Hillbilly Zen – The Way Of The Turtle

There’s a small suncatcher hanging in my kitchen window that reads “You’ll Always Be My Friend – You Know TooTwin Turtles Much!”  It is a gift from Vicki, who has been one of the best friends I’ve had for over 25 years.  Although she would deny it, she’s one of the most resilient individuals in existence. She’s survived breast cancer twice, a brain tumor, and has dealt with a host of family issues that would make most of us curl up in a fetal position on the couch and stay there.

I love her like a sister.  She’s a kindred spirit who can grieve for what is lost, then show a sense of gallows humor that sends sorrow on down the road with her footprint on its hind end.  She’s one of a kind, a blessing in my life and the lives of everyone who knows her.  She’s our rock – that one friend that can be called on for any reason, any time, who will always be there for us.

We met on her wedding day, which happened to be the same day I rented the other side of the duplex she and her new husband owned.  The reception was being held in the backyard as I moved in, and was without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had relocating.  The wedding guests, many of whom I’d never met, pitched in to help lug boxes and furniture, then we all pitched in to help empty a keg of beer.  After a few days of a tentative, landlord/tenant relationship something just clicked between us, and so began one of my most treasured friendships.  Since then she’s been one of the most loyal, trusted friends anyone could possibly hope to have.

Fargo, felons and felines

One of the first things we discovered about each other was a mutual love for critters.  Vicki’s dog Fargo was a massive Doberman, whose muscular frame and formidable, shark-like smile combined to create a completely intimidating first impression.  Once I got to know him, however, it was apparent that beneath all that fur and behind all those teeth was the gentle soul of a lamb and the timing of a comic genius.

Once of his favorite stunts was to drink from his water bowl in the kitchen, then saunter nonchalantly back into the living room.  There he would present his very best “I’m such a good boy, don’t you want to skritch me behind the ears?” demeanor to a seated guest.  When the unsuspecting visitor complied, Fargo would rest his huge head in seemingly blissful repose on their knee, then release the water he had stored in his mouth all over his victim’s lap.  Sitting back on his haunches, he would survey the ensuing reaction with the smug expression of a successful jester.  With very few exceptions, anyone allowed into Vicki’s home was an animal lover so Fargo’s prank usually resulted in laughter, especially from those of us who still had dry laps.

The years spent living next door to Vicki produced a wealth of cherished memories.  While relaxing in the back yard, she and I had ringside seats as a gun-toting felon fled from police through our backyard.  In our defense, we didn’t find out until later about the gun-toting or the felony thing, or we’d have hauled our butts out of those lawn chairs right quick.  We once found tiny kittens clinging to our front porch lights, one on each side of the duplex.  To this day we haven’t figured out how the little critters managed to climb up there.

Laughter through tears

One of our all-time favorite incidents is losing our breath and our dignity with our dear friend Eileen.  Having indulged in some…umm…herbal enhancement earlier in the day, the three of us piled into Eileen’s tiny car and headed to Parkette Drive-In for po’ boys.  Eileen’s a natural comedian, so when she spilled her Coke in her lap, her subsequent gymnastics and commentary sent us all over the edge. We were literally howling with laughter, tears streaming down our faces as we struggled to catch our breath.  This so amused the folks in a neighboring van that they brought us Kleenex and smiled knowingly, stating simply “Been there.”  Of course that set us off again.  If laughter truly is the best medicine, we released enough endorphins that day to ensure immortality.

The tears we wept were of an entirely different nature as we witnessed the birth of Vicki’s granddaughter, overwhelmed by the sheer miracle of new life and the incredible courage of her daughter.  There were tears shed for sorrowful reasons too, but somehow they seemed easier to bear when shared with Vicki.

Turtle Tracks

Some of the best times we’ve had have been on our road trips.  Several of them have been day trips and a few were overnight, but they have all, without exception, been adventures.  We refer to these expeditions as “going The Way of the Turtle” because invariably, at some point in the journey, there is a turtle involved.  Sometimes this entails risking life and limb to rescue a confused box turtle from the middle of the road, irritating other motorists and most likely confusing the poor turtle even further.  At other times the turtles just seem to find us somehow.  Impromptu excursions to obscure little festivals in tiny, out-of-the-way towns, taking off for a weekend to the lake, even mundane shopping trips are all likely to include the slow moving reptiles in one form or another.

So we’ve been through a lot together, Vicki and I.  There are a multitude of other memories I could share, but I’m not sure the statute of limitations has expired on some of them, and some are just too personal.  You get the idea, though.

We don’t get to see each other as much these days – she’s still in Lexington and I’m down here on my hill.  But even though we’re distanced geographically, our hearts still live right next door to each other and always will.  We are Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda, Thelma and Louise.  Okay, so we’re not likely to drive off a cliff, but don’t tailgate us – we are women who journey The Way of the Turtle and we will not hesitate to slam on the brakes if there’s a terrapin in jeopardy.

We are sisters, therapists, confidants and partners in crime.  We are friends who know too much.

Post Script

When Vicki read this, she reminded me of another bout of helpless laughter.  When we coined the phrase “The Way of the Turtle” we discussed getting matching tattoos.  Failing to find a design we liked, just getting the initials of the phrase was an option….until we realized it would read TWOTT.  Say it out loud, and you’re in on the joke, too 😉

Hillbilly Zen – Cold Comfort: The Solace of Solstice

solstice-sun-580x336The sun disappears much too early these days, as if chased over the horizon by the icy claws of winter.  The “bold, laughing light” (https://hillbillyzen.com/tao-happens/) that so entranced me in the summer is less boisterous, its warmth weak and fleeting, snatched away by frigid wind and carried to other environs.  There is a nameless dread that clutches me every evening as the daylight wanes, as chores are done earlier and more quickly to exploit the last bits of twilight.  Simply walking out the door is not an option, now there are strata of garb involved; long underwear, fleece, coveralls, a hat, a scarf, gloves.  Melancholy seems woven into the very fabric of each piece of clothing swaddled against my skin, binding body and soul.  With one final, despondent sigh, “Another winter” (followed by the quickly repressed “Another year older”) I step outside, head down, breaths shallow to avoid a lungful of frost.

And yet…

Today the sun will shine a bit longer.  Not much, just a few seconds, but longer, a promise made by the sunbeam that slants across the room this morning.  Sophie and Puh (dog and cat, respectively) jockey for position within the boundaries of its warmth, draped on the recliner in languorous appreciation.  I situate myself between them, ignoring the glare on the laptop screen (and the ones they give me for disturbing their nap) in order to share the balmy caress.  Outside, my mare Annie stretches out in the sunlight, extending arthritic old legs to soak up the radiant comfort.  To be sure, winter is far from over, in fact has barely begun.  There will be snow and ice and much more dismal donning of winter attire.  This day after solstice, however, I will nap in a sunbeam between a snoring dog and a purring cat.  I will bundle up without complaint and go outside to stroke the neck of a feisty old quarter horse, sharing her contentment as the sun warms our bones.  I will luxuriate in the primal knowledge that there is more sunlight yet to come, a little more each day.

Hillbilly Zen – Nipper Belly

Nip was a good dog, except when he wasn’t.  He was one of those critters that we humans feel blessed to have in our lives, even when they’re not being exactly obedient.  His face could convey his emotions better than some people I know, and I swear that dog could smile.  He used that smile to his advantage, whether it was when he wanted me to be goofy and playful with him or when he’d been bad and knew I couldn’t scold him because I was laughing.  His favorite ploy was to flop down right in front of me on his back, wriggle like an excited child and present his belly to be scratched.  It always worked – I was powerless to resist.  “Ooooh, gimme me some of that Nipper belly!” was always my response, accompanied by vigorous skritches and pats.

Certain other maneuvers were not nearly so entertaining for me.  Nip, his brother Tuck and sometimes Jack (my one-eyed, bobtailed bird dog), would blow through the fence and take off over the hill, usually after spotting deer or some other critter on the far side.  I always worried myself nearly sick when they’d do that, because there are some sadistic wingnuts down here who get some sort of twisted thrill from killing dogs.  But I digress.

When they finally returned home, the escapees were invariably muddy, hungry, covered in ticks, sometimes reeking of skunk and trying really, really hard to look contrite.  While they didn’t think twice about stampeding through the electric fence in hot pursuit, when they reappeared they’d sit outside the perimeter and whine for me to come let them back through it into the yard.  While I covered the distance from porch to gate, they all got an earful about the dangers of coyotes, cars and rednecks with weapons.  The culprits would slink apologetically through the gate with heads down and tails between their legs – well, except for Jack, who could somehow tuck in his entire rear end to compensate for his abbreviated tail.

Once safely in the yard, it was usually Nip who took it upon himself to get me back in a good mood.  All he had to do was give me that smile, accompanied by a nudge with a wet nose and a quick slurp on my hand as if to say “Aww, c’mon Mom, lighten up!”  My anger dissolved to relief that they were all back safely.  Reprimands trailed off, replaced by loving admonishments not to scare me like that again.  All was well, at least until the next time they made a break for it.

As you may have guessed, I’m one of “those” people who talk to and treat their critters as if they were human children.  Despite the eye rolls and derision from the woefully unenlightened, I am sublimely unrepentant for such behavior.  Those who treasure their pets as family members will understand, and those who don’t understand don’t know what they’re missing.  People exhibit both good and bad human nature, but I think it takes animals to teach us how to be a good-natured human.

Until the last couple of weeks of his life, Nip was one of God’s creatures who was just plain happy to be alive.  His exuberance lifted my sagging spirit more times than I can count.  I’d often look outside to see him flat on his back, legs akimbo, modesty gleefully abandoned simply because the breeze felt good on his body.  What a blessing it would be to take such effortless joy in scratching an itchy spot on your back against the warm grass, with complete and total disregard for the opinion of anyone who might be watching.  Whether motivated by sirens, coyotes yipping on a distant hill or just to hear their heads rattle, my dogs will sometimes burst into baying “song”.  What they lack in talent is more than compensated by their volume, and Nip put heart and soul into each and every chorus.

While I haven’t yet reached that state of careless bliss, I’m a little closer to it because of Nip.  He showed me the pleasure of simplicity, that it’s often the most uncomplicated acts that bring the purest form of happiness.

I don’t know exactly why Nip died.  He was a little under nine years old, still relatively young and healthy.  He got a bad ear infection but seemed to improve a little after a course of antibiotics and eardrops.  He really hated those eardrops but bore the twice-daily regimen without too much complaint.

Then, one sunny Friday afternoon I found him collapsed in the front yard, seizing and unable to rise.  There was nothing further that could be done except to make that final escape as comfortable as possible for him.  We spent those last hours together, lying on his favorite blanket in the sun-dappled shade of our back yard.  Some of the other animals (his “brothers and sisters”) seemed to know what was happening and would often join us, keeping vigil, saying goodbye.  Nip died in my arms early Saturday morning during those black, lonesome pre-dawn hours when time seems to stop and grief waits in the shadows.

There is a beautiful quote by Irving Townsend – “We who choose to surround ourselves with lives even more temporary than our own live within a fragile circle, easily and often breached.  Unable to accept its awful gaps, we still would live no other way.  We cherish memory as the only certain immortality, never fully understanding the necessary plan.”  So I don’t want to remember Nip’s death.  Instead I will try to remember the lessons he taught me about living, remember his part in my necessary plan.  My inner child and I will continue to believe that there is a Heaven for dogs where the kibble is made from prime rib, and the water is cool and sweet.  Belly rubs are plentiful and there are lots of hills to roam, free of danger and filled with exciting scents.  There are no fleas, ticks or scary bumblebees and the ravages of disease hold no sway.

If you are one of “those” people who believe that too, please put your arms around your critters and say a little prayer with them that my Nipper is there, among all the other beloved pets that have found their final home.  That he is waiting for me; liquid golden-brown eyes sparkling with mischief, tongue lolling, big old hound dog ears flapping gently in the breeze, smiling that smile I miss so very much.

Even after all these years, I still strain to hear his comic contralto when the dogs sing; still half expect, half hope to see him loping across the grass to greet me.  His grave is under a young maple tree at the edge of the yard, overlooking the hills that he loved to ramble.  It is the exact spot that he and his brothers would slip through the fence in their quests for adventure.  It is a fanciful notion, perhaps, born of a broken heart, but I buried him on the other side of that fence.  In life, such a mundane assembly of wood and nails and wire could not contain Nip, as he had proved so many times over the years.  Accordingly, it seemed only fitting and proper that his spirit be unimpeded as he began his final journey.

So if you happen to be in my neck of the woods and see a round, middle-aged woman flat on her back in the warm grass, singing loudly and off-key, don’t be alarmed.  It’s only me, practicing the lessons learned from an unforgettable friend.

Nip Shelton

8/99 – 4/08

Good dog.

Go home.

Hillbilly Zen – Plastic Perfection or Blemished Bliss? Sharing a Birthday With Barbie

Barbie turned fifty three years old this year.  Her relentlessly perky bosom and tiny little wasp waist, pleasantly vague Stepford smile, flawless makeup and hair have remained virtually unchanged for half a century.  She has access to an unlimited wardrobe, and shoes to match all her outfits.  It’s a safe bet that the Malibu beach house, the dream castle and her other real estate holdings are exempt from foreclosure.  The pink Corvette and Hummer aren’t in danger of being repo’d.

I turned fifty three years old this year too.  My bosom stopped being perky sometime during the 80’s, my waist is more bumblebee-ish, and sometimes I snort when I laugh really hard.  As for makeup and hair…well, let’s just say they’re noticeably low on my priority list.  I’m lucky if I can find shoes that match each other, much less ones that match my outfit.  My farm isn’t in foreclosure and my old truck would scare the peewaddin out of even the most intrepid repo guy, but it’s a struggle to maintain them both.

These observations prompt me to dig through a closet to locate my own vintage Barbie.  What starts out as a quick search and rescue mission lengthens into most of an afternoon, partially due to the overstuffed condition of the closet, but mostly because any sense of haste disappears when I open the first box of keepsakes.  It’s just not possible to sift through the accumulated mementos of a lifetime without lingering over at least some of them.  The mostly pleasant memories associated with this jumbled collection settle on me like a comfortable old sweater as I sit in the closet doorway.  Several dusty boxes later, there it is; that shiny, black vinyl Barbie doll case.  Upon opening the lid, my initially wry, slightly resentful attitude toward Barbie vanishes.  I am six years old again, reunited with a treasured childhood companion.

She has not changed one bit, and neither has the delight I take in her.  I cradle her with hands that have changed from the smooth-skinned ones of a little girl to the work-roughened ones of the woman I have become, but the thrill I feel while rummaging through her accessories is the same one I felt as a child.  I allow myself, for a little while at least, to revisit a much simpler past; to sink below the surface of time, immersed in the warm relaxing waters of my youth.  Annoyances and worries slide away, and I notice that my breathing is deeper and more even, my heart rate slower and steadier.  I promise myself right then and there that I will visit this tranquil place more often.

Eventually I notice that the sunbeams slanting through the windows have dimmed, and I somewhat reluctantly resurface into the present.  Returning slowly into the adult world, still wrapped in the warm fuzziness of nostalgia, I realize that my Barbie and I have at least a few things in common.  We are both classics, perhaps harboring just the tiniest bit of jealousy for those who are younger and hipper.  She and Ken parted ways in 2004, I have blue jeans that have lasted longer than any of my boyfriends, so now neither one of us is guaranteed a date on Saturday night.  (There were rumors that Ken, in the grip of a mid-life crisis, left her for the much younger Skipper, although personally I always suspected Midge was behind it.)  There may be a new romance in her future, depending on the marketing whims of Mattel.  Right now I’d rather have root canal than re-enter the dating scene, but perhaps Fate will manufacture a new boyfriend for me, too (preferably on that is anatomically correct).  We have both held a variety of occupations over the years, although I suspect her jobs have paid much better than mine.  Struggling to rise from the floor, it also occurs to me that neither one of us has fully bendable joints.

Making my way outside to feed the critters, I ponder the differences and similarities between Barbie and myself.  It sure would be nice not to have to worry about money, to dwell in luxurious residences and drive classy vehicles.  How cool would it be to retain the velvety skin and curvaceous figure of youth, with a body that refuses to surrender to the unyielding demands of gravity?  I’m not feeling sorry for myself, exactly, just experiencing a vague sort of wistfulness.

Settling in on my front porch steps to watch the sun set, though, a sense of peaceful resolution is granted.  Surrounded by well-fed, frisky critters as they communicate in muted woofs, meows, quacks and whickers, we watch the brilliant final rays of the evening sun bathe the hills.  The vivid indigo, rose and golden clouds are cast into razor-sharp silhouette against the cerulean twilight sky.  An equally lucid thought comes to me then – I’ve got a darn good life.  There’s my farm, my varmints, and unlike Barbie, more than one lifelong friend, all treasures in their own right.  My job may not pay all that well, but it’s fulfilling and allows me to make a positive difference in the world.  The memories associated with the items in that closet are priceless.  There is so much to be grateful for, even with all the troubles that come along with just being me.  Why in the world am I wasting even a second missing what I don’t have, or mourning the inevitable physical concessions to age?

I chuckle as I explain all this to the critters, but I doubt they comprehend much of it.  What they do appreciate are the skritches behind the ears and smooches on noses as, in a much lighter mood, I head into my own dream house.  Life isn’t perfect, not by a long shot:  sometimes it’s messy, hurtful and exhausting.  Nevertheless, when we open our hearts and our consciousness, become aware of our own flawed beauty, life becomes an experience to relish, not an ordeal to endure.

Living in your own skin, wrinkles and all, trumps being plastic and perfect any day.

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