The Gift of Birthdays

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Photo by Kara Hathaway

He woke  up today like he does pretty much every morning, curled at the foot of the bed, his back pressed against my legs. Howie is not the cuddly type, but he always lets me know he’s right there. It’s comforting to stir in the night and feel his warm presence.

To Howie, our beloved senior Dalmatian, today probably seemed like every other day. Get up, stretch, rub your face vigorously into the bedspread (it’s a Howie thing). Then it’s out the door to leave a streaming calling card on a favorite fence post and back inside to watch the she-human for any sign that she might be heading toward the dog bowls to prepare breakfast.

Little does Howie know, however, today is anything but a normal day. Today is Howie’s 14th birthday. It is a milestone day. Maybe he senses it in the extra dose of attention he’s receiving from me and Jim. I give him a big kiss and a hug that results in an “oh-mom” expression on his face, his ears sticking out to the sides like those of a baby goat.

Maybe he recognizes his own name highlighted in the lyrics of the happy birthday song…especially after I’ve serenaded him about 10 times. Maybe the little bites of chicken topping his morning meal make him realize today is no ordinary day. Maybe he somehow knows that the good smell coming from the oven is a cake for him to share with his canine family.

Maybe.

Or maybe the fuss and celebration is actually more for me. During a time when the world seems to have stopped spinning and seeing those I love means having to step away instead of stepping in to give a big hug, celebrating something as beautifully normal as my special dog’s birthday is a gift. A gift to myself.

I love this dog. He is my guy. He has been firmly attached to my heart since the day I lifted his little eight-week-old body from a crate and held him close. He is smart, he is lord of this doggy castle. He is stoic and strong. He is loyal and devoted. And when he lets his boss-dog facade slip just a bit, his head nodding low, his ears pushed comically sideways, his eyes darting up to meet yours, he will surely melt you into a puddle.

And so today, on April 5th, as I have for 13 years before, I am celebrating Howie’s birthday. I am following a well-established routine and reveling in the sweet normalcy of it all. No hidden demon can disrupt this simple, day-long ceremony. I’m ecstatic about normal. It is a blessed escape from the world outside the gate of our little farm.

Today I am also celebrating the birthday of my darling great-nephew, Caleb. He is funny, cute, clever, and when he smiles his whole face just glows. He deserves a great celebration and yet his birthday party will be anything but normal. We won’t be gathering close around him to sing and shower him with gifts. We won’t be there to see him blow out seven candles with one to grow on.

This is the reality of our lives right now. But while the threat of a virus and our new practice of “social distancing” may have put our idea of normal on hold for a bit, in its place I have seen more creativity, determination, and pure human spirit than I have ever seen before.

So today, Jim, Howie and I got to be in a birthday parade. A line of cars, each filled with family and friends and festooned with streamers, balloons and signs, created a mobile surprise party parade, honking and calling out greetings to the obvious delight of the birthday boy.  On the second pass by their home, each car in the parade stopped to express personal wishes and to drop cards and gifts in a bin placed by the curb. Caleb and his family waved from their porch, laughing and calling out their I-love-yous.

In Caleb’s own words, his birthday parade was “epic.” No, it was not normal. It was not a party with a bouncy castle, games, party favors and a dozen friends. But it was filled with pure joy and fun. It was creative. It was uplifting. And the love surrounding that little boy couldn’t have been stronger.

So today was a day of celebrations. One beautifully normal, one beautifully creative. And in the end, I’m pretty sure I’m the one who received the best gifts. I have the gift of quietly celebrating Howie, my special spotted boy, who is living a long, healthy life. I have the gift of celebrating Caleb whose huge grin and waving hands served to lift a chunk of the weight from my shoulders that has been trying its best to drag me down.

Today was a day to be reminded of gratitude. A day to feel connected and grounded in a time of such extreme uncertainty. A day to recognize that normal and out-of-the-ordinary can be equally beautiful.

Happy, happy birthday to Howie and Caleb. Thank you both for the gift of your celebrations. Thank for reminding me that the human (and canine!) spirit is strong, alive, and well.

 

Where Sunflowers Grow

Run in Peace Big PaulThe patch of broken, brown earth stood out in sharp contrast to the surrounding blanket of green dotted with splashes of colorful wildflowers. This was the first time I had ventured out to visit this spot in the pasture since the day it happened more than two months ago.

I looked at the packets in my hand, eight in all. There were two each of four varieties of sunflower: Mammoth, Moonshine, Autumn Beauty, and American Giant. The promise of the massive flowers seemed a fitting tribute to my big boy. Soon, I hoped to see a small forest of sunflowers covering the bare spot in the earth that marked the place where Paul, my big draft horse, was buried.

It was a gorgeous spring day. The perfect day for a walk in the pasture. Life was erupting all around me. The trees were covered with tender, brilliant green leaves unfurling to greet the changing season. The birds darted about, busily tending their nests. Insects flitted lazily about from blossom to blossom, finding nourishment as the warmth of the morning sun fueled their meandering mission.

Hi there NanYet I stood oblivious to the spring parade. I was fixated on that one patch of cracked, clumpy earth that represented the beautiful ghost still testing my heart.

I’m no stranger to loss. We live with lots of animals…all lives more temporary than our own. We’ve said our share of goodbyes and we always find a way to celebrate the beings that have shared their time here with us. Each has taught a lesson, each has been a blessing.

But, Big Paul. I just wasn’t coming to terms with his loss. The stately Belgian horse who won my heart from one photo on a Facebook page. Our story was supposed to roll gently toward a very distant sunset. It was not supposed to be a short story, over in just a couple of chapters.

So my morning visit to Paul’s piece of earth was to find resolution. It was my private ceremony. I was going to welcome closure.

gogo 2016Standing clutching the seed packets in my right hand, I heard a quiet shuffling behind me. I turned to see GoGo, our old appaloosa mare, with her nose to the ground as she followed my trail through the pasture as surely as a faithful tracking dog.

GoGo is a special girl. She is 30 years old. She has lost her vision. But she doesn’t hide in the barn, she doesn’t beg for special care. In fact, she won’t tolerate being kept in a stall or safely confined to a paddock. She is, despite the toll advancing years have exacted, strong-willed and determined to keep pace with the rest of our horses. Where one sense has failed her, others have grown stronger. She is a survivor.

I stroked the sweet mare’s neck as she sniffed the seed packets, perhaps checking to see if I might be holding a carrot or a horse cookie. I was immediately thankful GoGo decided to join my private memorial service. The mare who had graced our farm for such a long time, joining me as I paid respect to the horse who touched my life so profoundly in such a short amount of time. Perfect.

I opened the packets, one by one, and sprinkled the contents across the bare earth, watching as the small seeds bounced and tumbled into the cracks and crevices. Soon they would find purchase, sprout, and spring back up toward the sky, strong, tall, and golden. Just like Big Paul was.

Job done, GoGo and I retraced our steps and headed back to where the rest of our little herd watched in seemingly silent homage. Did they know I needed some space? My very spoiled animals are not known for restraint, especially when they see a human that normally has pockets filled with cookies. But somehow, today, they showed quiet respect.

As I moved closer to the barn, the truce was broken and my herd surrounded me, snorting and sniffing. I looked into a half dozen pairs of soft, hopeful eyes as impatient noses pushed at my hands and nudged my pockets.

In that moment, it hit me. Just as surely as the sunflower seeds would sprout roots in the fertile soil and grow to fill the cracks and gaps in the broken earth, these silly horses and donkeys, in the here and now, would help fill the cracks and gaps in the fertile ground of my heart.

I would always remember, and I would always be grateful for what was, but I could also let go. It was time to stop replaying the pain of loss and instead focus on the good times I had with Big Paul. And it was also time to simply allow myself to appreciate what was standing right in front of me.

Just like that, a spring day became a gift. The sunflowers to come became a promise. A ghost became a beautiful memory. A heart was allowed to begin healing.

Oh…and yeah…a little herd of horses, donkeys, and one fine mule got to eat cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wonky Shopping Cart of Gratitude: 30 days in 30 minutes.

Cart

Pick a cart. Any cart. I guarantee I will manage to pick the wonky cart.

Last night I was at Walmart for my weekly shopping foray. I grabbed a cart and gave it a little test drive in the foyer area to be sure it rolled properly. I am notoriously famous for selecting the wonky cart. You know the one…one wheel sticks sideways, or doesn’t roll at all and constantly pulls to one side.  This particular cart seemed good to go so I headed into the store. About five minutes later, after having procured dog biscuits and Band-Aids (which are oddly near each other), my cart started leading me in a steady circle to the left. WHAT? I tested this cart. It was fine! But no, wonky cart had lulled me into a false sense of security.

So I found myself manically circling the display of brightly colored Rachel Ray cookware. Nothing I do makes the cart go any other direction. Nothing. So what do I do? I just burst out laughing. I continue to circle Rachel’s fabulous kitchen gadgets, which include her signature EVOO (Rach’s spunky abbreviation for extra virgin olive oil, in case you’ve missed her show) dispenser.

I am fairly sure no one else understood the humor in my situation. I am fairly sure no one else understood that I was being held hostage by wonky cart. I am fairly sure I was the crazy lady on isle five. Fortunately for me, bizarre behavior is commonplace at our Walmart and deemed perfectly acceptable.

Anyhow, when I finally got wonky cart to head a different direction, though I had to muscle that stubborn cart every step of the way, I found gratitude in the fact that my shopping adventure was once again underway. It was then and there that I realized I had really failed in the 30 Days of Gratitude challenge that so many people are undertaking this month. I think I made it to day five and then baled.

It’s not that I’m ungrateful. It’s not that I don’t have a great deal for which I can be grateful. I think I just got so wrapped up in trying to come up with something profound to list each day that I kind of lost sight of the true meaning of the challenge.

Well, I may suck at the daily task, but I am bursting with an attitude of gratitude, so I decided to just go for it—30 thoughts of gratitude in 30 minutes (in deference to Rachel’s 30 minute meals since she played a part in the wonky cart revelation). They are in no particular order, so don’t get your feelings hurt if you find yourself in the middle. If you’re toward the end, then just tell yourself I saved the best for last. If you think I missed something, well, I am very sure I did. As I said, I have way more than a month’s worth of gratitude in me.

So here goes…30 things for which I am very grateful include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Jim. I’m very thankful for Jim. There is likely no other person on this earth that would willingly share the insanity that is Tails You Win Farm with me. You have to love a man that manages to sleep with a 50-pound dog plastered across his face. At least I think he’s asleep…(mirror test in front of his mouth to check for breathing)…yes! Asleep.
  2. My animals. All of them.  I have a crazy, fun variety of critters that share my world and I love them. All of them. Most of the time.
  3. Our home. It may never be totally finished, it may always be messy, there may always be a not-so-light coating of dog hair everywhere, but it’s our home and I love it. By the way, if you ever build a house and move in before it’s totally completed saying the words “we’ll do the finish work ourselves,” get a good, heavy DIY home improvement book and smack yourself in the head with it. Hard.
  4. My Jeep Wrangler. It makes me feel outdoorsy, a bit rugged, capable, and cool. And it talks to me. How great is that? My car talks to me. There is a male voice that gives me driving directions and a female voice that places phone calls for me and reads text messages to me. I do occasionally wonder if that is backwards because sometimes I really want the male voice to stop to ask for directions. He does tend to recommend some really odd routes. Just saying…
  5. Neighbors who don’t get angry…or get a gun…when they find my stray hog/mule/donkey/horse in their front yard.
  6. The guy I’m going to hire to come repair my pasture fencing before #5 wears off. I don’t know him yet, but I am grateful to him in advance.
  7. My house shoes. I have the greatest pair of house shoes. Seriously. Ugg house shoes. Treat yourself to some and I guarantee I will be on your 30 day list next year.
  8. House Hunters International. I am addicted to that show. I’m still shocked that most houses in other countries don’t come with kitchen appliances, and that closets in bedrooms are often optional. Huh?
  9. Bananas that are perfectly freckled.
  10. My family. I’ve had it pretty good in life. Cool parents, great sisters. Now I have nieces, nephews, and the “greats.” All gorgeous, smart, fun people. Sometimes I’m amazed that we are actually blood relatives. Love these people.
  11. My friend and business partner, Lawanna. We have built Pooches together over the past eight years and it would not have happened without her brains and determination.  Grateful for our employees, customers, and the mad variety of dogs that grace our facility—and usually pee in our facility—every day.
  12. Grateful to my friend Bob who, in 1987, said that he thought Dalmatians were cool dogs. I would have never thought to get a Dalmatian had he not planted that seed. If not for my spotted dogs, my life would have taken a completely different path. I like this path, so I’m grateful to Bob for mentioning Dalmatians.
  13. For Jim’s family. They are great, intelligent, fun-loving people and they have taught me to play games. Lots of games. Dominoes, board games, card games. I did not grow up in a family that played many games. I’m not great at them, but I’m learning. Might I add that these are competitive people…their games are serious business and there is taunting. I think I’m taking Twister to the Thanksgiving gathering. They beat me at all of the games that require you to think, but with my freakishly long arms, I think I can go for the gold in Twister.
  14. Diet Dr. Pepper and duct tape. I don’t think either of these items require explanation, so I’ve lumped them together. If you don’t get it, then you just don’t get me.
  15. Facebook. Say what you will, Betty White, but I don’t think it’s a colossal waste of time at all. Ok, well, sometimes it is, but for the most part it has been a place of connection for me…old friends, new friends, friends and family across the miles, friends I’ve never met before, and pirates who inspire me (inside joke…but a good one. If you get it, you’re laughing. If not…sorry).
  16. Betty White. I love that woman. Facebook comment totally forgiven.
  17. My health. Your health. Everybody’s health. Strong and healthy, strong and healthy. Chant with me.
  18. Cloudy, cold, rainy days because they make me appreciate gorgeous, sunny days all the more.
  19. Our foster dog T-Mac and his miracle saliva. I had horrible chigger bites all over my legs a couple of months ago. That dog licked my legs and the bites disappeared. I am not making this up. I’m going to bottle that slobber as soon as I uncover all of its uses.
  20. The comeback of the Hostess Ding Dong. Don’t judge me.
  21. My aesthetician, Gabe. Every couple of months he makes me look like a zombie for a day or two, but oh how I love that baby-butt skin that follows. (Nothing fancy like injections of botulism …just chemical peels. I must add that you have to have a great level of confidence in the person who says he is going to administer a “controlled trauma” to your facial epidermis. Yes, I’m grateful for Gabe and his mad acid skills.)
  22. Audible books. I love listening to books while I commute to and from work. Love it. I may make a recording of this blog so I can see how it feels to be a famous author.
  23. The artists who read the books in my audio library. I just tried to make my own recording and let’s just say I do not have a future in that industry. Do I really sound like that to other people? Ugh. Don’t confuse that with Ugg. Uggs good—ugh bad.
  24. I’m grateful to whoever invented the Magic Eraser and Pill Pockets. Genius. Wish I had thought of them first.
  25. Spanx. I’m increasingly grateful for Spanx.  I don’t call on them often, but on those rare occasions when I need to dress up…well…that’s all I’m saying about that.
  26. My crazy friends who challenge me to run in equally crazy races to hopefully help curb my need for Spanx. Who knew zombie races would introduce me to some of the greatest friends in the world?
  27. Mary Faye McFarland. She was my high school English teacher. She’s the reason I know cool stuff like “it-apostrophe-s” always means “it is.” It-apostrophe-s is not the possessive form of “it.” Crazy, right? And “Hey Nancy, did you lose (“s” makes a “z” sound) your pig…” means I should go check my neighbor’s yard for Jerry Swinefeld, while “Hey Nancy your pig is loose…” (hissing “s” sound) means that my pig is actually running amok in the neighbor’s yard. There, their, they’re, people. We all mess this stuff up. I’m pretty sure Mary Faye would make red marks all over my blog, but she will never catch me misusing “it’s!”
  28. My veterinarians, who are also my dear friends. These people never chastise me when I call to ask things like, “My dog just ate an entire couch cushion, what should I do?”
  29. The 12-step program that helped me stop playing Candy Crack…I mean Candy Crush. Again, don’t judge.
  30. Wonky shopping carts that remind me about gratitude and also give me an amazing upper body workout at the same time. The wonky shopping cart encounter taught me that gratitude does not always have to be about something profound and life-altering. It’s ok to be really grateful for the small stuff too. In fact, I should look for gratitude in every little moment of the day.

Damn. I sure wish November had 31 days, because I’m truly grateful to you for actually reading all the way to this point. And now here’s a little something for which (did you see that Mary Faye? I did not end my sentence with a preposition!) you may be very grateful…

The End. (Are you thankful?)

Finding Gratitude on a Rainy, Gray Day.

Rainy day gratitudeIt was one of those days from the start. Dreary, sleepy, and raining pretty much non-stop. It would have been a great day if all I had to do was curl up with a good book, snuggled beneath a soft blanket with my herd of dogs napping all around me. But no. It was a get-up-and-get-moving kind of day. My shoes and feet got wet the moment I stepped out the front door, seemingly setting the stage, and my mood, for the rest of the soggy, damn day.

Still, I needed to find something for which to be grateful today. It’s November and everyone in my world seems to be participating in the “30 days of Gratitude,” during which you proclaim something you are thankful for each day of the month. It should be easy, really. My life is very blessed. But without even one single ray of sunshine to greet me, my heart was just not in the gratitude game. And so I slogged through the day and the day slogged on around me.

After work, I needed to make a quick stop at the grocery store before I could head home to shed my still-soggy shoes, slip into my blissfully cozy house shoes, and hide from Mother Nature for a bit. As I was crossing the parking lot, the clouds, of course, decided to step things up from sprinkle to healthy little rain shower. Just then I noticed a tiny, older woman struggling to transfer groceries from her shopping cart to her car. As she lifted a single bag and turned to place it in the backseat, I quickly gathered up the three remaining bags and deposited them inside the car for her, hoping to spare her the complete soaking I was about to get before I could duck into the store.

As I was about to turn away, this dear woman looked up directly into my face, grabbed my hand with surprising strength for one of such delicate stature, and with great sincerity said, “Thank you so much! God is going to bless you today.”

Time seemed to still in that moment. I looked from our interlaced hands down into her face as it crinkled softly into a glowing smile. Words downplaying my actions were right on the tip of my tongue…after all, it was really nothing. I just lifted a few grocery bags. But instead of brushing our exchange aside, I found myself holding onto her hand, returning her smile, and saying, “Thank you. He just did.”

And God did bless me today. This precious woman was put in my path this afternoon to remind me that there is always a reason to be grateful. Always.

Today I am grateful for a tiny special moment shared with a stranger on a dreary, rainy, glorious day. It is amazing how you can give just a little of yourself and receive such great blessings in return. Yes, I am truly grateful.

“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” —”
― William Arthur Ward

“Courtesies of a small and trivial character are the ones which strike deepest in the grateful and appreciating heart.”
― Henry Clay

Farm Animals Can’t Tell Time.

Jerry at the porchThis morning, at still-too-dark:30, my dogs went nuts. Not a little nuts–full blown bouncing from window to window barking at the top of their lungs nuts.

So, jolted none-too-gently from a sound sleep, my first response was to issue a very effective command to the dogs to calm down. I think it was something like, “OH DEAR LORD, PLEASE SHUT UP!” May I add here that I am a professional dog trainer? Yes, I am. Impressive demonstration of my abilities, I know. Let me know if you want my business card.

When my command did not result in a return to immediate, blissful silence, I too joined the pack at the window to see what in the world inspired such a frenzy. Coyote? Raccoon? Mastodon? Zombie attack? Nope. Jerry Swinefeld? Yep.

Yes, my 900 pound hog had decided to escape his pasture and come for a little early morning visit to the house. Apparently, I have failed to teach my large porcine friend proper etiquette when it comes to the art of dropping in uninvited.

So, in my pajamas, robe and house shoes, I stepped onto the porch where I was greeted by the familiar soft grunting of one pleased-to-see-me hog. My hogs have a little greeting they give me that I choose to interpret as an expression of endearment, but realistically, it’s probably more of a  may-I-have-a-cookie plea.

I said good morning to my charming escape-artist and gave him a reluctant scratch on the head. After all, how the heck do you scold a giant slab of pig? Jerry and I walked back to the barn together where his barn-mate, Spamela Anderson, was still sound asleep. See that Jerry? ASLEEP.

Yes, I gave him some cookies for coming along with me and for going back in his pen without a fuss. Trust me, if he wants to, Jerry can make quite a fuss. Rewarding compliance is a wise choice. I identified his latest escape route–he pushed out a section of the barn wall–and made a temporary repair. If I seem rather blase’ about the fact that one of my animals pushed through the wall of my barn, you have to understand that it’s not the first time it’s happened, and I have to assume you’ve never lived with giant hogs.

Peace restored to the barn, I shuffled back to the house where I could hopefully grab a couple more hours of sleep before the day was really supposed to begin. The dogs where still crazy, so I pacified them by letting them all take deep sniffs of my hands. This was my way of telling them that it was Jerry outside the window, not the rabid bear they were so certain it was just a short time ago.

Within 15 minutes of my very rude awakening, I was back snug in my bed and feeling very grateful. You may think it’s odd to find gratitude in this event, but find it I did. For one thing, it was NOT a rabid bear (we don’t have bears around here, but my dogs have very vivid imaginations), it was not a zombie attack (though we ARE ready for that). Perhaps more importantly, I am the one who discovered Jerry on the lam. I did NOT receive a phone call from sleepy, startled neighbors. Yeah, that has happened too. Jerry can cover quite a few acres in a surprisingly short amount of time.

So I drifted back into near-sleep, happy and content…until something set the dogs off once again. Who needs an alarm clock when apparently you have zombies to shoot? Ah sleep…we shall meet another night. Farm animals 1 – Sandman 0, but who’s keeping score?