Still Standing in the Doorway

I was admiring the roses when I read the news. They were beautiful, and a deep, almost salmon, pink, just opening, and completely unblemished. How is it possible that three dollars can buy twelve perfect long-stemmed roses?

I was lost in their beauty, and lost in loving the life I live when I broke away as I often do for the summons of my phone. I was stunned to read that a well-known, often-referenced veterinary behaviorist had committed suicide. She had hung herself, at age forty-eight. Two years younger than me. I didn’t know her, but I had read her papers and watched her videos. She was a gentle and kind soul, a veterinarian who had gone into small animal practice after school only to be struck with the realization that so, so many euthanasias happen because of behavioral issues. Cats that pee outside the box. Dogs that are fearful and aggressive. She went back to school to try to figure out how she could help, and she did, likely thousands of people and their pets. But for some reason it wasn’t enough, and a couple of days ago the pain of getting up and doing it again for one…more…day…seemed, at that point, too much. And at that moment, ending her life was for her, the best choice.

Please don’t mistake me. I don’t pretend to understand. I only tell you that I have looked down into the abyss. I have safely trodden the rim, and have never considered stepping in, but I do know what despair looks like.

Perhaps more than any other medical professionals, the veterinarians I know, myself included, take our failures hard. And I don’t just mean failing because we don’t know enough, or we aren’t good enough. I mean failing to help. And it doesn’t even seem to matter if help was even possible. I’ve seen vets despair when euthanasia is the only humane option, for a pet that they’ve extended the life of multiple times. I’ve seen vets despair when it’s the only option for a pet and an owner they’ve just met thirty minutes prior. For reasons I don’t understand, we hold ourselves to unrealistic ideals and expectations that we set ourselves, and that no one could possibly measure up to.

I write this not because I have the answer. I don’t. But I have felt the despair. It would be a lie for me to tell you that I have contemplated suicide, and thank God I haven’t. I am lucky to have people who love me, and need me, and cherish my presence here on Earth. I come home after terrible days, filled with death and sickness and people who just wish they had never gotten the pet that they have, and I am enveloped in love. I am listened to, and I am cared for. Afterwards, somehow it all gets filed in its place. Maybe Sofia Yin didn’t have that. I can’t imagine living without it.

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A 36 year-old me, wearing some sweet overalls I bought in India and waiting in the Kathmandu airport on a plane that would take me high up in the Himalayas. The plane was late, and that was a problem, because if we didn’t take off before noon the plane would certainly crash in the mountains,given the high winds that kicked up everyday around that time. We landed safely, and I embarked on a life-altering journey.

I decided to become a vet while trekking through the Himalayas. My husband and I were a little more than mid-way through a year of travel, and I had left behind a successful and lucrative career in software sales. It was fine, and I liked it. There was no reason not to plan to return to it. Except that I kept thinking that perhaps I had “phoned it in”, as they say, and not really looked for what I wanted in a career, and that perhaps I had just taken the job that was offered. It’s funny how getting away for a time opens your mind to possibilities, and makes you think about the choices you’ve made in life.

So there I was, wandering through the Himalayas. Not truly wandering, because there was a guide, and an ill-defined path, but at this point in the ten day journey there were big, wide-open spaces, and it was hard to get lost. Scree fields, and swift rivers to cross over suspension bridges, and long, flat rock fields. And for some reason Wiley and I were hiking separately, with a distance of a quarter mile or more between us. I don’t know if he was lost in his thoughts, but I most assuredly was.

I was thinking more and more, obsessively if you will, about the idea of becoming a veterinarian. I hadn’t told anyone, not even Wiley, that it was on my mind. It seemed long past crazy. I had spent more than ten years in software, investing time in becoming who I thought I was. The thought of pursuing another career – wait, not just another career, but one in a completely separate field, and one requiring six more years of schooling – seemed ludicrous.

As I walked I started thinking about how six months or so prior we had been in the jungles of Peru. We had traveled the Amazon River to see wildlife and the people who lived there, but also to experience a ceremony involving a centuries-old hallucinogenic drink called ayahuasaca. There were six of us involved in the ceremony, a group that included me and Wiley, as well as a West Point army physician and his wife. It turned out to be a fairly horrific experience, and I was not only the only one in the group not to puke but also the only one to experience visions. I saw ancient Peruvians in the room, and they were handing me gifts, which I could not see, but somehow knew to be important. They were as real and three-dimensional to me as anyone else in the room.

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Circa 2000, me and Sebastian the dog who lived at our lodge in the Amazon in Peru. He and I got along famously. Maybe he knew something I didn’t at the time.

The next morning I told the shaman who had facilitated our journey about my visions. She told me that people often see very ancient people during ayahusaca experiences, but beyond that didn’t offer any real insight other than that it meant that I was developing a connection with my past. And then she looked at me and told me, in a matter of fact manner, that I was a healer. Startled, I said no, I sold software. But she insisted that I was, and then corrected herself to say that I was meant to be. So on that day in the Himalayas I was thinking of her as well, and what she had said to me that morning.

You pass only a few people, and maybe a couple of yaks as you’re walking in the Himalayas. The day was startlingly brilliant, and the sky was completely void of anything other than the sun. We were trekking though an area that was somewhat boxed-in compared to some of the wide-open fields we had been through the previous days.

Let me interject and say that I’m one of the most grounded people you’ll meet. I don’t really believe in fate, or luck, and I often struggle with the existence of a higher power, although I’m not ready to write that one off quite yet. My supernatural experiences, a la séances and summonings, ended pretty much simultaneously with my slumber party days, packed with my Ouija board. I don’t believe in ghosts, or witches, or even visions, for that matter. My rational mind most definitely has the upper hand at any given time.

I remember glancing upwards and to my left, to see a sheer granite face rising one hundred yards from the valley floor. There I saw, as clearly as if it were real, written in a cursive style of hot pink and turquoise letters reminiscent of something adorning Barbie’s dream house the phrase:

Why the Hell Not???

I stopped, and I stared at the message for several seconds, then shut my eyes, shook my head, and opened my eyes back up. The message was gone, but it’s clear to me that it had been real, and that it was addressed to me. The intent seemed clear, and I interpreted that vision to mean that there was really nothing stopping me from going to vet school, and that somehow I was meant to be a vet, and it was high time I got on with things.

Once I got home and started figuring out just how one goes to vet school, I began to understand what I was up against. At the time there were only twenty-eight vet schools in the U.S. and Canada, and despite having class sizes that varied from 80 to 130, each of them got over 1000 applications per year. And having a business degree meant that I had to complete at least three semesters of required classes in subjects like organic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology, before even applying.

But somehow I got in, and here I am. And I’m desperately in love with my career, but I can also see why it might possibly drive someone to contemplate ending their life, as hard as that is for me to say. The emotions I feel on a daily if not hourly basis while doing my job – despair, joy, anger, fear – are not for the unstable, or those without a network of support. The rewards are many, but the price is great. They told us at graduation that to those whom much is given, much is expected, and they were right.

So I want to write a book. Because I think that maybe people like Sofia Yinn, while they had so much to give, got very little back, and that’s just wrong. And it breaks my heart to think that others like her, with such talents and such gifts, might succumb to the despair, without seeing the light, without recognizing that they do so much good everyday of their lives. Without giving themselves back some of the love and caring they so freely give out to others. Perhaps it will be therapy for me as well.

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Prayer flags and a Himalayan peak. Peace lives here.

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At Least I’m Enjoying the Ride

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St Michael, the archangel, patron saint of San Miguel. Or at least his likeness. Apparently he stepped on the devil and sent him back to hell, right here in San Miguel.

Perhaps I flatter myself that you think of me, but you may have noticed that my postings to this nugget of literary goodness have dwindled as of late. Gone are the weeks when I was able to get at least two blog posts up, and several witty Tweets and Facebook postings to boot. I just covered one eye and peeked at my WordPress dashboard, and egads, my last post was on September 27th.

But whether it shows or not, I put a lot of thought into these posts. In fact, at times I would compare producing them to giving birth. After a while I just want them out, even if potentially paralytic drugs or surgery are required, but I’m also a lot little on the type-A side, and I can’t just spew words and hit “publish”. So I walk around town and I contemplate, and I write a little, and then I come back to what I’ve written and hope to find some meaning there, unfortunately sometimes not for days.

A New York Times article recently made the social media rounds. It told the story of a man who made a video during an emergency on a JetBlue flight in which one of the engines blew and the cabin filled with smoke. He obediently strapped on his oxygen mask and promptly pulled out his iPhone and recorded the entire event for YouTube. I just checked YouTube, and as I write this over a million people have watched this guy’s video.

By the way, I’ve heard more than enough about the airline at this point to convince me to avoid JetBlue at all costs. But I digress.

The ultimate point of the New York Times article was to ponder the question of whether we are all spending our time recording history instead of living it. While more than many people I appreciate the importance of documenting our lives, I agree that we might consider some restraint as we load the cloud with footage of our kid struggling through “Fur Elise” at a piano recital or another moment of a cat doing anything.

I once watched a fellow tourist videotape (yes, this was in the days of actual video recorders with actual, tiny tape cartridges in them) an entire Balinese dance. It was well over 2 hours of subtle head-bobs, foot stomping, and eye movements (Balinese dance is not for adrenaline junkies, I need to point out). Three thoughts kept me from concentrating on the show: 1.) Who is going to have to watch this once this guy gets home? 2.) God, the light from his screen is annoying!, and 3.) Does he get AT ALL the irony of watching what’s happening real-time in front of him on a 2″x3″ screen?

So I’ve been living my life, clearly as opposed to recording it, and it’s gotten quite full, actually. In the years following his retirement, my father-in-law was fond of saying that he did not know how he ever had time for a job, because his retirement activities kept him so busy. At the time we laughed uproariously over the idea that one could actually be busier in retirement than in full-time employment. I am now, however, perhaps seeing his side of things.

I’m sure you’re all getting misty-eyed over the thought of how busy I am while I spend a year not working. It’s doubtful that there are any adults who haven’t fantasized about how they’d like to pull a Johnny Paycheck and tell the boss where to put it. But how would you spend your time, if you weren’t working? Would you volunteer? Would you learn to knit? Feed the homeless? Drink more? Drink less? Write a book? Exercise until your abs resurface?

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The Alborada, one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. It started at 4 AM and consisted of 2 things: people having fireworks flung at them from the front of the cathedral, and people in motorcycle helmets repeatedly firing rockets into the air. For one. solid. hour. Again, in honor of Michael, the Fun Archangel!

All have their merits, although some are more worthwhile than others. Ultimately you have to decide what is most important to you and prioritize. Because the honest truth is that once you announce to the world that you have free time it won’t be, for long. There are so many things to do here in San Miguel – take art classes, learn Spanish, volunteer, hike, bike, eat, drink, study culture and history, or just sit in Parque Benito Juarez and enjoy the brilliant fall weather.

As a veterinarian I have some unique gifts to share, and it’s never hard to find someone who needs them, and there’s certainly plenty of need in Mexico. I volunteer every Thursday at the local animal shelter. It’s been extremely heart-wrenching but also rewarding. I’ve seen more parvo virus in 2 months than I saw in seven years of practice in Colorado. I have NEVER seen distemper in my life, but I’ve seen several cases here already. Both are preventable with appropriate vaccination. But whether people don’t know or don’t care about vaccinating their animals, many of them don’t in Mexico, and seeing a puppy die a completely avoidable death is terrible, and I’ve seen it much too often. But I’ve also spayed and neutered lots of animals, and treated lots of sick ones.

I got a free pass to go to a big veterinary meeting being held about an hour and a half away in Leon, and Roxanda, the vet from the shelter, and I went together. It was very cool being back with colleagues, walking through the exhibition hall, and hearing a few lectures. In the weirdest case of small-world syndrome I’ve ever seen, one of my own professors from CSU, Howie Seim, was lecturing on surgery, and (bonus!) in English!

I’ve also been able to get a regular workout routine established, which is wonderful. Three days a week Wiley and I work out at a gym just down the street from Wiley IV’s school. We kiss him goodbye, then workout, finishing up just before nine in the morning. Add on the walking I do, usually at least seven or eight miles daily if you believe my FitBit, and I’m probably in the best shape of my life.

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Me, doing something I think that’s called a pike, on an iron ring. This was right after I started circus class. I can do many more potentially dangerous things now.

About six weeks ago I began to hear about a woman here in town who teaches circus tricks to adults and kids. Two of my friends harassed me into going with them one morning. It was scary and hard and painful, and I was hooked. The instructor, Ceci Corona, was a ballerina for years, and now she runs a local circus troupe called Gravityworks, and teaches circus to kids and middle-aged moms with a death wish, like me. After the first few classes I felt as though I had been run over, and most decidedly did not look like Cirque du Soleil material on the equipment. But I’m starting to get the hang of things, and it’s amazing how you develop strength in places that even working out with weights doesn’t touch. I doubt that I’ll run away and join the circus anytime soon, but I’m loving learning some cool moves and becoming more flexible.

And there’s lots of other stuff keeping me busy, like twice weekly Spanish tutoring, various school obligations and meetings (I somehow accepted an office in the PTA at Wiley’s school), and shuttling Wiley IV to guitar lessons or art class and to and from school. I also got inducted into a group of women writers who meet monthly to drink wine, eat dinner, and share our writings. Most of us would like to write a book and the group members help each other to coalesce ideas into themes and outlines. Oh yeah, and I decided I need to learn how to knit. In my free time.

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Dancers in the Feast of St. Michael (the Archangel, which is what I believe he prefers to be called) parade. It went on for over two hours and the variety of costumes and dancers was like nothing I’d ever seen.

Add to all of this my on-going obligation to CSU’s vet school admissions committee, for whom I’ll soon be reviewing over 150 applications, and the fact that I agreed to write copy for each of Wiley’s three company newsletters, and maybe you’ll start to see why I’ve been doing more living life and less writing about it. But I’m taking it all in, and keeping my eyes open, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the ride.