For Some Things There’s No Replacement

This has been a big year–already–and we’re only one-third of the way through it. January started with such a rush that three weeks felt like three months. February threw down non-stop action and I started to joke with friends, “2015 sure does have a good sense of humor…”

At that point I had no idea how truly hilarious 2015 could be, and at this point I’m quite sure I have no idea how downright gut-busting 2015 is going to get. She seems to be building strength  both from momentum and from something that I can only describe as seismic tension.

{insert sound of seatbelt clicking}

March came and I found myself beyond exhausted, but it was okay because I had a ten-day vacation planned in Florida visiting my mom and friends. But was it okay? I started my vacation with a red-eye flight and then it took me a week to get my feet back under me. Because it takes me a long time to learn some lessons, I ended my vacation with a flight that landed at midnight, less than nine hours before I went back to work.

Of course I could have flown home a day early, had a day at home to regroup, but that’s just not how I roll. I mean, I don’t even nap. I have napped, but not without a fever or a parasite. I’m just all about maximizing my time.

For someone who always has a cursor blinking on her computer—a blog post unfinished, a chapter unedited, a book to revise—there is no such thing as “nothing to do. There’s no such thing as bored, though as it turns out there is such a thing as tired.

Sometimes it’s hard to identify where the tired comes from. Is it from stress? Is it from not sleeping enough? Is it simply from doing too much? Is it from being asked too much and given too little? Is it from a complete lack of balance?

In my case it was from all of the above, so a few times in as many weeks I’ve snuck off to the hot springs to sun, soak, and have a few hours to reconnect through disconnecting from cell service. The burn is that in order to find the time to get away I had to jam work into the other days, but to have a day to soak with a friend and then two days solo poolside: it was more than worth it.

Sometimes we know what we need.

I read books poolside, sang out loud in the car sipping iced coffee, and stopped by the Flathead River with Lucky for wishes and belly wetting. Those trips to the hot springs were good ones, as they all have been, but it occurred to me that the first time I went to “take a rest” in the town of Hot Springs, Lucky was a pup. I’ve never driven that route without him smiling in the backseat, ready for the next adevnture.

It’s not an exaggeration to refer to me as time obsessed. I remember dates and I’m a sucker for anniversaries. My friends joke that if they want to know what they wore to a wedding in 2008 I can probably tell them. With ease I recall…one year ago….five years ago….a month ago…and in this case: thirteen years ago Lucky was born. Lucky’s birthday, March 31 is a date we’ve always celebrated, but it’s not as significant as June 1, the day he picked me out to be his mom.

I’m pretty terrible at public speaking, but a few years ago I got on a stage and told a story about how I was “Picked By Luck” for Tell Us Something, Missoula’s terrific storytelling event. I survived and Lucky got a biscuit on a stage, in a bar. You can listen to a podcast of that story by clicking HERE.

I was far from prepared for how Lucky’s birthday would unhinge me, for how I’d feel about the fact that thirteen years have passed. It’s hard to believe the shenanigans Lucky and I have gotten into and the messes we’ve worked our way out of. In many ways it feels like I was twenty-seven yesterday, and now it seems that I’m suddenly forty with my next birthday just a month away. In many ways twenty-seven is so far away it’s just a pinprick on the horizon in my rearview mirror.

It’s an exercise in strength to ponder all that has changed and all that has not. It’s intense. All the reflection takes my breath away. Done well, it can be empowering; done poorly, it can cripple.

My life was not unlike a pressure cooker when I met Lucky. I was lost and pretty unaware. I was searching, but for what I was unsure. I wasn’t sure why I was even living in Montana and had no regular employment. I hadn’t yet decided to go to massage school, I was somebody’s ex-wife, and my then boyfriend and I were about to break up. We were so close to splitting that when I presented him with the tiny, undernourished pup tucked in side my jacket he said,

“Oh, shit. That guy’s my replacement.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was totally right. We split, I put my stuff in storage, and Lucky and I spent our first few months together essentially homeless. We stayed with friends, housesat, and traveled. It was liberating but exhausting. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t sit still. At one point I’d had a good job, a husband who adored me, and a big old house. Then I made a series of choices and a few downward spirals later I didn’t have much beyond my puppy.

Though it turned out that having that puppy was having quite a bit.

For years I didn’t even know how much I had, but I knew Luckydog gave me a bit of purpose. I had someone to walk, to feed. Somehow this little guy and I managed to keep each other alive.

That first “Summer of Luck” a friend noted my frazzled ends and suggested I head north to Hot Springs for a regroup. I’d never been there, but he told me about the cheap cabins, healing water, and positive energy. It had to be worth a shot.

I rented a cabin, soaked several times a day, and walked my puppy in loops, circles, and curlicues around the town that is actually just a sloppy grid of streets that dead-end in three directions. It was exactly what I needed, and it’s a place that never fails to deliver to me home to myself. Back then you could buy a little bungalow for about thirty thousand dollars, and I thought about it. Hot Springs feels safe and snug, but after a while it becomes stifling; that’s a distinction I struggle with.

I have a true love-hate relationship with Hot Springs. I love soaking in the mineral water. I love the funky people who show up around The Symes Hotel. I love the impossible slow pace of the town that questions whether still is really still moving. I love that I leave the place feeling like someone has taken me out of the shed, dusted me off, and given my pull-cord a solid yank.

I love that I can travel seventy-seven miles from Missoula and feel like I’ve gone somewhere. Hot Springs is a terrific place to escape and recharge. The town’s motto is “Limp in, Leap out,” and I concur; I’ve gone there with a stiff, sore body and come home twisting my spine and touching my toes. There are times I’ve sobbed all the way there due to one heartbreak or another, but I can’t recall sobbing on the way home, at least not all the way.

The drive itself is transportive. You drive west out of Missoula on the interstate a few miles, then climb through a thick forest and onto the Flathead Reservation, through an open valley with views of the Mission Mountains, which this time of year are capped white. Another turn to the west goes along the Flathead River. I  have a ritual where I throw a few coins from the bridge and make a wish, then pull over on the north side to let Lucky stretch, sniff and get his paws wet. Last time I stopped I took a picture of us, and in my head I titled it: whatever blows your hair back, kid.

ma and luck flathead

The river crossing marks the volta of the trip, or the turning point where something goes from an idea to a statement. The shift from concept to goal. It represents choice, choosing, and intention. After the river there are a few turns as the road narrows and follows Clear Creek and before the landscape widens again before widening around the mountain for the final stretch into Hot Springs.

There’s an abandoned house out there on the prairie, just before the straightaway, on a stretch of road that has remarkable head-clearing capabilities. A place where my stereo always knows, instinctively, the perfect song to play. The last two times, I swear on Luck, it was the same song at the same spot.

As far as I can tell not much has changed with that house over the fourteen years I’ve been driving by it, except everything that changes whether we want it to or not. The grass greens or browns or is covered in snow. The light is intense or muted and sometimes just right.

abandoned house

As I stood with my iPhone ready to take a picture of the abandoned Little House on the Prairie it felt almost like an invasion of privacy, though there’s no question that the house has long been uninhabited. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would ever want to leave that place with the wraparound porch and the view that extends for days.

But it’s just as easy to imagine the longing to bust out of there, to walk away without looking back, to experience life that doesn’t exist on the side of a deserted highway. I could imagine the comfort of sitting on that porch, rocking and drinking tea every night of my life. I could also imagine putting on my nicest dress and best boots made for walking and standing where the pavement meets the grass until someone picked me up to take me anywhere but there.

That’s always my blessing and my curse: the ability to see multiple angles.

The truth is this: I have been feeling fragile lately. I’ve been struggling with the squirrely balance between work and life, between yes and no, between who I was and who I am. Every single one of those lines has been blurry lately, so I’ve done the only thing I could: I just sat with it. And now the reward is that the proverbial vaseline has been wiped off my glasses and life is getting more clear again.

I can get myself worked up into a serious tizzy when I think about life without Lucky, which is one of those things that will happen whether I want it to or not and there’s no way to stop it. When Lucky was a three-year-old young dog I read a book that made me weep. It was primarily about a woman and the dog she loves, but about other pets, and about men, sickness and loss. The dog was sick, but he stuck around long enough to teach his human how to love and be loved. He needed to make sure she was okay before he left.

I’ve never earnestly applied this story to my life with Lucky, and would never want to put that kind of pressure on anyone, not even a dog. But over the years a few guys have even been brazen enough to suggest they might be man enough to fill Luck’s shoes when the time comes. (Ha!) The last guy I was seeing actually claimed that Lucky was grooming him to be his replacement, but I can say with full confidence that he couldn’t have been more off base.

For some things there’s no replacement.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that drive to Hot Springs, and how I’ve never done it without my canine copilot, but that someday I will. I’ve often said to friends that I don’t know how I will ever live without Lucky, and they’ve said both gently and firmly, “But you will. You will live.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the abandoned house I’ve long admired and finally stopped to photograph. It was something I’d never done, but something that was always available to me.

Every single moment is a choice. One day you’re the person who never stops to take a picture of the house, then suddenly, there you are, on the side of a highway taking pictures.

Every day is an opportunity to begin or end something, to decide to pause or to keep going, to say yes or no, to you or to me. One day you’re the person who never does something, but then you do. Another day you’re a person who always does something, but then you stop.

It’s amazing, really, the power of choice and how much control we have over our lives, the nuance of difference between yesterday and today, between today and tomorrow. Every single moment offers an occasion to make different, better, healthier choices. Some day (weeks, years) we screw up even though we’re trying our absolute hardest, but it’s crucial to remember that we are all doing the best we can. Every. Damn. Day.

And now, because this is leaning toward the heavy side, I’ll end with a picture of a guy who doesn’t hold back when it comes to loving ice cream. Or to love.

ice cream love

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