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.

Frederick Douglass bio and Postcards to Voters

Today is the 4th of July. After reading outside on the patio for a short while this morning, I’ve spent the heat of the day inside our air-conditioned bedroom, trying to keep the dogs cool and ushering them outside for short, closely supervised bathroom and exercise breaks. So much for the Dog Days of summer.

Frederick Douglass

I’m currently reading David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, a weighty brick of a book I checked out and returned to the library several times before making time to read. Yesterday, I read the chapter in Blight’s book that discusses Douglass’s famous speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” which seems more relevant than ever this year.

Great Hall

Blight accurately interprets the speech as a classic American jeremiad: a speech intended to provoke and spur listeners to action and repentance. In it, Douglass argues that Independence Day means nothing to slaves who lack the freedom it celebrates:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

Chairs

This year, I find myself wondering what the Fourth of July means to migrant children detained in squalid holding pens, citizens in gerrymandered districts denied the full power of their vote, or homeless and suicidal veterans fighting PTSD while our draft-dodging President entertains himself with military parades.

Eagle, clock, and portraits

Today I celebrated the Fourth of July by doing two things that I consider to be my civic duty. First, I spent some time writing Postcards to Voters. Voting is an important way to preserve freedom, and encouraging Florida voters to enroll in Vote-By-Mail is one way to get-out-the-vote one person (and one postcard) at a time.

Light fixtures

Second, I spent some time with the Mueller Report, which I’ve committed to read in 10-page daily installments over the course of the summer. In today’s installment, I read Robert Mueller’s indictment for Russian social media meddling, which the Washington Post edition includes in an appendix of supplemental materials. It feels important to understand what the Russians did in 2016 and how easy it was to mislead voters with fake news, sham social media profiles, and even in-person rallies organized from afar and designed to energize some voters while discouraging turnout among others. It’s easy for nefarious agents to mislead gullible constituents; being savvy and thinking critically are also part of our civic duties.

Overhead

July 4th is when we celebrate America’s birthday, but every day it is our job as citizens to defend democracy by doing the work of engaged citizens. This means educating yourself: read books and understand history. Vote and encourage others to do so, too. Pay attention to the news and hold your elected officials accountable. These are the gifts any one of us can give Uncle Sam on his birthday or any other day.

Wood sorrel

What if discipline and habit are not the key to creativity? This morning as I sat reading then writing, a woodpecker called overhead; in the distance, a sparrow trilled. On sunny summer days like today, Toivo and I take a short stroll, then we settle on the patio to enjoy some fresh air before the day gets too hot. Opening my notebook without a particular topic to explore, my thoughts naturally turn to the question of inspiration.

Day lilies

My life revolves around the discipline of many schedules: the cats need to be fed and medicated specific times, the dog needs to be walked regularly, and there is always a daily litany of chores. I live most of my life at the mercy of schedules and checklists. Even when I’m not teaching–working for pay, that is–I’m always working. They say a woman’s work is never done, and although I can’t speak for men’s experience, as a woman I can say there is always something that needs to be done.

My perpetual goal–one that is perennially unsatisfied–is to perfect a routine where both work and chores unwind almost automatically: a time for everything, and everything done in time. For mindlessly repetitive tasks like scrubbing dishes or cleaning litter boxes, this approach works fairly well: my morning routine is so deeply ingrained, all I need to do is wake up, show up, and my daily tasks all but do themselves.

Spiderwort

Creative endeavors are different, though. Some days I show up at the page and the words are there waiting for me; other days, they are reluctant to come. I haven’t discerned, even after all these years of more or less daily writing, why I have Something To Say on some days but not on others. Is it something I can control by perfecting a smoother routine that lands me at the page well-read, well-fed, and well-rested? Or is it a matter outside my control, like the weather?

I’m coming to realize that discipline–the setting of and adhering to habits, which I am so very good at–is necessary but not sufficient. You need the discipline of hard work–the habit of showing up to the page whether you feel inspired or not–as much as a fire needs fuel. But discipline alone is like a dry pile of wood without a flame. I can religiously show up to the page, and I try my best to do so, but there is something else I can’t control. The blank page is kindling; the inspiration, a spark. In all my years of writing, writing, writing, I still can’t describe or explain why some days the lightning comes.

These past few months, my writing–both in my journal and on-blog–has been uninspired, my mind mired with the muck of an unremarkable life. But some days, I look up right as a hawk slices silently across the sky. Why does randomness happen: why do stars and starlings fall? As I write these words, a pair of titmice set up to scolding in a nearby hedge. Why here, why now? Or better yet, why not? Perhaps hawks fly and titmice scold at all and random hours, and occasionally the disciplined ones are lucky enough to notice. Isn’t this reason enough to keep watch?

Yellow taxi birdhouse

Today something remarkable happened on Toivo’s morning dog-walk: my mind wandered. We’re still limited to short and slow walks in deference to Toivo’s injured leg, so by “walk” I mean a leisurely stroll past two neighboring houses, where the mouth of a woodsy trail gives Toivo a place to pee and poop on pine needles before turning around and walking back home. It’s the shortest outing you can take while still using the word “walk.”

Columbine

This morning after we’d walked two doors down to the mouth of the woodsy trail, as Toivo was nosing and sniffing through the drizzle-dampened undergrowth, my mind wandered. After months of spending every minute of every walk fretting over Toivio’s feet–is she putting weight on her injured leg, is she limping, is she panting or showing other signs of discomfort or distress?–I let my thoughts fall away while listening to the umbrella-patter of raindrops sifted through leaves. For the first time in months, my dog-walking consciousness was as free and unfettered as an unleashed hound wandering wherever she pleased.

Abundance

This is how Toivo and I used to walk, before her impairment. Toivo would sniff and wander on her end of the leash, and I would dally and daydream on mine. This is how Toivo and I used to walk before early March, when she first showed signs of lameness: back when we blithely took for granted the luxury of an able body.

Bleeding hearts

This past weekend, after finally getting a diagnosis and treatment plan for the mobility issues Toivo has had since March, I drove to western Massachusetts to visit A (not her real initial). It was a welcome break from my usual routine, and a chance to debrief after a particularly stressful semester.

Raindropped

A and I spent the weekend taking scenic drives, looking at art, and staying up late drinking wine, playing dominoes, and having the kind of conversations that happen best in person, not via text or email. On Sunday, A and I drove to North Adams, where we went to Mass MoCA, took a labyrinth walk, then visited Rabbi Rachel for yet more wine and conversation.

This past semester was particularly stressful in part because I had to keep my head down during most of it: as I scrambled to keep my plates spinning, I didn’t have much time to write, visit friends, go to the Zen Center, or engage in other acts of Mental Health Maintenance. Visiting A for the weekend and Rabbi Rachel for the afternoon was wonderfully restorative: like returning to sing a favorite song exactly where you’d left off.

Reading companion

Today Toivo is having an ouchy day. There probably is a more clinical term for days when Toivo is slow and stiff-moving–often, these are the days after we’ve taken a longer-than-usual walk, so perhaps I should call them recovery days–but the word I hear in my head is “ouchy.” There are days when Toivo is chipper and energetic and fairly mobile–popping up and eager to walk–and then there are ouchy days.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

One of the benefits of the month-long physical rehabilitation package we signed up for is a weekly appointment with a vet who knows far more about the rehab process than we do. Today Toivo and I will meet with Dr. P, and I’ll pepper her with questions. I’ll ask about pain management: should we be giving Toivo pain meds regularly, only when she’s ouchy, or not at all? How much exercise is too much: am I overdoing it by trying to take daily walks? And should we be giving Toivio supplements for the achiness she seems to feel in her other joints, not just the injured leg we’re rehabbing?

Lots of questions arise on ouchy days, and plenty of doubts. Am I doing enough to encourage Toivo’s recovery: should I be doing her passive range of motion exercises more often or differently, or should I be supplementing, medicating, and/or meditating more, more often, or more diligently? Or, on the flipside, am I doing too much, moving and massaging Toivo’s leg when she should be resting it, or walking her too much, too fast, or too far? Would Toivo be better off, in other words, if I just left her alone to sleep and heal and be as active or inactive as she wants without all this fussing?

Toivo relaxes before rehab

All of these questions, of course, are different permutations of a central set of coupled questions: am I to blame, and is there something (anything!) I can control? Nobody wants to be the one to blame, but everyone wants to feel they can control their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing. If Dr. P. were to tell me that standing on my head and singing the Alphabet Song backwards would help Toivo recover more quickly, I’d drop right then to the floor and start singing, regardless of how silly it might seem. Ever since Toivo first started having mobility issues in March, I’ve been struggling with an unspoken existential question: if I somehow do things differently, can I unlock a magical formula where she will get instantly and entirely better and, better yet, live forever?

Before Toivo's physical rehab appointment

This, after all, is what I want for Toivo, myself, and all my loves: for us all to be forever young, forever able-bodied, and forever happy. And this, I know, is a guarantee I can never deliver, no matter how many rehab session I schedule. This stark realization–the undeniable fact that we are mortal souls in fragile bodies–is more painful than any physical injury: an ouchy no known opioid can cure.

As I write this, Toivo nestles her head on my lapdesk. On ouchy days in particular, I quit my desk and work as much as possible on the bed where Toivo is resting, encouraging her to snuggle up against me. Throughout the rehab appointments, the painfully slow walks, and all the enthusiastic exhortations to “Use your leg,” I cling desperately to the belief–the hope–that love, companionship, and lots of petting can work miracles–or at least provide some comfort in the meantime.

Lap dog

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday, and I’ve spent most of my time since then doting on the dog. On Tuesday, Toivo had her stitches removed from the surgery she had earlier this month to drain a massive abscess in one of her hind legs, and tomorrow we have a physical therapy appointment to figure out how to encourage her to use her injured leg again.

Toivo in the sun

I’ve never been to a doggy rehab appointment before, so today I filled out the necessary paperwork, read the rehab center’s frequently asked questions, and started doing some passive range of motion exercises I found on YouTube. When Toivo first came home from her hospitalization, I was afraid to touch her leg, not wanting to disturb any of her stitches, but at Tuesday’s appointment, our vet said her incisions are fully healed, so massage and manual manipulation of the leg would be okay.

Toivo with her new harness

The entire process of Toivo’s injury, treatment, and recovery has been a learning experience. J and I have nursed other dogs back to health after surgery, but Toivo is the first pet we’ve had who was hospitalized for a full week. Whereas our other dogs spontaneously started using their injured legs after surgery, it’s been a full three weeks since Toivo put weight on her leg: one week in the hospital, and now two weeks recovering at home. It’s not surprising that her muscles have atrophied during that time, so now we have to build those muscles back up.

Toivo!

When we first got Toivo, I bought a pair of grooming gloves I use to brush her fur, a process J immediately dubbed “mama-ssage.” Today, I brushed Toivo in advance of tomorrow’s rehab appointment, and as I massaged, flexed, and extended her injured leg, I hoped the power of TLC and some “mama-medicine” will move Toivo further down the road to recovery.