Last Line

Walking our dogs, Louie and I talked about endings. What would the last lines of our story be?

Louie: Depends on my mood.

Isn’t it true that one day can shape your whole world or life view? Even if it holds court for just one day. The power of perspective.

Louie: On a lot of days, I think my last line would just be: “Life is good.”

Me: Yes, We’ve been lucky.

I’ve always liked Edward Abbey’s funeral requests: bagpipe music, dancing, laughter, hollering, a cheerful and raucous wake. If funerals are for the living, then let there be some joy in it.

How’s this for a last line?
After the sing-a-long, they cut into the sugar cream pie.

sugarcream
Sugar Cream Pie from Locally Grown Gardens. Also known as the best pie in the world. Period.

No matter where life takes me, this seems a fitting bookend. I believe in happy endings.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Last Line. We started with a first line, so let’s wrap up our month with the last. Give us the final sentence, paragraph, or chapter of your life story.”

Wild Thoughts

Yesterday I had plans to go to an Owl Prowl event at Holliday Park. It promised meeting an owl up close and personal with park handlers, dissecting owl pellets, learning the call of the Eastern Screech Owl, and a night hike.

Owl seeking. I’ve done this before, and it is transporting. Like there’s some wisdom transfer. I have seen you, and I now know things.

My first Barred Owl sighting, at Eagle Creek.
My first Barred Owl sighting, at Eagle Creek.

The unexpected death of a friend of our family brought my parents in town for a funeral, so I canceled my Owl Prowl plans. This morning over coffee, my mom and I watched woodpeckers go after the suet I had just filled in our backyard feeder. We talked about my great aunt, who has just been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. A mash up of birds, loss, and legacy.

My parent’s friend was the principal who has been all over the news, the one who was killed by a bus. Thousands of guests at her visitation and funeral were a testament to her impact. A life dedicated to educating and inspiring others.

I wondered, if I were to go today, what would my legacy be? Even having been the architect of my own path, it’s hard to see clear lines. I haven’t gone all in on much. I’ve dabbled lightly, drinking life up. Trying this and trying that.

It occurred to me that if I had any capital built up in a legacy, it has been purely accidental. A rush of questions caused some panic. Shouldn’t legacy be more intentional? But what should I strive to be known for? What am I waiting for? Do I really need a legacy?

Maybe I should be one of those who makes a quiet impact on just a few, and that is enough. I started this blog post, then decided to wait and think about legacy during a five-mile run.

I procrastinated. Instead of heading straight out for my run, I opened the window and sat back down in my kitchen to read. It felt freeing to have the window flung open in January, the sun beaming in and the chatter of the chickadees calling back and forth. Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

I stumbled onto an article about a teenage eagle huntress in Mongolia. This is not a thing I knew existed. She is the first female to train for this type of hunting, bucking 2,000 years of tradition.

A still image from the documentary The Eagle Huntress.
A still image from the documentary The Eagle Huntress. Asher Svidensky/Kissaki Films

I took this story with me to the trail for my first run since a chest cold side-lined me Tuesday night. My probing and anxious questions fell away. I just ran with visions of Mongolia and soaring eagles.

My thoughts turned wild. Like this was some sign. To be more brave. To take some grand adventure. Just keep living and trying and giving and being. It will be enough. I never landed on a legacy.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Legacy. What do you want to be known for? Maybe you want to change the world. Maybe you just want to make the best cupcakes known to man. Go all in and give us the deep life-long goal, or share a smaller mission.”

Bucket List

Today as I was crunching through some cardio at the gym, climbing imaginary flights of stairs, I had an a-ha about my bucket list.*

Some of my top items include:

Learn Italian.
Maybe go to grad school.
Learn cello (at least I’ve started!).
Write a book.
Run a marathon in all 50 states.

Notice anything? Pretty much everything here takes years to achieve, lifetimes to master. I don’t have “quick wins.”

In other a-ha moments today, I "visualized" my actually bucket for the first time today. Is yours a tin pail? An old wooden one like mine? Something else?
In other a-ha moments today, I “visualized” my actual bucket for the first time today. Is your bucket a tin pail? An old wooden one like mine? Something else?

I know my bucket list is mine to fill and empty, and making it such a challenge says a lot about how I’m wired. But, I want to open my mind to a bucket that isn’t put up on a shelf until one day when mysterious chasms of time open up to me. I may as well wait for Godot and the Great Pumpkin.

Our intern at SmallBox, Angela, introduced me to the idea of a hobby swap. (Seriously – how cool is that?)

So, what ya got? Tell me about your bucket list items that can be done in a day, a weekend, a month. Despite the fact that I’ve filled my bucket with mountains to climb, there’s plenty of space left in there and I’ve got some living to do.

* This train of thought was prompted by Denver, who lost her battle with cancer at the age of 28. I really admired how fiercely she went after her bucket list, even as she struggled with her health.


 This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “On the Fringes. Think of things that have piqued your curiosity. What leaves you with more questions than answers? Who or what do you wish you knew more about?”

 

Tick Tock

Fifteen years ago, my daily wake up call came via a big chunky CD/alarm clock combo. The contraption was a beast, easily taking up half of the real estate on my bedside table.

It wasn’t long after getting my first iPhone that the bulky alarm clock got the boot. I plugged that phone in just before bed, and for a good while this worked out nicely. A compact, convenient alarm with the occasional news story or two before bed.

And then the same thing happened to me that is happening all across the country, even right now as I write this. I wonder… How many people are reading something on their phones in bed right now? It became an obssessive last check in… a peek at email, a scroll through social.

In the morning, when the phone woke me, all of those read flags and notifications nudged at me too. Before I knew it, my daily early a.m. half-awake, still in bed reading habit was easily hogging 20-30 minutes of my morning. If you’ve ever done this, you too have probably dropped your phone on your face while reading in bed. The worst, right? Ugh.

Back in May I decided enough was enough. Browsing a well-curated designer-y store called Canoe, I spotted this Braun alarm clock. The alarm functionality was the one thing keeping my phone tethered to my bed. If I wanted to replace the bedside phone habit, this no-frills, battery powered number seemed just the thing.

The Braun Wonder!
The Braun Wonder!

Truthfully, I wondered if it would stick, but for thirty-two bucks, it seemed worth a shot. No wires, no electric glow. I can not set it to wake me up to robot beeps or chimes, as it has just the one “ring tone.” And get this: no snooze button. I myself was really skeptical about this last point, having been many years devoted to a hearty snooze habit. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say on average I pushed that snooze button 2.4 times per morning.

It seems such a small, simple change, yet it’s remarkable the impact this decision has had on my life. With eight months under my belt using this clock, I can say I’m a total convert.

Consider these perks:
I’m reading more actual books (and have more room for them on my bedside too).
I am sleeping better than I have in years.
I reliably get up before or at the sound of my alarm – no snoozing.
My mornings have become much more serene and productive.
I always seem to have time for nice things like breakfast and walking my dogs (things that were often cut, or very harried and rushed in days of yore).

Quite the transformational change. All I can say is, why didn’t I do it sooner?


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Decisions, decisions… What was the wisest decision you made this year? Did it change your “everyday”, move something from Point A to Point B, or involve others?” – from #ThinkKit13

Balance

It’s been many years since we had a puppy in the house. After Schnitzel was gone, I knew in time I’d be ready to adopt another. I anticipated some of the usual:

Lots of clean up after accidents in the house.
Frequent pet store trips for more treats and bones (we’ve come to refer to bones as peace-keepers).
Sneak attacks:

Nothing to see here… just passing through…

A video posted by Sara McGuyer (@sara_mc) on

Starting from square one with “sit!” and leash training.
My kitchen becoming puppy wrestling central, especially right when I’m making dinner.
Succumbing to absolute and utter cuteness on a daily basis:
barnabyfirstsnow

Getting a 3 a.m. “I gotta go now!” wake-up whimper.
Tiny war wounds from puppy love bites.
Trying extra hard to give Brüski love and attention so he doesn’t get too jealous.
Feeling my heart grow with instant love for our new fella.

When we adopted Barnaby a couple of weeks ago, I expected all of this. But I’m also getting a lesson in balance that I never saw coming.

I’m pretty driven, and if left unchecked, I can just keep on working, working, working. It isn’t rare for me to be the last one in the office, thinking, I’ll wrap up soon, right after I do just one more thing… It’s not a hero thing, I just love what I do. But I also love being at home with my human and furry family.

A puppy is a great way to reset. I can’t just do this one more thing when I have a tiny guy with a tiny bladder in a crate at home.

Welcome home, Barnaby. And thank you for the reminder.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Animal Kingdom. Write an ode about the unending loyalty or the curious antics of a furry friend. Did you learn something about yourself or the world from your pet this year? Maybe you learned a lesson from an animal in the wild, or a nature program?”

Collecting

Do you know what happens to all of the stuff of people who die without having anyone in their life? I didn’t, until I read the story about the lonely death of a man named George Bell (a long read, and well worth it).

Bell’s tendencies to over eat and to hoard pulled his world in close. He’d pushed many out of his life, and mostly kept to his 800 square feet. He died in his Queens apartment, surrounded by the clutter of a long life in one place – the “unedited anarchy” of his days. Without loved ones looking for items of sentimental or worldly value, his place was left to workers who are paid to pick through estates.

When I first moved to Indianapolis back in 2009, I didn’t realize I’d move three times in the span of a year. Each move was like pushing life through a sieve. I’d pared down, gotten lighter. It’s a lot easier to pack up when you have less.

When we bought our current house, we were consciously seeking a place we could stay in until the end of our days, should life work out that way. We’ve called it home for a year and a half, just long enough to see the beginnings of piles, things we may not use again tucked into the basement, a spare bedroom closet in disarray.

One of our 2015 art purchases. Boats by Phillip Campbell
One of our 2015 art purchases. Boats by Phillip Campbell

Despite the lightness I found by moving too much too quickly, I’m still seeking that balance of what to keep and what to purge – the dance of a collector who also like open spaces. Months after reading about George Bell, a pile of unread magazines in the kitchen triggers the thought: let this not be the start of unedited anarchy.

There’s a line there I don’t want to cross. It lies somewhere on a scale between curation and clutter. I’m not one to hoard, but I love the way I can see so much about a person by what records or books are on their shelves.

I’ve come to think of home as a place that should feel alive with stories. Aside from all of the utilitarian stuff of life, the things I keep should connect to a moment or memory, have some meaning, or bring joy. I want to be able to answer: What is the story of this thing?


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Habitat. What creates a sense of home for you? Explore space, artifacts or people who shape your habitat. When do you feel the most at home?”

Unknown Roots

A couple of years ago I optimistically created an account on Ancestry.com, thinking I’d answer some of my questions about my roots. My mom had tinkered with researching this stuff once and came back with a mysterious tale about a man who had changed his name coming from Germany. Being an amateur and having little to go on, I hit a dead end pretty quickly. There is so little I know for sure.

Some of the tales I’ve heard are fascinating. Aside from the mystery name change, my mom says I’m related to the man who invented the process to create steel, but he was swindled and sold the rights for nothing. On my dad’s side, I’ve been told we have Black Foot heritage.

I do know that my grandmother’s mom lived in a farmhouse in rural Kentucky. She slaughtered and fried a chicken to eat after church every Sunday, and had a piano in a parlor than no one played. Some of the family names from that side – Roseale and Tylene –are best said with a southern accent.

My mom recently unearthed a certificate showing that my grandfather lettered in baseball in 1935, something we’d never known before.

baseball

His family owned a cigar factory on the riverfront of Newburgh, Indiana. It’s now carved up into an apartment building, and bears a green plaque noting it’s historical past. I had a great aunt who owned land in Colorado, a place my family ventured out west for visits long before I was born. On the Dunning side, the fellows were all in the newspaper business, serving as writers and editors in Memphis, Cincinnati and Boston.

Writers, inventors, warriors, entrepreneurs and farmers – an interesting mix in the genes, if all of these tales are true. Every year I suggest to my family that we forgo traditional Christmas gifts and chip in on genealogy research. Maybe this is the year for finding my roots.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Dig Into Your Roots. How far back can you trace your family? What was their life like? What else do you know? Tell a story, share an old family photo or draw your family tree. If you know nothing, ask a relative for some history to share.”

Fire Gazing

fire

Louie is the fire builder between us. He has an eye for how the wood should stack into just the right structure for optimal blaze. Fearlessly, he tends and stokes as sparks fly near his face.

I’m more the fire gazer–the one who can sit still for hours, eyes locked in the flames.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Communal Circles. What new circles have you formed? Any unexpected ones? Did you start a book club or hang out in a tea yurt? Maybe you re-upped with existing friends. Explore your kumbaya moment from 2015.”

Schnitzel

I’ve had a mental block on alternate paths for this post. This morning when I read the prompt, I got a pit in my stomach, overpowered by the smell that is no longer there. It was the kind of smell that’s meant to be nice, but went all wrong – like popcorn burnt in the microwave, or the sickly sweet crystals the janitor sprinkled over vomit in grade school.

When our twelve-year-old husky shepherd mix Schnitzel got sick this spring, we had no idea how fast it would come. At first, he just had a simple sore on his mouth. When it didn’t heal, our vet treated him for a bacterial infection. Just to be safe, she ran blood tests and basics, and we’d gotten the all clear.

Three quarters through his antibiotic regiment, we realized it simply wasn’t working. The vet could do no more but send us to a doggie dermatologist. Did you know those exist? The specialist ordered a biopsy, but gave a grim likely diagnosis of a type of skin lymphoma, something that started with an E – one of those long, terrible words that are hard to remember, and harder to pronounce. The biopsy came back with bad news. It was indeed the skin cancer she had suspected. There wasn’t much they could do.

By the time we got the official diagnosis, the sores had popped up all over, on his legs, his belly and sides. Aside from on his snout, they looked more like dandruff. His hair came out in tiny clumps, dried-out flakes of skin on the end. The sores near his mouth and nose were worse – a blotchy, raw flesh. He chronically licked at them, like he might be able to get them off with just one more swipe of the tongue.

schnitz

We’d been told he might live another 6-8 months. There was a chance we’d have one more Christmas with him. I had hoped he’s see one last deep snow – his favorite. But once it arrived, the cancer was like a freight train that wrecked through his body and he was gone in the heat of summer.

In the final weeks, his weight plummeted until we began to see his ribs and spine. We noticed a sad sign near the very end – I hadn’t known this happened to dogs who are very ill – he stopped wagging his tail.

And he was throwing up, a couple of times a day in the last days, mostly a putrid yellow bile. We bought an antibacterial spray for the frequent clean ups. It was supposed to smell like wildflower. But it didn’t. It was bad on its own, but it came to smell to us like cancer. Not that I really know what cancer smells like, but we couldn’t handle it. It wasn’t the vomit that bothered us, but the biting saccharine not-at-all-wildflower. The moment he was gone, we had to get rid of the bottle.

I’ll never forget the day I came home and he collapsed on the floor coming to greet me. He would never again stand up on his own. I too fell. All I could do was lay beside him on the kitchen floor. I knew we’d have to go to the vet that next morning. That it would be all over. Schnitzel spared us needing to make this decision by going on his own that night at home.

I was right there with him. I hadn’t wanted him to be alone. It is tough to bear witness to those final moments of a life. The look in his eyes seemed searching, pained. His labored breath slowed to gasps, then a final quiver, and he was gone.

I have not wanted to write about this. When it came time to let our friends and family know about his passing, I asked Louie to compose the message. As a writer, it seemed I should honor him in some public way, but paying tribute to such a noble and loving companion escapes me as much now as it did then.

As my parents have said, he was a once in a lifetime dog. We gave Schnitzel all sorts of nick names and accolades. Schneedie. Schnoodle. Strudel. Old Man Schneetz. His crowning achievements were Best in Show and Nobel Puppy Prize Winner. He carried himself with a regal prance, a bit like a horse. We often joked on walks with him that he was winning the Preakness.

Even at twelve-weeks-old when we adopted him from the Chicago city pound, it was like he had his shit together. More so than us, the stereotypical post-college drifting twenty-somethings. Through moves, job changes, tough times, he was there, tethering our little family together, while we tried to figure it all out. When we brought home 11-month-old Brüski and disrupted what zen we’d found in our house, he accepted the full on puppy assault like a champ.

Months after he died, I saw a squirrel get hit by car while I was out for a run. In the middle of the road, it kicked its legs in a few last spasms. Seeing its last moments of life looked too familiar, and I lost it mid-stride. I have moments like this, where the grief comes in like the tide, washing over me once again. I’ve come to understand this will always be with me.

 


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox

Prompt: “Scratch & Sniff! Scents have the power to take us all kinds of places. What smell takes you somewhere else? Where’d you go?”

On Books

There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing.”Haruki Murakmai

book
It’s odd to sit down with this new book right at the start of the #ThinkKit16 challenge, which has asked me to write the first line of my autobiography, and then to sum up a whole year. Both tasks I struggled with mightily – it took me at least three times as long to find my words. This is what happens when you don’t keep up with your craft.

This book came to me, I suspect, just when I needed it. From Hear the Wind Sing, page 4:

Now I think it’s time to tell my story.


Which doesn’t mean, of course, that I have resolved even one of my problems, or that I will be somehow different when I finish. I may not have changed at all. In the end, writing is not a full step toward self-healing, just a tiny, very tentative move in that direction.


All the same, writing honestly is very difficult. The more I try to be honest, the further my words sink into darkness.


Don’t take this as an excuse. I promise you—I’ve told my story as best I can right now. There’s nothing to add. Yet I can’t help thinking: if all goes well, a time may come, years or even decades from now, when I will discover that my self has been salvaged and redeemed. Then the elephant will return to the veldt, and I will tell the story of the world in words far more beautiful than these.

I read this passage multiple times, like a meditation.

This is a thing you can do with a real book. Thumb through the pages, trace the lines with a finger. You can look the words in the eye without wincing.


This post is part of Think Kit by SmallBox
Prompt: “Get Analog. No screens, no technology – let’s think about real world experiences. What did you do with your hands this year?”