So when are you getting another dog?

Lately my life has been pretty much all about dogs. I volunteer at the local animal shelter, I donate monthly to the ASPCA, I read tons of articles about dogs and things that are happening to them around the world–don’t worry; I won’t go into that here. Even my day job is about dogs! The company I work for builds online pharmacies for veterinarians. Then I started dog-sitting because obviously I wasn’t around dogs enough. Day in and day out it’s dogs, dogs, dogs.

“You can’t buy love but you can rescue it!”

Naturally people ask me, “So when are you getting another dog?”

Another dog.

It’s a logical conclusion, I guess. You have one dog that you love with all your heart, you surround yourself with dogs every day in one way or another, people keep telling you that you have a way with dogs, so it’s inevitable that you get another dog, right?

The truth is every dog I see on the street, or in the shelter, or dog-sit for, or see online begs the question, “Am I ready?”

My heart still breaks every time I come across something that reminds me of my baby, Carmela. Whether it happens naturally like seeing another Yellow Lab on the street, or intentionally like digging up her old veterinarian records to pour over, I am overcome with emotion and loss.

At this point it would feel too much like I was trying to replace her. Carm was one-of-a-kind and every dog I interact with is a painful reminder of that. I still compare everything a “new” dog does to that of Carmela. I’m just not ready to open my heart up to the one who comes after yet.

The silver-lining in all of this is that I’m really enjoying my freedom. I’m reminded of it whenever I have a dog staying with me for a few days, and I’m thrown back into the world of “doggy care.”

Another dog

I like not having to run home at lunchtime to take a dog out, or run home immediately after work. I like not coming to any surprises like an accident on the floor, or a chewed up front door. I like having my weekends free to get up when I want and explore at my leisure without having to work around someone else’s bathroom schedule. I enjoy having a clean apartment. For the first time in my adult life my days revolve around my schedule, and that’s a pretty cool feeling.

Another dog

I know I will get “another” dog some day. Like everyone tells me, one day I’ll meet the right dog and I’ll just know. Sounds a little too Rom-Com for me, but I’ll take their word for it. For now I’m okay with missing my girl, and enjoying my newfound freedom.

The accidental vegetarian: How convenience and curiosity is leading me to a healthier and fuller life

Let me start off by saying that I am not a die-hard vegetarian. As you may have noticed in some of my earlier posts, I am a big believer in all things in moderation. I believe that life is too short not to have a second helping of ham at Christmas, or savor a delicious Italian Beef sandwich when you’re back home in the Midwest–yes, Portillo’s, I think of you often. But I also believe that you need to have balance in your life, and this is what led me to becoming mostly vegetarian.

Vegetarian cuisine

One day I was at the grocery store thinking about what I wanted to make for the week. Mentally I ran through my go-to list of winter recipes like sausage, pasta, and peppers in a marinara sauce, or ground beef chili, or a “light” chicken/pasta dish with some other kind of sauce. I felt heavy just thinking about it! I was curious…

“Could I make a healthy and hearty meal without feeling lousy afterwards?”

Up to the challenge I decided just to wing it. I knew what foods make good meat replacements, but I didn’t have any recipe in mind. I just picked things that sounded good together like lentils, peppers, beans, and a curry sauce. All together my groceries were much less than they were when I had opted to include meat. Plus I didn’t have to engage in the moral debate of Cage-Free, Free Range chicken, versus saving a few bucks by getting the “regular” chicken. I was sparing all the chickens!

The meal itself was much faster to make, too. I didn’t have to worry about making sure the meat was cooked through or that I had washed my hands thoroughly enough. With vegetarian cuisine you can just rinse and dump it in a pot. Even I can do that. Without all of that meat stress I was actually enjoying the cooking process!

Afterwards I felt full, satisfied, and way better than I was used to feeling after a meat/pasta dish. I wasn’t tired or lethargic. I was actually able to get a post-dinner workout in which up until this point was a summer-only thing. After that night I was hooked.

I started experimenting with other vegetarian options like quinoa, eggplant, and beans. It was interesting, as I worked my way out of the meat market I was forcing myself to think more creatively and intentionally about the foods I was putting into my body. I got lazy when I was a mostly-meat eater. This experience was challenging me in a fun and engaging way.

Pros of a (mostly) vegetarian diet:

  • Forces you to think creatively
  • Cheaper groceries
  • Cruelty-Free
  • Less stressful cooking experience
  • Feel fuller longer
  • Have more energy later

These days I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve eaten meat in the last month, and I honestly don’t even miss it. Occasionally I’ll give into a craving for a burger or ham sandwich, but I have noticed that those cravings have become fewer and farther between. Maybe one day I’ll be able to call myself a full-fledged vegetarian, but for now I’ll settle for being mostly-vegetarian.

Has your taste for meat changed over time? What’s your favorite go-to meatless meal?

Living in a new city: Even when you’re doing all the right things, you’re still going to have periods of loneliness

Winter is a magical, but difficult time for me. Once the awe of December wears off, and you’re in the throes of January/February it’s hard to shake the feeling of the winter blues. Even though I was putting myself out there and doing things, I couldn’t shake the feeling of loneliness.

In one week I went to my oil painting class, a concert, The First Friday Art Walk, and out to dinner two of those nights. I did all of these things by myself with no hesitation. In fact, I had a great time people watching and enjoying my solitude. However, by Friday night I was feeling more alone than I’ve ever felt.

Loneliness

Why? I did everything right! I went out and did things. I wasn’t being a hermit. I was getting out and being social!

The truth is even though there were other people at these events, I was still 100% alone. No one was there to share the experience with. No one would know or care if I went home early. No one would know I was there at all. I came home and promptly had a 10-hour panic attack.

What has finally settled in is the fact that this is home now. The newness of living in a new city has passed. I’m just living and working here now. I am no longer in the vacation mindset. That compounded with the winter blues has made everything look rather bleak.

I thought having to dog-sit this weekend would be THE worst thing for me to do right now. I just wanted to crawl in bed and feel bad for myself. Yes, I would do something about it…later…However, there is no later with a dog. If they want to go out, you have to take them out NOW. If they want to crawl into your lap and cuddle, there’s no way around it–you’re going to have a puppy in your lap.

Dog sitting

I was walking Junebug earlier when I realized that he has given me exactly what I needed this weekend. I had someone to cuddle with when I needed it, someone to walk and enjoy the sunsets with, and I had someone help me reconnect with myself.

My friends and family have always said that I have a way with dogs–that I am attune to them and know what they need. It also looks like the opposite might be true as well.

Dog views

The moral of this anecdote is that dogs make everything better. Obviously. But I needed to figure out a way to keep this feeling going for the times I don’t have a dog to look after. I decided that I need to start engaging with people when I’m out and about. It’s not enough to merely be in the same room with other people, I need to start connecting with them, too. Ways that I’m going to do this include: going to book clubs and engaging in discussions with people, going to networking events even though I dislike them, and joining other groups that force me to communicate with other people. It’s not a foolproof method, but it’s a start.

Did you have periods of loneliness when you moved to your new city? What did you do to combat it?

Some things you just can’t part with: Why it’s okay to have some sentimental things

For the last several years I’ve suffered from purging fits: the inexplicable need to go through all of my things and decide what I can get rid of. It was therapeutic in a way, if not a little manic. Nothing was sentimental. Could I remember the last time I wore/used it? Had it been within the last year? Did I even remember that I had it? If the answer was ‘no’ to any of these questions the item went in the donation pile. Astoundingly I was able to get a decent donation pile going every few months. Honestly, how much stuff can one person have?

Books and dogs

My periodic purging fits were just a warm-up though for my big move last year when I packed up everything I could into my little Rav4, and moved to Maine. Only the bare minimum made it. Since then I haven’t had one purging fit. That was until the other night.

I looked around my tiny apartment with the urge to purge, but not really having a surplus of anything. Will I ever read this book again? When was the last time I wore that shirt? My donation pile was the smallest it’s ever been, especially since I hadn’t done one in over 10 months–an all-time record!

Sentimental things

I went through my “junk” cabinet. This contains special cards, letters, legal/important stuff, research, and photo albums. I was able to get rid of a lot of old bills and other things that were just taking up space. I was feeling pretty good about the whole thing until I stumbled across a blue, file folder.

I’m an organized person by nature. Everything has a place and a purpose, but I could not for the life of me remember what was in this blue file folder until I opened it, and found a meticulous record of Carmela’s veterinary visits. They were in chronological order, of course, with the most recent visit on top.

I flipped through the pages of all of our scary moments together. The time I rushed her to the vet because she was having dizzy spells and banging into walls. The time the vet found a bump on her tongue and had to remove it before we found out it was benign. The time she had another benign growth on her foot and had to have that removed. The first time I took her in for what would become a recurrent ear infection, and everything in between.

I sobbed going though this folder because I remember the face she made at every one of these visits. I remember being scared and frightened about whatever was happening to my puppy and the reassuring facial expression she gave me every time that seemed to say,

“Look, I feel like shit right not, but don’t worry. It’s not the end.”

It didn’t always curb my worry, but it certainly helped.

I debated throwing these records away. After all I won’t have any need for them anymore, but I decided to keep them all. I labeled the folder, and filed it away with all of my other important Carmela stuff.

Dogs and books

We all have sentimental things we refuse to give up no matter what. And sometimes those things change. For the longest time I thought I could never part with my books, but now I know they don’t even come close to the importance I place on my Carmela things. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What are some of your sentimental things that you would never throw away? Have those things changed over time?

Putting my love for dogs to good use

“Some people are amazing with children. They have the ability to make an instant connection–and the children feel it. Stephanie has that relationship with dogs. They gravitate towards her because they are drawn to her. I think she’s part canine.” – testimonial from my friend, M. on my dog sitting site.

I’ve always had a special relationship with dogs. Our first dog, Samson, was a German Shepherd who was around before I was. Even though he was the temperamental first child, and didn’t like people invading his space, he was always nice to me. He’d even let me pull his tail, and play with his food while he ate.

Our next dog, Snowball, was a Great Pyrenees who was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but she was a sweetie. She never mastered the art of being housebroken so she was only allowed in the kitchen. I would often lie down on the cold, linoleum floor with her and rub her belly for hours.

Then we got Carmela–the dog love of my life. From day one we had an incredible and indescribable bond. She understood me in a way no human ever could. She was our family dog, but really, she was mine and I was hers.

Even though I’m not ready to get another dog and probably won’t be for a while, I know my connection with dogs and my ability to understand and help them is far from over.

So here are some of the ways I’m putting my love for dogs to good use:

  • I volunteer weekly at the local animal shelter. Though my job as a greeter isn’t directly related to helping the animals, I am donating my time and doing my best to entice (guilt) visitors into taking an animal home.

Animal shelter dogs

  • I post a weekly picture/bio on Instagram. Since I visit the dogs at the shelter every week anyway, I take a picture of one of the dogs and post a brief bio about them on my Instagram account. If I can help get a dog to a good home, then it’s well worth it.

Shelter dogs

  • I donate items to the shelter. When Carmela passed away I packed up all of her unused dog food, treats, and medicine and gave them to the animal shelter. They were so grateful to have it, especially the expensive medications Carm was taking towards the end, and I was happy to donate it to dogs in need. I’m also going to start using the money I would normally spend on her treats and put it towards items they could really use at the shelter.
  • I babysit for dogs. I’ve really missed having a dog around, and since I’m not ready to get another one yet I thought dog sitting would be a good way to hang out with dogs and get paid for it. Plus it’s great piece-of-mind for the owners because the dogs are not sitting in a cage all day like they would be at a kennel. I give the dogs lots of love, and text the owners with daily pictures/updates.

Dog sitting

  • I take part in fundraising events. The animal shelter where I volunteer at often has fundraisers through various local businesses. For example this week at Flatbread Company if you dine-in/take-out they will donate a portion of the proceeds to the shelter. They are also raffling baskets of goodies to raise more money for the shelter as well.

Even though these are small things they still make a difference. I think a lot of people get deterred from helping out a cause because they can’t make a big financial contribution. I know that I held this mentality for many years, but there are a ton of ways you can help. You can donate your time, resources, or simply opt to buy your dinner at a local restaurant that week. Look up your favorite cause or shelter and find out all the ways you can get involved. I bet there are more options than you think.

What cause are you passionate about? What are you doing to help?

Getting through the mental blocks of grief

Since I said goodbye to my beloved, Carmela, just over a month ago I’ve developed a lot of mental blocks. These are things that I used to be able to do, but can’t do at the moment because they feel weird without having Carm around.

Some of these mental blocks include:

  • Dancing around my apartment. Sometimes after a frustrating day at work when I had a lot of nervous energy I would crank the music and dance it out. Without Carm following me around wagging her tail, or sitting in the middle of room watching me it just wouldn’t feel right. Plus there would be no one to trip over. Where’s the fun in that?

Dog yoga

  • Doing yoga. Anytime I would whip out that yoga mat Carm would be right there next to me—pacing over the mat, stepping over (on) me, and lying down in the center of the mat forcing me to work around her. She really loved being “right there” for any physical activity especially when she got older and couldn’t do a lot of it herself.

Pasta pup

  • Cooking any kind of pasta dish. I would often make pasta for myself and inevitably would make extra for Carm. Bow-tie pasta was her favorite so that is what I usually bought. Now when I’m at the grocery store I carefully avoid the pasta aisle altogether.
  • Eating/throwing away end slices of bread. Carm loved her bread and peanut butter every morning. She especially loved it on days that I would start/finish a loaf of bread because it meant that she got an extra slice that day. I don’t mind the end pieces, but for some reason since she’s been gone I’ve been saving them. I currently have a bag of bread in my refrigerator that contains 4-5 end slices of bread.

Pizza dog

  • Eating pizza crust. Yes, a lot of my mental blocks are food-related. We would always share pizza together. She would eat the crust, and I would eat the rest. Currently the crust goes uneaten as well.

Painting with dogs

  • Painting. It has always been an on-again/off-again hobby of mine, but one that I had taken up again a few months ago. I loved going to my painting class every week, and painting at home most nights with Carm by my side. For the moment painting is still something I cannot do.

There are many more mental blocks that I’m currently fighting. Even just leaving the house and coming home throws me off. I often spend several seconds trying to figure out if I forgot something or why things feel “off.” It’s because my buddy is gone. There’s no one that I have to rush outside after work, or give 20 kisses and cuddles to before I walk out the door. My life revolved around Carm, and without her I just feel off balance.

It will get easier. Time heals all wounds. Eventually all of these mental blocks will cease to exist, but the ache in my heart for my beloved Carmela never will.

Did you develop mental blocks after your pet passed away? What helped you get through them?

Turning grief into something that can help others

Hi everyone!

I apologize for my radio silence lately. Truth be told it would’ve worked if my 6-month check-in post was my final installment for this journey I’m on: “Yep, I’ve made it 6 months. I guess I’ll be all right. So long!” but that’s not how I wanted it to end. This journey to Maine is an ever-present, ongoing thing, and just because I made it 6 months doesn’t mean that I am cured of all homesickness or second thoughts.

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The truth is not long after my last post I had to say goodbye to my best friend, Carmela. Those who have followed along on my journey this far know how much my dog meant to me. For 15+ years she was my other half, my adventure buddy, my everything. We grew up together and navigated life, in all of its stages, together. My world revolved around her, and her absence in my life has left such an agonizing ache in my heart that I didn’t think would ever heal—that I still don’t think will ever completely heal.

I could talk at length about those final days mostly because they’ve been playing in an endless loop in my head for the last 30 days, but I won’t. Those are my heart-breaking memories to bear, and that I hope will eventually fade.

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After it happened I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. I felt so lost—like a piece of me had died, and in a way it did. I went home to Chicago for a few days to be with my wonderfully supportive, loving family who would hover over me in the only way I tolerate—we’re here if you need us, but just go ahead and do your own thing. It was just what I needed.

During my time home I came up with an idea. I was wearing Carm’s collar around my wrist as a way to feel closer to her. I knew that I would have to come up with something else though because not only would my coworkers think I was mentally unstable if I was walking around with a dog’s collar around my arm, but it was also noisy as hell. I didn’t want to put her dog tag on a chain and wear it as a necklace. I wanted to wear it as a bracelet. After hours of scouring the internet I couldn’t find anything out there that incorporated a dog tag into a bracelet, so I came up with my own.

Pet tag remembrance

I picked white and red because Carmela was a white puppy with a red collar. I picked the woven design because I liked the symbolism associated with being woven together, she and I. I picked the plastic buckle because I’ve always hated those tiny clasps on bracelets. I liked that I could look down at my wrist at any time and think of her. It was perfect.

Pet ID tag remembrance

Over the next several days I got a lot of compliments on it—from friends, family, and complete strangers. They would ask me where I found it, how I came up with it, and mention that they knew several people who would be interested in something like that. So I decided to put it out there.

I now have an Etsy store set up: Knot Forgotten Pets or www.etsy.com/shop/knotforgottenpets

Pet ID tag remembrance

At my store I have several bracelet and keychain options. Between the color combinations, pet tag types, and inscriptions the possibilities are virtually endless.

Pet ID tag remembrance

Pet ID tag remembrance

For me it’s not about making money. What I really want to do is provide a little comfort to those who have gone through what I’ve been going through. I know it’s a small thing, but I know how much comfort I’ve gotten from having my bracelet. If I can offer that to someone else then my mission is complete.

Also a portion of the proceeds will go to The Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland—a wonderful animal shelter that I’ve been volunteering at for the last few months. It’s something that I think can do a lot of good, and I’m excited to see where it goes.

All in all it’s been an eventful few weeks. I’m still trying to find my footing—my place in the world without my faithful dog by my side, but I’m getting there.

A 6-month check-in: 6 things I’ve learned

Six months ago I did something truly terrifying. I picked up the well-curated life I had established in Chicago, packed up my car, and took off for Maine. I didn’t know anyone here, I barely had a job lined up, and I had no idea where I was going to live. Now that I’ve been here for six months things have calmed down, and I’ve settled into a new routine. I have a job, an apartment (thank god), and an ever-growing Maine bucket list. There have been many highs and lows so far, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself, and what it takes to successfully move far away from home.

Back Cove

Here are 6 things I learned in my first 6 months of living away:

  • Homesickness is an ever-present thing. It never really goes away. Some days are better than others, but the feeling is always there. Whether it’s a day that you feel like the universe is against you, or just wish a loved one was there to share an experience with you – you’re always going to miss your people back home.

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  • I can still be the old me while embracing the new me. When I first moved to Maine I did everything I could to put myself out there. I joined Meetup groups I would never join otherwise—happy hour beer club, really? But I did all that to avoid becoming the hermit I naturally am. Eventually I did find a balance which leads me to my next point…
  • Get involved in things you’re actually interested in. It’s important to put yourself out there and try new things, but if you actually like the class/event/activity then your odds of sticking with it are much higher. After my fatal attempt at being a person who does “happy hour beer clubs,” I signed up for better things like volunteering at the animal shelter and taking an oil painting class.

Portland, ME

  • Making friends can be as easy or as hard as you make it out to be. If you overthink it, it won’t work. If you’re at an event you hate, it won’t work either. The best way to make friends in a new city is to engage in activities you actually like. If you like the activity you’ll be more comfortable—more you, and that will attract other people who are doing the same thing. However also realize that it’s not going to happen overnight…
  • Be comfortable with being alone. No matter how many Meetup events, friend dates, town functions there are you’re still going to have solo nights. This may not have bothered you back home. In fact a night in (no matter how many) may have given you a sigh of relief. Thank god I don’t have to go out tonight! But it’s a totally different thing when you move away and don’t even have the option of having to go to a family function, or a friend’s party. Once you move to a new city you’re going to be alone a lot, and the sooner you accept that and learn to embrace it the better.

Learned

  • Embrace whatever you’re feeling. My first couple of months in Maine I told myself that I couldn’t have a sad/homesickness day because, after all, I chose this. Somehow I believed that having a sad day meant that I had admitted defeat when really it’s all just part of the process. I learned that moving to a new city is hard! You’re going to have those moments where you look around and say to yourself, “What have I done?” Embrace it. The sooner you deal with your emotions the sooner you can get out and explore your new city. After all, wasn’t that the point of moving anyway?

 

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Fall: A time of reflection, change, and getting on the right path

Depending on where you live you may have noticed that fall has begun. Here in Maine it’s in full swing. Sure the leaves haven’t totally changed color yet, but it’s been cold enough most days to fall into the category of autumn. I am so excited to experience my first fall in New England!

Fall and dogs

Like a lot of people I love fall. For me it’s always been a time of reflection. I love taking long walks in the crisp, autumn air with a coffee in hand ready to take on the day. Fall is always the time of year that I start thinking about where I was a year ago, and where I see myself in the future. I think about all the things that led me to this very spot: walking along the Western Promenade in Portland, ME while I wait for my laundry to finish at the laundromat, and deciding what to make for dinner.

A year ago I was living in downtown Chicago jonesing for some fall foliage and just wanting to be in Maine already! Now that I’m here I feel like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now.

Fall trees

Unlike last year when I started thinking about where I want to be this time next year my mind went blank. I have a few different options all of which would take me to different parts of the country including my family’s preference of going back to Chicago, but is that really what I want?

I know a lot of things can happen between now and then, but somehow I feel like my time in Maine isn’t done yet and won’t be finished by this time next year either. I’ve gotten a lot of things out of Maine so far, but I know I haven’t gotten everything out of it yet that I need to.

Wrought iron fence

I did decide to make a change though—one that you may have noticed already—and that is updating the design of this blog. I wanted something simple and elegant, and I think this new design captures that. If it doesn’t please don’t tell me because I spent a lot of time obsessing over it.

In addition to the design change I decided that I want to focus more on my writing. Something I don’t even think I’ve admitted fully on this blog is that I really want writing to be my full-time career. I would love to be writing articles, essays, how-tos, advice, and/or any other kind of freelance writing you can think of. This is not a shameless plug to get someone to hire me. I’ll save that for the desperate emails I plan on sending to my favorite publications later. This is more of a “putting it out into the universe” kind of thing. I’ve worked hard to get myself to Maine. Now I want to see what happens when I set my mind to making writing my career.

Do you get contemplative during the fall season? What changes are you thinking about making in your life?

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The Masterpiece Mentality has no place here

Ah, the Masterpiece Mentality. We’ve all experienced it. Whether we’ve picked up a pen, a paintbrush, or even just thought about it we want our work to be the best. And if it’s not we don’t even want to bother with it. How sad is that? How many beautiful stories could have been told, or how many extraordinary paintings could have been shared if we didn’t give up because it wasn’t a “masterpiece?”

Light

The dictionary defines a masterpiece as a person’s greatest piece of work, but isn’t that extremely subjective? Who’s to say what someone’s greatest piece of work is?

I recently started taking a painting class, and from the very first class the instructor (a pretty big artist herself) said that the Masterpiece Mentality has no place here or anywhere near the canvas. I love this alternative mentality because I have suffered from the Masterpiece Mentality for a long time. One of the reasons I haven’t picked up a brush in years is because I didn’t think I was that good at it so why even bother with it?

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I was in a room full of other people who suffered from the same affliction. They were there because they wanted to learn, but they were determined to end the class with a masterpiece. Throughout the class I heard things from my classmates like,

“What colors did you use to get that exact color? How much red? How much yellow?”

“This isn’t any good. I should just throw this out and forget all about art.”

“Why can’t I get mine to look like yours?”

I decided then and there that I was going to throw away the Masterpiece Mentality once and for all and just have fun. I’m never going to be a famous painter, but who cares? It’s a fun thing to do, and it unleashes my creativity. Why wouldn’t I stick with something that brings me that much joy?

Masterpiece

We live in a society that believes that if we’re going to attempt anything worthwhile it better be the best. Not to say that we should strive to be run-of-the-mill average, but how can anyone realistically hope to be the absolute best at anything? They say that there are only 7 basic plots in literature, but browse any library or bookstore and you’ll find several thousand books many of which are in the same genre.

Go to any art gallery and you’ll see different variations of portraits, outdoor scenes, or bowls of fruit. Nothing is original anymore. All the stories have been told, and all the paintings have been painted. The only thing that makes any piece of art different is the artist. The artist adds their own voice and interpretation to the piece, and thereby makes it something totally unique.

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The Masterpiece Mentality is flawed. It has no place on the canvas, in the notebook, behind the camera lens, or anywhere else where art can be created. So the next time you find yourself paralyzed with fear that your art has already “been done,” think again. There’s only one you, and your voice hasn’t been spoken yet. So speak.