Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why I Love This Stuff

Next to my bathtub I have three reading choices. A long outdated (Madonna and A-Rod) People magazine, a more recent issue of Yoga Journal, and The Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery by Lyndy Abraham. This third thing is the one I reach for. It's not a New Age thing at all. It's this woman's Doctoral Thesis at Cambridge University and to write she she ventured into the depths of the Vatican's secret libraries and cruised the coffers of ancient memory to dredge of these defitintions of things I never used to think about.
Things like: alembic/limbeck, the red dragon, albification.
I read this book with remarkable pleasure.
For me, it's like reading the poems of Shakespeare. . . only maybe even better.
I feel this is my own private world, a book few others venture to pay nearly $40.00 for on Amazon (used: $29.45). It's a language I share with these ancient minds. . . women and men who influenced great poets and composers. . . Goethe. . . Rilke. . . Jung. . . they challenge me, stretch my mind, and I marvel at their creativity. . . and expand my mind with every word I read.
What I like best about it, it never becomes something rational.
Reading this stuff, like reading great poems, keeps me always in that metaspace--like love, like dreaming, like doing a really good crossword puzzle and it all starts coming together as though you don't even have to read the clues anymore because your mind has become one with that of the puzzle designer--where my mind is cruising just under its own surface.
I laugh out loud when I read it. It's a laughter like: damn, you guys were good.
For all the darkness and spookiness clouding around alchemy all these years, reading it is pure joy. Joy in language. Joy in life. Joy in the mysteries of the human mind and the joy of getting deep into symbols and stirring stuff up from thousands of years ago.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why the Red Book is Red

In Alchemy, there are many symbolic systems. Often, a practitioner would create his or her own system. These would possess a variety of properties.

The symbols are polyvalent, an understood and accepted fact, so that once a practioner "knew" the basic structure of the alchemical process one could read another's work (often rendered in artwork) without being confounded.

It was also understood that the process is reiterative and in constant flow (why detachment is necessary--one is never "finished") so a reader or viewer would not expect the writer or artist to deliver the information in a sequential manner.

A third property of the systems involves concealment. While the information begged to be shared, it could only be shared in a way that would reveal its content only to one's peers. These were not breadcrumb trails for strangers but rather records maintained for safe-keeping. One writer described the alchemical knowledge as "a secret set afloat across the sea of time." To maintain the secrecy, the writers were incredibly playful. Wonderfully so. But they were playful with such dark images that it hardly resembles play.

Even under the manifold symbolic systems, there are a number of inviolate levels.

--matter going through the opus will alternate between two states of being: coagula et solve, or coagulated and dissolved.

--matter going through the process will move through three states denoted by color: nigredo, albedo, rubedo.

--matter going through the process will move through seven states: calcinatio, dissolutio, separatio, calcinatio, crucifixio, putrefactio, fermentatio (resurrectio).

Ascribe to each of these "states" about 1000 symbols each and you have the complex symbology of any alchemical text, (check out the colors/animals/plants in Book of Revelations in the Bible). But they denote the same process.

The symbolic systems employ animal imagery (often blending species), colors, plants, shapes, objects (tomb, crucible, bedroom) and human figures (the son, the mother, the virgin, the King) to denote various stages in the process.

The color red denotes the final stage of the process. Symbolized as staining with blood, or blood itself, the red dwells hidden within the whiteness of the albedo phase ("know that in whiteness there is redness hidden" --Artephius). "At this union, the supreme chemical wedding, the body is resurrected to eternal life," writes Lyndy Abraham in The Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery.

The Red Book is Jung's Chemical Wedding, so its color is befitting. What's so beautiful and fascinating about alchemy is that every single thing is symbolic. No part of life is left out of its sacred lexicon, down to the color of inks and books.

And just to make thing s little more interesting, Sir Isaac Newton's home was decorated primarily in crimson as well. . .

Alchemy and Narcissism and The Red Book

This book is different from Jung's other books.

He writes that this is the book that started the whole Jung thing. Everything he wrote after The Red Book was an echo of the Red Book, of the experience he has within these pages.

This is not a book about mystical experience. This book is his mystical experience. In it he uses the writing and art as transformative tools in moving across the gap in the mind between conscious and unconscious aspects of the self. The writings and mandalas guide him, show him what he needs to see, believe, think and surrender to. This is art without vanity. It's his journey into his soul. After The Red Book, Jung strove to make sense of what had happened within him.

I think it's funny how we so easily take our sanity for granted, meaning, more often than not, we just assume we're perfect and don't need to do any more "work." People don't attempt to understand what's going on, or what has happened within us. Recently I've been learning a lot about how narcissism denies itself. A person can be entirely caught up in him/herself and not know it. And blame everybody for everything they've got going on that's wrong. We know these people. More often than we'd like to admit, we are these people.

As countercultural icon, a psychotic, a dreamer or madman, Jung and his legacy, bear the burden of one who strove to overcome narcissism. Egotists have no patience for non-egotists because the ego only wishes to preserve its hold on reality. Jung's work challenges this hold. The Red Book throws down a serious gauntlet in the modern age: the mystical journey is not a thing of the past, of long lost prophets and flying nuns, and this is a map of how to do it. This is the man's alchemy of himself.

Lately, I've been thinking about how maybe all the sacred texts work together as a ladder out of the self, out of the blindness of narcissism. I've been thinking that perhaps "ego" and "the self" are ways of saying "narcissism." And alchemy, as buddhism, as Christianity, as Kaballah, as Judaism, as Hinduism, as Islam, is the means of overcoming it. And, thinking of the immense Red Book, religion stripped of affiliation, I think of how treacherous it is.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Red Book

Last week I went into Malaprops with my daughter. We had some time to browse prior to a reading I was doing at Posana. I bought some Moleskins for a workshop group for the following day, some pens. I bought my daughter a pair of journals, one for her and one for a friend. I was paying for it all when I saw it. The Red Book.

The secret book by Carl Gustav Jung, sealed away in a chilly Swiss bank for a century and now sitting before in all its red immense glory, beckoning to me. Not saying "buy me, buy me, buy me" (though I knew I would) but rather "open me, open me, open me."

Let me tell you a thing about me and books.

When I took a group of my boy students (as their teacher at a boys' boarding school) to go see the Dead Sea Scrolls in Charlotte five years ago, by the time I exited the exhibit, they'd all found new girlfriends and had bought them sodas. I had spent that long looking--no: gazing--into the strange cases built to house them, complete with low lights on timed dimmer switches so the paper bears the weight of light, and sight, for only seconds at a time. I swear I wanted to see every stroke of whatever language they were written in. Not that I could read it, but I know there's power in the word, and there's greater power in words written in that metastate of illumination.

"What are you?" I whispered to them, under my breath, but no low enough for the Rabbi standing near me to hear, close his eyes and nod very slowly in agreement with my awe.

I don't take these matters lightly.

So, there was the Red Book. "Please," I said, unable to complete the request. And within a moment, this enormous book was under my hands. I touched it first, much in the way I touch a horse as I move alongside its enormous body, toward its face, careful not to startle it, careful to let it know I"m here.

I opened it. . .

Monday, November 02, 2009

Giving The Soul Tree to Leonard Cohen

Well, last night Leonard Cohen played in Asheville. I drove into town a few hours before the concert, approached the front desk at the Haywood Park Hotel and said, "I have a present for Leonard Cohen" and the concierge saw my book and said she'd have it taken to his room. I sat down on the comfy sofa and wrote in it: from one Canadian poet to another. . . thank you for your song. . . with love, Laura Hope-Gill. Then I handed it to the woman and presumably someone took it to Mr. Cohen.

How do I describe this? Leonard Cohen has been such a profound influence on me. His poetry, along with Galway Kinnell's, has shown me how poetry can move the mind through darkness, lighting it as it goes. Yes, it's a wonderful gift for poets to be able to describe what is and even what is inside what is. Then there are these poets who go even beyond the what is and still find something there. Cohen and Kinnell are among the living who do this, and The Soul Tree is rooted in this kind of work, moving associately through the music, letting it be the guide beyond reason. . . .

I remember the first time I really listened to "Take this Waltz." I was stunned. It's a poem comprised of images which share a tenor, a concept desiring to be conveyed. He encloaks some forty or so images within a metaphor of a waltz, conveying an emotion of such complexity only music can carry it. It's wistful and bitter, alive and at the same time dead.

It was a powerful moment for me, as a poet. Since then I've looked at his lyrical logic, how he weaves emotion from forms. If Mr. Cohen just opened one page of The Soul Tree last night before he went to sleep after an earth moving three and a half hour concert, I'm the happiest poet on earth.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Soul Tree

Coming out in August from Grateful Steps Publishing in Asheville, NC. View pages at Ordering info at

Friday, June 05, 2009

A Small Anatomy of Change

Have you ever noticed how during times of great change, a swell of energy comes into our lives? Much of the energy appears to work "against" the change but the effort it takes to overcome the negations that work to push us through into the next part of our lives.

This past week I have worked harder than I've ever worked. Several deadlines for writing pieces for various publications--one local, one statewide, one regional (still ramping up to the national I guess)--struck at once. To meet them, I had to write hard-well-fast. It's my daughter's last week of school so there's been "splash day" and today's Kindergarten awards day. The Wednesday Night Odyssey class took me to a deep level of teaching and planning, and of course the fair at the mall opened. All of this in addition to my job for which I marketed five books all week, rather successfully. All of this the week after I rent an office and step into the community of healers.

In a turn-of-the-century alchemy book published by some ballsy masons, the authors write of how a pull of negative forces precede a positive leap forward. It's an observation of change, and I'm going to search through the Tao te Ching today to find its correlation. At other times, I've felt pushed to my absolute limits to fill the voids that arise just before some great launch to another level. There are moments when I really feel I could just crumple in the face of it all. But then I work. And from the work comes this peculiar illumination, a sense that I'm being helped from the other side--this helper is bending time, this helper is making my sentences, this helper is making the lines short at the fair--and I realize that the stress is a lesson in letting go, and through being stressed to the max I'm being taught I am not alone. This is a prelude to what's to come, the next great jump of a further into-me becoming.

I imagine this crumpling feeling, the sense that I can't do it, is the human equivalent for the nothingness the caterpillar goes to, the reduction to merely the base of the antennae, before the regeneration begins. And we have to go through this again and again.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Room of Her Own

Virginia Woolf says in her famous essay that in order to be a writer, a woman needs 500 pounds a year (cash) and a room of her own. For the low-low price of just under 500 dollars a month, I got a room of my own today. Aside from my house, in which I share several rooms of my own with my daughter, I now have this.

It is a small room. It is part of the Women's Wellness and Education Center. It is immense to me because it represents my movement, as poet, into several new realms. The first of these is my own "private practice" as writing teacher, editor and creativity coach. I have been moving toward this through a series of fits and starts--and peculiarly strong signals from the universe--that it's time. But the other realm is that of medicine. Women's Wellness and Education Center is a women-run holistic care center for women who are pregnant, women who want to be pregnant and women who have little interest in pregnancy but love a great massage and yoga or pilates class.

Way, way back, I was born into a family of doctors on my father's side (going back three generations) and teachers on my mother's (going back also three generations). As a kid, I expected that I would become a doctor. But by the time college began, it was very clear, and my freshman year chemistry 101 teacher would vouch, medicine was not my path. At least not, I see now, Western medicine. I signed on for literature and never looked back. That is, not until my masters thesis semester of grad school. With only one month left to write a brilliant essay on poetry and three reams of rough draft with no solid thesis anywhere in the mix, I called my father and told him I was dropping out of poetry school and becoming a doctor. I said, "To be a doctor all you have to do is memorize things people already have names for. In poetry, you have to name things no one else has been able to." My father argued against my decision. I couldn't believe my ears. "Don't do it, honey," he said. "Poetry is the better means to finding the truth."

So, here I am taking an office in a wellness center, returning to the roots of two family trees. And little has ever made more sense to me.

Looking back through this blog and all the exploration of alchemy and poetry and how they relate to my deafness and my healing, I see this new part of my life interlace perfectly with all that has come before. I am stepping into myself as poet and healer.

I envision this as a beginning of something wonderful. Perhaps soon, all holistic healing centers will include a poet/memoirist among their staff. We will begin then to heal our minds while we heal our bodies and our spirits.

So, Virginia, and others who find me here musing. . . come by my office at 24 Arlington just off of Charlotte St. Or call for an appointment: 242-7372. It's a beautiful day to begin a new chapter.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Asheville WordFest April 30-May 3

I think the really important thing to convey about Wordfest is that it is product of many years of Asheville poets' legacy-building. From the early nineties until now, there's been a strong poetry community. (I see it as a healing of what happened to poor Thomas Wolfe whose words won him exile from his city.) James Nave, Glenis Redmond, Bob Falls, Allan Wolf, Keith Flynn and more recently Graham Hackett, Sebastian Matthews, Jeff Davis, and many more too many list, have stoked the fires for a free poetry festival for this town. Back in the early 90's there was a poetry event every weekend evening, in some crazy location, ranging from the Green Door to the Diana Wortham, which back then, like the Green Door, allowed local performers to use the mainstage (!) for a mere 20% of the door. The town came out for these events.

Wordfest was dreamed up at a table at Malaprops, where I think all of us have read at one time or another. James Nave, Jeff Davis, Glenis Redmond and I sat around after a broadcast of Wordplay and up it bubbled. It's interesting that three of us are rooted in the performance scene--we've always had that drive to make poetry public, to literally give it away. That's the spirit of creativity, so we keep that at the heart of Wordfest. Lewis Hyde's book *The Gift* is one of the most important books in my world. In that book, the poet explores the creative economy, one based on circulating energy, rather than trapping it in place. For Whitman, poetry was currency. He spent it generously and in return he received it generously. He devoted hours to writing letters for wounded soldiers. For him, there was no difference between service and poetry. Hyde also studies ancient economies and folktales, revealing that cultures have survived quite well on this circular economy. It's interesting to me that we're witnessing the end of the linear economy (however many bailouts we attempt in order to put off the inevitable). It's a perfect time for creativity to rise, for people to give things away for free, such as a poetry festival, and enjoy seeing how it comes back to them in other forms.

So, it's about much more than poetry for me. It's about restoring things to a more natural economy.We invite local businesses and groups to sponsor poets as way of integrating poetry into the marketplace. For the amount it costs to buy a paper ad in one issue of a magazine, a business or group can actually pay for the poet's airfare and (part of) a reading fee and give much more life to the money, and reach many more people (through our website, press and the actuall event itself) in a much more human way. Also, WordFest presents poetry as Citizens Journalism. This is simply an emergence from my experience of watching Dr. Maya Angelou on Nightline on September 11. She was talking about how we need to "feel" what has happened, how we need to grieve, and Ted Koppel said, "Well, thank you for that poetic reflection, Dr. Angelou. And now for a more realistic perspective." And gone was the poet and up came a general or colonel. That was it. Neither of those perspectives is more realistic than the other. There are two realities--the active and the reflective.

Asheville Wordfest, by presenting poetry as Citizens Journalism, explores this.We are funded by the North Carolina Arts Council and the North Humanities Council, two amazing examples of circular economy in the way they return taxpayers money to the taxpayer in a higher form, that of art. My own company, The Healing Seed, picks up the rest of the tab along with Amy Mandel, Shiner Antiorio, Katina Rodis, Laurie Masterton, Grateful Steps Press, Maggie Wynne and many other members of our community. As the years continue, I envision more businesses and friends will "sponsor-a-poet" by donating money. It can happen, We can change the economy into a creative one, and see how everyone benefits. Asheville Wordfest is one model for doing this.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The English Major and the Apocalypse

In Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman, the author/artist of the groundbreaking (oh, I'm so tired of that word but Spiegelman deserves it) MAUS. His talk was in the Roosevelt Theater of Roosevelt College, just off Michigan Ave. I sat in a private box, not because I am special or had paid any extra. Just no one else was sitting there. And from there in my little velvet cave I heard something stunning. Spiegelman was just getting warmed up for his presentation on the logic of the cartoon when he said, "I just attended my grand-daughter's graduation from Yale. She got her degree in English. I'm so glad she got a degree in something useful, not something useless like Finance."

I've been reading the posts on, the blog for young women who have been cashing in on Wall St. dating practices such as being given a Saks credit card by an FBF (financial guy boyfriend--the "g" is silent, they explain in the glossary). That is, up until the recession. There are two time period for the DABA (dating a banker anonymous)--BR, before recession and AR, after. Naturally, the blog has links to other blogs. I visit them. I see similar takes on the ending era--finance is over. It doesn't make sense. Lehman Brothers employees are having to work-out because their fat bonuses just won't be there to draw the babes.

So, I think of Art Spiegelman's statement.

I lied to my father when I was in college. I told him I was taking business classes for my freshman year. Of course, he caught on and warned me against my English degree, which I pursued, or more aptly merrily walked into merely by doing what I loved best--reading and writing.

Now, the world is changing. Boutique banks are taking counter deposits from anyone who walks in, and the people who have focused their lives on financial compensation--openly doing so, with no qualms for not really being concerned for social causes--are suffering, for real. And I can't see their loss as any less tragic than other kinds because I know that any loss forces us to dig incredibly deep in order to move through the change it inflicts. These people are experiencing an apocalypse.

But I'd be dishonest not to feel somewhat vindicated for having pursued a degree in English, as well as for my remarkable aversion to all things focused entirely on money. Maybe I'm gloating. I think of a professor of Education who, upon looking at my transcript, said of my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, "Wow, I'm sure that's useful." The piece of paper she was looking at is the most important piece of paper in my life. I just live in another world, have always lived in another world, from the one where education translated into immediate financial gain. And I think this world I've been inhabiting is going to be the "next world" more people step into. The mere number of blogs--beautifully written blogs, I might add--by ex-finance men and women--suggests that creativity is going to carry people through this, that it is an instinct, not a luxury. A necessity and not a waste of time. . .

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Secret of Poetry

Join poet Laura Hope-Gill as she explores the relevance of Eastern and Western alchemy to poetry.

The Secret of Poetry

Join poet Laura Hope-Gill as she explores the relevance of Eastern and Western alchemy to poetry.


The Poet's Alchemy

Beyond Yin and Yang

The Language of Change

From Mind Into Spirit

God Chemistry

The Two Worlds

The Secret of Poetry

The Alchemical Process

The Quiet Mind

The Healing Seed

Sitting with the Negative

Join poet Laura Hope-Gill ( on her exploration of poetry, sacred texts, life and alchemy.

Zoe the Dog

On Tuesday morning at 7:15, just a little bit before my daughter's school bus comes to pick her up, Zoe and I said good-bye to each other, ending our 13 year partnership in this world. Her death ended a three month battle of me against her death. I fought like crazy, turning my back on two suggestions by her vet that we "do it now" and compiling an array of medicines, holistic and non-. Antioxidants, vitamins, drops, iron, vitamin E, prednisone, nausea pills, painkillers. . . and I was feeding her "dogsure" with a syringe. Death has been living in my house, pacing. And now it's gone.
The way she died mystifies me. I was holding her as I have done so many times, my arms wrapped around her neck (by now so skinny) and my face buried in her fur. I had never visualized how she would go. I only feared it and wept for it since the vet told me in November he'd found cancer in her liver. But when the moment came, when her breathing changed, I talked her through it. I did it unconsciously--and my voice was calm and strong. I was saying all her favorite sentences and words--ride in the car, go to the cottage, get in the boat, go for a walk, have a treat. . . and her breathing grew heavier, and for the first time in her life she growled as she released her last breath.
And then I brushed my daughter's hair, zipped up her coat and walked with her to the end of the driveway where bus 181 picked her up and took her to school.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

--for Michele and Barack Obama

He has grown into an old man,
Even older than Mandela did who also did
The remarkable thing simply by doing the only

Thing he could do. Be.
His hair is longer now, not fully gray.
It is as though he has stopped time the same way

Anyone who changes the course of history holds a power over time.

He stands tall, still,
Dressed, as always in his best
Because that is what his grand-mother taught him.

He remembers every single one
Of her lessons because she gave them in the
Soft language she knew could shape a man from the inside.

His wife is old now, too, and she
Still holds him to her every word and to his
Word and to the words of the world. She is his weaver

And he is her web. Their love forms
A constellation of stars all the places they walk. It lights the path.
Two presidencies down, they still talk mostly of their daughters who are

Grown and do not recall
A time when either a woman or a person with dark
Skin could not make a home of the White House or any other house

For that matter. The years
Have been good to them. The nation, grateful.
They have served and they continue to serve, traveling.

They always hold hands. They still have
That smile for each other they’ve kept going
Since college. It has been a good life for both of them.

They have lived a long time.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Life as God Has It


ζωη(zoe) n. - greek "life". Life in the absolute sense, life as God has it, that which the Father has in Himself, and which He gave to the Incarnate Son to have in Himself (Strongs #2222)

In his adaptation of an Abenaki legend, Joseph Bruchac speaks of the origin of dogs as Great Spirit’s gift to human when He saw we were moving farther from the natural world and therefore farther from Him. Spirit saw that human was in trouble and needed an animal that would sleep inside the shelter, curled up at the foot of the bed. And so came Dog.

I named my dog “Zoe” because it means “life” in Greek. More specifically it means Life as God has it. My dog “Zoe” now as I write this is leaving this other life, life as mortals have it. She’s lying next to me as I write this, as I’ve written so many other pieces, with her beside me through every word. Her white and apricot fur is healthy. It is her winter coat, thick with curls and swirls. The softest fur covers her head, emerges in gold feathers down her ears. I will seek this texture in silk and pussy willows for the rest of my life and remember her. From this memory, the countless others will radiate.

Of Zoe and me running together along the Swannanoa River on the Warren Wilson College property. Of Zoe and me running in the meadows of the Christ School property where I lived for nine years. Of Zoe and me, Zoe and me, Zoe and me. In a life lived, as viewed from the outside, greatly in a solitary way, with Zoe I have never been alone.

She is the first creature I have raised. I adopted her from the puppy pool at the West Lafayette humane society in Indiana. She was a wedding gift from my fiancé at the time, Tom Andrews, the poet who passed away shortly before the towers were attacked in 2001. I thought she was a boy and named her Hugo at first sight when she peered out from under a child’s little chair placed in the puppy pool as a toy. Her black-rimmed dark eyes reminded me of the seals that swam up to me when I sat by the sea on the Olympic Peninsula. I whispered in her ear on the drive from the humane society, “You’re the dog that’s going to help me raise my child.” My fiancé ended up breaking off our engagement just two weeks later, saying that having a puppy made him realize he didn’t want to have children (he also said I was "taking all the good poems" and that I "blocked his view of God"). I loaded Zoe’s blue cage into the front of the truck I bought off him for one dollar and together we made the drive over the Ohio River and up the Blue Ridge back home, to my mother’s house in Oteen, my life and my heart in pieces.

We rented a house on Riceville Road, the pretty yellow across from the cow pasture with the stream. A parrot lived next door who quickly learned how to mimic me calling her. “Zoe!” the parrot would call out when I did, often causing Zoe to just lie down on the grass confused as to which way to run. For the first three years of her life, I couldn’t have house guests or a boyfriend. She was so rambunctious I expected a lawsuit from my landlady, Grace, for all the times she nearly pushed her over. Upon returning home after a day of teaching teenage criminals at the juvenile center, I’d often weep as she uncontrollable mauled me with kisses. She symbolized how crazy my life had become.

Time passed. Boyfriends arrived and departed. And Zoe calmed down. Living at Christ School in a small two bedroom cottage with limitless room to run, we shared furniture and hours of quiet. She swam in the lake every day in Summer and after school in Fall, when we drove to my parents’ cottage in Canada, she rode on the back of my kayak and we explored Georgian Bay. When she saw something move in the woods on land she’d leap off. I’d follow in my boat and swim from the rocks until she returned, climbed on board and signaled she was ready to move on. I’ve read all of my poems to Zoe. She looks away when the language falls flat and stays focused when the rhythm works. This doesn’t work so well with prose, although some pieces hold her attention better than others. Our lives are intertwined.

When I gave birth to my daughter, Zoe’s mouth at first watered at the sight of the small pink thing I’d laid on the bed next to=2 0me. I’ve only harshly scolded Zoe twice in her life—this time and when she chewed up a long letter from Galway Kinnell, my favorite poet. Once she understood that my daughter Andaluna wasn’t a snack, she took on the role of helping me raise her. She recognized early that, due to my hearing loss, I didn’t always hear my own child cry or whimper when I was writing in another room. With a heavy head pressed onto my lap, she alerted me, and when Andaluna left her toddler bed for a middle-of-the-night trek into the living room to play, Zoe nudged me in my bed. She became my unofficial hearing-ear dog, happy to have a job. She helped my daughter master walking by staying close so the child only had to reach out an arm and Zoe would steady her. And this morning, she would not rise to get off of Andaluna’s bed when I asked if she wanted to go outside. This is how I know we are nearing our end.

From what I can tell, two conversation topics open women up to each other better than any other. The first of these is pregnancy; who among us when pregnant did not become the carrier of “birth stories” from absolute strangers, some of which were gutsy enough to just reach forward and touch our belly as though it was their own. The se cond of this is animal death. Everybody in my life knows that I am losing Zoe. She is the first one they ask about, knowing that the answer to this question is inseparable from the response to the next, how am I doing? Zoe on her journey is creating a coven of love around me, woven of stories of how others have let their beloved four-legged’s go. And like the stories of women who shared when I was pregnant—even the one told me by my waitress at Sagebrush who had the most horrendous pregnancy and birth experience imaginable, a story which terrified me and had me on the phone to my doctor disproportionately to my condition for over a week—these stories are sacred, discomforting and necessary. They help me see that there is a time beyond this moment, a time when Zoe will become a memory, a spirit guide and companion, long after fur and wet nose have vanished. But at this moment, I have only grief and the longing to over-ride the natural course of events and make Zoe live forever.

No matter how full of faith I am, no matter how well I know, for certain, that the spirit world is real and that all being is illusory and flowing and One, I am deeply celebrating my illusion that Zoe an d I are two separate creations, one with a black nose and one with hardly any nose at all to speak of. I am loving that she has paws and I don’t and that when I come home from a day in the world, she wags her tail vociferously, as though I’ve been gone for months. Our illusory separateness is the source of our story. Her dogness gives meaning to my humanness. I’m the one that gives her food. She’s the one that makes sure my daughter and I are safe. In the past when I argued with boyfriends, she’s the one that chose my side and barked at the boy until he left. We’re a union of differences, a partnership of strangers.

I can’t figure out the nature of this grief. From the all the stories I have heard, the depth of grieving humans go to for their pets is admittedly more raw than that they indulge for humans. People pass on. Animals die. People speak of the last days they shared with their animals as “the most beautiful experience of my life” or of the moment they “put him to sleep” as “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Superlatives belong to the animal bond. In moving through this sorrow, given my compulsive poetic need to be able to name un-nameable things, I attempt to e xplain it as being a mixture between the love a parent has for a child and that which a child has for a parent. For while I am the one who feeds Zoe, pays her exorbitant vet bills, trims her toenails (if she’ll let me) and provides her with shelter, when it really comes down to who is taking care of whom, I’m the one heavy on the receiving. All the stuff I give is purely material. All the stuff she gives, speechlessly, watchfully, is purely something else, all encompassing.

Possibly feeling a little displaced by all the attention I’ve been giving Zoe and the throes of emotion her leaving spins me into, over dinner the other night my boyfriend brought up a sentence from The Road Less Traveled saying that the love that humans have for animals can’t really be called true love. Because animals don’t have free will and are entirely dependent upon their human, Dr. Peck says. If I were less exhausted from grief and terror of losing Zoe, I might have picked a fight over this one, but rather I joined him in acknowledging that I think there is some truth to that and fed Zoe a bit of chicken from my hand, happy to see her eat anything. But the question pawed at me, if this isn’t true love, what name do I give this inter-species same-sex relationship I have with my dog?

Not quite the love of a parent for a child (remember, I scolded Zoe for thinking my daughter was food) and not quite that of a child for a parent (oh, for just a little of the money I’ve paid my therapist for working through that stuff—Sorry, mom, not you!) and not quite the love of a lover for a lover (I did not pick the fight), the love I have with Zoe has only one more place to go in these comparisons and that is back to the Abenaki story. What else in this universe is very quiet, at times giving and others withholding, ever-present and comforting? Great Spirit sent us our dogs as a way of connecting us to nature and by extension back to Great Spirit himself. In my life of faith and searching, Zoe is my personal love letter from the Creator. And in losing her, I am losing this form of direct contact. And I really don’t want to. And I am comforted by the passage in Mark’s Passion where Jesus—Jesus, whose faith was completely solid with good reason—“became depressed and wept on the ground” during the last supper. No matter what we know or experience of the Spirit, emotion is a necessary process of moving closer to it.

I am writing this on the floor next to Zoe. While I’ve been writing, she has gotten up a couple of times to look out the window, making me wonder if this really the last afternoon-into-evening writing session I will have with her. Truthfully, a part of me hopes it is so I can be free of this fear and move on into grief and loss, emotions I’m considerably more comfortable with, stuff I know how to write. I know how to cope with something that’s already gone. But knowing it is leaving, for me, is the harder task. And possibly this is going to be her last gift to me, this enduring moment of that very emotion I am worst at holding. I have her. She is right her next to me. I am joyful that I can see her breathing and at the same time I am gripped with sorrow that soon I will not. I am living in a three-way mirror of past, present and future, and all three panes show Zoe. Zoe as she was, Zoe as she is, and Zoe as she will be continuously in my memory. They all look the same.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Zoe the Dog

My dog of 12 years is dying. She has cancer, at the very least, of the liver. Two months ago I took her in for a rabies shot. The vet, feeling something in her abdomen, told me we should operate immediately. During the surgery he called me (I was across the parking lot, at Old Navy, looking at turtlenecks as though they mattered) and offered to just "put her down" then and there, having seen the cancer.

More than a month later, and two weeks ago, he told me again it was time. I didn't listen and have had two more weeks with her. Yesterday we went for a long walk at the Biltmore Estate.

This morning she is lying on my bed, warm and cozy.
Every night I say good-bye to her, and then in the middle of the night I wake and reach my foot over the blankets to feel her breathing. I want to cancel everything I have to do today just so I can sit with her, walk with her, talk to her. I know she'd get tired of me, though, and, as she often does, she'd get up from wherever we were and move to someplace else.