Grief Has Benefits

Alltime favOur fiercely smart and impossibly sweet golden retriever, McGyver, lost his short battle with cancer 21 months ago. In the days leading up to his passing I left his side only when I could no longer fend off the sobs I’d been holding back. “Goldens are stoic” our vet had warned and, because of this, I cried for the courage to face the unthinkable behind closed doors. I didn’t want McGyver to see me cry. I wanted him to know we – my husband Scott and I – were strong and resilient; that he could go and we’d be okay. It took eight days to convince him before he relaxed into permanent slumber.

Healing from the hurt has been a long road paved with such physical yearning I thought joy would never return. I admit to spending countless hours contemplating what I might do or trade for one last kiss on his nose: A deal with the devil that could end my longing. I also became obsessed with understanding the pain caused by the loss of our canine companion; endlessly Googling for reassurance I was not alone in my suffering.

Wedding

Not surprising there are plenty of articles offering advice and two in particular stood out – one champions getting a dog and the other sings the praises of grief.

In June 2017 Men’s Journal ran a piece titled “Life’s Just Better with a Dog” and writer Bronwen Dickey served up a solid case – nine good reasons – as to the “why;” starting with a history lesson on the human/dog relationship. It’s not new. Humans and dogs have relied on each other for thousands of years. Dickey muses, “Were it not for the protection and partnership dogs provided us, civilization might not have been possible.” It’s a bit heady, but I agree. The rest of her list seems spot on, too.

They help you chill. Yes, coming home to McGyver’s wagging tail (it could clear a coffee table) calmed me.

One might save your life. He likely saved mine numerous times. McGyver loved to run the trails with me and, on occasion, refused to go deeper into the woods. In every instance, he’d bite his leash, turn me around, and lead us both back to the safety of the house or car. I didn’t know what it was he sensed on the path ahead–a mountain lion, a bear, a person–but I never questioned his judgment.

BananaYou can find the right dog for you. He was the dog for us and we were the humans for him. This I know.

You’ll feel more understood. He knew sharing my morning banana with him, even though it annoyed me, was the right thing to do.

You can bring out your Dog’s inner dog. He was a Golden Retriever through and through. He only wanted to do right by us and when his impulsiveness got the better of him, he was the first to confess. The cat’s food bowl empty? He’d sit quietly, not making eye contact sorry his tummy hurt and that he’d disappointed us.

You’re more active. We were; exactly three miles a day more active.

They’re ready when you are. He was up for anything: hiking, the hardware store (treats come from red vest pockets), and even the office (celebrities were known to roam there).

Kitchen Cousins

McGyver with the Kitchen Cousins

Dogs are the last true social connector. Adults and kids were drawn to McGyver: people like Joe, an elderly neighbor, became part of our extended family because of McGyver.

The second article that caught my eye was a 2012 summary of a study by Scientists with the department of Psychological and Qualitative Foundations at the University of Iowa. Their findings suggest we grow and demonstrate enduring, positive change as a direct result of a painful experience.

The Scientists had made a connection between a “traumatic, life-changing event,” including bereavement, and a positive result, such as new possibilities or better relationships. In fact, in the face of “deep grief,” participants felt “a lift” as their empathy and perceptions changed. Perhaps the old adage I’m better for it is true.

The stretch of time after McGyver died is fuzzy. The sadness was all consuming and left a dark stain on the days, weeks, and months that followed. I keep a small bundle of his fur below an 8×10 image of him. His smell still lingers and when I close my eyes and bury my nose in the feathery tuft, he feels near.

The lessons McGyver taught me are also present: I live more in the moment than I ever have. I am a better wife, friend, and stranger. Despite the overwhelming grief his passing caused, I am better for caring and falling in reckless love with a puppy named McGyver more than a decade ago.McGyver Calkins4

R.I.P Warren Miller

01252018_Warren-Miller_081350-780x494Los Angeles seems an unlikely spot responsible for rekindling my love of skiing, but it was in a tiny, temporary apartment a block south of Artesia Boulevard where I discovered Warren Miller’s buttery voice and found motivation in his unrestrained passion for winter.

My roommate worked for his then small Warren Miller Entertainment on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and he floated me and our neighbor Al free tickets to the December 1987 showing of “White Winter Heat.” I was hooked. And Warren’s sign-off, “If you don’t do it this year, you will be one year older when you do” became my battle cry.

Not a winter has gone by where I haven’t sat excitedly, like a squirming kid in a crusty theater seat jones-ing for his movie and winter. And I haven’t missed a season since; I’ve even been fortunate enough to spend 100+ days sliding on snow for many of them, too.

Warren was brilliant: He made shredding down any slope – green or double black, on or off piste – cool and inclusive and relatably fun. Like that posse of 80-year-old’s skiing the powdery side-country of Washington State’s Crystal Mountain Ski Resort: Knee deep, blower conditions in one-pieces and grins all around. Or his spectacularly perfect capture of 70s ski-towns; the kitsch, the culture, and the rainbow suspenders.

Thanks to my Dad, I started skiing when I was 5 and, thanks to Warren, I plan to ski into my 90s. Rest in Peace Warren, you are already deeply missed.

 

Confessions of a San Francisco Writers Conference First-Timer

It’s a been almost a year since I attended the incredibly, amazing San Francisco Writers Conference and I’m still energized by the experience, the friends I made, and the work I’m doing to reach my publishing goals. While I’m not attending this year’s version, I wanted to (re)share my day-after musings from last year. Feel free to pass this along and if you’re on the fence about attending: Make. That. Leap. You’ll be so unbelievably glad you did!
Cheers,
Cathleen

Originally published February 20, 2017

5 “Day-After” Reflections

san-francisco-writers-conference

Cathleen Calkins / #SWFC2017

I just returned from my first writers conference, the four-day SFWC. As I mingled one last time in the gathering of more than 500 authors, writers, agents, editors, and publishing-types yesterday, I contrasted my pre- and post-conference self. I mean, like a memoir, the experience was transforming, and in atonement for last Wednesday’s version of me, I must confess a few things.

It didn’t kill me to wear a bra. The uniform of my days are jeans, a tank top, and a cardigan (I have them in every color), but I hate showing up under dressed. I compromised, followed along, and I liked it. Change is good and transformation is physical, too. I should probably wear bras and skirts and tights more often than I do.

I didn’t think I would like any of you people. That’s a terrible thing to write, but it’s true. I’m an overly-enthusiastic, shy person and in crowds the introvert in me rises to the surface like the foam on my morning latte; it’s a spongy layer but it always permeates the others.

At conferences, I can’t wait to escape to my room, curl up with a glass of wine and catch up on a channel I don’t subscribe to. It’s not that I don’t like to invest in others, I do. It is my niche; I write about people and places that matter and whose stories I’m passionate to tell.

And I almost made the same mistake believing this conference would be like any other, thinking these attendees are not my people. But writers, authors, editors, agents, publishing-types – you are my conference tribe and it feels so good to have found you, which leads me to my next confession.

I LOVE Networking. Seriously. I. Love. Networking. I love it so much it bears repeating.

I’ve always avoided any event centered on meeting other folks for the sole purpose of networking. Even organized work gatherings with people I know. I’m just not cool enough. I’m painfully awkward. I suck at engaging beyond hello, how are you. The list goes on. Until now; I discovered my secret weapon: I took myself along to this conference.

I was me and with new business cards in hand, I peppered the conference with me and collected the cards of you. It was organic. I talked to everyone – people in the restroom line, at breakfast, in the elevator, and in the wine aisle of a nearby convenience store. I even went to coffee with an Indian woman who writes young adult fantasy. But one encounter gave me Goosebumps.

After Anne and I exchanged pleasantries over braised salmon and mixed greens, she asked what I was pitching. A narrative non-fiction, in-the-footsteps of this guy in Russia, I explained using way too many “ums.” She seemed open so I continued with a few more details until she stopped me; oh, she smiled, I’m his descendant.

Goose. Bumps. (Got her card, too.)

Agents and Editors are not big, bad, scary people. They are quite lovely, actually.

When I signed up for the conference, I didn’t think I’d pitch any of my projects. Why bother? I wouldn’t have a stitch of time to finesse them into a remotely crisp or clear synopsis. I was wrong.

Caught up in the fervor of having a colored-dot on my name tag (the ‘I’m Pitching’ badge of honor), I honed the description for one project into a short and passionate pitch. I could never have done this without the insight and tips of the very same people I feared.

The good news: There was interest, which makes my heart sing and my head spin.

I can sleep when I’m dead. Head spinning is a kick in the pants. So is spending more than a minute with an 86-year-old author whose memoir of her solo travel through Saudi Arabia in the early 1960s is about to publish. So is getting out of bed and my pajamas, putting on my face, and attending one last workshop to practice my pitch with a small group of very tired literary agents.

I finished the not-yet-memorized sixty-second pitch in a flush of red. Their response: Overwhelming and good and oh-so very helpful.

It was thee transformational moment and there is no going back.

My Stint as a Ski Patroller (and Thursday Night Offender)

ski-patrol3Fat snowflakes swirl and fall around me in clusters. I feel like I’m moving through the center of a shaken snow globe. The effect is dizzying as I ski in the direction of my first wreck of the day (slang for an accident) towing an orange rescue toboggan behind me. In it are a backboard, oxygen, and not much else.

I locate the injured 21-year-old; he is sitting upright. His friend approaches me as I secure the sled across the fall line. “He hit hard,” the friend says. I nod, look around, and kneel beside the boy on the snow. “I’m Cathleen with ski patrol; may I help you?” I say, taking note of his measured breathing and that he’s holding his left side below the ribs with his right hand.

“I’m okay,” he labors; “really, I’m alright.” The boy is lucid but failing, and the friend pleads with him.

“I’m not going down in a sled,” the boy argues as his skin pales. Minutes fly past us and the snow continues to fall.

“I’m not a doctor, but I suspect you’ve got an internal injury,” I try. “Worst case, you could die; best case, you chill and ride tomorrow.” The boy is clear: he doesn’t want my help and I have no reason to force him.

“This is his new normal and anything off from here is bad,” I say to the friend, pointing at the boy on the snow. “If he vomits, has trouble taking a breath, repeats himself, passes out, forgets his name,” I exhale all at once; “take him to the Hospital.” The friend nods and the boy stands. They ride away, disappearing into the swirl of fat flakes.

skipatrol1At 31 I became a ski patroller at a busy resort 150 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It was a profession I had wanted to do ever since I was a kid in upstate New York. Every Thursday night from January to March busloads of teenagers from across the region took over Labrador Mountain and ski patrol was always ready to save us from ourselves.

My friends and I liked to ski a treed glade that separated the designated night runs. Populated and thick with willow and eastern white pine, only a narrow trail penetrated the shadows. It was off-limits and we thought that was cool.

In the middle of the forest was a small clearing with three knee-high stumps. It was our spot and, in the quiet of the night, we inhaled the cold. We also passed a joint and sipped from a flask filled with Southern Comfort stolen from our parent’s liquor cabinets. We were three adolescents caught up in the reckless theater of our young lives.

But our absence from the safety of the slopes was noticed; at the edge of the forest, a college-aged guy wearing a red vest with a white cross waited. Warm from the liquor and more than a little stoned, we’d come to a jumbled stop in front of him. He’d ask our names, our school, and what we were doing in the woods. “I’m showing my friends the trail I ski with my dad,” I’d say; it worked every time. He would admonish us to “stay out of the trees” and let us go. We were his Thursday night offenders.

ski-patrol

Before becoming a ski patroller, I signed up for the required first aid course. Twenty of us sat through five months of bi-weekly trainings in lifesaving techniques. We studied our A, B, C’s–airway, breathing, circulation–and D and E’s. Deformity? Expose. We became skilled at recognizing injuries based on their mechanism, or cause. Each had a lock-step first aid protocol. For a skier hitting a tree, the mechanism was sudden deceleration. While the range of injuries was vast, the life-saving action was simple: backboard and transport.

The class scared me. I remembered the night I drank too much during a foray in the forest with my friends. I hit a tree. Hard. The impact left a lump on my temple the size of a quarter and the left side of my chest felt spongy. I didn’t sleep that night and my head and side pounded for days. I had come close to sustaining permanent injury, but a future mired in my youth was never my intention.

My negligence compelled me to help others who found themselves in situations they never expected. Like the college student whose epic fall left his pupils like two mismatched drops of motor oil. His offense: skiing beyond his ability. Or the time I assisted a colleague after she located a man who had hit a tree. As we worked on him, the smell of weed hung in the cold air and empty beer bottles rolled from his pockets. His penance: never walking again. And the time I responded to a child falling from a lift. As I approached the tiny heap of girl, I repeated to myself, “no, please, not her, she’s so little, please God, no.”

patrol7Waiting to catch last chair, I recognize the friend from my morning. He returned to thank me. The boy on the snow had collapsed. “You were right,” the friend said. “I took him to the emergency room; he’s in surgery, ruptured spleen.” I hug him and it’s in that moment I’m grateful the recklessness of my youth left a lasting mark.

First Sentences are Important

housecleaner

Our brain is hard-wired for story. Great first sentences drag me into an author’s space and, word-by-word, propel me to the end. There are so many examples out there but the following reads this week reminded me of why I love great first sentences.

 

My grandmother was a mountain.
(From Carmen Maria Machado’s long-form essay “The Trash Heap Has Spoken: the power and danger of women who take up space.”)

I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make.
(From Lucia Berlin’s short-story Temps Perdu in “A Manual for Cleaning Women.”)

Sometimes what you get is not what you thought you wanted.
(Henry Alford’s New York Times Magazine (2010) essay “Appointment in Istanbul.”)

“There’s a lid for every pot,” my mum used to say when explaining my late-30s bachelorhood.
(Biff America (who doesn’t love Biff America) in Backcountry magazine’s “Seeking Love & a Trail Breaker.”)

Grizzly bears are hiding in the cornfield.
(Aaron Teasdale’s article in Sierra “Grizzly Bears are Making a Comeback – and Making their Human Neighbors Nervous.”)

Confessions of a San Francisco Writers Conference First-Timer

5 “Day-After” Reflections

san-francisco-writers-conference

Cathleen Calkins / #SWFC2017

I just returned from my first writers conference, the four-day SFWC. As I mingled one last time in the gathering of more than 500 authors, writers, agents, editors, and publishing-types yesterday, I contrasted my pre- and post-conference self. I mean, like a memoir, the experience was transforming, and in atonement for last Wednesday’s version of me, I must confess a few things.

It didn’t kill me to wear a bra. The uniform of my days are jeans, a tank top, and a cardigan (I have them in every color), but I hate showing up under dressed. I compromised, followed along, and I liked it. Change is good and transformation is physical, too. I should probably wear bras and skirts and tights more often than I do.

I didn’t think I would like any of you people. That’s a terrible thing to write, but it’s true. I’m an overly-enthusiastic, shy person and in crowds the introvert in me rises to the surface like the foam on my morning latte; it’s a spongy layer but it always permeates the others.

At conferences, I can’t wait to escape to my room, curl up with a glass of wine and catch up on a channel I don’t subscribe to. It’s not that I don’t like to invest in others, I do. It is my niche; I write about people and places that matter and whose stories I’m passionate to tell.

And I almost made the same mistake believing this conference would be like any other, thinking these attendees are not my people. But writers, authors, editors, agents, publishing-types – you are my conference tribe and it feels so good to have found you, which leads me to my next confession.

I LOVE Networking. Seriously. I. Love. Networking. I love it so much it bears repeating.

I’ve always avoided any event centered on meeting other folks for the sole purpose of networking. Even organized work gatherings with people I know. I’m just not cool enough. I’m painfully awkward. I suck at engaging beyond hello, how are you. The list goes on. Until now; I discovered my secret weapon: I took myself along to this conference.

I was me and with new business cards in hand, I peppered the conference with me and collected the cards of you. It was organic. I talked to everyone – people in the restroom line, at breakfast, in the elevator, and in the wine aisle of a nearby convenience store. I even went to coffee with an Indian woman who writes young adult fantasy. But one encounter gave me Goosebumps.

After Anne and I exchanged pleasantries over braised salmon and mixed greens, she asked what I was pitching. A narrative non-fiction, in-the-footsteps of this guy in Russia, I explained using way too many “ums.” She seemed open so I continued with a few more details until she stopped me; oh, she smiled, I’m his descendant.

Goose. Bumps. (Got her card, too.)

Agents and Editors are not big, bad, scary people. They are quite lovely, actually.

When I signed up for the conference, I didn’t think I’d pitch any of my projects. Why bother? I wouldn’t have a stitch of time to finesse them into a remotely crisp or clear synopsis. I was wrong.

Caught up in the fervor of having a colored-dot on my name tag (the ‘I’m Pitching’ badge of honor), I honed the description for one project into a short and passionate pitch. I could never have done this without the insight and tips of the very same people I feared.

The good news: There was interest, which makes my heart sing and my head spin.

I can sleep when I’m dead. Head spinning is a kick in the pants. So is spending more than a minute with an 86-year-old author whose memoir of her solo travel through Saudi Arabia in the early 1960s is about to publish. So is getting out of bed and my pajamas, putting on my face, and attending one last workshop to practice my pitch with a small group of very tired literary agents.

I finished the not-yet-memorized sixty-second pitch in a flush of red. Their response: Overwhelming and good and oh-so very helpful.

It was thee transformational moment and there is no going back.

Why I write.

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway

It occurred to me on a cloudy Wednesday morning that I needed to escape. The kind of getaway akin to being so engrossed in a story I can’t help but cheat and flip to the end to find out what happens. It was essential I lose myself in another place so I could expel an escalating melancholic energy; the sort of malaise that occasionally takes hold when a project I’ve been working on finishes or another I’m excited about falls through. Continue Reading