We are all ear crystals

Tiny crystals of calcium carbonate line your inner ear. Their role is this: submit to gravity. Tell the body which way is down. When you move, they move, and the nerve cells surrounding them say, WAIT! I gotta tell the brain about this. When you spin, they spin, and the world catches up. And sometimes you keep spinning and stop and they keep going and going and what’s the difference? 

At times these crystals escape their inner ear prison, swimming through the fluids of the outer ear instead, one step closer to their homeland: hard ground. A cave somewhere, the Lascaux limestone. Because they’re made of calcium carbonate, and calcium carbonate is everywhere in the earth’s crust. It’s in chalk, marble, limestone. It has three pure forms: calcite, valeterite, and my favorite, Aragonite. There are caves and caves of calcium carbonate. And there is the sanctum of your inner ear. 

When these crystals escape, bad things happen. It’s called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV, and when it happens the world keeps spinning.

One night, our cat shattered a lamp. We woke at two in the morning to an explosion of glass. Half-dead, we jumped out of bed to pick up the pieces, sweep, and mop, dizzy with sleep, then went back to bed and laid there, awake, still dizzy, as the world turned. And the dizziness got worse all week. I think my ear crystals heard the call for home. A lamp in a million shattered pieces, showing off the crystalline structure of its glass. 

So I had severe BPPV this week and it was wild. I don’t need to do shrooms, I think. Every time I tilted left, the world spun. When I straightened back, it continued to pulse. Walking down the hallway was like living in Inception, the hallway a tunnel rotating leftwards. Always left. I stumbled into a wall. 

How did these crystals get into our ears? 

I can’t stop thinking about it. I like to imagine the protean body emerging from the sea, unsure which way is up, and falling all over the place. Fish don’t fall. They don’t need Up and Down. Only Home and Not-Home. They float in their womb of a universe with every directional opportunity encased in their flippers. But the landward body decides, Not-Home, and takes a woozy step onto the earth, where suddenly it can’t go Up. In exploration, it stumbles into a cave, where it falls into a trove of aragonite. Dizzily, it picks up two pieces of crystal and sticks them into its ears. Then the world settles into place.

Give me a better explanation. How did the body know that we need crystals? How does it know anything? Calcium carbonate comprises 4% of the earth’s crust, and 100% of how we find Up. (If only we could put these crystals in our feet too, then I’d finally be able to hold a handstand.)

I feel myself grasping for some kind of epiphany I can’t reach. And I’m standing on one foot on a medicine ball as I’m trying to figure it out. The healthy body is in balance. The healthy world is in balance. The body is made of balance. Balance is made of the world. The body is made of the world, and the world makes our bodies.

The answer is crystals. The hippies were right!

My BPPV is going away now. I googled some fancy maneuvers to shake my crystals generally back into place. It was fun (once I realized I wasn’t having a stroke), but it feels nice to turn my head without worrying about dying. And I’m paying attention to all the little movements the body makes. Every time I crouch down, the world still lurches. There is a general woozy feeling at the edge of my mind, like it’s just settled back into place. I think that’s always true, though. We’re always recalibrating. Always seeking the equilibrium that’s impossible to achieve. 

It feels a little like a more accurate representation of the world. The world is crazily spinning all the time. We’re just lucky enough to have found a way to deal with it. We’re lucky enough to have ear crystals. 

-Denise


PS: Publication alert: I interviewed Bud Smith about his new book Teenager. Bud Smith is an incredible writer and mentor, and he has lots of interesting things to say.

Read the interview


PPS: As punishment, the offending lamp-destroying cat will NOT be featured in this week’s newsletter. Instead here is Mondo giving me a hug while I was trying to write.

And here he is being dramatic because I didn’t hug him back.

Filthy

A fragment of black string floats before my face, drifting down from nowhere. I try to grab it; it floats away. It’s buglike in its movements, avoiding my grasp, so sensitive to the changes in air pressure as my palm moves towards it. It floats down; I reach for it, it flies up; I reach for it, it spirals in a buggy helix, the movements of life erratic enough to be impossible to follow or predict; I give up reaching for it. 

I know it’s just a piece of string but I can’t help but worry it’s a fly or some insect I can’t identify. These days, everything imperfect in my apartment makes me worry. I’m noticing every coffee rim on the coffee table, the dust on my computer monitor, the white streak of something on the bookshelf. We clean the apartment regularly, not religiously, but enough. Or so I thought. We sweep, we mop, we dust, we wipe. But no matter how much we try, there is more. 

I’m contributing to the karmic universe of cat sitting this weekend. Two apartments, two cats. Cat sitting involves going into a stranger’s home and sitting near their cats, making sure they stay alive. One of the apartments is beautiful. Clean, pristine, despite a dander-filled, hairy big cat. One of the apartments… 

It is tiny and bursting with filth. It feels wrong to say anything more of it. Except: The bathtub is filled with clothes. So where… does… the bathing happen? 

I went back to my apartment, took a deep breath of cobweb-free air, and cleaned. Wiped every inch of the bathroom. Wiped every table, every bookshelf. Emptied and wiped down the garbage bin. Who cleans a garbage bin? Me. Swept, vacuumed, mopped. The more I cleaned the more I saw there was to clean. Grease underneath my keyboard cover. Brown coffee remnants on the desk. And always more to sweep. There is the dust that avoids the broom at all cost. The little battle line of detritus that holds strong before the dustpan. There is the loose wad of Ellie’s fur that will never be captured. The section in between the oven and the stove that spurns mops, vacuums, washcloths. How did the monitor get so dusty? What happened to the windows that splattered them so? Like rain went wrong and became sugar. What about the degrading corners of the wooden floor that become colorful with rainbow filth? The more I look the more there is. The darkness in my cat’s backwards fur, could that be dirt or mold? No, it’s just a shadow. 

Cats clean themselves. Can they lick an apartment clean? I recently let my cat lick my forehead as an experiment. It hurt. I don’t recommend it. Those tongues are sharp and barbed with scour pads. He licked it raw and red. They also lick apart their toys until they disintegrate into an ambient pile of feathers, stuffing, and dust. Their go-to game is destruction. Is that not the way of the world? Destroying things slowly then putting them back together? 

And what is the alternative? I could have no cats and no cat-sitting duties. I could live in a pristine white box of formica and plastic and nothing would break down. What would I write about? What would I think about? What would I do when my brain gets tired? I own three plants. One is a cactus and nothing ever changes. Two have color, flowers; and then the pink poinsettia leaves fall, and the cats eat the violets, but new ones grow in their place. 

The cats tend to follow me from room to room, destroying things. They create mini earthquakes underneath their tiny paws. They breathe their cat breath into the air. I breathe my human breath into the air. Our breath mingles and transforms into radiation. This is how it seems sometimes. 

I clean out a bathroom shelf, drop a pair of tweezers. The cats come running. This is a new noise signifying a new object to examine and destroy. They sniff it and jump back. They are amazed by its metal solidness. How it stays put when they bat it with their paws. They lie on their backs in an act of deference. The tweezers cannot be destroyed. The tweezers do the destroying. 

Would an empty formica apartment destroy me, or would a filthy apartment do it first? The answer is yes. The answer is balance, learning when to clean and when to turn your eyes away. I never found that black string fragment. I never cleaned it up. Because if I were to remove all the dust from this apartment, I’d have no time to live. 

-Denise


PS: Earth destroyers:

A case for walking in circles

Destinations are overrated

I’ve been busy. Busy working, busy writing, busy traveling. The days at home seem empty but get filled with busyness. I own a business, which is just what happens when busyness turns from “Y?” to “I.” “Why” be busy? Because it’s what “I” do. Busy trying to stuff this life full of life.

Which is why I love airports. Full of life, but life removed. Life waiting. It’s the waiting part I love best. Sitting in a portal where you have nothing to do but fill time. 

Last Sunday I had two hours of nothingness at the Santa Fe airport. I’d arrived two hours before Seth for our five-year-anniversary adventure. I could have gone into town, checked in, taken a nap. Instead I waited. It’s a dollhouse-sized airport. A tiny adobe thing with no gates, ten seats, and a refrigerator of snacks with an honor system bill jar. So I couldn’t wait inside, nor did I want to. There was clean New Mexican air out there! Instead I walked around the parking lot. Then I got to the edge of the parking lot and kept walking. Then two cars, one after the other, pulled over to ask if I needed a ride. I said “no thank you” each time, and went back to the parking lot, where no one could bestow their grace upon me, where I could proceed to walk in circles. 

It was the day after a loud weekend and I was ready for quiet. The quiet of boots on gravel. The wind that got chopped up by mountains. There really was a single tumbleweed, blowing back and forth, just like in the movies. New Mexico. And a free-flowing quiet in the mind. I walked past the same set of cars, the same set of cones. At one point I switched directions to see how they would change from behind. They didn’t. The only thing that changed was the number of circles completed and the minute hand on my watch.

Then Seth was there and we walked and walked. We walked along a dry riverbed. We found a park. There we found the labyrinth. 

The labyrinth was not meant to confuse or mislead. There was one path, from the outside to the center. The center was visible. Everything was visible. There were no walls, only small mounds of dirt on either side of the path, the one single path that led you from the outside in. Consider your biggest question, the sign said, then clear away your thoughtsBy the time you reach the center, you will have the answer. 

We were in Santa Fe and ready for some woo-woo. So we took a deep breath and hopped aboard the labyrinth. 

The path curved and curved back. We walked in a circle and a circle again. It doubled back and forth. We looked at our feet. We looked at the path. We forgot about the river. We forgot about our Big Question. By the time we reached the center, there was a shift. Maybe it was the sleep-deprivation fumes, the high-altitude air. But it felt like we’d climbed to the top of the mountain. 

Then we walked out again and what had even happened? I don’t know. We walked in circles and that was important. Our minds a little quieter, we walked into downtown Santa Fe. There, at the cathedral on the plaza, was yet another labyrinth. 

This was made of pink stone and had no barriers, only stepping stones that led to each other. Under the eyes of statue-saints, we ran through the labyrinth this time, gasping for breath in the seven-thousand-foot air. 

There are 30 labyrinths in Santa Fe. People have been walking labyrinths for thousands of years. A labyrinth is not a maze. This is an important distinction. A maze is meant to be solved. In a maze, you can fail. A labyrinth has one passage. When you look at it all at once, it’s impossible to figure out the way out. All you need to do is find the beginning, then pay attention to the next footstep.

I didn’t know there was a world of labyrinths out there, people begging people to walk in circles and think of nothing. That’s all I want to do. To walk with purpose, as if I have somewhere to go, when my only destination is the next step I take.

-Denise


PS: New story publication alert! This is a short mystery-esque story about mermaids, myths, and offshore wind, featured in a beautiful edition of Jabberwock Review. It’s called Dear Mermaid, Dead Mermaid.

Read “Dear Mermaid, Dead Mermaid”


PPS: Cats appreciate walking in circles, sleeping in circles.

Cats on leashes

Do you ever feel like everyone around you wants you to fail? 

If not, try fostering animals. Everyone you know — friend, family, stranger, foe — will tell you this explicitly. You will see the schadenfreude in their eyes. They will send you private messages during awkward Zoom meetings: “Why not adopt?” and “ever heard of a ‘foster fail’ haha?” They will show up at your door and say, “Just wait. This dog will change your life.” They will ruin your prospects with potential adopters, hacking your computer and emailing them malicious jokes, or feeding your animal Mountain Dew right before the meeting. They will steal your pet carriers and everything you have to send them away. Or they it will feel like all these things are happening when they aren’t. You will feel the eyes of the world on you, wishing your failure. They will do all this because they love love. Because they want you to say “I tried, I failed, I love this strange new animal too damn much.” 

In other news, I’d like to reintroduce you to the newly renamed, newly adopted Mondo and Lazy, short for Monday and Lasagna, or for Montesorri and Lazarus depending on how we’re feeling. 

I was trying to meditate

We were going to wait. Honest. We have a few trips this year. The logistics, won’t anyone think of the logistics? Then we found a catsitting group. So we said fuck it. Why wait? Two cats have materialized in our laps, rumbling like tiny carburetors with tiny teeth. They’re perfect. 

No, not perfect… not yet. There’s one thing left. We need to train them to take walks on leashes. 

This has been a lifelong dream of mine for a year. A year ago, I went to the park by my house on the first sunny day of Daylight Savings when the vaccines had started to roll out and everyone was optimistic for the first time in forever and I met a cat on a leash and my life was changed. It was like the first time I ate good pickles and olives, and a whole new world I had previously ignored opened up to me with pickles and olives on every table. You can eat olives… and enjoy it. You can take a cat… on a walk

So we’ve been trying. We put them in little harnesses every day. At first they clomp around like they’re wearing boots, or they walk in diagonal directions. Then get used to it and run like they’re nothing. Then we put on their leashes, and they fall over like trees in a forest. Then they get up and chase their own leashes with ferocity. Then we bring them to the hallway, and they shiver by the wall, and eventually get the courage to explore. Then we bring them outside, and they shiver in the wind, but rediscover their catness when they see a clump of birds, and forget their fear. 

Here’s why our cats are on leashes. Because I want to see the world through their eyes. I want to remember how horrifying it is to be in a long infinite hallway, to hear rumbling through the walls that could be a building collapse, or maybe just an elevator. To respect the way everything seems so vast. And to recall what it’s like to step on grass with bare paws for the first time. To overcome the terror of the world. To watch a creature transform back into its primal self, where all that matters is sunshine and prey. 

Mondo and Lazy are still a little nervous outside. They still have a little fear. They don’t walk yet; they just sit there, nervously, reacquainting themselves with a world bigger than them. But that’s okay. They’re still perfect even if they can’t go on walks. But they will. They will walk. Even if they don’t (but they will) we love them anyway. We miss Ellie and we love them at the same time. They’re more than a ‘they.’ They have distinct personalities and we each have different favorites. Mondo greets us when we return and begs to be held like a baby. Lazy wants to discover how every toy works from every angle. Their ‘they’-ness is also a distinct thing. They follow each other from room to room, discovering new closets together. In the night, they sleep at our feet, but if I wake up and rustle around, they come rumbling forwards, a purr-gang, ready to daintily put my fingers in their mouths, at first softly, and then, CHOMP. 

There’s a pre-verbal, animalistic part of life that’s essential. We’re always floating in worlds of our own creation, worlds filled with plans and worries and social media personas. I want to forget all that and let the sun burn away the shivers and watch a squirrel sits sideways on a tree. To turn off the words and rediscover the floating ball of soul that just exists and observes and takes things in. 

So, we will walk our cats. With patience. One day. 

-Denise

PS: New story publication alert! I’ve spent a lot of time exploring different kinds of renewable energies and how they connect with the human body. So here’s a weird short story about geothermal energy, primitiveness, human animalisticness.

Geothermal in The Normal School.

Read Geothermal

Leash exhausted
They love books!!

Ten loaves of bread

On humility

I tried to make five loaves of tomato-basil sourdough. Instead I made ten. The recipe that I quintupled was for two loaves. I ran out of good flour and went to the okay flour. Other than that, I followed the recipe. Except I didn’t have paprika, so used cayenne instead. Oh and some experimental precut fridge proofing. Other than that, though, to a tee. They all turned out fine. I’ve been getting pretty good at bread. It’s simple: follow the recipe. Like really follow it. With a scale and everything. Exact measurements. Put aside the notion that you are talented and have an innate skill for bread, because you don’t, not at first. Humble yourself and submit to the instructions of the recipe-maker. And — this part’s important — read the whole thing first, so you don’t end up with more dough than your oven can handle and ten loaves of too-spicy bread.

When the final loaves were cooling on the stove, Seth and I went to play basketball. We’ve been getting pretty good at it. Or so we thought. And we tricked some strangers into thinking so too, because they invited us to play three-on-three. They needed a sixth. Seth and I swapped in. That’s how we learned that we’re still terrible. We had transported into a new universe with creatures that were more basketball than human. Their hands, feet, torsos were all an extension of the ball at play. They were each in five places at once. They were flying through the air and made of the earth. They were sturdy as mountains and fluid as rivers. They scored nine times before our team scored once. 

Humiliated, we fled to New York. Do you ever feel like you are good at being alive, then go to New York City and realize you’re wrong? It used to be like that with me. The city that’s somehow too hot and too cold at the same time, with urine everywhere but nowhere to pee, with too much of everything except the thing you need. But I’m better now. I’m getting pretty good at enjoying New York. The trick is to spend time in Jersey instead, for the view. We learned that Frank Sinatra sang “it’s up to you, New York” when he was sitting in Hoboken eating a roast beef sandwich and giving up on life. But then he decided to go and be Frank Sinatra. Don’t you wish you could do that? 

But we didn’t spend all our New York time in Jersey. We ran ten miles to Coney Island, where everything was closed except one hot dog place with milkshakes. We drank the milkshake first so we could end lunch on a warm stomach. It was cold anyway. Fifty degrees and windy. We shivered as we watched seagulls play keep-away with each other. One would find a piece of trash in the water, grab it, and the others would clamor over his treasure; he would scare them off and hoard this trash, picking at it as if each peck might transform into something delicious. Then he would leave it alone, pretending he didn’t care, letting another seagull become the new God of Plastic, for just a moment before he took it back.

We also went to four art galleries. One was closed, one was empty, one was a gift shop, one was fine (so we didn’t go inside). The empty one was more like a synagogue. A large open room leading to a grassy area with a bench. A single bench in the entire place that was making a statement about benches. When we left, we walked by the greeter, who said “Good evening, everyone.” It was just me and Seth. The place must be filled with his feelings and visions. I thought I was pretty good at being creative, but I’m nothing compared to this sole greeter in an empty gallery saying hello to the hundreds of people who aren’t there. 

James Brown’s bassist is still alive and can sing and play like he dreams it; we saw him with our eyes. We met a baby who was unimpressed with silly faces. There was a kid singing “God is good, god is great” while riding an e-scooter. There are people who are so self-assured it makes me feel empty inside. Couldn’t I be that way? Not that way, My Way. 

And there were hundreds of people playing basketball. Mostly kids in playgrounds. Seth and I told each other we could totally take them, but we stayed humbly on the sidelines. I kept thinking about how, when we played basketball with the gods, I almost scored once. It bounced off the rim. It went slow as syrup through the air, and one of the gods shouted: “Short.” Not me. The ball. The shot was too short. But it almost went in. It would have if I’d put a little more chutzpah into it. And I dream of it. I imagine it going in. I imagine these giants looking at each other with their hands daintily over their mouths, like a scandalized operagoer in Anna Karenina, discussing the latest gossip, saying, “Oh, my!” That didn’t happen. But it almost did, and my dream keeps me going. 

Every so often I feel my head blow up like a balloon with happiness, and every so often I feel the humility of a piece of plastic. To a Brooklyn seagull, plastic is worth fighting over. James Brown’s bassist is still talented but seems to recognize that it’s time to step back; when it was riff time, he kept quiet and let his bandmates shine. Humility is the thread connecting all this. Because we’re all just individual people pushing through a sidewalk crowded with other individual people with their own weird hobbies and dreams and downfalls. I want to be as talented as James Brown’s bassist fifty years ago and I want to know when to step back and let the bread baker pick up the paprika. I want to be humble. The humblest. All I can do is try. 

-Denise


PS: Publication alert! I hope you enjoy reading the short story Centralia in the Sky, published in Gulf Coast Journal.

Read Centralia in the Sky

Temporary

I discovered a chip in my tooth. In a back molar. A jaggedness with my tongue, like something was stuck, but nothing was, I hadn’t eaten. I looked in a mirror. A tiny hole. 

I’ve never had a cavity, but the internet told me that’s what this was. Continued googling showed me I’ve been wrecking my teeth for years by eating two apples every morning. Two apples a day may keep the doctor away, but not the dentist — they flood your teeth with sugary pulp that digs in and decays. If one cavity had broken through a molar, how many other cavities lied in wait? Was my mouth a decaying mass of decrepitude? I hadn’t been to a dentist in a year; I saw my death before me. 

I scheduled an appointment with my new dentist. I asked for a general appointment, but they said there weren’t any for three months. I told them I had an emergency cavity that needed to be filled. They booked me for the next day. 

I walked in and declared: I have a cavity that needs to be filled, and also, how many other cavities do I have? Please help. 

The dentist said: Who told you to fill a cavity?

They didn’t find a cavity. They did, however, give me a general cleaning, temporarily lose my x-rays, and break my glasses. (A glasses screw magically jumped out of the dental hygienist’s hands when she removed them from my face: we found the screw, duct-taped it back in, and I fixed it later). But it’s just a chipped tooth. Presumably from nighttime teeth-grinding. This is the healthiest mouth I’ve ever seen, they said, but you’re too stressed. Wear a mouth guard. Use an electric toothbrush. And do you floss under that permanent retainer? No? Well, you should. 

So I went home happy and got a foster dog, something new to worry over. Agora. We had her for seventeen days. Long enough to get frustrated with her and question my self-worth as a dog parent, long enough to wonder whether life was worth living when you had to devote yourself to an endless black hole of energy six times a day, knowing that however much energy you gave her was never enough —  long enough to get over all that and love her again.

She ate a giant hole in my bedroom blanket. I’ve had this blanket for twelve and a half years. It was getting ratty; I’ve been wondering if I should replace it. I kept telling Seth we should and he kept saying no, it’s a good blanket. A quilt with all kinds of patterns I can’t remember. And the dog ate it. She ate one big hole and one smaller hole. Ripped it up and spit it out and let the leavings on the floor. And I realized how much I loved this blanket, this ratty thing I’d been complaining about; now that it was ruined, it was mine. 

The moment we found an adoptive family, she transformed from a devil into an angel. Now that our time was limited, I loved how her nose had that pink spot underneath the white, and how her ears flopped softly forward when she walked. She learned how to walk! And be house trained and other things. I didn’t worry about the blanket. We discovered a schedule that worked for all of us. We turned her from a dog to a dog and now she’s gone. 

So I’m thinking about all ways we love things more when we think they’re temporary. Like how the nice thing about all the times I thought I would die is how much I was in love with living afterwards. And how for a long time, I only got into relationships when I thought it wouldn’t work out. Each time, the relationship would start great because I thought it would soon end. Then it would keep on going. And going. And it would eventually still end. Most things do. Except once. 

I’ve been told to wear a nightguard before, by an evil dentist who warned of falling teeth. I tried it, hated it, and found myself waking in the middle of the night with my teeth wide apart, non-grinding. I thought I had discovered the secret to end teeth-grinding: believe in yourself. I was wrong. I’m wearing that mouthguard at night again and I bought an electric toothbrush. I also bought retainer floss-threaders, although I have yet to open the bag. After a years-long relationship with apples, I’ve cut them out, replaced them with cucumbers.

And I’ve fallen deeply in love with my teeth. How beautiful are teeth? How nice and smooth and necessary. How they become a record of your life, more unique than fingerprints. How each one matters in its own way. I thought I would lose them all, but they’re still here.

-Denise

PS: I have a new short story published in Epiphany Magazine. It’s a story that means a lot to me. It’s pretty much the only thing I’ve been able to write about the death of my college boyfriend. It’s also very short. It’s called “Where He Went.”

PPS: Goodbye to this nugget (the dog, not the Seth).

My spark dog

This week I learned that every birder has a “spark bird.” A spark bird is the bird that sparked their birdy passion. The bird that opened their eyes to birds. It’s the hawk you see carrying a dead squirrel, or the family of sandhill cranes that lets you peacefully pass them by, or the owl that gives you a piercing gaze when you cross the street at night. It’s the bird that makes you understand humans are ants stuck to the ground in a world owned by ancient beings controlling the sky: birds. 

I’ve always been a “cat person,” but on the other hand, I’ve long struggled with my sense of self, so am I any “kind of person” at all? I feel so easily moldable. This used to scare me, but more recently, I’ve found it interesting, and that it might not be due to an empty self but a selfness that’s more like a prism, able to reflect and refract whatever it takes in. Unlike Shrek’s onion, there’s no single core once you peel back all the layers; rather it’s more like a pond or a lake, that creates a double sky when still, and ripples when you throw things in, but is filled with life and movement beneath the surface. Or it’s like Schrödinger’s cat, who only becomes fully alive (or fully dead) when someone gazes upon it. Or maybe it’s none of this, and no one will ever be able to describe what a mind is except the mind itself. 

Anyway, I might be a “dog person” now. 

We’ve been trying foster a cat for a month and a half. Turns out, so are hundreds of other DCites. There’s a multi-month wait period. At the same time, there are more than a hundred dogs who need homes. I’ve been thinking about this. All of the sad dogs in cages. And I’ve been looking at all the dogs on the streets wondering, could I handle it? 

Two Fridays ago, a spark dog made our decision. Seth and I were walking with two friends and this cute dumpy dog ignored them, made a beeline for Seth, and put her forelegs on his knees, forcing him to sit down and pet her. She wore a harness that said Adopt me! She loved Seth and I loved her. She didn’t bark once. She was a foster dog. Her name was Lenora.

The next day, I changed my foster preferences to allow for smallish dogs. The day after that, we were matched. Her name’s Agora. 

Agora is a six-month-old pitbull pup. We picked her up on Monday, Valentine’s Day. 

She was a stray, completely un-housetrained. She thinks she’s a cat because she loves sitting in laps and jumping from couch to couch. And she hates walking. I think of her life before us on the streets, walking and running all day to keep warm and find food. Now, she has a warm apartment and food inside, so why would she ever want to walk again? Does she have a doggy sense of self that’s changed now that she has a lap, a dog bed, and a stuffed lamb? 

And what about us? Our days are different. I put a lot of thought into the structure of my days, but it’s all upended. Now, rather than wake up and blearily walk to the living room to write, I wake up, let Agora out of her crate, put on her leash, and sprint to the elevator so she can relieve her weak puppy bladder outside. Rather than go on long, wide-ranging, thoughtful walks, I take her outside and beg her not to sit down in the middle of a street crossing, and fall over her with congratulations when she poos. When Seth and I are both out of the house, I worry if she will feel abandoned without us. 

On Wednesday night, after a busy day of dog-ing, working, and writing, I accompanied a friend — and her dog — to the airport, to see them off on an international move. Dogs make everything twenty times harder. They require massive crates that require massive vehicles, and the wrong sized cab showed up. Dog visas are almost as difficult to obtain as immigrant visas. And once you get to the airport there are five extra hoops to jump through. It was hectic. But at the same time, there was a dog, drawing everyone’s attention. And I get it. When everything is crowded and confusing, all you need to do is look into a dog’s eyes to calm. 

The airport was an hour’s drive away, and afterwards, sitting in the back of an Uber, I felt my mind quiet for the first time since Agora. It was nighttime and the moon was almost full. The road was smooth and curved through trees too dark to make out. The chaos of a puppy, the chaos of everything, all fell away as the highway sloped riverward.

We’ve already found a great adoptive parent for Agora and have a few backups in case this one doesn’t work out. That’s the goal: to find her a home. In the meantime, the shock to our routine has provided a good jolt to our sense of self. When she’s gone, the apartment will feel quiet. But rather than the quiet that preceded her — the emptiness, the lack — it will be a relief. A welcoming, a coming home, a reminder to focus inward. 

At least until our next foster dog. 

-Denise

PS: New publication alert! This is a story about regenerative agriculture… from the perspective of the bacteria involved. It was a lot of fun to research and write and I hope it’s as fun to read. It’s called “Regeneration” and was published in a cool new online speculative publication called After the Storm. 

Read Regeneration

PPS: Dog

PPPS: For more on spark birds, listen to this beautiful This American Life podcast.

113 dogs

There’s been a little hole in the apartment since Elliephant died. A little buzzing from the silence. Ears straining to hear the pat pat pat of her walking around. 

We don’t want another cat yet. But we’ve been trying to fill the silence. So we’re babysitting a devil cat who, years ago, peed on my things, peed on my friend’s passport, and rubbed his shit on my white dress while I was wearing it. 

Now he’s older and wiser. He rests his big stomach on my arms in the morning, telling me to stop and watch the sunrise. His wet nose finds its way under my thumbs. His meow crackles when he wants love, and he is worthy of it. He was always worthy of it. 

We’ve signed up to be cat foster parents. It could be months before we get ‘matched.’ In the meantime, I’m on the list-serv. This week I learned there are currently 113 dogs at the animal shelter. According to their statistics, ten percent will be euthanized. The rest will suffer in their own way. 

I can’t take in 113 dogs. I can’t take in one dog. I can take a cat or two. But what about the others? 

Do you remember the Sarah McLaughlin ads about animals? The sad music, the ‘what about the animals’? I remember. I am pro-animal, but I remember laughing. The sappiness. The blatant heartstring tug. And the queasy feeling. How manipulative it felt. Step one: Make someone sad. Step two: Profit!

But really, what about the animals? 

I bought a ring with Ellie’s face on it. I want to be reminded of her for awhile. But it’s not comfortable. The rose gold chin digs into my skin. Which I don’t mind. Every time I put on gloves, the flick of pain reminds me. Eventually I’ll get used to it. Or I’ll take it off. 

For a year and a half I’ve been volunteering with Latin American immigrants to write deportation waivers. I channel their trauma then send off the affidavits and never learn how the cases go and it’s better not knowing, because I don’t want to quit. 

There is a string of suffering that connects the world. From my cat’s death to the shelter animals to migrants… and by the way, climate change. 

I write affidavits to make some lawyer somewhere sad enough for mercy. A single email about 113 dogs was enough to set me off in a spiral. When I read it, I laid on the couch with my hand on my forehead and stared at the ceiling and complained to Seth about all the world’s suffering. 

On the other hand: I was on a couch. I was safe and healthy and happy. I had a Seth to talk me out of it. With the right glasses, the world can seem pretty great. How amazing is it that we get the opportunity to care for others? I think it’s humanity’s greatest invention. The will to care for life beyond your immediate family. On a scale of zero to effective in alleviating suffering, Sarah McLaughin’s TV ad falls pretty low on the scale. So does adopting one or 113 dogs. But if a story can break through my own comfortable existence to make me cry for a dog I don’t know, what else can a story do? 

I have a story I tell of my own life. Step one: ease my own suffering. Step two: help others. Step one takes a lot of work. Adopting 113 dogs and spiraling into couch sadness will not do. I don’t want to quit step two. 

-Denise

PS: I’ve a new set of poems published in a local lit mag called Movable Type. These two poems are disconnected from each other. But the entire theme of this issue is “Connection,” so maybe they actually are connected. Just know that they are about two entirely different settings and characters. One is called “Fight before a Flight,” the other is “The Last to Leave.” Read them here.

They say don’t go to the beach in winter

But we tried to prove them wrong. And we spent about an hour on the beach before we froze. 

We tried to play pickleball. The wind grabbed the ball with icy hands and threw it into the sea. The waves brought it back. We put away the pickleball. 

Inside we lit up a gas fireplace. You flick a switch, wait a minute, and flames appear from translucent green rocks behind a glass wall. If you sit really close, you can feel something. 

The first thing I do when I wake up is put an ice cube on my eyes. I rub it over the lids, below the brow, over the cheek bones. It makes my face wake up. Then comes the coffee. It makes my mouth wake up. Then, the words. 

My day job is to keep the planet from warming up. “Make Winter Cold Again.” Friday was the coldest DC day in three years. 

We went to the beach in winter for a birthday. Seth’s thirtieth. The Big One. The nice thing about him having a birthday during the worst time of year is being forced to Go Out and Do Things, when all you want to do is sit by the windows and mourn your lost cat. We got her ashes back two weeks after we gave her away in a cardboard box. It was only supposed to take one week. I called every day after and they told me she was still in “processing.” 

We gave up on the beach and went inside. There was a pool with a basketball hoop. Pool basketball is like regular basketball but super slow motion. And there’s no dribbling. You hold that little ball with all your might. And you run through the water like you’d run on the moon. Long, elegant leaps. You float between each one. 

I got Ellie back in cherry wooden box inside a brown paper bag. Also in the bag was a poem about finding her one day ‘beyond the rainbow’ or something stupid like that. 

She’s cuddled me through all my heartbreaks, every single one, except this. And through the milestones too. Becoming a real human adult. Now I’m thirty-one and Seth is thirty, trying to catch up. I spent all day cooking a big birthday meal, stressing over the bread that didn’t get stale enough to crumb, the missing cheese grater, the cake that crumbled when it came out of the pan, and the fact that no matter how hard I worked on this meal, he’d be just as happy with a DiGiorno. That I chose this. 

We went to the beach but spent hours inside. Talking, talking, and talking about life. Then we went back outside and couldn’t talk any more. The wind pushed the sand sideways and waves crashed over our voices. Our cheeks stiffened with cold. It rained, then it stopped raining. The sun poked a hole in the clouds. We thought we were prepared for the cold. We weren’t. But we chose this. 

—Denise

cold

The Lifecycle of Snowmicron

In DC, every snowstorm has a name. “Snowzilla.” “Snowpocalypse.” “Snowmageddon.” When it snows in DC, the world stops. The government stops. The buses stop. My breath stops. The anticipation has long been blown out of our systems. We’ve lost all sense of expectation. It doesn’t snow: suddenly, snow is.

Suddenly, eight inches of winter coats every parked car, with windshield wipers sticking up like whiskers.

Suddenly, hundreds of people are in the park, trying unsuccessfully to turn fluff into men.

Suddenly, dogs in booties flail their legs as they find one another and the ball that disappeared.

Suddenly, I’m leaning over a ledge, tossing snowballs onto a frozen pool, watching a few of them crack it open and a few of them obliterate, letting strangers join me in this new game, a new way to ‘break the ice’.

Suddenly, I’m stomping on storm drains, letting thin icy layers crash into trickles.

And suddenly, I’m eleven years old, in the Wisconsin forest behind my friend’s house, in snow boots that don’t fear brooks and streams, frozen over but running underneath, waiting to be crunched. I’m finding a walking stick that’s good enough for a wizard — no, a bigger stick, over there. There are no trails except the ones we make by trampling saplings and snow. It’s after a hockey game where she scored two goals and I celebrated each time I touched the puck, and although our legs are tired, they need to keep going.

I’m back in DC, treading carefully over frozen streets. My feet relearn how to find stable ground, a bit of mud, anything that can catch a rubber sole.

Then I’m pulled back several years, running alongside a river, on a path covered in snow hiding the thick layer of ice beneath it, and my foot slips, and my chin catches the ground and splits. The snow turns red. The cut is deep. I’m nowhere, walking four dripping miles to the emergency room to be stitched.

It’s sunny in DC, snow stacked on rooftops, and a wind blows, and the snow flutters sideways like crystals.

Then I’m feeling the flush excitement of high school trips to the mountain, with frozen-peanut-butter-jelly stomachs, rigid snowboarding boots that shuck your shin forward, spraining my wrist and my elbow, falling on my ass, giving up on getting up, just lying there on the soft ground, watching snow flutter off trees as snowboarders scrape by beside me.

My life was once bookended by snow. Five months of the year — the beginning and the end — were wrapped in white. Now snow is rare, and getting rarer. But each time it’s transportive. My memories are encased in ice.

I’m grappling with the fact that I might live a very long time, which is almost as scary as dying, because to do with all these hours? “Snowmicron” made the world temporarily stop, which gave us the gift of time, which, when you’re not careful, can be terrifying. I love empty mornings (open, potential-filled) but hate empty nights (tired, bleak). Sometimes it’s good to confront this emptiness and see what you can fill it with.

So I’m trying to remember things about my past. What parts of my youth I want to bring back. For a long time, I’ve put them away. When I moved to New York for college, I left my cello at home, along with my then-favorite cat, my Jewish faith, my stereo system. I’m trying to feel out the cycle of my life. What it meant to be a child who made no life decisions. What decisions I can make now. Sometimes I fail to remember; sometimes the memories come unbidden and it’s my job to grab and study them.

Memories aren’t truly preserved. They’re never accurate. They’re recreated each time. They melt and refreeze and melt and refreeze and are forgotten and remembered and forgotten once more. But the feeling — sometimes there’s a feeling, like the water molecules that fill the shape of whatever glass holds them — the feeling stays true. It feels so strong, and you don’t know what it is, but it has something to do with the first time you crack a pond with your boot, or lie on the couch feeling dizzy.

I’d like to discover something new, or something old and true. For now I’ll go outside and lie down in the snow.

-Denise


Publication alert: My first poem has been published in a lovely local newsletter called 730DC. (If you live in DC, you should subscribe.) The poem is about libraries. Click here to read: Apology to the DC Public Library System.