What my Cleo taught me about how to live & love

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

Named for a Queen. Owning it.

My sweet Cleopatra, named for a Queen, sister to a mastiff I never met named Brutus, died on Monday morning. I was working on something and she had been breathing hard all day and I was planning to take her to the vet on Monday first thing. I called after her and she came over, laid at my feet and stopped breathing.

She was somewhere between 8 years old and 11. She was a gift from a wonderful man I met through a good friend who worked at the newspaper where I used to work. Kurt had a brain tumor and needed to go into hospice so he wanted someone to treat his baby right. Brutus, unfortunately, ran away. Cleo, who had grown up with a cat and Kurt, had remained. As you can see, she was beautiful.

My joke about her was that she knew that she was named for a Queen. She was dainty, quiet and sweet. She was well-trained and reserved at first, but mostly she liked to lick people and puppies. On our walks around the neighborhood, she would point her muzzle at the angry-looking feral cats and wag her tail like, “Look, Mom, it’s the love of my life.”

I would gently pull her in the direction of our path. “Um, let’s stay away from animals that might maim you.”

She worked as protection from all kinds of people and stuff, but she did not bark.

Every now and then she would howl in this really unladylike way that was kind of scary. At nothing. Like the wind.It sounded like the creak of a door coming off its hinges.

She sighed with impatience while I tried to make deadlines and hated my computer.

She pressed her wet nose into my face in the mornings when she was feeling well, a reminder for me to get up and get at it. Because I had never had a dog before, I failed regularly to do anything that makes sense to dogs (and probably humans.) She loved me anyway.

For instance, she thoroughly hated thunderstorms and firecrackers (I hear this is typical for dogs). One night, around 2 in the morning, she kept pacing and shaking, so I got several copies of the Yellow Pages (don’t judge) and made a makeshift staircase so that she could use them to climb up on the bed. She walked away and continued to whimper from a couch that I kept just so she could have her own throne.

A few days later, I went to Ikea. When I came home, she had gotten herself nice and comfortable in my bed, sans Yellow Pages. All I could do was laugh.

It was less funny when the frat boys next door had a Fourth of July shindig and Cleo tore down the living room blinds and nearly ripped a few doors off their hinges.

But Cleo did teach me about living and loving in profound ways. The first thing she taught me is that you don’t have to choose a way to be. My story about myself was that I was a cat person (not a single cat lady) and not really a dog person. They were so much work. They were expensive. I didn’t have the time.  But really I was non-committal and afraid of intimacy. I didn’t want to love something other than myself so hard because I was deeply afraid of loss. I don’t care what people say about it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved. It is hard to lose the people and things that we love and the ache feels like it never ends. So I understand why people avoid it.

Tall and Proud.

Size does not matter. I affectionately called Cleo my mini-pony because she really was the size of a small horse. What I loved about her was that she truly adored little dogs. They would be barking and freaking out and running around and she would just look at them and sniff their bellies and if they stood still, she’d lick them until they calmed all the way down.  So I learned from her that sometimes things look and seem scary, but approaching them like you might totally be destroyed by an experience is not a good way to make friends at the dog park/in life.

Even when you’re shy, you find the people and things meant for you. Before I got Cleo, I think I thought that I needed to do a lot of work to date and network and circulate to convince any potential partners that I was worth it. But what I learned getting out and about with Cleo is that just by being her beautiful Cleo self, she drew really great people to her and into my life.

You never have to ask your real friends to be there for you. From a recommendation for a vet to a crate (that Cleo tried to sit in without complaint for our first few days together until I felt like a moron and stopped putting her in it) to giving her medication with peanut butter to having a place for her to crash while my mom was sick and I needed to be back East, Cleo taught me how to think first about how to help us take care of her and trust my friends enough to be part of our community. My friends Andrea and Todd went above and beyond, even though they have three other dogs and two adorable sons and plenty of other things they could be thinking about at any given time.

Nothing wrong with getting your snuggle on.

Forgiveness feels better than you think. I used to hold grudges. I still do, but less after Cleo. I have said this before but I like the saying that suggests that festering anger toward people is like holding a hot coal and expecting the other person to get burned. One of the greatest gifts of Cleo in my life was that even when I was annoyed with her or I raised my voice or something, she might cower a little bit and look at me before she stormed off, but a moment later, she would come wagging her tail when I came back to my senses. Then I would hang out with her on her throne and talk to her while I rubbed her belly, hoping I could get back in her good graces — but she had already forgiven me. Grace.

Check out my Striiipes.

When you are fully yourself, no matter how different, the people who are supposed to love you will adore you for it. Cleo was more famous in my neighborhood, especially around tiny children, as the tiger-striped mini-horse than I will ever be. People would always ask me about Cleo before they asked about me. Sometimes I would complain that I wish she had opposable thumbs so she could have done some work, but I actually loved how committed she was to just hanging out and pretending to tan her belly as opposed to needing to do work. She taught me how to take better care of myself and my heart. She hated water but she also hated the heat, so she spent a lot of her summer doing this version of downward facing dog.

Come and Take it! But you won’t! I’m too cute.

Being vulnerable is a beautiful, painful thing. While the people who know me best and have known me the longest know how intensely I love some people and things, the older I get the harder it is for me to pretend to be aloof. One of my best friends, the one who helped me take Cleo to the emergency vet in the middle of the night to be cremated, said that she learned from her puppy how to open up. I did, too. I was lucky to be a dog mom for a few years. Thanks, Miss Cleo, for teaching me how to howl when I needed to and how to walk and keep trying to live with grace. I already miss you so much.

Thirty five in honor of 35

The mid-thirties sounds ancient to me, but here I am. My birthday was last weekend. Hello, 35.

My friends have helped me figure out that I grew up as a tail-end member of Generation X, and in my twenties, it was plausible for writers to publish their first books and memoirs when they were 25, so I felt like a slacker even though I was an overachiever.

Well, even though I finally wrote a book (PLUG: Please buy it here!) it did not happen the way I thought it would. I didn’t expect to be rich or famous, but I did hope to have an agent, and a publisher, to have a slew of acknowledgments pointing to all the famous and talented writers and publishers and agents.

The first rule of my thirties that I learned a little earlier than my actual 30th birthday is that sometimes (OK, often) what we want or what we think we want is not the best thing for us. The things that grow and mature us can be just as amazing as what we think we want, even if they’re more difficult than what we envisioned – especially if they’re harder than what our daydreams offer.

Too late to get this shirt, I guess.

Vanessa Martir, one of my writing sisters, posted something similar to this on her birthday, and I wanted to follow suit. I didn’t actually envision what 35 would be like – I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years thinking that 25 must be pretty old – but my older relatives and friends all say this is when things get good. The following is a list of things I wish I’d known a decade ago; maybe I would have had more fun, I would have been less hard on myself.

1. It gets better: Why did I think two decades was as good as everything was going to get? I’m not sure. While it’s true that things get more complex as you get older, they’re also a lot more fun.

2. People are amazing: Sonia Sotomayor, Wise Latina Supreme Court justice and single lady has been doing press for her new memoir, My Beloved World, and she makes it a point to say  that she is not self-made, which I respect. None of us are islands. And with the right people in our lives we can do amazing things.

3. People are complicated: I like the superhero’s approach to life. We all have alternative faces we show the world, in one way or another. What matters is that we know who we are and we allow other people room to be complicated if they need to be or want to be. Or have to be.

4. Life only gets more complex: My mentor and friend Evelyn C. White said this to me and I know that she’s right. It seems more and more true the more time passes. I do hope it’s not like a Rubix cube by the time it’s time for me to go.

5. Get your life: A friend of my sister’s has said this to me a couple of times with glee and the phrase makes me smile. We only get one shot, so I aim to wring the most of out of every experience, even when it’s frustrating and hard and lonely. Getting my life means everything. It makes me happy so I can make the ones I love happy.

6. Everything ain’t for everybody: I was super insecure in my 20s, though I tried faking confidence until it felt natural. I realized at 30 that I was trying too hard to fit in and thinking too much about what other people thought. It was a relief to shed that. Sometimes I still slip up and I forget that people’s reactions to me or my life are more about them than they are about me (I loved reading The Four Agreements for this reason). The older I get, the less I slip up.

7. Freedom is more than a notion: It is also not free. Which is fine. We all have to pay what my writing hero James Baldwin called the price of the ticket. Any dues I have to pay are what I consider rent for being here on earth and taking up space.

8. God/The Universe will give you what you need if you learn how to ask:  I’ve always been bad for asking for help, but I’m a believer in the divine because of how often I am provided with exactly what I need.

9. No woman is an island: We already covered this, but I’m stubborn and it took me a long time to learn how to lean on folks, too. How to be vulnerable enough to ask and wise enough to let go of expectation: that’s what I work on daily.

10. Vulnerability feels like hell but it is the only way to live: Yeah, vulnerable has looked to me in the past like a long euphemism for weak. But Brene Brown and Marianne Williamson and a ton of other writers have shown me the beauty of vulnerability. (My favorite so far is The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes)

11. Surrendering/leaning into change is frightening but endlessly rewarding: A couple of days before I left the newspaper industry, I was freaking out about all the changes in my life, and terrified that I was doing the wrong thing. When I went into work, I clicked on something that erased my hard drive and essentially wiped the slate clean. I knew that I had to surrender what I had been holding on to. And I have not regretted my decision for one second since.

12. Aim for excellence not perfection: When I published the book, I could immediately see all the flaws in formatting, in publicity for it, the people that I forgot to mention this time around, the ways that it was different and maybe less marketable than other books about single life. Then I remembered that I like aiming for excellence because perfection is impossible. It’s hard to enjoy life when you’re trying to be perfect.

13. Dance, Live, Sing like nobody is watching: I saw that quote when I was much younger. Yeah, whatever! People are watching, they always are – it’s Big Brother! But I would still try to shut out the invisible and visible eyes. I made friends who encouraged me to forget the world in favor of fun at least once or twice a year. For 35, I aim for much more than that.

14. Or, like everybody is watching: I am an extroverted introvert, so there is that side of me that’s a ham. I was an actor in high school, after all. So sometimes I like to put on a show. It’s always fun, at least for a little while. The pressure to be perfect can creep in and ruin the fun, but only if you let it.

15. Pain is weakness leaving the body: I always think of the loud grunting dudes in the weight section at the gym when I think of this, but when I feel really sad and teary and down, I think of how important it is to release things by way of tears or sighs or a long vent session followed by ice cream or chocolate.

16. Heroes are more than sandwiches: And you can be your own hero.

17. Nothing makes me feel as useful in the world as sharing my talent and gifts: Someone wiser than me said that our gifts and talents are our rent for getting to live on this planet. And I believe that with all of my heart.

18. Sharing and generosity are your rent for taking up space on the planet: That people are transformed, moved or inspired by anything I do amazes me. But I am humbled by the many talents and gifts of the people I admire, too. So it all moves in a circle.

19. You can do some things but you can’t do everything: My friend and writer extraordinaire Courtney Martin tweeted something about this over a year ago now, and it lingered in my brain.

20. We are our worst critics: What I have told my students is that the world has enough criticism for you and anything you do in your ambitions to be great. I tell them what I tell myself: don’t add to the criticism chorus.

21. Drama loves company: So the happy part of being Single & Happy comes from cultivating serenity and peace. It’s also meant that some people have left my life, don’t like what I create, can’t stand letting their lives be good and without drama. I still pray for them and wish them well, because I remember when I liked connecting with folks because I had some drama to share.

22. Have a vision: There’s something you have to contribute here that nobody else can give to the world. It’s easier to be happy when you’re working toward creating that.

23. I like lists, but sometimes they’re prisons: I used to make a five-year, ten-year and 15-year plan every year for my birthday. Then I realized that those lists were like New Year’s resolutions. They were inspiring to think about, but what if I decided I didn’t want to do everything on the list? What if I couldn’t make everything on the list happen?

24. Find out if you’ve got a prison you’ve put yourself in: This is another gift from my friend and mentor, Evelyn. Sometimes we blame other people for putting us in a box, when really, it’s a prison we made for ourselves out of fear.

25. What other people think of me is none of my business: Also, other people’s opinions don’t pay the bills.

26. Honor your gut: In dating and in life, I have always made a bad decision when I went against my intuition. Always.

27. Learn to fail gracefully: I fail all the time. I am often ashamed and humbled by my failures, and I don’t share them as publicly as I do my successes because my ego gets in the way. But I try to take what’s useful and leave the rest.

28. Learn to win gracefully: Because I’m competitive and I like to win, this has been a hard lesson for me to take seriously, but I practice.

29. Cooking is awesome: I didn’t learn how to cook at my mother’s side when I was a kid, but teaching myself how to cook and learning how to make things that are healthy (for the most part) has been transformative. I save money, I feel better and I feel like a rock star in the kitchen even when my dishes turn out slightly weird sometimes.

30. Believe in yourself and your future: This is especially important for singles. Maybe you don’t have one other person in your life to be your cheerleader, but you can be your own cheerleader.

31. Know when to fold ’em: Sometimes things just don’t work out the way you want them to. I love the quote that says we should let go of the life we planned in order to make room for the life that is waiting for us.

32. Be flexible about your life plan/manifestos: I can be stubborn and inflexible, which is no fun and doesn’t make me happy. Sometimes you need to be vigilant about your dreams for your life. But sometimes you have to compromise. I hear this is good practice for love and relationships, too.

33. We are our own heroes: I have a long list of people who inspire me with their courage, creativity and generosity. But at the end of the day, I want to move from being inspired to actually implementing my dreams and visions. I want to live the kind of life that will leave a legacy of aspiration, true. But it helps me sleep at night knowing that I was invested in my own salvation, too.

34. Growing up is a privilege: I always considered it a given, especially once I was working for a big-time newspaper and living in beautiful parts of the country. But we know from Sandy Hook elementary to Hurricane Sandy that some people don’t get to grow up and live to see even their teens or twenties.

35. Let the beauty you love be the work that you do. I think that speaks for itself.

Susan Cain’s TED talk on the power of introverts

I really enjoyed Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet.” Here’s the review I posted here in January.

There’s a lot to love about this talk, including her wonderful, moving story about her grandfather and his modest presence.

But the quote that really resonated with me is “Solitude for some people…is the air that they breathe.” This is totally worth 20 minutes of your time.

Reads for the Weekend: February’s over? Women at War & Queering Black Herstory

So, yeah, we got an extra day. But March still snuck up on me. February was crazy!

Lovely Guest Post from WomenWellLoved: You deserve your love & affection

Planned Parenthood Saved Me (aka, Kiss It, Komen.)

I loved Nippy, crack quotes and all. My love note to Whitney.

Speaking of fantastic women, Rest in peace, Marie Colvin. I read this 2002 Vanity Fair piece about war reporters who happen to be women and it did my heart good. “Boys get fascinated by toys about age two, and that never changes,” Colvin says. “That’s not what I think is important about covering a war. I think the story is the people.”

I haven’t written a lot about the LGBTQ community here yet, but I intend to get there. In the meantime, this was a great piece about whether or not it is a disservice to women in black history to require that they present according to popular standards of gender norms.

In black relationship dynamics, incarceration has been a huge, tragic and ongoing factor. Michelle Alexander, an expert and scholar on The New Jim Crow, writes about the myth of desegregation in America.

Thought Catalog on five steps to embracing your single self

A friend of mine kept sharing well-written blogs from Thought Catalog last year, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I noticed this list in January and it made me smile. I hope it’s useful for you, too:

..Single means you have no significant other, and by significant, I mean someone not genetically related to you for whom you’d walk on newborn babies or hot coals or dissolving wads of cash to save him/her from even an ounce of pain. The person you sleep with, even regularly, does not count. He or she does not cuddle under blankets with you pre-midnight and put up with your ice cold, winter-crusted feet to watch bad reality television. Your 3 A.M. “hangout” buddy doesn’t feed your cat when you’re out of town, or buy fabric softener in your favorite scent so you smell heaven when you’re dreaming. Single means you’re alone at the end of the day, both literally and figuratively speaking. But it’s ok. Here’s how to enjoy it.

 
1. Continue to sleep with your special friend
That is, however, only if he/she doesn’t make you feel like crap. But if you enjoy the company of a late-night someone providing you pleasure on a platter like a midnight gourmet cheese tray, stick with it. Enjoy it. Recognize it for what it is, and don’t try to turn that person into your boyfriend or girlfriend. If you two (or three…kinky!) have never left the bedroom, you probably never will. If you can’t accept this, then stop fooling yourself, or stop seeing this person.

 

2. Be all that you can be
No seriously, this is not just the Army’s vague mantra. We all know that when you’re in a relationship, you get round and happy from all the eating and midnight sex games involving whipped cream and chocolate and the love-for-one-another-through-thick-and-thin-emphasis-on-thick and the comfort and security of lurrrrve. So if you’ve always wanted to run a marathon or speak a new language or learn how to cook or sew or grow plants or dance the damn jig, now is the time to acquire new skills. Once you have a significant other, they suck the life out of your life in every area except love. (Just kidding! Kind of).

 

You can read the rest of it here. When is the world supposed to end this year? May? I might need to get on this list, then. Joking! Sorta.

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