I looked skeptically at my friend and colleague today when she said that, but inside, it made me feel better to hear it.
“Thank you. I haven’t felt that way lately…”
“You are,” she repeated.
I do feel very young at heart – young in spirit, young in enthusiasm for possibilities, for all the dreams I want to pursue, all the things I can still do, if I can only find a way.
Thinking outside the box is not always the easiest thing to do, but we outliers – we find a way.
I wrote a post titled, “Thank you Athens Writers Association,” several months ago and one of the things I said was that my life in Athens all came together, but it was too late by the time it happened. I go back and forth between that despair and the hope that it is not too late to realize my dream of being a working writer – meaning doing what I love and being able to pay the bills doing it.
My friend and colleague, who introduced me to another client, a close friend of hers in New York City, has been an excellent cheerleader. Recently, I was given an assignment that is different than anything I have done before – ghostwriting – more or less. Technically it’s a revision, but turning a personal article into an academic research article requires much more writing than editing – compared to the content editing I’ve been doing the past several years.
This has been a brain twister and a welcome challenge for me at a time when the distraction of work is a Godsend.
I am way too hard on myself – in fact, I stated that in answer to the question, “What are your weaknesses?” in a mock interview today. I have a job interview (the first since 2016) on Monday morning for a temporary position coming up in the spring. It is anything but my dream job, but I promised myself I would apply to as many jobs as I can, and that I would accept every interview – even for the jobs I do not want because practicing interviewing is key to landing the job you really want.
I have recently applied for a couple of jobs at University of Georgia which I’m sure I would enjoy, as far as the departments, respectively, but…my dream is, and was, to be a full time editor and writer.
I feel so alive when I am writing…when I complete writing a draft, of anything – a poem, an essay, a short story, a chapter, whatever it is – it’s like I’ve created a work of art. It’s an adrenaline rush – it’s crazy. I can’t describe it other than when you are doing what you love, I think that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.
When I’m editing, I feel similarly, but in a different way – I get totally engrossed in the job and when I find something I need to change, I get excited, seriously, it is so weird. As if to say, “Aha! I solved it!” It’s like putting a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle together, one piece at a time.
Writing and editing. Yes, I’m in my element when I’m doing either one…
…but writers are outliers.
There are not many out there making a living at it.
I remember Barnes and Noble told me that only 15% of the authors on their shelves earn a full time income from writing books.
In my experience, we have all had day jobs, or most of us.
My friend is extraordinary – she is making a living at writing and coaching and she has been a vital mentor and partner. I am so blessed to work with her, alongside her, for her…and so her opinion means a great deal.
She told me today that many of the people who are famous…well let’s see, how did she put it: “There is a publicist, a ghostwriter, an editor behind the genius.” Meaning – someone works very hard and makes a great living making the famous person in the spotlight look good.
I told her, “I would love to make a living at ghostwriting. I don’t care if someone else gets the credit as long as I get paid well. As long as the personal pieces I write are mine, I don’t care if someone gets the credit for me writing for them.”
“You could do that,” she said.
Extraordinary outliers…they’re out there.
The question is how? How do I do that now? This is literally the worst time in my entire adult life for me to take an extraordinary risk – I literally cannot afford to take any financial risks right now.
It makes me feel so empty inside, it is like losing a piece of me, to think I have to give up on my dream. But we do what we have to. I am worried about how to pay for my housing, my food, my medical bills… I want another dog, when I am ready, and to take proper care of a dog, takes money, too.
I think back to the time in 1995 when I gave up on writing, for stable income, and now I am faced with that reality again…maybe for good…it scares me. I enjoyed my brick and mortar jobs in administration and education and took a lot of pride in working hard – it is important to me. But…here in Athens, I’ve also gotten a taste of what it would be like to live my dream, and it is killing my soul and my spirit to give it up.
And then, sometimes, I think about what someone to whom I owe a big debt of gratitude wrote to me on January 6th. I was resistant, because I was angry and grieving and saw everything half-empty that day, but I wanted what he said to be true. I wanted it so badly to not be too late. Even though I knew it would never be the same without him as my head cheerleader. I hope he meant what he said because when my head screwed itself back on straight, I honestly felt it was one of the nicest things he’d ever said, if not the nicest, and it reminded me about those extraordinary outliers who go after the golden ticket that most people never go after. He said that I am a talented and capable writer and that it would be a huge mistake to give up on my dream of editing and writing (I’m leaving out a few phrases but that was the primary theme in the text message).
When I was sitting across the table from my friend today, what he said came to mind for a moment, just for a moment, but now I can’t stop thinking about it.
Even if I do take an ordinary job, for however long – even if it becomes a forever day job (hopefully not forever) – what if – what if I still can be an extraordinary outlier?
I was looking on the Clarke County School District job listing site today and there are tons of job listings for teachers…I felt a lot of nostalgia. I miss teaching so much. I miss being an educator – but for reasons that were not in my control – it was not the right career for my well being. Still, there is always going to be a teacher inside me. It was an experience that shaped me for life and made me a better human being – that won’t ever change.
Teachers are also extraordinary outliers.
I have another goal – I want to get my masters degree in counseling so I will have the license to counsel trauma survivors – and that is a day job I do want.
I had been thinking off and on about counseling as a career since I was about 17 years old. I always came back to something else, until…Parkland.
I watched the town hall forum where people from all over the community came to talk to local elected officials and the one thing I heard over and over was that the kids needed more counselors, that when the cameras left, they still felt the trauma, they still were haunted by what they witnessed that day, by what happened to their friends, by the loss.
I am a trauma survivor myself. I have survived things, things that happened to me in my childhood and adolescence that no child should ever experience – for years I blocked out the worst of it, and the parts I didn’t block out, haunted me on a conscious level. Post traumatic stress disorder symptoms have interfered in what should have been typical life scenarios that all of a sudden felt terrorizing – on an extraordinary level. Even something as simple as a lockbox on my front door terrified me – I felt that my life was literally in danger, and when I think how I will have no choice later this year, but to do that, I am shaking.
However, this is what we do.
Other pieces of my life now make sense, and the hardest part is being able to look back on the last decade and piece together the why, and to understand – years later – how I could have changed what happened, if only I’d had the answers I needed 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago…the why was a mystery, and the trauma was in control – taking charge of what I thought, what I said, what I did.
We think that because we survived the trauma, it doesn’t follow us, like a shadow.
But it does.
It is extraordinary to overcome it. The part that makes us outliers, as well as extraordinary, is how we seem to learn how to work with it, and around it. And someday, if we’re lucky, to face it head on, and integrate it into who we are without letting it define who we are.
It isn’t linear, and sometimes, it is unconscious. That’s the tricky part.
Surviving trauma makes us better, though, and so many of my fellow writers, are also trauma survivors. The trauma did not define them, or break them, but it did feed into their creativity, and into their stories, and definitely makes them better writers – extraordinary writers and – extraordinary outliers.
“You could make a living working remotely as an editor. Writers, it doesn’t matter what age we are. The older we get, the better we are – as I get older I become better at writing, I’ve honed my craft. We writers get better at what we do with age…it isn’t like it is with other people…”
What a gift she left me with today.
Yes, we are ageless and extraordinary creators – we writers – are among the rare and extraordinary outliers.
It was just supposed to be a donation. Part of the downsizing. Just a quick stop. Drop off the blankets, the sheets, the bedspreads, the old towels. Then turn around and go.
In honor of Reggie and Lizzie, I made two trips to Athens-Clarke County Animal Control this week.
Just to drop off sheets, towels and bedspreads.
But…it was much more than that.
No, I did not adopt a dog. But as soon as I heard the chorus of barking when I exited the car, I should have known, like the children hearing the flute of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I would not be able to leave without looking at the dogs in the kennels.
When I got out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the redneck guy with a huge, macho-looking black pickup truck, stocked up to the brim with tires in the bed of the truck – doing what I hate most, what I can’t stand, what I fight against – he was surrendering his dog to the shelter. He handed his medium-sized, light-colored dog, on a rope to the shelter worker. The dog looked at him with its tail wagging, not understanding what was happening – he watched as his owner walked away without even petting him or saying goodbye. He just strutted back to his truck. He looked at me, and I looked away. (I won’t tell you what I was thinking or what I wanted to say – especially on my public blog, but if you are a regular reader of my blog, or if you know me personally, I’m sure you can imagine).
Thank goodness he didn’t just dump the dog on the road – or tie him up somewhere and just leave him – that would be far worse, and too many people around the world do just that.
I know for a fact he did surrender his dog because his dog, Scar, was one of the dogs I saw in the kennels not long afterward. He had not been there long, but he already looked terrified and lost and confused.
And Scar, you did not deserve that. There is always another way – but again, I remind myself, it is better than leaving him on the road. This way, he has a chance – someone, or a rescue group, may save him.
But this is not a no-kill shelter. That’s why they are closed every Wednesday.
When I entered the lobby, I brought the four or five bags inside and asked if I could also donate the wool blanket that Reggie had soiled before he died. Unfortunately, for health code reasons, they could not wash it there, but I did take it to the laundry on Prince where I went a few weeks ago, and Michelle, gladly took it and told me she would not even charge me to clean it since I am donating it to the animal shelter.
As I turned toward the door that led to the kennels, I took a deep breath. I could hear the dogs from the inside, and once I entered the walkway of the front kennels, it was strange – I felt like I was listening to a concert – but it was not soothing – the dogs’ howls ranged from desperate to agonizing to angry to sorrowful to hopeful. It did not bother me as far as the noise, it was more like music to my ears – hearing dogs barking does not phase me at all – they must truly be my soulmates in another life, as well as this one. I am very sensitive to loud noises, but not dogs barking. Though, the sound of the dogs in their emotional pain did create these waves in the center of my chest, where my heart chakra is – it drew me to them, and I could not help but bear witness to their pain and to their longing for someone, anyone kind, to take them home and give them a forever human to love.
The first two dogs were pitbulls, and I have to tell you, (I’m terrible with names), the smaller one, a female, tilted her head and looked right into my eyes with an expression I will never forget, I’m sure – it was like she was pulling me toward her, like a thread, a rope, connected her heart to mine. In her eyes, I saw her plead for me to love her, to take her out of this cage and give her a home. She jumped up, not in anger, but in eagerness, in hope, that I would be the one to open up the gates to a new life for her.
But I can’t. I couldn’t, and yet, I could not walk away from her.
I squatted down and approached her and looked at her, right in her eyes, and I told her, “I’m so sorry. I can’t take you with me. I’m sorry.”
The dog to her right was also very excited to see me and looked at me with that hopeful joy, the kind of joy someone feels when someone who might just be the one to love them forever, unconditionally, has just come their way.
But I couldn’t.
I continued walking down the row, in the front, very slowly. There were medium-sized mutts, some looked like Rottweiler mixes, some were Pit mixes, some looked like a mix of all kinds of dogs. None of them were very large, but none were small, either.
Even if there were a small dog, I could not take one home right now. For many reasons, but even if I did not have to keep my house immaculately clean, now that it is immaculately clean, for the first time since I moved in, I am not ready.
No dog, anywhere, can take Reggie’s and Lizzie’s place. I can’t even imagine another dog besides Reggie or Lizzie living in this house.
Some of the dogs, in the back kennel, looked at me with fear, with suspicion, and I knew – these were the dogs who had been abused, beaten, neglected, and they were the ones I was drawn to the most, and yet I also knew, they needed me to respect them, and give them space, at least, for now – if I was not going to take them home with me, it was not fair to do anything else.
There was one dog, an older lab mix, a girl, that leaned right up against her cage when I drew near, and I stuck my hand near her nose. She licked my hand and then pressed her body – on her right side, as close to the chain link as she could. I knew exactly what she wanted me to do and I was happy to oblige her. I stuck my fingers through the small space and began to pet her.
It was like coming home for me – to pet a dog again – even if she wasn’t mine.
She is the first dog I have pet, that I have touched, since Reggie died.
I have seen dogs, but I have not approached them, not even my neighbor, Pennie’s dog. I just feel like since Reggie died, I don’t want to do that, but somehow, being in the shelter, something happened, and I did it without thinking when she reached out to me, without words, and asked me.
There were some female students who were taking dogs out of the kennels to walk them and play with them in the back fenced-in area designated for the dogs to exercise and let out some of their pent-up energy – and who could blame them – being cooped up in those kennels with nothing but a tiny canvas cot and a floor made of concrete – no warmth, no love, no comfort of any real substance.
No wonder their cries fill the air with voices that are so ripe with hope and agony, they must be singing out to God to help them, and yet, so few of us hear them.
These last few weeks, this last week, especially, I have been lost myself, much like them. Really, I have been lost for almost 2 years now – since May 2017. In some ways longer than that, but most acutely since May 2017, and in some ways, it has consumed me, completely, since June 3rd of last year.
And then, as I knelt before the dogs, and looked into their eyes, I felt as if I could almost read their minds, and their souls, and I knew – I knew who I was, or more specifically, I ***remembered*** who I was – for the first time in a long time, I felt like me again. These lost dogs, who have been led astray, guided me back to me, the real me – the one who has a dream of a dog rescue of my own, the one who loves dogs with all my heart and soul, the one who would do anything to save a dog in need, the one who, after the worst heartbreak of my life, the one that I was sure would break me, is still standing – unbroken and resilient and stronger than ever.
Make no mistake, I am heartbroken – I have never, ever known heartbreak like this – but in their eyes, I remembered that my heart, though broken, is still beating, still alive and still open to love – to love my friends, to love my mother, to love the memory of Toby and Lizzie and Reggie.
And someday, when I’m ready, to come back, to this shelter, or to another rescue group, to open my home, my heart, and my life to another dog, who I know I will love as much as I love the three I have lost.
I did not intend to see the dogs. I did not intend to ask the front desk about how else I could help, but I did. I only intended to drop off some sheets and towels and bedspreads.
The universe had other plans for me. And I am so glad. I know I will be back. I used to be afraid to go to the animal shelter – afraid it would be too hard for me.
It’s not too hard – not anymore – having made it to the other side of “too hard,” “too painful,” and “too much to bear,” I have found I can handle more than I ever realized – I underestimated myself – and I’m not the only one, but I won’t do that again. I know where I belong – I belong with the dogs, I belong with other writers, I belong with other people who tell the truth, who keep their word, and who know how to forgive and let things go, when someone expresses remorse and makes amends. I belong with my music, I belong with my books, and I belong with my advocacy for those who have survived trauma.
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I always have hated cliches.
Maybe I should reconsider that – losing my entire family, the future I dreamed of, the man who was the love of my life, my dogs, my home, it didn’t kill me. Not yet.
And I don’t plan to let it.
Maybe, there is something ahead of me so wonderful, so magnificent, so fulfilling, that I can’t even picture it – and then, maybe then, I will know why this happened, and maybe, I will be glad it did. It’s hard to imagine that I could ever be glad about that, but I am stronger than what others think of me, stronger than the false way in which they choose to define me, stronger than the black-and-white and distorted way in which they see me.
On the night he proposed to me, he read me the list of 32 reasons why he loved me, before he knelt down and said, “And for all these reasons, will you marry me, sweetheart?”
Even though that life, that future, is no longer, those 32 things are still true. They always were. They are the real me.
If the dogs at the shelter, if the souls I saw in their eyes, are the beginning of my journey to finding me again, then I can’t wait to meet her.
Bless the dogs of Athens-Clarke County Animal Control…and all rescue dogs everywhere. They are God’s gift to the world.
Newcomers to our monthly Athens Writers Association social gatherings often ask this question when our president and founder, Katherine Cerulean, mentions that I host monthly “Read-Ins” at Barnes and Noble Cafe in Athens, Georgia.
Katherine asked me to write a guest blog post for the Athens Writers Association website – feel free to contact me if you live in the NE Georgia area and are interested in experiencing a “Read-In” with us.
“Read-In” is a term that I coined in October 2015, as a spin-off to the “Write-Ins” that Katherine started with the AWA from the beginning.
(Katherine currently hosts a weekly “Wild Wednesday Write-In at Jittery Joe’s on Epps Bridge Parkway from 2-4 pm every week for those of you who, like me, thrive on writing with other authors. Let’s be honest – there’s power – and inspiration – in working together).
Back in the “old days” (circa 2013-2014), the Athens Writers Association held our meetings, events, and most of our public readings at The Coffee Shop of Athens (sadly, they closed for business in November 2014). It was the perfect venue for “write-ins,” our workshops (they had a private meeting room upstairs), critique groups, guest speakers (e.g. Philip Lee Williams, Bobby Nash, Lacey Wolfe, and other local authors), and best of all, performing public readings in front of a live audience.
(We also performed in a few other Athens venues in 2013-14, including The Globe, UGA and Cine, but The Coffee Shop of Athens was our “home base.” ).
Luckily, we have found a new home for our public readings at the fabulous Normal Books on Prince Avenue. Although we hosted a successful reading for our anthology, Laughin’ in Athens at the Athens-Clarke County Library in September 2016, and we are grateful for the ACC library’s ongoing support of our organization, we are thrilled to have formed a new partnership with this local gem of a bookstore in Athens).
However – there was a void, so to speak, in our programming, after The Coffee Shop of Athens closed. Throughout 2015, I remember missing reading in front of the live audience – it is important to be able to bring our writing to life by reading it aloud, in voice and character, for there is a difference in hearing the words performed that makes the stories and poems come alive, in a way that reading it on a piece of paper alone cannot compare to. Breathing life into the words we write has its own power – not only to entice people to want to read more of our work, but to teach us how to become the best public speakers and self-promoters we can be. All of us, if we’re lucky, will one day be standing at a podium in front of a large group in a bookstore, at a book fair, on a stage…telling a crowd of strangers about ourselves, as writers, and about our amazing book that we want them to buy (otherwise known as the book tour).
I wanted to bring that back to the Athens Writers Association. I missed it, and many people asked us, “When are you guys going to do another public reading?”
For a while, we didn’t have an answer. Until, I came up with the idea of a “Read-In.”
We had our first “Read-In” at Jittery Joe’s, but it didn’t take long to find a permanent home at Barnes and Noble Cafe. As I’ve always told people, what could be more inspiring than reading our stories and poems in a bookstore?
I never expected the “Read-Ins” to become as popular as they have. (We recently celebrated our 3-year anniversary). Katherine tells me that she frequently hears people rave about the “Read-Ins” – how much fun they are having, how positive of an experience it is, and how good it feels to get support from their peers when they read. I hear some people are even getting over their fears of reading in public. All the things I hoped for when I came up with the idea. I am so glad that people keep coming back, and for me, personally, I look forward to it every month. We have a handful of regular participants, and we always welcome new people – I keep it light and positive and upbeat and informal (people can come late and leave early), we keep the meetings to 2 hours, we always meet on a Thursday night, and best of all, if people do not bring something to read to the group, we are happy to have them participate by listening and giving feedback (which also is not required, but in 3 years, I’ve only had one author tell us she did not want feedback. Most of our writers come to hear both the accolades and the constructive suggestions from their peers).
We do have a few guidelines to keep the “Read-Ins” running smoothly: 20 minutes per person, for reading and feedback, no cell phones at the meeting (not at the table, that is), treat people with respect – i.e. when you give feedback, be honest, but be encouraging and helpful, not derogatory – which is not a problem. Our writers are the most supportive group of people you could hope to read for – or so I’m told by many of our participants.
Because we read in an open cafe in a bookstore where children are sometimes present, unfortunately, we have to keep our material “PG-13,” but it’s a small sacrifice in order to be able to come to Barnes and Noble every month. They are very accommodating and supportive of our group’s monthly gatherings.
You might ask, what is it specifically about a “Read-In” that makes it so special?
Well, I will tell you that you might hear a different answer depending on whom you ask.
For me, it’s a toss-up between the people who come and their amazing writing – which, let’s face it, go hand in hand.
There have been so many incredible people who have been part of the “Read-Ins” and their writing has never ceased to impress and entertain me, but here are a few of my memories that have made our AWA “Read-Ins” so unique and meaningful:
One of our veterans, Jay, is a “renaissance” writer: he writes in a unique voice that showcases his talent for humor, dialogue, character and creativity. He writes science fiction, scary stories, memoirs, travel essays, fiction (one of his short stories was published in a literary journal), humorous anecdotes about his personal adventures…he’s done it all. Everyone loves his writing – he always entertains us, and he also is very helpful and encouraging to others – whether they be other veterans or brand new to the group.
An editing client of mine, Eric, works full time, and began writing in his spare time a while back. He has his own website, wrote a book of Christmas stories, and has been working on another science fiction/adventure book that is fantastic. But, he had not read any of his writing in front of other people and was not sure, at first, if he felt comfortable doing so. (Often we writers feel shy about public speaking, that’s one reason we express our thoughts in writing instead). When Eric first came, he waited for everyone else to read first before deciding if he wanted to read his own writing. From what I recall, his impression of the others’ positivity and moral support inspired him to get his feet wet and take a chance on reading his own prose. He told me afterward that it was such a positive experience for him, that it eliminated his fears of reading aloud, and he was eager to come back again. I was touched that we made his first try at a public reading such a great experience for him – and – that it made him want to come back for more!
Two of our regular participants, Chris and Sharon, often bring their poetry (Sharon also writes prose). Their poems are honest, raw, lyrical and have moved me, deeply, as well as doing so for many others. I appreciate that they trust our group to be a place of safety and appreciation for their very personal and beautiful poems. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, no doubt, but I do not take for granted that they both are open to sharing their poems aloud, with us, publicly, nonetheless.
My colleague and co-founder, Elsa, has shared many excerpts from books she has written, or is writing, and her voice is powerfully unique and strong and creative. She creates complex characters with humor and fire who make you think. My favorite, so far, is “Connie.” Elsa laughs whenever I bug her, “When are you going to read us another chapter about ‘Connie?'” It’s almost like a private joke between the two of us now (she has read two or three chapters from the book, which may be a series, I’m not sure), but I get a rise out of her every time I bring up “Connie.” It’s fun, but seriously, we all have found “Connie” to be brash and funny, and the story is a shocker at times, but in the best way!
A few months ago, one of our newer members brought her 11-year old granddaughter, Ella, to read (Yes, young writers are always welcome!) and being a former teacher, I took special delight in hearing her read her poem about her horse. Ella has a gift, and a voice that is pure and authentic, as most young writers do, before the world of publishers and editors, and school, period, for that matter, edits it for them. That experience took me back to my days as a teacher. I often don’t think about how much I miss teaching, and especially, how much I miss working with the kids – it is a labor of love that is truly worth it.
We host writers that come a few times, and then life happens, and we don’t see them again. They have enriched our “Read-Ins” as much as the regulars and I treasure all the prose and poetry they have graced us with over the years.
One of my favorites was Jamie. She came a couple of times to read from her fan fiction, based on the movie, “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Oh my gosh! Jamie’s dialogue was mind-blowing! I didn’t see the film, but I felt as if I walked right into the middle of it. (Fan fiction is a genre where people take the characters from a favorite book or TV series or movie and create new plots to continue where the original piece left off. It’s very popular with the Twilight and Harry Potter books). We were all struck by the powerful scenes that Jamie wrote, and by her fearless performance. I’ve seen Jamie at the ACC library a couple of times and I hope she will come back someday.
That’s just a taste of what we do at “Read-Ins,” and why they are so important to our writers in the AWA (or so I’m told:) I hope that we continue to welcome new writers, new readers, fresh voices, and their fiction, essays, non-fiction and poetry for years to come. We’ve been going strong so far, and I am so happy that the monthly “Read-Ins” have become such an integral part of the Athens Writers Association’s mission to bring writers together in a circle of mutual support and professional growth through collaboration, cooperation and camaraderie.
This short memoir, “The Last Christmas Tree,” was submitted to Flagpole Magazine. I wrote it for Reggie, knowing it would be our last Christmas together in our home, but also suspecting the truth – that he was dying of cancer, which was confirmed on December 14, 2018. The story was not published ( a different story of mine, “Chasing Fireflies,” was published under the pseudonym, J.L. Mirisch), however, I am including the Christmas tree story in the blog post ahead of an update on Reggie’s Christmas week – which follows the memoir below. Thank you to all my blog readers, and to everyone out there who loves, or has ever loved, Reggie “Reggwood” Roberts.
The Last Christmas Tree
By Jill Hartmann-Roberts
For three months, I wrestled with whether or not to fly back to California for Christmas. My $455 Southwest Airlines voucher made the prospect of a warm west coast Christmas that much more tempting.
But I knew if I went to California, there would be no Christmas tree. And I couldn’t imagine Christmas without my own tree – especially this year.
You see, this will be my last Christmas tree – my last one in the life I have known for the past decade, at least.
Before 2016, I spent every Christmas in California with Mom, but since then, I’ve stayed home in Athens.
I really wanted a tree for my first Athens Christmas in 2016. Coincidentally, my friend, Jay, drives the Cofer’s tree delivery truck. He suggested I check out their selection of fir trees and try out their state-of-the-art delivery service.
They did not disappoint. I picked out a beautiful 7-foot tree, with so many branches there was space for every single ornament with room to spare.
In 2017, I settled for a 5-foot tree; I didn’t even sign up for delivery – just packed the tree in the back of the station wagon.
I was happy to have a tree at all, but it just wasn’t the same.
I promised myself, “Next year I’ll get a bigger tree.”
It feels like last Christmas was just yesterday.
Jay advised me to get a jump on buying my tree this year to secure an early delivery time slot, so I didn’t waste any time. On November 16th, my French bulldog/pug mix, Reggie, and I set off on our quest. As soon as we arrived, anticipation welled up inside me, and I headed straight for the Christmas trees. We were met with a sight to behold: rows and rows of lush fir trees as far as the eye could see.
A gentleman approached us right away and asked what kind of tree I was looking for.
“I want your best 8-foot tree with the full delivery package!”
I was still determined to go all out and buy the biggest tree I could afford.
The huge selection was overwhelming, but when I told the clerk I have heavy ornaments, he led me straight to a tree with thick branches capable of carrying their weight.
“I’ll take it!”
After he tagged the tree, I set up delivery for the day after Thanksgiving, the perfect day to decorate a Christmas tree – with a whole month left before Christmas Eve to enjoy it.
When Jay and his partner, “Boo,” arrived at my home, Santa hats and smiles in tow, they had to cut the branch at the top of the tree; it was so tall it hit the ceiling. Almost immediately the scent – that fragrant scent that nothing else in the world compares to – filled the living room.
I love that Athens is small enough of a city that one of my friends happens to be the person to deliver the one thing that could make it feel like a real Christmas this year.
It has been a hard year: my pug, Lizzie, died in October, and Reggie has been gravely ill since 2017.
This will probably be my last Christmas with Reggie. Last year, I knew it would be my last Christmas with Lizzie, and so I stayed home with the dogs instead of going to California.
I’m so glad I did that. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d missed Lizzie’s last Christmas.
Reggie watched closely as I wrapped strings of multi-colored lights around the tree. He followed behind me as I searched to find the perfect branch for each ornament. (My favorite one has a photo of me holding Toby, my first dog, at his last Christmas in 2010).
Now, Reggie loves to sit under the tree and the beautiful lights glow on his dark coat and in his large brown eyes.
Every time I descend the stairs, the first thing I see is our glorious tree, illuminated in lights, and I immediately feel uplifted with the Christmas spirit. That’s the magic of it.
This may be our last Christmas tree, but it is no less beautiful, and I know it will be a joyous holiday for Reggie and me, if we let it.
A special thanks to my friend, Jay, and his partner, “Boo,” who work so hard all season long to bring that Christmas spirit into all of our homes and hearts.
(End of story)
Lately when I come home, or when I can’t find Reggie, he is sleeping on the red couch, in the space where his daddy always sat – it seems to be Reggie’s favorite place to be nowadays, especially when I’m not home. I’m not sure if this is recent, or if I wasn’t paying close attention before, but I have noticed how often I find Reggie there in the past two weeks. It makes me wonder if he knows the end is near, if he feels his vulnerability. I imagine that he does, to some extent. Animals are far more instinctual and intuitive than we humans give them credit for. I don’t know if Reggie knows that his body is dying, but I can tell he knows that something is wrong by how he feels – even if he does not have the words to define what is happening to him.
Reggie in his stroller getting ready to go to sleep
Reggie leaning over the edge of the stroller
I’m learning by experience how rapidly things are changing for Reggie. Last week, he was responding to the medications: Metronidazole and Prednisone. This week, at least since Christmas Day, his symptoms have returned – meaning, I come home to a big mess, I wake up to a big mess, and I hear Reggie getting up several times in the night.
The good news is that I do not hear him wailing in pain, so I think that the other treatments, the holistic ones, are helping, so far. We are still waiting for the Chinese herbs that Dr. Stoppe ordered for him. He has been to acupuncture twice, and Anna, one of the techs, has told me that he does wonderfully – he sits quietly while the needles do their magic.
The first time (see above) Dr. Stoppe kept the needles in for about 10 minutes.
The second time, 10 days later, (see below) she kept them in for about 20 minutes. She said since he’s doing so well, she will try increasing the time towards 30 minutes next time, give or take.
Reggie at acupuncture Dec, 28, 2018
Close-up of Reggie at acupuncture Dec. 28, 2018
It’s hard to know for sure, but I have a feeling that the acupuncture is helping with pain, as of now, and I hope it continues to do so. I know with human cancer patients, acupuncture and massage and other holistic healing is often recommended not only for anxiety, but also for pain management. Reggie does seem less anxious these days, albeit, quiet, most of the time. He gets feisty and fussy when I take him out in his stroller. He seems to have a lot to say when we go to Jittery Joes, and boy, did he really have a lot to say at the “Read-In With Us in December” meeting I hosted at Barnes and Noble Cafe on the 27th! I suspect the problem was that I forgot to bring his food with me, my bad, and he was letting me know how he felt about having to wait for his dinner. But, around the time our meeting ended, he went to sleep, and rather than wake him up, I let him nap in the stroller while one of my writer friends and I visited. He didn’t make a sound, and I was happy to see him rest so peacefully. He seems to sleep more peacefully in the stroller at the coffee houses than he does at home. It reminds me of infants who can sleep through anything when they are out and about, but have more trouble at home (I’ve heard this happens with some, not all, babies).
Reggie and I had a lot of fun at Barnes and Noble on Christmas Eve. It was a hard day for me (Christmas Eve this year, in particular, was a very sad day for me, and I needed to get out of the house for as long as possible). He loves to sit up tall in the stroller at Barnes and Noble. I’ve brought him there with me often, now that I think of it, and roll him around the store while I look at books – which is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world – even if I do not buy any books. It has been since I was a little girl.
Books (and dogs) have always been my “best friends,” so to speak.
On this particular day, Christmas Eve, the store was packed, and I mean, packed, with people, not surprisingly. However, one adorable little African-American boy, who was probably about 3-4 years old, absolutely stole my heart. He didn’t say a word, and his mom watched from afar, not too far away, at the information desk, as he shyly approached Reggie, with a coy little smile on his face, looking up at me with big brown eyes that silently asked me, “Can I pet him?”
“You can pet him. He likes people,” I said to him, smiling and enjoying the moment.
The little boy stayed with Reggie for well over 5 minutes, maybe longer, petting him softly, and Reggie was very accommodating, happy to have the gentle child pay attention to him. Reggie sniffed his hand and gave it a few licks. He never got close enough to lick the little boy’s face, which is one of Reggie’s signature moves, but I was ready to warn the child to watch out if Reggie stuck out that tongue – I wasn’t sure how he’d like a bath on his face, nor did I think his mom would want that, either.
But, you never know, some people, like me, love that. Others hate it. Better to err on the side of caution with strangers.
I wish I’d thought to take a photo, or ask the mom if I could take a photo, I should say, but I was enjoying the two of them together so much (it made me feel much better, too) that I didn’t even think of it.
Next time…and I hope there will be a next time with a gentle child just like him. I didn’t even get his name…
That night, my friend Lisa, and her husband, invited Reggie and me to her house for dinner. Much like two months earlier, with Lizzie, shortly before she passed away, Reggie rested calmly in his stroller, at Lisa’s house. He stayed beside me at the kitchen table, so quietly, in fact, that we almost forgot he was there with us! Lisa had been concerned that Reggie might try to get at the stew, but he didn’t even try, he was so well behaved. It was the first time I brought him to anyone’s house, as a guest, since he was diagnosed with cancer, and he was an absolute angel. I’m glad – hopefully we can do it again, not everywhere we go, but sometimes. I know many of my friends have very active pets, including large dogs, and it wouldn’t be a good idea. But, any time Reggie can come, I am glad I can bring him since we have so little time together, and these last days, or weeks, or however long I have him, are so precious – especially now, while he still has quality of life. I don’t want to miss a single opportunity to share my life with Reggie.
Christmas morning with Reggie was bittersweet. I took 2-3 videos of him, wanting to capture his last Christmas Day on camera, and not just in still photos. (Unfortunately I do not think I can attach videos to this blog post, but, if I figure out how to do that, I will update the blog post with at least one of the videos).
He struggled to open his presents, even though they were not wrapped in paper. I put his three stuffed animal toys in a gift bag to make it easier for him to get to them. He sort of picked at the bag with his paw, and sniffed at it a few times, stuck his head partially inside, but unlike past years, he didn’t go for it full throttle. His energy level was so low, it broke my heart. I could see that he was not feeling well, and like I mentioned, he’d had some accidents in the night, and so it was clear, he’d spent some of his limited energy dealing with his cursed symptoms.
I didn’t give up, though, and pressed the center of the toys’ bellies to sound that squeaker noise Reggie loves so much. He did become more interested in the toys at that point, and he even took the raccoon in his mouth and started chewing at it for a minute, or less. He didn’t shake his head wildly back and forth, as he once did, trying to kill the prey, and when I threw it across the room (along with the pig and the otter), he didn’t chase any of them. He watched them fly to the other side of the living room and then just looked at me, as if to say, “I’m too tired to chase them. Can you bring them back, please?” Which I did, bring them back to him, that is. He quietly sat by his toys, and rested against my feet, with his back to me, waiting to be stroked, as he does so often.
Later in the morning, he did trot into the living room (presumably feeling a little bit better), when I made another effort to get him excited about his toys and their squeaky sound. He’d been resting in the dining room, heard the sound, and answered the call. Slower than in past years, but he still came. He took the otter, or tried to, it was too thick, and played with it, paws and teeth engaged, only for a few moments, but it happened – and I thankfully captured it on video.
I had to leave Reggie home in the late afternoon when I went to my neighbor’s in-laws, and then to my friend, Jay’s, mom’s house. (I am so grateful to have had people to see on Christmas Day). I didn’t like having to leave Reggie, and I thought about canceling, but I knew that I had to take care of myself, too, and that it would sink me further into despondence about the loss of my family if I stayed home alone all day.
Thankfully, my friend, Marcy, who is a veterinarian, coincidentally, invited both Reggie and me over to visit her in the late morning/early afternoon, and that was wonderful! He rested and slept, didn’t fuss much, maybe a little, and when I took him out in her yard for a walk in the warm sunshine (lucky for us, the weather was beautiful) Reggie was like his old self, or, his old senior self, l mean, (pre-cancer) – marking the grass several times and sniffing all the bushes, rife with new scents.
This past week has flown by, which I was hoping would not be the case, but it has been quiet and peaceful in Athens, and I have had quality time, both in town, and at home, with Reggie. That pet stroller has been a Godsend (as I’ve said before).
I am grateful to Reggie and Lizzie’s daddy, Audie, for buying it for Lizzie, and I remember when he did that, Audie said that one day we would be able to use it for Reggie, too.
Little did Audie, or I, know how soon that day would come, when Reggie would need the stroller. I wish that day had been far off, very far off, and I’m sure if someone were to ask Audie, he would say the same.
But, thank goodness, Reggie has it, when he needs it, however too soon it happened.
I have yet to find a grant writing expert to assist in applying for some of the canine cancer grants I found through some Internet research. I hope I find someone in time. I have no regrets, and I never will, about spending what I need to spend to take care of Reggie’s needs and to make him as comfortable as possible, but I’m also worried about it. Worry does not mean I am giving it a second thought, though. I will not sacrifice Reggie’s well being for anything – he’s counting on me, and I love him so much. He is the only remaining member of my family, and I want him to be happy, and for his life to be as full as possible.
I have many friends who are trying to prepare me, to be able to make the decision, when I am confronted with it. I do not want this to be real – every day, I can feel the denial setting in deeper, even though I’ve had to set my alarm 15 minutes early again to clean up the morning mess, even though he’s slowed down so much. (He still has an excellent appetite, which is one good sign, for now).
But, I did get some bad news when he went in for acupuncture on 12/28: Reggie lost 1 1/2 pounds in just 10 days, in spite of eating his breakfast and dinner and taking all his medication like a trooper. (It’s unbelievable, actually, how he not only does not fight me on the liquid medications, he actually licks the droppers as if he’s drinking a treat – thank goodness for that because Lizzie and Reggie used to hate liquid medications. It was a chore to get them to cooperate in the past. Any tiny blessing…).
In any case, the doctor expressed deep concern at this rapid weight loss – 1.5 pounds is a lot of weight in a dog his size, too, which makes it even more dangerous. She told me to feed him more, but he needs moist food, because of the tumor, so I am soaking puppy kibble (per her recommendation) and adding it to his food. It is high in calories and nutrients. I remember, I had to do this with Lizzie, too, in the last couple months of her life…
As New Year’s Eve is upon us tomorrow, I am glad that Reggie and I will be together. I had hoped with all my heart and soul that December 31st would not end the year 2018 in the way that it will, but I am grateful that Reggie made it to the new year. I was worried that he wouldn’t, and that I was being selfish in asking him, or expecting him, to, for my sake.
But from all indications, he does not seem to be ready to go, not just yet. The vet did not say anything to that effect, either, so we go on, for as long as we can, for as long as he can, with quality in his life.
I am not ready to send my third, and last, dog over the Rainbow Bridge. When I think of it, I have to stop thinking about it, in order to go forward. I never let Reggie see me fall into that state of despair that is lingering below the surface, waiting to emerge when my conscience and my love leave me with no other choice but to say goodbye to him. There are other decisions to be made in the meantime, and other people who love Reggie, and I am trying my best to think of them, too, in terms of what is best for Reggie. It’s not easy, but I have said for a long time that in the end, we have to be able to live with ourselves, to look in the mirror, and be able to look in the eye of the person staring back without shame, or guilt, or regret, if we can. Years from now, when I look back on Reggie, and Lizzie, I want to be able to look in the mirror and be 100% certain that I did the right thing – for them, and for those they love.
Hopefully, there will be many more weeks to write about Reggie, but if there are not, thank you for reading my stories and for keeping Reggie in your thoughts and in your hearts, and a few prayers wouldn’t hurt, either. Know that Reggie is receiving the best care possible – he is loved, and safe, and he is living in peace. He loves to be with people, and people love to be with him. Whatever can be done, will be done. I am glad I elected not to pursue a dangerous surgery – his life, however short it may be, will be better this way – without pain or infections or whatever else could have gone wrong, and was likely to do so, according to Dr. Barker and Dr. Clifton.
Knowing I am willing to let go, gives me a little bit of peace of mind, for now, but every day that I wake up and Reggie is still here to greet me, wagging his tail, or barking at me, or smiling, or following me, or resting on my foot, to stay close to me, I am relieved that it is not that time yet.
As I used to say with Lizzie, “Every day that Reggie is alive is a good day.”
Happy New Year from Reggie “Reggwood” Roberts to everyone!
When most people think of November 1, they begin to think about Thanksgiving dinner, holiday travel plans (Where should we go this year?), Black Friday, Christmas decorations in all the stores, cooler weather, maple leaves in autumn’s colors, Daylight Savings and…if you’re a writer…like me…
…National Novel Writing Month.
November 1st is 4 days away. The clock is ticking. Only a few days left to set up your writing space,prepare your plot outline, clear your social calendar, and rearrange your schedule so you can make your minimum daily word count of 1,667 words.
In other words, November 1 begins the writing marathon: 50,000 words in 30 days.
Here in Athens, Georgia, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a very big deal. We have a Facebook group (Athens Wrimos), we have a municipal liaison (this year it is one of my AWA colleagues – I’m very excited for her!), we have a kick-off event on November 1st (not a moment to waste), the Night of Writing Dangerously (for some this is an all-night event – I’ve never made it to one of them), write-ins, sprint competitions, and more than 200 participants (for a college town this size, that is a large number of writers).
Basically, NaNoWriMo owns our lives for 30 days, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
This year may be particularly challenging for me, I admit, but I signed up yesterday, nevertheless. I can’t not sign up – not just because I am a co-founder of the Athens Writers Association and want to be a role model to my fellow writers, but mostly because this is our annual ritual – this is what we do – it’s unavoidable – we have to tackle the challenge – better to try and fail than not try at all. Or, as one of my favorite quotes says, “You only fail when you stop trying.”
In October 2015, I created a public reading group called “Read-Ins,” which was named as a play on our phrase, “Write-Ins.” I’m not sure if Katherine created it for the Athens Writers Association, or if she borrowed it from somewhere else, but it fits perfectly. We used to perform public readings on a regular basis in 2013-2014, and when the Coffee Shop of Athens closed down, our public readings schedule hit a lull. We had one at Cine, and one at the ACC Library, but we were no longer regulars about town (Luckily, in 2018, Normal Bookstore has stepped up to support us and become the new “home” of the Athens Writers Association).
However, I was anxious to get our writers back out there reading their work in public – so – during the “void,” I came up with the idea to get a small group of writers togetherin an informal setting, instead. Once a month, we gather together to hear their poetry, fiction and non-fiction read aloud in the Barnes and Noble bookstore cafe. (Quite the fitting place to read our writing aloud, is it not?) We give each other feedback and applause, constructive criticism and praise, and…
…According to what I am told, everyone loves it, and is having a blast – it is by far one of the best things I’ve done in Athens.
Last week, a handful of writers and I commemorated the 3rd anniversary of the “Read-Ins” at our regular meeting spot in Barnes and Noble. After our meeting, we headed to Carrabas Grill to celebrate Katherine’s birthday, and to toast to 3 years of “Read-Ins.”
“Here’s to the beginning of our 4th!” I cheered.
As it was already the last week of October, inevitably, the dinner conversation shifted to the impending start of NaNoWriMo – and – the question that goes around the table every year around this time (usually put forth by my colleague, Danny).
“So, do you know what you are going to write for NaNoWriMo this year?” Danny announced.
For a few moments, no one spoke up. Everyone looked at everyone else. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “you could hear a pin drop,” but, we all grew unmistakably quiet upon hearing the proverbial question.
NaNoWriMo can be intimidating if you overthink it. After all, it is a competition, but it is a competition with yourself:
Can you set the goal to write ~2,000 words a day and complete a novel (or non-fiction book) in one month?
There are no losers, there are only winners.
Everybody who registers and makes the attempt to conquer the 50,000 word beast is a winner, for, let’s face it, many would simply shake their heads, “No, no, I can’t do that…”
When I first heard about it in 2011, from my San Diego Toastmasters colleague, Maxine, I was totally confused by the concept. She suggested I sign up next year.
The following year, I was living in Athens, Georgia.
One day, while having coffee with my friend Carmen, also a writer, the subject of NaNoWriMo came up again. She encouraged me to sign up, and even though I was about to leave on vacation for the month of November, I thought, “Why not?” Carmen was the person who explained to me how NaNoWriMo works, and that it is, indeed, a challenge to meet a goal for yourself: to write every single day, not to compete with anyone else (Incidentally, if you do not add any buddies, no one will ever know your word count).
I signed up late, and only made it to ~16,000 words that first year.
Oh well. At least I did it.
The following year, 2013, I tried again, while on vacation in November, again.
That year, I made it to ~21,000 words.
Closer, but not quite there yet
The following year, 2014, I stayed in Athens, and I’ve stayed in Athens every November since.
Somehow, that seemed to do the trick for me.
In 2014, I finally won with ~53, 000 words – and it was one of the biggest adrenaline rushes of my lifetime.
I did even better in 2015, and hit ~88,000 words – how that happened, I do not know, but I wrote ~21,000 words in the first 2 days, so that sprint at the beginning had something to do with it. I did not repeat that miracle, but I did make the 50,000 word goal, and then some, in 2016 and 2017.
I attribute my success to the support of my peers, and the build-up of momentum that came from doing it once, meaning, if you can win once, you can do it again…and again…if you plan ahead, and work hard.
(A little luck doesn’t hurt, either – meaning, no unexpected life events get in the way).
Most of my friends in the Athens Writers Association who have participated in NaNoWriMo have accomplished that goal, and I have been as thrilled for them, as I was for myself. Elsa, Jay, Danny, Par, Jenny…they have all won, year after year, and I’m so proud to be among this group of talented writers.
How do we do it?
Let me count the ways…
Tip #1: Breathe. You already won just by signing up.
Tip #2: Plan ahead. Write an outline. Get your materials together – whatever you use – whether it be writers’ software (like Scrivener), notebooks, notecards and pens, storyboards, whatever works for you. You know yourself and what you need for your creativity to thrive!
Tip #3: Get involved with your home region: Look up your home region on the http://www.nanowrimo.org website and find your municipal liasions’ profiles.
Tip #4: Keep track of NaNoWriMo events in your home region:
The Kick-off party is a great beginning (I almost did not attempt NaNoWriMo in 2014 after two years of not reaching the goal, but I went to the KickOff party with Jenny on November 1st at Avid Bookshop and decided to give it a try again).
Sign up for online sprints – you can get a lot of writing done by writing as many words as you can in 10, 15, or 20 minutes. It’s fun to see how far you can get, and yes, there is a little bit of competition here with your peers who are also participating in the writing sprints, but it’s all in the spirit of writing more words and having fun.
Go to write-ins: getting together with a peer, or 3 or 4, or more, to write together does wonders for productivity. Take it from Par and me…we got a lot of writing done in past Novembers by working together at Starbucks (too bad they removed all of the comfy cushion seats, but we will not be deterred!).
Tip #5: Sign up for buddies on the website. It helps, and you can track how much your friends are writing, too.
Tip #6: Read the pep talks from the agents, authors, publishers and famous people supporting NaNoWriMo from all over the world- once you register on http://www.nanowrimo.org, you will receive their emails as they come in.
Tip #7: Don’t give up if you fall behind. Trust me. Everyone falls behind. You’d be amazed how fast you can catch up when you put your mind to it. Many of my friends have done it. In fact, one of my friends made her 50,000 words at 11:51 pm on November 30, 2016, with 9 minutes to spare. We all cheered for her at Hendershot’s – a win is a win. Until 11:59 pm, it isn’t over ’til it’s over!
Time is the challenge: all of us who participate in NaNoWriMo still have to juggle normal life, but it’s possible, and in the end, you will have climbed the Mt. Everest of writing.
And you never know what could happen next…
November 1st is just a few days away, but do not be discouraged if you still aren’t sure what you are going to write yet – trust me – if you love to write, you have time to figure it out – take it from my friends, Danny and Jenny, it’s not too late to come up with an idea, and you probably have one already spinning in your brain, or written down inside a notebook somewhere, tucked away in a desk drawer, and ready to go!
Whatever you do, do not sell yourself short. You can do this.
It isn’t easy, but you know what they say, nothing worth having comes easily.
Go for it. Keep going. Don’t give up.
The world is waiting to read your book. All you have to do now…is write it.