Immature Cooper's hawk

On Friday afternoon while I was out running my usual weekly errands, I saw an immature Cooper’s hawk perched on the lattice outside Eastern Bank on Commonwealth Avenue. I was at the gas station next door, so I got out of my car, took several pictures, walked over to the bank and took several more, then returned to my car to pump gas before driving away.

Immature Cooper's hawk

During the five minutes or so I was walking around a bank obviously taking pictures, not only did nobody ask what I was doing, nobody even acknowledged my presence. I had, in other words, reached peak invisibility as a Middle-Aged White Woman. Had I been a black- or brown-skinned man taking pictures outside a bank on a Friday night, how long would it have taken for someone to report my suspicious behavior?

Immature Cooper's hawk

I remember taking pictures once on a side street near MIT’s nuclear engineering labs. The buildings look unremarkable from the outside but presumably contain sensitive research inside. I was crouched on the sidewalk photographing an interestingly-angled shadow when a campus security vehicle pulled up and an officer gruffly asked through a lowered window what exactly I was doing.

Filler 'er up

I straightened up and offered some feeble explanation about noticing an interesting shadow on the sidewalk, but it was immediately clear it didn’t matter what I said. The officer simply chuckled and good-naturedly told me to Carry On, his entire demeanor changing the moment he saw I was the most (presumably) harmless of creatures, a Middle-Aged White Woman.

Peekaboo

I know the suspicion that awaits black- and brown-skinned folks who commit the crime of birding while black. Cameras and binoculars are tools of surveillance: threatening in the “wrong” hands, but innocuous if those hands are older and whiter. In broad daylight on a Friday afternoon in suburban Boston, a sharp-clawed killer was perched in plain sight, but nobody noticed him or the presumably harmless individual who both spied and shot him. “If you see something, say something” is the motto of the age of homeland insecurity, but what happens when your preconceived notions knit a veil of blindness right over your eyes?

Anthony and Jesus

Yesterday J and I went to Boston’s North End for the 100th annual Saint Anthony’s Feast. As a good little Catholic girl in Ohio, I grew up praying to Saint Anthony whenever I lost something. I remember my Mom explaining that praying to Saint Anthony wasn’t a magical guarantee you’d find whatever you’d lost, but repeating Saint Anthony’s prayer would help you stay focused while you kept searching. The purpose of the prayer wasn’t to find your lost things for you; the purpose of the prayer was to keep you from giving up hope.

Processing

It’s been years since I’ve prayed to Saint Anthony…and truth be told, it’s been years since I’ve been to church. But whenever J and I go to a religious festival in Boston’s Italian enclave, the pomp and iconography feels natural, like returning to one’s motherland.

Both J and I are a mix of Italian and Irish, we both are lapsed Catholics, and we both wonder how outsiders–that is, people who are neither Catholic nor Italian–react when they see a large statue being paraded through thronged streets, trailing ribbons pinned with money. What would a proverbial man from Mars make of such a spectacle? What, for that matter, do two lapsed Catholics make of it?

Saint Anthony buttons

I don’t personally believe Saint Anthony is a man looking down from a cloud, making sure people’s prayers get answered. But that doesn’t mean I make light of Saint Anthony’s Feast. Regardless of our own lapsed Catholicism, J and I made sure to stop at a makeshift shrine where a smaller statue of Saint Anthony stayed throughout the festival, pinning a donation alongside everyone else’s and accepting a small button in return.

Because I was raised Catholic, I know every dollar pinned to Saint Anthony’s train represents someone’s sincere prayer: a wish for something lost, a hope for something denied, or an expression of gratitude for something granted. (When my Mom taught me how to pray to Saint Anthony, she also explained that if your prayer was answered, you were obligated to thank Saint Anthony as many times as you’d petitioned him.)

Grand procession

Seeing all the prayers pinned like a cape to Saint Anthony’s statue, who am I to hold myself aloof from those who search, seek, hope, and sometimes lose hope? Haven’t we all lost things, and don’t we all continue to search? One person loses their car keys, another loses a ring, still another loses an important document. It is a universal fact of life that anything that can be held can just as easily be lost. Isn’t any of us lucky to reach the end of our days without losing our faith, heart, or mind?

Pinning offerings

Anne Lamott once said there are only three prayers: help, thanks, and wow. Pious Catholics appeal to Jesus, Mary, or Joseph when the Big Stuff is on the line, but even those of us who are feeble in our faith trust Saint Anthony with our trifles. As the patron of lost things, Saint Anthony is privy to our mundane frustrations, and he knows more than anyone the tiny trinkets we hold dear. How can anyone who hasn’t lost all hope belittle him for that?

Click here for more photos from this year’s Saint Anthony’s Feast. Enjoy!

Too late

Last month, right after J and I put Toivo to sleep, I flew to Columbus, Ohio to visit my family, as I do every summer. This year’s visit was bittersweet, however, since my Dad is slowly dying there.

Blue and reaching

During my visit, my Dad was in the hospital, again. My Dad has battled many medical ailments over the years–I am being purposefully vague, as my family never asked to have a writer in it–and this year alone, my Dad has been rushed to the hospital a half dozen times. During this most recent hospitalization, we had no illusions: all of us (my Dad included) know there is no getting better this time. During my visit, my family and I discussed Dad’s end-of-life wishes, and he made it clear to both us and his doctors that he is ready to die.

Butterfly room

When I visited my Dad in the hospital the morning before I flew back to New England, I knew I was probably saying my final goodbyes, and as far as final visits go, mine was a good one, with nothing I wanted to say left unsaid. Since I returned from Ohio, my Dad has moved from the hospital into a nursing home for hospice care, and now we wait for his body to shut down.

Cascade

Now that I’m hundreds of miles away from my Dad, I’m finding that this waiting for him to pass is worse than actually saying goodbye to him in person. It’s not the dying that’s difficult, but the waiting to die.

While I was in Ohio, I emailed J to update him on my Dad’s prognosis. Since we had just put Toivo down, it was impossible not to compare her end-of-life, with both of us there to comfort her, with my Dad’s impending passing. I told J that if my Dad were a dog, we could choose when to say goodbye rather than waiting for nature to take its course, and J replied that when a pet is dying, you have the power to control the narrative because you are able to decide when and how the story ends.

Goldfish

I have never (yet) lost a parent, but I’ve lost many dogs and cats over the years, and in every case, my grief has been mixed with relief. When you decide to euthanize a pet, you know you are choosing the most merciful option. You might wish for more time, but your gut knows that more time is not the same as good time. When you euthanize a pet, you are relieved to be done with the futile fight to keep a creature alive who is ready to be Gone. After every pet’s death, I have wanted to embrace the vet who administered the fateful injection. After suffering in the limbo of anticipatory grief, it is a relief to begin the honest work of actually grieving.

Blue and branching

If human euthanasia were legal, my family and I could have arranged a storybook passing while I was in Ohio, with all of us gathered at my Dad’s bedside during his final moments. Instead, I am 700 miles away, waiting for a phone call saying my Dad is gone. It’s not the way I’d want to go; it’s not the way I’d want anyone to go. I have chosen time and again to be present when one of our pets is put to sleep because I don’t think any creature should have to die alone…and this is a courtesy I can’t extend to my own father. My father’s impending death is a narrative I am powerless to control.

Today’s photos come from the Franklin Park Conservatory, where my sisters and I went walking one day while I was in Columbus.

Toivo waiting

On Friday night, we put Toivo to sleep. After months of mobility issues and inexplicable infections, her final decline was swift and sure. Early Friday morning, Toivo was panting heavily in her kennel, so J took her outside, and she became uncharacteristically aggressive. By the time we arrived at the Angell Animal Medical Center, Toivo was listless, unable to walk, and had to be rolled into the critical care unit on a stretcher.

Bedroom eyes

While at Angell, Toivo did not improve. Instead, the ER vet said Toivo’s neurological responses were “inappropriate” and indicative of meningitis, encephalitis, or a brain tumor. By evening, it was clear Toivo’s condition was dire. When we arrived for one last visit before putting her down, Toivo was awake but unresponsive, staring with glassy eyes and not reacting when the vet moved a hand quickly toward her face.

Toivo guards the yard

Before she died, Toivo struggled to raise her head as I got settled on the mat beside her, as I had so many times during her week-long hospitalization in April. I’d like to think that in some corner of her brain, Toivo could still recognize the familiar touch of my hand on her head, my scent, and my voice telling her she was a good girl and everything would be okay.

Djaro and Toivo

We had Toivo for a shockingly short period of time–roughly a year and a half–but she had become deeply embedded in our lives, and closely bonded with me in particular. When we first brought her home in February, 2018, she acclimated almost immediately, as if she’d been born and raised with us rather than arriving as an adult dog. From day one, Toivo loved playing with our other dog, Djaro, leading me to suggest the best way to tire a Belgian Malinois is to bring home a second one.

Crazy legs

Initially, I hadn’t wanted a second Malinois. The breed is energetic and intense, and whereas J prefers tough and intelligent dogs–so-called “mean breeds”–I’ve always preferred floofy doofuses. What sold me on Toivo was her spunk. Too small to be a protection dog, Toivo was also too much of a goofball. Whereas the word that best describes Djaro is “intense,” the word that best described Toivo was “happy.” When her whole body wasn’t arthritic and painful, Toivo was a joyful, hyper little dog: a dynamo in a seal-slick coat who spun like a top when excited.

Toivo with toy

Although we’d chosen Toivo to be my walking buddy, what cemented our bond wasn’t the walks we took when she was able-bodied as much as the four months she was a Medical Mystery. Toivo was a fearlessly hardy dog for the first year we had her, eager to walk in any weather, but this past March, she was suddenly creaky and reluctant to move. It was as if she had gone overnight from being a dog of four to a dog of fourteen.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

After many diagnostic deadends and weeks of physical rehab, we finally learned that Toivo had immune mediated polyarthritis (IMPA), a disorder that caused her immune system to attack her joints. When we started her on steroids and an immunosuppressant, she responded almost immediately. Within days she went from being hunched over and limping to being her old self: active, energetic, and hyperalert, like a lion caged in a dog’s body.

One word we kept hearing throughout Toivo’s veterinary odyssey was “idiopathic,” which refers to a condition with no clear cause. We never learned why Toivo developed a huge abscess on her left hind leg in April, why she developed laryngeal paralysis after her release from the hospital, or why her face swelled up for no apparent reason in May. On Saturday morning, after we’d already put Toivo down Friday night, we learned a chest X-ray had shown three masses in her lungs: the closest we came to a smoking gun. If Toivo had a brain tumor that metastasized to her lungs, no amount of physical rehab or immunosuppressants could have saved her.

Toivo with cavaletti

But even a smoking gun can’t answer the question of why. Why did fate or chance choose this one dog–my dog–to struggle with so many medical challenges? Why did fate or chance choose to cripple then kill her so young? I’ll admit to feeling as much anger as grief these past few months. J and I would have done anything to keep Toivo safe and healthy, so why are there abusive and neglectful people whose dogs are still alive while my dog was taken in her prime?

Toivo stares

There are no answers to these questions; ultimately, mortality itself is idiopathic. If you allow yourself to love a dog, you know how the story will end: they will die first, unless you do. Looking through the photos and videos we took while Toivo was with us, I feel cheated to have lost her so soon, but even luckier to have had her at all. Even the longest-lived dog leaves too soon. I don’t know why we continue to open ourselves to the heartbreak of loving creatures who are destined to die, other than we have no other choice.

We protest school segregation

The President has said something racist, again. This comes as no surprise, as the President regularly uses racist rhetoric to rile up his base, who either share his bigoted views or simply aren’t troubled by them. To me, these two options are equally bad. If you rush to defend or choose to ignore racism, you are empowering it: either way, you are complicit.

Police brutality must stop now

The fact that our President is racist is not news; people who were paying attention in 2016 knew this, but plenty of folks still voted for him. But what is new is the way the past two and a half years have revealed people’s true values. I’m willing to give voters the benefit of the doubt if they voted for Trump with a vague hope that the solemnity of his office would tame or temper him. But as the President’s Twitter tantrums have continued, his policies have gotten increasingly cruel, and his cozying up to dictators and autocrats continues unabated, I haven’t learned anything new about Trump himself. This leopard hasn’t changed his spots, and what we’ve long seen is what we continue to get.

What has been revelatory about the past two and a half years is the behavior of Trump’s supporters and enablers. If you still turn a blind eye toward what Trump does–if you continue to say nothing or merely offer excuses–this tells me everything I, your neighbors, and your children need to know about your character. As much as you claim that you yourself are not racist, your failure to condemn abhorrent behavior says more about your priorities than any of your arguments.

I might be next

History has its eyes on us, and so do our companions and contemporaries. When I was a young and impressionable child, an impassioned priest showed my religion class footage from Nazi concentration camps, imploring us to learn from the past so we would never repeat it. As I watched the grim and grainy images, I wondered with childlike innocence how ordinary Germans could have stood by and watched while genocide happened in their midst. Now, decades later, I have my answer.

Genocide doesn’t start with death camps; it starts with divsion and objectification, with slogans and conformity, and with repeated exhortations to support your country right or wrong. Genocide starts with a moral muddying of waters and with the suggestion that some folks and families don’t matter as much as yours do. Genocide starts with good, otherwise decent folk deciding to stand by, shut up, and do nothing as norms and morals are violated, the act of minding one’s own business being weaponized as a tool of the state.

Black and white together

Plenty of folks who voted for Trump in 2016 insist they aren’t themselves racists; instead, they argue, they voted for economic reasons, or for the sake of Supreme Court picks, or because they disliked Hillary Clinton. But now that we see the kind of behavior the President is engaged in–the kind of behavior he talked about and that some voters chose to ignore, defend, or quietly agree with–we now know how low Trump’s supporters and enablers are willing to crawl. I haven’t learned anything new about the leopard, but I am continually heartbroken by the hyenas who continue to hang around him.

When I studied Spanish in high school, I learned a saying that seems particularly apt these days: “dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres.” Tell me who you walk with, and I will tell you who you are. If you tell me you voted for Trump in 2016, I can be kind and assume you were duped. But if you tell me you still support him, I must assume you either support his abhorrent behavior or (worse yet) simply don’t care. Two and half years after Trump was elected, ignorance is no longer an excuse. If you continue to lie down with dogs, you must enjoy waking up with fleas.

Today’s photos show protest signs on the Green Street parking garage in Central Square, Cambridge: part of Representative Ayanna Pressley’s Congressional district.

Two lilies

I recently started reading Jeffrey Cramer’s Solid Seasons: The Friendship of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. One benefit of 19th century literary friendships is the wealth of written evidence they leave behind. Future biographers researching friendships between modern-day writers will have to pore over emails, texts, and tweets rather than the letters and journal entries Cramer read in writing his book.

Asiatic dayflower

Both Thoreau and Emerson kept journals and maintained voluminous correspondence, albeit not always with one another. In the portion of Cramer’s book I’ve read so far, Thoreau is more emotionally intimate with Emerson’s wife, Lidian, than with Emerson himself, sending her letters that could pass as journal entries, so intricately do they chronicle his thoughts.

Front yard ferns

The problem with writerly friendships–especially friendships between two journal-keepers–is that writers are very good at talking to themselves. Isn’t a journal entry nothing more than a letter to an anonymous audience that is never sent? When you are accustomed to pouring your heart on paper for an audience of none, it’s easy to think–erroneously and egotistically–that anyone willing to receive and read such correspondence actually understands and empathizes with you.

But while the blank page has no desires or concerns of its own, friends are not blank pages. There is a very real way that two friends who are also writers can correspond at cross-purposes, even when communicating face-to-face. Each person wants their own needs met–each speaker longs to be listened to–and these desires can clash rather than finding a complement.

Smartweed

In a radio interview about his book, Cramer said Emerson and Thoreau had contrasting views of friendship. Emerson had many friends and drew different things from each, but Thoreau had few friends and strove (unsuccessfully) to have all his social and emotional needs met by one. This difference is a recipe for relational disaster, perhaps, and it helps explain the tense complications of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s friendship. What started as a conventional mentorship between an established writer and an idealistic protege deteriorated as it became clear that Thoreau would always be his own man, a nonconformist who marched to a different drum.

Enchanter's nightshade

But longevity is not the only (or best) way to judge a friendship. Although their relationship would ultimately grow strained, both Emerson and Thoreau were forever influenced by the insights of the other. In a passage Cramer quotes near the beginning of his book, Thoreau compares long-time friends to two trees who stand apart but whose roots intermingle. Above ground, two venerable trunks might seem distant and disconnected, but beneath the surface, they take sustenance from the same soil.

Bug

Now that summer is here, Toivo and I have a new routine. After I’ve finished my morning chores, we take a short walk, then we sit on the patio while I read and write my daily journal pages. We started this ritual earlier in the summer, when Toivo couldn’t walk fast or far. J suggested that being outside surrounded by new sounds and smells would be good for Toivo’s spirits while she recovers, and he was right.

Dragonfly and day lily

We call these days when Toivo and I sit on the patio our “beach days.” I pack a bag with a book and notebook for me and water and snacks for us both, and we sit in the shade until the day gets hot. We sit outside for the sensory stimulation a summer day brings: Toivo hearkens to every smell, and I follow every flash of motion. We both are all ears, but we are attuned to different things. My ears perk to the smallest bird sound, like the chirp of a house sparrow in the neighbor’s hedge, while Toivo sits alert and expectant, waiting for the smallest sound from any of our neighbors’ dogs.

All eyes

At first, Toivo was restless and whiny on beach days, tangling her lead while pacing the patio, unsure why we were sitting outside doing nothing rather than walking. But now, she’s come to see our time outside as another everyday routine, my accustomed spot at our patio table no different from my place at my indoor desk. In summer, the size of our house expands, the yard and patio being an extra room without walls whose roof is the summer sky. If it weren’t for the dog, I’d forget to venture out, having grown too accustomed to long winter hours at my desk, still tethered long after my lead has rotted away.