The Woman Who Cusses Out Bunny Rabbits, Or, What a Butterfly Taught Me

I’m not sure when I became one of those people. For years, I’ve followed those people on Facebook, mystified by their myriad posts about how much they had done, how hard they had pushed themselves, how exhausted they were. They were doing it all: going back to school, home schooling multiple kids, growing their own vegetables, running hobby farms, working 9-5 jobs, free-lancing as photographers, writing books, rescuing animals, teaching yoga, heading up church functions, attending business conventions–you name it, they were doing it. All these women, all these moms. So many pictures of handmade crafts, homemade jams and jellies, elaborately decorated children’s bedrooms, hip themed birthday parties and expensive family “vacations” that looked more like work than fun. Also, there were pictures of friends standing sweaty but triumphant after running many miles, or after the kind of workout class that has been known to induce vomiting (this is, apparently, a good thing?) “Before-and-after” weight loss pics. Diplomas. Children’s lives meticulously documented, milestone by milestone. Everything on display, saying, “Look at me! Look how busy I am! Aren’t I a worthwhile person?” I used to smile and shake my head at those people.

Of course they’re worthwhile, but not because of their achievements, I told myself. A person’s worth lies in who she is, not in what she does, was my deeply held belief. I thought of myself as a stop-and-smell-the-roses kind of person, not a type-A kind of person. Living with my parents after my divorce, I spent about six years smelling the roses, daydreaming, going for long walks in the woods, breathing deeply, killing time with friends, laughing. My soul became quieter, my spirit more at peace. I had found myself, I thought; at long last I knew who I was and what my place was in the universe. I was going to teach others what I had learned about not sweating the small stuff, living in the moment, being honest and introspective and kind and gentle.

So my question now is: when did I lose touch with the “me” of 2 or 3 years ago? When did I become one of those people?

I don’t know how it happened, but somewhere along the line, I became the kind of person who would cuss out a bunny rabbit.

Yes, you read that right. I cussed at one of my two pet bunnies today. The circumstances that led up to this ignoble event are as follows:

I don’t have the hardest job in the world, but it is busy. For those of you who aren’t in charge of a classroom at a day program for adults with intellectual disabilities…imagine that you have a full-time job as a day care teacher. Then imagine that you also have a full-time office job.

Now imagine that you have to do them both at the same time. And in the same place.

Usually I juggle my paperwork duties and my direct care duties fairly well, I think. It’s become second-nature after so many years. But every January and July, I have the bulk of my meetings, each one of which requires that I do quite a bit of extra paperwork. This is OK in January. I stay late after work every day until the work is done, and I don’t think twice about it, because—well, what else is there to do in the Northeast in January??? But July? Ah, July, the time when coworkers and Facebook friends are reveling in their summer vacations. In July, it’s hard not to be bitter about being too busy to take time off, or about putting in lots of extra work when so many other people are playing. But I deal. I get through it. Then I take my vacation mid-August. This July, though, I was slogging along just fine when I got sick.

I came down with a bad cold on the Fourth of July weekend, and just to make my return to “crunch time” at work just that much better, on Sunday night I slept a grand total of one hour. And every other night that week, I got 5 hours of sleep or less. And every day, I felt sicker and sicker. And every day, I just pushed myself harder. By Friday evening, I had a full-blown sinus infection, and I was exhausted. Saturday and Sunday, I babied myself; I did little but lie around and watch TV. And cough, and blow my nose, and take my temp, and take medicine. I got up this morning, still not feeling well, but it was Monday, time to PUSH MYSELF again no matter how I felt. I muddled through my morning routine, getting ready for work. Ten minutes before it was time to leave the apartment, I turned to look at my bunny, Tribble, and what did I see but Oreo, my other bunny, sitting outside Tribble’s cage!

Now, Tribble is a very well-mannered rabbit with (usually) good litter box habits, and he never chews on things he shouldn’t when I let him out of his cage. When I let Tribble out of his cage, I can go about my business in another room for a while without worrying about him.

Tribble “chinning” (scent-marking) one of my shoes.

Oreo is another story. Oreo is new here. His manners are not quite what they should be yet, and he likes to run behind or under the furniture and stay there, resisting any effort to return him to his cage.

I spent ten minutes chasing him around the living room as he ran behind the couch, popped out for a second, then ran back. I tried bribing him with treats. I tried calling him. (For those of you non-bunny parents, imagine trying to call a wild rabbit. The result is about the same.) I even tried begging him. And, when it was time for me to go to work and Oreo remained behind the couch, I lost it. I yelled, “Get over here, you little —-!” (Insert not-so-nice name here.) “You’re going to make me late for work!”

Oh, sure. Rabbits understand the value of a good work ethic, and of punctuality. He hopped right back into his cage with profuse apologies. Uh huh. Nope, what Oreo did was hide under the couch, thumping in alarm at the human who had temporarily lost her mind.

That thump crushed me. I’ve had bunnies thump to get attention, or when they are being naughty/playful, but this was an alarm-thump. I scared him. Now, when I got Oreo, I held all the other bunnies too, looking for the most docile one. Oreo was it. I deliberately chose him for his gentleness. Because there’s not much that feels better than gaining the trust of a shy, gentle creature.



And not much worse than losing that trust, even if just for a moment.

I took this as a sign. I had become one of those people. Getting to work on time is important, sure, but it had become more important to me than my own health, and also more important to me than being kind. It was time for me to pump the brakes. I had allowed the stress of work (and being sick, and insomnia) to consume me to the point that I cracked. I stayed home today, so that I can finally get well once and for all and stop being the crazy lady who cusses out bunny rabbits. And trust me, when Oreo did return to his cage—of his own volition, I might add, and soon after I gave up chasing him—I talked to him and petted him for a long time. He was his usual self, so I guess it takes more than a loud, crazy nut to faze a bunny.

After making it up to Oreo, I went back to bed with some herbal tea, a good book, and a lot of tissues. I rested for a couple hours. When I got up, I got a second chance to learn the lesson I was supposed to learn today.

A few weeks ago, I found a few black swallowtail caterpillars on the dill in my garden. I love my dill, and I love caterpillars, so I came up with a solution: I unearthed an old plastic “critter keeper” and put the caterpillars in it, much as I used to do as a kid with monarch caterpillars. I opened the lid daily and fed them wild carrot and fennel, and they grew and then pupated.

The first black swallowtail butterfly emerged Saturday. Her wings were dry and unfurled when I discovered her. I released her in my garden, where she rested on my butterfly bush for a while before flying away.

First butterfly

The second butterfly had just emerged when I looked in the plastic cage late this morning. He looked like I felt, all soggy and crumpled and weak. He could scarcely hold onto my finger, and kept falling off onto my comforter, upside down and nearly helpless.

Second butterfly 1

I let him crawl onto my hand and tried to place him on several different surfaces, so I could take his picture as his wings unfurled. But every time, he showed a clear preference for my hand. Specifically, my right pinky finger. This was where he chose to harden his wings.

Second butterfly 2

I was honored, and awed. As many times as I had similar experiences as a child, I haven’t lost that wonder that is peculiar to holding a butterfly. How to describe the delicate grasp of his feet on my skin, the tendril of his tongue curling and uncurling, the tip of this proboscis tapping tentatively across my skin, searching for nectar? I was delighted.

But being a perch for that butterfly was also an exercise in patience and tranquility. Since he had such a tentative grasp on my finger, if I didn’t want to drop him, I had to stay still. Since he was on my right pinky, and I am right-handed, I had to surrender the use of my hands for a few moments. When you are a person accustomed to near-constant movement, this is not easy. I have never really tried yoga, but I sat cross-legged on the floor, right hand aloft in front of my face, and I closed my eyes and breathed slowly and deeply, concentrating on the minute sensation of the butterfly’s weight on my pinky and the slight flutter of his wings as I exhaled. I felt calmer than I have in a long time. For a few minutes, I concentrated on a being other than myself, and on something other than work, money, bills, grocery shopping, or household chores. I forgot my “bad” hair and skin and waistline, and focused instead on the natural beauty I held in my hand.
Second butterfly 3
I wish I could say that, after setting the butterfly down, I stayed serene, but immediately, it all came flooding back. The anxiety, the care. I started to flit about the apartment, straightening this and cleaning that. I always feel guilty when I call in sick, no matter how lousy I feel, and so I clean, as if doing penance.

But somewhere in the middle of doing dishes, it occurred to me: I’m supposed to write this. I resisted at first. Because, despite the fact that I have wanted to be a writer since I was five years old, writing is one of the hardest kinds of work around—especially honest, introspective writing. I’d rather stay busy doing the myriad trivial tasks that typical, Type-A women do every minute of every day, than sit down, quiet my soul, and write something that may have deeper or more lasting value. Why would I rather stay busy? Because, after so long without writing, I am way out of practice. So, chores are the easy way out.

But the ability to write is still in me. A bunny and a butterfly reminded me of that today. And as I write this last sentence, I realize something extraordinary: I am that newly-hatched butterfly, rumpled and struggling, but growing stronger all the time.


Starting Over

It’s been a long time.

I know most of you probably gave me up for dead.  Nothing could be less true.

And nothing could be more cliché.  I won’t keep you in suspense about the reason for my months-long defection from the blogging world.  This past spring, I started seeing someone.

Ugh.  As I look at the sentence I just wrote, I feel like a sellout and a fraud.  I was so proud of the ways in which being single for six years had strengthened me.  My singleness defined me.  In my mind, I was a hero.  I had overcome much of the depression and anxiety of my post-divorce era.  By figuring out the things that caused me angst and ruthlessly cutting them away, I had sculpted a simple, manageable little life for myself.  I was serene most of the time.  In my mind, I was an iconoclast, defiantly solo and deliberately childless…and happy that way.

But you see, in reality, I was a sanctimonious idiot.

I saw myself as the champion of women everywhere.  I firmly believed that, by remaining single, I was helping break the ages-old stereotype of the Single Woman in Her Thirties as a rapidly aging hag desperate to ensnare a man by any means necessary, so that she can get married and have babies before it’s too late.  I thought that women who did marry and have children were keeping all of us down somehow, by conforming to the traditional role assigned to their gender.  I thought I was biologically superior, the next step in evolution perhaps, simply because I seem to lack the proverbial “biological clock.”  I thought I knew everything, but I knew nothing.

For me, realizing the truth of the previous sentence has always been the jumping-off point for some serious personal growth.  For instance, when I started college, I thought I knew it all—when it came to writing, anyway.  Man, was I ever wrong!  Had I never realized this, I would never have become open and teachable enough to learn as much as I did in those four years.  In fact, I don’t think I will ever again think that I know all there is to know about writing, not even if I write a hundred best-selling novels (or, as I would prefer, one decent literary-quality novel).  You would think I’d generalize this principle so as not to make similar mistakes in other areas of my life, but I do.  All the time.  Duh!

Here’s the truth as I see it at this moment: All that time I was single, I was lonely but refusing to admit it.  I denied that anything was missing from my life, namely, other people.

You see, in my efforts to attain serenity, I cut nearly everyone out of my life.  I wasn’t just eschewing dating or marriage; I also gave up on having friendships.  Because…and this is going to be a huge admission for me…by and large, being around other people causes me stress—a lot of stress—one might even say, an abnormal amount of stress.  So I all but eliminated this source of stress the only way I knew how: by avoiding it altogether.  I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I think I may have social phobia.  (This, by the way, is a big part of the reason I was so into blogging until this past spring…it was a way to connect with other people without having to see them in person.)

During my single years, I spent much of my free time with my parents, and sometimes with my brother and his family, or two or three close friends.  But I also spent a whole lot of time completely and totally alone.  I spent thousands of hours just driving around by myself, shopping by myself, listening to music by myself, and walking in the woods and contemplating the meaning of it all by myself.  That was not necessarily a bad thing; I did grow and learn a lot about myself during those hours of solitude.  Now that I am in a relationship, I sometimes miss that time to myself to do nothing but think.  But I may have overdone it in the past several years.  Solitary contemplation is a beneficial, dare I say necessary, element of a balanced life, but it is not enough.  And when it’s simply another way of being avoidant, of not facing one’s problems, it can even be toxic.

The posts I wrote last year regarding my efforts to get in shape?  They were more of the same.  Getting in good physical shape was a relatively easy goal for which I could strive, in lieu of conquering (step by tiny, painful step) my lifelong shyness.   So, over the course of six years, I un-grew from a shy but functional girl into a socially phobic woman.

I have never been so happy and so depressed and anxious, at the same time.  I have the man of my dreams, and we are starting a life together.  But practical considerations are already closing in.  Here it is in a nutshell.  We want to buy a house together, but neither of us makes much money.  He has child support payments, and the more he makes, the more he has to pay.  His getting a better-paying job will help, but not as much as my getting one.

And I am stranded at the starting gate, stymied by my own fears.  I need a higher-paying job.  Therefore, I need to start working on my fears of social interaction.  There’s no way around this.

Needing a new job isn’t the only reason I need to get better at socializing.  I need more friends than just my boyfriend.  He is a sweet, nurturing man who loves to spend quality time with me, and thus I have already fallen into the trap of making him my “everything.”  I did this back when I was married, and I think it was the beginning of the end for us.  Let’s face it—sooner or later, I will get bored with spending every waking moment only with my man.  It’s just not healthy to turn to one person for everything, nor is it fair to him.  He needs to be his own person sometimes, just like I need to be mine.    I was right about one thing when I was single: it takes more than having a man to make a woman complete.

And the last reason I need to get my act together socially?  She’s three years old and just like her daddy and I want more than anything to be a good stepmom to her some day.  I don’t want to remain as unsure of myself around her as I’ve been so far.

So, once again, I’m using this blog to share my problems with the world, in hopes that I may find guidance, and that I may help someone along the way, too.   I’m not sure whether my willingness to lay my soul bare in cyberspace is the best thing I have going for me…or the worst.  Time will tell….

On Wildflowers, Plant Sex, and Why Memories Can Be Dangerous Things

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the valley

Sometimes, if you don’t watch out, your own past can ambush you, knock you down, and sit on your chest.  Nostalgia and regret can join forces to crush the air out of your lungs, slowly, until you realize you aren’t nearly so tough and cool and grown-up as you thought you were.

Happened to me this past Monday.

This past Sunday was, of course, Mother’s Day.  I got Mom some hanging baskets of fuchsias.  Big deal, right?  Well, I didn’t give her my real Mother’s Day gift until the following afternoon.

It’s sort of a personal tradition of mine.  When I was in my early teens, I was wandering around in the little wooded area between my neighborhood and the nearby cemetery, and I stumbled on a patch of lilies of the valley: Mom’s favorite flower.  The fragrant white bell-shaped flowers bloom right around Mother’s Day, so every year I’d pick a handful of them for her before morning church, and put them in one of Dad’s little blue Bromo-Seltzer bottles.  It always seemed to make her day.

Excluding the years I was away at college out of state, I’ve picked Mom the lilies of the valley every Mother’s Day.  I’ve never been a day late.  Until this year.

I wish I could say there was a reason, that I was unavoidably detained all day Sunday.  Nope, just lazy.  I almost let it slide, too; I almost just said, “Forget it, it’s not a big deal.”  But, as I was running my umpteen errands after work on Monday, my conscience smote me.  So I drove back to that cemetery behind my old house and parked my car.

Now let me just say this now: I was in a hurry, and I was a little annoyed at my conscience for compelling me to go on this childish errand.  I wanted to go home, put my groceries away, and eat something.  With this attitude, I got out of my car and crossed the lawn to the edge of the woods.

The grass was already a little overgrown in the path that leads through a thicket of sumac and blackberry bushes.  I passed the lonely gravestone of a man who had committed suicide in the 1930s and had to be buried apart from everyone else, and I remembered how I used to kneel and put wildflowers on his grave.  I remembered how romantic a gesture I once thought this was.  Steeped in the novels of L.M. Montgomery and Louisa May Alcott, I had such Victorian sensibilities!  I spent much of my time reveling in a fantasy world of pleasant sadness, tender first love, and ecstatic nature-worship.   And this past Monday, for the first time in ages, I bent and read the name and the two dates, and just for an instant, I felt that old feeling again—I wanted to put flowers on the grave.  That should have tipped me off, right there.  Remembering old sentiments from your innocent youth?  It’s a dangerous thing, folks.

As soon as I stood back up, I was struck by the different feel of being outdoors at a lower elevation.  The air was heavier here, and more fragrant.  A few of the trees were still in bloom, and the violets and wild strawberries, and the heady scent of plant sex made me catch my breath.  Suddenly I had a lump in my throat.  Whammo!  The past had bowled me over.

I picked as many lilies of the valley as I could hold, and then I turned to go.  I fully intended to go.  But that sexy-plant-smell was so sweet I was intoxicated, and I kept walking down the path, passing the gravel pit I knew so well on my left, and the field I no longer recognized on my right.  It wasn’t a proper field anymore, but dotted with saplings and brush.  When did this happen? I wondered, aghast, like a grandmother finding that her grandchild has changed from a toddler to a college graduate overnight.  Dad and I used to pick wild strawberries here, and now it’s turning into forest! I quickly pushed the strawberry-picking memory out of my mind; it was too good, and too gone, to bear thinking about.

I kept going until I reached another little patch of woods, one that was always my favorite.  Some of the old giants still live here, their leaves touching the sky, and there is little sunlight and little undergrowth.  Past an expanse of pretty old-growth forest, the ground dips away into a lush little almost-valley, where in early spring—before the trees leaved out and blocked the sunlight from the forest floor—I  used to find some of the most awesome wildflowers ever: white and red trilliums, hepatica, several kinds of violets, spring beauties, trout lilies, squirrel corn and foamflower.  When I was in high school, I’d come home from a long day of geometry and gym class and gawking at the boy on whom I had a long-standing but hopeless crush (I was, alas! perpetually mute in his presence), and after throwing my book bag down, I’d run to my secret “valley.”  As I picked flowers there, I dreamed of transcendent love.  Passionate embraces.  And, yes, sex.  In my mind, love and sex were beautiful things, and simple.  I had yet to learn that although they may be the former, they are almost never the latter.  I had yet to learn that, like a woodland flower, most of my romantic ideals would die as soon as the trees above grew leaves.

Like I said…I lived in a fantasy world.

I liked it there.

Back then, when I was attending Christian school, going to church at least three times a week, and rocking out to Steven Curtis Chapman (Contemporary Christian artist…Google him if you want), I actually believed that everything in life—especially love—was  black and white.  Cut and dried.  Simple and easy, as long as you follow the script.

So I believed it would go something like this.  I’d meet some guy someday, and God would, like, sky-write the guy’s name + my name so that I’d know for sure that he was The One created for me to marry.  The One and I would fall in chaste, Christian love and have a courtship involving a lot of prayer and Bible study and not a lot of…ahem!…touching.  After whatever the decent amount of dating and engagement time might be, I’d marry The One.   And I’d


get to have sex.

And we’d live happily ever after and have an awesome life with a lot of sex and (hopefully) not a lot of kids (scary thought) and I wouldn’t have to work because a good Christian guy is above all a good provider so I could just stay home with my one maybe two kids and write and read L.M. Montgomery novels and raise the sheep I mentioned in my blog entry, I Am the Adult I Wanted to Be When I Was Eleven, and nothing serious would ever go wrong and we’d never get old or sick or tired of each other and I’d finally be a Good Girl who actually liked going to church three times a week and loved praying and reading the Bible and I wouldn’t be shy anymore but friendly and nice to everyone I met and maybe I would actually be…popular.

Yeah…Teenage Me was pretty much an idiot.  I’m sorry, let me be diplomatic.  She was naïve!

All the same…as I walked through my old haunts and remembered how I used to be, I kind of missed being naïve.   I missed the girl who desperately wanted to be “good” and to please all the authority figures in her life.  I missed the girl who listened to uncool music on her cassette Walkman, rewinding and listening to the same song over and over and getting misty-eyed over the lyrics. I missed the girl who could spend hours mooning over a bunch of wildflowers while daydreaming about how it would feel to fall in love someday…for the first and only time.  I miss having that kind of faith.  I miss having dreams.

Growing up isn’t all bad, of course.  I’m gaining a lot as I grow up, it’s true.  I’m growing a backbone.  I’m developing self-discipline and self-reliance.  I’m learning how to change things about myself that need changing—I mean, really change myself from within, not just on the outside.  I’m learning how to tell when people are lying, when they’re using me, when they’re mocking me behind their smiles.  I’m learning that sadness is rarely pleasant and heartbreak comes in many unexpected forms.  I’m learning to adapt to life’s surprises.  I’m learning how cheap most grand romantic gestures are, and how it’s usually the humblest, most prosaic acts that are the most meaningful.  I’m learning when to follow the rules and when to break them.  I’m learning that faith—true faith—cannot truly be lost.  I’m learning that dreaming must be followed by doing if it’s ever going to come true.  And I think I’m learning a little bit about love in its many permutations—love that is never simple, never written in the sky, rarely what you ordered, but always worth it.

And I’m learning not to lose touch with who I used to be.  That shy, naïve nerdy girl wasn’t all bad, and I don’t have to throw her away.  She’s still part of me, and I don’t need to try to change that fact.  I could use a little of her enthusiasm—and more than a little of her idealism—right about now, because 35-year old Me is maybe just a little too tough and cynical.  I’m learning to let the beauty that was in Teenage Me out.  And have a chuckle about the rest.

By the way, the lilies of the valley?  They kind of made Mom’s day.

Peace, Love and Bluebirds

With temps in the mid-fifties and a near-constant drizzle, today would have been a dreary day indeed if the world weren’t decked out head to toe in every possible shade of green: emerald and apple green and chartreuse and yellow green and lime green and the merest suggestion of summer’s forest green.  As if the brightness of green against a backdrop of black boughs weren’t pretty enough, since I sat down twenty minutes ago I’ve seen flashes of cardinal red and goldfinch yellow, and any moment now one of our resident bluebirds could land on the roof the shed just outside the window.  (Three years ago, Dad and I took a Saturday class about bluebirds, in which we assembled two bluebird houses, one for a pair of bluebirds and one for the inevitable pair of tree swallows.  Up until now, we’ve had nothing but tree swallows—captivating birds in their own right, but they’re not bluebirds!  When the light catches a male bluebird just right, that iridescent fire-blue is positively unearthly!)  The raw chill aside, I think nothing could be more beautiful than a rainy day in early May, with the air heavy with the scent of yesterday’s mowed lawns and tomorrow’s garden soil.  It’s a landscape to render brooding all but impossible, and daydreaming inescapable.

I’m breathing evenly, belly full, watching the avian forms—just shadows now, in the dusk—dart in and out of the little holes of the two nest boxes, and thinking how I’ve gradually, as if by osmosis, acquired the ability to tell many birds apart, just by their silhouettes, even from a considerable distance.  I know their shapes as bluebird, blackbird, cowbird, swallow, sparrow, waxwing, warbler, thrasher, thrush, oriole, grosbeak, finch.  And of course, I have known the names and shapes of others for as long as I can remember: robin, blue jay, mallard, wood duck, ruby-throated hummingbird, crow, red-tailed hawk, barn owl, horned owl, screech owl, chickadee, grackle, starling (pretty name for a plain bird!), canada goose and wild turkey.  I’m thinking about my three nephews, wondering if they know even these common birds by name.  Probably not.  After all, I absorbed all of this ornithological information from my parents, starting probably before I was able to form permanent memories.

My parents are what you’d call “birders,” or “bird-watchers.”  They were both biology majors in college, and both speak of how much they loved the class called Field Biology, in which they actually got to go outdoors in search of wildlife.  I can just imagine my parents at about twenty, calf-deep in horsetails, avidly scanning the waters of some marsh with their old-timey analog binoculars.  They still have their old Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, with a green cover and a “Life List” section toward the front.  Some people have a bucket list…well birders have a life list, in which they check off every bird species they’ve ever seen in the wild.  My folks have placed an “X” by around half of the birds.  Next to the checked-off “Sora” (which is a kind of rail, or a wading bird for the lay person), in my mom’s precise and tidy handwriting is the word “DEAD.”  In other words, my mom has so much integrity that, in her own bird book, she was careful not to appear to  be cheating at the bird-watching game.  She saw a Sora rail.  It happened to be deceased.  Whether that “counts” or not is up to a person’s own judgment.  Bird-watching is a very serious hobby.

When I was a kid, I loved nature as much as my parents did.  However, unlike my birder progenitors, I preferred mammals and amphibians and insects to birds.  Mammals were cute, toads and frogs and salamanders were fascinating, and bugs were…well, bugs were just cool!  But in my mind, birds were boring.  They were for old people.  Even when I was in my twenties, and more open-minded, I thought of birds this way.  I associated bird-loving with older folks who were, let’s face it, nearing or in their golden years.  Bird-watching went along with pastel teddy-bear sweatshirts, pleated polyester slacks, and pink-framed glasses on chains. (This was unfair, since neither Mom nor Dad ever wore any of these things!)   I thought I’d never get so old that I’d be a birder!

As I was watching the bluebird houses a few moments ago, squinting across the field to see whether those were bluebirds or just tree sparrows, I realized something.  Never has happened.  And, like most things you dread about maturity when you’re very young, it’s not so bad after all.

I just realized something else.  Whether I knew it or not, birds have always been a part of my life, and not a bit part, either.  I remember a few vivid ornithological encounters I’ve had over the years.

I remember being very young and going to a certain spot in the Adirondacks to pick blackberries with my dad, and hearing the whirring of a ruffed grouse.  I also I remember flushing one out: an heart-stopping explosion of brown feathers in the dark, silent north woods.

I remember the lonely grade-school days of riding the school bus with all the Catholic-school kids who mostly didn’t talk to me, and my secret elation when I saw my first indigo bunting (another breathtakingly blue bird).  And my first scarlet tanager.  And my first ring-necked pheasant.

I remember, as a teenager, being in a canoe on an Adirondack lake and watching the loons dive and surface, dive and surface.

I remember, during my college years, when I was working at a summer camp in South Carolina, I was sitting outside at night and heard the haunting, liquid call of the whippoorwill, that drab brown night-singer, something I’d heard about but never thought I’d actually hear.

I remember my vacation, about eight years ago, to Prince Edward Island, Canada.  We stayed in a cottage by the ocean, and there was this bald eagle that flew by every day around the same time.  That thrilled me even more, I think, than the possible-dolphins I saw out in the water.  Also thrilling was the cry of the raven, with its suggestions of exotic far-northern-ness.

More recently, I remember a summer evening a couple years ago, when I heard an unfamiliar birdsong…and then another…and then another, all coming from the same location.  It sounded exactly as though someone were playing a recording of bird calls made for the instruction of novice birders.  In fact, this was my first crazy thought: someone had left a CD player out there in the meadow.  I was mystified.  Until, that is, I Googled “mockingbird.”  Aha!  (Strangely, since I’d spent four years in S.C., I’d probably heard mockingbirds plenty of times, but I hadn’t noticed.)

I remember the kind of exalted horror I felt one summer day, when I was walking past the vegetable garden and smelled something I’d never smelled before…and somehow, instantly, I knew it was burning feathers.  I thought I was having a moment of hallucinatory psychic epiphany—until I looked at the electric fence.  The wire my dad was using at the time was pink, and several inches of it was dangling from one of the posts.  A plump baby robin, no doubt mistaking the pink wire for an earthworm such as had dangled countless times from it’s mother or father’s beak, had bitten it and gotten fried to a crisp.  Burnt.  Feathers.  (Dad replaced the wire after that!)

Birds have shaped me, there’s no doubt about that.  They mean more to me than I ever meant them to.  And as for interest in bird-watching coming with maturity…well, yes, I suppose that is true.  Watching birds is a peaceful pursuit, one that brings a quietness to the soul.  The older I get, the more I value the things that quiet my soul and soothe the spirit.

Maybe for my next birthday, I should invest in a good pair of binoculars!

The Power of “No”

I recently watched the movie, Yes Man, starring Jim Carrey and the super-awesome, beautiful, and talented Zooey Deschanel.  Smile  This is not a movie review blog, nor am I any kind of movie critic, but let me just give a quick synopsis.  Jim Carrey plays this guy named Carl who’s been through a bad divorce and, as a result, has shut life out.  He says “No” to everything from job promotions to spending a night out with friends, and as a result, he lives a lonely, empty life.  Then he attends a self-help seminar where he learns to say “Yes” to everything.  Taking the program too literally, Carl starts saying “Yes” to everything indiscriminately (with some hilarious results).  Initially, this works out great for him—he gets a promotion at work, a new girlfriend, and a new lease on life.  But then he learns that saying “Yes” to everything can lead to as many problems as saying “No” to everything can, and he learns to be more balanced in his approach to life.

It’s not the greatest movie in the world, and it’s not my favorite or anything, but it has charm and heart, and it also has (as a Baptist preacher might say) application to my life.

Like Carl, I’ve spent the past six years saying “No” to just about everything.  Now that I’m on a self-improvement quest, I’m trying to say “Yes” more often.  Not all the time, like Carl…just more often, and to the right things.  I don’t want my life to become the scary, out-of-control mess that Carl’s did in the movie (I have a feeling it wouldn’t be so comical in real life).

What I want is…balance.

Easier said than done, achieving balance.  But part of this process—this journey—is learning when to say “No!”  And summoning up the courage to actually say it!

Now, this shouldn’t be hard for me; I say “no” to things all of the time.  Here’s just a partial list of all the things to which I’ve pretty consistently said “No” over the past six years:

My “NO” List:

1. Going back to school for grad work.

2. Participating in church services and activities; religious organizations and events.

3. Getting another job, or a second job.

4. Overtime.

5. Road trips or vacations.

6. Attending a wedding.

7. Voting.

8. Attending local fairs and festivals.

9. Going to concerts.

10. Attending or helping with fundraisers and benefits; volunteer activities.

11. Joining a book group.

12. Joining a writers’ group.

13. Attending and/or participating in open mic nights or poetry readings.

14. Taking adult education classes.

15. Attending non-mandatory trainings for work.

16. Learning more about photography.

17. Babysitting.

18. Housesitting.

19. Going over to someone’s house.

20. Going to those kinds of parties where women sell stuff I don’t want or need (PartyLite, Tupperware, Home Interiors, etc.)

21. Finding a support group.

22. Learning a new sport or fitness activity.

23. Sending out my writing for possible publication.

OK, you get the point.  I can (and, most likely, will) turn down just about any offer or opportunity.  This is partly because of my various phobias and inhibitions, but it’s also because I watch what goes on in the world around me.  I watch people (and particularly women) who can’t seem to say “No” to anything; they overschedule and overextend themselves and, as a result, always seem stressed, tired, and imbalanced.  They seem to have no time left for themselves—to rest, to reflect, to create, to dream.  This seems foolhardy to me, as well as unnecessary.  People—hardworking people—used to have “down time” to spend with one another or alone, and I think our culture should reintroduce this concept.   I’ve always refused to put myself dead-last, because I don’t believe that, ultimately, it does others any good.  I believe that, to be of value to others, we must first value ourselves.

Having said that…I realize that having said “No” to Items 1-23 most of the time has left me bored, empty and directionless.  I’ve recently tried Items 10 and 14, and I plan to try some of the others very soon (especially Item 23!  I’m on my way.)  I know I can’t say “No” to every activity all of the time; it’s not healthy.  It’s not balanced.

Now the flip side.  Just as I’ve stubbornly said “No” to various activities which might be good for me (and others), I’ve persisted in saying “yes” to relationships and emotions which can be detrimental to me and others.

My “Yes” list:

1. Letting other people control how I feel and act.

That’s it.  It’s the one thing I consistently do that I know I shouldn’t.  I know I need to stop, but it’s harder than it sounds.  I let others control me in so many ways, some subtle and some not-so-subtle.

For one thing, I tend to be a pushover.  I let people walk all over me much of the time, and I have a hard time being assertive when I need to be.  I’m usually the first to back down from any fight.  But recently (very recently), I’ve made some progress.  I’ve stood up for myself in little ways.  And I’ve found it to be extremely empowering!  Plus, I’m learning (by trial and error) how to choose my battles—how to decide which conflicts are worth it and which just aren’t that important.  Most people probably don’t realize how big a step this is for me.  But I do, and that is everything!

Another way in which I let others control me is that I make too much of certain people.  Far too much.  If one of my favorite people responds positively to me and/or acts the way I’d like him or her to, it makes my day; if not, my day is beyond ruined.  I let myself get too attached to certain people, and too emotionally invested in them.  One of my best, most loyal friends said just yesterday, “You can’t let another person determine your happiness.  You can never completely count on another person.”  But I do.  All the time.  It’s by far my most self-destructive behavior.

So…another thing I’ve been learning lately is when to pull back, or even pull away, from a person when I realize I’ve gotten too close.  When I discover that I’ve ceded control over my emotions to someone else, that I’ve let myself believe I couldn’t live without them, I know what I must do.  I have to take a giant step back and remind myself that I am all I need…and, in reality, the only person I can ever fully count on.  And I have to remind myself that no one should mean so much to me that they have the power to devastate me emotionally.  Because, the truth is, they can only destroy me if I let them destroy me.

Taking ownership of my life and my feelings is a beautiful thing.  And it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.

And I’m just getting started!

On Change, and Why It Makes Me Want to Puke

It’s starting.

What I’ve feared all along, is happening.  Change is happening.  I’ve let it get a foot in the door, and now it’s all the way in, smashing my knick-knacks, splintering my furniture, knocking out my load-bearing walls, and threatening to pull down everything I’ve spent years building and hoarding. 

I want to shoot it for trespassing, only it isn’t trespassing; once you invite a thing into your life, you relinquish the right to shoot it on sight.  I want to leave before my house falls down on my head, but this is where I live, dammit!  I want to sit in the corner with my knees up and my hands over my ears, rocking and humming, but my mind is too sound for that.  I want to holler, “No, not that one!” as Change lofts one of my favorite trinkets with the intent to throw, but I know better than that.  I’ve been trying to be braver, lately, and I’ve told people as much, so there’s no turning back now.  And the thing is, sometimes the most courageous things a person can do is to stop fighting things so much, and to sit back and just let be what will be.  Sometimes you just have to accept the coin—joy on one side, pain on the other—and, without pausing, flip it.

But I don’t have to like it.

I just sit here, learning to accept it, and thinking, “I couldn’t have picked a worse time to invite Change into my life.”  For one thing, the past month and a half have been especially busy and stressful at my job.  I’ve been feeling as though I have more work to do than I have time, for a while now, and I’ve been really pushing myself.  Then, add to that the fact that my allergies are worse this year than they’ve been since I was a child.  The combination of the stress and the allergies has produced in me a kind of systemic malaise: for 3 weeks now, I’ve been experiencing nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, stuffy nose, plugged ears, fatigue, dizziness, anxiety, stomach pain, and…er, bathroom issues.  All of which are trying to sabotage my efforts at self-improvement (particularly the exercising), but I’m pushing through doggedly and with the complete lack of enthusiasm that only long-term nausea can produce.

I knew this would happen.  I used to be this way much of the time.  Then I decided, “Screw this—I’m going to make my life as uncomplicated and stress-free as possible, so that maybe I can find some inner peace and some relief from feeling so sick half the time.”  So, not entirely in my right mind, I let what was left of my faltering marriage go.  I took a position at my workplace that I felt was better-suited to me.  I let relationships drift away.  I stopped trying to work out (I was convinced it was making me sicker).  I hid more and more in my living room, shutting out all external stimuli but the TV.  And it helped.  It did.  I felt better physically and emotionally (most of the time).  I avoided everything I thought would make me anxious and therefore produce digestive trouble.  Such as:

1.) Going on a date.

2.) A job interview.

3.) Meeting someone new.

4.) Taking a class.

5.) Going on vacation.

6.) Talking on the telephone.

7.) Staying up late on a work night.

8.) Leaving the house.

I just threw that last one in by way of hyperbole, but you get the point.   I pretty much gave up anything that could create stress, either positive or negative, in my life.  Joy or pain.  I didn’t just refuse to flip that coin; I refused to touch it.  I told myself I didn’t need to be happy; I just needed not to be unhappy.  And so I got by.  My stomach felt better.  I slept better.  

Until now.  This is the moment when I, who had presumed myself wise and serene—enlightened, even—am shown what I knew in my darkest places to be true all along: a lot of the things I’d believed were my strengths were actually my weaknesses.  They were just fears in disguise.

I was afraid of bringing back the old sick feelings, the old anxious feelings, the roller-coaster helpless feelings.  But here they are.  I’ve eaten next to nothing today.  I’ve been sipping herbal tea and pressing a hot pack to my abdomen.  My head is all swimmy.  I may as well just sit back for now and just feel the discomfort.  Because a life without pain is also a life without joy.  And I can’t live without the possibility of joy any longer.

Scaredy-Pig, Big Ears, and the Transforming Power of Friendship

Big Ears and Scaredy-Pig

They say people end up resembling their pets.  Well, I went and bought one that was already a lot like me!

I got my guinea pig, Hammie, about two years ago.  I already had two gerbils, a goldfish, and a rabbit named Binky (now deceased), but, being an avid collector of small pets, I wanted something else.  Having owned scores of guinea pigs over the years, I knew them to be some of the most docile and endearing (though not the most exciting) of creatures, and so I thought a piggie would be a good addition to my little menagerie.  So I went to PetSmart and watched the big display full of young pigs for a while.  There was one that seemed more active and curious than all the others, and he captured my attention.  So I bought him.

When I got him home, I found out that, yes, he was very active…he was very actively trying to get away from me, any way he could.  His brand-new cage had a shelf in it, and he would not venture out from under that shelf during those first several days, not even for food or water.  I had to put his food and his water-bottle spout underneath the shelf.  I thought, “No problem, there’s an adjustment period for all new pets, in which they learn to trust you, and this is especially true for prey animals.  He just has to get to know me, until he realizes I’m not going to kill and eat him!”  I thought that maybe he’d do better without his hiding spot, so I took the shelf out.  I tried petting him, hand-feeding him, and even just holding my hand out so he could sniff it…but every time, he bolted around his cage in a frenzy of terror, spraying bedding everywhere.  “Give him time,” I thought, “he’s just a little skittish.  He’ll calm down with time.”

So I gave him a week.  Two weeks.  A month.

He just kept looking at me like I was Genghis Khan.  Nothing I did seemed to change that.  No two ways about it, I had chosen the most timid guinea pig in the history of guinea pigs.  I had chosen…Scaredy-Pig!  I know it’s uncharitable, especially coming from a fellow timid, shy creature, but I was kind of disappointed.  The whole reason I’d opted to buy a guinea pig was so that I’d have a small pet that was mellow enough for me to hold on my lap and cuddle with while I read or watched TV.  The only way I could trick Hammie into cuddling with me was to lie down on my couch and cover us both with a blanket.  He’d stay under the blanket, crawling over my body, fully convinced that he was hiding from…me!

As I said before, I also had a bunny named Binky at that time.  I hoped at first that Hammie and Binky would take to each other, but they never did. I let them explore my living room together, supervising them closely because I’d read that a rabbit can actually attack and hurt a guinea pig, since rabbits are so much more aggressive than guinea pigs.  (BUNNIESReally?)  Hammie clearly seemed to want some animal companionship; he followed the bunny around making timid little conversational squeaks, but Binky seemed to find Hammie’s pathetic bids for affection annoying, and he just avoided him.  Hammie took to spending his “free” time jumping over the fence enclosure I’d set up, and hiding in the corner of the room under a table.

Then, about 6 months after I got Hammie, Binky passed away.  Binky’s death left a hole in my life that surprised me; I’d never had a small pet whose life affected me so deeply.  I actually shed tears, something I’d always thought was reserved for the deaths of beloved dogs, cats, and…well, you know, people.

After a respectable mourning period, I got Radar.  Now, you understand, I got Radar for me, not for Hammie.  My hopes for positive bunny/guinea pig relations were gone.  Radar, a mini Rex, was fairly small when I got him, with huge ears, so I took to calling him Big Ears.  I bought him a cage (don’t worry, all you animal lovers out there—it’s a huge cage with lots of room for running and jumping), and I put the cage right up against Hammie’s.

Hammie and Radar

It started that first day.  Hammie would stretch way up (guinea pigs are sort of vertically challenged) and look over at Radar.  And Radar would look back!  They would touch noses through the bars.  Hammie watched the bunny intently and started imitating him.  Instead of making the trademarked guinea pig “wheek!” noises to beg for treats, Hammie started stretching up on his hind legs, just like Radar.  When Radar started tearing around his cage doing “binkies” (those are like the bunny Dance of Joy), Hammie would run around his cage “popcorning” (the piggish equivalent).

So I decided, after a couple weeks of this, to get the two out of their cages together.

Hammie grooming Radar

I’ve never seen such an instant personality transformation.  No timid squeaks this time—Hammie went right up to Radar and commenced grooming him, and Radar flattened his body and lowered his head in the bunny posture of submission.  I stopped fearing for my guinea pig’s safety pretty quickly—he was confident!  Before I knew it, he was following Radar around the couch and the floor, mimicking his every move.  But this new bunny, unlike the old one, let the guinea pig boss him around.  Well…some of the time!

Radar grooming Hammie

Now that Hammie would follow Radar around wherever he went, there was no more running away, jumping fences, or hiding in corners.  And since my new bunny has no fear of me, and is less reserved than Binky was (Radar climbs all over me and gives me kisses on the nose), Hammie seems to be warming up to me, too.  Sort of.  He will now follow Radar right up to me when I’m sitting on the floor or couch…so long as I don’t make any sudden moves!  Smile  Baby steps….

Now, for those of you who aren’t crazy about small pets, and are still reading, here’s my point.  The right friend can transform you and bring out your very best—sometimes a side of you that you never knew existed!  It’s like a kind of magic.  The right friend can give you courage, inspire you, and motivate you.  The right friend can change your mind, your mood, and your attitude.  The right friend can be a powerful thing.

I may be kind of a loner—kind of a scaredy-pig—but even I have a friend or two like that.  Do you?