In search of story

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The balloon

Yesterday I wrote about my history with dogs. My fear of dogs bubbles up when any dog is unleashed and near me; that is true. However, writing about my fear of dogs yesterday was a way of keeping a lid on all the other fears that are bubbling up.

I try to control the power of those fears by writing about part of it, like letting the air out of the balloon a little at a time instead of letting it go and watching it tear through the air in mad random loops until it falls, limp and useless. I hold tight to that opening. I will not let that balloon — me — fly off in mad random loops.

My stomach and head join with stomachs and heads everywhere today. Nausea, insomnia, gut pain, jagged breathing, weariness of body and soul — they are etched in faces and sculpted in postures. Grieving and bleeding bend us. Fear swaddles the globe.

Then there are our private fears, yours and mine. Some are constant, some change with living. They wrap us in our own personal swaddling.

And fears beget anger. God knows it is a time for anger. Anger, not violence. Constructive, articulate anger. Where will it come from and who will shape it?

I find myself on the verge of tears. I am shaken by what I read and see, and I’m shaking with a sense of helplessness. So I write about my fear of dogs. I keep the tight grip on that balloon. Still, little by little, I’m letting the air out.

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On being friendly

Last week I walked into the vacuum cleaner store, one of those strip-mall shops with modest space. My thoughts of vacuum filters disintegrated abruptly when a brown four-legged colossus, part poodle, part horse, trotted out from the back room and inquired wordlessly exactly what my business was in that space, most of which he occupied.

“He’s friendly!” the voice from the back called out. I swallowed my gasp and tried to look comfortable, but I wasn’t. Another time and place had hold of me.

I was about six when the neighbor’s Irish setter lunged at me, pinned me on my back, and started gnawing my forehead. The words “he won’t hurt you” — first cousin to “he’s friendly” — were fresh in my ears as I went down.

I did not take this quietly: adults appeared instantly and pulled the dog off. I ran screaming home. To say I was terrified is the Great Dane of understatement.

Then rabies shots, which, dear reader, you would not want for your children.

I was an adult before I could be without panic near a dog. That is not hyperbole. To this day, I will not voluntarily go near an unleashed dog. And I’m not enthusiastic about those on leashes.

I’ve known some dogs of endearing charm, and they have softened that childhood memory, but I remain cautious. Dogs are everywhere now, and their adoring owners think “he’s friendly” is proper substitute for a leash, or, like some Jedi mind trick, makes everyone else adore their dog. “He’s friendly” only makes me think “so what’s your point?” Mosquitoes and con men are friendly too.

If your dog’s name is Friendly, and he’s on a leash and closer to you than to me, then tell me he’s Friendly. That would be very friendly.



I’m stuck. I want to write about something but can’t seem to do it; I’ve tried.

The scene is my Aunt Jean’s studio apartment. She is dying of leukemia. Her sister, Edna, and the hospice volunteer are there. It is the day after my father’s funeral, so my California brother is there too. And me.

My aunts, immensely strong-minded women, had made their own ways in a hostile world, one a CPA and the other a PhD. So there, in that tiny space, are three great forces of nature — Jean, Edna, Death. A humidity of exhaustion and grief makes the air thick. The epic warfare between emotion and O’Hern control has become grim hand-to-hand combat. I have walked into this as one being ambushed.

Edna attacks me with cold, angry words. I am in no shape to handle them. I stare at her while I feel something tear inside me. I am conscious of knowing I am not going to be all right.

I do not look back on that moment; I re-live it. It is as immediate to me as the breath I take as I type this.

In that room an entire family history crashed into itself. Past collided with present, living with dying, unkown with known. How do I write of such a room, of such a moment? I can’t seem to do it, yet I know I must. I want it in my book about caregiving.

I admit there is much in that room I don’t want to write about. When I’ve made myself write it, as a writer must do, I’ve ended up with mayhem on the page. Craig’s List makes better reading.

There is my lament. I now return to my writer’s pacing and muttering.