Little Everyday Happinesses

 

squirrel at feederA week and a half ago, An Unexpected Grace was officially launched at the Eagle Harbor Book Company, my local independent bookstore.  I gave a talk about the novel to a crowd of kind strangers and beloved friends.  Later, feeling joy about my book and the audience’s support, I told my husband, John, “We don’t get many days in life as happy as this.”  And he said, “That’s why you should enjoy it.”

Abraham Maslow would have called my bookstore talk a “peak experience,” a rare moment of pleasure and excitement to be held dear to the heart.  I’ve been lucky to have my share of major highs, but lately I’ve also thought about the minor ones.  My father once pointed them out to me when I was mulling the meaning of life.  He said, “It all boils down to little everyday happinesses.”

In their own quiet way, those little happinesses can be crucially important.  They’re the simple pleasures that get us out of bed in the morning.  And once we’re up, they’re the comforts and encouragements that keep us going.

Today, for example, my favorite squirrels showed up at my bird feeder and gluttonized on seeds.  Next, a ring-necked pheasant strutted under my plum tree in all his stunning, multi-colored glory.  Then for lunch I got to eat a chunk of brie left over from last week’s gathering of friends – all that delicious, forbidden fat!  Ecstasy.

You get the picture.  Little everyday happinesses parade through our lives and feed our souls.  The small joys can add up and create a feeling of wellbeing.  Another joy is happening before my eyes this very minute:  As the sun is setting behind my hedge, the sky has turned a soft lavender-pink.  Thank you, Mother Nature.

pheasant wiki

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Why I Write About Animals

An Unexpected GraceIn the last few weeks as I’ve promoted An Unexpected Grace, people have asked why I write about animals.  My answer is simple:  There’s no way I could not write about them.

I was born on October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and I have always been supremely sensitive to creatures.  My father took me as a child to western movies; and when cowboys dug their spurs into horses’ sides, I cried so hard that he had to take me to the lobby.  During a drought in Texas, where I grew up, I worried the whole summer after third grade about the thirsty deer, raccoons, and squirrels.  All my life I rescued dogs and kitties.

As an adult, I became a freelancer for magazines but never thought of writing about animals.  Then I had an accident and injured four disks in my spine.  Unable to work for months, I lay on my office sofa with Beatrice, my beloved beagle, loyally cuddled up beside me, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be pain-free enough to write again.

When your career is hanging in the balance like that, you do some serious thinking.  And I slowly realized that I’d been frittering away my life, writing about subjects that had meant nothing to me – and I’d left my heart behind in the dust.  I wondered, what’s the meaning of my life?  Beatrice reminded me that, no matter our species, meaning comes by loving and helping others.  One day it occurred to me that I had always loved animals more than anything — so I should write about them and try to improve their lives.

I vowed that if I were ever strong enough to work again, I’d align my heart with my career.  And that’s what I’ve done in articles, nonfiction books, and now a novel. I’ve tried to show how worthy animals are, how important they can be to us, how much they have to teach.  Every morning I get out of bed, knowing I’ll work for something bigger than myself, and trying to give back to the world the love and kindness that animals have given me.

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The Healing Power of Pets

 

dog comforts dental patientAfter a stressful day this week, I went to visit my friend Patty.  She wrapped her Chihuahua, Lucy, in a blanket and set her on my lap.  I petted her and watched her eyelids sag closed as she fell asleep with her chin resting on my knee.  In a few minutes, she’d smoothed my rough, ragged edges and made me relax.  Fur therapy, I call it.  It’s the healing power of pets.

The grace of healing is a major theme in my novel, An Unexpected Grace.  Lila, the main character, and Grace, a golden retriever, help each other recover from trauma and abuse.  Lila provides a stable home for Grace and slowly coaxes her to trust.  Grace boosts Lila through “attunement,” a process that many of us have surely experienced with our own pets when they watch us, feel our distress, get in sync with it, and invariably try to help us.

I’ve interviewed countless people who have told me about their kitty nuzzling their neck and licking away their tears, or their dog putting his head in their lap, the best he could hug them without hands or arms.  One woman was going through chemo, and, discouraged and exhausted, she fell asleep on her sofa.  When she woke, she was covered with Frisbees, tennis balls, stuffed animals, a squeaky carrot, and a rubber duck.  Her dog, Chuckles, had brought her the entire contents of his toy basket to cheer her.  She said, “He gave me everything he had.”

Animals’ soothing presence has been shown to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and to increase dopamine and serotonin, hormones associated with wellbeing and calm.  Fur therapy also lowers our blood pressure and heart rates.  Hospital patients visited by dogs and cats report less pain, and people with cats at home have 40 percent less risk of a heart attack.

The sound frequency of cat purrs can help heal infections, soft tissue injuries, and even broken bones – to say nothing of frayed nerves.  No wonder Florence Nightingale brought animals to mental hospitals, and handlers arrived at Sandy Hook with golden retrievers like Grace to comfort the terrified children.

Has an animal ever helped you heal?  I’ll bet the answer is yes.

higgins

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The Day a Book is Born

An Unexpected GraceI believe that early morning musing is important. I lie in bed in that sleepy zone between my conscious and unconscious, and let hazy thoughts come to me.  Sometimes they arrive as ideas for projects or solutions to problems.  But today I woke to a message from my spirit.

I opened my eyes, and, oddly, the first thing that came to me was Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.  I rarely think of poetry when half asleep, but I remembered Mrs. Watkins, my fifth grade teacher, looking sternly at our class of twelve and reading the poem from a big red book, marked with a frayed red ribbon.  She often made us memorize such masterpieces as the Gettysburg Address, and I must also have learned at least a part of If.  What floated through my mind today were snatches of the first three lines:

            If you can keep you head when all about you

            Are losing theirs…

            If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…

I blinked and thought, Eureka!  A message indeed, surgically tailored for me.

Today is the day that my novel, An Unexpected Grace, is officially out in the world, available online and in bookstores.  My publisher is doing an email blast to launch the book, and I’m supposed to tweet and pin and post about it.  Though thrilling, this is not an easy, simple morning.  Anxiety lurks in the shadows of my excitement, and I feel almost overwhelmed.  It’s definitely a time to do what Rudyard Kipling says:  to “keep my head” when life is out of my control and “trust myself” when others doubt or question what I’ve written.

Kipling said that inspiration for If came from the British politician Leander Starr Jameson, who led a raid against South Africa’s Boer government in l896 at about this time of year.  Though the raid was a failure, Jameson’s dignity and courage made him a hero; and his strength of character was said to trump his defeat.  A book launch may be a gnat compared to the elephant of his military action, and I’m not anticipating his failure.  But a launch does call for Jameson’s mettle and determination.  I vowed this morning to rally it, as must all writers when they sit down to a blank page every morning and are said to open a vein and bleed.  Or when they go out to promote a book.

Thankful for this morning’s message to gather up my spunk, I can only say:  Hello, world!  Here’s my novel about Lila and Grace, a woman and a dog!  Their light shines from my heart and leads my way.  I hope you’ll enjoy their story.

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Benevolent Chickens?

3 chickensYears ago I interviewed a woman who had a sanctuary for needy chickens. She told me about sitting on her porch steps one afternoon and wiping tears off her cheeks. Her favorite in the flock jumped into her lap, cuddled up to her, and — the woman was sure — tried to console her. I believed her. Humans are not the only compassionate beings on our planet.

I had forgotten about that woman and her chicken until recently when my friend Elsa sent me a New York Times article: “What a Blind Chicken Can Teach Us About Humanity.” The author, Ellen Chase, noticed that one of her chickens was bumping into things and another was roosting next to her, following her through the grass, and staying with her nearly all the time. When the blind chicken disappeared, Chase found her under the hen house with her companion watching over her. One day in the garden, the kindly chicken grabbed a worm and set it in front of the blind one like a gift. Continue reading

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Choosing a Dog

germshep Since the deaths of my two beloved dogs last January, I have been longing for another furry friend. But my husband, John, who is a sensitive soul, has resisted. “I can’t go through the loss again,” he said.

I respected his feelings and didn’t want to push. However, by June I couldn’t stand being dogless for another minute so I started a wheedling-and-cajoling campaign.

“A house isn’t a home without a dog,” I told John. “I am desperate for fur therapy.”

“No way.”

But by August I’d worn him down a little: “Well, maybe eventually…” he said. Continue reading

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Learning from a Book Launch

An Unexpected Grace

In January my new novel, An Unexpected Grace, will be available on Amazon and in bookstores.  Since last summer, I’ve been preparing for the launch.  I set up a website and author pages on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Google+, and Pinterest.  I’ve learned to tweet and have coaxed everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life to be my friend on Facebook.

When I look up from my computer screen, I shake my head with wonder that a writer’s life could change so drastically in a few years.  Before, I wrote a book and then promoted it in bookstores and on radio and TV — a month, and that was it.  Now promotion has become a permanent part of my lifestyle.  For hours every day I search online for pictures to pin on Pinterest boards and for interesting information to tweet.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, as if social media is swallowing me in one big technological gulp. Continue reading

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The Death of Pets

LOGIE PHOEToday I could no longer put off changing the “about Kristin” page on this blog.  What I changed — and my heart slides to my feet as I say it — is the paragraph about sharing my life with Phoebe, a beagle, and Logan, a German shepherd.  Several months ago, they died within weeks of each other.  One moment I had my beautiful animal family, and the next, I didn’t.

Logan’s arthritis finally prevented him from getting up on his own, and he snapped at my husband, John, and me to stop us from helping him to his feet. Phoebe began to cough, and blood tests and x-rays revealed inoperable tumors. There was no choice but to say goodbye to both of our beloved dogs and face the loss.

It’s horrible when one cherished pet dies, but two was sad beyond measure. For weeks the house’s silence gnawed at me.  I hated washing lettuce, the dogs’ favorite treat.  I went to the kitchen to pour kibble into a bowl, and I carefully crossed the bedroom at night so as not to step on paws — and then I remembered my dogs were gone.  Tears slid down my cheeks.

To me, putting down an animal is the hardest task there is.  Though it was my last way to show my love, the guilt for killing what I so deeply loved was overwhelming.  Knowing I did the right thing didn’t help.  All I could do was wait for my heart to process the loss and replace my grievous mental picture of the dogs’ last breaths with memories of happy times.  Now I think of Logan’s prance across the lawn to catch his Frisbee, and Phoebe’s gleeful chomp into her freshly broiled chicken.

For comfort, I remind myself of the beauty in their deaths — the end of suffering, the freedom, the moving on.  I remember the kindness of supportive friends.  Cards and emails poured in.  Kathy and Brad invited us to sunny California.  Elizabeth brought flowers from her family, and Marielle and Bill arrived with memorial rhododendron and camellia bushes to bloom each year on the anniversaries of Logan and Phoebe’s deaths.

I know that life goes on, and other dogs will find their way into my heart and home.  Certainly, life is all about love, which chases us down and catches us, guaranteed.  When I think of the universe’s vastness of space and time, I marvel that my life intersected with Logan and Phoebe’s and we were allowed to love each other and be a family.  That was huge gift.  And our love lives on.

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Cat Symphony

Since Father’s Day, it’s no surprise, I’ve been thinking about my father.  He was a symphony conductor and composer; and before he died when I was 23, I enjoyed going to his concerts and waking in the mornings to his piano playing.  He instilled in me a love of music – and of animals.  My father refused to go to Spain because of bullfights.  The only time I ever saw him cry was when Travis shot Old Yeller.

He would have been as thrilled as I at the video I want you to see:  “The Catcerto for Nora the Piano Cat,” composed and conducted by Mindaugas Piecaitis, and performed by Lithuania’s Klaipeda Chamber Orchestra and Nora, a gray tabby.  In a video shown on a screen above the musicians, she brushes her paws over piano keys in a most elegant manner, and Piecaitis’s composition enhances her soft, lovely notes.  Their music woven together is charming.  It’s a triumph of spirit. Continue reading

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Animal Friendship

Two weeks ago I went to Austin, Texas, for my high school reunion, and the blessing of friendship has been on my mind.  My new friends often marvel at the number of my old ones, three of whom I’ve known since nursery school.  Then there’s Tina from kindergarten, Leila from first grade, Bunny from third, Julie and Louisa from fifth – and the list grows through junior high and high school.  After so many years, I’m grateful and amazed that we’re like siblings and we all love each other.

When we get together, so much doesn’t have to be said because we know each other well.  We remember cooking together for Girl Scout badges, playing duets at piano lessons, guarding each other in basketball games.  I can’t hide much from friends who were there when my parents fought or who visited me when I languished in bed with mono.  Our connections run deep and strengthen me more and more as I grow older. Continue reading

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