01 August 2012


"We think we know everything; we don't know shit." 

Eighteen years ago a drag queen used this line in a play I attended. She might well have been speaking for me. I'd recently come out as a gay man and come out of a right-wing fundamentalist Christian worldview, one in which I'd thought I pretty much knew everything. I'd come to understand I didn't know shit.

I still don't. And life keeps reminding me of this. 

A few weeks back at a weekend writer's retreat I wrote a haiku poem. I was pleased with my effort:

Green pine cones stay closed.
Brown ones open like roses.
Dying, we blossom.

The retreat leader had outlined the basic structure of haiku. It consists of three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five again in the third line. "It's good editing practice for writers," she said. "You have to pare down your message to 17 syllables."

Traditionally, haiku poetry deals with nature. We were instructed to focus on a particular object in the natural world, asked to describe it in two lines. By the time we reached the last line, we were to broaden our vision and address some universal aspect.

I wrote about a pine cone, yes, but really I was writing about my process of coming out as a gay man. The years I spent with my eyes shut tight, my emotions shut down, anger brewing underneath. The process of coming out to myself and others in my mid-30s. The way my marriage withered, as did many relationships, as did my roles as father, son and brother. At the same time, the way something inside me uncurled, unfurled; I came alive, began to breathe. 

Dying, we blossom. I like how these five syllables capture my coming out experience. I like how they speak hope into the mystery of the Beyond. Maybe our great, gray, gay poet Walt Whitman has it right, "Death is far different than we imagine. And luckier."

Maybe. Or maybe both he and I are full of shit.

This past weekend our aged black lab Maddie was severely injured when a car hit her on the county lane in front of our house. Earlier this summer she'd taken to sleeping out of doors at night, not caring to navigate the four stairs up and into the house. When Dave called her to breakfast Friday morning she didn't show. She'd been doing that, too—refusing food for up to three days at a stretch.  Dave called again. He heard a yelping from out by the roadside, saw something black. Maddie. 

She relaxed as soon as she saw him. He called for me. What could we do? Nothing. Nothing but be present to her even as we waited for the veterinarian to arrive to euthanize her. 

We sat with her for three hours. She seemed relatively free of pain, relaxed, alert, aware. We talked to her, stroked her gently. She raised her left front paw and pressed it against us, her customary way of returning affection. 

We told her thank you. We reminisced about our 13 years as a family, how much she was a part of it. How she'd slept at our bedside, howled when we made love, followed us about the yard as we did chores, for several years accompanied me to the office, was a familiar and welcome sight at the design agency where I work. She'd been a gentle soul, tolerant of chickens and grandchildren. While she'd bark at raccoons, she'd learned to give deer a wide berth. 

The vet arrived with death in a syringe. We gave Maddie the best release we knew to give. 

I'd watched her carefully in those closing hours of her life. If she blossomed in death, I missed it. Yet so recently I'd prated on about us blooming as we let go of everything. As tears welled in my eyes, I realized again I don't know shit. 

I'm working on putting that into 17 syllables:

      Car-struck, our dog dies.
  The world rushes by, dammit.
  These are empty words.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the August issue of The Community Letter.

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