birdperson

written with bird songs on the shoulder

Spelling I-D-E-N-T-I-T-Y: On Working with Resilient Kids

An energetic and organized person somewhere has probably spelled out the nearly infinite ways children can spend the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day: sledding, ice skating, playing with favorite toys, taunting brothers and sisters.

Somewhere, toward the end of the list, would be this:

“Trying to find healing and hope in a restrictive residential treatment program for children who, with rare exception, have experienced severe abuse and neglect.”

As a wannabe mom, I feel a certain pull toward wannabe sons and daughters – some of whom will go back home, and some of whom will not.

So, in this week between two of the biggest national holidays of the year, I’ve been sharing creative arts in a residential treatment facility for children. In today’s classes, I was given roughly a billion pieces of invisible gold, some hard-earned laughs, and a very deliberate cold shoulder.

I have met characters, invented by the children, such as a magician who can make a staff person’s quarter disappear (and reappear, thank goodness), Shaggy from Scooby-Doo (with hand-drawn Scooby snacks), and a pirate-doctor (equally likely to rob you of your treasure as heal you when you’re unwell).

The most popular costumes, by far, are the police officer costume and the pirate costume – the law-keeper and the lawbreaker, the protector and the rebel who needs no protection. What will their future be, I wonder? Which side of this balance will they settle on? After all they’ve seen, after all they’ve never seen, how much of their future is theirs to choose?

One day early on, we drew and wrote our wishes. In most other classes, in most other settings, the concept of a wish can be difficult. How do I convey that I don’t just mean something you want to have, but something you hope to experience? In the classes this week, I seemed to make myself perfectly clear. One child wished for home. Another wished that his head would pop off – and be replaced by another.

My heart dropped when I heard this ashen child say those words. Before meeting the students, I had asked for a little background on each one. But even so, I knew that I didn’t really need prior information. Their histories are written in their faces, their bodies, their gestures. That’s the way our histories are; that’s the way my history is. I carry it all over, no matter how much I’ve ever wished for a brand new past or a brand new start. No matter how much I’ve ever wished I could be a different person in a different place or time, I continue to be Karen. (As in K-A-R-E-N.)

I delight in learning how to spell each child’s name. I delight in counting all the A-E-I-O-U-and-sometimes-Y’s. I delight in their delight, as they teach me, “No E’s. Just an I!” As I learn to spell their names, I’m not really talking about the spellings of their names. What I’m really saying is, I see you. I notice you. You are really here. You have letters in your name. They are yours. They belong to you. No one else can have them. They stand for the place you have every right to take in this world.

So tomorrow, when I work with the C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N once again, I will challenge them to create not just one, not just two, but three whole lines that their chosen character says. Maybe someone will make a series of arrests; maybe someone will make a series of robberies.

Maybe someone will look back someday and say: She wasn’t trying to help us all be better actors or better drawers or better inventors of props. She wasn’t really concerned, in her heart of hearts, what my character said or wore or called himself. That didn’t really matter, not so very much.

All that really mattered was who we were.

Soft Enough: On The Place of Softness in Politics (and Life)

When the going gets tough, I call my mother. I realized some time ago that the challenges of my life fall on either side of a delicate balance:

A) Something I don’t have to bother Mom about right now.

B) Something I do.

My mom has had the same work number since I was eight years old, so there’s something extra comforting about dialing that combination (with the area code now) and getting her voice – in real time or recorded.

The substance has changed significantly since I was in fourth grade…or maybe not:

1) Life has never been worse.

2) Life has never been better.

3) The world is full of injustice.

4) Any mixture of the above.

During the one-week special session of the North Dakota legislature, I called my mother twice.

The first was to surround myself in unconditional love, to give myself a shield, I guess.

The second, a few days later, was to insist that I had reached #1. (See above.)

I’m used to criticism, or at least I ought to be. I’ve joked with activist friends that I wish I’d started counting, twenty odd years ago, the number of hostile flip-offs I’ve received. But I have no running tally, no notch-in-the-belt accounting, no clever system of making the things that feel wrong feel right.

(“Twenty Odd Years Ago.” Photo courtesy of Laura Gillberg.)

A dear friend recently told me how soft my presentation is, the presentation I give of myself, how delicate I can seem – how sensitive to life’s harshness. I smiled a (probably) delicate smile, saying that I think of myself as “tough.” I meant it as a defense, wanting to be seen, I suppose, as a modern-day Popeye, full up on spinach.

But looking back, I realize I wasn’t wholly honest: I see myself as a soft person who somehow does tough things, someone who borrows toughness from a tough situation.

Like the time I ended up saving my mother’s life. Or whatever that was.

But that was not the stuff I took to my mother’s heart – and telephone – during the special legislative session.

The trouble began on Facebook, where so much trouble begins. The conversation with a virtual stranger went something like this:

FACEBOOK FRIEND

I’m sorry for what’s going on, and I applaud your effort. But all the protesting will not stop this. Big Oil pockets are too deep! Again, I’m sorry that this is going on, but unless you have more money than Big Oil, you will never stop it or even slow it down. Take your energy on to helping something that you have more than a .000001% chance of even making a difference in! Like stopping child abuse!

KAREN

Unfortunately, pollution is another form of child abuse…

[Three people “like” (or agree with) my comment.]

FACEBOOK FRIEND

Not even close! A child being raped is not something you compare to anything else in the world. You should be ashamed of yourself! You owe an apology to all the abused children in the world! How can you sleep at night thinking that way! Pure disgust!!!!

KAREN

_______, I work with survivors of child abuse. That is my field of work. I completely agree that there is nothing more horrifying than child abuse in all of its cruel forms. What I am saying is that we have talked with people in oil country whose children are suffering, sometimes with debilitating illnesses. When I work to end environmental pollution, I have children in my mind – and heart.

FACEBOOK FRIEND

That’s good, but you – more than most – should never have made such a statement! Sorry for being so harsh, but!

[Insert rallying posts from beloved friends, leaping to my defense, here.]

Seeing this Facebook friend’s connection to survivors, I waited a couple of days and then invited him to “like” another of my favorite projects – one for adult survivors of child abuse and their supporters. I would much rather talk with him there.

One way or another, though, his was the criticism that pushed me to call my mother. Strange, really.

During the session and since, I have been accused of…

A) Lying.

B) Digging for gold.

C) Being stupid.

D) Selling fear.

But the accusation that I wasn’t soft enough is what got to me. If there’s one thing I have counted on, it’s caring at least as much as the situation requires.

Suddenly, I was face to face with the value I place on softness. Spending soul-time with Stari (our rescued starling) as she sang on my shoulder, poked at my ear, swooped down for a morning bath, I kept working out the question, what is my relationship to softness?

Not long ago I read a poem, written by an American poet, who furrowed her brow at the screeching cries of grackles and starlings. The poem appeared by a photograph of a robin, or some such lovely bird, displaying a ripe cranberry in his proud and honored beak. Let us be like the sweet-singing robin, the poem seemed to cry, and not the screeching starling.

But this, I’m practically certain, was an American poem. In Ireland, you can see a five-minute movie on the breath-taking magnificence of a dancing flock of starlings. In Iceland, you might dote on the starling the way your American cousin reveres the robin.

Starlings, in the U.S., are out of context. Even in her super-cool room with playthings and celery leaves and frequent adoring visitors, Stari is out of context in this place.

But I find myself wondering, how does her presence change the context?

How might anyone’s presence change the context?

And now I come back to softness.

What place might softness have in the many contexts of my life?

After hours of chewing on this, I’ve come to see how deeply I value softness, even my own softness – how grounded I need to be in my own sensitivity, how central I feel it to be to any meaningful action. Softness is the center of any living creature: our organs, our heart, our guts.

It’s not easy for me, I admit, to face an Inbox of hate mail, thinly veiled threats, state and industry leaders who speak words I don’t believe. But I am moved to action by the softness deep within me. It’s not that I borrow toughness; my softness supports me to get tough.

(CodePink Women for Peace of Bismarck, ND)

And sometimes, softness is the thing we need the most.

Sometimes, softness can change the context altogether –

Like the times when I dial those numbers and say, “Hi, Mom.”

Clarifying Fire: On Pursuing the Ministry…At Last

Here I sit in the North Dakota capitol, on a well-worn, faded, copperish-colored folding chair, crossing my legs, though I know it isn’t good for me, trying to unclench my jaw because it seems that would be good for me.

Here, among more than 100 lobbyists, reporters, and government employees, I am one of a handful of people who is not being paid to sit in this, the largest of the legislature’s hearing rooms. On my too-crossed lap, I hold copies of my legislative testimony – a full page of words on the risks of hydraulic fracturing, the need for the EPA, and one surprise.

My words, when at last I say them, will begin this way:

My name is Karen Van Fossan. I am a seminary student at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, preparing to be an ordained minister, and I am also a long-time North Dakotan. I am here today as a matter of conscience and faith.”

It’s a bit like proposing marriage by writing it in the sky, I know.

But after these difficult years of discernment, my path feels clear at my feet.

The legislative session, even this one-week special session, tends to bring a clarifying fire to my life. According to an astrologer in Eugene, Oregon, I have very little fire in my astrological chart – mostly air and earth, I am. Poetry or reality, there’s truth for me in this; I need to draw my fire from community. The legislative process, to one extent or another, has offered me a place to catch that fire: To the extent that it does, it does. To the extent that it doesn’t, I believe in my bones that it should, that this should be a place where, together, we shape our community; and so it gives me fire in this way, too.

But it’s not just press conferences, telephone calls, and email alerts that ignite this earnest fire; and it’s not just speaking – if indeed I speak – before this bustling room of North Dakotans. I realize, when I’m in times like these, that being called to something is not just what I love to do.

Being called feels like…being called, I guess. It’s the things I cannot keep myself from doing, the path I cannot keep myself from walking, the choices that give the path of my life momentum.

Waiting here, I feel myself sitting in the middle place, the place of overlapping. This is the place where ministers get to live, it seems to me – the place where despair meets hope, and sorrow finds dignity, and our age-old history unfolds in the life of this world.

But for now, I sit on this folding chair. Men in suits (and a woman or two) step to the mic to testify to the Joint Appropriations Committee. We haven’t even begun to begin the hydraulic fracking debate. It’s all flood relief and housing – fascinating stuff if presented another way.

As I pass in and out of listening, I make doodles and cartoons to mediate the love affair sparking deep within me, between anxiety and ennui. A suit without a face, I draw. A nondescript teen. A forest you can’t see, for the trees.

I hypnotize myself with the giant red envelope, as it passes before the microphone – the envelope of amendments being the only touch of panache in this place. I marvel at the overhead lights, casting a greenish sheen over each blond head of hair.

This is the room where, years ago, I first opened my mouth – and heart – before a legislative committee.

We lost that one, too.

I shouldn’t say “too.” We haven’t begun to lose this yet. We won’t begin to lose it until I open my great big mouth and speak of prayer.

Paragraph three of my testimony:

I have spent many days in the halls of the North Dakota legislature; I’ve heard morning prayers, afternoon prayers, and overheard discussions about the weekly prayer group. I’m not certain what you pray for when you pray. But I know too many folks in western North Dakota whose prayers are filled with desperation.”

I’m sure you get my point:

Are we praying? For what? For whom?

But who am I to use the word “prayer” before these men? I am a smallish woman, often mistaken for young. Can I step before these men, plus the occasional woman, and use a word that is meant to see their souls – a word that will open my soul when I stand before them?

Suddenly, I remind myself of the women I’ve heard preach on such things:

Sister Maris Stella. Sister Kathleen. Reverend Lyn.

Suddenly, I draw a mighty courage through my feet.

Suddenly, I’m –

on.

I’m…on.

The room has fallen silent somehow. The only motion in all of this sprawling room is my voice.

Maybe it isn’t my voice at all. Maybe it is my grandmother’s voice, my grandfather’s voice, an ancestor’s voice –

Maybe it could be a voice of fire.

“How I Survived my Former Foster Daughter’s High-School Wedding” OR “I’m the Maid of Honor? Are You Sure?” OR “I Came Out at the Mormon Church. So There.”

There were many surprises surrounding my former foster daughter’s recent wedding. Among them were:

1. The wedding.

2. The wedding.

3. The wedding.

Many aspects of the wedding and festivities took me by surprise, probably because I’ve never been much of a wedding-goer. Reflecting on my life, especially on my twenties, I’m not sure how I managed to avoid so many celebrations of lifelong love (or thereabouts). Is this why I’ve moved around so much, so I’m always 1,000 miles from the nearest wedding?

Believe me, I’ve weighed this aversion heavily when considering whether I’m truly called to the ministry. I’m not sure how many ministers get away with asking such questions as: Why don’t you – I don’t know – return that elegant wedding cake and go on living in sin?

Wedding Cake(Photo courtesy of Eric Lim Photography.)

Of course, I don’t honestly believe in sin – not sins of mutual love, anyway. (But we’ll get back to this.)

There were a few more surprises at the wedding:

My former foster daughter, like her new husband, are just eighteen years old. They have one final year of high school ahead of them. They did not “have to get married” – they just wanted to.

Here are two more surprises:

1. I learned that I was the maid of honor when the Mormon pastor said, “I’d like to invite Karen Van Fossan to share a few words, as the maid of honor.”

2. When I came out during my “few words, as the maid of honor,” I was struck neither by lightning, nor by the pastor.

And finally, two last details that may not be surprises:

1. Michaela, an 18-year-old high school student, has the right to get married.

2. I do not.

Gentle reader, if you’re feeling disappointed in me, noting my preoccupation with my own rights (or lack thereof), when I should have been celebrating a young woman’s exercise of hers – I can tell you this:

My few-words-as-the-maid-of-honor rang out with kindness and good cheer. They made her mother cry (in a good way, I promise). They led Michaela and Nick to say, as soon as I was done, “We love you, too.”

And they do.

Almost as much as I love them.

But I’m jealous of them. I admit it. Not in the way Michaela’s best friend, the best man, seems naturally prickly about the union his childhood friend has made. But in a way that unsettles my soul.

With a full heart, with honoring remarks and modest gifts, I entered into this sacred place, this sacred celebration of love, as someone whose lifelong love is somehow separate from this sacredness.

I have played many roles in the drama of Michaela’s life: teacher, confidante, foster mother, friend, even maid of honor.

In the context of her wedding, in the context of the faith that she has chosen, I am all those things and more:

Because I love my partner, I am a sinner.

But I don’t feel like a sinner.

Not now. Not in this way.

Sixteen years ago, when Kris and I were first coming out, I felt guilty for every sensation in my body and my soul. It was as if I had a fire-and-brimstone, hell-and-damnation minister hiding in my bones, crying out, “NO!” every time my heart sang, “YES!”

It took me years to ask how that stalker got in my bones. And how he finally left, I can’t say.

Maybe it helped to have this unspoken boycott of legal unions. You never know when a wedding will leap from a joyful celebration of two presumably heterosexual people — into a full-out celebration of mandated heterosexuality. For instance:

Even as Michaela’s maid of honor, I found myself fidgeting through a sermon that asserted the “right of a child” to be raised by “both a woman and a man.”

The irony here was thick for me, considering all the reasons Michaela had entered foster care. 

But it’s not just the Mormon church that holds these views on sin, I know. As Kris and I muddled through a seven-month application period to serve as Michaela’s foster parents, we discovered, near the end, that the process had been stalled again. The supervisor wasn’t sure that our fifteen-year relationship was committed enough.

I’m pretty sure a lawyer friend (and you know who you are) took it upon herself to put the fear of God (not to mention the ACLU) into the suddenly open heart of the supervisor.

The truth is, though, even when Michaela spent most weekends here – taping a giant, frog-shaped name tag to her door – nobody ever placed her in our home. She said she wanted to live with us, we said we wanted to welcome her, her guardian ad litem was behind it. Even with our hard-won foster care license – along with two fire extinguishers, a new smoke alarm, and a first-aid kit in the cabinet – the county never sanctioned who we were, the powers-that-be never gave us their blessing.

From any official perspective, Kris and I seem awfully low on blessings.

Hold on. Instant message.

Michaela wants to know:

Can we come over on Sunday?”

They come over most every Sunday. They like to play with the dogs, dote on the cats, and sing the ABCs with our rescued starling.

Two teens come to our house – to sing with us and eat our homemade lunch.

We never stop being surprised.

Stari’s Tree…and Jasmine

When I was a kid, I had this curious revelation that sometimes I could think thoughts about others which they were not thinking about themselves. Since that time, I’ve not only wondered, Who am I? but also, Who am I to you?

It’s like my favorite cartoon. In the first panel, there is a dog and a person. The person shares food and water and kindness with the dog. The dog thinks, Wow. She brings me everything I need. She must be a God. In the second panel, there is a cat and a person. The person shares food and water and kindness with the cat. The cat thinks, Wow. She brings me everything I need. I must be a God.

I feel honored and also overwhelmed sometimes, imagining who I must be in my canines’ lives.

Except for Jasmine.

Jasmine, our German-shepherd-husky mix, doesn’t give me that old exuberance anymore. These days, now that she’s reached the distinguished age of 17½, with a corresponding loss of hearing and muscle mass in her hips, I’m just not the person I used to be. I’ve developed annoying habits, like running a sling beneath her torso and carrying her outside.

This action can be ground for fierce reprisal. Her hips may be weak, but the speed of her snapping jaws is the stuff of video games.

Hiking with Jasmine along endless wild places, I used to imagine a cord of light, stronger than a leash, reaching from my heart to hers, and back again.

Into the woods(Photo courtesy of Elsie, esq.)

Somehow, until recently, I forgot that cord. Maybe after Jasmine’s coma this winter, the event that broke our hiking life, I was too exhausted to remember.

For countless days and nights, Jasmine was no Jasmine I had ever known. She slept without waking, eyes open wide, everything falling out of her. I moved my office into the living room, to spend my days beside her. My partner and I slept, if we slept at all, next to her on the floor. The other creatures gathered around, keeping the family vigil.

In those tearful days, I let everything go, all my expectations of what life could be with Jasmine. I let go of our hiking. I let go of our climbing, leaping, swimming, even walking. I let go of Jasmine’s own particular way of greeting me, jumping up to her hind legs, giving me her back.

But maybe I abandoned too much between us.

Like the rice cakes.

For reasons I’ve never discovered, rice cakes are Jasmine’s favorite snack on Earth. Jasmine and I are the only two people I know who’ve ever daydreamed about a pre-packaged rice cake, the way many American women fantasize about chocolate. (I mean this.)

As a kid, one of my cousins was saddled with a mess of annoying allergies. And so, when his family came to visit, our kitchen counter was spread with every (strange and wonderful) wheat-and-then-some replacement I had ever tried. One day, knowing these items were for Antony and not me, fully aware that his supplies were not endless, I gathered up all my audacity, and I asked my aunt:

“Could I have a…rice cake?”

Jasmine asks me this question every day. As long as she’s eating her regular fare, I can scarcely refuse.

Even in these final years, Jasmine holds my gaze the way she always held it, like a current passing between us, holding us in between time.

For me, this look is sacred – one I cherish from my dog…and never quite expected from my starling.

In the world according to Stari, the whole world is animated by charming and marvelous creatures who are clearly part bird (they talk, they sing, they spend time with family). But they’re also part something else (they’re delightfully sturdy and very good for landing on).

To Stari, I must also be part tree.

Starlings(Photo courtesy of Col Ford & Natasha de Vere.)

I wish Jasmine would see me this way. I wish Jasmine would get up and play. I wish Jasmine would give me a kiss on the nose. Or something!

But I’m not really angry with her. It’s kind of the opposite of being angry with her. Maybe I’m angry with the she who went away, the she who doesn’t kick along the river mud anymore, or tear across the prairie when she hears me call her name, or connect me to a whole world of wild, wild things.

To be with Jasmine now, I am called to meet her where she is – or not at all.

So I’m learning a new-found patience – attentive enough, finally, to applaud the strength she’s gaining back, the way she lifts her paw so I can scritch her on her chest, the honest-to-goodness truth that she hardly snaps at me anymore.

Like the wild things we’ve always been, I am of her pack. She is of my family. We take care of our own. If and when she’s ready to go, I trust she’ll let me know. Until then, I’ll honor her, allowing her to teach me all that she can teach me – like how to make rice cakes the basis for a relationship, how to take a fall with pride, how to face the end of your days with a fire in the heart.

Most of all, she’s teaching me how to stand in the balance, right here in the middle place – in between letting go and holding on.

Something like a tree. 

The Deer, the Mud, and My Motto…on Being Yin Sometimes

I know where I’m going. And I know who’s going with me.

My mother and her husband-to-be sang this tune at their wedding.

If the laws of the land should suddenly change, and my partner and I should suddenly marry, I might borrow that song — with different lyrics:

I have no flippin’ idea where I’m going. But thank god (or whomever) I have some flippin’ idea who’s going with me.

Unconventional lyrics, I know. But if we ever have a wedding, it’s destined to be unconventional.

(Photo courtesy of Kristi Rasmussen)

It’s curious to me (on a good day) that I should have reached this point in my life, only to lose my path. Am I going to be a minister? Or not?

When my partner, before being my partner, had endured the strain of three star-crossed years as my best friend — and my best friend only — she finally looked in my eyes and said, “Who are we really?”

Naturally, upon hearing these words, I fell into a deep, abiding sleep.

It was evening, after all. The sky had been dark for hours. Her couch was warm and cozy.

Though I wasn’t on the couch. I was sitting on the floor.

I’d always been prone to fainting — which I staunchly termed “passing out” to defray accusations of being a lightweight in my grade school years. Still, I’d never been known to commit to full-out, text-book narcolepsy.

Visiting seminary this summer, the very kind Admissions Director said, after looking at all the projects on my resumé, that he didn’t expect me to seem so grounded.

Grounded? Was he kidding? There was nothing more I wanted than a little patch of ground. Or maybe a warm, cozy couch. Or heck — a bit of flooring.

I didn’t say those words aloud. Nor did I say:

Who am I really?

And who has time to wait for an answer to that question? Animals need to be fed. Children need to be taught. A few of us need to keep our eye on the North Dakota legislature.

My good friend Tim, a senator I met while keeping an eye on that North Dakota legislature, has a clear and direct motto to guide his path:

Let your life speak.

My new motto (which I promise to reveal) is more than a little wordy, especially in this age of three-word mission statements: “Create. Innovate. Inspire.” Or “We enhance life.” Or “Gear. Passion. Sports.”

Still, as I inched along the banks of the winding Red River, my motto took a hold of me.

As soon as I set out, I found myself enchanted with the gray, uneven shore. Where the flood waters have receded, the sun has cracked the mud into thick, parched shapes, like the skin of an elephant or the patterns on a turtle’s shell.

The shapes, as it happened, were infinitely less parched than they appeared. While feeling myself getting sucked ever closer to Earth’s core, I tested this experience against the cartoon depictions of quicksand in my youth.

Still — I kept my cool. “Keeping my cool,” the current subtitle of my life, could even pass the brevity test for post-postmodern mission statements (though it isn’t that new motto I’ve been talking about).

I haven’t necessarily liked being “cool” more than “hot,” yin more than yang. In Chicago, on a field trip with the Blue Gargoyle (what a name, huh?) Family Literacy program, our whole group stepped through the doorway of the Field Museum. And wow! There, right there, was this curious invention. The wide screen on the wall could read the heat from your body and show your reflection, something like a shadow, the impression that your body made in heatwaves. The very impassioned seven-year-old boy who was walking (no, I wouldn’t call it walking) beside me registered like a red, red presence of warmth and life. When no one else was looking, I moseyed toward the machine. It appeared as if I almost wasn’t there.

This skill — or affliction — came in handy on the Metra train. More evenings than not, I could so condense my presence that the conductor didn’t see me — and didn’t sell me a ticket. Looking back, I realize I was defrauding the whole Metra system. But my rationale was clear back then: if I’m cursed with the cloak of subtlety, I’m might as well put it to use.

Along the Red River, I discovered another use, absent of fraud or thermal invention.

I got to share the riverbank with a deer.

At first, it didn’t happen that way. I came upon two fawns, graceful and afraid. They looked at me, picked up their legs, and good-bye. In the distance, I could hear the grinding, grating sounds of a road under construction. I worried that I had sent them to greater peril.

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Bry)

Then, an hour later, as I stepped along the elephant-shore, I spotted another deer, maybe the mother. She froze, as did I, twenty feet away, with cottonwood trees between us. She lifted her back leg, high, ready to run.

But I softened my gaze, sending my glance toward the shore, looking away from the creature. I pulled my spirit in, gently and deliberately, holding it under my skin. I walked with soft feet, keeping my back to the deer, walking with a side step. I talked, as if to myself, in the voice I have learned from nestlings.

When I finally let myself peek, I saw that she was there. Slowly, slowly, just like I was walking, she took herself away along the shore.

Doe(Photo courtesy of Jason Empey)

As we parted company, these words took root in my mind:

I feel good when I am where the animals are. And if my shoes are muddy, all the better.

Probably, I will never see this gentle doe again.

But, muddy step by muddy step, maybe I’ll see myself.

The Crucifix and My German-Shepherd-Husky (or Maybe Coyote)

I have gathered myself into bed beneath a crucifix, something that hasn’t happened very often in my life. More than once tonight, I have caught myself saying, “I am so happy,” for only my ears to hear it. I admit that this joy is not inspired by the crucifix on the wall — but it’s also not encumbered by the African-looking Jesus on the mahogany-looking cross above my head.

This happiness has unfolded because I’m just where I wish to be: getting away for a self-declared retreat; staying with the Presentation Sisters in Fargo; settling into guest room #2, also called the African room, just down the hall from the Appalachian, Peruvian, and Native American rooms, not too far from the one unaffiliated guest room (with a box of pretty afghans on the bed).

This modest spot with its humble twin bed and unassuming African art might be the quietest place I have ever been.

The second quietest place holds a different kind of quiet. Cross Ranch State Park in central North Dakota, not as far from home as this, is a place of pulsing quiet, a place that breathes quiet. The wind in that place shivers through the high, high cottonwood trees, dancing beside the river, also dancing. I imagine the wind and the river as two strands in a braid. The third strand…I don’t know. I wonder what the third would be. Creatures. Leaping fish. Coyotes in the distance. Deer, both living and dead, a collection of bones.

Jasmine – our oldest dog, fox-colored and seventeen, our German-shepherd-husky (or maybe coyote) mix, survivor of skunk, porcupine quill, and life-threatening, three-day coma – once carried the leg of a deer in her jaw for all of an afternoon. I joked that there were thirteen legs joining the hike at Cross Ranch that day. Of course, had I ever known that deer, my joke would have been repugnant, not to mention impossible to make. But I never met the deer whose leg gave my dog such joy, almost as much as her own legs were giving.

Jasmine has always kept step with the wild, sending me to places I otherwise might have missed – like the tomato juice aisle at the grocery store, for one. It started with a hike along the river, close to home. On calling her back, I stopped in my tracks. Sniff, sniff. I knew that scent. That smell, that odor, that stink. I was coming upon a skunk, and my nose knew it.

Imagine my consternation when the stink grew ever stronger, with every step my trotting dog took in my direction. I groaned as loud as a junior-varsity football team, getting an unfair penalty in a game they could otherwise win. Except I had no idea how to win this.

All I knew was: Our very carpeted, very absorbent trailer house was currently on the market, and that was the house, of course, where Jasmine lived. I also wondered if skunk spray might be toxic to her skin – and not just all my senses.

Long story short, I turned her pink.

Her hue was not my effort to gain favor with would-be buyers. It was just an untoward chemical reaction. I’d plunked down a bunch of money on an invention called “Skunk-Off,” but not enough money, I guess, since Jasmine continued smelling like a skunk-infused dog – with the slightest hint of “Skunk-Off” in her aura. At last, I had to resort to that infamous home remedy – filling the bath with water…and tomato juice…and dog.

Had I worked for Mary Kay, I might have been ecstatic to have a rose-colored animal. But the most I’ve done for Mary Kay was to volunteer as a make-up model, which, even with the discount, didn’t help me with my dog.

Long story short again, Jasmine’s perky color had no bearing on the stink. We had to take the trailer off the market.

And our dog? We loved her pink or blue or gold or whatever color she happened upon. Even today, when I catch a whiff of skunk, it’s not as sweet as jasmine flowers or honeysuckle or rose, but I’m a Pavlovian creature, too; it makes me feel…good.

I miss her in this African room, under the African crucifix, by the biblical passage from Micah, artfully rendered in black and white: “This is what Yahweh asks of you, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your god.”

Yahweh hasn’t spoken to me in years. That’s not the name I use, anyway. But here in this deep quiet that the sisters have gracefully shared, I’m nurturing a tenderness for the writer named Micah, the artist who crafted this crucifix, and, as always, my dog. I’m missing her more than I’ve missed her in many years.

To think I almost lost her. Up and down the frozen river, she made her fox-like tracks that day. She was such a wild creature then, my gratitude felt like a living presence every time she returned.

Then – a pack of coyotes, fast and proud on the diamond-like river, came running toward my dog. She stood on the ice, yards from me, ignoring my calls to come back. Instead, she faced the coyotes. She joined the pack of coyotes. Among the pack, she ran across the ice – far away. Smaller and smaller, her body became, keeping pace with the pack, heading into the cottonwood trees on the opposite side of the river.

I didn’t call her back. If these were Jasmine’s people, I would let her have her people. But I wept from deep in my belly, watching until there was no one left to see.

And then a speck appeared. One, lone speck. Growing. Nearing. Unharmed, unscathed. Coming back.

To me.

Together, we walked humbly, or maybe we walked proudly. Yahweh, by any name, was probably there.