Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How do we learn to speak kindly?

There's a Chinese proverb I only heard recently, which has a deep resonance to some of the formative experiences of my childhood:

"Words are like eggs, once dropped, they cannot be picked up again."

I have a hard time hearing profanity, even of the milder kinds that have become ubiquitous in popular culture. I love slang, and jargon, and coded language, but the constant flavoring of ordinary speech with gratuitous profanity – much the way many Spanish speakers use


a wonderful word, without real meaning, usually translated as "well," but holding a charm and energy – the word is a delight to say, like a blown kiss sliding into a seductive smile – that is of another order of richness from almost any word in common English, much less the horrid little well, which feels like an ugly blend of a smirk and a phony, forced smile to say and means nothing in an annoying way, without any of the sensual pleasure of saying or hearing



All of which is just to get round to the question I started with, 

How do we learn to speak kindly?

and the answer I was struggling to find has something to do with listening to silence. There is an abhorrence of hearing silence in modern Western culture, exemplified in a scary way by the radio name for it,

dead air.

If silence is like a death, then the activity of speaking is worthwhile, regardless of the content of the speech, so as to express one's aliveness, to fill the space with, at least, the blather of ordinary activity. This perhaps explains the horror of the ubiquitous playing TV's, one in each room, that one finds in so many American homes and workplaces, public spaces and even mundane activities--on our recent visit to LA, I saw for the first time a TV embedded in the metering and payment face of a gas pump. 

School classrooms should be spaces where children learn about and practice listening to silence. In the space of less than an hour, I was able to lead a group of second graders who mostly had never played with string at all, to be able to slowly execute together the Karok Fish Spear, 

a simple string figure, in silence. I told them they were rehearsing to be able to perform the trick together in silence for their regular teacher (I was there for only one day, as a substitute) the next day. Whether they will actually get to try that today, I'm not sure. But at least yesterday they had a practice run and working together on a common task in silence for a few moments. It's not much, but I truly believe it helps.

I sat with my father in silence for many hours as a child. That helps, too. There was that beneficial aspect of his otherwise maddening psychoanalytic reserve. Still, I do wish we had talked a lot more. Makes me resolve to create opportunities to talk with my own children, a lot more than I do. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nellie Belly's Care

Towards the end of September, it's my turn to post the weekly prompt in the Writing Into The Week group at the NWP iAnthology Ning. At first, I felt I should withdraw my name, not even think about doing one other thing that's not absolutely vital to our health as a family. We are in the midst of the most horrific and nightmarish aftermaths of violence I've experienced in my life. Losing my eye in a near-fatal chainsaw accident was similar, in so many ways, but Nellie's mauling by a very large dog last Sunday was worse, for me, than that. When the chainsaw hit my face, I suffered, yes, it was bloody, I remember the instantaneous realization that my eye was lost, no "repair" of any kind possible, just gone, like a light switched off. Above all I remember the clear, clear voice in my head which said to me,

"If you don't calm down, you're not going to make it,"

as I lay there near the piles of tree limbs I had been cutting, thrashing and screaming and crying in a voice I had no idea lived inside me, either. But the clear voice of calm was much louder than any scream, and I began to obey. By the time the helicopters got me to the hospital, the receiving team could not believe that no one had given me a sedative.

That voice of calm, I'm sure, is what saved my life. A Tibetan monk I visited in Ashland, Oregon, shortly after the accident said to me,

"You were meant to die."

When I leapt upon the dog that would not let go of Nellie, I was screaming a different scream, again from one of those places inside that appear for the occasion, called into being by the rent in the order of the universe which this particular act of violence has loosed upon our world, I did not think or plan or reason how I could separate those jaws and pull our Nell from hell. My body did what it had to do, and that screaming voice continued, over and over, as I finally clutched her pained and terrified body from the dog's mouth, and ran, crouched, not worried about pursuit by the attacker but crouching to encircle Nellie in some fragile safety, to try to reconstruct a little tiny zone of protection for her, since the large and easy freedom from fear which had enveloped her throughout her prior life was destroyed, never to return, like monocular vision continues unrelenting for the rest of my life, one instant in a three dimensional world and the next – and every next thereafter, forever, all the nexts like none of the entire group of nexts which preceded it – Flatland.

Nellie is now fragile, damaged, healing, in struggle, in fear, in malady and malfunction and in need of minute-by-minute care for every one of these succeeding minutes, who knows for how long.

The doctors say that for six weeks, at least, her movements must be restricted, no running, no climbing stairs, no picking at her sutures, no exertion. She's on six different medications, each with a unique schedule, this one every twenty-four hours, this one twelve, this one eight, this one six, some liquid, some powder that must be mixed for each administration into a slurry. The only thing she eaten with any real gusto since the attack is some cat food she got when we first arrived home, fed her in error because the can was shelved in the wrong section at the grocery store, and we did not see the difference in our hurry and distress.

She is incontinent, and pees dozens of times in a row, little drips and drops, very soon after every time she drinks water, and she drinks much more water and more frequently than she did before. There is so much healing that still must be done. But she is home, and happy to be here. We moved the mattress onto the floor, and stood the box spring up against wall behind it, so that she won't have to jump to get into bed with us. She's always slept in bed with us, since the second or third day we brought her home. We had her in a crate beside our bed, at first, because we'd read that it was good for a dog to have a crate, a space, they can make into a nest or cave, but she wanted to be in bed with us, instead, and after that first night when I lay in bed reflecting on having a very close relative of a violent and predatory animal sleeping in the same room with me, crate door open, as it always was, it was clear to me that she belonged in bed with us. So now we have pee pads in our bed.

Impossible to know in advance what the twists and turns of Nellie's healing journey will be. Clearly it is going to be long and complex, with much asked of us in order to understand and guide her to what she needs to recover. Finally it seems clear to me that she will recover. For the past week – tomorrow marks a week since the attack, that moment – noonish, on Sunday, will retain a ghoulish echo for the rest of my life, I'm afraid – it was not at all clear to me that we would see another week. Now I know that she will have many weeks, at least six more under the required constant supervision, restriction, discipline, and care, that a trauma victim requires.

We will give her that care, as best we are able, but there are so many aspects of that care which we cannot provide. So I return finally to my opening, the writing prompt for the group at the end of the month, and what that could have to do with Nellie Belly's Care. We are fundraising. Nellie's hospital bill was $12,350, and her vet care, rehab, and pharmacy bills for the next six weeks will certainly put what we must spend well beyond the $15,000 goal we set for the GiveForward campaign. The idea that a legitimate pet medical bill could run into five figures would have seemed absurd to me ten years ago. I was a lifelong dog phobic, never close or comfortable with any animals, really, before Nellie, and a self-righteous human species-ist. The idea that any animals, perhaps with the exceptions of dolphins and whales, had lives that were truly of value at the same level as the lives of humans was nonsense. Sentience, consciousness, brain capacity and the power of thought were somehow all present in humans in some ineffably different manner from the capacity for similar qualities in animals, I thought.

Nellie changed that mode of thinking for me. I embraced her, immediately, as my mother reincarnate (my mother's name was Nell, she died when I was six), and as a karmic and cosmic partner on a journey away from my species-ism. She's a good teacher. She is capable of long, long meditative retreat, when she curls up in her cave (she has a real one now, under our couch, where she spends many happy hours), or rests in her pouch by my side or on my lap, again for hours, sometimes, in complete equanimity. And she has many moments of wild abandon, running, circling, jumping, ears flapping, chasing a stick, a treat, or one of us. Mainly she has that look, that piercing and yet wistful look, when she shares a feeling or a moment of delight, sadness, or warmth. She is our equal, our partner, on our journey, together, to make what peace we can in this violent world. So I will ask my colleagues in the writing group to reflect on what species-ism means to them, if they've considered it before, if questions about the ways we value and treat animals have entered their lives before, if they are willing to ask some questions and explore what we can learn by embracing animals as partners and teachers.