Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

If I Could Go Again…

I didn’t come to New York thinking I would write the next great manuscript.

That’s a lie, actually. I think I did come here with that in the background, whether or not I acknowledged the existence of the thought. I’ve been in a slump since I finished my thesis draft, which is a full length manuscript; if any of you are counting, that was over a year ago now. It’s a full length memoir, and it’s ready to do things that manuscripts do when they become real things. It even has real author blurbs and everything. But I’m not pushing for it. It’s sitting. I’m sitting. I’m dragging my feet on my edits. I’m not responding to emails. I’ll write about dogs, I tell myself. I’ll write about dogs and people will want to read it, and I’m with them every day, and I’m learning every day, and I SHOULD write about dogs. 

And the not uttered thought:

Damn it, but writing’s not fun anymore now that it’s work. 

I graduated a year ago last weekend. And it seems to me that my actual grad school got me nothing. I learned more before grad school. Yeah, I learned some stuff there. But I feel like I spent a lot of time teaching my peers too, like I came in to the program with the knowledge we were already getting. I’m not being conceited with that statement; I was simply taught very well by my undergrad professors. I left my graduate program with no real friends from the school, just a smattering of great acquaintances, due to a combination of things–lack of social ambition, lack of people skills, lack of…connectability? I made the wrong choice in program, and I know that now. I think I knew that when I got here, the first semester when I turned in a paper that accidentally went over people’s heads. I never fit in my program. I wasn’t driven to attend school functions, at least not until the very end when they suddenly wanted me to read, everywhere. I came early, but I came early to write, by myself usually. I left right after class. It was nothing like undergrad, and I was disappointed in myself, in the program, for what I could have had elsewhere. 

I may have left the program with nothing, with no writing community (anyone out there want to adopt me to theirs? No really. I’m serious–message me.), but I did leave with New York. I am a New Yorker.

New York? Well, that got me everything.

See, I’m a different person in New York. I’m not scared to be out in the world. I’m not nervous navigating the subway, going to new places, exploring, being out and about (within reason, of course.) I like experiencing new things (again, within reason). I get coffee with people sometimes; I go to movies; I go out to eat. I sit at home with my cat and read books and play video games (and write when I wanna), and I don’t feel ashamed about the alone time. I do things for me and I don’t apologize, not anymore. I claim my story and I own my work and there’s no more “sorry this is hard for you to hear/read (even though it happened to me and not to you and I deserve to write about it).”

I think the biggest difference between New Yorker me and Wisconsin me is confidence. Confidence in myself, in my thoughts, in my body. My best friend, E, came to visit recently, on break from her own graduate program in Texas. We went to a jazz show on her second to last night here (a bar atmosphere I actually enjoyed, mind you), and I was digging in my closet prior to the show as I tried to decide what to wear. In the very back, on the last hook, was a little black dress. I bought it in 2009, pre-pregnancy, and I wore it a few times back then. Always with a tank top underneath to cover my chest, because the neckline was super low and my ex decidedly did not approve. Post-pregnancy, I didn’t wear it again. It never fit, and it always felt weird with a tank top underneath anyway. But on a hunch, on jazz night, I pulled that dress out and slipped it on–no tank top. Not only did it fit, it looked good. It showed a LOT. But it looked good. I wore it out in public with only a mild amount of concern that I might have a Janet Jackson-esqe moment (I did not). I needed no one’s approval but my own, though I most definitely did tell people how excited I was to no longer carry baby weight around and to wear something I haven’t worn in eight years (screw you, Ex). 

E and I haven’t lived in the same vicinity for almost four years now, but it was like we had never been apart–it definitely helps that we FaceTime pretty much every Sunday. I think that I used to largely be a follower just because I didn’t know what else to be. I make no claims to NOT be a follower now, but what I noticed when E was here was that I followed a lot in searching for new experiences, for things I might not see or want to see because my own views and experiences limit me. I am the same while also being different. I am the same, but my motivations have turned. Like with the dress. I wore it not to cover myself up and not for anyone else, but to say I am comfortable with my body and it is mine. Fun times were had while E was here, (her words when I asked if I could mention her visit, but I agree!), and they reaffirmed my love for this city that I only had the courage to come to because of my grad school program. 

It’s time for that yearly question: if I could do it again, would I still do grad school? Honestly, for the writing and MFA aspect? No, absolutely not. I did not need it. I have a lot of debt because of it that I think is largely the reason I’ve been too scared to try and do my own thing; I owe money to the world and I doubt my ability to raise that on my own when I have no connections in the writing community that I didn’t have pre-grad school. My undergrad professors taught me so well; I was really spoiled by that education (and shame on Scott Walker for trying to destroy the institution), and I received guidance and education and connections there that helped me to publish so much more than I did in grad school. I was a writer before I was a grad student, and I did not need a masters degree to tell me that. I HATED grad school. But I love this damn city. And if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t be comfortable with myself. 

So again I ask, if I could do it again, would I still do grad school? Would I still get my MFA? Yes. Yes I would. My MFA got me New York, got me me. And maybe the key to writing again is accepting that my writing is different now, is being open to telling stories, all the stories, not just the major ones. 

“Why this story? Why this piece, when it is all the pieces, all the stories? Everything is important.”

I am different now. Confident. A dog walker, and trainer. An animal lover, and rescuer. Still a follower, but an open follower. A friend. More, someday. And maybe I don’t define myself as a writer, but she’s still there too. She’s just different–but different is fun too.

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The One; The All

The hardest part of working in animal rescue is that I cannot save them all, no matter how much I want to. When it comes to animals, I open my heart way too quickly, too easily. I let them in too fast, and I let them stay for keeps. I can’t help it, and I can’t turn that part of me off. I’m not even sure I want to. I’ve saved a lot of animals over the years, but I’ve also had some misses. Those are the worst ones, the ones that stick. 

The thing about me is that when I “fail,” it becomes easy for me to forget all of the successes. Right now, my head is all about a little black and white puppy with a genuine open heart and some really pointy teeth, and the fact that I let her down. That I took her out of her foster home, that I drove her to our rescue, that I left her there, her nose shoved between the bars and her squeals piercing the closed doors of the car down to my soul as she tried to pry her way out of her run and catch me before I ran away and left her behind. It felt, it feels, like I made her what she is–she came to us when she was seven or eight weeks old, abandoned at our weekly adoption drive, and the instant we knew she was food aggression and she was “red level,” I made her my project. I fed her from my hands. I taught her to take from me; I taught her to give back to me. I took her into Petco for at least an hour every week we sat together and let her pick out a toy and a bone, and then we would go into the park and practice exchanging one for the other. We practiced drop it; we practiced sharing without biting. I wanted to show her that she was going to find a time when she wouldn’t want for anything, when she would have a world just for her. I wanted her to know that people could take things from her but that she would always get things back. I taught her to fall in love with me; I fell in love with her right back. That’s what you have to do sometimes, to reach a dog. I let myself give her too much of myself, too much time, and I thought she had benefited from it. Maybe she did. But right now, it doesn’t seem that way.

This has been a week of constant phone calls, emails, texts, and more dealing with people than I generally do in a month. More people have seen me cry in the last two days than have probably EVER seen me cry. More people have told me that I’m great, that I did my best, that there are so many other dogs. But for me, right now, in this time, she’s The One. And she’s happy where she is. She has new animal best friend, and she gets to run around all day and play outside. But it’s not where I thought she’d be. It’s not what my heart wanted for her; it doesn’t feel right, even though it is. And in a way, that’s selfish of me. I am selfish. I am selfish for being sad when she doesn’t know that things woulda coulda shoulda been any different, for fighting for this dog, for crying, when she is probably perfectly fine–even if her definition of fine is not the same as mine. 

She is the piece of the puzzle that makes me want to throw the puzzle away, the end of the 1000 piece box when you discover that the most important thing is gone. SHE was my most important thing. But quitting means giving up a purpose that it took me a long time to find, to build. Quitting means that I’ve wasted even more years of my life.

I was asked today why rescue is so important to me, why I stay in it even during the weeks it sucks. The answer is simple. I stay because I was voiceless, just like the animals are. I was voiceless for so many years, and no one deserves to be that way, not even animals. I want to stand in the gap for them, I want to help them, because I can connect to them in a way I never can interpersonally. I am not closed off to animals in the same way I am to people; without that part of myself, I would never have made friends here. I can’t imagine a day where I don’t hug an animal, where I don’t fall in love, where I don’t give someone with four paws and a tail the absolute best parts of me–because my energy, that giving, that heart, that IS the best part of me. I am a good person, a genuinely good person, more than my ex and his family ever saw. More than his words that still play inside my head on the bad days. Worth something, not worthless. A survivor, not a victim. Passionate, invested. A do-gooder. When I don’t see that, the animals do–and seeing them see it helps me to see it too. 

So I won’t quit. I won’t stop trying for that little black and white puppy. I won’t stop loving her. But the rescue net is more than her, it’s not just for one. It’s for all. 

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Consent

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me you think it’s your fault?”

On the side of the brown filing cabinet was a newspaper article I had read at least 17 times–bringing awareness of sexual assault to the masses, one campus group at a time–but I read it again anyway because what else was I going to do but tell her the words that she wanted to hear and I didn’t want to say?

“Seriously.” M had a way of leaning in her office chair that made it look she was sitting in front of the television at home and watching Netflix. Her arms draped over the armrests of the chair as she fiddled with her glasses, cleaning them on the weave of her sweater. 

“No.” I had a dream that saying what she wanted me to say would get me out of her office a few minutes sooner. No such luck.

“I don’t believe you. Tell me why.”

M knew me too well. “Tell me why not,” I retorted, drawing the hood of my sweatshirt up over my head and shoving a freshly unwrapped Hershey Kiss from the candy bowl into my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to say anything else for at least the next sixty seconds.

“Did you ask for it?”

“Did I say no?”

*

A year or so ago, I met this great girl named Fern. Greenish yellow eyes that seemed to change when I looked into them, reddish orange fur, a great pink nose, a beautiful wagging tail. Yes, a dog. The first thing you see when you come to Fern’s house is how low to the ground she gets as she wiggles up excitedly to get pets. You don’t notice her ears that are cropped ridiculously short in an attempted effort to make her look ferocious, because you’re too busy watching as her army-crawling front end struggles to keep up with her bouncy butt. And then you sit on the couch, and Fern sits on you, and as you pet her (because let’s face it, you have no choice in the manner) you realize that she’s a pit bull and that that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because she defies all your preconceived expectations of her breed.

Fern’s beginnings don’t lend themselves to the dog she is now. She started out in a junkyard in Pennsylvania and came to the animal rescue with a fear of men and the world and a collar embedded in her neck. She was scared of everything even after she was freed and with a loving family. The Fourth of July came in her new home, and she was scared of the loud noises and the fireworks and wanted nothing more than to stay inside.

*

“Did you say no?” M parroted back.

“Do you always have to answer every question I ask with a question?”

M stayed silent then, waiting me out.

“No,” I finally caved, “I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have an answer to that question.” And I didn’t, not really. It seemed inappropriate to ask her if she would have said no if she thought she was going to die. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no.”

“Well, you’re the English major. So you tell me. Does the absence of the word no signify consent?”

*

See, to look at Fern now, it’s quite apparent that she didn’t ask for her past. She didn’t say “chop off my ears and chain me in a yard all alone and do whatever abuse you want to try and make me ferocious and mean.” Fern did not say yes, but Fern did not say no either, because Fern is a dog–and dogs do not say no because dogs don’t speak. 

I probably know less about Fern’s former life than many, but no one knows precisely what she went through. I can make some guesses, based on the opposites of my positivity training. If you want a dog to be well mannered and friendly, you treat them in a loving and respectful manner. But if you want them to be scary and angry and hate people, I assume it would be the opposite. Dogs respond to the way they’re treated. And in that vein, I can make the following leaps–Fern was previously owned by a man. He probably yelled a lot. Maybe banged things to scare her to where he wanted her in the yard or to keep her from approaching him or just plain banged things around the junkyard (and really, that’s all the same, because who wants to listen to loud banging sounds while confined to a chain 24/7?). He may have hit her, kicked her, in an attempt to teach her that humans suck so that she’d go after any trespassers. 

Again, I don’t know these things. I don’t want to think about these things. But if the secret to reversing her skittishness of people was her loving home, then isn’t the opposite true?

Fern did not ask for the things that happened to her, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. 

*

I shook my head so that my hood slid back down my then-lengthy hair and unwrapped another chocolate. I sat chewing it for so long, letting the chocolate melt in my mouth, that the ticking of the desk clock started echoing in my head. I hated the silence. “Do you think…” My voice trailed off, and I went to finish the thought with yet another chocolate and found the bowl empty. 

“Yes?”

“Maybe…we do what we need to do to survive.”

“Did you ask him to do what he did?”

“I didn’t say no.” The words were starting to sound lamely flat the more that I said them. 

“Did you say here I am, come get me?” M put her glasses down gently and pushed them away from the edge of the desk. 

“Excuse me?”

“Here I am, come get me? Is that what you said that night?”

I fumbled under the sofa bench I was on for my purse. “I’m going to go,” I said, standing up. 

She grabbed my wrist, gently, but she grabbed it. She had never touched me before. I sat back down, but she didn’t let go. “The fact of the matter is, you didn’t. You didn’t say that. You wouldn’t say that, because you didn’t want it. The absence of consent is not consent. You did not say yes. He had no right to take what he did from you.”

*

Fern’s a great dog. She always was, but her first owner clearly never saw that because he wanted her to be something she wasn’t. Now she’s one of the best trained dogs I’ve ever met (love and respect will do that, I promise, try it and you’ll see). She’s a little skittish at night sometimes, but it’s understandable. I’d love to actually study PTSD in dogs, because I really do believe it’s a thing. Give me a few weeks of uninterrupted time and see what will happen. But Fern works as a therapy dog and visits people in nursing homes to bring them comfort when they’re feeling lost and lonely. I imagine that Fern understands somewhere inside that she too was once lost and lonely, and that no one should have to feel that way. I believe she fills the world with as much joy as she can because that way, the two plus years where she had no joy are way in the world past where they belong.

*

“I think,” M continued, “that until you accept that none of the fault for the rape is on you, you’re not going to go anywhere.”

My brow creased as I looked at her. I had asked her never to use that word. I never used that word. 

She read my expression instantly. “The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist.”

When I didn’t see it coming, when I should have seen it coming, when I should have done something, when I did nothing, when I did not ask for it in the first place so none of the fault was on me. 

“The absence of the word doesn’t mean the word does not exist,” I echoed. 

*

Dogs like Fern are the perfect example of my therapist’s law of consent. Like I said, dogs can’t speak. But spend five minutes with Fern. Heck. Spend one minute with Fern. Did she ask for her sour beginning in life? Did she ask for what happened to her? No. But she absolutely did not say yes. 

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Happy Valentine’s Day

The first time has stuck with me in strange technicolor detail that enters me at such random times–when I see a flower, when I hear a song, when someone gives me a card. We were sitting on the couch in the apartment I shared with his sister, a red and yellow plaid deathtrap that I covered with a gray blanket, watching a movie. He pulled the blanket over us to have what he jokingly referred to as happy movie time; I said no. It was the first time I said no. It was the first for a lot of things. It somehow escalated from there, yelling and screaming and me wanting to cuss but not because I was still a good woman of God then, or so I thought. I remember the precise moment it occurred to me: You are unhappy here. Go.

 
So I did. 

My keys were in the always empty crystal fruit bowl on the two-seater kitchen table, and I stood up and scooped them up without fanfare. I said nothing to him. He may have asked where I was going; he definitely paused the movie we had started. We hadn’t gotten to the pants off stage of things, so all I needed was my coat and I was gliding out the door before he even knew what was happening, on an elated high because how had I never realized before that it was as simple as walking away?

I mean. It was never that simple.
 
He had me by the elbow before I was at the door to the parking lot, said some words about how I couldn’t go, how we would fix it, how I could change. Me. Me change. I didn’t want to change then. I opened the door and he dug in with his fingers as I stepped through, sinking through the coat like a falcon on prey. 
“You can change, I promise you can.” 
God, his fingers hurt. Asshole. 

We were suddenly at the car, a tornado of emotions and rage and something called love that wasn’t actually what it was named for. He threw me to the ground like I was nothing because I was nothing, so I screamed fire because it seemed like the thing to get people to come. He backed off; I got in the car and drove away as he banged the back hood and then threw himself down like a toddler in a fit. It was dark, but I still saw his shadow in the rear view. My elbow stabbed; I cried. 

Fast forward a few weeks. I told myself that I loved his sister too much to leave. I didn’t know, then, what that love was. I thought I could go back to the apartment she and I shared and not be involved with him, just with her. We made a rule that he was not allowed inside, but I came home the week before Valentine’s Day and he was there, on the tattered couch, ready and waiting with the blanket and a very clearly planned agenda. I locked myself in my room. He came every night that week with gifts I had no need for–a teddy bear, roses, chocolate–and then the Phantom of the Opera tickets. It was a limited run engagement of the movie starring Emmy Rossum as Christine, and it was playing at one moviehouse in Wisconsin. Like the Phantom himself, he had banked on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to resist the music. He guessed correctly. 

There were red rose petals on the seat of the car when I opened the door; the car smelled of sickly sweet flowers layered over the normal blend of Axe and All Spice. He took me to dinner at Outback when we normally only went as expensive as Chili’s, and he told me over an onion blossom and then filet mignon that he was sorry for his part in things but he knew I could change. “You can be better. Then we can be better.”


It’s my fault you’re not better?




I didn’t say anything. 

He paid, for everything, when before we had always split. Was he actually changing? Was this how it was supposed to be between us, a quiet storm held back by steak and movie candy? We got in the car to go home after, me quietly humming after Emmy’s haunting vocals and him clutching the wheel at ten and two. His hand slipped down to my thigh. 

“So we’re together again, then?”

It was a choice, a simple yes or no in a car going nearly 70 miles per hours down the freeway, and I said yes because it seemed easier. I had to be with someone to be whole, and if not him, then who? I let his hand stay on my thigh. I let it drift. I forgot how my elbow had hurt and resolved that yes, yes I would change, because it was better this way. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day.”

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You Are Beautiful

You are beautiful. Your fingers so tiny but so long, nails that won’t grow past their tips; your eyes closed, lids almost translucent and covered in sleep that will never be erased; your head, covered in wispy hair that will never be longer or gain color; your entire essence contained in one black and white photograph that I said I would never want. That’s a lie, I know now. I’d take more if I could. I would cling to your weight, dead in my arms, and not return you, not send you to their fridge, to the van, to the crematorium, to a velvet covered red heart, to be scattered by the ex in an unknown location as a means of showing me how little it all meant. How you were just a pawn in it all. 

I am sorry for that. You can’t know. 



This year, as I grow and learn about myself and reach out more and form more, better relationships, I confront a new reality in which you are not and never can be found, a reality in which you wouldn’t have ever existed. Up until now, I have always whispered that I’d rewind it and take it all back, everything to now, to hold you again and have you live, but I realize now that I wouldn’t. It wasn’t fair.

 
It isn’t fair. 

When you died, you gave me a gift–you showed me the world for what it is. I was in a stage of pretend, trying to force rocks and weeds to be unicorns and rainbows when a rock will always be a rock and a weed will always be a weed. You gave me the greatest gift–my freedom–as a catalyst, you allowed me to finally go, to break away. Every year at this time, I picture you as you would be–a big, genuine smile (I’m told mine is fabulous), a head full of hair (brown like mine, I’m sure it’s brown), an avid piano player who has well surpassed me even at seven (because those fingers, god, those long fingers)–but this year, as I confront reality, I picture a different scene. You, me. Dead. Because could we have survived another seven years in a world that constricted and stifled us beyond a point of recognition? I cannot answer that question. You will never be able to answer that question. He took everything from me, and I think he would have eventually taken you too. 

I think he did take you. 



I don’t know where you are now. But I know where I am. In the city, a modestly successful writer with a graduate degree who trains dogs and is trying to reinvent herself. No, not trying. IS reinventing herself. This is a place I would not have been without you, but also a place I never would have been with you. I am grateful in ways you can’t understand, that I can barely understand, for that brief duration of your life. I hope you understand the love behind all of this, behind every statement and every thought I have of you. 

I’m not saying I’m glad you’re gone, but I think it echoes behind the scenes of everything because I think you’d be gone anyway

Your existence is so much more than a brick in the ground in Wisconsin that’s covered in ice the entire season of your life, so much more than a hospital bracelet and a disc of pictures of people I didn’t love because they didn’t love me holding you for longer than I myself could stand to do so, so much more than this land of new people who do not even know your name, who will never know. 

You never would have been here. 



Happy February, my love, my life. You are my life, in more ways than just existing, and I am eternally grateful for what you gave up so that I could be here. Because of you, I know that I am more. More than a wife who cooks and cleans and earns all the money while being nothing more than a title, more than a physical and emotional punching bag, more than a girl in the backseat of a car in a parking lot in a situation that completely lacks of sense and orientation. I’m worth something, and while I may not always recognize or understand that, I am worth something because of you. 

You are beautiful; I am too. 

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Concrete Rescue

I found out I was pregnant when I was barely 24 years old. I peed on three separate sticks and took two blood tests because I didn’t believe it could possibly be true. “Tell me again how it’s possible I could be pregnant when I just went off birth control,” I remember asking, because it didn’t seem possible that one could be pregnant after so few days not swallowing the tiny anti-baby pill. I dreaded the conversation that would follow with the husband as much as I bounded towards it with glee; he would hate the pregnancy, I knew, but it would also keep us together. It did not, in fact, keep us together. When the baby died, everything about our marriage that we had pieced together with duct tape and shoved under the rug shattered into minuscule pieces that exploded everywhere. I had thought, mistakenly, that a baby would fix everything. But you can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed; this is a thing I now know intimately. 

Lately, I’ve been struggling with my place in life. Where I’m at, career wise, rescue wise, life wise. What I believe in. There are so few things in life that I know to be consistently true:

  1. I have a big heart. Too big. Exceedingly big.
  2. I will never be married to another man for as long as we all shall live and thus will not have children.
  3. I love animals.
  4. The shit that happens in life means nothing if we don’t find a way to use it. 
  5. Staying silent only puts the power onto that which we are being silent about.

When you add all of these things together, I guess it only makes sense that the biggest thing in my life right now is dog training and rescue. Dogs won’t talk back to me. They can fill the place of children. And I can use the shit that’s happened to me. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with my rescue, with how I fit in in it, in any rescue. But a friend told me that every rescue has their problems, and no rescue is perfect, just like I am not perfect, just like no dog is perfect. Just like nothing, absolutely nothing, is perfect. Rescue isn’t about the politics or the people, but, rather, the animals and what we as individuals can do for them. 

About a year ago, I met a dog named Ziggy. A skinny beagle who spent her life as a puppy producing machine in a mill, she had never seen anything like New York City. Heck, she’d probably never seen the outside of her kennel. She would not come out of her shell for anything–not treats or cream cheese or hot dogs or cuddles. She didn’t want pets really; she didn’t want people, period. She didn’t make much eye contact. She stared down, or she stared at herself, but never at us. Ziggy’s Point A was quiet and heartbreaking and flooded with shyness, but Ziggy’s point B is anything but. She’s in a happy home with another dog and a couple of cats; she’s beautiful, and she looks at her humans and the camera and she’s in touch with herself and her world for the first time. We, as a rescue, gave her another chance. 

After the rape, after the divorce, after the baby died, people close to me gave me another chance. A lot of them. When I thought I was nothing, they told me I was something. When I’d lost everything and was convinced I was fading, they made me see myself. I am here because they told me I was okay. I am not good with people in the slightest; I’m shy and I struggle with conversations and I struggle making connections and I struggle just being present sometimes. But I don’t struggle over dogs; never over dogs. When I’m with a dog, I can communicate with them, for them, about them. When I’m with a dog, I get to know people, and then I make friends that are friends without the dogs. In short, I’m Ziggy. I’m Pedro, I’m Tubs, I’m Georgie, I’m every dog who has ever been and ever will be special to me. 

I haven’t been able to give many people the chances that I’ve been given, the emotional mending, the acceptance, the fresh start, but I’ve been able to be that person for so many dogs. By treating them right, by connecting, by making a fuss for them when something is wrong because they cannot speak themselves, I am doing what people did for me when I was where these dogs are now. Not only that, I am learning how to do this for myself, how to stand up for myself, how to treat myself right.

I’ve been stuck recently on why I’m involved in rescue, and I was reminded today of the reason why. No rescue is perfect. NoBODY is perfect. But the least we can do is take steps to make ourselves and the world even the slightest bit better to live in. We can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed, that’s for sure, but there are dogs out there that we can fix–and in fixing them, we start fixing ourselves. 

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Dear Pepper

Dear Pepper,

I want you to know how special you are. This world that we live in has been created to tell you no, no, Pepper, you are not special. You are not smart. You are just another dog, born in a backyard without a family to hold you and love you and teach you. But Pepper, this isn’t true. You’re one of the smartest pups I know. You’re kind, and you’re considerate of your doggy friends. You share. You’ve learned how to sit and how to walk on a leash and where to go potty, even though everyone said you couldn’t do it. Even though people called you dumb, you persevered. Oh, how you’ve blossomed. How you’ve triumphed. 

I know what it’s like to be on the outside, Pepper, to be the one who everyone says will never be successful. To be abandoned, to be hurt, to not know where you’re going next. To not have a family. I want you to have more. A house, a HOME. People who love you. I want you to feel safe and smart and special and all the things that you, like every being, should get to feel, forever and ever. I don’t just work in rescue because I can; I work in rescue so that you and your friends can have a better life. I work in rescue because I get it, because I’ve felt it, because no animal should have to be abused or neglected or left behind in this dumb world that doesn’t understand you. I want to be the one who understands. You have let me be that, and I have learned so much from my time with you. You have been hurt, yet you still love. You never stopped. I want to be that. I hope you can teach me. 

I wish, for you, for your friends, that the whole world was like me. That everyone would want to work together to find the best for every single animal. But this is not the world. So many animals get hurt. Please don’t give up, Pepper. Keep giving yourself. Keep putting yourself out there. Keep loving. Keep LEARNING. Grow. Be. When I see you do it, I can do it too. 

I wish that I could give you a perfect world, that I could give all the dogs ever that world, the love that you have and the home that you have now. But I can’t, because I’m not enough. Because there are too many dogs and not enough help. Because I am just one woman, and no matter how much I cry that I get it, that I understand because I’ve been hurt too, it is not enough and I cannot save you all. So for now, dear Pepper, just know that you are special. You are NOT dumb. You are loved. And you’re safe. 

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The Rainbow

The most popular girl in our seventh grade class was Lissa. She wasn’t all that
pretty, at least I didn’t think so. But I wasn’t one to talk. The special thing about her was that she was just incredibly engaging. Everyone wanted to be around
her, to have her sit at their table during lunch. 

Lissa’s birthday party was the talk of the cafeteria on this particular day. I heard that the invitations were selective, not like the normal “everyone in the class gets one” invites that we had grown up with. I heard she was handing them out herself. I also heard that they were on glittery Lisa Frank stationary, with cute, brightly colored animals all over them. God, I wanted that invitation. I viewed it as a ticket to…something. I wasn’t sure what exactly. Fitting in? Knowing that I really had friends? I was always trying to figure out what I was missing and how to make up for it rather than trying to fit where I actually fit as I was. 

I stared at my red segmented lunch tray as Lissa passed the invitations out at our table. She gave one to everyone—everyone that is except for me. I stared at my gloppy middle school cafeteria slop and tried to figure out what I’d done to not be the recipient of the rainbow colored door to the rest of my life. 
I rarely ate lunch in the cafeteria after that day; I hid in the bathrooms or in a teacher’s classroom whenever I could get away with it. Alone. That day with Lissa was the day where I stopped really trying to connect with my friends on a genuine level. Where I let myself drift away from the herd because I realized I’d never be like them; where I stopped being seen. 

The thing about B is that he saw me. I think that’s what drew me to him really. He had this power in the beginning to make me the center of his everything, and his gaze was that rainbow I had been missing. At least I thought that he saw me. His rainbow held all the things I thought I had to be. Girlfriend, wife. Mother. Perfect. Beautiful. 

One of the last times I saw him before he went away, in a crowded aisle in the local Target a month or two after we filed for divorce, I found myself remembering my first kiss. Not with him. It was a boy named Adam, in the local teen coffeehouse in front of the Coke machine. Adam was running down the steps wearing a green puffer jacket that smelled like pot, intent on getting to the sofas where his friends were. I don’t know why I did it, but I reached out and grabbed him by the collar and laid one on him. “Wow,” was all he said. I felt nothing, but Adam told me later he felt everything. 

I realized in Target that I couldn’t remember a single kiss with B in any clarity, while my three second Coke machine relationship has a lasting mark. My first memory on that vein of myself with B is his hand down my pants on the local baseball diamond. There was only me and him, a possession, an ownership. He saw me as a thing. I desperately wanted to see him as that rainbow. 

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She Used to Be Mine

I like to think there are infinite versions of each of us out there, that our lives split every time there’s a major decision or event and create this other us, the one we never see. Cheryl Strayed calls these the ghost ships, and by that she means the lives that sailed away from us. 
A lot of things have happened in my 32 years. Some I’m proud of; some I’m not. Some were good; some were not. It’s a sticky map. Had I not joined the Christian youth band, I wouldn’t have met my future husband. Had I not married him, I would never have had a child. Had my child not died, I would not have gotten divorced; I would never have gone to college. Had I not gone to college, the events of my third year wouldn’t have happened. But on that same coin, had I not reached out to T, to D, to M, I may not have emotionally survived that year; if I weren’t in school, I’d never have known them. I would never have met N, who taught me what it really meant to be a writer, a teacher, but most importantly, a learner of things. We can do nothing, go nowhere, if we can’t learn. I get that now. I’m learning. Had I not, I’d never have gone on to move to NYC. I wouldn’t have a masters degree. I wouldn’t be a dog walker. I made choices. I survived events. I’m here now. 
When asked what the pivotal moment of my chosen ghost ship is, I struggle to put a finger on it. The first, I think, was that night in the youth coffeehouse sixteen years ago where I said yes. It put me on the path to everything afterwards. The next was losing my son. Am I happy with either of these events? No. But would I change them, knowing it would without a doubt change where I am now? I don’t have an answer to that. Of course I want my son to be alive. But was his death an answer to the question I never had the courage to ask while married?
“Am I safe here? Is this the right choice? Do I deserve more than this?”
If I hadn’t asked, where would I be now? Do we have to lose in order to gain?
I could be so many different people had I made different choices, but everything that has happened to me has gotten me here. Everything that has happened to me has built me into the me that is now, the me that is mine. Every bruise, every scar. Every hurt. Every tear. Every smile. Every hand offered, every hand taken. 
On to the next. To the next. To the next. Grateful for every next step. Good and bad. Beautiful and horrible. 
We like to think of our lives as black and white, life and death, but really, they’re just building blocks to the next plane. The next ship. We can never transfer; we are stuck with the ship we have. We need to make that count. Do we make that count? Do I? Am I mine?

It’s not what I asked for. Sometimes life just slips in through a backdoor and carves out a person who makes you believe it’s all true. And now I’ve got you.

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The Beginning, Part Two

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. In my fantasy of Manhattan life, I imagined I’d work in a book store and write in my spare time, which I did for twelve weeks, until that book store fired me and I spent two months after in the city with no job and eleven dollars in my bank account. Desperate, I turned to Craigslist and followed up on an ad for a dog walking coming; I never expected to hear back, but somehow, three weeks later, my employee trainer was placing my first leash in my hand—Delano, a six month old tan and black Shiba Inu puppy.

“You absolutely can’t go left on Wall Street,” my trainer informed me as we reached the first intersection. “Something must have happened to him there, because he freaks out and cries if we try to go that way. Oh, and he’s stubborn, because shiba, so he probably won’t walk for you.”
I took the leash, seriously doubting my skill and ability to handle the adorable little miniature fox at my side. I had always loved dogs, but to walk and train them in the middle of Manhattan was an entirely different story than playing ball in a fenced in backyard in the suburbs. Delano stuck to me like glue and trotted next to me all the way down to the Staten Island ferry and back without issue. I remember my trainer being greatly impressed and slightly jealous that he had never walked that well for her. She told me I was a natural. I decided then and there that maybe I was. You see, I understood Delano; he couldn’t go down Wall Street because he was scared. There were a lot of places that I could never go because I was scared. We were the perfect match.

Fast forward nearly a year. I stood on the corner of Union Square at the weekly adoption drive I volunteered for, the leash of rambunctious orange-y red pit bull Georgie clutched in my hand, when one of the organization board members approached me.

“I may have a client for you. I’ve been told you’re great with this one.” She pointed at the dog sitting at my feet, his eye focused on mine. She didn’t have to say it—Georgie was crazy. “Do you remember Thumbelina? Tubs?”

I remembered her vaguely, remembered how she had always been kept at the complete opposite end of the drive from Georgie and I because we keep the reactive dogs apart, remembered that she barked at ALL the dogs, remembered that I’d never actually gotten to meet her.

“I remember.”

“Her foster parents want to adopt her, but they’re worried about managing her dog aggression. They’d need a strong walker every day. Do you think you could fit her in?”

Less than a week later, I found myself on a living room floor in East Village, a black and fawn pit bull slobbering all over my face and balancing her two front paws on my crossed legs. We were instant best friends, Tubs and I. She whipped me with her red rope toy, and we played tug in the corner while everyone talked about the logistics of her adoption. And then we went for a walk. I took the leash, completely confident I could handle whatever she threw my way. We walked down the street towards Tompkins Square Park, me on the lookout for any dogs. I wanted to see what Tubs would do. The first one approached from about ten feet out, and I decided not to push my luck with three people standing, chatting, pretending not to watch. I took a piece of chicken jerky in my left hand and turned Tubs attention away from the dog.

“Tubs, sit!” I commanded. She did immediately, as her eyes followed the treat up to mine. She held my stare and paid no attention to the black and white lab mix behind us.

Everyone was quiet, until her potential mom broke the silence. “Wow,” was all she said.

I steered them all intentionally towards the dog park. I wouldn’t dare go in, but I wanted to see what might happen if dogs got too close. I pushed Tubs’ challenge line, repeatedly asking for sits and looks, seeing how close I could get before she barked. The reaction was ferocious when it finally came, but easily contained when we backed off. She was scared, but she already understood even in the first hour of our relationship that I would keep her safe. Safety was priority one; we feel comfortable when we feel safe. I had so often felt unsafe in my life that I zeroed in on precisely the thing that would break through to Tubs—my open heart, my willingness to connect. These were the things that people had used to help me, and I, in turn, could use them to help Tubs. I could make myself new by making her new.

Her mom and dad signed the adoption papers when we got back to their apartment.

I didn’t come to New York City to be a dog walker. I came to be a writer. But I knew in that moment that I was taking a different path, that I was precisely where I was supposed to be.

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