Friday, November 28, 2014

Finding Solace in Solitaire

I’ve never been a fan of card games. It’s just not my thing to sit at a table and dole out little rectangular pieces of coated paper with numbers and symbols and faces of royalty printed on them. It seems pointless, a waste of precious time that could be—should be—spent doing something productive, like exercising or making a pie to share. Or writing a blog post.

But on November 17, I found myself sitting in the back of my 24-foot RV navigating Los Angeles’s traffic-clogged freeways with someone else driving because I was too stressed, too depressed, too lacking in energy to make the trip from Dallas, Texas to Southern California alone.

On November 6, I had left Iowa, driving my RV solo, loaded with my entire wardrobe, bicycles, computer and two terriers, and towing my Mini Cooper behind. I left Iowa—left the American Gothic House where I had lived the past 4 years, left the farm where I had been staying for the past 2 months, left the cold weather—and planned to camp out in a friend’s yard outside of Dallas where I would work on my new memoir for the next few months.
My dear, sweet Daisy

Only 36 hours after arriving at my friend’s place in Texas my terriers were attacked by a coyote in the woods behind the house. I had let the dogs out for their morning pee while I made my coffee and 10 minutes later Jack came back to the door, bleeding badly from his neck. Daisy, my curly white-haired rescue from Mexico, didn’t come back at all. Given that she never liked to miss breakfast, and seeing what had happened to Jack, my adrenaline was pumping; I feared the worst.

I drove Jack to the animal emergency hospital, left him there to be treated for shock and multiple deep puncture wounds, and rushed back to my friend’s where I spent hours frantically searching for Daisy. A neighbor found her later; she was dead and the coyote who killed her clearly left its marks. I won't describe the awful scene. I can only imagine—or hope—her death had been quick. I can only hope she didn't suffer.

We buried Daisy in the forest. I placed one of her favorite stuffed animals, a small squirrel, in the grave with her. And later, bought a bouquet of daisies to place on top of the dirt mound. After two nights in the animal hospital Jack survived. But the tragedy—and the trauma—left me shaken. I was vulnerable, exhausted, lacking trust, and in need of a helping hand.

Help came in the form of an Iowa friend, D, who offered to fly down to Dallas, load my Mini back onto the car trailer, and drive me to the place I should have gone in the first place: home.

I have long considered Southern California home ever since I took a job in LA back in 1990. I didn’t love the job but I loved living at the beach, and learning how to surf and mountain bike. I loved being in a big cosmopolitan city combined with having such easy and immediate access to outdoor adventure. And the sun. I loved the warmth that radiated deep into my bones. Besides, I always feel better with a tan. LA has been my home base off and on ever since. And with my parents and several siblings in the area, it was the place I needed to be after losing my angelic little dog I had loved so deeply, like a child, for the past six years.

D is used to driving a tractor but not my RV—and not my RV with my precious tiny car towed behind. I tried very hard to abstain from bitchy, backseat driver comments, like “When you see brake lights a few cars ahead that means you need to start slowing down” and “You’re too close to the center line.” Even after two long days of D’s decent driving it was so hard for me not to be vigilant—er, bossy and controlling—that I forced myself to stop looking out the front window and sat in the back facing the rear. After already having driven myself 800 miles from Iowa to Dallas with the added worry of towing my car, then bearing the unspeakable anguish of the dog tragedy, followed by the 1,400 miles heading West in an aging RV whose weakened walls were about to collapse from water damage, my stress was running high, and increasing along with the traffic. It was too bouncy to read. Too noisy to talk on the phone. But I desperately needed to do something to distract myself. So I did something I never thought I would do. I downloaded an app on my iPhone for Solitaire.

I learned how to play solitaire back in grade school. Back when people used real cards. My dad plays it regularly on his computer and I saw how it occupied and calmed his restless mind. Often to my mother’s irritation. So I figured if it helped my dad it could help me.
My new form of therapy

The digital version makes the game quicker, easier, and, when bouncing around in the back of an RV, obviously more convenient than spreading out 52 cards. I hit the play button and—whoosh!—all the cards, bright, crisp, and colorful in their digital form appeared perfectly laid out and game ready. I tapped on an ace of clubs and it magically, swiftly flew to the spot I intended, without me even having to drag it. The program knew where the card was supposed to go. The same thing happened each time I clicked on a card. The queen of hearts flew over to rest on top of the king of spades. Another tap and the two of clubs landed on the Ace above.

With this kind of expedited play I continued, game after game. I won a few, lost a few. I played so many games my palms were sweating. But by god, I did not look out the window. I did not think about the traffic. And I stopped obsessing about D’s too-quick braking methods. I also stopped thinking—for the moment—about what happened to Daisy and how much I missed her, her big brown eyes, her crazy mohawk hair, her wagging tail, and her snoring. I passed the time, and the miles, and several hours and 25 games of Solitaire later, we crested over a hill. I deigned to look out the front window, and before us glistened the vast Pacific Ocean, the setting sun reflecting off the breaking waves. THANK YOU, GOD, I whispered. I finally put down my iPhone and wiped the tears from eyes.
A parking place in paradise

Once I got settled in my oceanfront campsite, just 20 minutes from my parents’ apartment, D flew back to Iowa and I was on my own. With my wounded-but-recovering terrier, Jack. And my grief. I knew grief too well from the sudden and unexpected loss of my husband, Marcus, five years earlier. I became an expert at grief. I did the grief counseling. I did the crying. I read the books. I even wrote my own book about it.

But what happens when you lose a dog? What happens when that dog was connected to your husband since you rescued Daisy when you lived with Marcus in Mexico for his job? What happens when you lose Daisy on the heels of leaving a house you loved (even if you did not love the neighbors) having convinced yourself that life holds something bigger, better for you, but instead find yourself on a rocky, boulder-strewn road of missteps with no end in sight? What happens, even when you are camped on a million dollar-view beach with your loving and supportive family just down the road, but your heart is so troubled, so broken that you cannot sleep at night? I’ll tell you what you do: you play Solitaire.
Team Terrier and me at the American Gothic House on a happy day.
Who knew life would hold such huge challenges in the months ahead?

Distraught and disoriented from all the recent upheaval I’ve been so tired I’ve been crawling into bed around 8PM, falling instantly into a deep sleep. But only for a few hours. And then I wake up—wide awake with my heart racing and pounding irregularly, trying to push out of my mind the image of Daisy's little body lying in the woods, wondering what I could have done differently to change the course of events. Should I have not moved out of the American Gothic House? Should I have stayed in Iowa? What am I going to do now? Where am I going? I try to meditate and do deep breathing exercises to encourage sleep to return. But it doesn't. So I play Solitaire. Game after game after game. Several pre-dawn hours at a time. I play so much Solitaire that when I finally close my eyes I still see the cards, still trying to make them move.

I told my friend Susanne about my new obsession. “I’m so embarrassed to admit it,” I said.

“It makes perfect sense,” Susanne replied. “It’s repetitious ordering. You feel out of control of your life, but by ordering the cards you feel like there is something you can take charge of.”

As the insomnia continues—and thus I continue to play cards on my iPhone—I have been observing other reasons why the game is helpful.

Solitaire mirrors life. Just when you think you’ve lost, you discover a move you hadn’t seen before, or wasn’t there before. A black five on a red six and—voila—by moving the red four on top of the five opens up a space to put the king and with one or two more cards your luck has shifted and you win. Sometimes you feel stuck, you’ve looked through the cards 10 times and there really is no conceivable move, no way to win, but with a tap to the “new game” button you can start over. And you can use the “Get tip” button—“Oh, I can transfer a few cards from one line to another to clear the path for a winning move? Thanks for pointing that out.” It's not cheating; it’s like asking a trusted friend for advice.

Jack on the mend. The sign says it all.
I have appreciated having Solitaire to distract me through my days (and nights) of late. But I am weaning myself off the game. I am determined to reclaim my balance, my sense of direction, my ability to sleep—without the aid of cards—or drugs or red wine or even chocolate. Okay, maybe a little chocolate. As I work through my grief over losing Daisy, a little voice creeps in that suggests her sudden death may have spared her any drawn out suffering from the arthritis that was ailing her. Still, a creature as appreciative and innocent as she was didn’t deserve such a violent death. But what can you do? You cannot go backward in life, only forward.

I am putting one foot in front of the other, taking long walks on the beach, riding my bike in the shining sun, spending time talking with my family (or just sitting quietly in their comforting company), and writing more in my journal. I made pies for Thanksgiving. And now, at last, I am sitting at my computer typing out the feelings from my heavy heart, hoping that by sharing my words, my story, my grief and my gratitude, I will find my way back to productivity and purpose. That said, I’m going to keep the Solitaire app on my iPhone. It will serve as a reminder to have faith in life, that by drawing just one or two more cards, the road can get smoother, you can still find a way through, and there’s still, always a possibility of winning.