All About Us

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with a much-adored friend in Texas. She asked when my birthday was, so I naturally did the same. “So are you a Capricorn or are you right on the cusp?” I asked.

“Actually, I follow Vedic astrology,” she said. I quickly looked it up. Though the signs are the same, the dates are a bit different, and considered by many in the Eastern world to be more accurate. I quickly looked up my own birthday. Conclusion: still a Leo, and still with a Pisces moon, though my rising sign, instead of Cancer, switched to Gemini.

I’ve been interested in and drawn to astrology since my early teenage years. At different points in my life, I’ve both embraced my fascination and shunned it, keenly aware of the improbability of being able to reduce all our various personalities and temperaments of the human race into a handful of categories. An agnostic that never misses reading her horoscope? Now, that’s just silly.

Then again, is there really that much variety when it comes to the human experience? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from social psychology, after all, it’s that we’re all much more alike than we think. And if there’s one thing that my daughter has taught me, it’s that we are certainly born with innate personality traits, a belief I tried hard to logic out of myself before I had her.

As I get older, I get more tolerant, even to “woo-woo” things that before would have me rolling my eyes to shield my discomfort. The universe is big and I am very small. Who knows what unseen forces are at work? “None” is one possible answer, as is “several” or “a whole lot.”

Astrology is ultimately about understanding ourselves. And the goal of understanding ourselves, I believe, is ultimately to forgive ourselves. It’s to see ourselves as the gods might, imperfect and vulnerable, yes, but also totally adorable and fascinating in our clumsiness and our moments of redemption.

I’m a Leo, and possess a lot of “typical” Leo traits. I both like and seek out attention and connection with others; I’m a natural performer. I secretly (alright, it’s not that big of a secret) think of myself as royalty and am surprised and hurt when not treated as such, which is a lot. I’m an extrovert: when I spend too much time by myself, I go dark like a computer that’s been left idle for too long. I’m generous and open and tend to accept responsibility for both good and bad things, whether I’m actually responsible for those things or not. I hate the cold.

I wear my heart on my sleeve as plainly as any puppy; whatever I’m thinking or feeling will pretty much always be apparent, as saying something that’s simply not the truth is nearly impossible for me (much to my dismay…I can’t help feeling I’d be much more successful if I could learn to be a good liar). And even at my age, I’m quite gullible…at least at this point I realize it, though, and actively choose to take the risk of being ripped off sometimes as an alternative to always thinking the worst of people.

My daughter, and incidentally my partner, are both Sagittarians under Western astrology — they actually have the same birthday! Neither of them, however, displays any of the characteristics of Sagittarians, who are known for being happy-go-lucky extroverted adventurous types.

First, they are both very clearly introverts. They are both naturally and somewhat intensely private, with clearly big feelings that get carried around underneath at all times. They smile when they have a reason to smile, and seem to have a natural distrust of others; whereas I like pretty much everyone immediately — at least until they do something to make me really, really not like them — they take their time to evaluate and then warm up to others. They’re not afraid to cut off those who show themselves to be undeserving of their attention. They are noble and loyal. They might enjoy playing and goofing around for a bit, but their natural “resting” state is aloof and serious. While they’re both wonderful people, gregarious free spirits they are not.

When my friend told me about Vedic astrology, I immediately looked up their birthday and was unsurprised by what I found: Scorpios. Of course! Both of them are Scorpios through and through. It fell on me like a revelation, and also made it necessary for me to do some adjusting of my assumptions.

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When listening to an astrology podcast this morning (about Leos…I’m kind of on a kick right now!), someone joked that Scorpios were all born with switchblades in their hands. There were a lot of these types of jokes, the assumption being that we’re natural enemies, or at least find each other to be off-putting. Sagittarians and Leos, on the other hand, are supposed to be natural BBFs. While I love both my daughter and my partner deeply, I’ve never had that particular kind of chemistry with either of them.

I’ll admit, I’ve always felt very wary of Scorpios, noticing plainly the degree to which their characteristics naturally clash with my own…oil and water, anyone? And it’s true, they kind of do. My aversion applies to actual scorpions as well: the first year I lived with my now ex-husband, he insisted on getting a pet scorpion. I was in love so ultimately let him convince me, but when he dumped it from the carrying box into the fishbowl, I cried in fear and disgust.

But we Leos are nothing if not expansive, right? There’s room for everyone. And besides — I loved them well before this “revelation,” and that love is permanently imprinted. They might be Scorpios, but they’re my Scorpios.

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There’s a new show about Wednesday Addams that’s come out on Netflix. I’ve often joked over the years that my daughter has a lot in common with Wednesday Addams. In addition to her somewhat flat affect — if I smile like an idiot all the time, she stares into people’s souls — even now, she has a deep fascination with the occult and begs me to describe, in detail, every horror movie I’ve ever seen (I do not). She’s already informed me that she thinks she’ll be “dark” as a teenager, and I’m basically mentally preparing myself to have Winnona Ryder’s Lydia from Beetlejuice as a daughter (I’m going to try hard to be cool like the ghosts instead of deeply annoying like her parents, and hey — I’ve always wanted to try painting a room black!).

And then a few weeks ago, I saw a drawing of Wednesday and her best friend and roommate on the show, a cheery, sunny, werewolf (the artist is @shaynedesu on Instagram, and is well worth a follow!). Immediately I recognized us: me and my kid. It could very well be me and my partner as well.

Astrology might very well be bullshit…it’s a possibility I’ll always leave open, as there are so many different ways to see the world. But oh, what an interesting lens through which to see things for a bit!

If you need me, I’ll be over here snuggling with my sweet scorpions.

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Teenage Bird

There’s a video making its way around social media that’s meant to be adorable but won’t stop haunting me.

In it, a small open-mouthed bird marches after a worm. It gets close to the worm, and the worm wiggles away. The bird seems nonplussed for a moment, then follows it and opens its mouth again.

This repeats a few times, and a text appears to explain what’s happening: when baby birds leave the nest, the only way food has ever gotten into their mouths up to that point has been from their parents putting it directly into their mouths. Apparently, there can be some confusion about how to make it happen on their own.

It’s pretty adorable unless, as I do, you horrifyingly see your current self in the baby bird.

But the bird’s probably got it easier than you or me. We all see the straightforward solution to its plight, and we know that it will eventually figure it out. It’s got instinct on its side, after all.

For me as for many others, those open mouths might stay open for a very long time. I know I’m the bird, but what’s the worm? In my case, it’s a symbol for nourishment: work that can get me the things I need like food, shelter, and possibly massages.

The video showed up for me during what’s turning out to be quite a rough time. As a writer and translator, I’m a contract worker everywhere; though I’m constantly on the lookout, I haven’t managed to nail down an actual full-time job with fair pay or benefits. It seems my generation was 10-15 years too late to the good employment party…what a difference I see between the opportunities of those currently in their 50s and 60s and my generation!

For most of the year, things have been great: I’m good at what I do and have had a constant stream of assignments that have kept me living well (in Mexico, anyway) and able to provide myself and my family with the benefits that a job won’t, like health insurance and some meager savings.

But since October, things have gone down. I’ve gone from being constantly busy with tons of fun work to having almost nothing to do, and am facing some very serious financial setbacks very soon if something doesn’t change.

Being in Mexico means that most new job offers want to pay much less than the going rate (“You don’t need that much, you’re in Mexico!” being the main assumption).

I’m officially “hired” at several different places (never put all your eggs in one basket, as they say!), but I can’t force anyone to actually give me work assignments. The word for the past couple of months has been, “Sorry, we don’t have anything for you right now…but we’ll let you know!” In the meantime, my savings are dwindling and there’s no new money coming in. Like that little bird, I can’t oblige anyone to give me work, no matter how willing and talented I may be. If I stay a contractor forever, this will be my working reality forever. I just can’t seem to get that steady job worm to hop into my mouth, and I’m not sure how to scoop it up myself.

Humans being the superstitious creatures they are, and me being human, I’m of course trying to find some meaning in all this.

Is it a sign? The message from the gods would seem to be to not depend on outside employment for income, but how do I “do my own thing” and make enough money at it to live?

I’ve long dreamed of becoming a professional organizer and decorator, which is another creative passion of mine: making places beautiful. But how, especially when I live in a place where people would likely not be able to afford what I’d need to charge to make it a real business and not simply volunteer work? And more importantly, how do I get money to support myself and my family in the meantime? It’s not that I’m trying to make excuses to wiggle my way out of a new venture, I just need to see a path where we’ll get to keep eating while I figure it out.

How, oh how, do I scoop up that little worm?

To end, here’s another great meme I saw, in the form of a headline (the satirical news site Reductress always brilliantly saves the day): “‘I Need a Second Job,’ Says Woman Who Actually Needs Different Economic System.”

Ah. There it is.

The House

My sister told me that she dreams of the house we grew up in all the time.

“That’s weird, I’ve never dreamed about it.”

My most recurring dream, though, is always about houses. In them, I’m in a house that, were it not in a dream, would be unbelievably creepy. Sometimes these are houses I know and have been in before, and other times they’re places that I haven’t seen — at least not consciously — in my waking hours.

When I’m inside these dream houses, I’m excited. In my dream, I’ve just remembered: oh yeah, this is my house!

I then proceed to come up with decoration ideas for each and every room, and almost always, additional rooms appear as I walk through it and I think “ah, of course! How could I have forgotten about this one? I can do so much with this.” I do this until I wake up, never actually beginning the decoration process.

Since I told my sister that I never dreamt of that house (which was only a week ago), I’ve dreamt of it three different times. The dreams are never very nice. I’m always stuck in it somehow, unable to make changes and feeling vaguely unsafe, usually with some gross task (last night, it was cleaning up piles of poop, which isn’t drastically different from one of the actual tasks I did there).

While my recurring dreams seem like an obvious metaphor for my subconscious, the dreams about this house seem like one for the constrictions of everyday life: feeling the limitations, the unfairness, the need for some kind of yet-unknown wily trick in order to escape it.

I had a great time during my sister’s visit, but since she left, the stress of everyday life has been closing in: the places I normally work (always as an independent contractor, though I’d much rather have a “regular” job) have suddenly stopped giving me much work, seemingly all at the same time. My partner is stressed and sad, his own business plans not panning out. There’s more to be done, certainly — the universe is full of infinite possibilities, and at least to some extent, the economy — but trying to explore and try out new avenues when you’re against the clock and oh, so stressed is like trying to run a race through molasses. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but there are some major walls of cortisol to break through, and the evidence is clear: a lot of people simply don’t and just spiral down instead. Social problems disguised as individual problems abound.

The house we left was beyond any repair that we were able to give it, and there was no choice but for my dad to abandon ship. The roof needs to be redone, there are holes everywhere, and it’s infested with rats, so much so that I needed to wear a mask while working inside of it to keep from getting a headache from the fumes. Luckily, the new buyers are enthusiastic about it and have the means to fix it and make it beautiful again in ways that wouldn’t have been possible for us. My dad moved into a place not without problems, but that at least doesn’t have rats or a leaky roof.

Will we also be able to escape a sinking ship? My dream world seems to have its doubts.

This Old Cat

This year, for the first time, I can feel my body actively aging. My feet hurt to walk on when I first get up. I noticed this week that my left eye is not seeing clearly anymore, even with my glasses or contacts. My muscles are stiff. I’ve easily put on 20-25 pounds in the past six months. Yikes!

I’m torn between resisting turning my body into a project and really wanting to feel (and look) good. The psychological gymnastics around it are tricky. I don’t care about how other people look: they can be fat, wrinkly, and slow, and it 100% does not matter because I can easily accept that everyone is just human. Why can’t I extend that grace to myself?

Admittedly, I’ve let myself go, which is a loaded phrase but an accurate one: it’s as if my body were a house that simply hasn’t been cleaned or paid any attention to, a sin I’d never allow to fall upon a physical space where I reside.

So, it’s time to clean up. My body is my home, after all. This morning I followed a yoga video, and it was hard, a new experience for me. I’ll get my eyes checked later on today. And I’m going to have to eat in a way that “cleans” me as well, rather than stuffing every inch of my digestive system with too much sugar. I’ve been most successful eschewing it completely, and I think that’s what I’ll need to go back to: treating it like an alcoholic treats alcohol.

I’m okay with getting older, but my goodness, not with feeling uncomfortable all the time. A poem I read once had the author referring to her aging body as “this old cat,” which I like: older, maybe a tad lazier, but always able to find what feels good, and always elegant. To cathood!

Snippets, Installment 1

Note: I’m going to give shorter, “soundbite” blogs a try for a bit, and try to post every few days rather than every few weeks. Longer than tweets and statuses, but shorter than essays. Why? Partially, because I have few illusions about our collective attention spans. And partially because sometimes I’ve just got a bit to say, and not everything has to be fleshed out. So here’s the first:

In meditation, and in yoga, you’re supposed to concentrate on the breath; the breath will ground you. I’m still not very good at “quieting the mind,” and my feelings of anxiety just don’t allow me let go of the things I’d like to be able to, even temporarily, because they feel like emergencies.

Isn’t it just so unfair that when you feel bad, life punishes you by making you feel worse?

Things go badly – things that might even affect your ability to survive – and you get stressed. You’re stressed, so your body tenses. Your body tenses, and you get headaches, and fatigue, a higher susceptibility to illness, and a primal drive to overeat until your pants don’t fit your anymore. You gain much more weight than you should, and then you’re more fatigued and unhealthy, and then stressed about it, which leads to more bad feelings. “Oh, you’re not doing so well?” says life. “Why don’t we just keep that going.”

It’s totally unfair, and I’m mad about it. This game sucks.

All the Money, Part II

One of the headline news stories in the New York Times the other day was about the Providence hospital system, a “non-profit” organization required by law to provide free care to patients who make 300% below the poverty rate.

The deal they have with the IRS is that “in exchange for not paying taxes, they must provide free care to the poor in the communities they serve.”

Apparently, this is not what’s happened, and they’ve been exposed for hounding patients into paying for their care after all (sans itemized bills, of course) and sending them to collections agencies. Many of the patients’ credit scores are ultimately ruined. Doing this was, of course, illegal, but guess who paid for it? Absolutely no one… except for the victims. Doesn’t this just seem to be the way things work lately?

My mother worked at Providence Hospital in Waco after training as a respiratory therapist in the ‘90s, her first truly middle-class job. She liked her work and was proud of what she’d accomplished in learning an in-demand skill that could support herself and her daughters.

Still though, at least from what I can piece together from my memories, she was forced to take on debt to keep all the moving pieces together.

She switched jobs a couple of times as she moved up the ranks in reputation for her work, but in the spring of 1996, was fired, essentially scapegoated for a higher-up’s consistent mistakes with patients.

I first remember us getting several calls a day from collections agencies as a middle school student. In the beginning, I’d dutifully and politely pass the phone to my mother when asked. She’d try to tell me to say she wasn’t there, but I’d just stare helplessly as I tried to get her to take it (I’ve never been a good or willing liar).

Soon, she’d taught us to always say she wasn’t available for one reason or another when anyone called asking for “Miss DeVries” (always pronounced the wrong way), as they were always collections agency representatives.

I was not comfortable with it at all. I hated lying, and I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t just do what she was supposed to do so I wouldn’t have to. One time when I told a bill collector that she was “in the shower” he became aggressive. “I know you’re lying.” “No, I’m not!” I said nervously and hung up the phone. My heart raced for at least 15 minutes after that.

Now, I get it. And I wish I could apologize to my mom. She was literally doing the best she could, a realization that I think all parents hope their children have at some point in their lives.

It’s not that she simply didn’t feel like paying them back or was trying to chat anyone out of their money, which is what the cultural message was (and remains) about those who fail to repay their debts. But rent had to be paid, car payments had to be made, groceries had to be bought, and it would also be nice to give her kids some Christmas and birthday presents, which I now see she made a great effort to do.

I also see a few more layers of context at this point. First, the macro: our economy is built on debt; it enriches a lot of people and keeps things going, and keeps people spending on things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. If everyone decided to “be responsible” and not use debt to buy anything, our economy would collapse, full stop. When people can’t pay, we scold them, but if everyone ceased to use it because they can’t pay, this would all be over.

A bit closer to home for me was the debt post-divorce.

I remember several tirades growing up from my father as he railed against credit cards and credit card companies. “They want people to spend money they don’t have so they’ll have to pay back even more money!” I didn’t pay much attention since I didn’t totally understand the concept of credit; I just knew he was against it.

Fortunately, for him, he could afford to eschew the system entirely. If things got tight, and they often did, he could always obtain “personal” credit through his older family members, and was helped out in ways that counted for so much… ways in which I can’t even imagine being helped myself.

How must my mother have felt seeing him being gifted several cars over the years, as well as the house where he lived (to be fair, half the house officially belongs to my sister and I, which is the only inheritance I’ll see) as she struggled to support us, even with child support, as debt collectors kept her own phone ringing more than ten times a day for years? Did she know about the shoebox full of “IOUs” that my uncle once gave to my dad as a Christmas present, all his “debts” forgiven? And how much was she kept up at night worrying about how she’d get everything paid for and about her daughters’ obvious discomfort with “covering” for her several times a day as if she were some sort of criminal?

Thinking about it inspires so much sadness and compassion.

Things got better when she married my stepdad, another respiratory therapist. Suddenly, we had money to spare. We moved to a nicer apartment, and got a better car, finally trading in the only new one my mother had bought years later.

But then, double-tragedy struck: Richard had a heart attack and needed bypass surgery. Right around the same time, the hospital they both worked at shut down from one day to the next for mismanagement and fraud. It declared bankruptcy, and, as far as I know, completely got away with having let go all of its workers at once, as well as not having paid the insurance premiums that had been taken out of their paychecks. Low and behold: the surgery wouldn’t be covered by insurance after all, and they were both out of work. Back to square one.

They both got new jobs, but my mother was not the same. She started having some more serious health problems around this time, and they soon realized she couldn’t work. And though she was fainting frequently, hitting her head and breaking her bones, she was rejected for disability benefits; “falling” isn’t a disability, they said.

Our economy, after all, is not made to help people that aren’t in optimal working condition. It doesn’t matter if they’re sick and can’t work. Though she clearly couldn’t work, the assumption was that she was a drug addict who was trying to live off the government because she didn’t want to. No one gets lectured on “personal responsibility” more than those struggling to survive, it seems.

I’ve had much better luck than my mother. To start, I had a great mother who took care of me the way she never had been through a childhood of abuse so bad it was a wonder she even survived long enough to have us; I also had two great dads, and a grandmother who was often there to help fill in the gaps with our care (and payments for ballet classes and braces). My uncle, the one who forgave my father’s debts and gave him the house, paid for the college of his nieces and nephews in full, so I am mercifully not saddled with student debt.

I am saddled with debt now, though. Partially, it’s just life: it’s expensive. Sometimes you have to pay unexpected taxes, or travel to another country because your mother is dying, and those things can get you into just deep enough a hole that the “what the hell” effect kicks in (what’s a little more debt?). It’s usually later that you realize your financial optimism was not a great position, and an endless string of independent contractor and freelancer gigs stop being as consistent as they once were. Savings are accumulated, then spent plus some for rainy days that come because gigs are, by definition, not that steady. A global pandemic hits.

But debt collectors don’t stop calling. Money from the poor doesn’t stop rolling endlessly up to those who have more money than they could ever spend. And we’re the ones who feel bad about it.

An Old Poem for Translation Day

Apparently, it’s International Translation Day! (They really do think of everything.)

I’ve been working on another blog entry, but have been doing so much end-of-month paid work to make sure we’ll have enough money in November that I haven’t been able to edit it. Next week, it’s happening!

In the meantime, a poem from a few years ago, Saint Jerome’s Day. A lot has changed since I wrote it: a pandemic, a separation that’s still taking forever to transition to divorce, a new life. My daughter is older. But San Jerónimo is still being celebrated every year in nearby-Coatepec, the town that claims him as their patron saint.

Is it sand or sawdust

on the cobblestone streets?

San Jerónimo, patron saint of this agnostic translator and

way too concerned with women’s purity if you ask me

and plus, did you really tame that lion

because I find that hard to believe.

Laid out so beautifully, fleeting murals on the ground

of this still-small town in Mexico

ready for the cleansing by trampling

of the devout.

Dancing clowns

a make-shift monster of pine branches and burlap

boys showing off their strength

as they carry a 2-ton altar to the church

complete with their refrescos on top (offering or just a convenient carrying spot? I can never tell)

That kind of raw but self-conscious masculine energy

has always made me nervous

It’s way scarier to me than the one who cracks the whip

in front of my delightful drunk friend, trying to get a picture in the middle of the procession.

or the day-fireworks, all bark and nothing to look at

My daughter sits inside the café wanting sweets

Other times on her father’s shoulders shouting “¡Mira!” as this procession we don’t understand

marches and dances by

destroying the beautiful ground murals that

never would have lasted anyway.

Let’s not fear this transition and destruction anymore.

All the Money, Part 1

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about the connection between debt and shame. I then spent about an hour in the comments section. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about it carefully before, but something about it hit me.

This particular article was about the hypocritical rage of those who thought everyone should “pay their own way” (legislators accepting millions in now forgiven PPP loans while nobody blinked an eye, anyone?) toward the not-so-lucky who’ve spent their adult lives buried under student debt, the principal of which most have already paid off and others have paid off several times over.

But really, I consider most debt advertised to the poor and lower-middle class as fair game for ample criticism. If workers’ wages had kept up with the rising prices of everything else, after all – hell, if they’d increased at the same rate their CEOs’ earnings had – almost no one would need debt in the first place. For the ultra-rich and sometimes for the merely well-off, debt is a tool. They can leverage it (and abandon it without being judged) to build their wealth.

If they lend money themselves, they can ensure continued monthly income as those much poorer than they struggle to pull together and send an ever-increasing monthly payment from their limited monthly earnings. Interest, of course, is what makes any “investment” worthwhile and what keeps debtors continuing those monthly payments far after the original amount borrowed has been covered.

For most of the rest of us, it’s a delicious-looking house made of candy in the middle of a punishing forest. What could go wrong? Time to carpe that diem…we already know that none of us are getting out of here alive.

Spending is emotional. It’s also social. To refuse to take on debt is to face this difficult question: to what extent are you willing to not let yourself or your children be included in the name of playing it safe? And what, are you not going to buy them Christmas presents this year? The cultural messages are maddeningly contradictory: if there’s anything worse than spending money you don’t have, it’s not providing your children with absolutely everything in your power to provide.

Then there are the intentional (as opposed to latent) forces outside of you. With one hand, an offer of credit, easy, that speaks to the optimist in you. Of course things will be better for you in the future! How could they not?

With the other hand, elaborately-crafted advertising to make you feel just awful if you miss out, or worse, cause your children to miss out.

But then comes a third hand from behind the back, the archetypal devil coming to collect the soul you sold him much later when the effect has worn off: “You knew what you were getting into; what makes you think you should get to walk away from your responsibilities, hmm? What kind of person are you, anyway?”

The above, of course, is debt that’s more or less taken on consciously but unnecessarily. Lots of people take it on very necessarily as well: a job loss, an illness, a car emergency. When you don’t have a lot of resources, and many hard-working people don’t and won’t, the debt itself becomes one of your only resources (while it lasts) – a lifeline. These are the personal, micro-reasons, but we forget that there are macro-reasons one might require it, too: wages that haven’t increased with the price of living. Institutional racism. The failure of your ancestors to have both produced wealth and grown it exponentially to pass down to you. The failure to have a family that could have your back if you really needed it.

So as a society, we’re more comfortable talking about what most of us would see as “justifiable debt” – debt that can’t be helped, like to go to school or from medical bills even when we have insurance – than debt that came about from what we might consider bad decisions, like from buying unnecessary items on credit cards. It’s the same way we embrace a biological explanation of homosexuality (they were literally born that way!) but feel uneasier explaining women who have simply decided that they’re only going to be romantically involved with other women now to the religious right. Nuance has never been our specialty.

When it comes to consumer debt, our moral twisting gets uncomfortable. As a species, we don’t collectively appreciate difficult, multi-layered explanations, and the purpose of those exercises anyway is usually to arrive at a moral judgment.

But there’s a long list of ways, if you look closely, that this system of debt is here very much on purpose. If we must blame someone, I think our cameras are aimed at the wrong subjects.

Personal finance courses, for example, have never formed part of public school programs in a way that would make us believe the “powers that be” don’t actually want us to be falling into these traps. That’s because ensuring that people fall into them is by design: debt is what keeps this economy going, and what keeps a specific set of pockets filling each month while most others are quickly emptied.

That might be a cynical view, but far more cynical, I think, is setting up traps for people to fall into and then wagging fingers at them for having fallen in.

I have more to say on this subject on a personal level, but will be saving it for my next blog; I have no illusions about our collective attention spans for writing over 250 words in length. For those of you who’ve stuck to the end, thank you! More to come.

My Gross Angel

I have a dog named Lola. The name doesn’t suit her; she’s not coy or mysterious. She’s cute, but she’s the opposite of fancy, and I think we can all agree that Lola is a name for someone fancy. She’s scraggly, anxious, and needy. Like all dogs, she wears her heart on her…paw.

When I brought her to live with me, they’d been calling her “Bola” because of how she’d roll herself up into a little ball to rest. “Bola” can also mean “boil,” as in, on the skin, the idea of which grossed me out so much that I had to change it. “Cola” would have been cute, but in addition to soda (as in, Coca-Cola), it means “tail” or “ass,” neither of which seemed like a polite name to give a companion.

So Lola it was.

We don’t know a lot about Lola’s past, but we do know that she must have been abused by some pretty scary and mean people, and we know that they must have been men. Years later, it still takes at least three or four visits of consistently displayed calm, positivity, and earnest desire before she’ll let a man go anywhere near her. She won’t bite, she’ll just run away in panic, looking to me for protection.

Lola follows me everywhere. I am her goddess, her queen. If I leave, I’m told she spends a few minutes whining about it. She’ll settle for my partner and my daughter if I’m not around, and she seems to like our housekeeper almost as much as she does me; the days that Ana comes are the only ones that Lola’s not glued to my side. When I come home, she celebrates as if I’ve just returned from the dead, even if I’d only stepped out for five minutes.

Sometimes, this annoys me. I like being accompanied, but I’m one of those “introverted extrovert” types that enjoys a bit of space from time to time. When I try to be an absent millennial zombie, scrolling through my phone or even reading on my computer on the couch, Lola comes and pushes my hand with her little nose. “It seems you’re in the mood for petting something. I would like to remind you that unlike the phone and the computer, I love you. Your gadgets won’t snuggle you back or adore you. Choose me.”

Often this happens when I’m quite busy – I’m usually quite busy – and it exasperates me. Having dependents means that you are always needed; it means that your time is never exclusively your time. This is simultaneously exhausting and magical, a dynamic that can draw out your humanity while also making you feel resentful.

But when I feel like shoving Lola to the other side of the couch, I remember the child version of myself. My sister and I were obsessed with dogs. We’d had dogs at different points in our childhood, but neither we nor anyone in our family knew how to train them, so we never felt we had the “right” dog.

We’d often find strays on out-of-town visits somewhere that would follow us around and beg our parents to take the dog home with us. The answer was always no – they had plenty of other things to take care of – but we dreamed of a dog who would adore us, who would not only not run off as soon as the door was opened in search of adventure, but who would always come when called, who’d be by our sides constantly, who’d bow to us as royalty, gaze up at us with affection, spend every waking moment looking for a way to express to us its love.

So when Lola annoys me…when she won’t leave me alone, when I’ve discovered that in her anxiety or because it was raining in an extra terrifying and wet way outside she’s once again peed on the sofa or a pillow or the carpet – hey, I’m not perfect, either – I try to remember that she’s literally a dream come true: my very own adoring, disgusting angel who would move heaven and earth just to sit at my side.

Is THIS Manifesting?

A couple of months ago, we moved to a new house.

And not just any house; really, it’s a palace. Look!

There are few material things as important to me as the place I live. I will spend countless hours and dollars to make sure that the physical space I call my own is as beautiful, functional, and organized as it possibly can be. I simply cannot feel at peace or even focus on anything else until I do this; for me trying to do go about my business before it’s happened is like trying to go back to sleep in the wee hours of the morning when you really, really have to pee.

Part of this, I know, is because of my own background and childhood. I grew up in a house that was always messy, perhaps two levels below hoarder status. The floors were always covered with layers of read newspapers and dirty dishes that took forever to get to the sink and dishwasher, and every surface seemed to always be covered by geological layers of papers, plastic bags, clothing items, more dishes, and random items that had been brought in and not found a place to live.

I don’t blame my parents, least of all my mother. My mom, who all that constant cleaning work unofficially fell to (even now, few people say, “how can he allow his house to even get to that state?” while most would ask that exact question of a woman) was often depressed and overwhelmed after a tragically traumatic childhood. She literally did not have it in her to do more than she was doing, which was already a lot with two kids and a job.

My father seemed to simply not notice if things were clean or not; if he did, he certainly never thought that straightening up was a good use of his time. Like many men of his generation, he was simply used to his environment being taken care of by (female) others.

So for a while, I thought a messy house was normal, and that my grandmother, who we spent a lot of time with, was exceptionally, perhaps obsessively, clean.

But once I got to an age where I started spending time at friends’ houses, I realized that we were the abnormal ones. I would marvel at their neat living rooms and the way that dishes were immediately cleared off the table and washed, the couch clear of loads of laundry, the clothing neatly put away in the closets.

It still took me several years to realize that I could personally be the one to make this happen in my home – you’ve got to teach kids these things by showing them and then making them – but once I saw how a house (with kids, even!) could be, I was obsessed with making sure I’d live in such a place someday.

When we moved to Fort Worth suddenly for my mom’s job (I was 14), I made it happen for the first time, and it was like magic. What a difference having a clean, decorated space made! Everyone felt happier, especially my mom, and I was no longer embarrassed to have people over to visit; now I was proud.

I’ve been obsessed with making the various places I’ve lived in just so ever since; it is the first thing I do anywhere. A place that’s already beautiful helps, but even a windowless basement apartment can be made suitable and even charming. Because as far as I’m concerned, getting one’s physical space in an ideal state is basically witchcraft. What a difference it makes, what a cleansing of the spirit!

I have the confidence – I know – that I will always live in beautiful places the way I’m supposed to know and feel other things I want, “believing with the deepest part of my being” (a la The Secret) in things I want to bring about in my life.

I’ve talked about my worries around the concept of manifesting before, and about how I’m skeptical of the whole thing. The completely rational part of me dismisses it outright as bullshit. But the part of me (in everyone as part of the human condition, I’m convinced) that yearns to believe in magic and gods keeps popping up and saying, “Could it be? This looks like evidence, after all…”

And if it is, how can apply the kind of “knowing” I have around my living space to the kind of “knowing” I’d need for other things? I’m not good at believing things that I don’t already believe, after all, before there’s any evidence for it.

But I wonder. What if I worked on other parts of my life with the same confidence and sense of “this will get done, there is no question” that I did on this part? And how might I go about that before I really truly believe in the same way?

All questions to ponder…while I finish this rainbow mural in my kid’s room.