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Sleepaway Camp

 

It’s probably the heat that made me think of sleep away camp. I spent five summers in upstate New York, supposedly in the Berkshires, pretending it was cooler out of town. The memory that started the ball rolling was of Friday nights in the dining hall. The whole camp would eat together for that one meal, eating half-burned, half-raw, Kineret pre-frozen challahs, and singing Shabbat songs.

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“I could eat.”

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“Food? Where?”

Friday night to Saturday in camp was a big production. First, on Friday afternoons, we had to clean up the field in front of our bunks, then we had to clean our bunks, and then shower, and then dress up, in something other than shorts and t-shirts. All of the kids on A-side (ages 8-12) would go to one Shabbat service, and all of the kids on B-side (ages 12-16) would go to another, and then we came together for dinner in the dining hall, with all of the counselors, and visiting parents, and staff, and various random adults. And we would sing. The acoustics were glorious! And everyone joined in, even the coolest of the cool kids.

Friday night services at camp were a little awkward, because we were all dressed up and self-conscious and mixing with the other age groups with kids we didn’t know as well. And it was formal and serious, something else we weren’t used to. But once we got into the dining hall something changed. Everyone knows food. We sat by bunk, with our counselors, and listened to the noise level grow as everyone else entered the building. Then we went up to the front tables to pick up extra challah and extra chicken and potatoes. And once we finished eating, and cleaned our tables, we started singing Friday night songs, and even if you didn’t know what the words meant, the huge sound of clapping hands and stomping feet pulled everyone along. There were call and response songs, and bouncy songs, and slow, sweet songs.

It was perfect. I could forget for a moment about the cool kids at the next table who wouldn’t even deign to make eye contact with me, and just sing and feel connected.

After dinner we went off by age groups, and the night dwindled down, and we returned to our bunks in the dark, with only the bathroom lights to guide us (because we weren’t supposed to touch the light switches until the Sabbath ended).

Saturday was taken up with prayer, and some sort of “meaningful” activity, or napping. We ate cold cuts for lunch, and macaroni salad, and egg salad, and Butterscotch pudding for dinner (because the kitchen staff wasn’t allowed to cook, or even heat up any food, on the Sabbath).

On Sunday morning, we went back to the normal pace of life. We went to prayer services every morning, back in our shorts and t-shirts, and thinking about other things. We had to clean our bunks, and go to swim lessons, and play some god awful sport in the hot sun, and paste pompoms on Styrofoam cups or some such thing.

There were no dogs at camp, and I missed Delilah and her restful presence. Even her barking would have been okay with me, compared to some of the shrieking that went on at camp. Had no one ever seen a spider before getting to camp? I mean, really.

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My Delilah, looking much more serious than she really was.

I’ve always felt like there was a novel in those five years of camp, or a memoir, or something. But then, I tend to think everything belongs in a book, if it happened to me.

Camp was a constant balancing act between enjoying the freedom of a whole world of mostly children, and the strangeness of being away from home, and feeling the deep down fear that I would never see my Mommy again.

The memories come back in sharp bursts: like the campout on the hill; and the girl who ran through a glass door; and the girl who was stung by 39 wasps; Color War, when my bunk was split down the middle, and my counselor was on the opposite team; the Violent Femmes singing A Blister in the Sun; sitting on the stone steps by the lake, and singing Little Boy Blue and The Man in the Moon; or lining up in the community building to play Human Foosball.

In a way I felt outside of my body even when it was all happening the first time around, and not just now as I look back and try to narrate.

A lot of time at camp was spent keeping us busy, and keeping us Jewish, rather than doing things that actually interested me. There was no writing class, or voice, or dance, or acting class. I had no TV, or access to a phone. We had one musical show per year, per age group, and we had to audition, so sometimes I got a role, and sometimes I didn’t. We went swimming twice a day, and chose between aerobics, or softball, or basketball, or soccer for sports. In the afternoons there was woodworking, or radio, or arts and crafts, or photography, or nature, and I wasn’t much good at any of it.

But Friday night was my night. I didn’t feel left out, or weird, on Friday night. Everyone sang. Everyone was there, and I fit in.

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Just like baby Cricket,

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and not-so-baby Ellie.

The Little Bird

 

The morning we brought Ellie home, I was out with Cricket in the morning and we came across a little robin, sort of hopping on the walkway in stutter steps, and then belly flopping onto the grass. Cricket had had a moment of uneasiness with her legs a few minutes earlier, possibly as a result of the ACE she takes to tolerate grooming, so I was extra sensitive to motor problems in animals at that particular moment. When I tried to get closer to the robin to see what was wrong, though, she hopped behind a line of bushes and disappeared.

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Not the exact bird, but a relative.

We saw the robin again in the afternoon, when she was bravely crossing the lawn to the tree-side, in her faltering little hops. The bird was able to sort of hop/fly up onto the first step of the retaining wall, where she could sit and rest for a bit. I worried that there was something wrong with her wings and she needed help, but each time I got close to her the robin freaked out and hopped away.

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Another relative, giving me the eye.

When we took Cricket and Ellie out for their first official walk that evening, the robin was sitting on the lawn a few feet in front of our door. Mom said that her speckled breast meant that she was young, less than a year old, and maybe just learning to fly for the first time, rather than experiencing a serious injury.

And by our next walk, the robin was gone. If she was able to fly, even a short distance away, then maybe her motor issues were temporary, just like Cricket’s. I’d like to think that she was testing her wings, and making new friends, and starting the next phase of her life. Just like me. I’ve been taking these stutter steps towards my future for a long time now, unsure if I can do it, unsure if my difficulties are just growing pains or permanent disability. I need to take a lot of breaks to rest and re-group, but even if I have to hop instead of fly most of the time, I keep going. Just like the little bird.

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Mama robin watching over everything.

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p.s. Ellie is fitting right in.

 

The Butterfly Anniversary

 

 

Butterfly has been gone for a year now. The plan was to wait until after the one year anniversary to look for another dog, but then Ellie appeared a couple of weeks early and we couldn’t say no. I’m still not done mourning for Butterfly, and I’ll never be “over” her. No one will fill the Butterfly shaped void in my heart, but I think Butterfly is thinking of us and hoping for the best, for Cricket, and for all of us.

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My Butterfly

The Butterfly Bush seems to be thriving. Mom believes it’s because she chose a spot with good sunlight, and carefully removed the encroaching Hasta leaves, and makes sure to give it enough water and prune the old blossoms. I think it’s because I make sure to give the Butterfly Bush a fresh raspberry each time I give one to Cricket, from our out-of-control raspberry bushes.

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Raspberry-fed Butterfly bush

The anniversary has been on my mind for a while, especially because Cricket turned eleven this year, and I worry about her health. I can’t tell if my anxieties are really about her, or about a fear of reliving Butterfly’s health issues. God forbid I’d ever have to give Cricket daily shots. She’d kill me first.

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“I still have teeth, Mommy.”

We had a scare with Cricket recently, a few weeks before Ellie came home. I woke up, and wandered into the bathroom to brush my teeth, and found my keys, and put on my shoes, and still there was no sign of Cricket. I checked Mom’s room, in case they were both gone and the morning walk had already been taken care of, but Mom was still sleeping, and there was no sign of Cricket on the bed. I checked all of Cricket’s favorite hiding spots in the apartment, under my bed, under her couch, in the kitchen, by the front door, but I couldn’t find her. I was starting to freak out and went back into Mom’s room to, not so calmly, ask her where Cricket was. And that’s when I finally saw Miss Cricket, disappearing under her grandma’s bed, very slowly. I was reassured that she was still alive, and not reenacting my ever present flashbacks to Butterfly’s last weeks, and the middle of the night crises, and hospitalizations, were still reverberating. But why was Cricket hiding under the bed? Was she ill?

My only diagnostic option was to invite her for a walk, and see if she would come out from under the bed. It took her a few minutes to accept my invitation, and she walked very slowly down the stairs, and outside, and started to go into poopy position right on the brick walkway, which isn’t like her. I inched her over to the grass to do her business, and as she stood back up, I finally saw the problem. Miss Cricket had a poopy butt. She did not appreciate my laughing at her pain, but I was so relieved to find out that she was just trying to prevent the inevitability of a bath, instead of having some kind of mortal illness, that I couldn’t help myself.

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“This is so undignified.”

Cricket made sure to shake her newly clean butt in every direction once her bath was over, and she raced around the apartment in a frenzy, and gave me the evil eye for the next few hours, but really, I didn’t care. She was clean and healthy and sticking around. What else could possibly matter?

 

 

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Don’t tell Cricket, but she is very close to accepting her new sister. Butterfly would be proud.

Welcome Home, Ellie

 

We got a call from Cricket’s groomer, last Friday, saying that she had a five-year-old Havanese female and would we want to meet her. She’d rescued the dog from a breeder, but then she realized she didn’t have the time and energy for another dog. We had asked her to keep her eyes open, and so, she thought of us.

 

My original plan was to wait until the end of my internship, in early August, to start looking for a dog, but the call came on Cricket’s eleventh birthday, about two weeks before the one year anniversary of Butterfly’s death, and I’d like to believe that the timing is a sign that she’s the one for us. Ellie is a breeding dog, like Miss B, with mainly white hair and a compact build, like Miss B, but she doesn’t really remind me of Butterfly. She reminds me more of Dobby, the house elf in Harry Potter, with her big eyes, and her fear of being hit, and her uncertainty about how to manage freedom.

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Miss Ellie

Ellie checked a few boxes for me right away: smaller than Cricket, not a puppy but not a senior either, Havanese (hypoallergenic, non-shedding, good-tempered companion dogs). But we found out that Ellie had had her “barker” removed by the breeder, and was very skittish around humans, for a number of possible reasons. Mom was freaked out by the no “barker” idea, because, what is a dog without a bark?

We decided to go ahead and brought Cricket in for a haircut on Saturday morning, to turn her back into a recognizable dog, and to introduce her to Ellie and see if they could get along. Cricket sniffed Ellie and Ellie sniffed Cricket, and war didn’t break out, so we decided to take her home for a trial visit. The groomer gave us the supplies she’d already bought for Ellie, including cans of wet food, grain-free treats, wee wee pads and a doggy bed, plus her harness and leash. She said that, if we decided to keep her, we could pay her back for her spaying and shots, and then she’d be ours.

She doesn’t respond automatically to “Ellie,” so it’s unclear if that’s been her name all along or not. She has salt and pepper hair on her ears, and I thought “Pepper” might fit her, but Mom worried that it sounds too much like other “P” words, and could cause confusion, so we’re sticking with “Ellie.” She has a long back, and short legs, and her nose is longer than Cricket’s. Her ears sit up like pig tails, and her eyes are huge. She eats very quickly and would seemingly eat everything in the house, if we gave her a chance, so no more leaving kibble out for Cricket all day.

 

Early on, Ellie paced through the whole apartment, to check things out, and even went under Cricket’s couch, while Cricket watched, horrified. I think some message must have been sent, silently, that Ellie should never go under that couch again, because she has stayed clear.

 

We still have her in her harness all day, because the process of taking it off and putting it back on freaks her out. Even clipping on her leash for a walk terrifies her. She lets me pick her up, sometimes. Other times she turns away from me as if I am the bogey (wo)man from her nightmares.

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“You’re so scary.”

She doesn’t know what to do with herself overnight yet. I’ve put her on my bed, but the slightest sound scares her off and she jumps to the floor and wanders through the apartment, using the living room rug as her wee wee pad, because she can’t remember that her wee wee pad is by the front door. We gently remind her where to pee, and clean up after her, and praise her when she pees outside, but I’m not sure she’s able to take it in yet. She’s started to play with toys, even pouncing on a ball when it was thrown for her. And every once in a while she gives us licks when we pet her head. She’s warmed up to Mom faster than to me, asking for uppies and sitting on her lap for a little while during the day, but I’m catching up.

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“I love Grandma.”

 

Ellie is a gift, but I keep worrying that I didn’t choose her, and she just fell into my lap by luck. And I don’t trust luck, or fate, to do right by me. Part of my uneasiness is her uneasiness. She’s very skittish with humans, and when she stares at me, I worry that she’s scared of me, rather than interested. If I turn the page of a book, she stares at me, worried, but then she flops back down into her resting pose, where she looks almost at ease, stretching her legs and lifting her chin onto the rim of her bed.

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“Excuse me, I’m stretching here.”

 

I’m sure I had second thoughts with Butterfly too when she first came home, with her health issues, and her tendency to shut down and not interact at first. But she was the right dog for me at that moment and the fact is, Ellie is going to blossom over time, and she will have her own lessons to teach me, and to teach Cricket. Butterfly taught us unconditional love, persistence, and resilience. I don’t know what Ellie will teach me, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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“Me too!”

Mom was right, though, the silence was eerie. Ellie didn’t bark at all at first. She listened to Cricket’s barking with interest, and/or fear, but she didn’t make a sound, just opened her mouth a little bit and closed it again. Mom thought she heard a high pitched bark one day, not from Cricket, but we weren’t sure. Then, Wednesday night, after my long day, I came home to Ellie and Cricket waiting for me at the door, both jumping up to greet me. And then, Ellie barked, again and again and again. Her bark is high pitched and light, as if she has a sore throat, but she has a lot to say and she wants to be heard.

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“I just need to practice.”

 

There was one more sign. The first morning after Ellie’s first night with us, a brown butterfly came flying through the living room, flitting everywhere frantically, seeming to sniff the air, and sniff both dogs, to take stock of the situation. It made me think that maybe Miss Butterfly had sent her, to let us know that Ellie is the right one for us.

So, we wrote the check, and called the vet to have Ellie’s records transferred, and Ellie is officially ours. And I don’t even think Cricket minds, too much.

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“Oy.”

Vacation

 

Possibly as an escape, I’ve noticed myself imagining trips around the world, like, visiting my high school friend in Israel, or wandering through the Luxembourg gardens in Paris, or trying out my tiny cache of Spanish in Mexico or Barcelona. I want to go back to Prince Edward Island, where we went camping when I was three and four years old, to see it again in person. Then to Montreal, to see what French bagels taste like, or what Yiddish flavored French sounds like. I want to go on a cruise to Alaska, or Newfoundland. I want to see more of the world, but not the hot spots. I can’t deal with the hot spots. I’d have to go to Israel in the winter in order to bear it. I’d like to go on the Orient Express, or something like it, and write mysteries as I go. I want to go to New Zealand and see all of the places Mom took pictures of on her trip ten years ago.

But I worry. Vacations have never quite gone the way I hoped, if only because I bring myself with me. I don’t get a vacation from self-loathing, or exhaustion, or physical pain. I want to be someone who can walk all day through the streets of Paris, or Montreal, or Venice (unless Venice is all canals at this point), but I know I can’t do that. I’d wipe out in the first hour and need to lie down and wrap myself in heating pads just to make it to day two.

And Cricket is a real obstacle. I’m not sure there’s any place Cricket would be willing to stay, without her humans, for more than two minutes. We used to go for weekend trips upstate, or to DC, and bring Cricket (and Butterfly) along, but Cricket is a lot of work on a trip, and doesn’t do much to ingratiate herself to outsiders. She’s a special horror in elevators.

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Miss Butterfly, with her roll of paper towels, on a road trip.

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Miss Cricket, helping Grandma drive.

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“Get me out of this elevator, right now!”

The other option is to go by myself and leave Cricket with her grandma at home, but that sounds awful to me. I had this idea for a trip across Europe, to follow in my mom’s footsteps from her solo trip when she was eighteen years old, and stayed in youth hostels, and went to acting camp in the south of France, and visited the Aran Islands, because they were the star of her favorite play. But I wouldn’t want to take that trip without her there to tell me what happened where and how things have changed since then.

And then there’s the logistics, like updating my passport, figuring out maps in strange cities, and getting any kind of clue about the exchange rate between dollars and euros. And would my cell phone even work? And, really, who could afford such a trip?

There’s one other thing that gives me pause.      My rabbi has a habit of saying that one of the few things he asks of his daughters is that they keep their passports up to date, just in case. And he doesn’t mean just in case they take a family trip to Greece. He means, just in case America spits us out as the strangers we are, and we have to be ready to run. This is my country. This is where I was born and where my parents, and three of my four grandparents, were born. This is my context. Long Island, New York, USA. It’s hard to see a vacation out of this country as a good thing, when in the back of my mind I’m afraid that I won’t be allowed back in, or won’t want to return, which would be even worse.

So, for now, I’m just going to live in my imagination, and practice my languages, and wonder what the trip would be like. Cricket likes this idea much better, too.

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Much, much better.

 

The Trump Effect

I haven’t been writing about politics much in here, for a while, partly because I know that I have bloggy friends with very different views from mine and I don’t want to make them feel unwelcome, and partly because I need a place to escape from politics. But I realized recently that I’ve been leaving out a big part of why I feel the way I feel every day. I tell you about school, and religion, and dogs, and grief, all of which are huge parts of my life, but I also watch the news every day, and I am deeply affected by what I see and hear there.

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“I never watch the news.”

My brother once said to me that, of everyone he knows, I am the least tolerant of liars, as if I have a block against it (which makes the whole writing novels thing pretty hysterical!). So watching a president who is this comfortable with lying really gets to me. The fact is, my father was a liar. He lied so well that he wasn’t sure, eventually, what was true and what was false. He lied to me about me. He used the “lie three times and they’ll believe the lie” rule. He made it so that I could tell the truth a hundred times, and no one would believe me, because his lie sounded better.

Having a president who triggers so many memories of my childhood has been difficult for me, separate from all of the actual, real world consequences of having this man as the president of my country. I grew up living in a reality war, where what I saw in front of me was regularly denied, muted, minimized, or altered completely. It’s hard to hold on to the truth when you feel like you’re the only one seeing it and believing it.

 

I know that there are good people who think that this president is worth the trouble, maybe because they see his overall goals as worth the methods he uses to reach them, or because they feel that he is laying bare the underbelly of politics, and showing us the real calculations involved, or maybe it’s all about the Supreme Court. I don’t know.

I appreciate the people on TV who try to make it all more bearable and understandable, explaining each time the norms, that I assumed were laws, are being trampled. But they have their limits too. I get very frustrated when people I usually like think it’s funny to laugh at Eric Trump, and his presumed status as the unloved son. If true, it’s nothing to laugh at, and if it’s not true, it’s cruel to suggest such a thing. Criticize him for what he says and does, not for something that is out of his control. The worst thing, recently, was hidden by the hullabaloo around Sam Bee using the C word about Ivanka Trump. When I watched her show, the night before, I was very angry because she said that Ivanka should dress up in her sexiest outfit, and go to her father, to convince him to change his policies. There have been many signs that Ivanka’s father has sexualized his relationship with her: in modeling photos, in interviews, and in how he touches her in public. I don’t know if there’s more to it than that, but all of that is what HE has done to HER. Implying that she is complicit in his abuse of her, and should actively take advantage of it, is cruel, and, fundamentally, unnecessary. Criticize Ivanka for her own moral lapses, and for excusing so much of her father’s behavior in public venues, but don’t use her possible status as a child sexual abuse victim against her. That’s the line that Sam Bee crossed in my mind. I don’t care about an epithet.

Given all of that, I still watch Sam Bee, and John Oliver, and Trevor Noah, and Steven Colbert. I watch Rachel Maddow regularly, because she lets me breathe for a few minutes every night. She’s a storyteller and a historian, and she’s able to put things in context for me in a way that headlines and screaming panels of experts generally can’t do. Though I wish she would stop telling me to “hold that thought” before commercial breaks, because usually it’s a thought I really don’t want to hold onto.

And then I watch Steven Colbert, and he lets me know that I’m not the only one who sees what I’m seeing and knows what I know, and he goes a step further and makes fun of it, making it just a little bit less overwhelming. I live for those moments. I could have used a Steven Colbert narrating my childhood, summarizing the crazy of each day with sympathy and understanding. It wouldn’t have changed the reality, but it could have made it more bearable.

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Company always makes things more bearable.

I believe that there is great power in holding people responsible for their actions, and making the truth visible, so that we can reckon with it. And humor is a great tool for pointing these truths out, and poking holes in the nonsense, and giving people a release valve for all of the anger and fear and stress that has been created. But, please, make fun of people for the things they do, and the things they can control, or choose not to control; don’t make fun of them for things they can’t change. And really, Trump provides plenty of material to choose from.

Cricket, thank god, has no idea what the people on the TV are saying. As long as she has her safe home and good food, she’s pretty sure everything’s going to be okay. I try hard to believe her.

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“If you hold a stick in your mouth it makes a smile, Mommy. You should try it.”

Friendship

Friendship is still something I’m not very good at. I’m friendly, and I have some friends, people I care about who care about me, but I’ve never figured out how to be a good, day to day friend to someone. I have friends who I can reach out to when big things happen, positive or negative, and I know that they will hear me, and they know that I will hear them. But I don’t have people I call every day, or every week. I’ve tried, very hard, to do better at this. I’ve tried to put myself in positions to have friends like that, but something always stops me.

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Cricket can relate.

There’s a constant monologue in my head judging what I say to other people. Was I friendly enough? Too friendly? Do they like me or think I’m a loser? It’s as if the closer I get to other people, the more rejectable I feel, and the more damage they can do to me. It’s easier to care about people from afar, but them I’m lonely and isolated, and that’s not good either.

I was better at mimicking friendship when I was a kid, doing all of the behaviors asked of me: listening, caring, and showing attention. But I was never very good at requiring friendship in return, or believing that I deserved it. If someone got angry at me, and said that I wasn’t being a good enough friend, I believed it. If someone said I wasn’t interesting enough to be their friend, I believed them. I didn’t like it, but it seemed true to me.

I like where I live now. I like that there are people who live all around me, and even without planning to, I can run into a neighbor (and her dog!) on a random laundry trip. But it’s so much easier to befriend dogs than people. First of all, they always have their own humans, so I don’t have to take responsibility for them. With other humans, I always feel like I’m supposed to help them, take care of them, and do things for them, and I feel disappointed when they don’t fix everything for me in return. With dogs I can just share a nice moment, offer affection and curiosity, and then move on. Except, I usually feel bereft and guilty for walking away from dogs too, as if I should have done more for them, or gotten more from the exchange.

My therapist once said that she assumed I had an attachment disorder, and that’s why I didn’t have more friends. She was so relieved when I fell in love, because it proved that I wasn’t completely detached, even though it also meant my heart was broken when he said goodbye. But the thing is, I never felt detached. If anything I felt more attached than I could stand.

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“Harrumph.”

One of the benefits of becoming a therapist is that I can focus on caring about other people, without requiring them to care about me in return. My job as a therapist is to give, and not to take, and that feels so much easier to me. I like being kind to people. I like helping people, and feeling compassion and understanding for people. But I don’t like being disappointed in people when I have expectations of them, or need things from them.

Cricket is a great customer for this kind of therapy, at least with me. She’s much more of a caretaker with her grandma: guarding her, listening to her, keeping her company. With me, she accepts my support and guidance and attention, and seems to be free of any burdens of care in return.

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Cricket guarding Grandma

I miss my Butterfly, though, because however much she needed me and needed my care, she always had room in her heart for me, and licked my hand to let me know she was with me. Cricket has tried to take on that role, every once in a while, when I scratch her under her chin, but the licks last only for a moment, and then she wants me to take her outside for her walk. And that’s okay with me, because she loves her walks and her joy is contagious.

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“Hi Mommy. Do you need lickies?”

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“Let’s go! There’s so much sniffing to do!”