Dog Walking, Astrology, Integrity and Leaving Facebook
February 16, 2018 through February 4, 2019 is the Year of the Earth Dog in the Chinese Zodiac.
While not Chinese, I am a fan of all astrology, mythology and folk wisdom. The stories of the stars and how the positions of the planets imprint on human personality and behavior in identifiable patterns is endlessly fascinating to me. I began studying astrology after my life started to fall apart 3 years ago. The ending of my marriage and professional performing career with my ex-husband, betrayals by close friends, a car accident, and a separation from a toxic creative community all eventually fueled my departure from a decade of life based in New York City. I dedicated every moment of my time to putting myself back together again. I immersed myself in yoga, therapy, support groups, mediation, running, art making and studied magic (yes, I even turned to sorcery to get out of my misery). From this immersion in the weird and wonderful world of Western Occultism, I became a dedicated student of astrology and archetypal symbolism.
After finally pulling the plug on New York, I packed up my pickup truck and moved to Los Angeles, only knowing a small handful of people. I arrived here on the Winter Solstice 2017. The gig life of nightclub and cabaret work I had had in NY wasn’t an option out in expansive and industry-focused LA, so I resolved to try to live life as a “normal person” for while, get a “real job” and rethink how and with whom I wanted to build the next chapter of my life. Through a friend in Denver, I got work right away walking dogs in Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park. I assumed this job would be temporary, but being one of millions of creative types without many friends in a brand new city that runs on networking and connections made finding any job besides dog walking incredibly difficult.
By mid-February 2018, only 2 months in, I was pretty frustrated. This was right around the Chinese New Year, and when it came to my attention that this was the Year of the Dog, my heart sank. I felt like I was given a prison sentence from the Fates themselves: I would be walking dogs for the entire year. The dogs were great, I loved being outside in the mild winter sun, but it was exhausting, dirty, and hectic. More than that, however, I was working my ass off for peanuts. I was barely scraping by financially, living paycheck to paycheck with a lot of untouched debt from all the disruption in my life and it wasn’t any cheaper here than in NY. Fine, I decided. I can keep walking dogs on the side, but I still needed to get “serious” and double down on my search.
The irony of my situation stung at first. I was born in the Year of the Tiger. Tigers are known for being mesmerizing, intelligent, strong, determined, patient and ready to pounce. Three years ago, I had had a roaring tiger wearing a crown with a third eye tattooed on my thigh. How the hell was I to embrace my servile position of dog walking as a majestic f*cking tiger? I complained to my friends “it isn’t easy being a Tiger in the Year of the Dog,” and I hid my work situation from social media for a long time. Sarcasm aside, I knew the key to my happiness would be found by embracing this transition in my life with all of my heart, I resolved to humbly put myself in service to the dog.
The Chinese Zodiac is based on 12 symbolic animals, one of which is associated with your birth year. The animals all have some positive characteristics and some not-so-desirable qualities (just like the zodiac signs in Western astrology) and none of the animals are “higher up the food chain,” so to speak, than others. The origin stories of the Chinese zodiac say that the Jade Emperor (or Buddha in some versions) invited all of the animals to come to a party and only 12 animals showed up. In honor of them, they each had a year named after them, and were immortalized in the order in which they arrived to the party: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.
In addition to an animal, each year is also assigned an element: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, which I had learned about in my limited exposure to Chinese medicine and feng shui. The elements are all interrelated: wood feeds fire, fire forms earth, earth contains metal, metal holds water and water grows wood. The elements describe how each animal relates to the world, and the combination of one of five elements and the twelve animals creates a cycle that takes 60 years to complete. The Chinese zodiac is based on the 12-year orbit of Jupiter. In the West, the planet Jupiter was named for the big daddy of abundance and wealth, the king of the gods himself, Zeus to the Greeks -- definitely a significant planet to pay attention to.
2018’s Year of the Dog was an earth year, so earth was the “flavor” of the dog. As I researched more, I learned that those born in the Year of the Dog and Tiger are actually very compatible and share the qualities of integrity and loyalty; two attributes that are undervalued in these modern times, where people are dismissed with a swipe or dislike. Dogs stand beside their friends, family and even their work. After the painful and confusing end of so many friendships in New York, I definitely needed to learn how to trust again and starting the process with creatures known for trustworthiness and loyalty seemed like a good idea.
Soon after my mental shift towards being of service, I went to the thrift store and found a ceramic cup made to look like a disposable coffee cup decorated with a Greek key pattern and the words “WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU.” I bought it and made it the official dog water cup and kept it filled with ice water I brought in a separate thermos for them every day. Often I would hold the cup for bigger dogs that had trouble bending themselves down to the cup holder for a drink and I would say out loud “I am happy to serve you!” I still took care to dress myself fashionably, but for movement, often with eyeliner and lipstick, and always with headphones and a fanny pack. Being so broke didn’t allow me the luxury of buying food out, and I spent about 30 minutes everyday packing healthy meals and fun refreshing drinks to keep me going. My 18 year old Toyota Tacoma extended cab pick-up truck became our rolling clubhouse. Although my truck’s nickname is officially “Tigress” because of the sound the engine makes when accelerating in cruise control mode, I started to refer to her as the “dog school bus.”
My dog-walking day started around 11:30 or noon and finished between 5 and 6 pm, a schedule I loved. I had mornings and nights free to apply for other jobs, keep up on what had become a rigorous and much-loved self-care routine and to work on my writing and painting. I only grew up with one black lab, so I was unseasoned as a professional dog person -- and the dogs took advantage of me quite a bit in the beginning. They tested what they could get away with; they dragged me around on the leash, barked aggressively when I arrived, and jumped all over me while I was driving; more than a few devoured my lunch when I was picking up another dog. Once, a small dog jumped out of the truck window while I was driving; through some miracle, I caught the end of the leash and pulled the dog back into the window like reeling in a prize fish, without stopping the flow of traffic or injuring the dog.
In the ranking of senses, humans have sight at the top, whereas dogs have smell. When I imagined living life through the primacy of scent, I realized that I had had the wrong focus on our walks. I had been trying to keep them moving along at a steady pace, as if they had some fitness goals and needed to walk the entire time to meet them. More than they wanted exercise, they wanted to smell things. The nose leads the dog, and mainly I was taking them on smelling field trips. They would take their time at the beginning of the walk, absorbing all the available aromas, adding their own to the mix, and then they would speed up to a steady walking pace, usually after we turned around to head back.
The job requires using an app to take photos documenting whether they peed or pooped and leave notes about the walk. The owners and my boss would chime in when they thought I was being taken advantage of by the dogs or being too easy on them. There was a balance to be struck between indulging their senses and maintaining their manners and training. I found dog-proof containers for my food, enforced a one-dog-at-a-time rule on my lap while driving, insisted barky dogs sit down before putting on their leash and started rewarding good behavior with treats. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way. Luckily, no one got hurt.
Walks are either 30, 45 or 60 minutes in length, but you can’t make very much money doing only one walk at a time, so it was advantageous for me to get accustomed to walking three to five dogs at once. The main dangers with group walks are aggression and the leashes turning into a rat king. Combining walks also gave the dogs more time out of the house while we drove around for pick-ups and drop-offs, and they all love car rides. The real skill of being a dog walker is to minimize the distance traveled and to balance personalities in order to have the most amicable walks. In the early months, this was a lot of tense trial and error, but eventually, a mid-day and late afternoon group took shape to which other dogs could join as scheduling required.
My mid-day crew consisted of a three-year-old miniature Australian sheep dog named MJ; a nine-month-old dachshund-spaniel-golden retriever mix named Toast (picture blond retriever coloration and happy disposition, on a small hot dog body); and a sweet but curmudgeonly Jack Russell mix named Tony. MJ and Toast lived together and were a vibrant pair who quickly became my go-to dogs to help me socialize the shy or anxious ones. I had the most success teaching commands to MJ and she learned to shake hands, lay down, roll over, jump through a hoop and pirouette. Toast couldn’t be bothered, but he did take to the pirouette naturally. Tony liked riding shotgun but had a lot of boundary issues. He got prickly when other dogs came near him, which was hard to avoid because they all wanted to be by the window. As I built trust with Tony, he became surprisingly game for adventure and acted as an anchor of civility in many packs, which is a helpful energy to have around. Other dogs came and went based on variations of their owner’s schedules, but this midday crew was the core.
Some of the dogs lived in neighborhoods that weren’t fun to walk in because of trash, hills, school kids or lack of plants, so I poked around to find the best and closest parks. This was easy in LA, and my favorites include the rugged, hilly dirt trails winding through the forest of Elysian Park; the convenient cosmopolitan splendor of Echo Park Lake with lilies, lotuses, ducks, a fountain and swan-shaped paddle boats; or the efficient, utilitarian sandy loop around the Silver Lake Reservoir. The first few months were exhausting. I walked an average of five to seven miles per day, often with lots of hills. For a while I had an elderly pair of big dogs named Gustav and Zorro who lived at the top of the steepest hill I’d ever seen in my life. Baxter Street is the third steepest hill in the US at a terrifying 33% incline. Having spent my entire life living as sea level, this nearly gave me panic attacks the first few months whenever I had to drive it. I feared my truck would flip over backwards or that I could hit an oncoming car because the road can’t be seen until you start the descent. Dog walking on those hills, however, was working wonders for my legs and butt.
Winter turned into spring and I was enchanted by the surreal plant life of Southern California, a big change from dirty ol’ New York or the four-mile island on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay where I grew up. I couldn’t believe the way nature was integrated into daily life in a city as big as LA, it felt miraculous. As I walked, I would often consult a plant identification app to learn about the succulents, cacti, trees and flowers that were like a real-life Dr. Seuss book to me. I tracked the ripening of kumquats, mandarins and loquats, picking a few to take home when no one was looking. With my body engaged on long walks, my eyes soaked up the landscape of this new city, and my mind was mostly free to wander. I listened to podcasts, audiobooks or music all day. Nights and weekends were spent with my new boyfriend going to shows, movies, museums and gardens. He gave me a fantastic introduction to some of the city’s greatest cultural treasures, when I would not have been able to afford to enjoy these things otherwise.
The spring rain made for some memorable adventures. Once, in a heavy downpour, MJ, Toast, Tony and I headed over to Griffith Park. There weren’t any people out and we hiked up hill for about an hour. At the top, the rain cleared, leaving a dramatic fog over the cliffs, obscuring the view of the horizon. When we started our descent, the dogs kept looking behind us and seemed nervous. It took a few minutes for me to realize that there was a coyote following us. I screamed at it, as I had been told to do, making loud noises to try to scare it off and found a big stick. I tried to keep the dogs focused on walking so we could get out of there quickly but young, tiny Toast especially was freaked. I worried the coyote could do a run-by and easily make off with the little guy. I put the stick down so I had my hands free to hold onto the leashes better and readied myself to punch the critter in the snout if it tried to attack. The coyote was undeterred and came daringly close, within about 15 feet of us. When I stopped to yell at it, he would just sit and scratch an ear nonchalantly. We made it down to the parking lot with the coyote hot on our heels the entire time. I closed a big gate behind us, and it followed us along the inside of the chain link fence surrounding the parking lot as we walked back to the truck.
I learned a lot about coyotes that spring. Apparently they often use a bait and switch tactic where one coyote acts casual and playful, baiting dogs to follow them to play or pursue, while a pack is waiting off in the bushes to attack. One night, while walking my boyfriend’s neighbor’s flat-coat retriever alone near the Silver Lake Reservoir, we were surrounded by six coyotes. They were like street punks in a dark alley using their switchblades to clean under their nails, I imagined them saying, mockingly, “Well, well, well….what do we have here…” This group was bolder than the rainy-day coyote and came within 10 feet of us. One little delinquent stared right us as it took a dump in the middle of the street. Jerk! I screamed and looked in vain for something to throw, but we were cornered, with nowhere to go for several minutes. Finally a coyote-savvy neighbor came out with a flashlight and baseball bat and used it to hit a trash can and scare them off. Then he walked us back to the house. Coyotes, wolves and dogs are all part of the canine family and this was another Year of the Dog lesson, this time about hunting and being hunted.
I was quite happy to be in a bubble of natural beauty, dogs and rugged athleticism, because the world was a mess. The implosion of my own life aside, America seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket and everyone was turning on each other with increasing viciousness. Shortly after Trump was elected, I thought of him as the Grinch and knew that he would keep on stealing metaphorical Christmas from us over and over again. I felt that the Whos, living in Whoville, would need to find joy and hold each other close wherever we could to keep “Christmas” (aka civility) alive in our hearts. It seemed to me that the only way to impact him would be starve him from the thing he feeds on most: media attention.
My yoga and Buddhist studies taught me that if you want to change the world, change yourself. My little protests might be small, but the only thing that I actually have control of in the world is where I put my energy. I endeavored to enjoy small pleasures and kindnesses wherever I could and decided to stop listening to the news. Obsessive hours listening to National Public Radio left me staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, filled with dread. The world wasn’t going to be changed whether or not I got worked up about whatever hideous new thing the Grinch had done anyway. After that, I got my news only through Terry Gross via podcasts of Fresh Air, where any political discussions are mediated by lots of arts and culture. Even without direct news, my attempts to stay in a bubble were disrupted each month as the first would draw closer and I again found myself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night filled with dread, wondering how I was going to pay rent on time. Luckily my boss was kind enough to give me advances the months I couldn’t make it. Surviving in LA was no joke and dog walking wasn’t cutting it.
Emotionally, I still wasn’t in the greatest shape to handle the endless rejection that must be endured when searching for jobs in an over-saturated and demanding city like LA, but I still filled my quota of three to five job applications per week. I got updates from Indeed, LinkedIn and kept combing through Craigslist. I applied for jobs ranging from entry level administration, retail, restaurants, yoga/fitness, and marijuana dispensaries; I even applied to be a cashier at metal recycling plant. I’d have interviews every couple of weeks, but most of these jobs were bleak and not much better pay. When I was honest with myself, I didn’t really want a job, I wanted an exciting, fulfilling career and to support myself with my creativity, as I had done my entire adult life.
I still wasn’t sure about performing though either. I didn’t feel part of a scene or community anymore, I didn’t want to start over at the bottom when I had already paid my dues in NY and the few shows I did do here, just didn’t have the same magic. I wanted the next version of me to emerge. I was open to going back to school, but nothing spoke to me. If I changed careers, it needed to be in a creative field, but there was no epiphany, no miraculous person changing the course of my life, no clear path to set out on…there was just dog walking. Was this what I moved across the entire country for? The universe didn’t have any bigger plans for me than picking up crap all day? Hardly the big “phoenix rising from the ashes” moment I had been waiting to write home about. My phoenix was late and I was starting to panic.
Facebook and Instagram felt like lifelines since I moved from the east coast, but I was deeply disturbed by the trolling and hateful attacks casually fired off within the small performing community that I had been part of since 2002. Every fiber of my being recoiled, watching heated political brush fires start up and within hours burn down the reputation of people that I knew. I had been part of something similar the previous spring, so I wasn’t anxious to step back into the firing line, but the extreme lack of decency and respect with which people were speaking to each other was breaking my spirit. Something needed to change.
For years I had enjoyed lively, healthy debates with people all over the world on Facebook, but now, actual fear prevented me from sharing any differing opinion, which seemed like a huge warning sign that we were going in the wrong direction. When reasonable people were censoring themselves out of fear of punishment, how is that different from any political oppression we might be fighting against in the first place? Even if I did agree with what was being charged, the means being used to address it were unethical, misguided and just plain mean. I didn’t want the type of world that was being created by these “friends” anymore. If I was considering leaving that community permanently and possibly even leaving Facebook, I felt I owed it to myself to fight one more time for the type of dialog I did want to see happening.
To me, it boiled down to one essential belief that I thought to be ingrained in us from a young age: The Golden Rule. It’s simple, thorough and universal: treat others how you wish to be treated. The bullies had control of the playground on Facebook, but I decided to stand up to them anyway, armed with this simple, basic value, and posted my heartfelt appeal for peace. At various points, I have been passionately self righteous in my beliefs too, something we all hopefully mature out of as life’s challenges bring us a broader perspective. None of us are saints and the adage about not throwing stones is an apt one. As my awareness has expanded with age, experience and a deepening of my spiritual values, I felt I had finally had gotten a tiny glimpse of it…the big “IT”…the oft-spoken-about “Oneness” and interconnectedness of every living thing. Through astrology, I saw direct connections between events in my life and the placement of the planets; by falling in love with the nature of Los Angeles, I saw how the animals, plants and people are all part of the same environment, not separate at all. Dr. Bronner was right, we are ALL ONE! Hurting another is the same as hurting ourselves and we needed to stop destroying each other immediately. Every single living thing, regardless of their offense (even convicted criminals, even the Grinch) deserves to be treated with decency, at a minimum.
Again, my optimism (naïveté?) lead me to try to fight for something that could never be won on social media and I took my second hard hit for that effort. Not surprisingly, the bullies won. My effort blew up in my face instantly and caused even further damage to my reputation and to my battered heart. Many of my peers felt like I was asking for it by speaking up for a second time and stopped talking to me. The few shows I was still booked for cancelled. So, now, even if I had wanted to keep my toe in the pond of my previous profession, I had officially just drained and paved over it.
I began to feel that maybe integrity was yet another dying art form that was being steamrolled by social media, technology and “progress.” The only thing that I could do was to sever all ties with people who could justify treating anyone disrespectfully, no matter the rightness of their cause. How we were fighting the battle became as important to me as the battle itself. Kindness had to come first, in my mind, issues second. I knew that honoring this belief might leave me very lonely, but I felt strongly about my convictions and had to honor them. It’s too bad integrity couldn’t help me pay the rent, because then I would have really been able to sleep much better.
At the beginning of June, I moved from a rented room in a bungalow in East LA to rented room in a better bungalow in Atwater Village. This cut my commute down from 30 to under 10 minutes but cost $100 (plus utilities!) more per month than I had been paying. When my boyfriend of four months told me he didn’t feel the same about me as I felt about him and then left the country for the summer, I was heartbroken. Again. He had definitely made LA more welcoming for me, too. I knew how to heal myself, and so set about doing it. I still hadn’t found my community in LA and every single person I discussed this with told me their first year in LA was the worst they ever experienced, but that in time, I would find friends. They estimated three to four years to feel at home here, but emphasized that the first year was a bad as it gets. I wasn’t sure I would make it that long. I started to get homesick. All I had to lean on were the dogs.
The sun and heat of LA summer was making me anxious, too, because I didn’t have working air conditioning in my truck and I was outside during the peak hours of the day. I started watching how the gardeners handled it. I plopped electrolyte tablets into my water, used more ice and starting packing my lunch on cold packs. I parked under trees or used a windshield shade, slathered on sunscreen and wore lots of big hats. I started eating ice cream every day, which I hadn’t allowed myself to do since childhood. Of course this was a refreshing treat in the heat, but also the inner child in me felt like I was getting away with something. I found that my favorite vanilla chocolate crunch bar was 75 cents more expensive at Echo Park than Bellevue, which was significant to me financially, so I took more trips to Bellevue, which had better shade anyway. Shade seeking became my primary concern and the dogs and I would hop from shade patch to shade patch, like frogs on lily pads.
I left Facebook at the Summer Solstice, a time of maximum light in the Northern Hemisphere. Following the lead of my astrology studies, I had started setting seasonal deadlines based on the moon, sun or planets instead of picking random dates. I thought I was just taking a healthy break from Facebook and planned to try re-entry at the Autumn Equinox. I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks away from it since I joined over a decade ago. It was uncomfortable to admit to myself that I was an addict. Even though I didn’t “love” Facebook, I was addicted and acutely felt the fear of missing out (FOMO).
FOMO is one of the most insidious devils there is, a disguised form of the comparison of ourselves to others that is strongly warned against in most spiritual or mental health traditions. The goal is to be present and content with where you are, which I worked on through my meditation and writing. I also worried that I would be forgotten by people I cared about. Having been disappointed by so many people I once considered friends in New York, I knew that if people didn’t care to stay connected to me in “real life,” then I didn’t have the relationship with them that I had imagined anyway. Often, I had made the excuse that I had to be on social media to promote shows or stay on the radar in my field, but I didn’t know if this was actually true or just an excuse to mask the addiction. I didn’t have anything to promote and my life was pretty simple at the moment. I had spent the spring on a massive overhaul of my website, so there was a buoy of me floating out in the internet ocean, and I was still on Instagram.
The different energies of the planets were described by the Greeks through metaphor and allegory, and personified by corresponding gods and goddesses who had domain over certain aspects of human life. Of course, the Romans changed all the names later. The word “planet” comes from the Greek planētēs, meaning wanderer. With the sun and moon included, there are seven heavenly bodies that can be seen by the naked eye, and the Greeks named them Hermes (Mercury), Aphrodite (Venus), Ares (Mars), Zeus (Jupiter), and Cronus (Saturn); they also were the names given to the days of the week. There was some rather tense astrological weather forecasted for the summer, including some major planets going retrograde and a few eclipses in the fiery sign of Leo. Retrogrades are an optical illusion that make planets appear to be moving backwards from our relative perspective on Earth. The planet isn’t really moving backwards, but there is a downshift of that particular type of energy that helps us re-learn important lessons; just as much as presence, we can also learn through the absence of strength and vitality too. If you become used to the effects of having fire, for instance, you will learn something new about your relationship to it when you don’t have it.
First, came the Mars’ retrograde in Scorpio, a few days after my departure from Facebook. Mars is identified with a fiery, universal masculine, warrior energy that provides action, energy, drive and passion. His retrogrades are 6 weeks long, about every 18 months. In retrograde, I felt the absence of Mars as I slipped into a long, lethargic depression and stopped getting up to run in the morning. I also cried a million tears during those weeks, it was like a faucet was on behind my eyes. Then came Mercury’s retrograde in late July, which is much shorter and happens about three times a year. Mercury -- both the planet and the god -- is attributed with influencing communication, writing, business, trade and commerce. I had been trying to meet new people through dating apps and had a brief fling with a younger lover that abruptly ended during Mercury’s retrograde when we had a misunderstanding via text message, to which he replied by saying “at least he wasn’t a 40 year old dog walker.” Ouch.
I had friction with some of my dogs too. There was a lab who was a little over a year old, who, for reasons I never found out, had not been neutered. His testosterone-fueled enthusiasm would compel him to throw the full weight of his 150 pound body into passionately smelling every pole, post or plant and bucking like a bronco anytime another dog passed by. He would get so worked up sometimes that I could feel the pulse in his neck all the way at the end of the leash, where I was holding on for dear life. At 115 pounds myself, I was being yanked around by him and it began to wear on me. Despite loving him dearly, I asked my boss to give him to someone else. No doubt my emotional state wasn’t helping. I felt like a failure because I hadn’t been able to leash train him properly, but testosterone won out. There was also a frustrating barky little schnauzer mix who was giving me grief. He was way over-stimulated by the presence of other dogs and acted out by peeing and even pooping inside of my truck (!) and barking at me in a shrill, demanding way that made me crazy. His behavior was so bad that I banned him from my truck, which meant he had to be walked alone. This disrupted the flow of my other walks and compromised my efficiency, but I knew it wasn’t in my interest to be giving up more dogs. I’ll come back to him later, but at the time, I wondered if maybe I was the problem.
Through sheer force of will, I tried to alleviate my depression. I made myself go back to running and worked to increase my distance from three to four miles, twice a week. I made an outdoor gym and did yoga outside on the mornings I didn’t run. I started refinishing furniture I found in the trash to resell. I pondered many an online business I might start. Struggling through the crappy astrological weather and totally depressed, I became adept at crying while doing other things at the same time: I cried while running, I cried walking dogs, I cried sanding a desk, I cried packing my lunch, I cried in the sun, the shade, morning, noon, night … I thought that I would turn into a human raisin and float away on my own ocean of tears. I even cried in the ocean too. I set a goal of going to ten different beaches before the end of summer. I went every Sunday after the farmer’s market, where I would sometimes cry under my sunglasses as I sampled the sumptuous California bounty of tomatoes, plums and peaches. Without new friends, a boyfriend, a career, spending money, or the distraction of Facebook, my nights and weekends were solitary and a chilling loneliness set in.
Most summer evenings, I would come home exhausted from a hot day of work and crack open a can of ‘Simpler Times’ (my favorite dirt cheap beer from Trader Joe’s) and work on my furniture refinishing projects until dark. As I sanded away, I thought a lot about what I started referring to as “analog life.” It felt like I had given too much of my power away to technology and, by extension, corporations. Social media was just the tip of the iceberg. If life was like vegetable soup and technology was like adding carrots, it seemed like the carrots had taken over the entire soup and we were all walking around orange and malnourished because we’d been gorging too much on one vegetable. Why do we behave like the “march of progress” is inevitable when it is marching on top of us? I didn’t want any more technology in my life than was necessary, I don’t want to go off-grid or be a Luddite, but not all of it had improved my life, and Facebook had practically ruined it. I didn’t want to get lazy, have bad habits or be dependent on anything that wasn’t really serving my highest good. And wasn’t there an ineffable magic to human connection, nature and simplicity that was perfect as is?
At the end of July, there was random shooting at my local Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake that killed a manager there. After a high speed police chase that ended with a car crash near the entrance to the grocery store, a gunman shot through the glass door and took hostages for several hours; the police, returning fire, killed the store manager. She was the only fatality, but there were other injuries. I was home when helicopters descended over the neighborhood and remained for 24 hours. The next day, I was so rattled from the helicopters that I felt like I had a small taste of what being in a war would be like. Later in the week, I went by to visit the enormous memorial that was growing daily outside of the store’s boarded-up front door. I didn’t know the manager who was shot personally, but she was a face I saw regularly.
The sign underneath the Trader Joe’s sign on top of the building said “Your Neighborhood Grocery Store.” This had previously seemed like condescending corporate public relations to me, but Trader Joe’s actually began in nearby Pasadena; this was my neighborhood grocery store, and now the words rang true. The people who worked and shopped there were part of the fabric of my life. I remembered the first week I moved here: I was standing in the wine aisle when the wine guy came over to offer assistance. I told him that I was marveling that wine was for sale in a grocery store because I had just moved from New York and he said “What took you so long? Welcome to California.”
The staff was always friendly and kind, I realized how much I valued these interactions. This realization contrasted with my experience a few months later, just a few miles away at the 365 store, which is a discount off-shoot of Whole Foods. Amazon had acquired Whole Foods and there had been many changes over a few months. I had always enjoyed talking to the staff there, too. Mostly I interacted with the cashiers in the express lanes. By the fall, they had replaced those people with automated checkout stations, which gave me problems every single time. “If I wanted to check myself out, maybe I should just work at a grocery store,” I thought. I tried just getting in the longer, regular lines, but I found myself getting angry anytime I went there. I stopped going as much. I wanted places that valued people, because I was starved for human contact. But, I digress: that hadn’t happened yet where I left off in the story; luckily, the Trader Joe’s re-opened three weeks after the shooting, and I was grateful.
By August, a few senior dog walkers who had been at the small private company I worked for for a long time quit for various personal reasons (none related to the company, which is fantastic). Suddenly, I shot up the ladder and was the senior-most dog walker, which gave me first dibs on overnight dog-sitting jobs. This turned out to be a good amount of work in the vacation month of August. It was good pay: they came and stayed at my place and didn’t interfere with my daytime schedule. I loved having sleepovers with them. This gave me some breathing room. I began to daydream about producing shows again and starting a new collective. The summer of retrogrades was winding down. At one point, there had been five planets in retrograde -- Mercury, Mars, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto -- plus those pesky eclipses.
As September arrived, I decided to take advantage of the lightening of the astrological weather and I went to a Mexican Botánica, or folk-medicine-religious-candle store, and asked the owner to pick out a love candle for me. I fed it with my best intentions and lit it that same night. A little while later, I got on Bumble and met someone who I started seeing the day after that. He was a man of means who had been separated from his wife for several months and had two kids that lived with her up north. I spent the entire month of September in a state of cautious excitement about the budding connection with a man who seemed thoroughly excited by my existence. While we had clearly taken very different paths in our lives thus far, I felt really appreciated and I adored him as well. He was my age and that felt refreshing because we shared so many points of reference and he got sarcasm, another dying art form.
On October 4th, he returned from a trip up north for parenting duty and rushed over to my place straight from the airport in an Uber. He asked me to meet him outside because he had made something for me. I tried to wrap my arms around him like an octopus in my excitement to see him, despite his efforts to contain them. I should have known then that this wasn’t going to be the night of blissful reunion I had believed it to be, but I was clueless. Still beaming at him, we sat down outside my front door, where he told me that I wasn’t “muggle enough” for him, handed me an envelope, gave me a dramatic goodbye kiss and started walking away into the dark night. I was stunned and confused, was he…breaking up with me…like THIS? In protest, as he neared the end of the driveway, I said “this isn’t fair…” to which he replied bluntly, “life isn’t fair.”
Inside the envelope was a paper crown made out of ten $100 bills. It took everything inside of me not to set fire to it, I was so insulted that he would dump me like a coward and then try to appease me like a child. Of course, I couldn’t burn it. My flair for the dramatic was tempered by cold, hard reality; I had a pile of unpaid parking tickets and my truck registration was about to expire. The next day was the start of Venus’ 6 week retrograde in Scorpio. I felt like I was being punished by the Goddess of Love herself. My retrograde homework assignment felt horribly unfair.
I was angry at Venus, the feminine counterpart to masculine Mars (in mythology, they were often lovers) and ruler of love, pleasure, enjoyment and beauty. My rage wasn’t just directed at Venus, it was directed at everything: love, LA, dating, men, astrology, dating apps, Facebook, magic candles, the man at the Botánica, the sky...I felt powerless, and resolved to take a fast from all magic for the entire retrograde. If Venus was going to do me like this, I was going to starve her of attention too. I would not be feeding my altar the requisite flowers, fruit, wine and candles. I would not be reading any horoscopes, consulting any tarot cards or even lighting a single stick of incense for the entire six week retrograde (take that, Venus!) and I packed it all up into a box. I did text the man in question and ask what really happened. I also sent a letter, and, in a moment of weakness (aka blind rage), mailed back the Tupperware container that he had given me homemade bread in, filled with a million broken shards of glass that had once been the glass candle that I lit the night we met. He never replied.
Disappearing acts like that are really hard for me. This one touched such a specific old wound related to my deepest fears of abandonment. It took over two months to recover from it being ripped opened. The anger and pain wasn’t really about him, but if he had actually had a mature, grown up discussion with me where I understood what was going on, it would have spared me a lot of unnecessary pain. I deleted all dating apps and decided that it was too risky to meet people that way when LA is already known to be a self-absorbed and flaky city and my experience with the culture of online dating was that it practically encouraged people to treat others as disposable. When you meet people on an app, you don’t have any shared friends or community, which usually helps keep people from broadly acting like selfish jerks. I was better off taking my chances in the real world. Though, I wondered if I was digging a grave for myself. No Facebook, no news, no dating apps, no magic…I was sure I was going to die here in LA alone. I braced myself for more solitude.
The primary method I used for processing the events of my life during the past three years was writing in a spiral notebook religiously every morning. When I went to my storage unit to drop off the box of magic contraband, I noticed that the stack of filled spiral notebooks was quite tall. It reached from the floor to my mid-thigh. I figured the least I could do is have something to show for all of my suffering; maybe I should start some actual writing projects, not just dump my guts on paper to sort out my feelings. I set a goal for myself to write one poem about the moon every day for 28 days. I started on the new moon, October 8th. I exceeded my goal by four poems and thoroughly enjoyed the process, despite my fury at the injustice of love leaving my life like that. It is interesting to note that there were no tears this time. How ironic that I had cried like a baby through the God of War’s retrograde but during the Goddess of Love’s, I was fueled by a simmering rage.
October wasn’t all bad. I got a part-time seasonal performing job at the Haunted Hayride in Griffith Park. I was enraged, hurt and hollow on the inside, but on the outside, I got to dress up as a heavy metal clown, zombie Amy Winehouse and a headless marionette and jump onto moving tractor wagons scaring people. It took me a few nights to get in the groove, but it wound up being fun, despite long, late hours in the cold. It made the month fly by and gave me a buffer financially. My birthday was on November 9th and I celebrated with MJ and Toast in my truck. I made them party hats (which they hated) and let them share my cupcake. I had planned and then cancelled a little gathering with a couple of human friends, but I didn’t feel like having attention focused on me. That weekend, I flew to Vancouver to perform in a show produced by a dear old friend. It was nice to get out of LA, and performing again in a packed, sold out show felt amazing.
The dog walking was humming along nicely. Work was steady, we had a groove and my late afternoon pack was now just as dear to me as my mid-day crew. The core of the afternoon group was a bunch of feisty terriers: Miles and Mars, joined by Nico and Pipa. Pipa wasn’t a terrier; she was one of those sassy Puerto Rican street dog mixes, and an alpha female who liked to hunt. The terrier boys were rugged but super sweet. The name “terrier” is a French word meaning “dog of the earth,” and they were originally bred to chase various rodents and foxes out of their holes for hunters. They also chase birds, lizards, bikes, skateboards and mailmen. These dogs dig holes like champs and use their back legs to kick dirt after they poop, which goes everywhere except on the actual target. The late afternoon crew all live near Elysian Park, which sometimes looks like it could be Bill Murray’s nightmare in Caddyshack, with so many ground squirrel holes dotting the hills.
Knowing what a dog is bred for helped me understand how to interact with them better. Retrievers love retrieving and carrying sticks, herding dogs are eager for training and action, dogs bred for companionship need to feel protected and like to be held, etc. I was continuing to refine my focus, to be of even better service to my dogs. Aside from giving them a chance to take care of biological functions, there were two things that I felt I could provide for them: love and freedom. Every creature responds to feeling loved and being seen. I wanted to give them respect, comfort, affection and unconditional love. Isn’t that what we all want?
The second part, freedom, didn’t mean letting them off of their leash, I couldn’t do that for obvious reasons. Freedom comes when we are allowed to be ourselves, in all of our messy, complicated, imperfectly perfect, wonderful glory. I longed to have friends in LA that could accept me as I was, who understand my passions, accept my shortcomings and help me to be the best version of myself that I could be. I tried to do that for the dogs. I figured that dogs, like humans, probably want to actualize their full potential in this life; to do that, we all need real friends to support us. I made it my job to help them work through their anxieties and fears. The “dog school bus” was like Switzerland, where peace came between warring parties forced into close neutral proximity, in a rolling clubhouse that they wanted to join. I was becoming more and more invested in their emotional growth, and the more they got along, the more adventures we could have.
I had re-thought my approach with the Schnauzer-mix I mentioned earlier whose over-stimulation caused shrill barking, peeing and pooping in my truck. Instead of banning him from the dog school bus, I decided to try to ease him into a group situation by bringing the dogs to meet him at the door. MJ and Toast started coming with me to meet him. He seemed genuinely happy to be greeted by guests, which made him bark less, which made me want to be more affectionate towards him. I showered him with love and praise, sometimes spending up to five minutes massaging his face and chin and petting him all over. I made sure that he peed once before putting them all in the truck and tethered his leash to the passenger seat to keep an eye on him. We are still working on his excited barking when we arrive at a park, but I see him trying, appreciate his effort, and he gets to travel with groups now.
The Autumn Equinox had come and gone, and I didn’t to go back to Facebook except to deactivate my account. I did that so people would seek out other means to contact me. I was still on Instagram around my birthday, but had been feeling that it, too, was creating a distortion of reality that I didn’t want to buy into anymore. Since Facebook had bought Instagram, they had been slowly ruining that as well. There were too many ads, and I hated the algorithm that prioritized what posts you see when. I liked it better when posts showed up chronologically, as they happened. I didn’t see the point in having thousands of followers. Why do we want “followers?” I suffered from “fabulous” fatigue brought on by the endless self-aggrandizing posts, branding and selfies. I felt that social media had turned me into an insecure busy body, knowing too much stuff I didn’t need to know. It didn’t seem that there was a spiritual muscle in me that was strong enough to resist liking likes either; which reminded me of a lab rat who learns to push a button for a drug over and over again, eventually neglecting food, sleep and interaction until it dies of malnutrition and exhaustion. This wasn’t real sustenance. Maybe because I was hungry for human connection, it all seemed like fluff. As I assimilated more into post-Facebook “analog” life, I saw how much mental and emotional clutter was created by taking in all of that useless information. Now that I had gotten a taste of mental clarity, I wanted more.
Although my news intake was minimal, I had also heard plenty about Mark Zuckerberg over the past few months. He was no Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates in the doing-good-for-society department, just a greedy billionaire willing to sell America and the world out from under itself. I wondered why I continued to be part of the Instagram food chain, since I had all these complaints and it, too, was owned by Facebook. I wished to myself that both social media platforms would go the way of Myspace. Wasn’t someone, somewhere making a simple social app to help bring out the best in humanity, instead of the worst? More and more, I craved the real, authentic, imperfect, complex, mysterious and eccentric. I was writing and painting a lot, enjoying nature, reading books, learning new things and daydreaming. The quality of my life felt rich and satisfying. I felt like I was waking up from a decade long fog of distorted social reality. So, I decided to take a break from Instagram too.
Fall in LA was beautiful. People complain all the time that there aren’t seasons here, and they are subtler, but I still felt them. In winter, poinsettias, which grow into big bushes out here, were more prominent when so many other trees were bare, and the cheerful citrus trees were polka dotted with delicious fruit; spring brought rain that allowed lush green grass to sprout up on rolling hillsides for several weeks and then many succulents started shooting off big, crazy stems that looked like an alien antennae trying to receive a signal from outer space; the hot summer sun sweetened succulent fleshy fruits and brightened up countless flowers, some of the most impressive of which are the Echo Park lotuses (a spiritually symbolic flower that rises up from the muck and mud, like a phoenix from the ashes); and in fall, the pomegranates deepen to a ruby red, while the daylight shift signals to deciduous trees to turn yellow and shed their leaves all over the ground making for crunchy footsteps (though they are outnumbered by pine and palms there are many deciduous trees here). The shorter amount of daylight affected me the same as on the east coast. I turned inward, needed more sleep, wanted to stay inside. It was too cold for me to run in the morning, so I put it on the back burner.
With the holidays approaching, I turned off all of the daily job notifications I had been receiving. No one was going to be hiring over the holidays and the listings just bummed me out. If I knew more people, I would have gotten a different job months ago. Running a little “dog hotel” for vacationing owners was supplementing my income here and there, I was getting by. I also figured that the end of the Year of the Dog was drawing near and the “as bad as it can get” first year anniversary of my move to LA was close as well, might as well ride it out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do about my career, but after the month of moon poems was over, I kept up with my discipline and began writing and illustrating an original adult fairy tale book, which I worked on every day. Through November and early December, I came home every night and worked on my book until bed. Weekends, I did the same.
My family had flown me home to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. The only thing I still missed from Facebook was regular contact with distant aunts, uncles and cousins. I noticed that I replayed the memories I had of them more in my head and made a bigger effort than ever to see them on my visit home. My dearly departed grandmother had even showed up in two dreams to tell me to go visit my Uncle Clay, which I made sure to do. After I set my book project aside, I revived a tradition I had abandoned in 2015 and had my own cards printed with a photo of me dressed as Krampus on the front. I wrote messages to my family and friends and sent them out.
I spent Christmas day with an elderly female Shar-Pei mix named Darkness whose dad was on vacation and stayed in my pajamas all day admiring Darkness’ furry cankles and watching movies. I took my time opening gifts that had been mailed to me and ones I bought for myself. After my divorce, I had started buying and wrapping my own gifts, which is really how Christmas should be done. If I bought and wrapped them early enough, I often forgot what was inside and had genuine surprise on Christmas morning. The best gift I bought myself was a 2019 Daily Planetary Guide, a spiral bound weekly calendar with notations about the moon and planets everyday. There is chart mapping all the retrogrades and it’s packed with information. 2019, was going to be the year I became fluent in all of the symbols for the planets, signs and aspects.
As January approached, my inbox filled with forecasts for the coming year from my favorite astrologers, all of them unanimously expressing their relief that 2018, a year of tension, tests and challenges, was behind us. 2019 wasn’t going to be all wine and roses either, but what had been shaken loose was going to be allowed to settle. There was still a lot of hard Saturn and Capricorn energy coming. Saturn teaches through discipline, boundaries, rules and restraint, like a stern father. In mythology, he also ate each of his children as they were born, fearing they would overthrow him…so…there’s that. Capricorn is an earth sign symbolized by a mythological sea-goat, but is also represented as a mountain goat. Mountain goats are known for climbing, they keep their eyes on the prize and with slow and steady steps, reach their goals at the top of the mountain. The astrologers said that if I had done my work and learned the lessons that I needed to, the path should be clear and it was time to get to work. Panic began to bubble up, I felt I was about to be left behind. Wait. What path? I don’t know what my path is! I’m still just walking dogs. Did I do the right work? How do I know if I learned the right lessons?
When I sat down and honestly looked at my life, I found I had a deep sense of peace that I don’t remember experiencing before, maybe ever. This was no small gift, I knew, but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. I was content, but not happy; satisfied but not yet fulfilled. I still felt fear about committing to my creative career again. I had had so many agonizing cycles that would start with a hopeful idea, I would poke around for opportunities or collaborators, nothing would come to fruition, I would give up and get depressed all over again. This seemed like the hamster wheel I was on all year. I didn’t feel any better when I tried to buckle down and just get a job like “normal” people either. I couldn’t force myself to do the thing I had avoided my entire life: conform to society. Not a single member of my family or friends was encouraging me to “go for it!” Who in their right mind would tell a single, 40 year old, divorced woman who had lost everything, was working a low-paying service job, had struggled with depression, constantly feared for her own survival and was still in a lot of debt that pursuing her dreams was the best course of action? Maybe J.K. Rowling would...
I remembered a Rune Soup episode that had given me hope in my darkest days. Rune Soup is my favorite podcast and is about magic, culture and the paranormal, hosted by a man named Gordon White from his permaculture farm in Tasmania. Gordon has been an anchor in the storm for me since I began listening to him two years ago. I appreciate his non-materialist view of the world, dedication to exploring the unknown and his skill at leading nuanced discussions. He was on a long break over the holidays, so I had been re-listening to all of my favorite episodes; one interview, with occult writer, historian and publisher Mitch Horowitz, I had listened to three times.
Reluctantly, I parted with the money and bought the audiobook version of Mitch’s book, The Miracle Club. It took three days of dog walking to finish it. Then I listened to it a second time. And then I ordered a print copy. In it, Mitch told me that I had to passionately decide what I wanted and to use certain meditation and visualization techniques to create those specific outcomes in the external world. This was hardly my first rodeo. I’ve been studying this stuff a long time and am no stranger to positive thinking, meditating or visualizing and his techniques were really just tweaking similar methods I had already been using, but I hadn’t been able to be really passionate about it. Mitch lead me to see the one small, crucial thing that I had been missing: I hadn’t been able to plainly state what it is that I wanted, and without that, there was nothing for me to be passionate about. I had so much fear— about my survival, about failing, about having missed the boat, about not having any collaborators, about not being good enough...also, I had been creating without deadlines or other people, surely that didn’t count. (It’s crazy to me that after being a professional Artist my whole adult life, that I would still struggle with all of these fears, but those buggers never die, apparently.)
I still wanted to perform in cabaret, but it wasn’t a big enough container anymore. I wanted to integrate my physical skills with more acting and storytelling; combining my own images, words and movement in new ways. I wanted to be a performer, artist and writer, but this felt like too much to ask from the universe. Even Mitch said to keep it simple. Despite having used those very words on the homepage for my website redesign last spring, I didn’t believe them. I thought of them as verbs, not nouns. Yes, I did those things, but can I be those things? I had also used the adjectives fearless and original. Fearless did not mean that I had no fear but that I chose to fear-less; something ingrained in my performance training was to “chase the fear” because getting out of our comfort zone is where the magic happens. Original meant all of my work will be in service to my truest self. I was determined to not hide the wonderful weirdo that life and I had spent all these years sculpting. I saw that I had been hesitating, waffling, afraid to commit to myself -- and the universe couldn’t help me if I couldn’t figure it out. My finger was on the trigger; all I had to do was state the target, aim and fire.
My confidence had been obliterated for such a long time; but I actually had been slowly moving in the direction of my dreams all along. In the last two months alone, I had started writing and illustrating a book, sent my moon poems to musician friends to turn into songs and had begun to search for a collaborator to make a music video with me and the dogs. I felt proud of myself suddenly, I was already doing it. I gave myself permission to take creative license and define my dream the truest way that I could and I was finally ready to scream it to the sky with all my heart: I WANT TO BE A SUCCESSFUL PERFORMER, ARTIST AND WRITER!!! Bam. The magic key. The door swung open and I could see the path (even though it had been there the whole time). Now it was time to own it.
Here I am, with 15 days left in the Year of the Earth Dog. It rained non-stop for four days last week and the dog walking was messy, wet and cold, but still an adventure. On Thursday, as I was leaving for work, my driver’s-side door handle (which had been busted when it was robbed last spring) got stuck in the locked position when it was open and wouldn’t close. I tied the door shut using tie line and had to climb in through the passenger side for every pick-up, walk and drop-off, which got mud all over everything. A few months ago, this would have sent me into a tailspin. Every small problem felt like it was a sign of impending financial ruin. But, I took it in stride, and when I had an extra 20 minutes on the way to my final walk of the day, stopped by a mom-n-pop place called Los Feliz Lock & Key (talk about analog!). Five minutes and $10 later, my door was shut properly. It still won’t open from the outside, but for another $20 I ordered a new handle online which arrives next week.
The weather was warm today. I went for a run at dusk and ran six miles (a new personal record) along the Los Angeles River under the nearly-full moon. My heart feels light and that has made me able to laugh more. Yesterday, Mars had his butt in Tony’s face in the passenger seat (Tony has been going back and forth between the mid-day and late afternoon crews); Mars is taller than Tony and his tail kept wagging back and forth grazing over top of a sprout of hair on the crown of Tony’s head and I laughed harder than I have in a really long time. The more I laughed, the more Mars wagged his tail, until I was crying with laughter and my sides hurt.
I spent most of the year feeling like I was doing life wrong. I didn’t understand why it was taking so long to turn my situation around. I wasn’t sure if the world was broken, or if I was broken, or both. I learned that standing behind my values and integrity may isolate me, but I know that I have to be true to myself. I have a real and profound connection to the land, people, plants, trees and creatures that I live near, who share this beautiful city with me. I know that I can find a living thing to love everywhere that I look. In his book, Mitch Horowitz spent a good deal of time defending The Golden Rule as a life philosophy and it makes me so happy to know that I have such an accomplished comrade in the revolution for kindness and will soldier on. I don’t know if I’ll go back to Instagram, I’m enjoying my mental clarity and it feels like a bad habit that I’m still trying to kick. I’ve posted twice since I left in November, but it feels like playing a game of “hot potato.” Maybe my relationship to it will change...who knows.
The primary lesson that I will take with me from the Year of the Dog is about friendship. The love, willingness, and devotion of my dog friends has made me want to be a better person and friend. Experiencing the many stages of building trust with them and learning to understand one another, was deeply rewarding. I had more dogs in my life than people this year. We walked through blistering heat, pouring rain and blue skies. I broke up fights, cleaned up barf, was peed on, barked at, stepped on, bitten, licked and covered in hair. I handled more turds in plastic bags than I can count. I also cuddled, laughed, cried, learned, taught, played and explored with them. I have made so many dog friends that have changed my life forever, and our adventures together aren’t over just because it’s the end of the Year of the Dog. It’s a full moon and lunar eclipse in Leo tomorrow and the best advice for working with the astrological weather this year seems to be: keep moving forward on your path, one step at a time, and don’t worry about what you’ve left behind. The Chinese New Year is on February 5th. It will be the Year of the Pig, and I am planning to celebrate. I just hope I won’t have to work on a pig farm in order to learn the lessons.