8 May 2017

Love And Loss: The Lies We Tell Ourselves

The Lies We Tell Ourselves

I was having dinner with a friend recently and I asked him if he was most comfortable when he is busy and his life brimming with challenges. No one who knows this good man would disagree with the idea, including his wife. He squirmed in his seat and turned to his her, and said "can we change the subject?"

He didn't want to know about it, think about it, or hear about it. He was, I thought, happy to lie to himself, and he wanted everyone else to conspire with him.

I wondered why such an obvious truth would make him so uncomfortable, and I changed the subject. I thought of all the lies I have told myself during my life, all the truths about me that I did not want to know or face.  I ran from them for many years. My life began just a few years ago when a therapist challenged me to consider facing the truth.

Elvin Semrad, a  well-known professor of psychiatry told his students that most human suffering is related to love and loss, and that the job of therapists is to help people acknowledge, experience,  and bear the reality of life, with all of its joys, pleasures, heartbreak and loss.

One of his students was a young man man named Bessel Van Der Kolk, now a famous psychiatrist and teacher himself and the author of a popular and important book called The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body In the Healing of Trauma. Van Der Kolk recalls Professor Semrad  teaching him that the sources of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves, urging the class to be honest with themselves about every facet of their experience.

People, he said, can never heal themselves without knowing what they know and feeling what they feel.

This is, in so many ways, the story of my life. I suffered greatly from the lies I told myself, they almost destroyed my life, and some of the people who I loved. Like my friend at dinner, I squirmed and ran from the truth about myself and my own experience – about love, ambition, money, fear and anger.

I had no idea who I was, so I could hardly face or even know the truth about me.

But love and loss caused me by far the greatest suffering in my life, and I am only now beginning to be honest with myself about every facet of my experience. I wonder of Professor Semrad grasped how difficult it is to be authentic, and how uncomfortable it makes most people, including my friend and many others.

You can lose a lot of friends – readers, too –  being honest, and you can disturb many people. In recent months, I have explored the ways in which I can live meaningfully and happily in difficult and divisive times filled with fear and suffering. I am realizing that the angry people, the ones who write and say hateful things to others when they could express themselves in simpler and more civil and compassionate ways are broken.

They are the ones who tell lies to themselves, and who cannot face or bear the reality of their own lives. A woman who used to be a friend shocked me the other day by sending me an especially hateful and enraged message, I honestly had no idea what she was talking about. I did not get angry with her, I did not argue with her. I saw her in the same way I would see a hospice patient talking in mystic circles under the influence of morphine. I felt sympathy for her, I would not want to be a person who send such a message.

These are the people who suffer, and if I get angry with them or at them, then I will suffer with them.

In his class with Van Der Kolk, the distinguished Harvard Professor confessed how comforted he was feeling his wife's rear end against him as he fell asleep at night. I wanted to shout when I read this, I am comforted every night in the same way, by the touch and feel of Maria's body.

But revealing such a simple human need, the professor was helping his students recognize that how basic and important they are to our lives and well-being. Healing, wrote Van Der Kolk, depends on experiential knowledge. You can be fully in charge of your life – or your writing – if you acknowledge the reality of your body and mind, in all its many dimensions.

In my writing, I strive to disclose the small details of life and love and struggle, they are basic to understanding my life, and to others understanding theirs.

This is important to me, because this is the way I am  learning to write. I seek to devote myself to honesty and authenticity, even when I fail, as I often do. I strive to share the small details of life, because they illuminate the large issues in life.

Human beings have always struggled, as I have, to manage their anger, lust, pride, greed, avarice and sloth. More and more, these traits have been declared "disorders," and are managed by the administration of drugs and chemicals. But they are also a part of being human, something to be acknowledged rather than ashamed of. In disclosing these truths, I find I no longer have much of anything to hide. I am free.

Therapists saved my life by challenging me to stop lying to myself and about myself, and face the reality of who I am. And who I am is not, as many of you know, always, or even often, pretty. But I no longer squirm when someone mentions the truth about me, I am telling many fewer lies about myself. I share the reality of who I am.

And my suffering, for much of my life acute,  has eased to a degree I would never have thought possible. The lies I told myself kept me from living my life.

Posted in General

Update: Red’s Long Day

Red's Long Day

Red's very long day began at 9 a.m. when he went to the vet and spent the day being tested for 100 different things and was on a hydrating IV in the hospital.

His blood work was good, his cell count healthy. No signs of Lyme Disease, insofar as the tests can show.

Red came home exhausted around 6 p.m. with the catheter still taped to his right arm, he's going back to the hospital first thing in the morning for more tests, and then, on Wednesday, a specialist is coming to the hospital to perform an ultrasound check on his vital organs.

There is some focus on his liver.

I went to visit him several times, most recently at 3 p.m. He is always by my side and never leaves me when I am sick, and I wished to return the favor. He did not look good to me, as he lay in an enclosed area with a catheter tube dripping liquids into his dehydrated body. He seemed to me to be declining.

Dr. Suzanne Fariello and her staff – Lisa, Cassandra, Amy and Nicole – could not have been nicer, more thoughtful or thorough or honest or sensitive. They brought me a chair in the back room where Red was so I could sit with him and we had some beautiful moments, he put his head on my arm and slept. We communicated silently in the way that we do.

The simple truth – I will tell the truth – is that they don't know what is wrong with him.

They are still trying to figure it out. It might be a liver or kidney issue, or even a blockage, or very possibly, some toxic plant or substance. At the end of the day, Dr. Fariello said she was obliged to mention the possibility of a tumor or other cancerous growth, she was not predicting or diagnosing that, she just needed to mention that it was something that could not be ruled out.

I appreciate her honesty, I was dreading the "c" word but sensed it was a possibility. Best to have it out in the open.

Everyone reading this has probably had a day as bad or worse than this one, it is a part of our lives with dogs, dependent and loving creatures who cannot speak or tell us how they feel.  It is part of our lives period, we all suffer, we all worry about the creatures, people and animal, that we love, sometimes they stumble and sometimes we lose them. It called life, and animal lovers know it as well as anyone.

But I am not there yet, Red is not there yet.

Red was definitely talking to me today, he was telling me he was hurting and felt badly and wished he could be home.

I thought over and over again of the good people at the Mansion and others in many places who love Red and want him in their lives, and I reminded myself not to get ahead of things, he might flip things around and be himself in the morning. We really don't know what is wrong with him or how it can be treated.

I know he is feeling very poorly, it is evident in his eyes and body language. Here at home, he managed to get near me, and then simply collapsed. He is nothing like himself.

It was troubling that they could not bring his fever down, encouraging that he ate. Just a few minutes ago, I took him out to the pasture – I did not let him run – but he stood in front of the sheep and glared them into place. He looked good and strong there, but border collies are like that, their legs could be falling off and you wouldn't know it if they are working. I only took him out for a minute.

(Warning: I did have a moment of dark humor when I was sitting at the vet holding Red's head and I whispered to him, "you need to get better, pal, you can't leave us alone with the Baby Monster.") I think he appreciated that.

I called Dr. Karen Thompson, the breeder who gave me Red and she had no new information to give me about his health or genetics. She said he had never been sick a day in his life that she knew of.

I am fighting off past experience and memory – Rose, Lenore, Izzy, Frieda. Maria and I have shed many tears on that linoleum floor. The past has no bearing on the present, Red is not any of them, his path will be  his own.

At the end of the day, Red's fever was back up over 104, it had come down a bit earlier. I was discouraged. The good news was that after we brought him home, he ate a little bit of the special nutritional dog food Dr. Fariello gave us, it was the first food he has consumed in days. (Some sunflower seed peanut butter egged him along.)

Maria and I agreed that we had been yo-yoing up and down all day, and we needed to be steady. This will reveal itself in its own time and way. We have to be grounded.

I will feed Red in quarter portions and hope he eats it all. He badly needs to eat. The  second try, he barely ate anything.

As I write this, Red walked slowly into my study and lay down at my feet, I was overjoyed to see it. It felt normal, even if it isn't quite yet.

So many people have powerful connections to their dogs, we are a community in so many ways, and I am flooded with good and kind wishes for Red. He is a much loved dog. Maria loves Red dearly and is feeling his sickness acutely. She is also supporting me in every possible way. I am lucky.

It is always important to remember that everyone has had it worse than me, and everyone has hard battles to fight. No one challenge is more important than any other. I am humbled by this thought, and steadied.

Red refused to eat the second quarter of his food, even after I laced it with peanut butter and cheese. He seems nearly spent right now and weakening again. So it's like that, up and down and up and down. I just don't know, we will keep at it until we find the source of the problem, and then treat it if we can. In the meantime, I will be candid about what is happening and provide updates when I can.

We will do the best we can for as long as we can.

I believe Red is getting the best possible care, and I am optimistic. Insofar as we communicate, and he and I definitely do, I sense that he is not done with his work here on earth, and is not ready to leave me, Maria, or the many people whose spirits he lifts. That is what I feel and what I believe.

That is the latest news. We are due back at the vet first thing in the morning.

Posted in General

Talking To Animals, Week One. Here Comes The Octopus. Stirring The Pot.

Talking To Animals: Week One

Today marks the first week since the publication of Talking to Animals: How They Can Understand Us And We Can Understand Them. I don't really know how the book is faring overall. I know that Battenkill Books has shipped nearly 800 copies of the book, along with my signature and personalization, and today, the very worthy book Soul Of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery bumped the book out of the top slot on Amazon's Pet Care category.

It is also a week in which I personally understand the urgency of listening to our animals as well as speaking with them. Red's illness underscores this for me.

All week we have been changing places with Esther The Wonder Pig, an octopus and the puppy nanny. We have pushed the nanny off of the top 50 but the octopus and Esther are fierce competitors.

I feel like the premise of the book is beginning to break through the great fog that shrouds book publishing these days.

"This is a book that has been a long time coming," wrote one reviewer. "The people who want all elephants and ponies and horses et al removed from our midst and essentially slaughtered with no utopia to frolic in, will hate this book. In the age of Facebook wars where everyone is flinging feces at each other's opposing views, well, this will be a hot button. But without discussion, without light shed on the subject, how can we ever discover new ideas, and possibly innovative better ways of thinking? We can't. Bravo to this author and his thought-provoking book."

And bravo to the reviewer. So far, few people have hated the book and a lot of people have liked it a lot, and that feels good to me. I understand that many people may not agree with the essential premise, but disagreement has never troubled me, in fact, I think democracy – and creativity – thrive on it.

There is also another element to the book, and that is my very personal account of the dogs and donkeys and sheep and steers and barn cats and chickens that have accompanied me through life, and that have taught me so much about how to communicate with animals and listen to them.

I knew last week that Red was feeling badly, because he kept trying to tell me, licking his lips and looking into my eyes, and putting his head on my knee. Because border collies are so stoic and hardy, I didn't react as quickly as I wished I had, and it wasn't until Sunday night that I truly heard the message.

Red knows instantly when I am sick and we talk to one another all of the time in our own way. In therapy work, Red looks at me to see if it's appropriate for  him to approach someone, and he stays with them as long as I want him. I loved writing these stories of talking and listening to animals and those stories are, in so many ways, the heart of the book.

If we don't understand the real needs and true lives of domesticated animals like horses and elephants and ponies, we cannot possibly make the right decisions about them. An animal rights advocate challenged the premise of my book – she believes it is abuse for draft horses to pull carriages in New York City. I asked her if she had read the reports of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Equine Practitioners, or she had read Horse Whisperer Buck Brannaman's writing claiming the carriage horses were content and were the luckiest horses on earth.

Or the score of testimonies of equine trainers who journeyed to New York City to examine the horses. Or the 52 reports of New York Police Department investigators and veterinarians who examined the horses every week of the year and found them content and healthy and well cared for.

She had read none of these reports, nor had the mayor of New York, who promised to ban the carriage horses from "day one" of his new administration, an act that would have sent many, if not all of the horses to slaughter.

This is a dangerous reality for animals, when the people who insist  on deciding their future consistently reject truth, facts, or expertise.

If we can't listen to the most qualified and respected behaviorists and veterinarians and trainers in the country, then we are rejecting, science, medicine and the real needs of animals. How can we make the right decisions about keeping animals in our world if we refuse to understand them and can't communicate with them?

So on many levels, I believe this book to be important, as well as readable. You can order or buy the book anywhere books are sold, but if you buy it through Battenkill Books, my local bookstore, I will sign and personalize it and you will receive a free tote-bag.

It is my belief, certainly a self-serving one, that you will learn something about communicating with your animals and also help understand why we need a better and wiser understanding of animals in order to keep them in our world.

You can order the book here. I believe it is important and useful, and I will sign it and personalize it. There are lots of classy tote-bags left.

Posted in General

Update. Red In The Hospital

Red In The Hospital

I went to see Red in the hospital, his temperature is down to 103.8, it was considerably higher this morning. Dogs have warmer body temperatures than humans, the normal temperature range for a dog is 101 to 102.5. Hopefully, the temperature will come down this afternoon.

Red has many friends and admirers, many people are pleading with me for updates, and I am happy to oblige, I understand that he is not only my dog and Maria's  dog, but a part of him belongs to everyone. It is hard for me to see him so sick and hard to leave him in the hospital, but it helps me to write about it and I can visit him as often as I I want.

I know he feels easier when I am there, and Red has helped so many other people to feel good, it is the least I can do for him.

They love Red at the hospital, and they tolerate me and my camera. I'm going to talk with Dr. Karen Thompson shortly, the wonderful breeder who gave Red to me. I called the Mansion to let them know about it – they had, as I feared, seen the blog – and to reassure the residents that Red was getting the best care and would be back at work when he is well.

It feels as if Red is a part of me sometimes, I could sense his sickness, as he can sense mine sometimes. When I am sick, he will not leave my side, and I'd like to do the same for him.

He is very much loved there. And here, too. More later.

Posted in General

Shots For The Barn Cats

Shots For Minnie And Flo

Before Red got sick, we had an appointment for shots and worming for the barn cats at the Cambridge Valley Veterinary Hospital. We brought the cats down in crates, and they were wormed and had all of their shots. We believe in letting the cats out to live their lives, especially in the warm weather, but we are careful to keep up on their vaccinations and exams, we have them checked quarterly (we sometimes forget.)

They are, says the vet, strong and healthy, especially Minnie, who had a lot amputated there. I have great affection and admiration for barn cats, they are mystical and remarkable creatures. But they still, we believe, need medical care and regular check-ups.

Posted in General