We Don’t Do Death in America: for Matilda


In America, we don’t do death. One day, it happens to everything that now lives, but as a culture, we just don’t do death. As a nation, we prefer to pretend it’s not going to happen. Conversations about anything’s imminent demise are short, strictly business and as fast as we can segue to more pleasant topics, we do. The irony that we cause so much of it around the world in war scenarios is not lost on me. Other people do death. We don’t.

My dog is sick. We’re awaiting test results that will either tell us for sure, she is in end stage lymphoma or possibly has Addison’s disease; a slightly better prognosis that might give us more time with her wondrous wiggly-ness. She has been a patient at Michigan State University Veterinary Hospital, one of the best Vet programs in the world. We live five minutes away by sheer luck. As I’m moving around in my very silent house, I’m hearing phantom nails clicking on the hardwood floor, telling me it’s time to clip them. I’m coming down the stairs and my heart goes up as I wait to see her pop her big Great Dane face around the corner to greet me and it goes down again quickly when I remember where she is. I think I am practicing grief now so when it really does body slam me in the too-soon future, I might be able to manage it without flooding the first floor of my house with over flowing tears.

Many years ago, when my parents were reaching the end of their stories, I trained as a hospice volunteer. It helped tremendously when I was with them nearing the end and it helped me answer questions and be there in a fully-present way for them and my family. My younger sister even went to do her own training and now works as a hospice nurse.

Hospice, which is what my home will become for our dog, Matilda, starting today at 6 P.M. EST, is the polar opposite of not doing death. It is the sane, logical, holistic and compassionate practice of embracing every phase of life from first breath to last. I remember people asking me how I could be around those who were dying. Wasn’t it horribly depressing? No. It was not. It was an honor to be able to be with people who were fully aware of their situation. They had accepted that it was happening and were using their final days to just be with people in a way they may never have taken the time to be before they got sick.

We, as an American culture, do everything we can to avoid and delay aging and death. From plastic surgery to shark cartilage pills, hormone replacement to Viagra. We want to stay young forever and we never, ever, ever want to die, so we often die without a will, a medical directive or having given our loved ones a clue of what we wanted done with our remains. We spend more than 80% of our health care money in the last two weeks of life trying, desperately, to avoid nature calling for us. Because we do such a fantastic job of stuffing the reality of death into an airtight container in the back of our minds, the “business” of death; funerals, burial options etc., has been allowed to flourish as a ridiculously expensive service that guilt alone can propel families into financial crisis purchasing.

I’ve had a couple of friends in my life whose family business was a mortuary. They all said that they and their parents refused to have any of the expensive and wacky services done to their own bodies and though they may use a fancy casket for a wake viewing, they were choosing a biodegradable box. Why? In their own words, “It doesn’t matter what you put in the ground, a body will naturally decompose inside a paper, wood or metal container. The box is only for the living to feel like they honored the deceased in a special way.”

That last bit probably creeped you out. See? We don’t do death in America. We would rather write a check for $20,000 and buy the “top of the line casket” along with a grave site with a “view” then to look death squarely in the eye and when our or our loved one’s time comes, to say goodbye with grace, not guilt guiding decision making. I intend to honor the living while they are here and allow the endings and the afterward to move in the most natural way possible.

I happen to believe that I am not this physical body. I am a being of light that has stepped into this meat suit, like a space suit, so I could walk around this oxygen dependent planet for a while. I don’t think we just shut down and there is nothing more. I have had too many other worldly experiences to believe that without this meat suit, I cease to exist. In fact, I believe that the most difficult thing my larger light body has had to do was to compress and condense all that I am into this human form. PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER…iddy biddy living space.

I think it’s the same for animals. There’s some farmy-happy space where their sweet gooey love selves get to hang out. I have a parade of well-loved pets from the past 40 years, hanging out on a sofa in the aethers. Jai, a Lab-Dane. Chunk, a Lab-Shepard. Sydney, a Lab-Australian Shepard. Pez, a Lab-Spaniel and probably squirrel mix. Hannah, a Lab-Golden. Mouse, the cat and Sushi, the cat-both who lived to be over 21. A few years back, I started putting pictures of dogs up on my kitchen cabinets. As they have passed over, the photos migrated to the left side of the collection and our current dog, Matilda, has taken over the right two doors with pup to adult shots with my grown kids. Today, when I went to get a glass out of the cabinet, it smacked me in the face that very, very soon, she would be moving left too. That did it. Me and my Kleenex box needed to have a sit down.

Ram Dass, an American contemporary spiritual teacher and author said something once that has pressed into my heart and stayed there. “We are all just walking each other home.”

Tonight, when I go to get my super large dog friend from the hospital to bring her back into the only home she has ever known, I will be remembering that. I have accepted that death is as natural as birth, and that hospice care is the same as being a mid-wife only instead of assisting birth into this world, we are assisting birth into the next.

I am trying to shore up my reserves of strength so that when the day comes, I can look my sweet girl in the eyes and tell her, “Come on baby. I’ll walk you home.”


Of Women and Other Domesticated Creatures


Somewhere along the line, we females gave up our natural, wild instinct to explore and hunt; to lead and learn; to laughing out loud and to prowling in moonlight.

We were calmed and combed and cobbled into obedient and predictable house pets; living each moment in the service of our masters and their children. Like all charades and circus acts, there comes a time when the lioness turns and she is no longer willing to perform, no matter the cost to herself. One day she remembers that she has teeth and claws and can move like lightening in the dark to free herself.

Mostly though, we women have forgotten who we really are. Like housecats, we have grown soft and fat from the lack of exercising our powerfully creative muscles. Mostly now, we purr and rub against a leg in return for food and shelter. Mostly now, we sit on window sills, watching the world outside; wild and exciting. Flesh and blood automatons, good and docile pets, we mostly, now, surrender weary hearts and fall into mental slumber as we perform expected rituals of obedience. Mostly now, we sleep in chairs and dream of rolling in tall grass and heeding the inner call to search out our own wild meal.

Women are not, by nature, domesticated creatures. Our wild nature must be systematically removed from us somewhere around the age of ten. Hovering on that precipice between the fierce androgyny of the tomboy and the blossomed, bosomed bleeder just months ahead, we lose our powerful, natural selves as we begin to listen when told to act like ladies.

The need to please replaces the need to ride as fast as we can down a steep hill to win the race. The need to see our clear skinned pleasant face reflected in a mirror wins the day over muddy war paint and hula skirts fashioned from late summer weeping willow fronds. Swaying to absent music with a head filled with images of that boy erases the screaming joy of climbing to the highest branch and holding fast while the wind bends us over the two story drop to the ground.

We have become domesticated like cats with collars and full bowls. We purr and primp and let you pet us. Sometimes, when we have had quite enough of rough hands and hard words, we let you know with our teeth, that we are not, by nature, domesticated animals. Given the choice, we would be exploring and hunting, leading and learning, laughing out loud and prowling under the full moon.

And maybe, if you are deserving, we will come back and let you be with our wild wonder for a while.

Some choose the garden path and willingly wear leashes; taking only chaperoned Saturday night walks, never to know the feel of their powerful muscles in a flat out run. Because we are not, by nature, domesticated creatures, some women keep their wild a vital part of who they are. They grow into fierce and loving beings; claws and roar intact. All are drawn to them, but move with respect, knowing that it is the choice of the lioness where you fit in her pride.

And if you are deserving, you can say you run with wild creatures who let you keep your wild as well.


Wild Hope

I’m nearing the final pages of my manuscript and there’s a small war going on inside me. Where is this one going to land and what happens if it ends up some place that wasn’t my first choice? Pouring my morning coffee into what I affectionately call “the bucket”, an oversize mug I made for my son that he left here “to use when he’s home”, I was running through scenarios of editors with machetes. That, naturally, made me envision scathing reviews on Amazon balanced precariously with a reader base that comes to your aide with pens flaming and me standing, like a mother, pleading with both sides to just get along.

Before I needed a case of Tums to face my laptop, I stopped and did what my friend, Nancy, tells us all to do when we forget that stress is a choice; just breathe. Books, like the children we bear and raise, reach a point when they naturally move out into the wide world and cut their own path, whatever that might look like. Stories, books, music, poetry, art; anything we give creative birth to is going to come out of us kicking and screaming and when it hits the air outside of us, it then belongs to the world. It will be treasured or abused. It will be scrutinized or ignored all together. It will touch some people deeply and it will bore others who were looking for something bloodier, sexier, harder, softer, shorter or longer or slightly more beige.

While we are pushing our creations out of the tiny orifice that only artists can locate, we can hold onto the wild hope that it emerges with all fingers and toes. We can hope that it becomes the fully formed, three dimensional, memorable, moving vision that was planted in our mind by a passing horny muse that put its mouth to our ear and in a deep voice, whispered it to us one night as we were falling asleep.

Wild Hope. The phrase reminded me of the album that former pop princess, Mandy Moore, birthed into the world back in 2007. Prior to that, I only knew of her from the snips of music I caught on car radios or from an adolescent’s playlists pre-9/11. One day though, I heard a piece of her music that made me follow it to its source and bring it home with me so I could hear it again. The words were luscious, the orchestration and production nearly flawless. Her voice on that independent album embodied that moment, somewhere in your late 20’s, when shit gets real. The curtain falls down exposing the powerless little wizard you assumed had control over your emotional life and you found out it was just you, making some stupid choices and some surprisingly good ones as well. Beauty.

The title song is perfect and there were many other gems on the collection. I found a YouTube video an hour ago; Mandy Moore-Wild Hope-In The Studio; a diary of the making of the album. At the 5:20 mark, she says, “There is nothing like the freedom of having the absolute control to make the record that I want to make.” She had won a hard fight to break free from her recording contract that was forcing her to barf up mainstream elevator music and this would be her solo flight.

Inspired to hear it start to finish, I went searching my CD stacks. No luck. Someone “borrowed it” (read: stole it and it’s never coming back). Fine, this is the age of instant gratification. I’ve got Spotify. I’ve got iTunes. I’ve got those other weird programs on my Windows laptop that I’ve never used before. I’ll find it, download it and be listening before my bucket of coffee gets cold. Guess what? It’s not on any of those sites. In fact, I had to order a new copy of the CD, from the U.S. outlets though, because the European version is usd$51.oo. Seriously.

Well, that sent me into panic number two this morning and I still haven’t opened my manuscript file to begin my climb to the last pages of the book. Why have they taken the downloadable files away from us? Has someone kidnapped Mandy and the ransom is forcing her to return to a candy filled Willy Wonka factory to turn out teeth and ear rotting junk food music? Is there a telethon for this where I can send a donation? Am I avoiding ending my book by obsessing over the missing Mandy Moore Music? Hell, yes.

Fine. My coffee is cold anyway. My book will go out and some people will love it and some will use it to line their guinea pig cage; though if you’re going to trash it, I would prefer it be kindling for a beach bonfire. So much more romantic, you know?

So, here’s the song. At least you can hear this one. I’ll just have to wait for delivery of the CD that I found online at a record place in Chicago. I’ll get back to writing and while I wrap this manuscript up, I’ll hold onto my own Wild Hope that everything will be all right.

Marvin Gaye Schools the Writer…

Last night, I stumbled onto this video of Marvin Gaye singing the vocal track for “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. I’ve been madly in love with this song since it first hit the radio in the autumn of my freshman year in high school. Now that I’ve heard it this particular way, I’m not sure if I want to hear it orchestrated, harmonized and produced ever again. It is perfect, exactly like this.

Hearing a song this way is like reading a short poem that rips away the protective rib cage of logical thinking and puts its burning hand right onto your exposed and fragile heart. Single singer A cappella is to perfectly written Haiku poetry, as a symphony is to a great novel.

We hear the original pain and the hard truth of the writer’s drunken 3:00 A.M. confession in each carefully chosen word and musical note. If the singer has embraced the zeitgeist of the creation of the piece, they can breathe life into the song. They can take us with them on our own Ghost of Christmas Past journey to the moments in our  lives when the words hit home with a vengeance.

This should be my goal in every poem and every story that I write; that whatever comes out of my pen will be better than the silence of the blank page.

I have my work cut out for me.

Know Me Now






Know Me Now

You think you know me

Because you’ve kissed my mouth

Because one time, many years ago,

we could be found

laughing together.

You think you know exactly who I am because you kept the hard

and cut away the soft things in your memory.

You know one small place,

from when I was still carbon

and you have missed the thousand other things

that have made me who I am now.

I’ve stood to take the blows from chisel and hammer

struck hard against my soul.

Love and loss;

The letting go of a future no longer possible.

Chiseled away and polished with tears,

every hard thing done; yours or mine

has made its mark on me.

Old friends, now disembodied spirits floating in my heart;

Old lovers, whispering on thinning skin of young fire and need;

each has cut a surface onto me.

And if you turn my life in your hand;

angle it just so;

you’ll see a flare of light and know

it was you who put that on me.

Know me as I shine

Know all of me.

Know me now