Honoring Karim, the shaman

Eight years ago, in September 2011, we walked into the animal shelter in Santa Fe to meet the Bull Terrier, who at the time was known as Blue and when he came home with us a few days later we chose the name Karim. In Urdu, Karim means blessing. At the shelter, they estimated that he was 3 years old; we have since wondered if he was as old as 5 back then. Either way, that would make the last Tuesday in September, the 24th, his 11th (or possibly 13th) birthday.

This past Saturday, October 12, Karim died. We buried him at midday on Sunday, the 13th, in a grave that I began to dig (15% of what was the needed size and depth) in mid-September when I wondered and worried if he would day in the 48 hours that I was out of town. He didn’t die while I was gone, so I got to dig the grave that he and I needed. Since late August, we have known that his right kidney was inflamed and there was blood in urine. (Looking through photos after he died, we saw one from six months ago, from March that showed a few drops of blood in pee in the foyer.)

In Advice for Future Corpses: And Those Who Love Them, Sallie Tisdale writes (on page 88), “If you are going to help someone who is dying, you should be prepared to help in the toilet.” In a way, Karim had us (and many friends and dog sitters who came to care for him and Jataka when we were away at births or vacations), preparing for his death for years. Coming home to find piss or shit in the foyer became so frequent upon returning home that I was at ease cleaning it up some days and at other times I was livid. In recent months, I got into the habit of walking from the parked car to the front door quickly and by myself to see if there was anything awaiting us. And the day before he died, it dawned on me that I had been doing this quick walk to the front door because I anticipated that I would come home and find Karim dead in the foyer, on the couch, or on the dog bed. All that urine and poop was getting me ready for death. On Saturday, I came home to find him on the dog bed in front of the wood stove before walking back outside to let Brinda and Sabiya know that he had died before we walked in together to see him, sit with him, be with him and be with one another in the presence of his death.

It was a sobering last month or six weeks of his life as his weight declined quickly. I could see it first in his vertebrae along his back, then the ribs along his formerly stout midsection, and finally in the hip bones that portruded at angles that had never been evident before. When I would rub his neck, there was much less muscle and mass to massage.

The disintegrating, disappearing body was simultaneously jarring and expected as he loved so many foods. Before Karim, I had not known that a dog would chew up carrots, cabbage and broccoli. A constant topic of debate was whether Karim’s favorite fruit was peach, mango, apple or whatever was in season. In preparing for  his burial, I pulled out one peach pit and two cherry pits from a katori in the fridge for Sabiya to throw into the grave along with a pink collar and a white blanket that we wrapped him in. He loved blankets, and I have learned from Karim and Brinda that (some or most) dogs love sleeping partially or fully under a blanket. Whenever a blanket or a jacket, a pile of clean laundry or a pile of pillows and blankets for the bed were available, he would go settle in for a most comfortable snuggle — it didn’t matter to him if he slept so long as he got to snuggle in a makeshift bed.

Even as he was getting weaker and slower and skinnier, he walked over to a chair on the portal to lay outside for less than an hour. The autumn air was crisp in the shade and he would go to the green chair to get a few more minutes outside before I carried him back inside. In the last week, there were three nights that I took him out to pee when we were greeted with the hoo hoo hooting of an owl; one night, there were two owls in the valley hooting for the few minutes that Karim and I were out in the dark. On the morning of his death, a magpie — a bird totem for entering other realms — jumped under a table on the portal less than 10 feet from his dying body.

 ***
Karim was Brinda and my first dog together, who we got to through some incredbile and unpredictable circumstances, three months after moving to Santa Fe and 14 months after our relationships started. She was volunteering at the animal shelter and met him one week that I was out of town. 

     “You have to come home,” she said. “Bud, is everything all right?” “Yes, there’s a Bull Terrierr at the shelter!” “I will become in eight days.” “He won’t be here in eight days.”

I did not come home early but in that time, Blue, as he was known, was adopted by an elderly woman despite the concerns about his strength and temperament voiced by one of the employees. He was returned less than 24 hours later, then acquired kennel cough placing him in quarantine the entire time that I was gone. 

Brinda told me in the last few days that it is through Karim that like dthat I was along guy. It was through July 2014 reading/consultation with Lena Barrios, a Mayan healer, that I learned that my birth corresponds with the nahual of Tz’i

As our first dog, he was also our first child who instilled parental duties, responsibilities, existential questions, dilemmas and delights that we had not entertained or experienced prior to his arrival. We had innumerable, amazing experiences with him in eight years:

  • The first Halloween when children came knocking at the door and lost interest in candy when they saw the dog who they asked to pet.
  • When we sat in a hot tub outside the bedroom windows while he sat on the bed and watched us. After a few minutes of watching and waiting for me to get out of the tub, he squatted and peed on the middle of the bed to convey (what we understood at the time as) his displeasure of being left inside while we reveled outside. 
  • Another time, I was working upstairs, and one of us had let him into the backyard and then a few minutes later, inquired where he was. Brinda asked if he was upstairs with me. When I told her no, we ran to the back to look and wonder and wander around the backyard until we saw the hole under the fence. We ran out the front door scrambling and ran to the park less than a block away to find him accttached to the face of a 14 year old, large, female Husky with three adults trying to pull his jaw off of her. One trick that we had learned from a dog trainer a EDs or months earlier was to pull and pinch the inner thigh to get him to unlatch. I learned that and had to use it just that one time. (Some comic relief afterwards, when the Husky was safe back at her home and we were back in ours was to replay the one adult who was tossing — more accurately described as sprinkling — water onto Karim’s muzzle like he was a boxer.
  • When we moved all the furniture out of a previous home and left Karim with a bowl of water and bed. In four hours of isolation, he walked into and apparently rolled all over the inside of the empty, ashy fireplace because we came back to find his coat gray  from nose to tail. We will never know if it was some sort of cleansing practice or despair or simply some BT mischief.
  • This summer, we knew that he was getting closer to death, so we would let him go “sojourn” as he wandered for 20 to 30 minutes. Solo adventures had been inconceivable in his spry years because he likely would have gotten into a fight with the larger, older dog next door or been picked up by someone who fights dogs. But, the two things that we imagine that he was doing while sojourning were eating acorns and looking for an arroyo or a bed of leave, a shady spot or a sunny spot where he could choose to die. But, we stopped permitting the sojourns after a few instances where coagulated blood showed that the impact that the acorns were having on his kidney(s).
  • Four years ago, he ate so many acorns on walks with a leash that he had incontinence causing him to pee while laying on the dog bed. After consulting a neighbor who is a veterinarian and the Internet, we learned that acorns are toxic for dogs.
  • And the time that he saw a mouse in the foyer, snapped into terrier mode launching his 40 pound body into the air, using his muzzle to stun the mouse, before grabbing it with his teeth and throwing it down his throat.

Karim was the ultimate blessing as he prepared me for fatherhood. In the early years of our relationship, there were many a night that we would watch the dizzying and hilarious antics of Bull Terriers — splashing, spinning (or as we called it helicoptering), cuddling, and trancing — in videos online that had us laughing for hours at their joy, persistence, and intensity. There was the first year when we strapped a child’s pair of butterfly wings onto his back and paraded him around the kitchen. In those early years, we learned that in England, Bull Terriers were bred and raised to accompany and protect children in the countryside and I took this distinct lineage as a sign that child or children were coming, I just had to work with my own patience/impatience and trust some forces greater than I could imagine. By some miracle, he endured and lived long to support us with the arrival of two children before his time to go back to the mountain.

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9 months later, and 10 years on

May 2015. Today is Mike Brown’s 19th birthday. This I learned from the political education and relationships that I have benefitted from through the It Starts Today campaign that ends today on Mike Brown’s birthday. April 2005. Ten years ago, I was invited by John, Courtney, and Jamie to apply to join the Advisory Board at Resource Generation. I did so. I entered my first board meeting at the Walker Center in suburban Boston in a cohort of rookie board members along with Andrew, Ajita, Penny, and Meg. We were some kind of board Fab 5 heading into headwinds of organizational turbulence, interpersonal challenges, and divine breakthroughs that I could hardly fathom when I first walked through that doorway as board member. It was revolutionary to attend meetings where the culture was to introduce yourself by saying four things: Your name. The place you live. Your class identity. Your “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun). I’ve been more schooled in and on gender and sexuality from the colleagues, friends, comrades, and confidantes of RG than any Women & Gender Studies classes could have instilled. At the first RG conference that I attended (circa 2006), multiple RGers did not only talk about their inherited wealth but told stories of how they could trace their white families’ wealth all the way back to slavery. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It rocked my world. And, I was hooked. RG gave me the tools, the political education, the camaraderie to be able to say that “my mom grew up in a working-class, white family” for the first time. I had never understood this, nor seen this facet of my family tree before being immersed in spaces that were explicit and unapologetic about class, classism, capitalism, and class dynamics. Not by being outwardly focused and waxing philosophical about class in society, but by being inwardly focused on families and the belief systems and biases that color my choices. I have been off of the board for just about four years and forever give thanks and have multiple, daily appreciations for the gifts that having been a board member at RG has bestowed upon me. Wisdom, love, patience, courage, trust in others (in their anxieties and their daring feats and so much more), impatience, humility, a yearning to tell stories and write blog posts among them. And ask others questions so they will write their blog posts and tell different versions of their stories. Today, I honor the life, the premature death, and the legacy of Mike Brown and all the people of Ferguson, Missouri. As one more name, place, and episode in the long legacy of lynching and the addiction to violence that discolor the US Constitution. I had not known the name of Ferguson before last summer. The people and popular outrage of Ferguson compelled me to figure out how I could act where I was and with those people that I already knew. To inquire who were the small group of people that I could band together with in such a nauseating, perplexing, horrifying time. If you’ve got some change in your pocket, some discretionary dollars in your bank account then go and invest in Black liberation, in Black leadership, and in Black dignity. By investing in Blacks in America, we are investing in all humankind. Thanks, yall. And, praise Jesus that I’ve learned to see that those who believe in freedom are of all races, of all classes, of all nationalities. And, I will continue to seek out those who believe in freedom and civil disobedience.

spice and appreciation, daily

Years ago, someone described my cooking as subtle. Aside from the jokes that that meant bland, I heard the compliment acknowledging the use of nuance and a soft touch. Like my father’s light-handed ra-ta-ta-tat of the salt or pepper shaker on his steak.

In tonight’s dinner of grilled cheese, ketchup to go on the side and onions to grill in the skillet were givens. Rosemary sprinkled within was a last second addition before putting the two slices of bread over the heat. And that bit of spice, makes all the difference.

Like the rosemary in a grilled cheese, there is nutmeg in pancakes, asofetida (hing!) in curried lentils, ashes of cinnamon and red pepper in hot cocoa that change everything else about a mouthful of flavor. and allspice in anything with pumpkin.

Food each day can have such lovely additions when I think of them. It is a practice a lot like an appreciation. By practicing at least once a day, and sometimes more than once, cultivates the greater chances of having more spice and appreciation in the next day. When I have had long lapses of bland days, they tend to be devoid of being able to appreciate the itsy bitsy things in life. With time, I have found little games and sensory gimmicks that increase my abilities to appreciate.

It is becoming the same in the kitchen, where I open the cupboard door that is too the left of the stove more often. Most spices sit on the second shelf, within easy reach of the gas burners on the stove top. As I have come to make pancakes more and more, not a pancake recipe goes by without nutmeg. Nutmeg is only denied on the odd occasion that it detracts from the rest of the batter.

When I concocted the four ingredient version of hot chocolate — soy milk, cocoa powder, coconut oil and agave — into a pot on the stove, I thought of the dashes of cinnamon and red pepper. It was as little work as the Swiss Miss packets (with those awful, artificial marshmallows) that I had plenty of as a child. Yet, considerably better suited to my grown up palette. Just as my adult self has less practice with schoolyard humor and teasing, which I have replaced with appreciations and mirroring.

tell a story: of your life in two pages

I was born may 1978. My skin had a green hue to it under the lights of the hositpal’s maternity ward. Or so my two brothers thought, probably their own comic book projections. They called me the Hulk, in my mom’s presence, the first birth she had given where she had not taken any drugs – or shot to the spinal column. That was a big regret or surprise to her, because my head was many orders larger than the two others that passed through her birth canal. In addition to my 2 brothers, I have 1 sister who was also awaiting my arrival. My dad, supposedly, was awaiting a 2nd daughter, who he hoped to name Stephanie. He got me, instead.

So, I’m the last born. The final seed. In the early years, my status as the fourth of four meant that I was a spoiled baby, in the eyes of my 3 elders. My sister is 18 months older, one brother is 5 years older, and the other is 8 years older. We were the four-hued siblings, mulattoes born in the mile high city during the ‘70s. As, I’ve learned in the last decade, one of many outposts in fly-over country.

We jettisoned from 5280 early in my life. Kindergarten was in Denver, with 1st grade beginning in Nairboi, Kenya. After 10 years as an employment/discrimination lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, my dad joined the foreign service. Big lifestyle change in mid-career, as Reagan’s re-election campaign was ratcheting up. At that time, the State Department was the least diverse agency in all of the federal government. So issues of inclusion, access and race-at-work is in my genes. That was unbeknownst to me until a year ago. Guatemala followed Kenya. Virginia after that. Swaziland came after Kenya. Back in the U.S., I have lived in NM, CO, MN, NY and WA over the last 17 years.

Nearly one-half of my life has been back in the US, with the first half of my life lived was in Colorado and then as the son of a diplomat. Dad was trained as a lawyer, Mom was trained as a schoolteacher. Until she had my brother. Her passion for teaching shifted to PTAs, as my dad’s work was enough for them to raise a family. They bought a house in 1971 for $24K, which was one-fourth (or one-sixth) of my dad’s income at the time. They still own the same home, 40 years later.

Living abroad, I had functional Spanish, and elementary SiSwati. In hindsight, Swahili would have been curious, but it was my first place abroad and I was 6. In a place where getting accustomed to a new country was plenty. From one country to the next, good grades translated. I excelled in numbers and math, while I blumbered in English, literature and grammar. I have a fond memory of spelling, that was my forte in grade school. My mom inquired about writing assignments from my sister and me. At a certain point in elementary school, I only brought math homework, assignments and test home for updates. There were report cards at the end of a school period. But, I learned at an early age to cloak my writing to myself. The critique was more than I could stomach. So went to great lengths to avoid it.

For a few years, math was eclipsed by geography. I struggled with art, being artistic, and being creative. For some time early in high school, I was so scared that I resented art class. A few moves around, did place me in a setting to get to work on the yearbook by the time I was in high school. One year led to the next, and I was one of 3 yearbook editors. It was a wholly different medium, of published matter that captivated me. In exchange for a kick-ass cover illustration, we promoted a contest for a free yearbook for the best design. To my knowledge, we received a single submission. It was all that we needed. On a black cover, white dots from a white-out blotter to illustrate the sky, moon, letters and a castle tower.

That same year, I embarked into the first t-shirt making endeavor I was a part of. Again, we threw the conventional wisdom, the parameters and norms that had defined others and confined me. Instead, we put text and images on the chest and back. And deviated from the white/off-white backgrounds. I still have that tan colored shirt with orange illustrations. A long sleeve in dark brown, with the same orange were color combinations that awakened my peers.

I sustained my studies when still in high school. As dating and girls began to enter my life, I found that student groups gave me an outlet beyond the classroom intelligentsia. I had heard the duality of book-smarts and/or street-smarts for years. Along with life, certain subjects began to wane. It may have been the reading and writing components, as I still enjoyed the social aspects of learning together.

My relationship with books has evolved. I struggled with Shakespeare constantly. Literature blossomed late, relatively late. I had been a reader of non-fiction for so long. Although, reading Borges, Garcia Marquez and Richard Rive. Years later, I wonder if Rive was a foreboding to Chris Abani. Over the last decade, I have read a handful – yes, 5 – of books that have fundamentally altered my worldview and outlook on life: Botany of Desire, Spontaneous Healing, Fire on the Prairie, Kindred, and When the Past is Present. Just this week, I learned that Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 12 weeks. As she left an intense relationship in NY for the Caribbean.

One way that the internet has impacted my life, is by making me more literary and finding more tools, and supports to nurture my voracious appetite for words and reading. If Cupid had a bookworm arrow, it missed me until I was out of college. My palatte opened up once I was no longer commanded to read. And directed what to read, irrespective of how dry or ho-hum it was.

I use the internet to read more about authors, their lives and the environments that affected them. I use my cell phone to note book titles and a list of authors that arise in conversations, on a whim, or in passing. My list has grown to more than 120 books. And the public library is one of the beloved public institutions. I have numerous library cards, three in my current possession. As an adult, I take the time (sometimes frequently, other times rarely) to visit the library for so long that I can wander through the stacks. It is a form of synchronicity and trusting the universe, long before I had read such phrases that apply directly to experiences that I have lived, known and breathed.

At this juncture of my life, my relationship with money is at the fore. As is my relationship with masculinity. After two and a half decades of leaving those stones unturned, I visit them often. Probably daily. I no longer want to perpetuate cultural norms that act oblivious to such powerful social forces.

I have less fear now of writing. Of debt. Of the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unseen. Less fear of unemployment. Less fear of myself, and my limitations. I delight in those.

I do not need to have the life of the generation before me. Yet, I was glad to realize it back then and be open to it going forward. Monumental changes made for a tumultuous 2010. 2011 was an era of rebirth, renewal and redirection.

Death has been lingering, maybe since Buddy’s passing in January 1997. The first death of a family member since Gma Shirley had died 9 or 10 years earlier. Death at 18 in the states felt very different than it had at 8 outside. It felt isolating, confusing and fracturing in Guatemala. There had been ridiculing, shaming and enough punishment that the one time I recall crying over Shirley’s death was inside the warmth of my fleece jacket one day during lunch. It was overcast overhead, seated on some bleachers overlooking a soccer field, and I shut the world out in order to cry inside my red pullover.