Tomorrow morning I’m flying to Minneapolis to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. I’ll be doing a reading at Kieran’s Irish Pub in Downtown Minneapolis on Friday at 5PM, my first ever public reading of Dog Medicine. It has taken me thirteen years to get here. In 2002, I went back to grad school and spent two years trying to write the story of Dog Medicine as a novel. I finished the book, but never sent it anywhere because something about it felt not-quite-right. I got another degree and wrote reams of short stories and poetry. I filled boxes with wild, explorative writing, but my heart kept pulling me back to Bunker, to our relationship, to our miraculous story. When I finally decided in 2010 that I needed to write our story as a memoir, what did I do? I stopped writing. I had a pre-schooler and a toddler and told myself I was simply too exhausted to write anymore. But, honestly, I wasn’t writing because I was terrified, wading knee deep in terrible shame. I would lie in bed at night thinking, “Am I really going to tell the whole world that I struggle with major depression and that when the depression first hit me, the love of a dog saved my life? Really, Julie?” Finally, when the misery of not writing was too much to endure, I started writing again, one short scene at a time. I had to tell my truth. That’s all I knew. Slowly, with a lot of trial and error and support from friends and mentors, I taught myself to write straight through the shame, open hearted, without judgement. About five years later, I have a book, an amazing publisher, and if you can’t tell, it feels like a miracle. Getting here has been a long walk out of fear and shame and judgement into open-hearted, honest, beautiful vulnerability. There are very few things I know for sure. The one thing I do know, without a doubt, is that my dog Bunker was instrumental in my healing. So I wrote from that place, and now we have Dog Medicine. This reading in Minneapolis is like a birth announcement. Nine months from now, we’ll have that baby in our hands. Can’t wait.
This is probably a stupid thing to do, but I’m going to share an excerpt from my journal. I’m motivated to do this partly because I just attended a writing workshop in Big Sur led by five incredible, bestselling authors and over a hundred badass writers, and it seems appropriate to share. Folks in that workshop bared their souls, and for that I feel gratitude of gargantuan proportions. So I return the favor to them with this. I wrote it in October of 2012, when I was halfway through writing the memoir and still in that purging phase of writing, of just getting it all on the page, not knowing where it might lead.
I’m done with the manuscript now. Well, I’m “done” in that I have read and revised it so many times I can practically recite it from memory. I deleted hundreds of pages and kept 75,000 words. I feel like I’ve written and rewritten my memoir more times than the earth has circled the sun. But it’s amazing to look back and see where I was two years ago, fighting my way through the process, realizing that my story is more about love and hope and forgiveness than it is about blame or hardship. I’m forty now, and I was right. It’s okay. It’s all okay.
October 1, 2012:
I am at a big crossroads. I’ve written the first part of this manuscript, this big bulky thing, about how I was a child scorned by her sibling, neglected by her well-meaning parents. I have a hundred pages of that. But it feels wrong. It feels pointless. The story doesn’t seem to want to sit in that place, that look how bad it was place. That, “See? This is why I’m so sad,” place. The story is in what happened after I became so lost, so scared and so monumentally insecure. The story is in how the very people who harmed me (both intentionally and unintentionally) saved me. What am I trying to say here? I’m saying that I’m stuck and muddling through and doing more wandering to the pantry and twisting apart oreos than braving through words.
I need a change too. I always need change. I can’t count how many times I’ve rearranged the furniture to try to feel different. Today I just want to write down two things to remember when I get back to the writing desk: #1, You’re happiest when you’re in it: Writing, feeling, crying as the words come through. Who cares about the bigger picture right now? Write the moments worthy of rejoicing. Write the moments you’ll always be grateful for. Celebrate the people who showed up for you when the shit hit the fan.
#2: …I forget. I think it was some fleeting thought about that word, “rejoice.” It’s ringing in my head today, my 39th birthday. Rejoice and stop fretting so much. It’s all okay. You’re okay. I look forward to 40. I…what am I trying to say here? What I’m fearing most deeply is that all of this work I’m doing will amount to nothing. All this hemming, hawing, will render my pages nothing but e-waste a decade from now. But when I write that, a little voice says, “So what? Who cares?”
I saw Cheryl Strayed speak in San Francisco last week and she said, “Your book has a birthday. You just don’t know what it is yet.” And she said, “Write like a motherfucker. Do everything like a motherfucker.” And I get that sentiment. I get it. Go, get the blood out from your body and onto the page.
But when I get to my office, I get stuck and crave oreos and am distracted by Facebook and e-mail and all the unchecked things on my to-do list. When deep, way down inside, I know that what I need to be writing, to be rejoicing, is my truth. The truth of my story. No fear, never blame or hate, just beauty and love. Just rejoicing that we tried our best, and that we have all survived.
Yesterday my dad flew me and my family to Ohio to surprise my mother for her 70th birthday. Amidst all the hubbub, he handed her this letter. She waited to read it when the crowd was gone. I got to read it this morning and was so moved, I had to share it with the world. Here’s to love, and to men who aren’t afraid to express it.
TO MY AGELESS BEAUTY ON HER 70TH BIRTHDAY
This letter is not about you and me. We have loved each other for so many decades that little more needs be said about the decision we made to share our lives and the love affair that has lasted for so many years and that will continue for the rest of our lives.
This letter is about you. You are in every respect the most beautiful person I have ever known or ever will know. So, let me reminisce a bit about you (and, inevitably, a bit about us) on this, your 70th birthday.
The beginning. The first moment I laid eyes on you, I was smitten with your physical beauty. You were stunning. Your smile melted me. I had never seen such beauty. I wondered, before I ever knew your name, whether I would ever be so lucky to find someone half as beautiful as you to love me.
You were so kind. You asked me to square dance. I had never done it before. But, you made it easy, and you made me feel at ease. And just the fact that you picked me from that gaggle of goofy freshman boys caused my heart to soar.
You were so optimistic and full of the joy of life. You were thoughtful and reflective. You wrote in “Retreata.” We talked about wonderful things, both important and philosophical and silly and funny. You wrote me notes and put them in my mailbox. You always left me good luck wishes before every road trip for football or basketball. You made me feel good.
You were so intelligent. You were the darling of the poli sci department. You were the one they chose to escort President Eisenhower on campus. Professor McGee and Professor Fletcher loved you. They loved your enthusiasm for the life around you. And they admired your intellect. And, I have always believed that because you had chosen me, Professor Fletcher went to that extra effort to help me get into Cornell Law School.
You were so purposeful and disciplined. You made lists of things to do with little circles to fill in when you finished each task. You did the things you said you would do, and you did them timely. You taught me to be disciplined also . . . well, sort of.
We kissed on the bridge at the “Dean Woodsy” house party. You have no idea what a thrill that was for me. We kissed that winter night all alone on the campus walk with the snow falling on your cheeks. We spent those lazy Sunday afternoons in “open rooms.” And, you loved to make out. 🙂 I was a lucky boy.
And you agreed to marry me –the single best thing that has ever happened to me in life and the single best thing that made all the other things that followed possible, including our wonderful children and grandchildren.
The mid-years. You put up with a camping trip through Canada for a honeymoon. Who but an incredible woman would do that? You lasted three days sleeping in a tent, more than any new husband had a right to ask of his bride. You let me zip the sleeping bags together, even though we were both a little stinky from the lack of a shower. You let me love you. And, then, let me drive my buns off to Ottawa, so we could be in a hotel. How incredible you were. How wonderful you were for me and to me.
That first night at Cornell at the new law student reception. I was excited for people to see you, to see this incredibly beautiful woman who had chosen to marry me. “This is my wife, Laurie.” How proud I was to say that. If you had chosen me, then I must be pretty good. And I watched people watch you. I watched how you engaged people with that genuine warmth that you have always had. I was so incredibly proud of you.
Then on to Columbus, with a baby in your belly. My mind’s eye is filled with the image of you on our patio painting the rocking chair. My memory is of you lying on my lap as I drove right by the hospital and you, in the midst of a contraction, telling me I had missed the turn (the first of only – say – a thousand times you have had to do that). And my memory is of you on the delivery table awaiting the doctor, calm and collected. And you with that final push giving birth to our baby boy. Our Adam. Incredible it was. And you did it smiling!! And you did it efficiently – three hours start of labor to delivery.
And then on to Bexley and to our Julie. A beautiful early fall day, sunshine, us making the bed together – three weeks and four days before your due date. And you saying – if this baby is born the same number of days early as Adam was, I would deliver today. And, by noon, you were in the hospital. Now we were veterans. And, once again, you smiled all the way to the delivery room. I have the movies to prove it. So calm. So collected. So excited about our new baby. And, she was a girl!!! Just fantastic. One of each!!! And, of course, one less dog and a name change to follow.
And then on to us making a living, to raising our babies, to building our careers, to the maturing of our love and to the joys, and the inevitable struggles and challenges that came with that. You were always the rock. You were the one getting it all done. You nurtured our children, you supported and facilitated my career, you built your own Hall of Fame career as a teacher, you managed our finances, and you guided our social life. I could not have asked for a better life partner.
And now. In the blink of an eye, we are “seniors.” What the hell is that? You aren’t a senior and neither am I. You have a few symbols of experience (aka wrinkles), and I have the same symbols and one less body part. So what? We are still in pretty good shape. And, we understand now, better than we ever have, how precious every day is. How important and how deep our love is. How much joy we bring to each other, every day. We are now enjoying the blessings of our pretty well-led lives. And, you are still beautiful in every way. You are physically beautiful. That wonderful smile has some rivulets of repetition but it still lights up the room and causes me to melt. Your ability to love is still unbounded and extends now to all our family.
You – my dear – are the best person I will ever know. I am so lucky that on that September day in 1963, you came up to me and said, “Do you want to dance?” What a dance it has been, and we are still dancing. I love you.