkey
Sportin’ his handsome boot.

As I walk across the backyard towards the gate that leads into the donkey’s pasture, I hear several long exhales that I know to belong to Bunny, my standard-sized donkey, who’s revving up for a bray because it’s been three days since I’ve seen her.

Late last night, I arrived back home from an exhilarating couple of days in Houston. Y’all know by now that Houston is my hometown—my folks still live there as do many of my dearest friends—and so really, any visit there is a treat…but this one was especially exciting. More on that later.

I open the gate and Bunny is running across the pasture in a full-on bray now—her nostrils are flared and ears are laying back and so as quickly as I can, I set the boot, the spray, and the gauze on the ground just in time to open my arms and catch her before she tackles me to the ground. She hits me hard, her large neck against my chest and her snout over my shoulder. Her tail is wagging furiously and as I wrap my arms behind her large head, she starts nipping at my hair.

Bunny and Me
Although this isn’t the greeting of THIS morning, this is how I’m so blissfully greeted everytime I go outside. My girl.

Home.

I scratch her ears and run my hands down all her legs to check for ticks or mites as Tee and Tink make their way towards us. They may not greet me with the enthusiasm that Bunny does, but their wide eyes and wagging tails are more than enough to pull at my bleeding-heart’s strings.

As I’m dressing Tink’s hoof, my three remaining adoptable donkeys wander up to the fence, their ears perked up in curiosity, and I remember just then that in only a few days, I’ll be saying goodbye to two of them, Maybell and Sue (a mother/daughter pair whose new family will be picking them up later this week.) Oof. Being swept up in the excitement of the weekend, I’d briefly forgotten that I’m within days of saying good bye, and so after I finish up with Tink, I go to them.

I’ve had Maybell and Sue since mid-March which has been just enough time to really grow attached to them. I rub their faces and let them lean on me and it’s then that I realize I’m grappling (and even struggling) with the concept of impermanence. It’s a growing weight that I try to mentally avoid but, hoo boy, here it comes.

In just a few, short days, I’ll say goodbye to Maybell and Sue and in all likelihood, will never see them again. These two who I’ve cared for so deeply—I’ve cleaned their hooves and brushed their hair and fed them and given them medicine when they’ve needed it. Now that will be someone else’s job. As one who fosters rescue donkeys, this is part of it and I know that. It’s not easy, though. Never is. 

It’s daunting, isn’t it? When you really stop to think about how temporary everything—all of this—really is? How quickly winter turns to spring, turns to summer, and your infant son is somehow already two years old and speaking in sentences and you’ve found a lone-wolf, gray hair right, smack-dab in the middle of your hairline. Your spring garden has burnt to a crisp under the Texas sun and geeze-louise, my dumb birthday’s looking right at me again with mocking eyes. Weren’t you just here?

I give Maybell and Sue each a pat on the nose before heading back towards the house. Little Foot will still be asleep in his toddler bed, likely above the covers and holding onto his orange, stuffed lion and also in the house (and as a cherry on top to my most excellent weekend in Houston), I brought back up north with me to visit for a few days, The Unicorn. Remember her? If not, here’s her story. She’ll still be sleeping too, I imagine. We had a late night last night and I want to have coffee made before she wakes.

Temporariness. Oof.

On our drive yesterday, The Unicorn and I were reveling in the years that have passed since we met which lucky for us, we know the exact date: January 5, 2010. I kid you not, we shook hands for the first time that day and static-shocked each other and since, we’ve been the closest of friends. Seven years, in fact. In a lifetime, that probably isn’t much, but I can remember that day we met like it was just moments ago. And it’s been a fruitful seven years.

It’s so fast. It’s all just so fast.

Us
This is the Unicorn and me at Houston’s Pride Festival, June 2012.

The coffee’s brewing now in the kitchen, trickling and beginning to smell wonderful and outside the front window, our rooster, Bowie, is crowing. I’ve decided it’s a myth that roosters crow only in the morning—Bowie crows all day every day. Tucker, our dog, has curled up at my feet and I’m picking away at the red nail polish that’s chipping from the ends of my fingernails. I rarely paint my nails but I decided to while in Houston this weekend because, well, it was one of the coolest weekends imaginable.

About that: I had a VIP ticket to An Evening with Neil Gaiman that would be performed at the Brown Theater and with said ticket, I’d get a chance to meet Neil himself. And I did. So I’d painted my nails.

That was some major temporariness…my VIP ticket-holding status…though I liked that I held something that considered me a “Very Important Person.” I don’t think I’ve ever been a VIP to anything before. Perhaps my wedding, once upon a time. The bride, I suppose, is one of the wedding’s VIPs.

Thrilling and unbelievably meaningful as it was to me to get to meet one of my very favorite authors, it was over before I realized what sort of anxious nonsense was pouring out of my mouth like a busted dam in a hurricane during my brief opportunity to speak with him. *Facepalm.* I was just as wide-eyed and waggy-tailed as my donkeys that night. Although, even in normal conversation with people for whom I’m very close, I tend to babble and tangent off to strange places, usually about how much I love donkeys and yoga and pizza and bluegrass bands, so at least it was genuine. 

Whether or not I made as ass out of myself (hey, in my world, y’all know being an ass is a compliment *badum tiss*) is not what I’m concerned with…it’s how quickly that one, extremely gravitational moment that I know I’ll remember for the rest of my life was over like that. Neil Gaiman is one of the people who has shaped who I am and really, still striving to become, and I had the pleasure of being able to meet him and try in my most awkward way possible to tell him that. Then like the bubbles that Little Foot and I play with in the yard, it popped and that moment was gone and now I’m chipping the paint from my nails. That’s really, really difficult for me swallow.

But isn’t all of it hard to swallow? The fleetingness of everything? Of growing up and saying goodbye and being able to spend  what seem like finger-snaps of time with people who mean the world to you? The seasons and storms and sunrises and every little moment where your heart beats so heavily that you can’t really hear anything else? It’s so difficult for me to comprehend the vacuum that’s left once it’s ended.

I guess that’s a place we can all connect, though. There’s that silver lining. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from, you’ve had to say goodbye to someone. You’ve had to grow up (in one way or another). You’ve hurt and you’ve thrived and you’ve tripped and you’ve soared. You’ve been scared and been brave and when you come to, you only see it in your rearview bouncing around with all the other colors and shapes of your past.

I think the coffee is finished brewing and just now, Little Foot has started to chat in his room, probably with the same stuffed lion that he usually holds onto at night, and so in a moment, I’ll go retrieve him and his curly, little head. He’ll soon not talk to his stuffed animals, so I don’t want to interrupt.

In the meantime, I guess all of this to say that intimidating and downright terrifying as temporariness can be, it can also be very sweet and heart-tugging to recall events in our memories. Like, when I look at photos of Little Foot as an infant, I choke up and remember how the top of his head smelled like toast for the longest time. When I go into my saved voicemails and replay the birthday message my late grandfather left me five years ago, I can see his aging yet perfect smile in my mind’s eye. I remember mine and the Unicorn’s spark when we shook hands. I remember King Ranch’s brown eyes flooding over in tears when I told him I was pregnant. I’ll never forget how trusting Maybell and Sue have become of me and every time Bunny nearly tackles me with excitement, my heart grows a bit. I’ll never forget having the privilege of meeting Neil Gaiman and even though I didn’t remotely articulate my gratitude to him, I hope that he got the sense that he means a whole lot to me.

The Unicorn and I are planning to take Little Foot to the library today. We’ll nuzzle into the same corner that Little Foot and I do every week with a stack of books only this time, I’ll get to watch my friend read him a story. I’ll get to hold onto that image for a very long time and I’m sure that it’ll be just as sweet every time I recall it.

Temporariness isn’t that bad when you think about it like that, I suppose…when you think about it as the decorations in your memory. The art hanging on your mind’s walls. It means you’ve got room to fill your present with just about anything you want and you know you can look back and see how the rest of it has brought you to where you are now. And right now, I’m gonna get some coffee, go peek at my chatting kid, and try to memorize the sound of his little, perfect voice. That would be a painting I’d hang right in the middle of it all.

Wide-Eyed and Waggy-Tailed
Me deciding that temporariness isn’t that bad. Wide-Eyed and Waggy-Tailed, indeed.

When Trees Talk

The new year, whose force of reflection and goal-setting is so proverbial, has caught me in its clutches as I sit, staring out the large window in my living room with tears streaming down my face. A cold front is pushing through as I type this—it’s lashing through the trees and sending my windchimes into resounding choruses while gray-slated clouds race each other across the sky. I watch as the leaves on the magnolia trees flicker in the wind—they flip and flop so quickly from waxy side to dull side that they’re twinkling. The bare branches of the pecan trees wave back and forth like long, skeletal fingers trying to get my attention as I’m struggling to scramble up the sides of this muddy-mind pit in which I’ve fallen.

I suspect I’m here because I don’t do well in the hype around new years: all of its pressure to start again and set goals and review where you’ve been and where you’re going. Not to mention that I loathe fireworks and much like my donkeys, feel like I spend several days after 12:00AM, January 1st trying to recover from the stress of the “celebratory” explosions. Why do we blow things up to welcome a new year, anyway?

I do advocate learning from the past and responsibly preparing for the future, but as a person living with anxiety, it’s easy for me to get lost in the mistakes of the past and in the uncertainties of the future to the point where I lose sight of what’s unfolding in front of me right now: what’s occurring in my present moment. I worry endlessly about all those things that I cannot, despite my efforts, control.

An anxious mind struggles to slow down: it’s not defaulted to normal speed. An anxious mind, as Doctor Who said once about the essence of time, is “…more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff…” only, instead of “time-y wimey,” it’s “what-iffy, but why-oh-why-ey” stuff. Further, the constant feed of resolutions and deals and changes everywhere buries the anxious mind in layers upon layers of memos in which I know I’ll never, EVER have a chance to respond.

My anxious mind can’t see which way is up or down right now so I’m staring and crying and now typing in hopes that I’ll land on some sort of an answer or epiphany as to how the heck one can calm down while they’re this deep in the ground as the mud is sliding down with more and more and more horsepower (or, more accurately, donkey power.)

The trees are still waving their bony branches. I’m watching intently and thinking of waving back when I realize that there’s something profound here. I’m remembering reading once from a Zen story, something about someone pointing at the moon and you looking at where they’re pointing is not actually the moon or the moon’s location, but it’s just you gazing past their finger to see the moon. So no matter how accurately someone else points at the moon, you’ll only ever see their finger hovering over it (or something like that). The point being that it is the practice and the patience of your own journey that will land you on the moon one day, and maybe that’s what my pecan trees are doing right now. They’re waving at me, encouraging me to slow the eff down and look at them. Right now, they’re dancing. By God, they’re dancing! Look at them go!

Before it gets too chilly out there, I’ll need to go out and visit with the donkeys. I’ll shuffle them into their shelters with fresh hay and water and give them each some snuggles. I do hope that all of you have a wonderful new year, but more importantly, I hope you’re all having a wonderful right now. At the end of it all, life is made of right now’s and so new year or not, you always have the opportunity to begin again. Every breath and every moment is new and not every breath or every moment needs fireworks to be meaningful.

…and if it were my world, fireworks would be left to the professionals always…not in neighborhoods to terrorize poor animals who don’t understand that the wild explosions aren’t the world ending around them. I really do hate fireworks.

When Trees Talk