"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crate Training

We're five minutes late as we pull into the circular drive lined with happily barking dogs. We're late because Alice agreed to let us come three hours earlier than her suggested time and we didn't want to push our luck. So we stalled to make sure we weren't early. And now we're late and barely containing ourselves. I'm not sure the car has come to a complete stop before I'm out my door and walking toward Alice's door. 

The doorbell plays a loud and strange song that makes us take a small step back, unsettled. Then we hear Alice's cheerful voice greeting us as she invites us in through the opaque plastic covering the screen door.

I'm aware of her, try to be polite and look at her, try to register her words about a too small collar and the shiny ribbon she's holding onto it so Toby looks like a Christmas present.

All I really see though is Toby.  His sweet peach face lights up and says,"There you are. I've been waiting for you!" His sturdy self is tucked in the crook of Alice's elbow, front legs draped over her arm, back legs hanging loosely, the in between all round softness. His still conical puppy tail beats an enthusiastic greeting that only intensifies as she hands him into my eager arms.


That first day only gets more perfect as it develops. He's mellow, affectionate, playful. He loves his toys. He doesn't have one accident - perhaps because he gets taken outside every time he stands up - but no accident is no accident. Asleep he's a vision of unbearable cuteness and innocence. Awake he's fun and joy romping on four stubby legs.

We're thrilled when he goes in and out of his crate. We ooh and aah whenever he lies down in his crate. We congratulate ourselves that our dog already loves this artificial den that all the books and Alice say is an essential part of his training and happiness. This is the place he'll sleep and travel in. This is the place he'll go to for peace and quiet. This is the place that his canine brain recognizes as safe and secure.

As responsible dog owners we are committed to crate training Toby and we're counting our blessings that we got a dog who seems so happy to be in his crate.

Until we close the door.

The first day, we were so startled - actually frightened - by the sound that came out of him on the other side of that closed door we opened it again right away. Surely this was an anomaly. He just needed more time to adjust to us. Maybe he just wasn't tired enough.

Bedtime is worse, not better. The pitiful crying and whimpering that we've prepared ourselves for never happens. Our sweet boy becomes Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He is the Hounds of Hell - a pack of legions, not just one. He is the terrible screaming of multitudes of tortured souls in hell.

For relentless hours.  For every time we "practice" during the days that follow. For night after endless night.

Our gratitude at getting such a compliant dog is replaced with gratitude that we have no close neighbors who might call 911 and report screams of terror. Our open-hearted optimism is replaced with grim determination. Our wide-eyed well-informed wonder is replaced with gritty-eyed sleep-deprived uncertainty. 

The books say he'll adjust in a few days, a week at the most. Alice's literature says human babies take months and we should buck up. It could be worse. Toby seems not to have received any of that information.

On the ninth day we call Alice for help. We're reassured that this is a test of wills. We can't give in. We should get earplugs.

We haven't done anything wrong. But all of her suggestions are about doing more of the right things. If I weren't so tired I might ponder the power of that idea and appreciate its beauty.

 Instead of pondering, we do. Everything she suggested. As quickly as we can.

 We spend the day making Toby's crate a doggy version of Disneyland. Treats are hidden in the folds of the towel. All of his toys are tossed in. We tuck as much of ourselves as we can into the crate with him and are as excited as it's possible to be. Our voices are high and hysterically happy and enticing. 

He responds just the way we hoped. He spends long periods of time inside the crate searching for goodies, nuzzling toys, resting. He goes in and out regularly throughout the day. He loves this new game with the enthusiasm that he loves everything. Full tilt, nothing withheld.

Until bedtime. 

Roaring. Shrieking. Howling. The silent spaces may be slightly longer than previous nights. Or maybe it's just the earplugs and wishful thinking.

Day ten. More doggy Disneyland. More determined holding firm. A trip to the store for better ear plugs. 

I think that perhaps Toby is not the one being trained here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Golden Hope

Toby comes to live with us on Thursday. We weren't going to get a new puppy until spring - at the soonest. When Riley died last February, the week of his tenth birthday, we weren't actually ever going to get another dog. The pain of watching him suffer with cancer the last weeks of his life was something neither of us wanted to repeat.

Well, maybe we would get another dog - eventually - but certainly never another Golden Retriever.

My first Golden, Jesse, was the rescued orphan upon whom I could lavish my overflowing mother heart and love while I waited for children that would never arrive. He was my biggest sacrifice in the bid for freedom from the life he cushioned me against.

Just as soon as I was settled into a new life and a new dog became a possibility, I knew I had to have another Golden. Convincing my new husband was easy, and the hunt was on. Once we decided, the search took on an urgency I didn't understand, but had no desire to deny. We found ourselves in a dirty house being shown three scrawny older pups by an equally scrawny man who smelled of mildew and cigarettes. I would have taken all three, just to get them away from that place. The new husband, often the voice of reason in the midst of my emotion hurricanes, said no as gently as possible. I chose the one who looked like she needed me the most.

And so Kelly came into my life. I loved her with an intensity born of fierce guilt and aching hope for redemption and a deep well of unfulfilled mothering. Before she was two she nearly died from a thyroid condition that left her paralyzed for months. A determined vet and my need to not abandon another life that depended on me kept her going until she was back on her feet. Weeks of daily visits to the vet clinic, more weeks of carrying her outside to our back yard and daily baths in our tub, and still more weeks of teaching her how to walk again restored her to a life that lasted for five more years. The medication that kept her going and those months of illness took their toll and her body eventually just shut down, organ by organ. She died in a clinic, alone, on a weekend I had decided to play instead of visiting her.

I was never going to feel that pain again. I was never going to feel that guilt again. I was never going to care that much again.

I held out for three years, then found a perfect solution. Walt, my no longer new husband, was ready for a dog. We had grieved Kelly long enough. He wanted the experience of being the primary person for our next dog, and he wanted another Golden. I was getting the best of both worlds. A Golden in my life to love, but he wouldn't really be mine, so the pain wouldn't be as bad when he eventually died.

Again, spring break was the time. A week home to get the puppy settled, then a few short months until the summer when we could both be home with him. We were going to be strong this time. No rescuing. No emotional decisions. No problem.

We found ourselves in the back yard of a restored Arts and Crafts bungalow in an older Portland neighborhood. I loved the home, I loved the men who owned the home, and I especially loved sitting on their lawn being overrun by thirteen balls of frenetic red fluff while Walt chose his puppy.

Somehow in the ten years Riley lived with us, he managed to become my dog, too. I was the one who took him for long walks in the park. Walks made longer by his love of the river we walked next to. I was the one who had dozens of silly nicknames for him. I was the one who made sure we remembered to give him ice cream on his birthday every year. I was the one who noticed his failing health two years before we lost him, and began grieving his departure long before he died.

When it became clear, just weeks after Riley died, that no dog ever was not possible, we began to cautiously explore our options. We figured spring break in a year would be a good time and far enough away to be choosing a new companion and not trying to replace Riley.

Clearly Golden Retrievers were a breed that were too fragile. We could avoid the pain of a too early loss by choosing a dog that was hardier. We talked about getting a pound puppy. We looked at breeds that looked like Goldens. Flat-coated Retrievers. Irish Setters. Golden Doodles. None of them felt right. The only ones either of us felt drawn to at all were the ones who looked the most like Golden Retrievers.

We finally decided this fall that we'd get a Golden, but choose a breeder very carefully. And we didn't have to decide for a long time. Spring was months away.

Somewhere in the last month or two, I found myself asking Walt fairly regularly whether he was ready for a new dog yet. Not nagging exactly, but not that subtle either. I would point out pictures of Goldens at every opportunity, and suggest online searches for kennels. We had already decided that Walt would be the primary person for our next dog, so he needed to be ready before anything could happen.

Then just last weekend, in a series of events that are nothing short of miraculous, the decision was made. The day after Walt said he was finally ready to have another dog, a friend whose Golden is in her last days called with the name of a kennel. A reputable, long-established kennel only eight miles away with puppies that would be available at Christmas. Christmas. When we have two weeks off, not just one. And this a year with no plans at all. A Christmas at home with nothing special demanding our time.

Walt called. We went to look on Monday.

We were greeted into a homey clean house by a friendly comfortable woman with an air of caution about her. She led us into her kitchen where four male puppies were gated into the dining nook. I had planned to enjoy the experience and the dogs and support Walt in his choice.

All that went out the window the minute I saw the puppies. I actually only saw one. He was redder, bigger, galumphier than the others. He had my heart completely before I had time to remember he was going to be Walt's dog.

I was in the pen, on the floor, with him in my arms before Walt even had a chance to see him. It didn't take much convincing. Walt fell just as hard as I had. An hour later, the owner was showing us to the door, all traces of caution gone, congratulating us on our choice.

Toby comes home on Thursday. He'll be seven weeks old. He'll be
our dog. He'll be loved with open eyes and open hearts. Hearts that know what they want and won't be denied.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Catbird Scouts New Skies

That's it. I'm done with Book One. Freedom was the last chapter. 

One draft done, who knows how many to go. When I took wing into this writing sky with Jennifer and Carrie and my sister circle last February, I had no idea the cult would be my first book. I had no idea how revealing and healing the writing would be. I had no idea how hard it was going to be.

In present time I have no idea where all this will lead. I know where I want it to lead, and I hold that vision lightly and reverently in my heart. I know I'm on a journey I love and I know I'll follow it as far as it will take me. Getting to write words every day that give wings lift is what I came here to do. It's amazing to me that I'm finally getting to do just that. 

For those of you who have followed the story for these last months,  and who don't know me in my present life, here is how things turned out:

While Marlene the Unsmiling couldn't be the nurturing mom I wanted her to be, she was the skilled attorney I needed her to be. When the divorce was final seven months later I was granted maintenance and tuition and fees until I got a Master's degree or got re-married - whichever happened first.

Marv wanted to give me Jesse so that he wouldn't have to see me whenever I came to visit. The visits were pretty awful anyway - having to see Marv and having to leave Jesse behind every time. I couldn't afford a rental that would allow a big dog, and decided to let Marv have him. A decision that still stings.

The single teacher next door turned out to be everything that Marv was not and much much more. 

I graduated from Portland State with a teaching degree  in May of 1987. Walt (the guy next door) and I were married on August 16 of that year. I decided marriage was more important at that point than a Master's degree. A week after we got back from our honeymoon I was hired for a fifth grade position - a week before school started.

The cult and trucking company both ended within a year of our divorce. Through Harold's oldest daughter, who I ran into occasionally, I learned that Marv eventually remarried, moved to California and had a couple of kids. That still stings, too. Harold and Bonnie are both dead now. Laurel and I stayed in touch for years, but she stopped writing a while ago.

I'm still married to Walt, and grateful for the gifts our relationship has brought and continues to bring me. I'm still teaching, and ready for that chapter to end. I'm trying hard to be as present and grateful as possible while the lessons to learn as a teacher are still unfolding.

So, my blog will be changing. During the winter break (a week and a half away) I'm going to pull the story off, change my format, and write about my life as it unfolds in real time. I have a terrifically cool life - a wonderful home in the country, a loving and very understanding husband, a gifted counselor, four cats, twenty-one third graders, great books to read, growing relationships with my brothers, an unfolding spiritual life, amazing friends for fun and support.

 Oh, and we're getting a puppy in the next couple of weeks. A Golden Retriever. My third, our second - the first chosen with eyes wide open. We go tomorrow to choose and will bring him home before Christmas. 

I am so grateful to everyone who has read and commented on my story up to this point. If you still have unanswered questions, ask away. Or wait for the book (big grin here!). I hope you'll continue to visit me here as I stretch my wings into a new sky.