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

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.

Slows…way…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.


This is Not My Beautiful House

Home is where the heart is.

While I don’t deny the verity in this common saying, I favor a slightly  more expansive definition of home. For me,  “Home is where the heart resides in privacy”.  Home is where I go to leave the world behind, to drop off the weight of appearances, to allow the petty complaints of insignificant relationships to fade into the background.  Home is where I can walk barefoot, barefaced without makeup, free of the concern for how I appear in favor of simply being who I am.  Home is where the garden is, my favorite blank canvas, a work of creation that both is and is not under my control.  But it is an easy give and take…plants grow if they are given what they need, there are no hurt feelings or judgement if in initial placement doesn’t work.  You simply move them and a new dialogue begins.  Home is where cooking manifests, that personal alchemy of comfort and nourishment.  Home is where my husband walks in his own unadorned splendor, where I get to have a singularly unique relationship with him full of private jokes and comedic expletive calls to action against all those who thwarted us that day.  And home is where my dog is, sweet, stalwart, and constant equally in his affections and his habits.

Only by this time, my dog isn’t there and my heart is already struggling.  And the feeling of home, or even of having a home, is rapidly deteriorating under the insidiously invasive process of trying to sell a house.

The seed of this process really starts with the realtors, although when you interview realtors it is really just a matter of getting the house a little cleaner than it normally is.  And I suppose for some people, the effort stops there.  We had already seen countless interior photos of homes for sale choked with knick-knacks, dated furniture, bizarre paint colors, and questionable cleanliness.  At the time, it seemed ludicrous that someone would not do everything possible to prepare their home to sell at the highest price no matter what the inconvenience of the process.  But after experiencing myself  the sinking and unsettling sense of losing my home while still residing in the house it used to exist in, I better understand.  Moving itself generates enough change to manage in the future new house, no need to turn the existing house upside down in the process.  Put off that feeling of being uprooted as long as possible until the moving trucks arrive and the boxes are taped shut for loading.

In direct opposition to this approach, we had decided to have our home professionally staged.  The walk through with the staging designer resulted in a long list of changes, mostly eliminations to the home.  Pre-packing of personal items, removing certain furnishings, taking down the window coverings.  We were going to give him a semi-blank canvas to work with.  In the midst of this stripping away process, we had scheduled the one major remodel project in the house to refinish the wood floors for the day after my husband returned from KC…and inadvertently three days after I put Shotzee to sleep.  Refinishing these floors quite literally pulled the ground out from under us when a “misunderstanding” between us and the contractor resulted in a house reeking like someone had dumped ten gallons in paint thinner into our small house as the mineral spirits in the finish cured and dissipated sluggishly in the cold damp Portland spring.  The house was unlivable.  We were homeless and the selling process had hardly begun.

After two weeks in a hotel, we were able to return home and finish our preparations for staging.  But the feeling of exile lingered.  The brilliance of our staging designer had  transformed our house into a chic showroom quality bungalow.  All its tiny flaws hidden or de-emphasized.   New furnishings added and our existing furnishings re-arranged.  A strange hodge-podge of us and the staging…it was our house but it was far, far from being our home.  And the entire front of the house had no window coverings and lighting on timers that remained on well into the night.  It was like living in a beautiful fishbowl and we hid in the little castle comprised of the back of the house where we could have some privacy and respite from the public exposure.  If that weren’t surreal enough, there were a large number of strangers walking through it those first few days.  You could feel it in the air.  Items would be moved out of place.  The bed looked like it had been sat on.  You wondered what else they had looked at, touched, commented on, evaluated and judged.  And while the home sold in just a few days, we had to maintain it in the strange staged existence through the inspection period.   To add insult to injury, the buyer asked to view the house again twice after the inspection period to show members of her family…as though it really was just a showroom existing only for her and waiting patiently for her arrival.  Needless to say, both requests were declined.

Even after all the staging was removed, our home never returned.  More things were packed, given away or sold.  Shotzee remained painfully and heartrendingly absent.  Because of the rapid proximity of the events, my mind had generated a strange and twisted logic that his absence was only temporary in order to facilitate the sale and  if I could just restore the sense of  “home” to our house he would return.  But neither was really possible…no Shotzee and no home.  Just a house that soon would belong to someone else to pack up and leave behind.


Trusting the Way Forward

What is reliable formula for trust?  What variables comprise this critical equation in which we entrust another person, another place, another process with our safety and comfort?  Trust implies something certain and reliable, and yet a peek beneath it seemingly solid surface reveals not a stationary foundation, but a shifting one.  Trust can land you firmly planted on solid ground or trust can lure you out onto thin ice, creaking and threatening to break beneath your feet for an unsuspecting plunge into treacherous waters.

Where to start with trust?  and where to go from there?  So much of trust is implied…

I trust what I know.

We tend to trust most easily that which is familiar to us:  looks, thinks, and acts most like us.  Our families, neighborhoods and social circles, all carefully selected and cultivated to reflect ourselves.  And yet, to what extent can you trust something that has never been challenged by an unusual (and potentially adverse)  situation or condition?  How often do we hear the sound of surprised betrayal in someone’s voice when they recount how someone they knew and thought the could rely on has let them down when the unfamiliar circumstances arrived?

I trust a proven track record.

Some would say that they only trust those who have proven themselves worthy and have displayed the stalwart loyalty necessary to earn trust.  Trust is not so much implied by familiarity, but is validated by experience and observation.  But what about those situations that arise suddenly when you have to trust someone with whom you have no history and who comes without adequate information?  How do you make a decision whether or not to trust?

Moving across the country brought up key moments when trust was necessary and upon reflecting on those, I propose that a combination of faith, empirical observation, and pure situational chance wind up influencing our decisions around trust.  Because in the end, my husband and I found ourselves throwing away a major piece of our moving strategy and trusting ourselves and one complete stranger to help us make a pivotal decision for our move.

It is safe to say that we had a fair amount of naivete in going about what we were trying to do.  We had picked our city and knew we wanted to live in its urban core.  And we had decided we wanted to buy a house under 50K.  Looking on the Internet, that great engine of information, we found many possibilities.  But the algorithms of the Internet rarely deliver information with the context of culture and history.  The city’s long history of institutional red-lining and racial segregation were not apparent on Realtor.com, but the effects of it were.  Realtors we spoke with expressed reluctance, resistance and even refusal to show houses past certain dividing lines in the city, thus making these effects even more explicit.  It became increasingly and disconcertingly clear that we were uncomfortable trusting an agent who wanted to ensure we only looked in neighborhoods with “like minded” people.  We began to feel anxious around this lack of trust and became aware of how necessary trust is to feel able to move forward, make changes, and make decisions.  To remedy this, my husband started reaching out to people he was connected with on social media that he knew were invested in the urban core and from there it was a shorter, albeit still precarious, leap to an agent willing to show us homes that would enable us to fulfill our goals.

Hardly had we established ourselves back on firmer ground, when uncertainty inserted itself in our path once again.  Shotzee, our lovely old schnauzer, got sick the night before we were scheduled to fly to Kansas City and look at houses.  And we knew we couldn’t leave him with anyone. It had to be us to care for him.  We had to decide:  do we cancel the trip entirely?  does one of us go? and which one?  We didn’t like any of the options…we wanted to go at that time and we wanted to go together.  But we had no choice.  We had to make a decision and there were multiple outcomes of the decision which required a lot of trust.  Trust to work with a realtor we didn’t actually know, to confirm KC was where we wanted to move, to pick out a suitable house (no easy feat in the urban core of a complicated city), to ensure Shotzee got the care he needed, and for one of us to face having Shotzee put to sleep in our absence and the other to put him to sleep while home alone.   Thinking of all these decisions now, I see how we could have drawn a very complex diagram with corresponding risk analysis weighing all of the options.  But in the end, it was relatively straightforward.  My husband had never been to Kansas City and he had been in contact with our realtor up until that point so he was most familiar with her.  It really didn’t make sense for him not to go.  And while it wasn’t really discussed in conversation, if I had to choose between picking out the house I was going to live in and deciding what medical care my dog was going to receive, I would choose the dog.  No contest.

So our strategic plan to go to KC together was out the window.  All three of us went to the airport:  myself, my husband, and Shotzee.  My husband went on to KC by himself to look at houses with our completely unfamiliar realtor.  And I stayed home to care for Shotzee…and put him to sleep three days later while my husband was gone.  The day after my husband returned to Portland, we put an offer in on a foreclosed home in Kansas City made possible and facilitated by our outstanding realtor.  I never saw the home or the neighborhood before we bought it other than in photos.

When I tell this story, people are stunned that I bought a house I had never seen.  The wonder at how I could put so much of the weight of this decision in my husband’s hands.  And the answer is pretty simple…

I trusted him.


Letting Go

In this world of proliferating spiritual self-help material, there is always a lot of spaced dedicated to letting go.  Whether one is trying to learn how to let go of a bad relationship or delve deep into mystical waters of Buddhism, the destination point is inevitably this place of willing acceptance, of relinquishing control, and of recognizing that our ability to move forward hinges on this ability to ceasing grasping.  “Let go or be dragged” the Zen proverb goes, and we all nod knowingly with the understanding of our higher selves.  Letting go is an awakening to the potential of the moment:  we recognize that we are suspended in this stream of experience and allow ourselves to move with its current.  No more treading water, frantic, scared or frustrated.  We float peacefully, feeling the respite from clinging.  Letting go is both produced from and manifests as a sense of ease.

What is rarely addressed, at least not explicitly, is what you do when confronted with that thick gnarled  root of the resistance to letting go.  That white knuckled, fingers interlocked grip that finally gives way, not from an awakening realization but from exhaustion.  Or when each finger has to be peeled back, one by one, until the strength of the hold is compromised enough to release.  No sense of peaceful floating as your heart opens in acceptance…just the thump when you hit the ground and the breath is knocked out of you.  Stunned and numb at first, and then filled with regret and sorrow at the loss of not holding on for just one more moment longer.

When the time came to make the decision to put Shotzee to sleep, I had for all intents and purposes arrived at a place of letting go.  I was lucky…I had a lot of rational justifications for coming to this decision.  And I had an amazing veterinarian to help me make sense and validate my perceptions.  While his true age was not known, we knew from the clouding in his eyes that Shotzee was over 12.  He fur had not only started going white around the eyes, but the fur across his whole body had whitened.  Dark gun metal gray when we first adopted him, his last trip to the groomer revealed him to be a pale silver, a little ghostly version of himself as he aged.  Shotzee had been in heart failure for 18 months, 12 months longer than his original life expectancy with heart failure of 6 months.  He was old and he was fragile.  He was highly susceptible to the negative effects of stress and he couldn’t be hospitalized.  And I had promised him that I would not let him suffer at the end of his life.  I was lucky…his vet and I knew that Shotzee had become sick with something he couldn’t recover from (pancreatitis) and that he would only get worse.  While I hoped for the best in the few days leading up to his death (after all, he had rallied so many times before), when I took him in on that final day I knew that I needed to make the hard decision.  Despite a good morning, Shotzee was clearly waning and beginning to struggle to maintain his place in the world.  It was time to let go.

It was too hectic in the hospital to put him down during his visit, so I took Shotzee home for a few final hours and returned after the hospital had closed.  I paid for his euthanisia in advance and told the vet to let the vet techs and other staff know they could feel comfortable coming in the room to say good-bye while we waited.  I held Shotzee in my lap as he received his final visitors, and relinquished him only for a moment to receive the first sedative injection. Then I held him while  the vet feed him treats until he fell asleep under the sedative.  He remained in my lap to receive the final injection.  For a few moments after the vet had confirmed his heart stopped, I held Shotzee knowing it would be the last time. Time to let go.   I got up and handed him over to the vet who laid him gently on the table. We talked about how peaceful he looked and what a handsome boy he had been.

And then I felt the thump as I metaphorically hit the ground and the ensuing stunned paralysis.

I couldn’t leave the room.

Shotzee was gone, but I couldn’t make myself turn around and leave him behind.

And I knew that this was the moment to really let him go.

Suddenly, the series of evaluations and decisions and actions that had led me to this point over the previous few days, from when Shotzee first appeared to be sick to this moment in the hospital standing by his still body, revealed themselves to be the illusory.  Illusory in the sense that all this time I thought I had been letting go, accepting that his life had come to its end.  After all, for the past 18 months Shotzee’s like had been far from guaranteed.  At any time he could suddenly become terminal from his heart, so I had been preparing for this moment for a long time.  Or so I thought.  But now I feel this  type of “preparation” is also an illusion.  Because despite all of this, I felt how tight that grip was up until the last moment and how much effort it took to loosen it enough to turn away and walk out the door. To let go, and to feel those now open hands filling with the grief of loss.

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Shotzee

Sometime around the turn of the century to February 16, 2013.

Miss you, Boo.  Every single day…

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