Katzel and Kinnell

Galway Kinnell’s slim poetry volume, When One has Lived a Long Time Alone was Printed by Knopf in 1990. Tracy L. Katzel—or someone else—tossed her copy in the dumpster behind my house over twenty years ago. Her signature slopes across the inside cover in faded blue ink. I found my first book of Kinnell’s poetry atop a pile of trash at a time in my life when I was a stay at home mom who didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I knew how privileged I was to have the option of delaying finding a paying job, but I was also afraid of claiming a more defined life of my own. Overwhelmed, I was lost in the tedium and the transcendence of raising three boys.

I soon memorized a poem by Kinnell titled “Prayer”: Whatever happens. Whatever/what is is is what/I want. Only that. But that. I journaled and read Kinnell in the bathroom. I went to therapy and scraped dried playdough off the cracked linoleum of the kitchen floor. Wait, Kinnell writes. You’re tired, we’re all tired, but no one is tired enough, and the need for new love is faithfulness to the old. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, what I loved besides my family life.

I worked part-time for a temp agency, then for a non-profit. I thought about divinity school, but instead chose a graduate program in counseling.

Jotted inside the back cover of my dumpster-found poetry book is a phone number I called to ask for an internship at a substance abuse agency. I was turned down, but called again a few months later and found someone willing to supervise me. That internship became a paid job. I’d gone from wondering what I wanted to stalking goal after goal—a degree, credentials, experience. I savored time with my clients, unwinding their stories together, listening as they engaged with their own heart-held wisdom. Within a few years, I was hired full-time at the university counseling center where I had trained. It was my dream job, with an incredible team. So much waiting, fulfilled.

Returning to work from a funeral to find flowers and love on my office desk.

And then. Then I learned in a different way that dreams come true and change shape and give way to other dreams. Almost five years ago, I stood by my desk with my cell phone pressed against my ear and my pulse racing—another family health crisis, out of the blue. At the same moment, a colleague appeared in the doorway, alerting me that it was time to help our new batch of counseling trainees with role plays. From the middle of my forehead down through my torso, I felt pulled apart. One arm reached toward my office door and the other kept the tearful voice of my loved one pressed to my ear. In that moment, I knew I was leaving that job. At 49, I resigned my position, and began the long round of goodbyes with clients.  

I had no plans to write, just a commitment to a more balanced and peaceful life. I savored open days of reading, of geriatric dog care and of waiting for my youngest, a high school senior, to walk in the door. One of my son’s teachers asked me, So, you’re just a housewife now?

Geriatric poodle of old.

I bought a used copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening at the Tattered Cover book store. I’d last read it as an undergraduate and had never forgotten the term “mother-woman,” Chopin’s phrase describing women who offer not just their lives, but their very selves to their children. Caught up in the story of Edna Pontellier coming to her senses, I turned a page and saw a speck of black between the pages, a hard crescent of sunflower seed husk. I smiled at the startling artifact of another reader’s concentration and pleasure.

Kinnell woke me to poetry when I was a mothering woman (if not the self-sacrificing “mother-woman” Chopin disparages). But the desire to write came to me slowly after I left the formal work world. It was consistently fed by those years of reading Galway Kinnell. He died in 2014. A few years later, a hefty tome of his complete works arrived at my door–a gift from a writer friend whom I had told about my dumpster-found treasure. As I wend my way through Kinnell’s body of work, my love for the healing power of words continues to grow.

Whatever what is is, is what I want. Thank you for that prayer, Galway Kinnell. And thank you Tracy L. Katzel, wherever you are.

The Barn Dog and the Show Girl

I was never, ever going to have two dogs. Two dogs is a pack of dogs, not a pair of dogs. And I was absolutely, positively never going to live with a shedding canine.  Of course, life being the unrelenting teacher that it is, I am now living with two dogs, one an epic shedder. Our grown son has been staying with us and brought his dog along. The idyllic retirement of our adored standard poodle–hypoallergenic, dignified, and mellow–has been disrupted by a border collie—hyper-driven, ill-mannered, and needy. The only things these two have in common are four legs and a water bowl.

Our poodle’s name is Nyx, in honor of the goddess of primordial mystery. The border collie is named Ptera, short for Pteradactyl, a flying reptile. When my son brought her home to Denver from the cattle ranch where she spent her first ten months, Ptera had to learn about glass doors: they are invisible things that hurt when you walk into them. Stairs also took some getting used to, as did leashes, men in hats, and magpies. In the early days of her new life, Ptera looked at us befuddled, as if to say, You people seem really nice, but where are the cows, and when do I start? In her eight years, Nyx has never slept in a barn or thought much about livestock. Her first language is play, not work, and if she spoke, she’d have a slightly patrician accent.

Post-bath, trying to figure out what she did wrong.

Our sweet poodle hates getting her feet wet—she steps delicately around water whenever possible.  But the energizer collie has never met a dank puddle that she didn’t want to jump into, then drink from. Ptera is a groupie, a black and white ball of let’s-be-friends. She loves the cool kids, and Nyx is not only a cool kid, she’s a goddess. When Ptera isn’t in over-achiever mode, neatly arranging extracted shoe insoles, she likes to snuggle close. Very, very close. Early on, this involved walking over and plopping down on top of Nyx.  Appalled, Nyx would stand up, shake her head, and move to another nap zone. Eventually, she tolerated a bit more togetherness—poodle and collie hindquarters almost touching. I might have taken a picture the first time that happened.

Post-groomer, expecting attention.

Nyx has taught Ptera the fine art of eating snow, grazing cold white crystals off the chairs in the back yard. Ptera has taught Nyx a few new wrestling moves, including what I call the “under-over”, in which the younger dog ducks under the older, then jumps up as high as possible. When they play together, Ptera bows and dances until Nyx decides to give chase for a moment. Then the dignified poodle watches as the collie leaps and twirls, then becomes momentarily distracted by the scent of squirrel.

A dog trainer told us, I had a border collie once. I’ll never have another border collie. She explained that they are bred to work, not to be social. Despite her sweet temper and eagerness to please, Ptera was anxious with strangers and almost impossible to tire out. The trainer said, Forget this idea of the more exercise, the better. Too much intense exercise just puts more cortisol in her system and makes her more reactive. The anxious over-exerciser in me could relate.

She recommended more intellectual stimulation, including puzzle feeding, which involves a few gadgets. There is the snuffle mat, a felt shag square that you tuck kibble into so the dogs can forage. A rolling plastic tube that drops one piece of food at a time also entertains while feeding. Finally, we have a wobble Kong, an eight-inch, rounded plastic pyramid with a hole in its side, like a food-dispensing bobble head. Border collies are technically smarter than standard poodles, but Nyx is more strategic, standing by to nibble food that Ptera puzzles free.

The little collie has come a long way, and taken me along for the ride. As I write, she is fast asleep on the living room couch, almost hip to hip with the show girl. Ptera is absolutely never allowed on the couch—it is a designated poodle sanctuary. But there she sleeps, shedding all over my never’s and my absolutes. The neurotic little love-ball is family now, curled up in her own messy corner of my baffled heart. When she’s back at my son’s place, we return to our quiet habits with relief. But after a couple of days, even Nyx starts to yearn for more barn girl shenanigans.

Love fest.