Home Again Back in San Francisco

It's a funny thing how much of life can happen in a few months. Since I last posted, we moved back to San Francisco, lost our beloved Pali dog, started Lily in pre-K, and decisively moved into the final phase of the documentary film project that has been our primarily focus for close to five years. 

As much as our reasons for trying out Portland were good, as much as I love the people I know there, and as much as Portland is a wonderfully quirky town full of much that I admire, it just wasn't home (trying on any location in the Pacific Northwest in winter turned out to be rather terrible timing!). I think Portland could have been a home with time, effort, and more rain gear, but our hearts have belonged to San Francisco for a long time now. We quite quickly switched from saying, "We've moved," to saying, "We are house-sitting." And, I'm really grateful that we did get to housesit for three months before unpacking  because it gave us the chance to realize that we actually wanted to make life work, somehow, in San Francisco.

It was a classic head versus heart move. Portland made sense on paper. It was the logical choice to save a little money and maybe afford a small home one day (although it didn't turn out to be that much cheaper than the Bay Area to live in the places we liked!), but we are people who make decisions out of passion, intuition, and calling. And San Francisco is where we are called. San Francisco is where we find our energy and our tribe. San Francisco is our spiritual center of the world (and, apparently, it is a profoundly spiritual place).

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I never tire of driving into the city on either bridge and seeing the sweep of the city before me. I particularly loveThis doesn't do the view justice! driving into the city from Marin. Just outside the city, you drive through a tunnel (fittingly, the rainbow tunnels), and then you come out on the other side to see this incredible view of the Golden Gate bridge spires in front of you and the entire waterfront to your left. Day or night, it brings me a smile and a jolt of energy. I love thinking, "I live there."

And so, even though we knew we were going to look a tad ridiculous with our now-we-live-in-Portland-now-we-don't messages, we decided to come back home to San Francisco. We made that decision in the spring, but it took time to actually make the logistics work. And in the meantime we continued to travel widely screening our documentary film, Seventh-Gay Adventists, and hosting profound and moving conversations. In fact, we weren't actually ever in Portland that much due to film screenings in places like Australia where we toured for a month when the film screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, so even though we knew we wanted to land in SF again, we still ended up just being nomadic for many more months (with my folks' home as a landing pad) as we flew to screenings and strategized about how to get an apartment in San Francisco again.

On paper, we didn't look like appealing tenants for one of the toughest rental markets in the entire country. We had variable, self-employed income, no current address, a preschooler, and a dog. At one point, after scouring Craigslist for weeks, Stephen sent me an email that simply said:

"We are either naively foolish or inspiringly idealistic."

Probably a little of both, actually. Willpower, luck, and hanging out on craigslist long enough to read between the lines to find the type of landlord that was going to work for/with us finally all worked together to find us a home again.

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Feeling really grateful to live here again.Our new home is further west than we had considered before, but we feel really good about having a little nest again after a full year of nomadic living while screening the film. (Further west in SF, while closer to the ocean, is actually not highly sought after real estate because it's much foggier than other parts of the city, particularly in the summer.)

I was really needing an actual home again as traveling isn't easy for me,  Lily was eager for her own room, which we promised her she could decorate in pink and purple. And we all wanted to be together with Pali again. We had seen Pali often, but her primary home for an entire year while we were traveling and screening the film was with my parents in the San Diego area. They all adored each other, but we missed her. Even when we moved to Portland we ended up bringing her back to San Diego because the winter damp and chill there brought out painful arthritis that we hadn't even realized she had.

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We found out right before moving back that Pali, our best beloved canine girl for 14 years, had liver cancer. Just typing that brings tears to my eyes and a catch to my breath. I still miss her so much. We knew we were on borrowed time. I have to admit that I almost considered searching for apartments that didn't allow dogs because I knew we'd soon be without one. I'm ashamed to admit that, but it did cross my mind. However, Stephen and I have talked before about how making decisions that seemed, at the time, to be mainly in Pali's best interest have always turned out to be really good for us as well. She always led us to take more walks, enjoy the sun more, snuggle longer, and see the possibility in every person. And so we signed the lease for our dog-friendly apartment with a big deck near the (off-leash) beach and Golden Gate Park. And we enjoyed our last few weeks together. She blessed this home with her sweet spirit, even if her time here was far too short. I had been envisioning so many walks on the beach together, but she was only up for a few. 

Knowing the right time to say good-bye was so incredibly difficult because she's always been such a stoic personality. I remember one 12-mile hike when we didn't realize until we got to camp that her paws were bloody, and likely had been for miles. When she showed pain, we knew it meant she really was in a lot of pain. And her pain was gradually starting to show even through the heavy pain medications. Especially when she laid down, we could sense that the mass in her abdomen was making it hard for her to get comfortable. She still enjoyed short walks, but lying down brought discomfort. At some point, I realized I hadn't seen a smile in her eyes in quite a while. And I would weep uncontrollably just thinking about what was next.

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We were open with Lily from the beginning of the diagnosis that Pali was sick and wasn't going to get better. She processed it as well as a four-and-a-half-year-old can. One day when we were unpacking, she went into our room with some craft supplies and kept calling out asking how to spell certain words. She had put together a card with various elements all laden with meaning. It said, "Pali. I will miss you. I love you. Lily." She put a sticker of girl and a cat (because she didn't have a dog sticker) to be a little girl and her pet in heaven. And then she taped a tube on it to be the tunnel to heaven with a spiral stick to be your spirit going to heaven. It was a beautiful, hopeful prayer of a little girl about to lose the dog she's known her whole life and calls "sister."

We had a home-visit vet come over to help us make a decision shortly before we were to leave on a family reunion and screening trip. Our former landlady--a wonderfully warm woman who knew Pali well--was willing to watch her, but we couldn't decide if it was fair to Pali or another person to leave a very sick dog in anyone else's care. What if things took a turn for the worse? Leaving a decision like that to another person would be incredibly difficult, and then Pali wouldn't have her family there at her hour of greatest need.  It was helpful to see the vet a bit torn, just as we were feeling. Pali really did still have a spark left, especially as a people-loving dog meeting someone new. He did an ultrasound though, which helped us realize the time was either now or very soon. She had a significant heart murmur (and she'd never had a murmur before). The cancer had spread to her heart, and it was all over her liver. In his words, "It's large, and it's in control." Once he saw what was going on inside, he couldn't believe how she was managing with the cheer she was. Additionally, she had a large pocket of fluid built up that was too deep to drain off that was no doubt what was giving her such difficulty lying down. He said the same thing our other vet had said--one day, and soon, she'd make a move, and her liver tissue would rupture. You can't predict timing because it's not normal tissue to begin with, but it would be soon. She'd begin to bleed out and be in severe distress, and we'd have to get her to an emergency vet immediately, and that would be the end. It would be traumatic for her and for us. With that information, we knew it was time to say goodbye. And it's one of the hardest decisions I've ever done.

I've never been present for the death of one of my pets before--I was always too young. I knew I wanted her to have us with her though, helping her know she was utterly and completely loved, that she was the best dog in the world. We brought the letter/artwork Lily had made for her near, and I tried to control my weeping so as not to scare her. It was faster than I thought--one shot to put her into a deep sleep and another to stop her heart which worked almost instantly. Our beautiful girl was gone, just like that. My source of unconditional, unselfish love was no longer there. 

During the vet's visitl, our dear friends and Lily's godparents had taken Lily to a local cafe. Now they brought her back to say goodbye. I had struggled with how to best help Lily through this, and we decided she really should see her body. She has encountered death before, and she's an exceptionally sensitive spirit herself. I felt that death is an abstract enough of a concept for a preschooler, and just having her come home to an empty house and the news that her dog had died seemed more distressing than seeing her dog dead. A few people wondered if she would be scared by her last memory being of her dog dead, but as I reflected on that, I thought that most people are afraid of a dead body only because we have such poor rituals around death and no longer actually see our loved ones die like we used to. Death happens in sterilized, far-away places usually. And I thought we could honor Pali's life by acknowledging her death tangibly. We all cried. We petted her. We took off her collar to save. We clipped some hair right near her neck where we liked to pet her. And then Lily went into her room and got her soft dog blanket and laid it over her to be buried in. (My only regret is that we didn't have a backyard to bury her in and had to have the vet take her body for cremation; we now have her ashes.)

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I don't think I've ever seen Stephen weep so much. He and Pali had a very special connection. And I think we are all still in mourning. She was a pure soul who gave us so much. She kept us centered and brought out the best in us. I have still not found my center again. We keep the space where she passed clear, likely a quiet shrine we'll always respect for the loss and love it represents. On one level, I have felt a bit guilty feeling so much sorrow over the loss of a dog when others have lost actual children or endured tragedies beyond my comprehension. And yet, loss is loss. And it's a loss I'm reminded of daily. I can still occasionally forget, especially in the middle of the night, that she's gone, and the wall of grief that hits me when I remember is palpable and sharp around the edges still.

There were two moments in Pali's passing that I can't quite explain but that give me a measure of comfort. A long time ago, I wrote about how I realized towards the end of my pregnancy with Lily that I was actually afraid of death. I was afraid that all that I hoped was true about a bigger plan, a force of love larger than myself might not be more than a wish. I know it can never be proven true, and I wasn't sure how to explain loss and suffering to an innocent child that I was bringing into the world. As I drove home from the the practitioner's office where this truth--my truth--had spoken to me, I turned on the radio. The song just beginning was Annie Lennox's Into the West from the end of Lord of the Rings. It's a song about not weeping over death because it's actually not the end, despite it still being a mystery. The ships have come to carry you home. It was about all that I feared, and it was in a poetic form which often speaks to me most clearly. 

Prior to the vet's visit to our home, I had put on a quiet play list softly on my phone just to help soothe us all, which isn't typical for me. I rarely turn on music at home. Between the first and second shot that the vet gave Pali, this same song came on again. I looked up for a second, and asked Stephen if he realized which song had just come on. When the vet asked if he should turn it off, I said, "No--it's a song about hope even in death. It's the perfect song, actually." 

The second moment happened about two minutes later when Pali was gone. The two other tenants in tenants in the building have dogs; the upstairs dog is a yappy, skittish little thing, but the one across the way is a large, white, stunning dog who looks like he could be part-wolf. At the very least he still remembers his wolf ancestors a lot more clearly than most modern dogs. We hadn't ever heard him prior to that day--and we haven't since. But in the moments after Pali's death, he started howling loudly. I would almost add "mournfully," but all howling sounds mournful to me and full of longing. I don't know if it means anything, but when I told his owner (who had been at work) some weeks later that his dog had started howling right after Pali passed, he said, "You heard him? Wow--that's giving me chills because he never barks."  

I'm all too aware that these moments could be pure coincidence. I wish they could be more. I've always been a little jealous of those who have an easy faith. That has not been my experience. And yet, they do bring me some solace. As Rachel Naomi Remen might say, they make me feel like I might not be at home all alone.

Besides sitting here typing in a neighborhood cafe realizing that I probably shouldn't have tried to recount Pali's passing in a public space (lots of tears still), I'm also realizing what a lot of transitions we are going through right now. We got Pali as a puppy when we were newlyweds. She's been with us for almost our entire marriage, and now she's gone. And that joyful, loving, eager-to-enjoy-the-day-and-the-people-in-it spirit is gone. That's a huge loss. Additionally, Lily started pre-K! We had vacillated quite a bit about what was the best plan, and we finally realized that while we could setup a program with enough social interaction and routine, it would take a lot of energy, and we probably needed our energy for the other big tasks ahead. It didn't take long for us to realize it was a fantastic choice to send Lily to pre-K. Not only does she love having friends her own age after a full year on the road with us, but it's a parent participation co-op, so we've meeting other families, which we've also needed. It's the polar opposite of last year which varied almost daily and was filled with travel, airports, and screening logistics, but it's what we need in this moment. Stephen bikes her most mornings, which he enjoys, but it's a very different rhythm that we've had before (when walking Pali was our first task in the morning).

The other major transition is that we've moved into the final phase of our film. When I first wrote this post, we were half-way through a crowd-funded/Kickstarter campaign (that ended very sucessully). But, I had some technical difficulties when posting and am only now getting back to it. It's been an incredibly busy month getting the film ready to be distributed online and on DVD and Blu-ray (and doing subtitles, filming and editing special features, coordinating website changes, cover art, managing the various vendors, and on and on!). The big news is that our film is now available widely. It's a huge shift for us from being present at almost every screening, but we lean into the hope that the positive transformations we've seen as people just step into a listening space will be even more impactful as it's more widely available.

What comes next is the other big transition that I don't yet have the space or energy to think about. I'm trying to operate within the framework that I know the next step (launch the DVD), and the next step after that will be clear when I can actually take it. 

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What I do know is that I am blessed. I have a daughter who is vibrant, creative, nurturing, loving, and full of life. She loves to craft and solve problems with a glue stick, scissors, floss, and tape (we cannot keep enough tape on hand!) She heard about the blob fish getting named "The Ugliest Animal" in some contest and decided that wasn't very kind, so she made a card to send the fish--and renamed it "The Shiny Fish." If you can't read her writing, it says, "This is how shiny I think you are." And we mailed it (to a friend who was more than happy to write back as the Shiny Fish).

Naturally, being four, she is a little more fascinated with poop than I'd like and can throw the occasional hissy fit like a pro, but she also talks about the how everyone is beautiful because everyone has a little bit of God inside of them, and God is always beautiful. And even though I have an ick-factor reaction to bird feathers, she loves to collect them on the beach because:

"You just don't get how beautiful they are Mommy. These help birds fly. They're magical."

And she's been hunting for totoros (spirits of the forest) in Golden Gate Park. She knows that only kids can see them, so she helpfully crafted a family of totoros out of pipe cleaners and gave them to me for my birthday (inside a old pastry box that'd she'd decorated and has already repurposed for a bed for a stuffed animal).

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And I have a husband who is truly a partner. He fully co-parents with me, something I've realized isn't asA family bike ride in Golden Gate Park common as it should be, even these days. He sees me as the best version of myself, even if I've been rather a bit hard around the edges as I've had to go into survival mode to get through some of the hard acts we've signed ourselves up for this past year. And he actually likes watching Downton Abbey with me!

It's the beginning of a new chapter here. The characters are great, even though we are missing one of our main characters and likely will for a very long time. We are back in our favorite setting. I'm not sure what the plot points will be, but it's going to be interesting to find out. I'm leaning into trust. And all manner of things will be well.