Happy New Year!?
A week in, and I'm still not quite ready
Welcome! You’ve reached Spark. Learn more here or just read on. If you received this from a friend, please join us by subscribing. It’s free! All you have to do is press the button below:
In this issue:
Training Frida, Training Myself
A few last-minute reads from 2021 all connected by a slender thread
Breaking It all Down
Last Saturday, I greeted the New Year as we always do - waking up in the middle of the night to random acts of fireworks in the streets. Frida slept through it all. She reserved her agitation for our daily walk around the block the next day. Terrain that I’ve walked so often I no longer really see it, is still a strange new land for her. Until she came to us, she had never walked outside on a leash. Somewhere along the line, she’d learned to fear dogs – especially big ones – humans she didn’t know, and brooms. Brooms we could leave in the closet but walks, well, walks are my daily bread. I wanted her to love them.
Just before Christmas, I thought we’d been making great strides - literally. We’d advanced from the same stretch of sidewalk, to circling the block, and then, impatient to be able to walk once again along the ocean in the mornings, I asked her to go with me for a mile and a half loop that took her farther from our house than she’d ever been. These were fraught but, I believed, successful — until she began to pee in the house, bark in a new, aggressive way when we encountered people she did not know. It was clear we needed to go back to square one.
Our friend and trainer came over and reminded us that the goal was not to check off doggy milestones – heel, come, stay, walk – as much as it was to build Frida’s confidence. Show her the world, yes, but show it to her in manageable chunks. Teach her new skills but break them down into steps. So it was back to small walks, small successes, and lots of stopping and sniffing the newness of Frida’s surroundings. When she makes progress, we try to acknowledge it without wondering when or how fast she’ll make more.
The upside: I am looking at my own world, the one I stopped seeing, with a little more attention. This afternoon a flash of blue in the alley made me stop to see if it was a blue jay or perhaps something more exotic. Frida and I watched the vine into which the bird had disappeared and while we did, we heard other birds whirring, whistling, calling their private messages to each other. I noticed the recent rains had not only carved ruts into the alley floor but had turned every blade of grass, every pudgy leaf of every cheese plant its own shade of green.
I also realized that I’ve been approaching the start of the year with the same hesitancy and fear that Frida brings with her when she goes out to view the world. Instead of running at the new year with open arms, I’m fighting the urge to shrink from it. I can’t tell you why because I am not sure myself. It has to do with aging, my expectations/hopes/dreams, the novel I’m working on, this newsletter, relationships that I care about, the ever-present specter of sickness – physical and societal – the overwhelming feeling that there are many items on my life’s checklist than there will ever be time to accomplish. On top of that, I haven’t slept well the past two nights and let’s face it, fear can indeed foster cowardice.
There is, despite the hesitancy and fear, that familiar pressure to press forward – to do what I can. This week that meant three pages for my novel, not the two or three chapters I’d envisioned. It meant writing this newsletter instead of the one full of ideas for the future. It meant being patient with myself the way I’ve been practicing patience with Frida. We may not be running at the world with open arms but we are trudging along in the right direction. Progress is progress, right?
Today, not long after we saw the bird in the alley, we left the familiarity of our block and ventured across the street, towards the school where children could be heard. We found them – a dozen or so in the playground of the school each dressed up – a red-caped king, a princess, a boy wearing goggles of some kind and zooming in and around the huge plastic playground toys. Frida watched, fascinated, unafraid. A dog barked at her from across the street. She cried, strained at the leash. Then she stopped. We walked on.
How has this first week of 2022 gone for you?
After The Walking…We Write
Closing Out the Reading Year With Maggots, Ravens, Ottessa Moshfegh, Elizabeth Strout and Ann Patchett
What was the last book you read in 2021? What is the first you reached for in 2022?
If I squint, I can pick out the thread that connects my choice of books in the last ten days of 2021 and it is this: from death comes life. This seems as hopeful a message as any to carry us into the New Year.
Here’s a bit about each one:
Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death by Bernd Heinrich - a study of how the death of one being feeds and fosters many others. I struggled a bit with the eager and detailed discussion of various maggots at work but as I read about the ravens, the coyotes, beetles, ants, vultures, and so many others who serve as nature’s undertakers, I realized how very far from our animal roots we humans have stumbled and how simple and, yes, spiritual, it would be if our cadavers were offered up to these undertakers who restore the earth with their work.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh - the nameless 20-something protagonist pursues a year of chemically-induced sleep/unconsciousness, a kind of death, in order to become new again. She says, “I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” Her dark, often funny journey provoked a deep sense of unease in me but as I read, I felt her withdrawal from the world and herself as a kind of slow-motion death that, yes, felt necessary. The end was both hopeful and a little scary.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout explores the relationships that might grow or remain after the death of a marriage. The book is the third one Strout has written that centers on Lucy Barton, a respected and well-known writer who grew up in poverty. Her marriage to William ended years earlier but this is not a “getting back together” story. It is a quiet story about the many inevitable deaths and rebirths that mark most long-term relationships if they are to endure in any form.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett – I ended the year by devouring this collection of essays, a present from a friend who knows me very well. The title piece is about the death of a friend made late in life but, much more than that, it is a story of how to savor the gift of the days we are given. Patchett assembled the collection to give the title essay a “home.” The voice is pure Patchett- confident, honest and laced with gentle humor as she ponders what is most important. Death - whether we see it coming or just feeling it swirling around our ankles – illuminates the answer to this question.
We are starting the new year with all our existing subscribers PLUS a large number of new subscribers. Thank you to each and every one of you for joining us. I’m looking forward to hearing from you — what worries you, makes you laugh, what you are reading, what you are writing, what you’d like to see in this newsletter when it arrives in your inbox each Saturday morning. You can always comment here or just reach out to me directly by responding to this email.
That’s it for this week. As always, the books mentioned here can be found at the Spark Community Recommendations Page at Bookshop.org where every sale helps independent bookstores. Any commissions we earn will go to a literacy group we choose together.
Ciao for now and Happy New Year!
P.S. And Now, Your moment of Zen…Finding A Way
Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”
What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.
Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: email@example.com. The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed.
I can’t wait to see what you send!
(And if you’ve gotten here, liked something, and still haven’t hit the heart below, now’s your chance!)