Untethered Dog

A Commonplace By Tom Swift


Pain is unrelenting. It will get our attention. Despite our attempts to drown it in addiction, to physically beat it out of one another, to suffocate it with success and material trappings, or to strangle it with our hate, pain will find a way to make itself known.

Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it. Addressing it with love and compassion would take only a minuscule percentage of the energy it takes to fight it, but approaching pain head-on is terrifying. Most of us were not taught how to recognize pain, name it, and be with it. Our families and culture believed that the vulnerability that it takes to acknowledge pain was weakness, so we were taught anger, rage, and denial instead. But what we know now is that when we deny our emotion, it owns us.

-Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness (2017)


Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits—
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

To write on, blow open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.

-Rita Dove, “Dawn Revisited,” On the Bus With Rosa Parks (1999)


Leonna Barrett: “What happened this morning is an outrage! My boy’s no criminal! He and those children belong in school, not back out on the streets! Our kids don’t deserve this! Some of those children are smart. They’re just discouraged what chances they got out there, what kind of jobs they got waiting for them. What chance do they have now? He insulted the black football coach! The man’s gone crazy! He’s declared war on his own people!”

Mrs. Arthur: “May I remind you, Miss Barrett, that Mr. Clark was nice enough to come to this emergency meeting after a very trying day?”

Barrett: “That’s what he gets paid for!”

Arthur: “I think we owe him a chance to respond.”

[the audience claps in agreement]

Joe Clark: [getting up, standing before the group] “They say one bad apple spoils the bunch.”

[shouts of protest]

Clark: “But what about 300? Rotten to the core! Now, you’re right, Mrs. Barrett. This is a war. It’s a war to save 2700 other students, most of whom don’t have the basic skills to pass the state exam.”

[some applause]

Clark: “Now if you want to help us, fine.”

[coming over to Barrett]

Clark: “Sit down with your kids and make them study at night. Go get your families off welfare.”

Barrett: [getting up in his face] “How dare you talk to these people about welfare!”

Clark: “Give our children some pride! Tell them to get their priorities straight!”

[Barrett sits down. He walks on down the center of the audience]

Clark: “When Dr. Napier came to me offering this job, I saw the lightning flash. I heard the thunder roll! I felt breakers crashing, swamping my soul!”

Barrett: [getting up again] “We are not in church, Mr. Clark!”

Clark: [facing Barrett] “I fell down on my knees …”

[Mrs. Barrett sits down in exasperation]

Clark: “… and I cried ‘My God, why has thou forsaken me?’ and the Lord said ‘Joe, you’re no damn good. No, I mean this! More than you realize, you’re no earthly good at all unless you take this opportunity and do whatever you have to.’ And he didn’t say ‘Joe, be polite.'”

[the people clap in agreement]

Clark: “Do whatever you have to to transform and transmogrify this school into a special place where the hearts and souls and minds of the young can rise.”

[more clapping in agreement]

Clark: “Where they can grow tall and blossom out from under the shadows of the past. Where the minds of the young are set free. And I gave my word to God, and that’s why I threw those bastards out …”

[the crowd starts to shout in both agreement and protest]

Clark: “… and that’s all I’m gonna say!”

[He walks out as the audience gets loud and boisterous]

Lean on Me (1989)


There is one consolation in being sick; and that is the possibility that you may recover to a better state than you were ever in before.

-Henry David Thoreau


Every small positive change we make in ourselves repays us in confidence in the future.

-Alice Walker


Illness is the most heeded of doctors: to goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.

-Marcel Proust


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

-William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” Book of Verses (1888)


In 1987, I met Steve. For some reason, I was more myself with him than I had been with anyone since my first BFF, Eleanor. He saw me. And even though he caught the tail end of my self-destructive days, he saw the real me and he liked me. He came from very similar family trauma, so he recognized the hurt, and for the first time in both of our lives, we talked about our experiences. We cracked open. We would sometimes talk for ten hours over the phone. We talked about every fight we witnessed, the loneliness we battled, and the unbearable pain of not belonging.

What started as a friendship turned into a huge crush, then a total love affair. Never underestimate the power of being seen — it’s exhausting to keep working against yourself when someone truly sees you and loves you. Some days his love felt like a gift. Other days I hated his guts for it. But as I started to catch glimpses of my true self, I was filled with grief and longing. Grief for the girl who never belonged anywhere and a longing to figure out who I was, what I liked, what I believed in, and where I wanted to go. Steve wasn’t threatened at all by my soul-searching. He loved it. He supported it.

So, no, Dr. Angelou, belonging nowhere couldn’t be a good thing. I still didn’t understand what she meant.

Seven years after we met, Steve and I got married. He went from medical school to residency, and I went from undergrad to grad school. In 1996, the day after I finished my master’s, I decided to make my clean living commitment official and quit drinking and smoking. Interestingly, my first temporary AA sponsor told me, “I don’t think you belong in AA. You should try the codependents’ meetings.” The codependency sponsor told me to go back to AA or try OA, since “you’re not exactly one of us.” Can you believe it? What kind of shit is it when you don’t even belong to AA?

Finally, a new sponsor told me I had the pu-pu platter of addiction: basically, I used whatever I could find to not feel vulnerable. She told me to find a meeting that spoke to me — it didn’t matter which one as long as I stopped drinking, smoking, caretaking, and overeating. Sure. Gotcha.

Those early years of marriage were tough. We were broke and mentally strung out from residency and grad school. I’ll never forget telling a school therapist that I just didn’t think it was going to work out. Her response? “It may not. He likes you way more than you like you.”

-Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness (2017)


An ounce of application is worth a ton of abstraction.

-Booker T. Washington


Miriam “Midge” Maisel: “Do you love it?”

Lenny Bruce: “Do I love what?”

Midge: “Comedy. Stand-up. Do you love it?”

Lenny Bruce: “Seriously?”

[Midge nods]

Lenny Bruce: “Well, I’ve been doing it awhile. Let’s put it like this. If there was anything else in the entire world that I could possibly do to earn a living, I would. Anything! I’m talking dry cleaners to the Klan, crippled kid portrait painters, slaughterhouse attendant. If someone said to me, ‘Leanord, you can either eat a guy’s head, or do two weeks at the Copa,’ I’d say, ‘Pass the fucking salt.’ It’s a terrible, terrible job. It should not exist. Like a cancer. And God.”

Midge: “But do you love it?”

[Lenny shrugs]

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017)