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I want to swim

I have this idea, probably because it still feels vaguely like winter, that this summer I want to go swimming. I’ve barely gone swimming since I was a teenager, except maybe wading in once or twice at the beach. I got as far as buying a swimsuit, two times, but I couldn’t convince myself to wear them in public. Maybe if I’d lived in the era of bathing costumes for women, with ruffles and fabric covering the whole body, maybe then I could have gone swimming more often. But, still, maybe not.

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This is not my picture, but I wish it were

 

There’s something odd about a whole society expecting women, of all ages, to feel comfortable in skin tight Lycra, barely covering a third of the body. When did this happen? And why? There are certain adaptations available, like blouson tops, and skirts or swim shorts, but they mark you as overly modest and strange, if you wear them.

I had to swim every summer as a kid, at sleep away camp. And I couldn’t wear my t-shirt and shorts over my swimsuit when I went into the water, though I kept them on until the last possible second.

My fear of swimming is about more than how I look in a bathing suit, though. There’s also how I feel in a bathing suit – slimy, and trapped, and sick to my stomach. And then you get sandy, or covered in chlorine, or salt water, or sea weed. And really, who knows what’s in the water with you. And then there’s the breathing problem. I’ve always struggled to breathe correctly when I swim. I almost drowned a couple of times: once, when my father shoved me into the backyard pool fully dressed; and again when my father capsized our rented sailboat and I was caught under the hull.

I was also sexually abused in a swimming pool, as a little girl, by my friend’s older brother. So there’s that.

Given all of this, the mystery is why I would ever want to swim. But when summer comes and I’m choking from the heat and sweating to death, a pool starts to look good to me, and I feel left out and isolated. And I have this underlying belief that everything needs to be overcome, eventually, or else I’ve been wasting decades in therapy. Even though that’s really silly.

I’d rather swim in a pool than at the beach. A pool can be temperature controlled, and indoors, with clear water. And the ground can be level under your feet, depending on the pool. And you’re not trapped, because there are ladders out. But also, I don’t want to sit on the beach and get a tan. I don’t tan. I burn, or get sun poisoning. And I feel like a sheet of cookies left in the oven too long, after three minutes.

Ideally I would have my own pool, in my own backyard, and I could swim in whatever I wanted to wear at whatever time of day. I could have one of those enclosed pools with a glass ceiling in a building of its own. Like the old guys in the movie Cocoon.

            I wonder what Cricket would think of an indoor pool. It’s possible that she’d see it as an enormous bathtub and run screaming back under her couch. But that’s more pool for me.

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“You can’t make me swim, Mommy.”

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“No, really. You can’t make me.”

My Favorite Word is No

For most of my life, I’ve used the word “No” as a staple; like the pasta, rice, and potatoes of my social diet. I threw in Yeses very carefully and intentionally, like salt and pepper, or a sprinkle of Parmesan, for flavor.

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“Did you say Parmesan?”

I have had to work very hard to add the word “Yes” into my vocabulary, because I tend to feel overwhelmed by the cascade caused by even one small yes. Saying yes to graduate school in social work has put me into an avalanche of situations and expectations that I can’t really say no to, because they were all included in that first yes.

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“Saying no is much more fun!”

I know people who are much more comfortable with yeses, maybe because they have more faith that the universe won’t give them more than they can handle (I strenuously disagree), or because they have faith in their own ability to adapt to whatever comes (I definitely don’t have that).

 

I think my willingness to say “Yes” to more opportunities was instigated by all of the No’s I received: all of the rejections for my writing, rejections of friendship or love, failures to make progress in directions that mattered to me. I had to start saying “Yes” to things that might genuinely come to pass, even if they were not what I had imagined for myself.

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Cricket hates when people say no to her.

I’ve said yes to going to doctors again, though that doesn’t feel great. I’ve said yes to dog-sitting and even bird-sitting, but not to adopting a new dog, not yet. I’ve said yes to all of the work I need to do for my master’s degree in social work, whether I like it or not, agree with it or not. I force myself to say “Yes” even when I desperately want to say no. And as a result, I feel less like myself, and less in touch with myself.

 

 

My instinct to say No was about retaining my independence, and my individuality. Saying “Yes” feels like an acceptance of the world as it is, and a loss of my hope that the world can be better. And yet, as I have learned to say “Yes” to more things, I have begun to feel more capable, and more likely to survive. I just hope that some of those yeses will transform into a life that I love. Someday.

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Cricket is dubious.

 

Tai Chi

I have tried Tai Chi in the past and found it frustratingly slow and complicated and rage-inducing. But I’ve found that yoga encourages too much flexibility for my injury prone body of late, and I need to work on my balance and managing stress better, so I am trying Tai Chi again. It helps that I found five minute lessons on YouTube, with a very clear instructor (Leia Cohen). I like that she wears loose clothing instead of skin tight body suits like other exercise instructors, who seem to feel the need to advertise the effectiveness of their exercise routines, along with their clear genetic gifts.

Tai Chi is one of the only forms of exercise I’ve found that does not interest Cricket. Yoga inspired her to stretch and paw at me and bring me her toys. Sit ups and leg lifts were a clear signal that I wanted to scratch her back for twenty minutes at a time. But Tai Chi puts her to sleep.

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“I could use another blanket, Mommy.”

I had to stop the Tai Chi experiment for a couple of weeks while the two dogs (and the bird) were visiting. I was getting so much exercise from walking the dogs, and picking them up, and breaking up fights, but also it wasn’t safe to try to do Tai Chi in the living room with three small dogs weaving between my feet.

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There really wasn’t any room for me on that floor.

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Izzy did her version of Tai Chi with a banana chip.

But, a few days after they left, I started back up again, from the beginning, five minutes a day.

I’m not sure why it feels so difficult, or why five minutes seems like my limit. I’m not even sure if the limit is physical or emotional or spiritual. There’s physical pain involved in doing such slow movements, and being aware of each movement and how it feels in my body. There’s discomfort. Maybe that’s the more appropriate word for it. Tai Chi is supposed to be moving meditation, an attempt to center in the body and breath and find some calm. And maybe calm is uncomfortable for me, and attention to the body is uncomfortable.

All of my different aches and pains seem to get air time when I do Tai Chi, like a room full of senior citizens grumbling and groaning. I try to keep them on mute the rest of the time, with medication and distraction techniques, but Tai Chi seems to take me off mute.

My hope is that five minutes a day will lead me to ten minutes and eventually I will feel stronger and more centered, but I don’t know if this will work for me. All I can do is try.

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“You go ahead, Mommy. I’ll wait here.”

Passover, or, Cricket is Happy and Free

 

George and Zoe went home on Tuesday, and they were thrilled to be back in their own apartment, with their Mommy. When Mom and I got back home, and Cricket realized that the other dogs were not with us (especially after the ceremonial refilling of her bowl with kibble), she did a happy dance around the apartment with her Platypus toy in her mouth. She pooped up a storm for the next two days, either because the return to her regular food made a really big difference, or because she was hoarding poop until her adversaries left, and she could finally relax.

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“We’re free, Platypus. We’re free.”

George had become more and more aggressive each day he stayed with us, trying to steal treats from Cricket, searching under her couch, and growling at her when she sat on Grandma’s lap and dared to act like the dog of the house. Even Zoe was starting to bark, though generally not at Cricket, more at the humans who kept forcing her to stick to her diet.

 

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“This Grandma is mine.”

I had mixed feelings about bringing the dogs back to their own home, though, because I’d gotten attached, and because I worried that their Mom might not be up to taking care of them yet. But for Cricket’s sake, they needed to go home.

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George and Zoe doing the doggy Tango.

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George and Zoe in a quiet moment.

Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in all of my contradictory feelings; they seem to multiply over time, instead of streamlining the way I expect them to. For example, I have mixed feelings about Passover, and Jewish rituals in general. When I think of my Grandfather’s Seders, with the Maxwell House Hagaddah, and me, always the youngest, getting to sing the four questions, I feel like the holiday is warm and meaningful and full of light. But when I think of Passover at my own house growing up, I get tangled up in the family drama, and the weight of so many picayune rules.

The Seder is supposed to be about remembering the exodus from Egypt, and the struggle of going from slavery to freedom, and I think Cricket had her own Passover on Tuesday, when the other dogs left, and she’s still celebrating. But for myself, I think I’m still on the journey to freedom, still grieving Miss Butterfly, still working on graduate school, still not quite sure what the future will hold, or if I will be happy about it.

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My Butterfly

I’m not going to a Seder for Passover this year. I could have asked a family from my synagogue for an invitation, or looked for a big Seder at a Jewish Community Center or another synagogue, but I didn’t do that. It’s all of those mixed feelings making me unsure what I really want to do, and maybe I just wanted to pretend Passover wasn’t going to arrive at all this year.

I wish I could rely on rituals to help me pinpoint the stages of my life, and the next steps I need to take, but for some reason I’m not matching up with the signposts lately, and I feel a bit unmoored and unsecured.

But Cricket is feeling great, and that’s not a small thing.

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“Ah, sweet relief.”

Cricket Has Company

 

A week or so ago, one of our neighbors had to go to the hospital, and she asked if we could watch her 2 dogs and her African Grey Parrot. Of course we said yes. I say of course, because we had no idea what kind of stress comes along with an African Grey Parrot with a severe anxiety disorder that makes her pluck her own feathers.

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“Did someone ask for a feather?”

 

We had to bring everyone over to the apartment in shifts. First the two dogs: George and Zoe. George is a small white Havanese (supposedly) with a very big head and an even bigger personality. He likes to wave his front paws in the air to demand attention. His older sister, Zoe, is a black and white Poodle mix, with a very long back and very short legs (maybe part Dachshund). She is a bit more reserved than her brother, with deep, soulful eyes, but she loves to go for long walks and tries to zoom around the corner to prevent me from turning back. Her only problem is that she has skin issues, possibly caused by food allergies, so she is on a severe diet of tasteless canned food (I didn’t taste it; I googled it). We can’t leave any of Cricket’s kibble out on the floor because then Zoe will eat it, so they all have to eat the tasteless canned food. None of the dogs approves of Zoe’s diet, needless to say.

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“We’re exhausted.”

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“I’m starving.”

 

We also discovered that if we tried to feed Zoe and George at the same time, in the same place, George would eat all of the food. George is small, but mighty. So now we warm up the wet food and call Zoe into the kitchen and feed her by hand until she’s not hungry anymore. Miss Cricket takes her treats under her couch, to eat in peace, but she’s still suffering because George comes over and stares at her, and growls at her, looking for any way to steal those treats. The only explanation I can find for the amount of food George eats, versus his slim build, is poop. He makes a lot of poop.

After George and Zoe were settled in, we had to bring over a big box of wee wee pads (they are trained to pee and poop indoors, because their Mom hasn’t been up to taking them for regular walks), and cans of dog food, and a bag full of food and treats for the parrot. And then I went over to pick up Izzy, the African Grey. She was in her travel cage, with a fuzzy blue blanket covering the cage to keep her warm during the two minutes she had to spend outside.

It took Cricket quite a while to get over the shock of the invasion (she’s not over it at all), especially because George decided that he had to mark the apartment as his own, with tiny puddles of pee everywhere, which meant that the humans were following him around with paper towels and cleaning spray at all hours.

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“When are they leaving?”

But Izzy was clearly the biggest source of drama. She likes to answer the phone whenever it rings, from across the room, “Hello?” And then she cries out, “Mommy!” and goes off on a rant, repeating whole conversations, in male and female voices. Unfortunately, most of the words are garbled, so I have no idea what illicit dramas she has been trying to share with us. Her more clear monologues include things like “Are you a good girl?” “Do you want a carrot or a cookie?” “Do you want some water?” She is an incredible mimic, and she discovered that if she mimicked a smoke alarm, first thing in the morning, she could wake up the humans to refill her food bowl. She loves her frozen peas, and millet, and multicolored alphabet-shaped thingies, and carrots. We tried to please her, endlessly, but she never seemed to warm up to us. She shivered with anxiety, and tried to bite us when we gave her more food. She even turned over her water bowl (heavy ceramic) so that it poured over the dining room table, where her cage was sitting, on towels.

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“I’m just hanging upside down in my cage. Nothing to see here.”

We sent her home after five days, because her mother was back home, and because we thought Izzy would be happier back in her full cage, where she could stretch out. But, really, that was one loud bird. I felt guilty that we weren’t able to solve all of Izzy’s psychological problems during her visit, though. I always feel like I should be able to solve everyone’s problems, and if I can’t then I’m clearly not trying hard enough. I’m going to have to work on this particular delusion before I become a professional social worker.

 

Our neighbor asked if we could take Izzy back, in case she has to go back to the hospital, but I said no. We can’t even fit her full cage in the apartment, nor do we want to. But then the guilt was delivered: if we don’t take Izzy then our neighbor’s son will send the bird to a sanctuary. My answer to that is, good for Izzy. She could use experts looking after her and figuring out why she’s pulling out her feathers, before she has no feathers left.

 

We took the two dogs over to see their Mom, too, and they were excited and happy and gave her a full on lovefest, but their Mom wasn’t up to taking care of them yet, so we took them back to our apartment, and they spent the next few hours crying (Zoe) and moping (George). I don’t blame them. I’d want to be in my own home too.

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“I’ll be okay. Maybe.”

But it’s been nice to have a full house for a while, and to get to know two very different personalities. George barks when he sees other dogs on TV, and Zoe has these endearing grumpy noises that she makes when she wants something and can’t have it (my food); George has this adorable upside down sleeping pose, with his head turned in one direction and his legs pulling in the other direction;

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and George and Zoe have these elaborate play fights that look like a doggy Tango.

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“Would you like to dance?”

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“Why yes, I would.”

 

 

Zoe and George know how to use Butterfly’s doggy steps up to my bed (Butterfly only knew how to use them going down), so they started to go up there even when I wasn’t in the room. Cricket is not happy that George and Zoe have taken ownership of my bed. She either avoids my room entirely, crawls under the bed, or sits on my chest to make it clear to the interlopers which dogs owns the humans.

We take all three dogs out four times a day, for longer than Cricket’s usual walks, because we want to tire them out before bringing them back into the crucible of apartment living. Walking with three leashes at a time is more complex choreography than I have been able to master so far, what with George needing to stop and pee every few seconds, and Cricket needing to sniff everything, and Zoe on a mission to get to the sidewalk as quickly as possible. But the joy of all three dogs is so obvious as they walk along, that it’s worth the extra level of difficulty.

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The food routine (making sure Zoe eats before George gobbles everything up), and the drama, and the wee wee pads, on top of four walks a day with three dogs, and not knowing when they’ll be able to go home, or if their Mom will be up to caring for them, is adding a lot of stress to my life lately. I wish I could just say no, that’s enough, and send the dogs home. But, how do you say no to puppy dogs?

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“I’ll say no for you, Mommy. I’m good at it.”

Losing My Balance

 

So I was sitting at work, furiously taking notes, trying to collect every drop of information (this is what I’m like. My supervisor calls it taking “copious notes,” I call it being driven by a constant fear of failure). It’s easier to balance my notebook on my lap if my legs are crossed (the angle and the height created are ergonomically perfect for taking notes), but the downside is that I can lose feeling in the dangling foot every once in a while. Usually I notice it happening and bounce my foot on the floor for a while to wake it back up, but this one time I was extra distracted, and too busy taking notes, to even think of switching my legs at regular intervals to balance myself out.

And then my supervisor thought he heard a knock on the door and asked me to check it out. I, of course, said, “Of course,” and stood up. I noticed the numb foot right away, because I couldn’t quite tell if my foot was on the floor, or even underneath me, but I persisted and took another step, and then another.

I’m not sure exactly when the foot came out from under me, but I managed to hit the light switch on my way down, sprawling on the floor in front of clients. And I still couldn’t feel my foot.

I tried to bounce back up and laugh it off, but even the two steps back to my chair were a slow motion cringe-fest as my supervisor looked on. He went to check the door, and turn the lights back on, but then we all sat back down and pretended the whole incident had never happened, which was a blessing. I felt no pain (adrenaline is a wonderful thing, because I’m pretty sure my head hit the floor at some point), and went back to taking my copious notes, but I made sure to test out my feet every few minutes, especially before my next attempt at standing up.

I had two reactions to the whole thing: 1) I felt very silly and embarrassed, 2) I sort of liked the slow motion drama of the whole thing and the split second realization that I had just given myself a great story to tell. I think the second reaction won out.

It also made me think about why women cross their legs. Some part of it is automatic and anatomically prescribed, I’m sure. I feel more balanced with my legs crossed, and more ill at ease with my legs flat on the floor and pressed together. Another part of it is the training that tells you it’s more feminine and demure to cross your legs than to sit with your feet flat on the ground, “like a man.” Men can sit with their legs wide apart if they like. Women rarely do that. There’s something about modesty in there, and the history of skirt-wearing for women, but there’s more to it. Maybe self-protection. Maybe a signal that this woman is not advertising her sexuality, and is making sure to remain prim and proper.

The whole event also reminded me of the way my old dog, Dina, used to walk with her paws folded under her, when she was fourteen years old and experiencing neurological damage. She used to smile through it too, as if she was balanced perfectly on all four paws, and I found myself emulating her. And thinking of her.

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My Dina

I tend to feel off balance most of the time, literally and figuratively, and this was just a more dramatic example of it. And, really, I survived. No one laughed at me (that I know of), and no permanent damage was done. Maybe I need to take Dina’s lesson to heart: it doesn’t matter if you are balanced on all fours; it only matters if you are living your life the best way you can.

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(By the way, Cricket completely disagrees on this one. She is all about dignity.)

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“Yes, Mommy. I am.”

 

 

Old Hands

 

One night at synagogue, I was sitting behind a grandmother and granddaughter, ages 65 and 8, approximately. They were both impeccably dressed, hair specially done for the evening. They wouldn’t have been chosen for a greeting card, or a commercial, as the ideal of a warm and sensitive grandmother offering safety and sweetness and cookies to a patient loving child. They were more like an ad for a department store, selling stylish clothes for women of every age. But as I sat there, the little girl picked up her grandmother’s hand and began to investigate. There was that puffy vein on the back of Grandma’s hand and the little girl pressed on it with her thumb, and rolled it under the skin. Then she pinched, gently, some of the skin on Grandma’s hand, and pulled it up like a tent, and then massaged it back into place. Then she ran her fingers over the lines in the skin, and the bends at the finger joints.

All the while Grandma relaxed her hand and allowed the investigation to continue. She didn’t grab her hand away, or hiss at her granddaughter to stop it. There was something so full of love in this interaction, even more so than later on in the service when they wrapped their arms around each other during the standing prayer. And it all made me think. Older women are always made to feel decrepit for their aging skin. Moisturize! Try Crepe erase! Collagen, plastic surgery, face tape! But this woman’s hands were being lovingly explored, seen as one more fascinating thing about Grandma, not to be criticized or avoided, but to be touched and manipulated and loved because they belong to Grandma. As if the granddaughter was saying, these hands make me feel safe and attached. These hands belong to my grandmother and therefore they are beautiful.

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Cricket and her own Grandma

We have all of these ideas about how a woman should look, and how her skin should feel, and what color her hair should be, and what size her body should be, but children know better. They believe that whatever you look like is beautiful, if you are the one they love. Everything about how you look and smell and sound reminds them of who you are, and how you feel about them. They want to touch you and see you, not a perfected image of you.

I think this is what we love about dogs too. They don’t care if our skin is tight or loose. They don’t care if we are fat or skinny or in between. They care if we love them, and pet them, and feed them. They love the sound of our voices and the smell of our skin.

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“My Grandma is beautiful.”

I want to remember this the next time I feel the need to berate myself for my body, my face, my clothes, or anything else imperfect about me, but I know, even as I write this down, that I am forgetting it, or forgetting to believe it.

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“I’ll remind you, Mommy.”