Small in size doesn’t necessarily mean small in spirit. Though our house no longer holds our little dog, Capi (who passed peacefully, here, with us by her side, on December 9, 2022), her spirit certainly lives on in it.
Capi was undeniably cute. But ask anyone who knew her, and that won’t be what they recall first—rather her fearlessness and enthusiasm for every adventure, every moment, really—might be what lives in their memory. Neither five-foot seas, nor snow deeper than she was tall fazed her. And guess who was the alpha of our dog pack—Capi or her 50+ pound mixed-breed older brother, Sandy?
Capi was, in a word, intrepid.
A year ago, Capi’s vet said that if all she had done was look at Capi’s test results and images, she would say that Capi had days, weeks at the outside, to live. But Capi didn’t believe it, and she proved it over and over. Months later, as we prepared to leave for Capi’s last summer of sailing, I worked with the vet to put together a medical kit for her, but the doc’s conclusion was that “Capi Magic” was her best medicine. That magic not only kept Capi going, it gave us a good dose of delight every day of her life.
We had a few rough patches in the cold wet days of the last Pacific Northwest spring, but mostly Capi decided that she’d embrace each day with joy and love. She took me for daily walks, rushed if it was rainy, longer on sunny days, often right to the shops where she knew she would to get a treat or two (thank you especially to The NW Dog in Poulsbo!).
Intrepid to the end, even during her last days, she ambled a bit every afternoon and rode to the mailbox, head out the window savoring the crisp December, desert air. This is all I can bear to write, as I am sorely missing my amazing furry friend. That big-hearted little dog will live forever in my heart. Always intrepid, and always reminding me that I can aspire to be intrepid too.
Someone says something, and you’re struck dumb. Perhaps dumbfounded is more like it. Would someone really say that? Too often it’s family—Uncle Aren’t-I-Funny? or Aunt No-Filter. Or maybe it’s Ms. or Mr. I-Don’t-Even-Know-You-And-Still-I’d-Say-That.
Haven’t we all been there?
At 2:06 the next morning, you bolt upright in bed, your voice restored, the perfect line drops from your lips with no one but the beloved four-legged curled up at your feet to hear it. Or maybe your partner rolls over and mumbles, “What?” then snuffles and falls back to sleep, heedless of your brilliant retort.
Even though that is so often the reality for me, as a writer I get to say that perfect line—on the page. Sometimes on a page in my journal, my snappy (if hours or days late) comeback for me alone, but sometimes on a page others will read.
The perfect line that sticks in my mind most came to me 25 years ago. Some of my readers know that my husband, Norm Tilford, died in November 1997. Some of you know he perished when his small plane went down in icing conditions in a remote part of the Texas hill country. And some of you may even know it was a month to the day that his plane, and his body, were found by a hunter who noticed that the top of a tall tree looked different, broken, since the last time he’d been out that way (and he’d read the ad I’d run in the Blanco County News, among many other rural newspapers, asking people to look for the plane).
During the month Norm was missing, hundreds helped with the search—Civil Air Patrol pilots, family, friends, professional colleagues, and even kind strangers. It was much publicized, a choice I made in the hope that the more who knew, the better the chances someone would find the plane, and Norm. Small planes are hard to spot in big country, and I dreaded being one of those stories in which it was located too late, a rescue turned to a recovery.
Upon arriving home after a day of searching lake shores for debris, the phone began ringing as I unlocked the door. I ran to pick it up and “someone” said that “something.”
It was decades before I could write about it. Here is an excerpt from the personal essay I titled Not the Real Estate (evoking Norm’s oft-spoken belief that “home is where we both are, not the real estate”):
I worked with the Bryan Police Department, depending on Zeta, the officer who worked on their missing person cases. She leveled with me from the start.
“More often than we like,” she said, “these cases have a negative outcome.”
She gently asked questions about our marriage, made helpful suggestions for the search, and provided perspective I didn’t want to hear but needed to. She conceded, reluctantly, her large brown eyes wide and caring, there was always a chance.
I fielded awkward phone calls from people projecting their private dramas onto my all-too-public one. One woman matter-of-factly informed me that my husband wasn’t missing at all.
“Your husband ran off with one of his students,” she said, “a new young honey, just like my husband did. He’ll call to dump you, dear. Don’t spend your time worrying. Get a lawyer.”
Stunned anyone would make that kind of call, I stammered, “Thank you for your concern?” before hanging up. Minutes later, I came up with what should have been my response, “No, ma’am, Norm hasn’t run off with a young honey. I am his young honey.”
That was my perfect line.
Just to be clear, I did not steal Norm from another woman, older or otherwise, though I was quite a bit younger than he. Any stealing that went on with us was of each other’s hearts—thefts of the best possible kind. Twenty-five years later, his fearless heart still inspires me to fulfill dreams—one he gave me, to sail, and one I had that Norm never failed to encourage, to write.
Note: Not the Real Estate was published in bosque 9 literary journal in November 2019. If you’d like to read the complete story, among many other fine essays, short stories, and poems, the issue is available for purchase here.
In early September, in the days after attaining my Coastal Navigation certification with my sailing mentor, Nancy Erley, I felt empowered—a confident captain of my fair little ship. I started drafting a piece titled Empowerment. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (online edition) empowerment means: the act or action of empowering someone or something; the granting of the power, right, or authority to perform various acts or duties. By the time I re-opened the file after a week of end-of-sailing-season boat work, instead of feeling sure of my skills and judgement, I once again felt “not enough.” Though I certainly did not know any less on that day than when Nancy departed Kagán for home, somehow I felt like I did. It made me wonder, as noted in the definition, if I needed the power to be “granted” to me by someone else. Why can’t I claim it for myself?
I don’t love this feeling, this need to be empowered by another’s faith in me, rather than my own belief in myself. No matter how much I respect her, and my respect for Nancy is beyond measure, still I want to feel it within, and I have no doubt Nancy would want that for me—she respects me, so when will I?
I also don’t love disclosing this, but I believe there is power in going deep, in having the courage to be vulnerable as a writer. I believe that is how writers touch people most profoundly. Maybe that is one of the things I can claim for myself, courage as a writer.
Now that I consider it, even when I go from feeling like a confident captain to an uncertain one, I still get out there—sailing, cruising, and caring for Kagán—sometimes alone and sometimes with crew, but out there doing it. It seems Empowered Me and Insecure Me look pretty much the same to everyone but me. And maybe, just maybe, I’m not the only one in that same boat or on that same page.
Here’s another confession, I do love show tunes. But how does that relate to empowerment? Well, in the words of the lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II in the song I Whistle a Happy Tune from the musical The King and I:
Make believe you’re brave And the trick will take you far. You may be as brave As you make believe you are.
Though I’m not a big fan of “faking it until you make it,” I think in this case, it isn’t faking whatever the task at hand is (like, for instance, docking Kagán), it’s faking believing in myself until I actually do.
So, the passage I’m on these days, by land or by sea, is the ongoing journey to myself, as always with notebook in hand. Perhaps, en route, I’ll redefine empowerment for myself. I expect wherever I go, there I’ll be in all my glory, in whatever way I choose to define that. How about this—empowered and enough.
Sometimes it takes decades, and sometimes just a moment…
Growing Up and Out
I grew up, into me, not who you wanted me to be. You remember, and so do I, that I would do all you said, that I would be who you said, when I was small.
That little girl seemed to need you, so much. But look closer, through the prism of the years, and it is you who clung so hard. And I answered your need— being yours.
But now I’m not. Now, I belong to me and to the earth and to the sea and to the sky I grew up and out, like a plant drawing nurture through my roots, drinking deeply of the waters, reaching toward the light. Unqualified love is not jealous, it says not who I should be.
There comes a day, a moment even, when you know the struggle is over. You have chosen that your struggle is over. Anyone else’s is not yours to fight—for or against.
But blood is thicker than water, voices echo in your ears, to which you reply, “The rivers flowing within and without— my blood, my tears—matter too.” The rhythm of your heart, in that moment come, beats sure—let go, let go, let go.
In the surrendering, you are free to shape a life that soars, the ropes of familial guilt that tethered you your whole long life before, finally cut with the sweep of your own sword. The sound of its swoosh music to your ears.
In my last post, I talked about inevitabilities, like rejection in the writing life. But there are ways to make that inevitability a little less so. First, and always, the story needs to be compelling, but most of us have a captivating tale or two to tell. If you want people (besides your family and friends) to read it, the writing itself (the craft of the piece) needs to be solid too. This, I think, is where some miss the mark, sending their work out too soon. It takes time to learn the craft, and it takes writing, re-writing, and yet more re-writing for a story to be ready for the wider world. And a book, well, for most of us who take that on, writing a book is a journey that takes years. For me, as a geologist who has worked on such things, the most apt metaphor would be that the foundation has to be solid for a structure to stand.
These days, the writing isn’t all it takes, perhaps it never was. But now more than ever, a writer needs to find their readers (and show editors considering their work that they have). So here’s the new trick this particular ‘old dog’ is going to learn. How to jump into the world as an author, as well as a writer.
Looking up synonyms for author, I find writer, yes, but also, inventor and creator and instigator. And source, cause, and origin. That I can relate to—without ever putting it into words before, I’ve invented and re-invented myself after devastating losses, after illness, and through the inevitable smaller disappointments of life. Not only have I written and re-written a book, I have written and re-written my life. I am the author of a life I’m incredibly grateful for and pretty darn proud of.
Maybe there’s no trick for this ‘old dog’ to learn. Maybe all this ‘old dog’ needs to do is be willing to reveal her authentic self to the wider world, like dogs (old and young) always do. Have you ever met a dog who wasn’t truly themselves? Nope, me neither.
There are nuts and bolts to stepping out into the wider world, to showing up for a broader audience, so I’m collecting resources and equipment, and taking classes and webinars that will provide me with those skills and tools. Let the training begin! I’m going to jump into this endeavor as I have to so many others (like deciding to write a book, for one).
And speaking of jumping, you can teach old dogs new tricks. Capi, who will be fifteen next month, was quite motivated to learn how to jump for, and often catch, after-dinner treats. She learned this neat trick a couple of years ago, at an already advanced age for a furry four-legged friend. But not only did she learn the trick, she trained us to toss three treats each, and no less. And believe me when I say, she can count.
Here’s to all the beloved old dogs, who show us how to live life in the most authentic way. I, for one, am working on learning the lessons those pups have for me. How about you, readers? Who do you want to show up as? Who do you want to be in the world?