RJS

How do you write about the love of your life?

(How do you know someone’s the love of your life when you’re only–fingers crossed–a third of the way through it? How do you label it as such without slipping into hyperbole? But I digress.)

I’m pretty agnostic about love at first sight, so I wouldn’t classify my first view of him as that. But I do remember going, “Woah.” Then immediately thinking that there was no way someone like him was single.

When he said that he didn’t have a girlfriend, it was like I couldn’t control it–my mind went into “Operation: Get Him.” Which is so not like me. Which made it all the more intriguing.

We were flirting through email. A former big-deal football star with exactly the kind of attitude you’d expect. Confident. Competitive. “I bet I’ve got a better arm than you,” I wrote.

“Bring it,” he said.

My alibi for wearing a swishy dress and heels to our playing-catch-date (?) was that I had been to a fancy fundraising breakfast that morning. But the truth was, the dress and heels made me feel feminine and beautiful. It was raspberry colored, with pickups in the skirt. I wanted the juxtaposition of the frilly dress with the girl who could whip a respectable spiral at his head. If he was the kind of man I was imagining he was, he would love the contrast. We walked into the gym at his work, I slipped my heels off–feeling the grit of the cold basketball court on my bare feet–and we began throwing the football back and forth.

When I was 17-18-19, my dad and I bonded over throwing the football together. My brother was never that interested. Truth be told, it wasn’t that I loved football, but I liked the exercise. Many summer evenings I’d return from a run and ask my dad if he wanted to toss the football a bit. We’d walk out onto the expansive lawn between our house and the refuge headquarters, and I’d take my shoes and socks off to feel the cool grass under my feet. We would easily spend over an hour tossing the ball back and forth, seeing how far we could throw or how many running catches we could make. “That was a good one,” he’d say after I threw a particularly tight spiral. “Go long.” I’d start running and catch the ball, breadbasket style the way he taught me, and lift my arms in the air in triumph.

Tossing the football led to easy conversations between my dad and me, which as a teenager was rare. When I was 19 and engaged, he talked to me about whether or not I was sure (I wasn’t) and if I should go through with it (I didn’t). When I was 18 and ready to leave for college, he gave me a pep talk as we threw the ball one August evening. “You’ll make friends,” he said. “Just ask people if they want to go throw the ball in the quad. You’ll meet people. It will be fun. I bet you’ll meet a boyfriend that way.”

Well…it took over a decade, and I don’t think he envisioned me playing catch in a cold gym while barefoot and wearing a frilly dress. I wasn’t as in shape was I was at 17, but I was more confident. I knew how to walk with my heels on so my hips swayed, and I knew how to good-naturedly poke fun at a man (who, it has to be said, did NOT have a better arm than me).

How to write about the love of your life? I have no idea. There’s so much more; this is just the start. But it will have to do for now.

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On Mark Strand

I was nineteen—I would turn twenty midway through that summer—and living in a city where I knew fewer than a handful of people. With the blessing of my parents—a blessing I could hardly believe I got—I had taken the summer “off,” choosing to spend my time writing.

My roommate, whom I had followed to Charleston, was a full time PhD student. I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have a computer. I had an air mattress and a notebook and a pen. I would sit in our apartment with the AC blasting and write, then run, or swim, then write some more. I was working on a meandering, Kerouac-inspired autobiographical coming-of-age novel.

It was utter shit.

(I am so lucky that this was before self-publishing on the Internet was the norm, because now my cringeworthy prose from that summer lives only in a notebook hidden safely away. THANK GOD.)

I would take the bus into downtown Charleston and wander around. Sometimes I would sit at a café and write; more often, I would go to the beautiful public library and check out a backpack full of books and CDs to keep me company back at the empty apartment. I would go to the new arrivals section and just pick out whatever caught my eye.

One of those books was Mark Strand’s Blizzard of One. I remember that I read it and felt like I had come home. It was poetry I could finally understand, poetry that seemed somehow related to the kind of poetry that I had been writing for years. The kind of poetry that flowed out of me, my boyfriend once said, like the air I exhaled. I didn’t understand it all, but I loved it, and I identified with it.

On a break from writing my masturbatory “novel” one day, I decided to write Mr. Strand a letter. I told him how much I enjoyed his poetry, and how I wished to be a poet as well. I asked him how I could become a poet when so much of the poetry I read seemed beyond my comprehension, beyond my ability in my wildest dreams. I may have included a sample poem (I really hope I didn’t, but I’m afraid I probably did) and sent it off to his book’s publisher.

A few weeks later, I received a letter back on University of Chicago stationery. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I was too naïve to be. Why wouldn’t a Pulitzer Prize winning former poet laureate of the United States write me back? And a hand-written letter—I expected no less, frankly. Despite my hubris, Professor Strand wrote me a gracious reply that directed me to an essay of his and gave me some warm advice. He closed it with, “I wish you well. Yours truly, Mark Strand.”

Earlier this week I learned of Professor Strand’s death from lymphoma. I had framed his letter, but hadn’t displayed it for a few years. So, I found where I had put it and re-read it. I don’t often mourn the deaths of “famous” people with whom I have little to no personal connection, but I’m crying over Professor Strand’s death, and his letter illustrates why. Not only has the world lost a brilliant poet, a man who wrote poetry that is accessible, yet rich in layers of meaning, but the world lost a man who was fundamentally good. To have reached the levels of success that he had, but still take time to dash off a letter to a teenager who wrote him a plaintive letter asking if she’d ever be good enough—what a man. It brings tears to my eyes as I write this. Godspeed, Professor Strand. I will keep reading, and I will keep writing. I wish you well. Yours truly, Amanda.

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Returning to myself, with
Both a bang and a whimper.
Not stars of light, but squares–
Mirroring a glowing screen–behind my eyelids.
I’m opened up like a well
Or a fountain it’s coming out again.
Heart pounding from the head rush. I don’t know
If I should be scared or not: the rope swing
The rocks so slippery
The water so cold
And inviting

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To Medicate or Not

It took my most recent break from my depression meds to realize: I write a lot more when I’m off meds. I am focused, prolific, and inspired.

I’m also moody, depressed and—to quote some of the people closest to me—impossible to live with.

I realized that the time I went on medication regularly was also when I stopped writing regularly. For over ten years, I just couldn’t seem to find the motivation to do the one thing that had kept me alive throughout my adolescence and very early twenties. In my teens and early twenties, I filled up every notebook I could find with my thoughts. The last ten years, I have felt guilty whenever someone gave me a beautiful new journal—the best it could hope for was to be used to scribble down grocery lists and reminders to myself. I chalked it up to laziness, to being busy pursuing a career, to lack of interest. It could have been all of those things. But could it also have been the medication?

And if so, am I okay with that?

It’s not that I completely stopped writing. I wrote my thesis on meds. I make my living as a writer—although it’s as a grant writer, not as the essayist and novelist I thought I would become. But when I wasn’t being forced to write, it didn’t come flowing out of me like it used to. I didn’t pull over on the side of the road to jot down phrases that came to mind or topics I was thinking about. I was just living my day to day life, and when I came home at night I didn’t have much energy left to tap into my creative side.

I have this terrible habit of periodically going off meds. I know it’s a bad idea and that it’s not something I should do without my doctor’s supervision. That doesn’t stop me from trying. I think part of me wonders if my doctors were right, if I really will be on medication for depression for the rest of my life. I feel pretty good and I wonder if my brain hasn’t somehow healed itself. I wonder if I just got a little more exercise, a little more sunshine, a little more meditation time—if I could just increase X, I would be free and “normal.” The result is always the same. I do moderately well for three weeks or so, but right around week four—bam. Shit gets real. I won’t go into the ugly (and frankly, boring) details, but let’s just say I always remember why I take meds.

This time, however, I remained in that “week four, shit’s real” stage a little longer than I usually do. One of the cruelties of my depression is gradual paralysis, an inability to just do things, and for me, the thought of driving across town to get a special refill just seemed like an enormous burden. I decided to ride it out until I had my other prescription automatically refill, and then I could pick them up together in one trip.

During that time, I started writing again.

Now, I know that circumstance had something to do with it. I had been dabbling in blogging, and thought I wanted to get more serious about it. I wrote something I felt particular inspired about and submitted it to a website. The positive attention from that piece fueled me to keep writing and submitting. All of a sudden, I was coming home from my full-time job and spending another 6-8 hours at my computer. Things were flowing out of me again. I felt like I couldn’t keep up. I had to keep a notebook and the notes section on my phone open at all times so I could jot down ideas and thoughts in order to re-focus on work and everyday life. It was heady.

I was also a raging, emotional bitch that was constantly on the edge of going off. I was driving people around me crazy. I promised a few close friends that I would get back on medication, and soon. I kept my promise.

And the creative well dried up.

Again, I blamed it on laziness, lack of inspiration, etc. It wasn’t until I was in the shower one day that I realized the correlation.

Unmedicated: prolific, inspired writing flowing out of me like a a spring-fed stream. I concentrate on reading and writing with an obsessive focus.

Medicated: barely a trickle that I have to tap into daily just to perform my duties as a grant writer. My mind flits from topic to topic, and I find it hard to do the necessary research for articles.

This is a problem. Is this a problem? This feels like a problem. It feels like a choice between a life of creativity but emotional rollercoaster, which may or may not end prematurely, or a longer, mundane but respectable nine-to-five-filled life.

It feels like the choice between having a chance to do something of significance with my life and being a cog in the wheel of a functioning society. There’s something to be said for cogs. They are necessary.

The link between creativity and mental illness is stuff of legend, if somewhat debated. Scientifc American published an article in 2013 that stated, “In a recent report based on a 40-year study of roughly 1.2 million Swedish people, Simon Kyaga and colleagues found that with the exception of bi-polar disorder, those in scientific and artistic occupations were not more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders. So full-blown mental illness did not increase the probability of entering a creative profession (even the exception, bi-polar disorder, showed only a small effect of 8%).”Meanwhile, pyschcentral.com admits that “Biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers also show consistently high rates of suicide, depression and manic-depression.” Alex Preston’s wonderful Guardian piece “Does Prozac help artists be creative?” explores this issue much better than I can at this (currently medicated) time, and he writes, “A 2009 study by Oxford University, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that those taking SSRIs reported ‘a general reduction in the intensity of the emotions that they experienced.’ They described themselves as feeling ‘dulled’, ‘numbed’, ‘flattened’, or ‘blocked’. If poetry is (as Wordsworth claimed) ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings… emotion recollected in tranquillity,’ then could Prozac bring artists too little feeling, too much tranquillity?”

In the end, the ol’ Midwestern work ethic kicks in (as well as the residual voices in my head of my Air Force Colonel grandfather, who scorned even a whiff of laziness) and I wonder if my problem couldn’t be overcome with a bit of willpower and discipline. If I just sat down to write for a few hours every day, no excuses, surely something would come out, right? A more even-keeled life is worth it, even if it means trading in the unbridled, obsessive output that I have off medication, right?

Right?

on Marius the Giraffe and the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision

I was raised by a wildlife biologist on one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 560 National Wildlife Refuges. You would think that growing up on a wildlife refuge would mean something like I had foxes for friends and birds would alight upon my fingers as I sang them songs.

Yeah, not really.

As a child who grew up on this refuge in the grasslands of central North Dakota, I can tell you that what it mostly was, was boring. However, it was educational. My father involved us in a lot of his outdoor activities around the refuge—counting bird eggs in nests with a hand mirror taped to a long pole, for example.

I also saw the not so pretty side of nature, though. One of the enduring lessons that I took from my childhood was my dad’s oft-repeated phrases, “It’s just nature, girl,” or, “It’s instinct.” Why do the geese fly south? It’s instinct. Why do the hawks eat cute fuzzy goslings? It’s just nature, girl.

Sometimes the lessons were a tad on the gritty side. My dad was an avid hunter, and I can still remember the ripping sound as he cleaned a dead bird of its feathers—I never again made the mistake of wandering into the garage after one of his hunts. He made trap boxes for the noxious house sparrow, one of the few songbirds not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. We would occasionally accompany him to check the boxes. Live birds had their necks wrung and were unceremoniously tossed into the tall grass for a scavenger to find. Nests were cleaned out. Eggs were tossed to my dad’s hunting dog, who caught them mid-air and swallowed them down in one gulp. Even more horrifying than that, though, was to find a house sparrow nest built upon the remains of another bird. The sparrow had pecked the other bird to death and built its nest over the top of it—the kind of actions that caused my dad to nickname them “bully sparrows.” This shocked and horrified me. My dad’s reaction to my horror? You guessed it– “It’s nature, girl.”

That phrase was what came to mind when I read about the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to cull (aka kill) a young male from their giraffe herd, autopsy the body in front of a group of zoo patrons, including children, and then feed the carcass to carnivores. Of course, my first reaction was horror. Giraffes are CUTE, after all, and this one had a name! Everyone knows you don’t name an animal you intend to kill—that’s like farm kid 101!

But as I thought about it and read more about the situation, I remembered my dad’s lesson: “It’s nature, girl.” When I saw a deer carcass hanging upside down in a friend’s dad’s shop and asked my dad why people had to hunt deer—they were so beautiful, and so gentle—he explained the necessity of it. We’ve all but gotten rid of their natural predators, he said. Without some kind of population control, the deer would overpopulate and die of starvation and disease—a far more lingering, painful way to go than a clean shot from a hunter’s rifle or bow.

Today, I’m a city girl—well, as much of a city girl as you can be in South Dakota—and I am a bit of animal rights activist. I don’t eat meat beyond the occasional fish, and try to buy butter and cheese that at least doesn’t come from factory farms. I volunteer with a pit bull rescue and foster pit bulls who were pulled from euthanasia.

So why is Marius the Giraffe any different?

Well, he’s not. And he is. I guess the lesson of “It’s nature, girl,” was practicality. Marius could not be used for breeding, and the zoo had no room for a non-breeding male. It was not the zoo’s policy to sterilize animals—it seems they wanted to keep things as natural as possible, including natural breeding and, as evidenced in this case, feeding their carnivores freshly slaughtered meat from a species they would normally consume. Sure, they maybe could have transferred Marius to another zoo or preserve, but what would be their guarantee that the receiving entity would sterilize Marius? And who would pay for the transfer? Who would pay for Marius’ room and board while these details were being worked out?

Giraffes are not pit bulls. They are not domesticated animals that can be cared for by nearly anyone. They need lots of room and specialized care. Marius could not have been bred without compromising bloodlines. And let’s face it—in the wild, Marius would have a good chance of dying much younger than he did.

As for children watching Marius’ autopsy—from what I understand, the majority of the children were accompanied by parents, and came into the area knowing what they would see. The autopsy was a teachable lesson that a zoo spokesperson said elicited “many good questions” from the children.

One of the weirder things that I did when I was a kid (and this is saying a lot) is to run and find my dad whenever I found a dead bird. He would come see what it was, and normally he would tell us it was a sparrow or robin or whatever and not a specimen worth saving. On rare occasions, though, he would grab gloves, some plastic bags, and a shovel, and would bag up the dead bird. Then he’d take it and place it in a large chest freezer in one of the refuge’s shop buildings that was full of other dead birds. The birds were going to be sent to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, for the students there to dissect and examine. I will never forget the way that freezer smelled when he would open it up—the cold putrid air assaulting my nose as he placed the bird wrapped in the wonderbread bag on top of all the others and slammed the lid shut. If you had asked me about it as a kid, I think I would have shrugged my shoulders. Sure, it was sad that the bird had died, but people were going to use it to learn, and that was a good thing.

I called my dad—now nearly 15 years retired from the US Fish & Wildlife Service—and asked his opinion on the matter. “Why would they do that?” he asked. “Well, uh,”–I sometimes still get intimidated and stumble on my words when my dad questions me—”because, of, like, how it is in the wild.”

“It’s a zoo. It’s not the wild.” Well dad, what would you have done? “I would have euthanized the giraffe and fed it to the carnivores, but I would have done it after hours. I wouldn’t want to traumatize any little kids with seeing that.” But what about the things I saw as a kid? “Your mom and I never let you see anything like THAT.” Huh.

Then, as we talked about the protests and all the opinions about what the zoo should have done, he said, “Well girl, there’s theory and there’s practice. How you work the two is a subtle touch.”

No, I cannot take your dog.

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Here is a hard truth. I may have facilitated the adoption of your dog. I have done that for several dogs–about ten, to my count.

And no, I cannot take your dog back.

I cannot take your dog back because I am not a breeder. I am part of an animal rescue. Always, though, when I am asked about a dog “coming back” to me it is a dog that was the result of a friend’s dog’s unwanted litter, or a litter from a now-defunct (and highly irresponsible) shelter. I helped with the adoptions so that those puppies wouldn’t be euthanized or sent to the shelter–a cold and scary place for any dog, much less a puppy. I didn’t ask you many questions, although I should have. I didn’t charge you, although I could have.

And now you want me to take your dog back.  Sure, you’re not going to phrase it that way, but that’s what you are trying to say, and we both know it. You haven’t spoken to me much since the adoption, and now all of a sudden you are interested in “catching up.” I always know what’s coming.

No, I cannot take your dog–no longer a cute 8-week-old puppy–back “for a little while,” because a little while always turns into forever. Once you are relieved of your “burden,” you always forget about your intent to come back–when things have settled down, when you’ve fulfilled your wanderlust, when you’ve found a new place to live.

No, I cannot take your dog because I “am a dog lover.” That is true. And because I am a dog lover, I work with a local rescue and foster one or more dogs at any given time. This is on top of my own large dog, all in my tiny house. These dogs have come off death row and need my time and attention. I cannot take your dog because you “hate to send it to the shelter” because I have a house full of fosters who have come from shelters where they were dumped by someone who didn’t or “couldn’t” keep them anymore. They need me, and due to their breed, they are much more in danger of never finding a good home than your non-pittie dog.

I cannot take your dog back because it is not my responsiblity. Your dog ceased being my responsibility when you decided to adopt it. Remember how happy you were that day? Remember how much you loved that dog? Remember how excited you were, and you couldn’t imagine ever giving it up? Try to find some of that feeling deep inside you again, because you made a commitment to that dog. A lifetime commitment. A commitment that isn’t always easy. And I’m not going to make it easy for you to break that commitment.

I cannot take your dog back because I am not an animal dumping ground. That’s called a shelter. You can’t bear the idea of sending your precious to a shelter? Then figure something out and quit trying to dump your responsibility on me.

Three years ago I adopted a Rottweiler I fell in love with online. Because of her, I can’t do everything I’ve dreamed of or want to. I can’t move overseas, because I won’t make a dog who has gone what she’s gone through already deal with the stress and loneliness of quarantine. I’ve had to buy her food even when I was down to my last couple dollars. I’ve had to pay more for my home insurance. I’ve had to work with her when she misbehaves, or when she acts headstrong or like a bully–because guess what, that’s what Rotties do, and I adopted a Rottie.  I adopted her, and I promised her I’d never give her up.

You made that promise too. So no, I’m sorry, but I will not take your dog.

How I went from fearing Pit Bulls to loving them (and every misconception I had along the way)

Please note: “Pit Bull” does not refer to a particular breed of dog, but instead several breeds of dogs, including the Staffordshire Terrier and the American Pit Bull Terrier, and all mixes thereof. For the ease in writing this essay, however, I choose to refer to what would properly be called “Pit Bull-type dogs” as simply “Pit Bulls.” 

I grew up with dogs; my dad, a hunter, always had a Brittany or two around the house. As a toddler, I tried to have races with my dad’s patient, elderly Brittany named Ribs–winner got to eat the contents of Rib’s bowl. Our next Brittany, Silky, turned out to be a crap hunter but birthed plenty of good ones, like my dad’s favorite hunting dog, Bow. Growing up in a mecca of pheasant hunting, I was surrounded by neighbors with Labs and Springer Spaniels and the odd German Shorthair Pointer.

The only thing I ever heard about Pit Bulls was that they were dangerous. I never knew anyone who had one. That’s pretty much how it went until a few years ago. A new friend had one, and she swore the dog was the sweetest thing in the world. “She hates strangers and other dogs, though,” she said. “She gets really aggressive to people coming in the house.”

“Figures,” I thought.

At one time, I even seriously considered opening an indoor dog park. As I tried to plan it, I thought that I may have to ban certain breeds. Akitas, maybe. Pit Bulls, for SURE. Why? Because they were dangerous to both other dogs and humans. The irony in all this is that my inspiration for the indoor dog park–besides the frigid South Dakota winters–was my beloved Rottweiler, Penny. So of course, Rottweilers would be welcome. I have no idea how the stupidity of this was lost on me.

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How could you not love a dog good-natured enough to wear a rainbow-colored feather boa to Pride?

Because of my love for dogs and my overall bleeding heart, I did some fostering for a local shelter. I hadn’t fostered for a while, though, when my friend Tate‘ posted the sweetest face I had ever seen on facebook. “This dog urgently needs a foster home,” the shared post read. “Please! He is at the pound in a town with a Pit Bull ban and he only has days to live!”

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Just enjoying the spring sunshine and his tennis ball. 

By that time I had gotten over my “All Pit Bulls are vicious!” phase and was now in my “Pit Bulls are just the same as any other dog” phase. Cisco–the dog in question–was so cute that I couldn’t bear to see him be put down. I e-mailed the Pit Bull rescue that had first posted his picture and applied to be a foster. Two days later–and after a near brush with euthanasia for Cisco–I had a Pit Bull in my house.

Things were absolutely great. Cisco was fun and sweet and so, so snuggly. He seemed to get along well with Penny and adored my (human) roommate. Although the paperwork I had received upon becoming a foster warned of dog-on-dog aggression and recommended something called a “two week shutdown,” I chalked it up to overreacting. Because Pit Bulls are just like every other dog, right?

After a few months of blissfully living with Cisco and Penny, the head of the rescue I was working with sent out an urgent plea. Another foster in the rescue had to leave his foster family immediately–the dad in the home didn’t like him and was threatening to shoot him. Remember, bleeding heart, and Cisco had been so easy so far–so I said, “I’ll take another!” And that’s how I got Marble.

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Named for his one icy blue eye.

Again, I cheated on the two week shutdown. And things were fine–at first. Cisco continued to be energetic and sweet and snuggly while Marble was quiet and sweet and snuggly (see a pattern here?). I would even take all three dogs–all 210 lbs of them–walking all at once.

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I don’t know what triggered it–food maybe, or a toy–but one day, Marble and Cisco got into a fight. It was awful. Neither dog would let go or back down. The snarling and yelping was horrible. Penny, while not directly involved in the fight, jumped in to break it up, which didn’t help. At some point I finally got the dogs apart and in separate rooms–doors closed–and called the head of the rescue, crying. Both Cisco and Marble were bleeding and I was shaking. I felt like a failure. I felt like everything I thought about Pit Bulls might be wrong and all the horrible things that other people said might be right.

Luckily, the head of the rescue talked me down. However, Cisco and Marble were never the same together after that. There were a few more fights, despite my efforts to prevent them, and eventually I had to go to “crate and rotate”–not allowing them out in the same place at the same time.

Through all this, though, Cisco and Marble continued to show me just how amazing Pit Bulls are. They were loving. Kind. Affectionate. Silly. I was falling in love–despite the fights. The fights, though, were my tip off that maybe Pit Bulls weren’t “just like other dogs.” I couldn’t remember our Brittanies–or any other dog I had been exposed to–fighting like that. When I took the time to read and research, like I should have at the beginning, I learned that Pit Bulls–at least in modern history–have often been selected and bred to be fearless, relentless fighters–first to bulls, and then to each other. At the same time, they were bred to be docile and loving toward humans–so docile that a man could pull a fighting dog out of a ring without himself getting bitten. It was that love for humans that made me fall in love with the Pit Bull.  That, and seeing how much love they had to give even after being in terrible circumstances–which happens all too often, unfortunately, due to the attractiveness of the breed for certain segments of society.

All dogs can be prone to dog aggression, true. And all dogs have varying degrees of tolerance to other dogs. However, Pit Bulls–due to their background–can be more prone to dog aggression. That doesn’t mean all Pit Bulls will be dog aggressive (which can be worked on, by the way), or that they will be fighters–just like not all Spaniels will be good hunters. However, to deny their heritage is to do a disservice to the breed. Love the dog, but love them with the full knowledge of what they are–that’s my current philosophy on Pit Bulls.

After Cisco and Marble were adopted, I got Bean. Bean was goofy and jumped like he had springs in his legs. He was generally congenial with other dogs, but if approached by a strange dog in the street he would be ready to go. Like the boys before him, though, he loved me with all of his big bully heart.

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Bean also loved the bathtub with all of his big bully heart. Go figure.

After Bean came Dutch. Dutch was the easiest foster ever. He loved every other person and dog he met–except for the one canine guest who tried to steal his bone.

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“My name is Dutch and I’m a snuggleaholic.”

Currently, my foster is Turke. Turke is probably the most intimidating-looking Pittie I’ve had, with his big head and butchered down ears–a “kitchen crop” if there ever was one. Despite his looks, though, Turke is a gentle giant, and is every bit as easy as Dutch was before him.

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“Fewer pictures, moar snugglez, mom!!”

Despite the bumps–the near ban in our city on “dangerous” breeds, the fact that my neighbor threatened me because of the “dangerous” dogs in my backyard, despite Cisco and Marble showing me how truly terrifying a dog fight is–well, maybe because of the bumps, I LOVE these darn blockheads. And I’m not going to stop fighting for them, because the love they give is so worth it.

I guess I’ve always liked to root for the underdog.

A thank you, belated

It came to mind that I owe a thank you to some complete strangers. Since, being complete strangers, I have no idea where they are or even who they are, I will say it here and now: thank you for trying to save my life when I was 17.

The first time I remember wanting to die was when I was 8. I didn’t have a concrete plan, per se, other than the idea of taking all the tylenol in the economy-sized bottle in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Mostly, though, I just fell asleep most nights crying and asking God to take me to heaven so that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning.

If, at this point, you are wondering what in the world happened to an eight-year-old to want to die before she even hit puberty, I’m not sure I can give you a satisfactory answer. At this point I think it was a combination of being a sensitive (and fat) kid who was bullied at school and a chemical imbalance (that, it turns out, responds quite well to medication). At the time, though, counseling and medication–at least in my household–were, while not quite taboo, just not done. We were fairly religious, and I remember on a few occasions my father telling me that my depression was the devil trying to get me and that I needed to pray more.

Obviously, that didn’t work well for me.

By the time I was a senior in high school, I was in a full-blown depression. I had only a few friends, and–again, thanks to the times and the kind of household I grew up in–I didn’t feel like my dark feelings were something I could or should talk about with them. My parents sent me to “counseling” with my youth pastor, which didn’t give me an iota of relief. My father said, “We could send you to a professional counselor in Bismarck”–the nearest large town, 50 miles away–“but I don’t think it’s going to do you any good.”

That year, I had study hall in the school library. It was pretty much empty at the time, save for the five or six of us having study hall in there. And there–THERE–was a glorious mid-90s computer with the school’s only modem connected to it.

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No one else in my study hall had an interest in computers, much less the internet. The other kids didn’t really seem to even know what the internet was, and they were annoyed by the high pitched squeal of the dial-up modem trying to connect. It often took most, if not all, of the hour to connect. Once connected, it went to an internet bulletin board– I believe a North Dakota educational one. In other words, one that was probably full of teachers.

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On one of the few days I was actually able to connect, I was feeling particularly low. I didn’t know where I was going to college yet, my friends were interested in partying and I didn’t want to drink, and everything just seemed dark. I logged on to the bulletin board and posted a message saying something like, “Does anyone else feel like there’s no point to life? Like they’d be better off dead?” Then the bell rang and I had to log off.

I was able to connect again a few days (or weeks) later, and so I went to check my message. There were several responses. I don’t remember them all, of course, but I remember being shocked by the genuine kindness that I felt in them. “You sound depressed,” they said. “You really need to seek out some counseling. Things will get better, I promise.”

I wasn’t able to seek out counseling, of course, while I was still living at home. But the following year, during my freshman year of college, free, confidential professional counseling was offered on campus. With the encouragement of my roommate and best friend, I decided to go. It wasn’t easy–I still felt shame about being “broken” and worried about people seeing me go into this counseling office. But–but!–I truly believe that if that seed hadn’t been planted by kind strangers a year before, I would have continued to see counseling as something one just didn’t do.

That counselor my freshman year of college got me on the long road of figuring stuff out, of finding a medication that worked for me, of realizing that reaching out for professional help made me strong, not weak. He was the first one who helped me understand that taking medicine for my depression was no different than a diabetic taking insulin for his or her disease. I was able to convey that message to my father, and he got it. Today, he completely supports whatever self-care is needed to keep me a healthy, happy, functioning woman.

I have no idea who it was who replied to my message that day in 1998. It was probably a teacher (or several), and they were responding out of the love and concern they had for all children. Whoever you are, wherever you are, thank you. You may have completely changed my life.