Adios To A Dear Friend

In perfect understanding I shall come
And lay my hand in yours, and at your feet
Sit, silent, with my head against your knee.

                       Edna St. Vincent Millay

I wish I didn’t have to write this blog. I wish that I could turn the clock back, make different decisions, do something to make this a happy post. But I can’t. My buddy Zee, the dog I’ve mentioned in this blog more often than I have any other, died two weeks ago. The circumstances are too painful to describe, but my worst fears were realized when I took a trip to Maui to visit a friend. I’ve left the property and the country many times since Zee went blind, but this time was different. This time, I knew that she needed me more than before, this time I sensed that she was starting to lose her hearing and was not as aware of what was going on around her. And this time, there were people that were going to come and work on the house while I was gone. People who don’t know her like I do, who don’t love her like I do and who clearly didn’t realize, despite my admonishments, that they needed to be extra careful when they drove down the driveway.

Despite her passing so many days ago, I haven’t been able to write this until now. It’s been too emotional, too raw and each time I’ve tried my eyes have misted over so I can’t see the computer screen. As the days have passed though, I’ve tried to accept what I cannot change and comforted myself with the knowledge that she will not suffer any more.

While it’s impossible to know how difficult it was for her to be blind, how much she suffered as a result, I know that she was frightened more often than before. At times she’d get so excited – dinner time and when I said, “Wanna go to the beach Zee?”- that she’d run headlong into solid surfaces. That had to hurt. Despite her blindness, she never lost her love of joining me on the beach for a walk or run. She would brave the steps down to the beach, me guiding her with my voice and once we hit the sand, she would exhibit the same exuberance she did as a younger dog – rolling in the wet sand, trotting along with her head and tail held high. She used her nose to follow me and, if she lost my scent, when I called to her, she’d cock her head in the most adorable way, her ears held erect, as though she was thinking, “Is that you?” She’d zone in on the origin of my voice and come loping along until she caught up.

I hadn’t met Mr. T yet in 2002 when she arrived on his property, wrapped in a towel, tiny, dehydrated and nearly dead. Found in the Santa Catarina arroyo, she was left to die in the hot Baja sun along with the rest of her litter mates. She was the only one strong enough to survive. When he took her in his big hands, her eyes were white and her little body was stiff, but T hand fed her milk for several hours and by morning she was standing up in the cardboard box where she’d been placed, looking around curiously and wagging her tail in hopes of getting more nourishment from the nice man who’d nursed her back to health. The very next day she began wreaking havoc on everything and everyone, especially Doobie and Ruby, the two canines in residence. Not long after, he dubbed her “Crazy!” when he looked on in amazement as she ran down to the beach and launched herself into the shorebreak in a  somersault that would give Aly Raisman a run for her money.

In 2005 I was here alone for the first time looking after the dogs when she nearly succumbed to the tick-borne disease Ehrlichiosis. Zee was never one to turn down a meal, so when she refused to eat, I took her to the vet. To my great consternation, after giving her an injection of antibiotics and potassium to counteract the effects of starvation, he sent us home. That night as I fretted about being her only caretaker, her eyes turned white again. Convinced she was dying from hunger, I resorted to force feeding her a mixture of milk and raw egg using the plunger from a syringe to draw the liquid up and squirt it into her cheek. The first attempt failed as she wouldn’t swallow it, so I had to hold her mouth shut and her head aloft while massaging the fluid into her throat. I prayed a lot that night, asking God not to take her. But the main reason wasn’t because I was afraid of losing Zee, I honestly didn’t think it would do my relationship with T any good if she died on my watch.

Afterwards I sensed that she knew I’d helped her and a bond began to grow between us that was only strengthened when she began to lose her sight. I believe the disease left her permanently weakened and likely caused her blindness.

Before she lost her vision, at night I locked Zee in the garage along with a couple of the other dogs, where they had comfy dog beds and I knew they couldn’t get into trouble. In the desert, “trouble” can take many forms including skunks, coyotes, rattlesnakes and barking at nesting sea turtles. Once everything went permanently dark, Zee began freaking out when she was locked in the garage. One morning I discovered she’d clawed a big hole in the door frame and then the next she tore it off the wall completely. That’s when I knew I was going to have to make an exception to house rules and let her sleep inside with me. I brought first one and then, in time, two dog beds into the house – placing one in the living room, the other in my bedroom. From then on, she spent most of the time lying on one of those beds, content to be near me. If I walked anywhere on the property, she followed with her nose to the ground. If I left the property and didn’t invite her along, she trotted up the driveway and lay near the gate awaiting my return.

She got into the habit of quietly absconding with one of my flip-flops in the middle of the night. In the morning I’d find it in her bed, often under her chin. Thinking about it now, I find it hard to believe that the smell of my feet could be that comforting.

After the first few tentative descents, she figured out that the stairs in the house were evenly spaced, unlike those to the beach, so each morning she would navigate the stairs confidently, bouncing down from step to step two feet at a time. While visiting my friend in Central California last week, my heart lurched when I heard that familiar rhythmic clicking sound as her blind dog “No-Cow” used the same technique to go down the stairs.

Now that I’m home again the reminders are everywhere. The places she liked to lay, the toys she cheerfully carried up the driveway, the eye drops that relieved the pressure in her eye. Even the big fuzzy grey balls of her hair gathered in corners and under the couch choked me up enough that I made sweeping an unusually high priority when I got home. I don’t have the nerve to go look at the place where Felipe buried her. Just seeing her collar, the one covered in brightly colored peace signs, lying next to where she died made me cry. That collar was perfect for such a peaceful being. Even as a younger dog, when the other dogs chased cars, ATVs, cows and other dogs, she never joined in.

When I brought Peanut home, Zee was the only dog that would put up with her young exuberance.

Zee was the sweetest dog in my world, a constant reminder to be patient and loving, to live every day to the fullest, to choose quiet contentment over anger or complaint. If you were to tell me, as someone once did, that dogs are incapable of feeling emotions, let alone expressing them, I would have introduced you to Zee. You’d be hard pressed to dispute that her bark in response to, “Wanna go to the beach Zee?” was filled with enthusiasm or that she was smiling when she appeared at the barbecue, a paper plate held carefully in her mouth.

With any luck that corny poem that never fails to reduce me to tears, Beyond the Rainbow, will turn out to be true and she’ll be there waiting for me along with Soweso, Kipling, Fletcher, and Jinny when I leave this planet too.

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Caged Creativity

The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.

Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception

 I’m writing this on the island of Maui where it seems a different kind of conformity exists. I cannot help but notice, as we drive to the beach at Ho’okipa on the North Shore and especially in the little town of Paia that people here try oh-so-very-hard to be unique, to stand out from the crowd, to be non-conformist. Picturesque Paia is a magnet for surfers, bohemian-types that some might call neo-hippies, spiritual seekers, artists, and some folks who are a mix of all of these things. What I can’t help but notice is that the measure of non-conformity here appears to have shifted to something more extreme, that people apparently feel they must go further to stand out from the crowd. A visual illustration exists in the surprising number of people who sport tattoos over most of their bodies – not just their arms and legs, but entire chests, backs, and necks are covered thickly with images that have been scratched into the substratum of their skin. In some cases the ink has crept up onto their faces. It’s as though the one-upmanship of tattooing has reached its zenith. What will they do when they run out of blank canvas? [I also shudder at what all those dyes and inks are likely doing to their livers, but that’s besides the point.]

When I see these and the people trying so hard to be bohemian that they have eschewed the use of soaps, razors and hair brushes, I question whether they get any pleasure out of their quest for uniqueness or if all that inking and body odor is ultimately just unpleasant and depressing. Ultimately the question that arises in my mind every time I see someone who seems to be trying awfully hard to be different is whether this is an authentic form of self-expression or just another form of conformity within the ranks of the non-conformists. It just doesn’t look “real” to me. It smacks of an act.

Long before she wrote her famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “The Last American Man,” a true story depicting Eustace Conway’s choice to live life in a back-to-nature, non-conformist, non-materialistic way that bucks the “norm” of modern American lifestyle. In one scene Gilbert describes the affect Conway had on a group of “loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing” teenaged boys:

Eustace was supposed to get these kids all excited about nature…[he] walked across the stage and toward the microphone. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.

Eustace stepped up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He stood there, thin and serious, for a long moment. Then he said, “I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly to you tonight.”

The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. I swear to God. The jerky teenage kids stared at Eustace Conway, absolutely riveted.

When Gilbert inquired later, Eustace confirmed that this was not an uncommon occurrence. She asked him why he thought they responded to him the way they did and he replied:

“Because they recognized right away that I was a real person, and they’ve probably never met one before.”

Eustace Conway and the tattoo and dreadlock-festooned Paia hippies drove me to wonder, “How many “real” people do I actually meet in a day, a week, or will I meet in this lifetime?” Then the more pertinent question I needed to examine hit me square in the frontal lobe:

Am I living authentically?

When I question what people will think about what I write here or in my memoir and then allow it to influence the creative process, I’m not being authentic. When I allow external factors to alter how or what I create I am not being who I was put on this Earth to be. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always easy to ignore the voice in my head that warns of potentially negative reactions to what I write. Similarly it’s hard to write just for the love of it without regard for the potential accolades.  Try as I might not to, I do give a shit how many people read and comment on my posts. I am guessing you have no idea how hard it was for me to post my previous entry or how astounded I was when it exceeded all the others in the number of hits it received (Really? Profanity was all that was necessary to get you to read? Well, I’ll be a goddamned, shitfaced and fucking astounded motherfucker!).

Speaking from my own experience, I have to conclude that over and above the social pressures we all feel to conform, authenticity has become endangered by the effects of unlimited access to mundane visual media and marketing that reinforce the tendency to conform and make fun of those who don’t. Add to that the systematic brainwashing of youth by systems of education that are outdated, conventional and dogmatic and authenticity gets a terminal diagnosis.

It takes guts to be authentic in a world where the pressure to conform and the desire for love and acceptance are powerful forces pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of so much conformance to non-conformity here on Maui, I found myself asking, “How much time and energy do I spend worrying about and trying to live up to others’ expectations? And what would happen if I just stopped doing that and instead started using that energy to express my own most creative ideas?”

Like Godin’s quote at the beginning of this post states, being artistic requires nothing more and nothing less than acting on the “hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map.” I believe we all possess that hunger. Courage and strength are the ingredients that will allow us to escape the cage of conformity repressing the creative artistry inherent in each of our brains. Doing that will make the world a better place.