This has been one of those weeks where, if it was possible, I’d break up with myself.
I would summon the most compassionate tone of voice I could and say, “I need some space right now. You are waaaaayyyyy too preoccupied with your dog and you are meshugge. It is too much, it has been too up and down for me. I need to take some time away and wait for you to find your way out of the abyss. I don’t want to ‘process’ the most Recent Traumatic Incident and what it means; I don’t want to listen to what God is saying to you or wants from you. Go ahead, please, without me and write in your journal, draw with your non-dominant hand, dance your drawing, cry your dancing and look for clues in your dreams. Carry on. I’ll catch you on the flip side.”
However, that is not possible, so I am stuck with myself and my wicked judgment about my facility as a responsible dog owner and judgment about how I move through the world.
Meanwhile, as Mary Oliver writes in her sacred poem ‘Wild Geese,’ one of my favorite people here in Fort Myers was diagnosed with cancer this week. We are waiting for more test results. I must pull my gaze from my own navel to send beams of light to my precious friend whom I love. Last night I dreamt I had to fill out enormous amounts of paperwork to visit her in the hospital, which I did, and then I performed my one-woman show “Oy to the World.”
My other dear friends, the angels who rescued Morty from both of his escape adventures and also live here in the kibbutz, have the nerve to be out of town right now.
Sometimes song lyrics swirl around in my mind and I realize my subconscious is sending me messages. Looking out the glass sliding doors at the trees I heard Joni Mitchell:
We are stardust We are golden And we’ve got to get ourselves Back to the garden
These are all of the first sentences I considered for the next Love, Morty post:
This is the thing about death: it’s so final.
My father taught me the Yiddish word mujza (pr. muhz-jah), which is a combination of things thrown together. Stew is a mujza. Morty is a mujza.
Because I don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to grooming Morty, his first summer hairdo makes him look like a devil dog.
The established Kubler-Ross five stages of grief need to be amended to address the sharp cutoff from elders in senior living facilities after the pandemic hit.
Just like Jesus washed the feet of the apostles, I gave my friend, who is experiencing Level 11 pain, a pedicure.
Things I inherited from my mother include a Betty Boop sew-on patch, a manicure pen, dried up watercolor tubes of paint, the ability to tell a story to anyone, rage and loneliness.
Here is the real beginning: Natalie Goldberg is a writer who changed my life. She wrote about writing and all of the things that we bump up against when we try to listen in. Her book Writing Down the Bones led to Elizabeth, Cynthia and I doing short free-writing sessions upstairs in my house in the 1980s. We were shy to read what we wrote, giggly with fear, sharing our writing anyway, impressed with each other and so glad to be there. Cynthia took her own life a couple of years ago, making those memories all the more precious.
Natalie Goldberg wrote a memoir that also caused my inner plates to shift. In Long, Quiet Highway she wrote about doing freewriting with her students from a specific prompt and how she couldn’t get going, no matter what she wrote. There was no flow. So she turned the page of her notebook to a new, blank page and at the top she wrote, “What I really want to say is…” and then she wrote from her tender, mortal heart. I think of that line when I get stuck when I’m writing, when I’m aching to connect with someone and feel like I’m not getting through, when I look back at moments in relationships and wish for a ‘do-over.’
What I really want to say is that when I took Morty with me on Friday so I could talk to Bobbi, our trainer, our leader, our human angel, I experienced a miracle. It was sooooo not fancy. There was no violin crescendo music in the background. No dazzling rays of light. I don’t even think I brushed my teeth that morning.
From the outside looking in Morty was playing on some agility equipment with Tiana, Bobbi’s adult granddaughter, Bobbi and I were talking about all things Morty, and every now and then Morty would run up to me, then Bobbi, to say howdy and then go back to playing with Tiana.
A couple of months earlier on the day Morty met Tiana, there was An Incident, which is when Bobbi informed me that Morty is what’s known as a ‘dirty biter,’ meaning he waits until a person turns her back before he attacks her.
Morty: Hi I’m Morty and I’m a Dirty Biter. Everyone: Hi Morty!
At the beginning of our lesson that day, Tiana was physically close to me as she handed me my little treats pouch that I had left across the room. When she turned around to go sit in the chair across from us, Morty suddenly lunged after her. OY! VAY! OY! VAY! Bobbi roared in a deep belly voice that biting was not good behavior, I panicked, nearly wetting myself, Morty backed up in fear when he heard Bobbi’s tone of voice and Tiana calmly sat down across from Morty and me.
You think you are going to learn how to change your dog’s behavior only to find a guru in the body of a tired, middle-aged woman who understands that her true work is with the humans. You think you will find out how to get your dog to pay attention once and for all and are told repeatedly to relax, to breathe, to calm down, which quite honestly, annoys you and sounds like Martian talk. You are desperate to transform your dog from a maniac into a people-pleaser and you listen as the trainer explains (every week) how the dog is taking all of his cues from you, so you might need to become less of a maniac yourself.
You decide to get a dog so you’ll never be lonely, so those unfulfilled needs will finally get met, because for as long as you can remember you associate having a dog with being able to avoid what you refer to as your ancestral grief. Only once you get the dog you realize that the shit has hit the fan; the shit being every one of your goddamn issues and the fan is the dog who showed up.
Oh, and mixed in with all of the everything is constant surrender, God, abundance, prayer as meltdown, prayer as dream, camaraderie, joy and endless humility as you continually return to the starting line of life. Plus there are so many dog toys and accessories.
On Friday morning Morty was jumping, twirling, loving on Tiana like they were going steady as Bobbi and I sat a few feet away, talking about how far Morty and I have come since we first showed up bewildered, furious and on guard.
I told Bobbi about how now, when we’re out walking and Morty gets triggered by a person or another dog, he might bark or jump up for a moment, but then he runs up to me and says, “Mama! Mama! I’m done barking and jumping so where’s my turkey sausage? Isaidwhereismyturkeysausage??” I told her now I don’t have to hold the leash so tightly, as Morty stays pretty much within my three-foot bubble either behind, next to or ahead of me. I told her how Morty and I have resumed walking the full loop around the entire Kibbutz because it isn’t overwhelming for either of us to go for a walk these days.
A miracle. All of it. Bobbi said to me, “See how Morty is today? This is the dog I saw when you first came to me. This is the dog I hoped you would discover. He’s calmed down a lot and SO HAVE YOU!”
I truly understand what Bobbi means because during all of the years I taught improv, I was able to espy each person’s magic long before they did. I delighted in witnessing people awakening to their own mischief and imagination. Oh the glory of Before & After!
Morty was a relaxed, happy pony while playing on Friday, running over to check in with me because he is my Mujz Mujz. He gave Bobbi some kisses too. A miracle. When he came to me two and a half years ago, he’d been kept outdoors and had never been inside a house. For weeks he barked uproariously at his own reflection in the glass oven door, the mirrored cabinet, the big lanai sliding doors. Now he plops down right behind me at night on the bed, sighing. Each morning he plays the role of my personal coxswain, telling me what to do. He asks to come up on my lap in the art room and we sit quietly as I hold him for as long as he wants to be held.
I’m reminded of that line from the forward to Tony Kushner’s play, Angels in America, where he credits someone “for the difficult education of my heart.”
Amen. And Hallelujah.
Oh so mortally yours,
p.s. A friend asked if I’m requesting that people share my blog posts. Ah, what a concept! Please feel free to pass along any and all posts. Merci.
Once upon a time in 1983 I moved to Madison, Wisconsin and met three guys named Steve. The Steve who came with me to buy my futon and help me shlep it up the stairs to my tiny apartment became known as Futon Steve. Everyone who met him through me also called him Futon Steve. He would call me up and say, “Hi, it’s Fu.”
One night Futon Steve invited me to Club de Wash, a bar that usually featured live music. It was a Tuesday night and the cover charge was two bucks. We went to see a group called Ark Improv. We sat with a bunch of folks in a big round booth and as I watched the show, I kept turning to Futon Steve and saying, “I could do that…” or “I don’t know if I could do that…” or “I could totally do that.”
I felt like I had found my tribe, that these were my people; they were speaking my language. My inner plates shifted.
Of course people who are really good at what they do make it look easy. That ensemble of nine UW-Madison undergrads was a talented crew. Almost every single person from that first generation of Ark Improv is working professionally in the entertainment industry. While Joan Cusack is the biggest name from that group, other folks have won Emmys, write for and act in films, network and cable series, produce documentaries featured on CNN, work in France in film and theatre. When I finally attended my first improv class, I found there was a teensy weensy bit more to the art form than I had anticipated. (See first sentence of this paragraph.)
I finally auditioned for and got into the third generation of Ark Improv. That was over 35 years ago. I have been studying, performing and teaching improv for more than half my life. Most of what I’ve learned doing improv informs the way I move through the world and how I filter relationships and experiences.
In particular, I am always and forever on the lookout for a good scene partner. Someone with healthy mischief, a generosity of spirit that is infinite, someone who will say “Yes, and” to my suggestions in a heartbeat.
He always wants to play. He is always “in the mood” for a good time. In the mornings he jumps on the bed to smell my eyes for goop, tells me to get moving, then jumps off the bed. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes he lays vertically down the length of my body and tries to lick my lips, which I never let him do. If I’m in the mood to frolic, I cover my mouth with the blanket and make wild noises, which drives him bonkers. More jumping. More dramatic expression. Sometimes he lays across my chest, pauses for a moment and lets me pet him. Then the mountain goat routine resumes.
Whatever I offer, he says YES: modern dance, speaking in gibberish, singing crooked harmonies, crying, cooing all of the names I have for him. Sometimes I’ll say, “Puppy – look adorable if you think I should XYZ.” He is so supportive. Loyal. He seems to love me no matter what. I like that in a scene partner.
Morty, on the other hand, always has the same suggestion: B-A-L-L? Now? How about Now? Okay, Now? He is ever hopeful.
He doesn’t mean to be funny, but Morty is a laugh riot. His latest trick is to push the ball inside the cover of the bed I made for him that’s in the art room, act like he can’t for the life of him figure out how to get it out of there and then drag the entire bed into the living room. He is always creating impossible situations with the fahshtunkenah ball—pouncing and pushing it under something so he can’t reach it—and then running up to me, jumping on me, desperately saying, “Mama-Mama-the ball-needs-to be-rescued-never-mind-how-it-got-under-the-chair/couch/nightstand-aren’t-I-the-cutest-pony-in-the-world! Urgent-urgent-Mayday-Mayday-Fire-in-the-hole!”
We are both doing so much better regarding the whole reactivity dynamic. When he gets triggered by a dog or a person, he is able to regain his composure and re-focus so much more quickly than before. I too am learning how to pull his focus back to me and to keep us both moving. I have discovered the power of turkey sausage. I will have to write an Ode to Turkey Sausage, as it is my best friend and savior.
I am also improving when it comes to reacting to people. I catch myself sooner vs. later and fight the urge to be ‘right’ on a daily basis. I met a Black woman whose young adult son was murdered a couple of months ago. No matter how leaky my mortal heart gets, I think of her and the fact of her loss and am brought to my knees. Surrender is a true starting point for transformation.
It is so much easier talking to Morty in the dark, either in the early morning or at night. I tried to explain what the Chauvin trial verdict means, but have to keep amending what I say as more and more black people are being killed by police.
Morty doesn’t ask for the ball when I talk about this. He sighs in all the right places, curls up a little tighter and leans against me, as if for ballast.
As someone who leads a self-examined life, I did not like what I found this past week. As always, the lesson involved Morty. Ah Morty, my little mirror, my reflection pond. The invisible choreography of the Universe making a match between me and MortyPie never, ever escapes me, try as I might to downplay it.
For the record, can I just state that I was not in the mood to be brought to my knees spiritually?
Like so many of us, I am worn out from all things pandemic and keep hitting my pandemic wall. Grief just heightens the exhaustion. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like I need to lay down: I have to open an envelope? I have to cut off the ends of the Brussel sprouts? I have to put on my shoes? Oh lord.
Early in the week I asked Morty one morning, “What does God want from us today?” After a few seconds of silence I said, “Okay, I’ll go first.” I can’t remember what I thought God wanted from me, but I was glad to have taken a few short moments to think about that. I thought God would certainly give me points for trying to connect or at least acting like I was trying. Mostly what I remember from that morning is how funny I thought I was when I said, “Okay, I’ll go first.”
So Morty attacked a small dog at day care on Tuesday shortly after I dropped him off. This was his second time attacking another dog, so I was asked to come get him with the understanding that he was not welcome back.
Morty is a reactive dog. I ended up with a dog that barks and lunges at people and dogs, no matter how close or far they are from us. Once he barked incessantly at a washing machine that was on the ground next to the delivery truck. On Tuesday I was triggered by Morty’s reactivity and spent most of the day reacting (poorly) to everyone and everything. I was crunchy and untethered on the inside, with a side of snappy, mean-spirited behavior.
My knee-jerk reaction was that I had no choice but to return Morty to the shelter where I got him. I’d show him: I’d get a dog that was docile, that I could take to visit sick kids in the hospital, which is something I originally wanted to do. Can you just picture Morty in a hospital: barking at anyone walking with an IV pole, chomping on small children who make noise, attacking people pushing a gurney. Lawsuit Central, please hold.
I was so mad at Morty and told him so. I told him that I was most likely going to give him away. If I was in a cartoon there would have been steam coming out of my ears.
Tuesday evening was my zoom session with Jinks (Hoffman), with whom I practice Spiritual Direction. I sobbed and sobbed, asking Jinks if God was punishing me by giving me a Dog With Issues. I felt stuck between a rock and a chew toy: I did not think I could endure living with Morty’s reactivity and also would not survive the grief of returning him.
I took my crankiness out on Jinks, who read me the riot act, as she is wont to do when I fall off the rails. I wanted to leave the country, as per usual, and she encouraged me to stay in the conversation, noticing that she was there with me and for me. Once I got on my knees metaphorically and actually became present, we prayed. And then we listened for what God was saying or wanted us to notice.
I consider most of my praying as really ‘placing my order with the Universe.’ I even picture an angel as waitress, with a small pad and pen. I pray for outcomes I’d like, I make requests and what I think are Helpful Suggestions. I am very busy talking to God. It is the listening that I struggle with; the getting quiet and still. The waiting.
Often in my conversations with Jinks when we’re being quiet together and tuning in, I’ll see colors or images, I’ll recall a dream, I’ll hear song lyrics or lines from a poem. Discovering what Spirit has to say isn’t a linear process, which both frustrates and delights me.
I cried some more. Deep belly cries. About Morty, about missing my Pop, about all of the clients I talk to every day who are being evicted, who have lost family members, whose electricity has been cut off, who don’t have enough food.
The great thing about crying is that it clears out the feelings I’ve been schlepping around on the inside. While it isn’t so much fun when it’s happening, I always feel lighter afterwards, with a bit more clarity.
Jinks encouraged me to refrain from making a decision about Morty, to keep asking Spirit for help and to try my very best to listen for any updates from my soul. She said the work was to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what I was going to do. As someone who has done improv since the late 1800s, the not knowing can still be so challenging. I said okay, I will do my best.
Tuesday night Morty was on my bed, just lying there, minding his own business. I talked to him about what was going on. He can be such a good listener. No judgment. Wednesday was not one of my better days, as I was exasperated by small things and um, quite reactive.
It finally occurred to me on Thursday how reactive I am myself. The buzzers sounded and the lights flashed during my aha moment. Oysh. It is incredibly embarrassing to finally notice what is so damn obvious. I am not proud of how reactive I am nor the fact that I spend way more time apologizing for my behavior than I want to, which is not at all.
When I was 17, I saw the movie Billy Jack and loved Jean. She was quiet and soft spoken. Plus she knew how to ride a horse. For the longest time I wanted to be like her. Over the years I’ve been told to lower my voice, stop making so much noise, stop being so dramatic, get a grip, reel it in, calm down, dial it down, simmer down.
How do I honor my big, bold spirit and also create more even keel?
In my training with Bobbi I am working on walking Morty by shortening the leash, tucking my elbow into my waist and moving forward with my head up.
I am curious about how to do this with myself. At the end of Postcards from the Edge, Gene Hackman makes a great speech to Meryl Streep about how change occurs by telling her that it’s not like in the movies where you have a realization and then suddenly life changes. He says that you have a realization and your life changes maybe a month later.
So for now I am keeping Morty, who is having his third nap of the day as I write this. I wanted a dog that I could take on long walks, who was people-friendly, who would be easy. I ended up with a dog who challenges me at my very core. Go know.
I am praying for help and for patience. For real. I am tuning in, waiting for what Anne Lamott refers to as the next step of my ‘operating instructions.’
The sun is out, the wind is friendly. Thank you for listening.
Many months ago, A Bad Thing Happened to me, Morty, a neighbor and her dog. I cringe thinking about it. Long story short, which usually ain’t my style, I put all four of us in a dangerous situation in our kibbutz dog park by bringing Morty’s favorite ball into the park. OY!VAY!OY!VAY! The Traumatic Event involved kicking, screaming, growling, jumping, running, crying, blaming, yelling, biting, whining and guilt. I will not clarify who did what, only that it was messy.
My go-to plan after a fiasco of my own doing is always the same: Leave the country.
I chose to remain in my petite corner of the universe and called around to find a trainer to help me. I felt like I was living with a monster. Unlike geckos, birds or lizards, I couldn’t toss Morty out into the wilderness and wish him good luck on his own. I knew something had to change and my hunch was that Morty wasn’t going to initiate any follow up.
I found Bobbi and things have changed radically.
The first time we met with Bobbi, Morty barked the entire hour. We were sitting about seven feet away from her. Bobbi pointed out, in the nicest possible way, that Morty was obviously running the show, I was a wreck and that the dynamic needed to change. It’s all true – he was in charge and I was tense, irritable and overwhelmed by all things Morty. It had gotten to the point where the love I felt no longer outweighed the challenges of my life with Morty.
Bobbi has spent the last several months working with me on relaxing, calming down and setting boundaries with the MortyMoo. She has worked on my behavior. Lo and behold, my changes affect Morty, who is still quite articulate, overly protective of me and um, spirited, is a polite way of describing him. Bobbi says he can be a punk and a bully too. She also says that Morty is a good pup who had a bad puppyhood. And let’s be honest, it’s not like I showed up sans baggage.
The work I am doing with Bobbi is about breathing and communicating what I want and expect from Morty. At first, I was cranky and resentful about having to spend so much time schlepping out to Bobbi’s place (in Kishinev) and how after all the time I’d spent on training Morty the first year and a half, things had gotten so out of control, and the dynamic between us was so cockeyed.
Carolyn Forché, one of my favorite poets, used to have a sign in her kitchen that read, “Whatever keeps you from doing your work has become your work.”
Silly, naïve me – I thought I would get a dog, take it on walks and the rest of my life would carry on as before, buh buh buh. The Universe was not fooling around when it sent Morty into my home and my heart. My relationship with Morty has become my work, which involves learning how to breathe when I feel tense, being present, setting intentions, walking with confidence and acting like a leader in charge.
Here we are.
Morty still drives me crazy sometimes and every so often I long for a quiet, easy puppy. I’m pretty sure he is writing about wanting a Mama who jogs and doesn’t blow her nose so loudly when she cries. But then Morty will jaunt over to help me find the right lid for a container or jump on and off the bed in the morning like a joyous mountain goat or sit on my lap in the art room to sniff my latest project and I am smitten all over again.
Years ago I wrote long emails full of Sturm and Drang to my friend Eric, signing them, “Mortally yours.” One time he wrote back, “Dear Morty,” and the name became a placeholder for feeling mortal, vulnerable, humbled.
In 2019 I brought home a puppy who was expressive and stubborn, with ultra-sensitive hearing. Go know. I tried different names for the puppy, including Shlomo, Marty and Jack, until it occurred to me that the puppy was indeed my placeholder, and thus he became Morty. During our first year together I sent weekly emails to friends about life with Morty, which was wild, overwhelming and precious. Love, Morty is a place to continue telling the stories. Thank you for being here.