Last weekend I participated in a New Year’s collage brunch. Every year my friend Kristin (aka “our wonderful vet” from Alec’s Story, Pt. 1) gets together with a group of friends to think about and discuss their goals for the New Year and collage (and also, mimosas!). Though I am a collage neophyte, I was glad she invited me to join them this year.
This time the project was to select 3 adjectives to describe what you want from 2011. Then we would make a collage based on these words. This idea was based on an article she saw in Oprah magazine, which you can read here.
You should read the article, it’s interesting, but the idea was to pick a BIG GOAL for the year (have a baby, start a business, win an Oscar), and rather than focus on the noun-verb expression of the goal (“I want to achieve XYZ”) to imagine how you think you will feel once you have achieved this goal. Then you choose at least three adjectives to describe this feeling. To begin the exercise, you pick your biggest, most ambitious goal, “something for which you frequently hanker,” and then imagine what your life would be like if you achieved this goal. She says to spend some time in the daydream, observing it with all your senses. Then begin listing adjectives that describe how you feel in your dream-come-true scenario. This is simple but not easy, she says, because there is a right brain/left brain switcheroo that happens when we translate feelings into words.
The author, who is a life coach, contends this is a much better way of achieving happiness based on the abundant psychological research that suggests the situational elements people crave do not necessarily increase their feeling of well-being, but finding joy in the present moment does. So the idea is by focusing on these adjectives (rather than the goal itself, which can be limiting) we can scan our lives for situations and relationships that already make us feel this way, and redirect our energies accordingly. There is a sort of creative unlocking process that happens. Anyway, you should read the article. It’s short and describes this technique better.
At first, this seemed a daunting proposition to me. I wanted to be with this supportive group of people to celebrate and contemplate the New Year, but on the other hand, thinking about my goals for 2011 was a bleak prospect. If I am truly honest, all I want is Ali back, and that is not going to happen. (And she says you should be honest in picking your goal.) But then I realized that is not the only thing I want. I also want more than anything to commune with his spirit, to feel him around me, to know he is still with me, to know he is okay. This is a whole separate subject, and I won’t go into it now, but the point is I decided to take the exercise seriously by picking my biggest goal and imagining how it would make me feel.
If I could pick anything what I would want most in 2011 is to know I was right – that our bond was not broken. So I sat on my couch and imagined what it would feel like if I got an irrefutable sign from him, if I saw him, heard him, or felt him in a way that told me with absolute certainty he was not gone – that we were just separated by worlds. Then I wrote down all the words describing how this would make me feel. I came up with a lot more than three so the difficulty became narrowing them down, but I had fun with the thesaurus (I am a grammar nerd, and love words and reading their definitions) and trying to pick which one more perfectly captured the feeling (ecstatic? elated? jubilant?). It was an interesting exercise in itself and I spent a couple hours with it over the weekend.
During an email conversation with Kristin, I had mentioned the difficulty of coming up with a goal for 2011 because without Alec the future is like a blank slate, and I am drifting around directionless. She suggested I focus on the way I felt when Alec and I were together. She asked, “Did Alec give you an excuse for adventure? Then maybe one of your words could be ‘adventurous.’” That was an interesting way to think about it; I had taken the exercise literally and was thinking of a future goal. It had not occurred to me to think about the past and how I felt when we were together. So I tried that and came up with a whole different set of adjectives!
Ultimately, I decided I would rather focus on the future since I have said over and over I want to find a way to bring him with me (and the latest grief research backs me up on this; the concept of “closure” is outdated and not necessarily helpful). And when I am honest this is all I want. And the author said to pick your biggest goal (hey, winning an Oscar may be more difficult than communing with the dead). But I was still having trouble narrowing down the adjectives. Since I had a surplus, I decided to pick the ones that could apply to both scenarios – how I felt when we were together AND how I would feel if I could communicate with him or hear from him somehow now (and yes I know that sounds weird, but I know people who have had such experiences and I choose to believe they can also happen to me). So the ones that easily applied to both were: loved/connected, secure, blissful, and (I snuck in a fourth) focused. Why these four?
Loved is obvious. I felt loved when we were together, but after his death, that love is gone. I mean, my love is still here, but I have nobody to give it to; there’s only one of us now. On a more profound and painful (and I guess mystical) level, the fact that I have not seen or heard from him makes me wonder if he really loved me. This is the one that is hard to say out loud because the doubt is a very significant component to my grief. And while people invariably say, “pshaw!” and “Of course he loved you! How can you doubt that?”… well, that’s what grief does sometimes. It makes you doubt.
Also a complicating factor when mourning the death of an animal companion is that, unlike a human loved one, they cannot talk. Alec could not communicate in words what I meant to him, so it is easy to doubt myself and think I made it all up and that it was one-sided. After all, I am a needy imperfect human and he was a dependent domesticated animal stuck in an anthropocentric society. Hardly equal footing (though I did my very best to respect his alterity) and can true love exist where there is no equality?
Philosophical questions aside, I was always more sure of my love for him than of his for me (this is borne of my own personal insecurity but also the reality of the situation). But it didn’t matter when he was alive. I only wanted to take care of him, to give him a good life, to give my love flight through action. It has never been as important to me to be loved in return (though my soul yearns for it of course); for example, my dog Kobi did not love me I do not believe. His spirit was too wild, too free, and too independent. I loved him though, and as I have written before, I think that is the more important part of the equation – the mysterious unlocking of our capacity to love unconditionally (rarer than most think) that some people and animals bring out in us.
But I thought with Alec things were different, that we did experience a profound bond, only intensified by the challenges we faced together. I also recognize that this is flattering to me – this notion of a deep bond – but that he also needed me and was of anxious temperament. And that circles back to my above concern about dependency and love. Although rather out of context it reminds me of something I just read in the book On my own by Florence Falk:
“Yet, all too often, fear and anticipation of having to endure the absence of a ‘significant other’ causes a psychic backlash that sends us rushing into someone’s waiting arms, whether or not the relationship is right, or even good. ‘It was marriage that taught me anxiety looks like devotion,’ says the writer Vivian Gornick about her own marriage in Approaching Eye Level…The real fear…is to be with one’s self. And to avoid that confrontation, the desire to be with someone, sometimes anyone, can take on an urgency verging on obsession.” (p. 31)
She is writing obviously about the fact that some people fear being alone so much that they take refuge in less than satisfactory relationships. This does not apply to me, but could we not stretch it to apply to a lonely dog in a crowded kennel, of a breed predisposed to bond with one person (as German shepherds are, and Siberian huskies are not)…a dog with an anxious and nervous temperament, in a chaotic world that lacks stability, as Alec’s life as a guide dog in training was? Then I come along and show him some kindness and WHAM – instant devotion! Or was it anxiety?
Hmmm, that was a rather significant digression. This “love” thing is complicated, even between members of the same species, let alone when talking about trans-species relationships where one member lacks (complete) autonomy. But to get back to the subject at hand, I only survived losing Alec by convincing myself that our bond could not be broken by death (and I do mean that literally, the part about survival). Yet I also believed it, irrationally, with every intuitive fiber of my being. I know other people have had visitations and signs from deceased loved ones; I have talked to some, read about others. So what does it mean that I have not had these experiences? If he loved me, would not he show himself to me, knowing how much comfort I would derive from this simple act, how much of my own suffering and anxiety would be alleviated? If he doesn’t, is the natural conclusion that he didn’t love me as I loved him?
Well, maybe not. People have said I should “give it time,” that maybe I am trying too hard. And also that he might not come while I am grieving so intensely. At any rate, in my dream-come-true scenario I would be free from doubt of the assurance that Alec loved me, that he loves me still, that we are connected always.
That leads me to my second adjective and probably my favorite. As I switched the combination of words around, one that always showed up on my list was “secure.” Besides feeling loved, this is the number one feeling that came to mind when I imagined communing with him. This is the primary feeling I have lost in his absence. Security is a beautiful word because it has so many definitions that are slightly different but of the same essence. If I had security, it would knock out a few concerns at once. It has about seven definitions and here the ones that spoke to me:
2. Free from risk of loss; safe
3. Free from fear, anxiety, or doubt
5a. Not likely to fail, or give way; stable
7. Assured; certain
In my dream scenario, I would be free from the risk of losing Alec completely (#2). I would feel safe again (#2 also). Safety was a big issue with me, both keeping him safe and the feeling of safety I had with him by my side. One of the hardest things about losing someone who is dependent on you is the harsh realization that you cannot keep them safe, thus forcing you to give up the illusion of control. I also would be free from the anxiety, fear and doubt (#3) that life is meaningless and cruel and terrible because I would be assured and certain that he was still with me – and that he loved me (#7). Thus I would feel stable again (#5a).
A secondary loss one sometimes experiences through grief is “loss of well being and lack of continued faith in the overall goodness of the world.” (This quote is from – no joke – Grieving for Dummies by Greg Harvey. Yes, there is such a thing as a dummy griever, to go along with all the other dummies in this series! And yes, I did check it out of the library.) This secondary loss was (and is) huge for me, and again comes back to the idea of security.
Another strange loss I had was the experience of “coziness.” This is one I have not seen written about anywhere and I know it taps into other emotions like safety and warmth and contentment and comfort. I had not noticed how “cozy” I could feel with Alec, but in stark contrast when he was gone I never felt cozy. It is hard to explain. I had trouble feeling warm (not just literally). The mattress that we slept on together suddenly felt dismally uncomfortable with him gone. And it was – after our second air bed popped, I went to IKEA and bought the cheapest foam mattress I could find. It was hard and uncomfortable, but I didn’t notice this when he was with me, yet when he was gone I felt like I was sleeping on concrete. It wasn’t his weight distribution because the foam was hard enough not to budge when he was on it. It was psychological. I have since gotten a memory foam topper, which has helped somewhat, but the point is I didn’t realize how many cozy corners of my life disappeared with him.
Through doing this exercise I think what I have really been missing – that feeling of being wrapped up in a warm fuzzy blanket – is security. That elusive coziness was basically the illusion that everything was alright, which enabled me to relax and experience deep contentment and comfort. No matter what personal storms I was weathering or whatever other stresses were present in my life, as long as we were together everything was okay. Because I knew what I had and I was grateful every day. I knew how I would suffer if he ever left me, so just to have him with me in the same room was a form of bliss to which my heart happily responded by allowing me sink into a lovely cozy cocoon, which came from a deep sense of safety, well-being, warmth, and gratitude that slipped away when he did.
There are so many words to describe how happy I felt when we were together but, more importantly, how happy I would feel if I knew he were still near: ecstatic, elated, joyful, euphoric, jubilant…and blissful. Blissful was the winner because I like its definition best:
1. Extreme happiness; ecstasy.
2. The ecstasy of salvation; spiritual joy.
Finally, the fourth adjective: “focused” may seem unrelated but it is important. Besides the formidable loss of Alec’s physical presence, there are many secondary losses, such as the loss of security and comfort I mentioned above. There is also “lost” as an adjective, the opposite of focused. I feel lost myself, adrift and anchorless, like someone pulled my life out from under me and I am still tumbling through the air. I have not only lost our relationship, but my sense of purpose. I also lost my entire routine, which revolved around taking care of Alec (and just spending time with him, enjoying his company), even before he became sick.
He was always important to me, but Alec became the central focus of my life when he developed special needs and he remained there, at the center of everything, until his death two and a half years later. My role as caregiver demanded a significant portion of my attention. I don’t mean to cast this as something I was forced into. No, I chose to devote myself to his well-being. But what that meant in practical terms was that no matter what else was going on my life, nothing was as important as him. It also meant that formerly simple things like trips to the park demanded much more attention from me. As anyone who cares for someone with a disability knows, you learn to scan the environment for obstacles that you never noticed before, indeed never had to. So, the mental focus required of a caregiver for an animal with a disability also narrows your attention (again not in a negative way, only as a practical matter).
Beyond the quotidian elements of daily life, my emotional focus was sharper too because I had almost lost Alec when he became paralyzed due to complications from the spinal surgeries. This shook me out of my complacency (he was only seven and had never had a major health problem; I thought we had years together! That I almost lost him seemed unthinkable) and created a new awareness of the precariousness of life, which in turn caused me to cherish him anew each day.
I also felt I had found my purpose in the book I was going to write about Alec’s story, which inspired me so much, and which I had had hoped might help others with dogs in similar situations.
Finally, from the moment he was diagnosed with cancer to the end of his life (an all too short period) every minute outside of the working day, every square inch of brain space, was devoted to his care or to research about treatment options, supplements, specialists. I was going to save him; I would not let him down; I would do everything in my power. FOCUS. It is no wonder I lost my focus when he was gone, that I felt lost with a capital “L”. If my dream scenario came true, I could regain my focus because I would have confidence and security that he never really left.
Perhaps I should have written a separate post on this subject, which seems infinite.
Besides the tangible losses, there are many ways to feel lost too; existentially is the biggest and broadest. I lost all sense of meaning when Alec died. But grievers feel lost in the literal sense in “smaller,” less cosmic ways too, like getting lost while driving and forgetting conversations instantly after having them, etc. I have had this feeling of not being able to concentrate, of having thoughts fly away, of being in a store wondering what I was doing there. I said it before he died, but Alec was like my compass, and living without him feels like one nightmarish LOST episode without the Dharma initiative and polar bears, but with the “abandoned on a desert island” feeling and suspicions about having possibly landed in purgatory – or hell. I have also felt like I was losing my memory and my mind, that I was maybe going mad. In other words, pretty much the opposite of “focused.”
Who knew my scrappy fourth adjective would produce such fertile ground on which to reflect?
Lastly, the second part of the definition of “focused” (in addition to “close or narrow attention; concentration”) is:
2. a condition in which something can be clearly apprehended or perceived.
I had thought about the adjectives “enlightened,” “aware,” and “awake” as ways I would feel in my dream scenario, but this definition of “focused” also covered this aspect of apprehension – of knowing – pretty well (with regard to the mystical/spiritual/ghost world).
So, it was an interesting exercise coming up with these words, but I didn’t know what to expect of the collage-making session. After a couple failed attempts at art therapy and expressing my emotions through arts and crafts in a group setting, I was wary. But the collage brunch group was very relaxed and supportive and fun and we basically sat down with scissors and a ton of magazines and flipped through them cutting out words or images that represented our adjectives (or that just spoke to us). I found myself drawn almost 100% to words rather than images, but decided to just go with it because I felt like some intuitive part of my mind was kicking in and I wanted to give that part free reign since I am maybe not always so good at accessing my intuition (being a classic over-thinker). My friend Laura was also cutting out mostly words, so I didn’t feel so bad.
At the end, only one person had actually finished her collage (and it was beautiful by the way!). The rest of us had merely cut a bunch of stuff out and would finish the actual collage later. It seemed like a good idea to let things settle for a bit before going back to them too, to do it in stages. I brought my stack of cut-outs home yesterday and have not looked at them, but I am going to pull them out now because I am curious to see what I chose. I am not going to artfully arrange them yet, but just lay them out as a first step. I am not even sure that the words and phrases I cut out necessarily pertained to my four adjectives, but that’s okay too, I figured. Maybe they will show me something else! I will share a photo of it once my collage is done.
One interesting thing about this exercise is that I felt absorbed in the activity while I was doing it, something that psychologist Csíkszentmihályi has famously referred to as “flow,” a state of single-minded immersion and focused motivation. Neuroscientists and psychologists are increasingly recognizing the experience of “flow” as an important key to happiness. So that was a good side effect of this exercise and activity too. Something like four hours passed without me even noticing while I flipped through magazines and snipped images, words, and phrases to which my intuitive mind was drawn without stopping to think too much about them. This can also be a by-product of art therapy so I’m not ready to give up on that yet, especially after this positive experience.
Finally, I know admitting (out loud, in public) that my most cherished goal for 2011 is to commune with Alec’s spirit will make me sound like a nutcase to many people; I have nothing to offer in defense of my dearly departed rationality. All I can say is I would have felt the same way at one time too, but I have become more open-minded since losing Alec, maybe out of necessity. I can’t describe it other than to say I literally had no choice. I need something to hold onto and if my dream is that Alec is still out there and that I can somehow connect with him…well there are worse dreams to have right?
Since Alec has died, I have struggled with increased generalized fear and anxiety, which may be obvious from some of my writing here, but would definitely be apparent if you saw my private journals (heaven forbid!). I remember talking to a friend about staying alone versus potentially adopting another dog (he had suggested this, thinking it might help me out of my tailspin) and I posited that maybe my caretaking behavior was a distraction, a way for me to avoid dealing with my own neuroses, which have become so stark and risen so resolutely to the surface now that he is gone. He replied, “Well, it’s better than smoking crack; some people do that to deal with their problems. There are worse things than taking care of others.” Amen.
Not sure where I was going with that other than to say, I could harbor more nefarious and even dare I say crazy fantasies than one involving me and Alec being reunited in some magical netherworld. Why the hell not? Not that long ago people thought they’d fall off the edge of the world and be devoured by sea monsters if they sailed too far into the great blue ocean. Just sayin’…we don’t know everything. (I guess I am trying to defend my irrational hopes after all! Some habits die hard.)
I will leave you with a song called “As the Crow Flies” (by Chris McCaughan as Sundowner), which I took a break to listen to during my adjective conjuring daydream session. Somehow it became the perfect soundtrack to my beautiful reverie. I don’t know why; it was more the feeling than the literal words. I wrapped my arms around myself and cried and cried, but I felt like Alec was with me. I already liked this song, but now I love it like I love my magic words. You can listen to it here, if you want.