It is the Monday after the Third Sunday of Easter, and my dog, Roo, has gotten into a playful scrap with another dog. The damage at first seems minor (a bloodied ear, maybe) but by Tuesday morning, the dog is incapacitated and screaming, so I rush him to the vet.

Roo has never been seriously ill or hurt in all his seven years of life – an occasional gross stomach bug, but otherwise, nothing – and watching him in pain is excruciating. Once we arrive at the vet’s office, the doctor takes him out of the exam room, still screaming, to take a closer look at his injuries, and I fall backward into the chair, rubbing my temples, furious and terrified at my Inability To Do Anything Useful.

The depth of my Aloneness in this moment is nearly unbearable to me. Since my divorce from Andrew was final seven years ago, Roo has been my one constant companion. He has survived every crisis with me; celebrated every triumph. He has faithfully given me purpose when I felt I Could Not Go On. He sat beside me through all my surgeries; my injuries; my heartaches. He is a dog, and in his dogness has always known exactly what to do to help me when the going gets tough.

I, however, am human, and I rarely know what to do.

A prime example of my Chronic Inability To Know What To Do came early in my marriage to Andrew, when we had had to put my beloved terrier Lilly to sleep. When the critical moment came and the vet prepared to administer the permanent drugs, instead of holding on to my dog, or taking my husband’s hand, I ran from the room like a crazy person. I dashed out on to Lispenard Street; paced the block until it was all over, leaving Andrew alone with Lilly as she died.

It wasn’t that I was afraid of her dying – Lilly had been in kidney failure for months so I knew it was coming. At the Animal Medical Center, where they’d cared for her throughout the last days of her kidney failure, they had taught me to give her fluids under the skin so we’d have just a few more precious days together. In a spectacular display of desperation or denial, I had even gotten her groomed before we put her to sleep so she’d look pretty as she went to meet her maker. I think it was that I was afraid of something bigger; something emptier. I think I was afraid of grief itself.

And now here I am, with my dog who is screaming in pain, and I want to run away but I can’t because it is only me – he has only me – and I have never felt so alone in my entire life. The vet comes back and she gives me drugs for the dog, and tells me his neck is badly injured but he will recover. But it will be hard. It will take time. Everything will take time.

Later, RHJ says to me, It’s ok, I know that going through something like this with a beloved dog is hard…

And I try to explain, It’s not about the dog…but the words don’t come.

It is not about the dog at all. It is about remembering running from the vet’s office and into the street, terrified. It is about how, a week after Lilly died, the hospice called from Florida to say my grandmother was dying and my mother and I left a wedding in California; packing up and flying out the next morning to be by her bed to do the work that women do – bringing lives into the world, and shepherding them out of it.

It is about the fact that on the last night of my grandmother’s life, that Nat King Cole song, Unforgettable, was playing in the background, and I hadn’t been able to listen to it since, but inexplicably, as Paul was being fitted for his wedding suit, the Muzak screeched to a halt, and Unforgettable began to play. I took it as a sign that despite my doubts, Paul was the Right One, because I am always desperate for signs. But maybe that was the wrong sign.

I realise, as Roo recovers, that I have been waiting for signs to tell me how to be Helpful, or Right, or How to Do Things Correctly, like I am Steve Martin in L.A. Story. Symbols that indicate: How to Be Married to One Person for a Long Period of Time. How to Put the Dog Down and Not Run From the Room. How Not to Destroy Your Own Life in 200 Easy Steps.

After three weeks, Roo is walking again; acting like himself again. As I watch him lounge comfortably as I write, I am suddenly confident that there is no playbook for this. We are all just fumbling around, all of the time, blind like newborn kittens, mewling and suckling, with no earthly clue what we are doing. This revelation doesn’t make me feel any better about leaving my ex-husband alone with our dead dog in Tribeca Animal Hospital in 2006, but it at least gives me the sense that I am not nearly as alone as it sometimes feels. That everyone else is just as clueless and afraid as I am; just as prone to running screaming from the risk of loss.

Can I tell you a story? I text RHJ. I am in a south-bound Uber, in a rainstorm, headed to meet JRA at a Richard Shindell concert.

Sure, I will read it – I am on the treadmill, RHJ replies.

I am listening to Lyle Lovett’s If I Had a Boat, which I disclose for context.

I love Lyle Lovett, I say, I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, all over the country. And I call “If I Had a Boat” the “Pony Boat Song,” and most people have no idea what I’m talking about. But there’s a verse in it about Roy Rogers. Which is what this story is about.

My dad is the kind of guy who stops at weird roadside attractions – who will even drive us out to the middle of nowhere just to see some off-beat museum. One day, he drove us to Victorville, with his parents who were visiting from Pittsburgh, to go to the Roy Rogers Museum. I have no idea why he did this, but I think he thought we’d like it; maybe we were headed somewhere else and it was on the way. But I think he thought he was capturing some America that he wanted to live in as a kid.

I am definitely my father’s daughter. For years, I pretended that I hated those side trips, but they grew on me; got into my consciousness. When Andrew and I drove across the country when we were in law school, I took him on a detour to Mt. Rushmore, which wasn’t that odd, but I made him stop everywhere along the way – from the Corn Palace, in Mitchell, SD; to Wall Drug, to Carhenge, in Alliance, NE. This was back before GPS; back before you could simply plug an address into the super computer in your pocket. We’d gone to AAA and picked up stacks of maps and guide books. The navigation was all done by hand.

Even as I got older, I continued the family tradition. On the way back from my hen weekend in Newport a few years ago, I’d stopped at the Pez Museum in Orange, CT, and dragged Jade and eee into the cavernous factory for a look at How Pez Was Made (in truth, they were happy to do it). Those sorts of things were just part and parcel of Being My Friend.

So we walk around the museum for hours – HOURS – pretending to be interested in Roy Rogers and we lose Grandpa Henry. Finally, we find him outside chain smoking beneath the larger-than-lifesize fibreglass statue of Trigger, Roy’s horse, in the parking lot. And then we get back in the car to go home, and my dad’s in a huff because the trip has been something of a failure, and then my grandfather says: “Tommy, did you see the set on him, Tommy?! Did you see the set on that horse?!”

Because the horse HAD had a set on him. The horse had been not only anatomically correct, but perhaps exaggerated to show what a MAN’S MAN Roy Rogers had been. (Trigger, for his part, had been taxidermied and was located inside the museum for anatomical comparison).

At the time, my dad must’ve laughed; he must’ve agreed with his father – my dad probably pointed out the set on the horse as well, because in the deeper end of thirtysomething years I have known my father, my dad has never been one to shy away from a dick joke.

I must have been younger than 10 when we took that trip. They closed the museum in Victorville and moved it to Branson, MO and it closed for good a few years ago. But even at like, eight years old, it dawned on me that day that families were much more complicated than I had previously understood.

Now whenever I hear the Pony Boat Song, I think about how families are not very simple.

It is funny to me, to think about the West like this, in the context of Westerns. Of growing up in the Land of Reagan, and being one of those Didion-esque girls who moved East for school and then became lodged in the New York orbit – at first uncertainly and then intractably. I think, growing up in the West, you develop a weird sense of nostalgia for things that never happened. Everything is new, even the history, so maybe you struggle to find a sense of Where You Fit In, especially if you are not a native.

But I realise, too, that maybe it’s not just Growing Up in the West. Maybe we are all Fundamentally Lonely and trying to connect with each other and with our memories of things past; things that never existed. Sometimes the adventures form new memories. Sometimes they’re abject failures.

But sometimes, they connect us in other ways. Like how the Great Roy Rogers Incident of Nineteen Eightysomething made me realise how intensely my dad loves us; how much he loves to explore; how deeply ingrained in me that Loving-by-Doing is.

I think this is a blog entry, RHJ texts back.

(This conversation actually happened, but the messages have been significantly edited & condensed for privacy and clarity)

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

Sundappled Sunday on left and right coasts,
Beautiful from
Griffith Park to
The Staten Island Ferry;
Sunset strip
To
SoHo
I rode a painted pony in the sand.

Saddle slapping tender in-thighs,
I endured your stings.
Silent father shouting
At distant mother
Loving
Present daughter;
Riding roughshod on a tender mare.

Slow stumble upon whip-worn trails,
Round and round
We go again.
Carousel horses,
Sundappled Sunday ponies,
Perfectly painted; ready to ride.

(April, 2009)

April is National Poetry Month. In honour of that, I’m digging through my archives and posting a series of poems I’ve written over the years.

They don’t tell you
In the basement;
In the belly;
Of the Cathedral;
Silk-lace-beads-satin pillowed at your feet,
As the warm streams out of you;
Out of your marriage parts,
They don’t tell you what it feels like to have emptied yourself.

And years later,
They don’t tell you
In the silence;
In the tundra;
Of Battery Park City;
Surviving the simulacrum of seven years together.
As the life surges into you;
Back into bones and blood and complexion;
They don’t tell you that the belly-moment
Was the moment to say No.

(December, 2009)

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

Holiday Eats // What dish do you look forward to each year at the Christmas party?  Share the recipe if you can!

I have told some version of this story before, but it bears retelling: Most people in my family think I cannot cook.

This is untrue, but my real skill is letting them think I cannot cook so at family holidays, I do not have to lift a finger. This played out most recently at Thanksgiving, where I voiced my preference for the Traditional Thanksgiving Vegetarian Lasagne, and crowdsourced recipes on social media. After selecting one, my mother and I went to Whole Foods to buy the ingredients, got into the Traditional Holiday Argument at the checkout stand, and went home to prepare it in advance of the main event. Since we spend our Thanksgivings in the mountains, some of the foods must be prepared in advance to save on prep and cooking time due to limited oven space.

As I anticipated, my mother cooked the entire lasagne. I did not do a thing except to make a suggestion here and there and throw shred cheese at a casserole dish when the time came. This was by design. While I am a competent and perhaps even a good cook, the myth circulating in my family is that I am rubbish at all things domestic, so expectations of me are sub-basement low. For many years, I found this insulting, and now, I find it hilarious and I find every way possible to shirk domestic duties because people expect so little of me.

With that context in mind, for many years, I used to host dinner parties where I would slave away over every detail – perhaps to compensate for my family’s low opinion of Me as a Traditional Woman. I would make fancy hors d’oeuvres and some kind of well-planned main dish. Now, when I have friends over, it’s more likely that someone insists we just order in Thai food (which, frankly, is awesome by me). But for years, I would have parties, and people would skip over all the fancy stuff and insist I make…chilli dip.

The dip came about as a variation on something a friend of my mother’s used to make – I made it once as a joke to complement a “cheesy foods” party I was hosting. There were piles of fancy cheese, and a brie en croute, and then this terrible dip. The dip is nothing more than a can of canned chilli and a brick of Velveeta melted together. That’s it. My mother’s friend served it with meat chilli and Fritos – since I don’t eat meat and I hate Fritos, I used veggie chilli and Scoops.

No one ate my fancy canapes. People ate two Costco-sized blocks of Velveeta that night. I was left with two pounds of Prima Donna Gouda that went bad in my fridge. It has been at least ten years since the first time I made chilli dip and I am still angry.

After that, at every party; every holiday – Meredith, can you please make chilli dip? Can you please melt together two horrible things in a microwave safe bowl and bring us some chilli dip, and bring it right here?

The indignity.

This is all to say, I really dislike holiday foods. I will grudgingly make you chilli dip if you ask me nicely. But wouldn’t you really rather I make something less horrible?

Or maybe we can just Seamless some Thai food instead.

SarahKatKim & I are to hosting Reverb throughout 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. In December of each year, we host a prompt-a-day to provide structure and a way to close out the year.

Cosy // Some of us live on the Tundra, while others live where the tumbleweeds roll.  Either way, we still have to nest when December rolls around.  What keeps you cosy through the wintertime?

We were in Scandinavia in September and recently, eee reminded me that we had intended to become hygge enthusiasts this winter. That we were meant to get together in each other’s homes, like we were doing while we were in Oslo and Copenhagen.

This reminded me of the moment the hygge conversation first came up: We were sitting in a mediocre Thai restaurant in Copenhagen the night before the Copenhagen Half Marathon. As we chatted, our friend Nat casually asked How do you two know each other? referencing me and eee.

Nat, Smplefy, eee, and I had run together all over the world – Oslo and Copenhagen were the latest in a series of races, and would likely not be the last.

We went to high school together, we said nearly in unison. Through a series of give-and-take questions, we soon discovered that not only had eee and I grown up together, but Nat had grown up in our town as well; had gone to high school with eee’s younger sister.

It had only taken us a number of years and several trips to Europe to discover that we were all from a tiny map dot in Los Angeles county.

Hygge, roughly translated, means cosiness. There’s no exact translation – it’s a Danish word for the simple and coveted intimacy of people and objects. The Danes are good at this. Danish life is uncluttered; slow-ish. The view from my last trip to Copenhagen showed that Danish life looks like a Le Pain Quotidien and a Design Within Reach had a baby.

And while most of the world romanticises this convivial Scandi happiness, there are a few among us who would burst that bubble and inform us that the Danes have no corner market on the concept of cosy: that happiness is “complicated,” and that hygge exists because “[Danes] are rich, sexy and don’t work very much; they also take more antidepressants than virtually anyone else in the world…”

I think, too often, we mistake “winnowing down” for “simplicity.” We mistake a lack of crowdedness for cosiness. We think a lack of clutter will bring us that peace we crave. That richness, sexiness, and a mostly-Danish living room will finally bring complete and total happiness (I may be projecting on that last point, but still…).

I am not sure these things are true.

Over the past year or two, I had a bunch of friends read the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. And everyone embarked on a Marie Kondo-inspired quest to streamline their possessions; talking to their cardigans to see if they brought them joy. I got like two chapters in and had to quit.

In truth, I am a champion thrower-outer. There is probably no one who likes to get rid of stuff more than me. But the book’s idea of simplicity and cosiness did not make a drop of sense to me. I like to entertain at home; to be surrounded by piles of books and blankets and dogs and friends. I had to admit that I like a little bit of comfortable clutterthat the road to comfort was not paved by paring my life down to spotless cupboard full of joy-inspiring grey cardigans.

We are still in the season of Advent – the season of expectation; the season of making room – but I think this Tidying Up is a mistake I have been guilty of during the season of Lent as well – and perhaps more obviously so then: Thinking that getting rid of things will bring me the clarity I’m seeking. As if giving up dessert will bring into my life that sacred comfort I’m looking for.

I once had a very wise person explain to me that the purpose of Lent was not to give something up, but to take something on. So giving up sweets is usually beside the point.

What I am trying to say is that during this season, and others, I am trying to be conscious of drawing in, taking on which is what eee had reminded me of during that trip to Scandinavia and afterward, not just making room. The clearing space is the easy part – the drawing in your friends; attracting people to your home and yourself – that’s a much harder thing to do, isn’t it?

After all, it took only a few years to make room to have the conversation with Nat about how eee and I had met; but once that room had been made, it took only minutes to draw us all in to discover our deep, shared experience; our same home town, and our rival high schools. That intersection; that cosiness; that comfort – that’s what I’m hoping to find more of and create.

Sarah, Kat, Kim & I are continuing to host Reverb through 2016 as a way to share writing prompts and providing a space for writers via our Facebook group. Here’s (a very late entry for) July’s prompt. 

July’s prompt // Freedom: What is freedom to you?  How do you celebrate freedom in your daily life?

We are in a Copenhagen bar talking about our brothers.

We have run two half marathons in two countries in two days and I am shocked that I have finished. I say that running is mostly mental for me – when I run, I think about music; my dog; kissing and being kissed; the sun setting into the Pacific Ocean; running with my brother. I think about happy, positive things, because to become tangled up in the voice of self-doubt during a race is Game Over.

But it is a lie to say that I have just run 26.2 miles in two countries in two days by the power of positive thinking. I have just had both of my hips and a knee reconstructed and been diagnosed with a serious collagen disorder – whether I admit it or not – running is intensely physical.

We are here because in December, I had messaged a group of running friends suggesting we sign up for the Copenhagen Half Marathon – Smplefy; eee; Nat, and their respective partners, Laly, E, and Fox, who would come along to Sherpa. I’m not entirely sure why I did this, but it Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. Everyone quickly signed on to this suggestion and added another half marathon in Oslo – even the partners were keen to go (except Paul, who begged off).

So we have each finished triumphantly, albeit for different reasons, and now we are in a bar, wearing matching shirts and our race medals, and we are talking about our brothers.

Nat’s brother died almost a year ago; Laly’s brother died about ten years ago. My brother is alive. I say this in my head, and I chew it and turn it over like a wad of gum in my mouth: My brother is alive.

It is not to diminish Matthew’s hard work to say that it is luck that he is not dead, but there is an element of happy statistics at play too. I listen to these women talk about their dead brothers, and it is real to me how close we came; how lucky we are. Sometimes, I think my parents cover up their raw memories of dread with Republican bootstraps and it was never that bad and stop being so dramatic, you weren’t here! But maybe when you’re in it, or when you’re a parent, you have to do that in order to survive what you’ve seen and how it all played out.

I listen to Nat’s grief – the depth and complexity of it; the nuances of the joy for the things that she experienced with her brother. All we can do is listen. Laly, too, knows that grief in a more intimate way than I do; I merely stood on the precipice and backed away.

It’s different when it’s your sibling, Laly says, It’s the only other person who knows the experience of growing up in your family. Also, it’s out of order.

It is out of order.

I remember my revulsion at the thought of losing the only other person who knew my family experience. He would disappear for a few days and we wouldn’t know whether he was in jail or dead – my mother would obsessively search the county jail inmate register – and I would try on the grief from thousands of miles away; seeing how that heavy suit of loss hung on my little frame.

I realise, now, that when I run, I prepare for every race with the thought of my brother’s first race – of watching him tie on the bandanna from his best friend’s funeral; of hearing his footsteps like a heartbeat beside me. I still dread phone calls after 8pm because I always used to think it was someone calling to say that my brother had died. I wonder why nobody ever dies during the day.

I look at Laly and Nat and wonder how they have borne the loss I narrowly escaped.

When Paul and I were out at the beach with my family this summer, a friend texted that he was in Atlanta with a colleague of his – a sorority sister of mine. I had been her advisor – she’d been in college when I’d taken the call that my brother was in jail and the world was about to end. I laughed and expressed my surprise – he sent me a photo of the two of them together. It was a worlds-colliding moment – strange and wonderful – a reminder of the way we are all connected; how past pain doesn’t necessarily taint future or current happiness/success. The photo came as I was driving back up the coast to see a project my brother was working on; managing in his new life as a builder. Sober eight years, he was working with a friend and he’d asked me and Paul to come see what he did for a living and switch his car back with my mother’s, which he’d borrowed earlier that day.

Paul stayed back in Oxnard, and I drove up to La Conchita to make the switch and see Matthew on the job. To travel that weird bend in the 101 where the sun sets over the coast and blinds you if you time it wrong; to see how far he’d come; we’d come.

As I am sitting in this bar in Copenhagen, thousands of miles from the depths of my brother’s addiction and from that day on the California coast, I think of that moment of seeing my brother at work; of that photo of my two friends; of the bend in the 101 where the sun sets; of the fear in the eyes of everyone around me the day I got the call that my brother was in jail. I think about how lucky I am. I hear Nat ask How do you explain this grief; this loss; to your partner? And I think you can’t explain it; I think your partner won’t ever believe it; I think about how addiction ends and loss is just a snapshot in time, but grief gets you, like a noose, and it works its way around your throat and never really lets you go, even once you are free.