I truly enjoyed this conversation with Anita from Lez Talk About Books, Baby. We discussed gender fluidity, putting writing on hold, depression, imposter syndrome, and the amazing people who help me hold my life together when it feels as if it is falling apart,
On Valentine’s Day, 2006, I was visiting the animal shelter in St. Croix, US Virgins Islands. I was there to volunteer and I had no intention of coming home with a dog, let alone a puppy. I was a cat person; I liked low maintenance pets. I approached a cage full a tiny, yipping dogs. The shelter personnel told me the mother was dead and the puppies needed homes. There were nine of them, but the cacophony sounded like a circus of dogs.
I wasn’t a fan of small, yipping dogs. As I got closer to the cage, the uproar got worse and the yips reached a crescendo that nearly split my ear drums. The puppies were out of control. Except one. One little guy was silent. As I reached for the bars of the cage, he quietly stood on his back legs and nestled his head into the palm of my hand. Our eyes met and he slow blinked at me without taking his head from my hand. The shelter person said, “Would you like me to start the paperwork?”
When I got him home and took him for his first vet appointment, he weighed 3.4 pounds and had a belly full of worms. He was covered in ticks. I spent what seemed like forever combing ticks and flea off of him. He wasn’t walking correctly and he hadn’t yet mastered dry food.
Since he was so small, I named him Brutal Brutus the Destroyer. The shelter had told me he wouldn’t get much bigger so I wanted him to have a big name.
Our first few weeks were just about getting him healthy. One thing I didn’t have to do was acclimate him to me. He was my soul mate dog from the moment I picked him up. We went everywhere together. I never had to potty train him because he slept on my bed and would cry in the middle of the night when he needed to go out. He didn’t really need to be trained at all. He just wanted me to be happy with him. And I always was.
I was lucky enough to be working as the front desk clerk of a hotel that was closed for renovations so Brutie came to work with me. I carried him around in a giant purse and he accompanied me on errands and to the bar.
For an island dog, Brutie was not a fan of water. I spent many hours trying to teach him to enjoy swimming in that warm, beautiful Caribbean water, but while he would get in the water to be close to me, he would spend the rest of the time climbing up my arms to be out of the water. After getting him a life jacket and trying (and failing) to interest him in kayaking with me, I gave up on him being a water dog and settled for having a beach dog.
While he wasn’t a water dog, he was a hiking dog! Brutus loved to go on long hikes. My friend Aj and I often took him to the top of Blue Mountain and to St Croix’s old lighthouse. He once chased a herd of wild goats over the side of a mountain, giving both Aj and I mini-panic attacks until he popped back over the top with a goofy grin.
When we took him on longer hikes, we’d carry extra water and sometimes ice packs to make sure he never got overheated. Brutus learned to drink out of a squeeze water bottle. I’d call him over and he’d sit at my feet and wait for me to squirt the water at his mouth. Later, that would come to bite me when he went through a stage where he refused to drink from a water bowl in the house and I had to get him a moving water dispenser.
After hikes, Brutie got to hang out at beach bars with us where most of the restaurant owners knew him by name. He was a people dog and most of the time, I kept him off leash because he would never get far enough away from me to give me cause to worry.
Friends also had dogs and it was normal to go to someone’s beach party and be surrounded by half a dozen dogs. Brutie wasn’t that interested in playing with other dogs. Not that he didn’t like them. He was just a people dog.
In February, 2012, Brutus and I moved back to the United States and landed in Ohio in the middle of a snowstorm. For the first time in his six years, he saw the snow. My island dog took to it like he was born for the cold. He had a couple awful moments when he accidentally dunked his wiener in the snow while peeing, but after learning not to squat so far while peeing, he got past that. (Brutie’s never really did lift his leg and pee like a normal boy dog. He did a kind of modified superman pose when he was younger and later, as his hips started hurting a lot, he would just stand up and pee downward, mostly missing his feet.) Other than the initial mishaps, Brutie loved winter. We would go for hikes down to the frozen beach and he’d chased snowballs as long as I’d thrown them. In the states, we found his second favorite activity–Riding in the car. My sister gave me her old mini-van when I moved back and Brutie and I spent many long hours on the road with him sitting in the passenger seat, one paw up on the dashboard, looking ahead earnestly as if to say, “Those squirrels don’t stand a chance at eluding me now.”
We hiked backwoods in Michigan, National Park trails in Iowa, random woods in Wisconsin. We went to Yellow Springs, Ohio and North Dakota. We drove and walked and visited lots of friends and dogs. We lived for a few months in a camper in the woods. We stayed with my mom. We spent time at a Lake House. We drove, we walked, we drove
Sometimes, we’d get to go to visit Aunt Aj, who had since moved back to the states from the Virgin Islands, as well. Aj was Brutie’s best friend – while I was his mom, Aj was his bud. When we’d visit her, or later, when she’d visit us at the Blue House, Brutie would simply follow her around as she’d do chores around the house and cry at the door after she left.
On October of 2014, we bought a house and settled down in Lansing, Michigan. We got a cat. Brutie was none too please about the cat, but I think he was happy to settle down in his own home. We had a nice yard and a big park with walking trails on the next street. He was almost nine by then and our walks were not quite the massive undertakings they had been.
In 2016, I met my future wife and Brutie (and Gordo the cat) and I started the long process to becoming a Canadian resident. The traveling dog became a traveler again as we would drive across the border to visit Joy every other weekend. On alternate weekends, Joy came to Michigan and somehow, Brutie would always know when she was getting close because he would run to the door every few moments as she neared the end of each trip. While we were road-tripping and dealing with immigration, Brutus was diagnosed with diabetes. We went on a routine of twice daily struggles to get him to eat so he could get his shot. Then he went on pills for his hip pain. We spent way more time napping than hiking.
Finally, in March of 2019, I got my permanent resident card. We tolerated just over two months in Joy’s tiny studio apartment and in May, Joy and I packed all of our stuff and the two boys into our sprinter van and drove from St. Catharine’s, Ontario to Princeton, British Columbia. Brutus was, as always, the ultimate road trip dog. He got to take a short hike to Lake Louise along our trip and he also had the excitement of watching bears cross the road in front of us while driving through Banff National Park.
Brutus thrived in Princeton. We had him out every day on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail. When the walks were too long, we put him in a giant dog stroller where he could rest, but still get out. He splashed through the river, chased deer, and got to meet marmots for the first time in his life. He thrived in the snow, climbed snow hills with ease, and begged for walks even in the coldest parts of winter. Brutus made British Columbia his own.
Brutie got almost a good, solid year and a half in British Columbia. In December, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and given six months to live. He held on for eight months after that diagnosis. As we neared the end, our walks got slower and shorter. He had less interest in chasing deer. He started to go blind and would sometimes get lost in the backyard. He still had moments where he wanted to play with his toys and he was always excited to go for a walk, but as time went on, we knew we were getting closer to the end. His pill dosage was upped, but he was still in pain. Finally, one day he couldn’t stop crying no matter which way he turned and we knew. We took him for an emergency visit to the vet to ask about upping the dosage again and the vet told us Brutie was in a lot of pain, despite the medicine. And the higher dose of medicine meant he was knocked out most of the time, in a sleep so deep, it was getting hard to wake him up. We went home from that visit and promised we’d think about it. To be fair, we had been thinking about it for eight months. But it turns out there’s a huge gulf between knowing it’s almost time in an intellectual way and being confronted with the knowledge that it is time. We had thought we were accepting of the idea that it was almost time to let him go, but it turns out, we weren’t ready at all.
That night, Brutie didn’t sleep at all and neither did we. He was up and crying most of the night and we knew we couldn’t keep him here just because we weren’t ready to let him go. We cried all night and most of the morning. I made an appointment for later in the day on Wednesday, September 23rd. then Joy went to the grocery store and bought burger meat. We made him cheeseburgers and sat on the floor with him, hand-feeding him. When it was time to take him in, we lifted him into the van and took him to the vet. We sat on the floor with him while they gave him a sedative, then left us alone with him. I was trying not to cry because I didn’t want to upset with him, but tears just kept rolling down my cheeks. Brutus kept tilting his head up to lick my face, whether to make me feel better or because he could sense my sadness, I don’t know.
After a while, he fell asleep and the vet came back in to give him the final shot. We stayed with him until he was gone. We didn’t linger long in the vet’s office, but leaving him there, looking just like he had fallen into a deep sleep was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Joy wrapped him in a blanket and we walked away. I ran back to our van and sobbed as soon as I was safely inside.
It’s been two weeks and it still feels so lonely without him. We keep thinking we hear his collar or his nails clicking against the floor. I still randomly burst into “Brutie” songs like “Boopity Booper, the Brutie Puppy” without realizing he’s no longer around to hear them. This morning, the vet called to let us know his remains are ready for pick up. We’re going to go get him and take him to his favorite pond in the woods and say goodbye again.
I was lucky to have him in my life for as long as I did. From his earliest days as a three week old puppy to his final days as the most chill senior dog I’ve ever known, Brutie was in my life for 14 years, seven months, and 10 days. He was more than my dog, more than my constant companion and best friend; he was my family. My heart still breaks every day, but its tempered with the knowledge that Brutie and I were meant to find each other and I think I brought as much joy and love to his life as he did to mine.
One great thing about being a teacher and a student is that I completely understand where my students are coming from when they message me to say they got overwhelmed and couldn’t get their paper done. Though I’ve been forcing myself through all of my deadlines, I have about thirty years experience working under duress over most of my college kids and I’ve learned some of the tricks to push through when I feel like shit.
I’m managing teaching five classes, running an online writing academy, going through two classes for my own doctoral program, and trying to do *something* with my own writing. I’m managing. That said, I won’t say I’m particularly shining right now. It comes and goes in waves. I have great moments, such as doing recent edits on one of my stories with an exceptional editor. I have low moments like when I realize I haven’t published a book in almost three years and can’t say when I’ll be putting out another one.
I have moments of brilliance such as when I uncovered some hidden information about the impoverished 19th century Scottish poet I’m researching for one of my classes. And I have not-so-brilliant moments where I’m frantically skimming the week’s reading fifteen minutes before class hoping to pick up enough key words to be able to hold my own if the professor calls on me.
On the home front, my wife and I have been making tons of bread and spaghetti sauce and putting it up for the long winter ahead of not going out and eating our emotions. And also, we’ve been trying to get the house to the point of being clean enough that we won’t feel ashamed if we hire someone to come in and clean for us. We’re neither of us particularly great at cleaning anyway, but with us both being spectacularly busy and dealing with bouts of depression, it has gotten a little out of control.
But still, we persist. I cleaned the hell out of the kitchen today. I wrote a short story yesterday. I finished grading forty discussion board posts this morning. In fifteen minutes, I’m going to go outside and pick some ripe tomatoes from our plants. And hey, I wrote a blog for the first time since March!
We’ve been making peach “nice” cream from all of the locally grown peaches in our neck of the woods. And we’ve found that a bowl of ice cream and a little time watching Schitt’s Creek makes for far better sleep than sitting in front of the computer reading the news before bed.
I think I’m mostly happy and then I’m not. I think my wife feels the same – sad, sometimes, for the state of the world, over worries for our friends and family, over not having hugged anyone but each other since March. We rally and slide and rally and slide.
I keep a running to-do list. Things that must be done today. Things that can be put off until next week. And things I can slide into the cracks when I have a moment and a little motivation. I don’t always make it. Yesterday, I had an hour set aside to spend some time working on my research paper. I took a nap instead.
And that’s why, when my students tell me that they didn’t finish the assignment on time because they were too sad to finish the reading, I get it. I’m balancing between helping them learn coping skills to still get the work done and also not working themselves to the point of a breakdown. In essence, I’m just trying to give them some grace. That’s a lesson I can give myself as well. And all of you.
In 1991, during my sophomore year of college at Michigan State, I planned to live on a commune after graduation. We’d count up loose change to buy Sharpies for placards and draw lots for who was taking the Subaru into town for the 25-lb sacks of rice and 50-lb sacks of beans we subsisted on. In my fantasies, the commune was a decommissioned military base. We would have barracks. We would have courtyards. We would have abandoned gun turrets to keep watch for people who might try to sneak up on us in the middle of the day. We would not, of course, have guns.
It was always a desert military base in my day dreams.
Finally, it occurred to me that even 25-lb sacks of rice cost money and besides, I didn’t know anyone who had enough cash or credit with which to purchase a decommissioned desert military base. I looked into existing communes but too many smacked of cults and fortunately that frightened me. I moved on.
During my junior year, I found a passion for an actual profession. I began an independent study under the direction of Marilyn Frye, a feminist philosophy professor. I was interested in how slavery is represented to the primarily white visitors of three plantations that operate as modern-day tourist attractions. At these plantations, the official message did not acknowledge more than the rudimentary facts about the generations of slaves who lived, loved, worked, suffered, and died on those grounds. The subtleties of their lives and history was intentionally hidden.
I traveled to Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia several times that year to observe the practices at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Robert E. Lee’s Arlington, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. When I visited Arlington, a young white woman in a hoop skirt greeted visitors on the front porch, while a young black woman staffed the bookstore located in former slave quarters. It was visually and psychologically jarring.
My approach was to take the tours repeatedly. The first time I would just observe, the second time I would ask questions, and the third time I would challenge the guide about the experiences of the slaves who lived there. I brought up Sally Hemings at Monticello and asked whether she had children by Jefferson. It was a widely discussed possibility – among scholars and lay people everywhere. Everywhere but at Hemings home. The tour guides protected Jefferson and obfuscated, rather than exploring, Hemings experience.
I spoke to the directors and curators of these museums. One was open minded and curious about the historical figure whose life she helped portray. Another was brash about protecting her charge’s reputation and equated his manliness with the fact that he was a slave owner.
I decided I would spend my career educating white people who went to a plantation hoping for a pleasant afternoon of hoop skirting history with some hard-nosed truths. As I would only make about $8 an hour, it satisfied my college activist mind that said becoming financially comfortable=BECOMING THE MAN. I decided I would work at Monticello. I love Monticello. It’s located outside Charlottesville, Virginia, just over the mountain from the Shenandoah Valley where I was raised. I had even stealed myself to do it in the dress and pumps that appeared to be the required dress code, although I couldn’t walk properly in heels. I imagined myself a tour guide cowgirl, riding roughshod over white adults who would all be less well-informed than I felt at that moment.
But when I told my family that I planned to take my college education and become a tour guide, the response was non-committal. Actually, their response was more like deadly (and I do mean deadly) silence. My grandmother, who loved me dearly, couldn’t help but laugh. I thought they were doddering fools who couldn’t see how I would be single-handedly saving the world. White privilege and youthful exuberance were a common pairing among my classmates. Nevertheless, I adjusted my sights. I decided to start telling people that I wanted to be a museum curator at Monticello. Then! I could decide what the other tour guides would say about slavery. That someone might have instructed the tour guide me about what to tell the tourists had not occurred to me until I completed this career dream evolution.
That perhaps I, as yet another well-intentioned white person who had spent more time developing my opinions about the black experience in America than listening to African Americans was not suited to present Monticello to the world had not occurred to me either.
However, my family would stop tittering as museum curator is a perfectly acceptable career goal and one of those stupid career aptitude tests said I was well-suited to it. Ah, privilege delivers options at every turn.
On the same test, library science came in second.
Like many an English major, my first job out of college was fast food. I stayed in the chilly but familiar climes of Michigan, dreams of Monticello dormant but my interest not discarded. After about eight months, I moved on to a non-profit which was the start of improving the impact of my workaday life. I stayed on the lookout for a calling. A vocation. It was OK to sling hash to make ends meet, but I was watchful for a profession to put my heart into.
For our honeymoon, I wanted to revisit the plantations I studied and see what had changed in the preceding decade. By 2002, I found that some important things had. At Mount Vernon, the lives of the enslaved members of that community were discussed openly and often on the tours. They were named, along with their occupations and how they resisted bondage. At Monticello, there were enormous photographs gracing the visitor’s center of dozens of Jefferson’s descendants of every skin shade, side by side. A family portrait. Actual price lists of his slaves at the time of his death were discussed and we were invited to consider what our own worth would have been valued at on the auction block. The message had been updated.
That trip was a reminder of my youthful plans to become a museum curator. And I hadn’t landed far off. By the time I married, I had four years in as a paraprofessional at the Braille and Talking Book Library. I’d found joy in library work.
Most of our patrons had lost their sight at the end of their lives. I provided Readers Advisory service to a population that often needed a little friendly conversation along with a Danielle Steel or John Sandford title. Just a few kind words in a life that for most of them had grown more challenging due to vision loss. I spoke with patrons and ordered them bestsellers, non-fiction titles, Braille cookbooks, and print books with a Braille overlay that they could share with their children. It didn’t just meet their needs for a kind voice and a book: it satisfied my need to make a difference in people’s lives. Because we did.
I’ve long considered myself a feminist, and it was natural for me to gravitate toward librarianship. I made a conscious decision to enter a woman-dominated profession for important reasons. If I was going to spend 40 or 50 hours a week of my working life in intense interactions with other people, I wanted the majority of those people to be women. I wanted to invest myself – my emotions, my intellect, my personal and professional development – with other women. To build community with other women. To build up other women.
I wanted to be a bright spot in their professional worlds and I take pride in doing that. In my current position, it is literally my job to go out into Library Land and be helpful. It’s my job to learn what librarians need, and then to fill those needs. I pay attention to them and use my skills, both technical and interpersonal, to make their jobs easier. It’s awesome.
As most woman-dominated fields are not as financially lucrative as male-dominated fields, I was willing to take that pay cut. As it turns out, I didn’t have to. As a state employee with a Master’s degree, I do just fine.
I considered going into IT when I was younger. Staring at the looming landscape of that male dominated profession, I realized that in numbers there is Power. Mores. Culture. I try to be careful with the primarily white female culture to which I belong, and to realize that it can be just as much of a club over someone else’s head as the IT world looked to me 20 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I dislike men. I shouldn’t even have to say that. I’ve been married for 17 years and choosing my husband Scott as my life partner was one of the best decisions of my adult life. I enjoy most of my male colleagues very much. But we’re not in a post-misogyny, post-feminist world. We don’t live in a country where gender doesn’t matter. I have chosen to reduce the level of sexism I have to face by surrounding myself with other women. It’s a strategy to shield myself from one prevalent form of prejudice that I am particularly sensitive to.
In the end, I found my calling, and I live it everyday.
Follow Sonya at WordPress where she blogs as the Snake Lady Librarian. She is currently unwinding her Library School Diaries where she recounts paying her dues to join a female-dominated profession including nearly dropping out over a book report, falling in love with the polar bear book, learning public speaking on an elliptical trainer, and crossing the country during her last semester in three vegan vignettes.