You say Missouri
out West. Urban prairie bound,
I say Missourah.


The northern end of Main Street in downtown Kansas City has been torn up to put in a streetcar for so long it is hard to remember what it was like as a functioning thoroughfare. Lanes closed, new lanes marked with a snaking line of orange poles, signs warning you to “keep right” and of “open trench”, driving down Main Street has become a stressful and tedious journey to be avoided whenever possible. Increasingly you hear that the businesses on Main Street, in the RiverMarket district (where the streetcar will turn around), and in the Crossroads (just west of Main) are struggling from the prolonged disturbance of major road construction.

While there are finally signs of progress, namely that there is actual streetcar rail in the street as opposed to just countless blocks of trench, the streetcar project is appears to have entered into a morass that many large scale projects with lots of moving parts fall prey to:


And not merely in the “bungled or confused undertaking” of the formal definition of this word. In the sense of feeling like there are multiple forces working at odds with one another and possibly not being aware of this fact until a perpetual state of stalemate becomes clear in a sudden and unpleasant revelation.

It is hard to witness this project falling into this state knowing the controversy that surrounded it. Kansas City citizens by and large have been opposed to the streetcar and to extensions of it beyond downtown. They perceive it as being too expensive and not a particularly effective form of transportation. City officials are invested in its development and cite the possibilities for economic development, increase in urban density, and reduction in car traffic. I will admit, my own perspective has vacillated between the two since I first moved here. What I have increasingly come to believe is this:

You don’t build for what you have. You build for what you want to have in the future. You build to create something new out of something that has reached its limits. You build to expand. You build to embrace possibility of something bigger and better than what you have now. You build to manifest a vision.

These ideas all sound very abstract and slippery when it comes to talking about taxes, construction, and return on investment. And they aren’t particularly persuasive. Citizens want facts and accountability and prudence from the government. They are averse to risk and by extension, will accept a status quo that is somewhat uncomfortable to going through the chaotic upheaval that will create truly dramatic change.

And that is the real crux here: if you want things to be different, then they have to actually change. And change can tear things up and leave them unsettled for extended periods of time. Change can look a lot like major construction (and destruction). Change can get really messy before it gets organized. It can begin to look very random and the strategy can be hard to see. It can get so complex and bring up so many new issues and obstacles and problems to solve, that you begin to feel like you are in the quagmire.

Change can be totally fucked up.

But if you will hold fast, keep looking ahead and putting one foot in front of the other on your course of change, you will wake up one day and see something amazing has been built. And with this newly built aspect in your life, even more change begins to trickle out from it like dominoes falling. A vision that once seemed abstract becomes more clear and the future you couldn’t imagine before begins to grow before your eyes. And best of all, when you embrace change, those around you also embrace it and begin their own transformative change process.

So just buckle up and enjoy the ride…because what comes from change is limited only by the breadth of your creative vision.

The Great War Within

Kansas City is the home of the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial. Filled with countless artifacts and insightful exhibits about the war, a visit to the museum will create a sense of both wonder and horror at the breadth of this military tragedy.


For those of you who are not history buffs and have long since forgotten the entangled web of events leading up to the war, it is worth noting the primary characteristic of the war: the Western Front, a trench of nearly 500 miles stretching beginning in Belgium and criss-crossing its way across a wide swath of France to end southeast of its starting point on the Swiss frontier. Germany’s initial sweeping victories of the war were thwarted by the Allied forces in 1914, causing German troops to begin the process of digging in. When Allied forces were unable to advance through these embedded troops, they too began to dig themselves in.

One of my favorite exhibits in the museum are dioramas of the trenches of the German, British and French soldiers. Amid the myriad of display cases filled with clothing and military equipment, these dioramas create a context for the war and the insurmountable human suffering that occurred there. And they provide a stark contrast between the conditions of the trenches for the soldiers of each of these countries as they become increasingly bleak down the line of the Front.

The Germans were the first to dig in and had the benefit of being on higher ground. Their trenches had wood planks lining the trench and may have even had wooden planks for floorboards. The British trenches were lined more with sandbags and a thicket of interwoven branches that created a basket weave mesh. The French trenches were haphazard with makeshift barriers against the walls of the trench: randomly placed sandbags, cloth, branches. A nightmare of mud and futility.

The violence of the war came from all directions: deafening and continuous shelling and gunfire, poison gas, trenchfoot (a disease caused by continuously standing in water), filth, and rats.

And mud. Mud so thick soldiers would become trapped in it. Drown in it.

There was no contingency plan, no way out of the trenches. The war was supposed to be short, but once forces had dug in the trenches there was no way to extricate themselves out.

“Trench warfare becomes necessary when two armies face a stalemate, with neither side able to advance and overtake the other….What began as a temporary strategy — or so the generals had thought — evolved into one of the main features of the war at the Western Front for the next four years.”

When I visited the WWI Museum I remember thinking, “This is what divorce looks like”. This is how it happens: there is an initial attack and opposing resistance, and then both sides start digging in. In its early stages, this digging in feels protective, even strategic. Just give yourself a little breathing space, hunker down and hide your vulnerabilities. It may not be as comfortable as what you are accustomed to, but it is not unbearable. Then as it progresses, as each side retreats into their trench rather than reaching across the space between them, the trenches become more disordered. Emotion overtakes rationality, reaction jumps ahead of planning, the interest and effort in developing contingency strategy dwindles. The more we dig and live in the trench, the more narrow our vision becomes.

And then comes the mud…and the rats.

Both of which will destabilize and erode any feeling of security and extinguish the light of future possibility. The only way out of this trench is to fight, to kill, and to be killed by the ensuing violence to come. Unless one of you is willing to raise the white flag and surrender for the sake of a more forgiving truce.

Marriage isn’t the only place in which this occurs. Anytime we feel the opposition to other people there is the potential for these types of isolationist tactics. It is hard for us to understand, when we want to protect ourselves through withdrawal and armor, that the outcome of these actions will not benefit us. We don’t gain security from hiding nor do we get greater stability from our static position. We cease to grown and instead become stunted by our own fear and resentment, which breeds like so much vermin in the trenches. The longer we stay in these positions, the weaker we become and the more suffering we endure. We do not celebrate the victory of new possibilities with another, but rather become entrenched in the stalemate which has far more destructive consequences.

(WWI quote above in italics taken from:

The Shame Correction

It was one of those exquisite spring mornings when all the potential of the season that has been sleeping beneath the surface wakes to stretch its arms up to the warm and clear sunny skies.  Everything seems to be sparkling a bit as the sun glints brightly off shining surfaces, a slightly mischievous winking at what the day might hold.  It is in the thick of the NCAA tournament and the Plaza, an affluent outdoor shopping area in Kansas City, is a swarming sea of color from both the visiting and home teams.  It is already crowded in the late morning, with people strolling, shopping, and dining.  There is excitement and anticipation in the air for what is to come on this bright and shiny day that has just begun.

I am there for a few small errands and as I walk past Barnes and Noble a familiar homeless man greets me with a friendly salutation.  He is a relatively constant presence there and I see him most times, in the same place, whenever I walk through this part of the Plaza.  Always friendly, he never asks for money, as he also does not today.  I never give him money, not for any great moral or philosophical reason, but because I rarely have any cash on me.  I did have a few dollars with me this morning, and after returning the greeting, I hand him a dollar.  As I step past him, I am politely stopped by a security guard: dark trousers, crisp white shirt with a dark tie, a Mountie style hat.  He hands me a very small square pamphlet, which I accept without scrutiny.  I walk several yards before I open the pamphlet to read it.

It is an informational pamphlet, or at least that is how I believe its creators would describe it.  It informed me that while many people believe it to be a kind and generous gesture to give money directly to people who are homeless,  this action exacerbates the social issues of homelessness and can even potentially contribute to criminal activities.  It provides a list of homeless outreach services to whom money could be safely given that can provide assistance in an appropriate manner to the homeless; hence, best meeting their needs and minimizing the potential harm of inappropriately assisting people directly with money.

As I read the pamphlet, I can feel my cheeks burning.

Brene Brown reminds us that we all know the “warm wash of shame”, this experience ubiquitous as its emergence is one we can neither deny nor control.   And I felt that uncontrollable burn in that moment because while the pamphlet was written under the auspices of education, it was in actuality a correction, a prescription to guide future behavior, and a judgment of what had just transpired.

The bright and glinting sunlight was beginning to feel a bit blinding.

I was fuming under my breath when a middle school aged girl stepped towards me.  She was wearing the blue plaid uniform of a Catholic school and was trying to direct my attention to the clipboard she was holding.  As I waved my hand dismissively and sidestepped her to continue walking, her face initially scrunched into a frown of disappointment which she quickly erased and replaced with a patient nod of polite acknowledgement.  She seemed to have been schooled not to expect that all would give her the time and attention she felt entitled to.   To be fair, I don’t know what she wanted from me; however, my guess is that she wanted money.  I can imagine any number of causes:  money for camp, for band, for sports, for charity.

Whatever it was, it must have been legitimate and worthwhile because I received no informational pamphlet regarding the potential societal harm of middle schoolers being sent out from religious institutions (which their parents pay for them to attend) into public areas to ask for money for their private use.

This juxtaposition of legitimate and non-legitimate monetary requests was repeated in several places through the Plaza:  a Catholic school youth with a clipboard able to freely stop people with their requests, and homeless people each with a security guard in a crisp uniform standing a few feet away holding informational pamphlets and ready to hand one out to every person that gives money.

The inequity was infuriating, as was the dehumanization.  It was like we were being instructed not to feed animals in the zoo for their own well-being.  This was not about well-being or what was best for the homeless.  This was about control and privilege and paternalism.  It was about the insular economics of the housed, the employed and their expendable income which ensures that money only changes hands through very well circumscribed transactions between very specific parties.  At that moment, I would estimate 50% or more of the adults in restaurants on the Plaza were drinking some kind of alcoholic beverage with breakfast. (And some of them potentially planning on driving afterwards.)  But if there is the possibility that a homeless person can buy a beer to drink in the park on a beautiful sunny spring day, well, that is something we’d better put a stop to and fast.

And what better way than to remind people not to deviate from the prescribed course of when and how to exchange money than with a discreet little slap of shame wrapped up in a small educational pamphlet.

I returned to the Plaza a few weeks later, this time mid-week.  The streets are mostly empty and the security guards nowhere to be seen on this idle morning.  I pass by Barnes and Noble and see the same familiar homeless man out in front warmly greeting all who pass by.  I wish him a good morning and hand him a dollar.

He said, “My children thank you.”

And I said, “You are very welcome.”

No correction necessary.

Cold Blue, Cold World

In the thin and fragile winter sunlight, the large silver blue pit bull stands in the worn dirt outside of a makeshift wooden shed.  With his back hunched over and his tail tucked between his legs, he appears as though he were curling himself up against the cold even while standing.  He is tied with a cable coated in plastic that wraps around his neck and disappears to some attachment inside the shed.  From my porch I can see his ribs, his spine and his hip bones as he huddles, bow shaped, in the wan, duplicitous sun.  He turns slowly three times before curling up on what appears to be a piece of worn cardboard, his only cushion against the bare and frozen ground.

It is mid-morning in January and it is 5 degrees outside.  It is so cold you expect your breath to freeze into a cloud of frozen spun glass in front of your face.  But it is too cold even for that.  Cold, dry and brittle, I try not to breath without my mouth covered by a scarf.  It is too cold to remain standing on my porch, even dressed well against it, even to feel sympathy for this sad creature.  On a day like this, sympathy doesn’t warm you, hope doesn’t warm you, even the flush of anger doesn’t warm you, because it is quite simply too cold.  All you can do, all you want to do, is go indoors to escape it.

I go inside and prepare to call Animal Control for the third time.

If you have never called Animal Control or Child Protective Services or the police on your neighbor, then it might be difficult to imagine that this is something you need to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for.  I think we all like to believe that in the face of injustice we would act swiftly and decisively.  We don’t like to acknowledge that we have a very thick set of social filters that enable us to remain detached from this kind of protective action involving the authorities:  we don’t want to get involved, we don’t really know what is going on, maybe we will make matters worse.   Better to wait, see if something changes, maybe it will go away on its own.  And perhaps deeper down, the fear of being judged ourselves and of possibly having that same judging scrutiny turned on us.  And below even that, in our deepest and darkest place, the fear that we won’t be heard, won’t be believed, or will be dismissed.  That when we open our mouths to speak, all that emerges is silence.

So something inside has to shift significantly to overcome all of this inertia and resistance.  Something within us needs to change to recognize that helplessness comes from the choice not to act and that whatever the result, action is the only way out of the feeling that you are powerless.  Your uncertainties and vacillations will not comfort you.  Time does not heal all wounds and will not be a palliative remedy to the suffering you see in others.  You don’t need power to make something happen, you only need the courage to give voice to your experience in order to share it with another.  Like a child learning to give a speech at a school assembly, you need to walk out to the center of that stage, plant your feet, and S-P-E-A-K.  Use your voice, use your breath, use your hands to gesticulate.  Do not be silent and do not be silenced by ephemeral thoughts in your head and lurking fear in your heart.

The first time I called Animal Control it was 27 degrees outside and I thought that surely it could not be acceptable to leave a dog tied outside when it is below freezing.  I left an “anonymous” complaint of concern for the dog’s welfare.  The second time I called it was 13 degrees.  This time I left my name and address and I made sure it was clear to mention the dog had no food or water and that the owners were rarely home to care for him.  When I looked up the complaint, it simply read “unable to make contact” and was closed.  The third time I called, I asked them to help me understand how the animal welfare process worked and whether they had left notice for the owners, and let them know that things hadn’t changed.  The phone representative checked in with Animal Control dispatch while I was on the phone, said they would continue to try to follow up with owners, and told me to call as often as I felt I needed to.  While encouraged by this, I expected that I would need to wait until the dog looked hungrier, colder or sicker than it was now for further action to occur.

Animal Control was out at the house within a couple of hours.

They propped open the door of the shed so the dog could sleep off of the ground, filled a bucket with water, and left a notice on the door of the house regarding their visit.  The pit bull remained outside of the shed during their visit, excited for the unexpected company, but retreated into the shed once they had left to escape the frozen and unyielding winter ground.

Within a couple of days, the pit bull was gone.

I don’t know what became of him.  I hope something better…that he is not tied up, cold and alone, in another yard somewhere.  And while I am relieved not to see him suffering before me each day, I miss him.  He was a constant, a reminder.  He was a stick that poked and scratched me uncomfortably.  He was someone I looked for and thought of and cared about.  His lonely existence revealed the desire in me for connection, and reflected the idea that we want not just to be visible but to be seen as our true selves, as of value, as of worthy of love and belonging, regardless of our breed, appearance, or status.  He had no voice of his own and his presence questioned me whether I too had no voice?  Could I not speak for him?  Must I remain silent?

I was not silent, and yet now I feel the silence of his absence.  It is still winter, and while the sun may warm me some, even in his absence my gratitude towards the cold blue pit bull who inspired me to speak warms me more.

The Robin Drama

The first baby robin was already dead when I found it on the wet ground early in the cool, damp morning.

I had seen the momma robin in her nest high up in the pear tree outside the kitchen window, ill-formed from numerous botched prunings.  The foliage is thick in the middle but the majority of the canopy has been sheared away.  She would come in and out of view on breezy days as the minimal outer branches swayed around her.  She almost appeared to be bobbing up and down in the movement like she was in a small boat on a wavy lake.  I had wondered about her and her nest, but acknowledged that a robin’s wisdom is impenetrable to me.

I was surprised by how far the baby was from the nest.  It was on the ground at least 10 feet away under a completely different tree.  The week had been full of thunderstorms with heavy downpours and steady winds.  I assumed the baby had been blown from the nest, although I suppose it was also possible it had fallen and been swept along on or near the ground.

When I found the second baby robin, I began to get worried.

I found the baby on the ground directly below the nest.  It had almost no feathers, its eyes were closed and it huddled motionless on the ground.  It was a nestling:  a baby too young to leave the nest.  They lack mobility or the ability to vocalize.  But if you touch a nestling it will thrust its head up and open its mouth in a wide maw to receive food for a second or two before retracting it back into its huddled position.  I had no idea of what to do.  After reading numerous articles online expressing a wide range of opinions of whether or not to rescue a baby bird, I had little guidance to go on.  The best option is to return the baby to the nest, but the nest was far too high for that.  I alternately worried the baby would starve, dehydrate or die of exposure to either the cold ground or too much sun.  I watched and fretted and watched some more.  The robins appeared to be tending to the baby throughout the day.  I discouraged Otto from going near the area easily as he seemed unconcerned with the bird.  I left it alone until nightfall and then built a little nest of Kleenex in a tissue box and tucked the baby in.  I left its makeshift nest on the ground and covered it with a large box to prevent predators from finding it.  I assumed the baby wouldn’t make it through the night without its parents to tend to it.

In the morning, I found the baby alive.  It had defecated in the tissue, which I took to be a good sign.  I gently removed the soiled tissue (wide maw opening towards me) and replaced it with clean, then set the tissue box where I thought the robins would find it.  I watched anxiously out the window, but the robins didn’t seem to be interested in investigating the box.  I would go out and pull more and more of the tissue away (wide maw opening each time) in hopes the robin would see the baby and continue feeding it.  I worried the baby would starve.  And I also worried that if I removed the baby from the “nest” that it would die of exposure.   After a couple of hours of fretful viewing out the kitchen window, I became increasingly convinced that the robins couldn’t find the baby.  Its hopes for survival seemed equally bad no matter what I did, but starvation seemed slightly more certain if the parents couldn’t find it to feed it.  I thought if it could survive one more day (as it had the previous) I would box it up again at night and perhaps we could all work in some unspoken cooperative effort toward saving this baby.  So I made the grim decision to put the baby back on the ground, open to the elements, but hopefully in view of its parents.

The baby huddled on the ground, eyes closed, motionless.  I looked at it feeling sickened by my callous cruelty.  Then I went inside to resume viewing through the window.

The robins strutted around in the vicinity of the baby, digging worms and then strutting on out of view.  It was hard to tell if they recognized the baby or were tending to it.  Yesterday they had clearly been feeding it.  Today they seemed to be wandering in a less directed fashion once they had acquired food.  I was helpless to intervene further.  I knew there was nothing I could do.  I told myself they were probably feeding it in the times I wasn’t looking out the window (which were ground increasingly less frequent, by the way) and that I had to let go of the idea that I could significantly alter the course of the baby’s life.

I was looking out the window when the baby robin died late in the afternoon.

I know it was the moment the baby died because its whole body convulsed and pitched the baby head first into the ground.  It was as gruesome and awful as it sounds.  I was unprepared for this cold and grisly ending, and promptly started to cry in the wake of this realization of how life just disappears.  Death from starvation and exposure is not a painless drift into an indefinite sleep.  It is a struggle and a breaking.

What do we do when confronted with suffering we can’t ameliorate?  Do we intervene with only incremental efforts even if we know the outcome is irrevocable?  Are our good intentions enough?  Is it meaningful and relevant simply to care? Does it matter that we can’t change the course of events, if we can bring some respite, even in minor degrees, from discomfort and distress?  Does it matter if the recipient recognizes us as a friend or protector?  It is easy and not easy to turn away…easy and not easy to try and do something.  No effort feels like enough and yet simultaneously all efforts seem futile.

I put the baby back in the nest of tissue in the small box, covered it, and threw it away.

I turned to go inside and saw Otto staring intently into the hedge along our screened back porch.  Staring. Locked gaze on something in the hedge…

“Leave it!”

The command was like the untoward release of a spring, and in the exact opposite motion of what I commanded him to do I saw Otto lunge forward with a warning snap of the jaw and I heard a shrieking squawk.  There on the ground was a fledgling robin…eyes wide open, covered in feathers, and squawking its alarm.

No sooner had the squawk left the baby’s throat, then the parent robins began shrieking and swooping towards Otto and the fledgling.  Something primal in Otto’s brain snapped and he went into a frenzy of barking and chasing the parent robins.  He would not respond to any command and ducked every effort of mine to catch him.  He alternated between chasing the parents and rushing back towards the fledgling which had started bizarre wobbling trek out of the protection of the hedge into the lawn.  The few minutes it took me to get him into the house seemed interminable.  Panting and shaking, I looked out the kitchen window.  The parents were still calling the alarm and the baby continued to wobble across the yard.  At one point, I went out to check on it and found it in the middle of the lawn.  The parents squawked angrily at my scrutiny.  I went back in the house and the parents continued to call the fledgling until well after dark.

When I went outside in the morning, the robin’s entire broken nest was on the ground where it had finally fallen from the tree.

I searched but could find no other baby robins.  Nor could I find the fledgling.  I kept Otto leashed but felt unsettled not knowing where the fledgling was.  I went back inside and resumed my watch at the window.  I hoped I could catch the parents feeding it and determine its location.  My strategy worked.  By mid-morning I witnessed the parents going over to a patch of long grass and a little robin head thrust itself out with a wide maw for food.  I knew where the fledgling was and I had a plan.

I emptied out a hanging planter of its plants and most of its soil and placed the robin’s nest in the bottom.  I then found the fledgling and placed it in the nest in the planter and set it on the ground where the baby had been hiding.  I went back in the house and waited for the parents to find and feed it.  They figured out the new situation quickly and with this small success I felt by the end of the day that I could hang the planter in a new tree and the parents could continue to card for this fledgling in this new location.  With great relief, the parents were able to adapt to this new situation for their offspring and within a few days the fledgling and parents were gone.  I wouldn’t have guessed the fledgling was big enough to fly, but as I said before, the robin’s wisdom is impenetrable to me.

I would be leading my readers amiss to not acknowledge that at the end of this I felt more prepared to answer some of the hypothetical questions above.

If you can return the baby robin to the nest, do that.  When something catastrophic happens, it is best to be back home with family that can take care of you.

If you can’t return the baby to the nest, get the baby off the ground into something nest-like.  We all do better when we don’t sleep on the ground and we have some structured material to keep us warm and safe.

If the baby is too young to survive without parental attention for long, don’t worry and overthink.  Do the second option and get the baby off the ground, warm and safe.  Maybe the parents will find it and maybe they won’t.  Even if that is all  you can do, it is enough.  It is something.  It is more than nothing.  And no matter how bad or sad the ending, it might just be a little less bad and a little less sad because you expressed your care and took action.

photo (2)



The vet tech said Otto was “not well cared for” by his previous owners.

Otto was picked up as a stray by Leawood Animal Control in Kansas and taken to the State Line Animal Hospital for boarding and care.  He was not neutered and wearing a worn black harness without ID tags or microchip.  The hospital holds stray animals for a trial period before spaying or neutering and putting them up for adoption.  No one came to claim Otto.

Otto was 17 pounds when he was picked up which put him close to 20% below his target weight.  When we went to pick him up at the hospital, where he had been living for a month, he weighed 18 pounds.   You could see his ribs, all of his vertebra, and his hip bones.  His coat was so thin that he couldn’t be clipped short in a standard grooming cut because his skin would show through.  Otto was essentially missing his “wire” coat:  the thick, coarse hairs that gives structure and weight to his fur.  The vet techs said that Otto found life in the hospital very stressful and they had a hard time getting him to eat.  Because of the deplorable condition of this teeth, the vet had estimate Otto to be approximately 8  years old.

It is not unusual for skinny, ragamuffin strays to be picked up without tags or ID.  And not even that unusual for them not to be neutered.

But Otto is clearly 100% purebred schnauzer.   And even in his poor condition, he is very, very handsome.

Purebred + not neutered + bad condition + old age + stray = breeder’s dog dumped when too old to be of use

Sounds pretty harsh, doesn’t it?  It is not uncommon in the mid-West.   If you find this difficult to believe, there is more…

The vet techs were correct about Otto being a skittish eater.  At first he appeared finicky:  he’d approach the bowl slowly, sniff just over the rim and then turn and walk away, usually to go curl up in bed.  I would have to coax him back into the kitchen repeatedly and even hand feed him some kibble before he would stay at the bowl and eat.  And even then he might only eat a portion of the food before voluntarily walking away from the bowl.  And there were other strange signs.  Otto never asked for food.  Not first thing in the morning nor in the evening.  He never begged and he never looked for dropped food on the floor.  If you stood in front of him holding his bowl and turned away even slightly, Otto would leave the room and curl up in bed.  Any distracting movement or noise in the kitchen and Otto would leave.  He wouldn’t come back for a second try on his own.  He would just go back to sleep.

Otto had no expectation of being fed.  And Otto had no comprehension of food belonging to him.  Which meant that Otto had most likely never been fed on a regular schedule and had probably been intimidated while eating.

Otto didn’t know the word “cookie”.  And he did not appear to understand being given a cookie, showing reluctance and leaving the cookie on the floor the first time until encouraged to eat it.  Otto had never eaten anything that wasn’t kibble.  He didn’t recognize apples, carrots or other fruit and vegetable tidbits and would leave them alone unless encouraged to eat them.

Teaching Otto to sit before eating resulted in a anxious bowing, scrabbling, grovelling gesture that would have been tremendously funny if it hadn’t been so grotesquely sad.

While Otto was slow to grasp the practice of consistent eating, he immediately found his place with his bed.  A plush bed with a thick curved bolster and a reflective layer to generate heat, it is a possession Otto covets.  Next to his bed, his most favorite thing is “hugging”:  Otto likes to be picked up with both paws around  your neck and his whole body pressed against you.  An anomaly in a dog, who typically merely tolerate hugging, Otto craves a hug shortly after breakfast and in the evening.  Truth be told, Otto will take any cuddling anytime he can get it.

After a month, Otto gained 3 pounds and his coat grew back in thick and shiny.  His bones are now covered with a layer of sleek muscle.  He loves running top speed around the yard and monitoring the fences that look out onto the street in front.  He is a brave protector.  He has a home and a duty and a family.  He is safe and loved.  And he starts doing the “dinner dance” half an hour before he is fed…right on schedule.  He sits up straight and tall to “earn” his dinner and eats the whole bowl without looking up.

It is easy to fall into habitual patterns of questioning thoughts about the past:  was that a good decision?  should I have taken a different course of action?  where would I be in my life if I had gone down a different path?  Otto reminds me that I needed to do everything that I did in order to be here with him, to rescue him, and to bring him into a home that would help him overcome his past.  A past of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for.  Of being neglected and abused. Of being vulnerable to strangers. Of being homeless and without family.  None of these alter that Otto is worthy of love and belonging, with his own love to share.  And that in return, so are all of us, regardless of our past choices or the directions our lives have taken us.


Begin Anywhere

It starts early, this idea of a starting line, when we are children playing games or lining up for class.  There is an order and it begins with a specific place, a line on the ground, a boundary designating where to start.  You go to the line, but don’t step over it.  Stay behind it.  That is the right place to start.  And then you run the race or play the game or file into the room in an orderly fashion according to the rules of that activity.  As a child, you may have taken delight in the order and the certainty, knowing where to start and how to progress.  Or perhaps you felt the rebellious need to defy these seemingly arbitrary constructs.  Regardless of your response, chances are you were unaware of the blissful state of ignorance around a critical aspect of starting lines:  the idea that they will always be there.  Because sometime later, you will find yourself in a world with no clear starting line from which to begin.

You may just find yourself standing in the middle of a bunch of weeds in a strange place.


No plans and no starting line.

Just weeds.


Perhaps some people never feel this sense of disorientation.  But I doubt it.  I imagine it catches up with all of us eventually although it may take longer to reach some whose lives contain more of that clear linear order than others.  For myself, I believe the death of my mother around age 10 produced a permanent sense of being slightly disoriented, as though my inner compass suffered a wrenching twist that I have been painstakingly trying to repair ever since.  With order swept away by this loss, I can see and feel my halting starts and turns through life, still looking for that bright line of guidance. And finding it elusive and invisible.

Without a clear line from which to start, it becomes apparent that what you need is not the right place to start, but just a place to start if you want to move forward.  Any place.  It doesn’t matter.  Forget what you learned as a child, the starting line, the order of procession, the rules of the game.  Just begin anywhere.  Even if it is smack dab in the middle, the thickest part of the thick of it, the messiest or the most difficult.  Or take the path of least resistance, a place where you have a little wiggle room to grow and rest.  There is no place for judgement in this decision and perhaps even no long term goal.  It is just a beginning…and it can happen whenever and however you want.

I started under the poor butchered pear tree in the middle.  The ground around it was already mostly bear, so it would be easiest to clear.  It was good I started in an easy place, because the soil is full of clay and resistant to planting.  It  needed a lot of tilling and mulching before it was ready for plants, so I was glad to be able to focus on this rather than just digging up the crabgrass.  It is always good to have a bit of planting with all that clearing away, a little something to look forward to in the midst of a getting rid of what you don’t want.


Sea of Lawn

“I showed that lawn tender feelings I should have saved for my family.”  Hank Hill (King of the Hill) lamenting the destruction of his lawn by moles.

Before we moved, I took pictures of every plant in my yard in Portland.

Not just pictures of the yard as a whole (although I have those too), but pictures of each individual plant.  Luckily it was still early spring so a significant number of perennials hadn’t emerged.  Otherwise I would have had easily two or three times the number of pictures.

I had always worked in the yard and “gardened” as such, and then in the last three years had become committed to the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program sponsored by the Audobon Society of Portland.  The program certified neighborhood yards meeting certain requirements of native plantings, stormwater management, and wildlife habitat (food, water, and shelter sources).   I had dug up the majority of the lawn on the property, planted well over 100 plants, and laid many yards of chip in paths and borders.  The yard was Gold certified by the time I left, and I counted over 40 different native species of plant between my front and back yard.  I had a bird bath and several feeders, a brush pile, a mason bee block, and bird roosting boxes.  Over 15 species of bird had been sighted in the yard and several species of bees.  It was right at the point where the majority of planting was done and everything was beginning to expand and fill in.  It had a beauty in both its appearance and its functionality.

Portland has a wide variety of yard-scapes, from simple lawn plus hedge,  to lush overgrown jungles full of hydrangea, rhododendron, wisteria and lilac, to dry landscapes of chip and decorative grasses.  My yard was a three year exercise in balance:  evergreen and color, sun and shade, thick hedgerow and open space, with all the canopy levels represented.  Lots of structure and a little wildness, it looked mostly planned with spots of spontaneity, personal yet appealing.  It was astounding how much habitat could be built into one urban yard.

The yard at my new house can be characterized by what I note appears to be a city-wide standard of appropriate landscaping:  lawn plus sculpted hedge.  A few trees included.  And the lawn description is generous.  The front yard I would describe as lawn plus dandelion farm plus hedge.  (I pulled enough dandelions to fill two large yard debris bags.)  The back yard is about six different invasive ground-covers that have been mowed to look like lawn, plus dandelions plus hedge.  (Oh, and there is that big patch of poison ivy that my husband found accidentally and much to his dismay.)

I am grateful in a way, that the back yard isn’t full of lush lawn.  Then I don’t have to feel bad about digging it up.  Its all just weed and not worth saving.  All I have to do is get to work.

Get to work…again.  Starting over from scratch.  New yard, new native plants to learn about, new plans…

I should be excited.  A blank canvas for me to fill in with my own vision.

Wait, should I be excited?  Because I’m not excited.  I mean, I am excited to research plants on the internet, join the Grow Native! movement, and go pick up stuff at the nursery,  But I am most definitely not in that sustained brimming with enthusiasm excitement that would power me up to wield a pick ax through clay soil to dig up scrub plants that are only suitable for a goat to eat.

It gets harder, you see, to start over.  Working with momentum is different that beginning from a full stop and slowly pushing your way forward. Motivating yourself to begin and not feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the task.  Trying not to think about how long it took you the last time you undertook a project like this.  Before I moved I would watch people on House Hunters and other such shows complain about the paint color or the tile or the landscaping and I would think, “who cares? just change it when you get there”.  But now I understand:  it just takes so much mental effort to overcome the emotions that come with starting over or starting from scratch.  The worry you can’t do it, that  you don’t have it in you, that you are not enough, and that the first time you did it successfully, well, that was just a fluke.  The uncertainty keeps you static:  maybe you were just lucky before, maybe bad luck will befall you this time.

I know it is just the lawn…but I think Hank Hill understands.

Living in Disaster

The house has been empty for a while.  More than just days…more like weeks, months.

When you enter the home, you are struck by the intermingling of cold and the musty odor.  It gives the air a tangible quality you must push through as you enter so it doesn’t force you back onto the porch.  It seems colder than outside as cold has sunk into every corner and cranny. The brief wafting of fresh air into the house as you enter dissipates as soon as the front door shuts behind you and the air closes upon itself again.   Still, leaden, and unmoving.  There is no water and no power.   It has been like this a long time:  without pulse and without breath.  It feels abandoned.

We didn’t anticipate buying a house in this state of un-livability.   We knew it was vacant, a foreclosed property in the hands of Fannie Mae.  But it hadn’t been on the market long and the house was fully intact when we made the offer.  The first piece of bad news came the day Fannie Mae accepted our offer:  someone had cut through the screened back porch, broken the glass pane on the back door, gone down into the basement and removed all of the copper plumbing.  The second piece came on the day the house closed: someone had entered the same way (turns out the property manager didn’t secure the back door) and had cut all of the lines to the electrical panel and taken part of the furnace.

No water, no power, no heat.

You walk through this cold, musty home and there is no welcoming.  No warmth or vibrancy.  The day is gray and cold despite it being spring.  And the house agrees.  No signs of life here.   Inertia is beginning to come with a feeling of deja-vu.  Back to the hotel and long list of phone calls to find contractors in an unfamiliar city.

Displaced, again.

Walking through the house, I think, “this must be a glimpse into what it is like returning to your home after a disaster.”  Grateful to be home, but not really home.  Grateful for plumbing, but not able to shower because there is no hot water.  Not able to cook or keep perishables because there is no power.  Then the power is on, but there is still no heat.  The unseasonably cold spring is more salient to you as you put on another sweater and sleep under every blanket with socks on.  Seems like it takes an hour for the bed to warm up.  It is too cold to unpack and too cold to clean. You drift from room to room rubbing your hands like a distraught ghost, haunting your own house.

Then the day comes that there is water, hot water, power and heat all together.

The house begins to hum, only you hear a symphony.

Movement : Chaos/Inertia

People like to measure the value their possessions have by what they would grab in case of a fire.

Question:  What would you take if you had only one minute to leave your house in case of fire?

Answer:  dog

Question:  What would you take if you had only five minutes to leave your house in case of fire?

Answer: dog, leash, dog cookies

Not surprisingly, this tough love prioritization changes dramatically when time measurement increases.

Question:  What would you take if you had six weeks to leave your house in case of selling it and moving across country?

Answer:  everything in the house I touch

Packing to move is somewhat of an oxymoron in that packing instills a sense of a movement only in the beginning.  High value items ease into boxes and wrappings selected just for them.  Large items like my mother’s cedar chest and the bed dominate the logistics of space and placement. Even the books, which when disturbed from their resting places on the shelf always seem to proliferate during the process of moving,  tuck themselves neatly into boxes stacked unobtrusively in the corner.  Each day a new milestone of packing is reached with ease.  At this rate, your possessions feel like they will practically walk themselves out onto the truck in a spontaneous gesture of cooperative effort with you.

And then some silent and unseen measure is passed and the packing slows down.


Suddenly the value of your remaining possessions are less clear.  You struggle to define their meaning and importance:  utility (I need this), sentimentality (I love this), obligation (I don’t need or love this but feel I should pack it).  Questions turn into discussions turn into debates.   Decisions are delayed for more reflection and evaluation.  Certain possessions awkwardly defy standard packing materials.  Items are sorted and shuffled repeatedly, but organization and prioritization appear lost to you as your environment grows increasingly more chaotic.  And each attempt to bring a sense of order contributes to an increasing sense of inertia as less and less is packed.  You keep expecting your growing frustration to be a catalyst to simply discard that which clearly is not of critical importance, but there is some sticky residue of holding on that thwarts these efforts…every time you touch something.

It is insidious.  You can look at that pile of stuff in the corner and in your mind think, “just give it away”.  Then you pick something up and hold it and remember something about it…when it came in handy or even when you simply imagine it might be useful.  And you move it from the “give away” pile to the “pack eventually” pile.  And at the end of the day it is like a cruel joke to look at the piles you started with and realize how much you still have left to pack.

It is very hard to resist not simply setting it all on fire.

The Pareto principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.  When you are moving, 80% of the chaos/inertia will invariably come from only 20% of your possessions.  And they won’t be the ones you like or need the most.  In fact, they will most likely be things you are ambivalent about and might not have even seen in years.  Things that can be purchased cheaply and replaced easily.  Their charms do not appear evident, but do not be fooled of their power.  Do not touch them.  Leave them be until you are ready to move them into a donation bin.  And then, do not think about them.  Just move them out.

Otherwise, as the Borg say, resistance is futile.