Careful

Free write…

Friday was my last day at work.  I received almost twenty emails from coworkers congratulating me on my courage and wishing me well.

TG brought over the keys so P and D can watch the cats while I’m in Ireland.  ST was also here.  Neither tried to pee on me, so I’ll call it a success.  (Actually, I’ve mentioned it before, TG is the type of person anyone wants to be friends with.  The person the most stressed and threatened was me.  It’s been a few years since I’ve had multiple guys who’ve seen me naked in the same room.  (A groomsman, the preacher, and my date.  And really, once you’ve done that, shouldn’t it all be cake?))

Friday was pretty special for me and ST, even if all we did was nap, watch Failure to Launch, and eat crappy food.  He had to be off at 5am.  He showered, dressed, and came to curl up next to me one last time before leaving.  Sigh.

Saturday at the sanctuary kicked ass.  I highly suggest you gather fifteen friends and strangers, find a fell twenty-five foot tree, and move it via rolling logs a few hundred feet.  If you are all alive at the end, you’ll know the psychotic high I felt.

Saturday night MC and I gathered a Mediterranian feast, sangria, and some blankets to watch Crowns.  Neither of us had any expectations; we just liked the idea of the play at the park.  Since I like gospel, it was quite a nice evening.

I headed to church this morning.  The music wasn’t gospel, but P and D’s little boy was walking.  A halleluiah all on its own, but the real miracle was that this once fussiest boy alive sat happily on my lap letting me stuff macaroni elbows in his mouth one at a time.

The rest of the day?  Nothing.  Cleaned the litters.  Nap.  Reading.  Laundry.  Whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.  No stress over schedule; I have nothing to do tomorrow but the start the rest of my life.

The reason for the title of this post?  I don’t want to jinx myself.  I can’t believe my life is going this well.  That I am this happy.  From all the phone calls, emails, and dinners, that I am this cared for and loved.

I want to be careful.  Mostly, be careful to not take it for granted or miss one minute of it.

The One You’ve Been Waiting For

I have been back at the sanctuary for a month now.  It has been wonderful.  I have been anxious and cautious at times; things change, people change.  I feel it is a careful balance between respecting the now (what I’m allowed to do, when I should ask for help/direction/guidance) but also not shirking responsibility I’m aware of from the then.

One thing several volunteers asked me after the meeting today was if I was going to be promoted quickly, go back to my old status, etc.  It amazes me how little I’m interested in that.  Not that I don’t want to be out there that much, but that I feel I can do so much just as I am right now.

Why do I think you’ve been waiting for this post?  Pictures.

First, I got home yesterday with an hour to get all purty for a date.  This is how dirty I was:

See the sock line?  That’s the color the rest of me was supposed to be.  I did not snap an after photo because when you are that dirty and have an hour to get date-presentable, you don’t have time to take more than one picture.

Then, today after our monthly meeting, I grabbed my camera and begged an old friend to walk me around a bit.  (As a LL, I shouldn’t be wandering by myself in certain areas.)

Cougar cub, roughly seven months old.  Rescued with his two siblings from Idaho after a hunter shot his mother in late fall.

 

All three siblings, peeking out from their den.

Lioness seized in a drug bust in Tennessee.  The Nashville zoo could not keep her for many reasons, one being she was declawed.  Her elbows had huge growths on them when she arrived years ago.  They had grown to protect her joints from the concrete on which she was kept.  A few months of a natural enclosure and good diet did wonders.  (You can see one still a bit knobby although it is a poor picture of it.) 

First day back

I haven’t decided exactly how I’m going to write about the sanctuary.  You have to understand, for me to tell you about it is like talking about my family and my work all rolled into one.  It’s difficult to describe such a unique experience with the right amount of details and also keep privacy – both for the sanctuary and myself.
 
With that…
 
I got there around 7:45am.  First thing I tried to do was install my thumb drive on the volunteer computer so I can transfer a database and work on it at home.  (Why yes, I have taken on a few more responsibilities.)  It didn’t work.  The computer is too old to have the right drivers.  This means I am now a week behind in the schedule in my mind unless I come out some weeknight.  We’ll see.
 
GM wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.  He couldn’t just send me off on my own, for policy and procedure’s sake.  When he handed out assignments, he made sure to explain to the other LL volunteer paired with me that I was experienced.  GM actually did that with anyone all day, and last weekend as well.  It’s incredibly gratifying to know I’m appreciated and respected for the knowledge and responsibility I had prior.
 
And then?  I cleaned. 
 
I picked up old meat.  Scrubbed concrete slab “dinner plates”.  Cleaned and refilled water bowls.  Scrapped feces to the edge of cages and picked it up with BBQ tongs.
 
It was heaven.
 
We were done cleaning our section around 11am.  We went back up front to grab some water at the Volunteer area before heading back out to double check another section.  (Check each cage that no one missed a feeding area, and quick perimeter sweep for feces either missed or lovingly deposited after cleaning.)
 
But when I told GM I was either 1) out of there at noon or 2) willing to stay and back up an 11:30 tour, he chose the tour.
 
(Backing up a tour means that I keep the guests all corralled between the guide and me.  I watch that they don’t wander off and that they don’t lean/point over barricades so the guide can concentrate on talking.)
 
After the tour, there was a mad rush in the parking lot.  The road and exit only accommodate one lane of traffic, and the 11:30 tour guests were not all gone as tons of 1:30 tour guests were arriving.
 
(Note:  Never come on a 1:30 tour.  You will not see that many animals and they will be sleeping.  Even the diurnal ones are mostly napping because it is so hot.)
 
So I ended up sticking around until about 2, helping direct parking and just keeping my own departure from fucking up the situation.  GM tried to sweet talk me into staying to help with some specialized tour duties – things that any LL volunteer should be jumping up and down to do – but I hadn’t ordered/brought lunch and needed to get back home with time to clean up and rest before dinner and Dame Edna with M.
 
He called me a wuss.  Heh.  Some things never change.
 
I had two very sweet/embarrassing moments.  One was when a volunteer told me that someone from the Snow Leopard Trust is coming to speak this week.  She said that it really was my doing because she heard me talk about it on one of my tours and was inspired.  This was so wonderful to hear because guiding a tour is really about educating and sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re ever getting through to people.
 
The other was when I introduced myself to an intern and she said, “Oh yeah!  I know you from the DVD!”  Yes, there is a DVD about the sanctuary and I am on it.  I sound and look like a dork.  I sprained my ankle that day and the last half of the interview I was just holding on until someone could drive me on a golf cart home (I lived at the sanctuary at the time) and W could take me to the ER for X-rays. 
 
As embarrassing as the DVD is, it was still kind of cool that she recognized me.
 
There are many things I’d forgotten that came back to me yesterday.  How raw you feel after six hours in the sun.  How I cannot empty water bowls without getting my sneakers wet.  How the dust from the parking lot gets in your nostrils and leaves you with black boogers. 
 
My hamstrings are burning right now – cleaning is glorified squats for over two hours.  And I’m extremely tired.  But my back feels fine.  I feel so lucky these days, for my health, my strength (both mental and physical), and my life in general.  I hope that everyone feels like this because it is an amazing high.

Orientated

The first few questions of the interview were easy.  In part because I didn’t have to answer them.

“So, why are you here?”

“No, I already wrote down her answer.  She loves it here.”

“OK.  Well, do you have any previous animal handling experience?”

The room laughed while under her breath MC spoke as she wrote, “…hand…fed…lioness…”

“Any previous volunteer experience?”

More laughter, as I offered, “I worked at a soup kitchen in high school.”

There were some tougher questions.  What was my intent this time around.  If they could fast track me into more responsibilities would I want it.

This is a unique thing I’m doing.  People come.  People leave.  People do not return to volunteer.  Not after a two-year absence.

We discussed some options.  I can’t say what will happen.  I can’t even say exactly what I want to happen.  I want to be back there.  That was the future for me until today.  Today, after the orientation and the interview, it is my present.

As I got up to leave GM asked, “When was the last time you were out on a tour?”

“Thanksgiving.”

“Was that you and me in the rain?”

“No, that was my birthday.  At Thanksgiving, my tour guide was B.”

“Oh, good.  So it hasn’t been that long.”

MC broke in, “Wait…that’s why she’s back now!  Her birthday!  Damnit.  Now we have those three in a row again!”

The other two of the three were in the room, members of the committee interviewing me.  I’ve celebrated so many birthdays with them.

My immediate response was, “But guys, you don’t celebrate lowly LL volunteer birthdays.”

More laughter all around.

On my ride home, the radio gods blessed me with Thirty Eight Special.  Second Chance. 

 

Going Home

Originally, I hadn’t been thinking about returning to the sanctuary. That ship, I thought, had sailed. But as I put the pieces in place for my big change, I realized it would be prudent for me to have an internship this summer. Something to prove to graduate schools I’m serious and committed to the idea of making a lot less money and getting much more dirty while doing it.

It is also imperative that I take Biology I this summer. I have a good idea of the undergraduate classes I will need to prepare for graduate school, and it’s about a full year’s worth. Whether USF will offer up everything my little heart desires in the next year is a chance I’m taking, but at least I will have tried. However, in order to take most of these classes, Biology I & II are pre-requisites. While I might be able to get away with Biology II as a co-requisite, Biology I is going to have to be tackled on it’s own and gotten out of the way.

That meant an internship in the Tampa Bay area. That severely limited my options, which weren’t that great anyway as most programs are geared for people already seeking degrees.

Funnily enough, it was when I realized I should ask the sanctuary for a letter of recommendation that the idea of just returning came to me. So simple!

The sanctuary has an official internship program, but I didn’t want to take a spot away from anyone and I wanted a little more control over my schedule. So, when I went back around Thanksgiving, I broached the idea of my returning for an intensive internship-like period of time over the summer.

Now, I understood this was not the greatest offer in the book. It takes a lot to train volunteers. It will take me a week or so at least to get back in the game – if I’m out there every day. Volunteer retention and stability is very important in such a difficult environment. If they said it wasn’t worth it, I’d get it. At least I would have tried.

Of the few people I mentioned this to, one committee member took interest and wanted to know the details of what I was thinking. So after Christmas I emailed her with an outline of my plan (still vague as USF will not put out the summer schedule until APRIL when classes start in MAY – although the Biology department has assured me a session of Biology I is always taught).

I made it clear that while I didn’t want to stop volunteering again, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep it up in the fall. I would be starting classes (hopefully) full-time and also need to look for a part-time job.

She replied back why didn’t I just come back as a lowest-level volunteer (which would mean least-hours required monthly) and see if I could make it a permanent return?

Again, so simple! But it never occurred to me, as I was so “internship-type situation” focused. And just because I have small monthly quota of hours, doesn’t mean I can’t put in more over the summer. I can certainly come up with some specific project to complete during that time if I feel a huge need to prove something to graduate schools.

It also gives me freedom with my schedule. And is a good step to ensuring I don’t fall back into all of my old responsibilities and get burnt out again. (Although I doubt I would let this happen. One reason I didn’t go back sooner is because I felt I hadn’t learned enough about the limits and possibilities of my mind and body. I’d spent too long on autopilot, in part because of my marriage, doing what needed doing regardless of whether I could/should actually do it. I’m fairly confident that I know them now.)

I’ve thought about how being a low-level (LL) volunteer will feel. Overall, I don’t think it will be too weird for me. No matter what level you are, everyone picks up shit. Literally. And I know this will sound strange, but that’s one of my favorite tasks – cleaning habitats means your out there on the sanctuary grounds, walking around, near the animals, knowing that whatever else you do that day, you’ve given them a clean home.

As an LL, I won’t be able to clean the habitats of the larger cats, but since both my babies died I won’t feel any huge loss there. I don’t remember if I ever spoken about it, but I’ve been “Mom” to two bobcats longer than either the tiger or the lioness were around.

I also think the volunteers who knew me from before will respect my knowledge. That’s just how the place works. Age, social standing, and for the most part even education mean nothing. It’s all about how many hours you’ve put in. I’ve taken orders from someone ten years my senior and ten years my junior, as well as given them to cute guys I’d like to get with and people old enough to be my parents.

The only two downsides are that LL volunteers don’t feed and they don’t conduct tours.

Feeding, while sometimes difficult and stressful, is always looked at as a reward. Getting to watch carnivores chow down is amazing. And I will miss being out there in the evening, when feeding occurs. All LL volunteers are pretty much off-property by the afternoon. As someone who once lived out there and would get to be completely alone Sunday evenings with the lioness, I cherished the quiet and the satisfaction of knowing the day was done and the animals were safe.

The tours are something many other volunteers wouldn’t believe I’d miss. I can get burned out on people quickly, and I’m very protective of the animals, which can make for a stressful tour when guests think it’s so cute and funny when an abused leopard is hissing and charging the fence. The guide usually isn’t supposed to bitch-slap the patrons.

But especially with being away for so long, I’ve come to realize how much I love talking about the animals, and what people need to know so they can go home and make decisions that ensure more abuse and neglect doesn’t happen.

I used to be praised by guests for my tours quite a bit. And it surprised me, until I realized the same passion that made me mad when guests didn’t respect the privacy of the animals also made me a wonderful guide. People liked my tours because they could tell these animals were loved, that I believed in the sanctuary’s mission and in doing whatever it took to stop the exploitation of captive exotics.

I’ve thought about perhaps advancing to be a ML volunteer. That is a seductive and dangerous proposition. I’m going back with a bigger picture in mind; to eventually leave again when I find a graduate program. I can’t get sidetracked with the instant gratification of putting in a hard day’s work at the sanctuary, especially if it compromises the time and energy I put into school.

But we’ll see. First I just need to get back there. I had planned to be back in May. But returning as an LL means so small of a time commitment, I could go back any time after February (too much planned already) and fulfill my hours on just one weekend morning a week. Part of me wants to be back before my birthday.

Perhaps because I view birthdays and September (never really got out of the school mindset) the way many view the New Year. A time for reflection and change. It would be nice to have one part of my plan in place by then.

There’s Always Another Story

In March, it will be two years since I’ve been out at the sanctuary in any official capacity.

(Well, that’s not entirely true. I went out a few times for some meetings, to do some filing, and to help move/say goodbye to my boy.)

Even gone, I couldn’t stay away.

It was originally supposed to be just a leave of absence. I was to return in the fall, stronger, re-employed elsewhere, and with a handle on my personal commitments.

And…that didn’t happen.

I admit, if she hadn’t died, it might have been different. I knew it was the wrong thing. Any time someone has lost an animal, we all push for the return to a normal schedule as soon as possible. After he died, I made it a point to come out for a meeting the next week. I was allowed to roam the sanctuary (something not technically allowed as I had no status or authority anymore) and sit by his cage.

But I didn’t have the strength last fall. She was in many ways my guardian angel. She saved me and taught me more than anyone else in my life so far. And she was gone.

And I was hurting.

My boyfriend dumped me. His brother-in-law committed suicide. I don’t know if I handled it differently than anyone else would. A lot of people seemed to feel that the suicide shouldn’t have effected me. The dumping cut ties to the family and therefore…what suicide? Who?

I would take that family as in-laws in a heartbeat. So smart. So funny. So caring.

So dead.

I couldn’t go to the funeral. The sister and I tried to keep in touch. But somehow the entire family felt the need – even months later – to focus on the breakup and the end of a wonderful relationship.

Far after I was (mostly) over it, they weren’t. I love them for it, but also am sad that I was so niched into the “potential” category nothing else could flourish in our relationships.

On top of my friends not quite sure how to handle the suicide and the breakup with me, I was also stifled here.

He was blogging at the time. I remember a comment from a new reader about how mad she was that I was over here hurting, and he was over there writing about movies.

I almost couldn’t breath for the desire to take this woman out for coffee and pour The Whole Story out. I understood she was ragging on him in the form of sister solidarity, but it killed me.

But this information was not mine to tell. Definitely not before he did.

I have the posts saved to my hard drive. The ones he wrote about the suicide. I was so happy and proud when I read them, hoping it meant some healing. And I was so devastated to read them and not be able to reach out to him or his family. To relive an event like that alone in the middle of my bedroom.

It was the start of a weekend of celebrations, including one I was hosting myself. I kept it together in that I did not become a bawling mess in the middle of any dinners. Soon afterwards, one of my closest confidants lost her father very suddenly. I’m not sure I ever told her or anyone other than T about those posts.

I had never felt more confused and frustrated writing here. On top of generally wanting to protect him, I also was protecting myself. There is a certain element of my current position that requires a professional and put together life 24/7. It’s something I always had the in back of my mind.

The idea of trying to continue with life was less about a new job, returning to the sanctuary, or dating again. It was about making sure I didn’t disappear off the earth all together.

I went to New York. I went to shows. I cooked dinner. I enrolled in some classes. While this turned out to be a small step in the whole new-career thing, it was simply to get me out of the house.

I realized how little I was attached to the life I was leading. And how it could tip either way.

Slowly, I got better. Time heals and all that. I still wish I was in touch with him. With his family. I don’t remember that much about the relationship anymore. But I know he was a nice guy.

When I began to care a bit more about life, and showering regularly (and yes, dating again), I decided I no longer needed the status quo as a security blanket.

This post was supposed to be about the sanctuary. How I’m going back. How happy I am they want me back. And how happy I am that I took the time, how frustrating and scary it was, to get where I am now.

But evidently I had another story to tell.

A Tour

“Talk about pressure!”

Such a compliment. To say that about having to guide a tour at the sanctuary where I am just another guest.

Well, perhaps not just another guest. After a half hour, she desired to give credit and mention that one of the creators of the enrichment program was in the crowd.

I have wanted to get TG out there for awhile. But schedules were not matching up. When my favorite eight-year-old ended up staying at grandma’s for the weekend, I decided I couldn’t stay away any longer.

There is a cell tower on the property. Right next to the largest enclosure. I had, at the very least, a forty-five minute commute every day when I lived there. I was often in a foul mood by the time I reached that exit. Yet every single time I saw that tower, I would sing to myself in the car, “Tigers live there!” Such a wonderful, magical thing to know.

I did the same thing today. Except I started shaking. Perhaps a good thing TG did not accompany me on this trip.

I was nervous. The way you are nervous seeing family you feel you might have disappointed.

A couple volunteers who know me actually guided me to a parking spot and let me get out of my car unnoticed. Tour times are hectic. I stood in line and wondered how long I could go, but when GM came up I could resist calling his name.

And falling into the hug that followed.

I cried at her grave. And at the sight of his old cage inhabited by another tiger.

I was happy to see a certain cougar in a different enclosure, and nearly bitch-slapped another guest who preyed on his fear to elicit a hiss. Do not make my cougars angry. I promise I will bite before they do.

Afterwards, we all caught up before feeding time. It felt weird – to be an outsider and yet so comfortable with what was going on.

It felt good.

Saying Yes to Saying No

I’m at work, struggling for consciousness right now. I had to stay up until midnight when two tests from my online course became available; they will be closed by the time I get back from Boston.

I just literally wrote that last sentence over seven times. And I’m still not sure if I correctly explained myself. Lord help anyone expecting anything useful out of my today.

Have I mentioned I will not be taking any classes next semester? No matter what? Because really.

It’s not that the classes have been so demanding or I haven’t enjoyed them. It’s just that I have started to slip back into my old thought processes.

Back when I lived at the sanctuary, I had a lot of responsibilities. It wasn’t even so much that I couldn’t say, “No” – I just never even considered it as an option. Work had to be done. Everyone was too busy. If I didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.

So I kept piling things on, oblivious to small details like 24-hours in a day. Or that I needed to sleep and eat. I became oblivious to what I wanted to do, what I enjoyed for fun. I didn’t have time for it, so what did it matter?

(Let me explain I know this is a situation that I brought upon myself. I loved volunteering and took on too much because of that. At some point, I probably should have taken a step back and decided to pursue a career in animal care full-time. Unfortunately, mine was the only paycheck. And not only did my husband and I survive on it, we often “helped” the sanctuary and others with that paycheck. I am very proud and happy of what I was able to accomplish and be a part of – it just had very little long-term stability and when I realized this, it was hard to handle.)

(Why not go back and pursue a career now? Well…it’s a possibility. I’ll let you know.)

(For the love of fuck…what was I even talking about? Did I have a point? Is it time for lunch yet? Because I plan to treat myself to the most awesome salad ever for lunch and is basically my reason to live right now. (The Southern Fried Chicken one))

So…classes. Yes. I seem to be slipping back into that do-it-do-it-do-it mentality where I start forgetting that all of this stuff I’m doing will take time and energy and there is a limited supply. Since classes are an easiest thing to omit, I’m going to prove that I have actually learned something in my 30-years of existence and try to fashion a schedule that does not depend on the day-cycle on Mercury. (Shit. Now I am going to have to look up the day-cycle on Mercury.) Or the fact that really, I once spent a whole summer only getting 8 hours of sleep every other night so why can’t I now?

Fitting

I haven’t been writing. Anywhere. About anything.

It’s technically spring break. I took Wednesday off from work. I went to the sanctuary. It was raining so instead of blending anonymously into a crowd of tourists, I rang the bell and asked for someone to tell GM that Jessica said happy birthday.

He looks good. The same. My bobcats have a new enclosure – away from the tour route. They love it, although would not come out for me. They hate water. (Contrary to popular opinion, some cats enjoy a swim or a splash. But not them.)

He mentioned a thing for a person I used to worship. She’d love it if I could make it. What’s my email address? Such bliss to feel accepted. You’d think I was in high school.

He heard from W once. As far as he knows, no second marriage yet. He asked if I was married again or in love, and when I said no he beamed, “Good for you!”

Later I realized I could have been insulted or hurt by that. But I knew what he meant. I hadn’t rushed into another mistake. I hadn’t used another body to shield me from the world. I was on my own.

I had lunch with a friend who was in town for a conference. We lamented we were 30 and had it together except…

“I just don’t think I’m the type of girl guy’s marry.”

“Interesting…” She said it with a clinical, quizzical look.

“I loved someone and compromised myself for that once before. I would love to be married again, but I just don’t know how to be that person and still myself. As myself, guy’s just don’t see someone who needs to be taken care of. I can’t help that. I’d be miserable trying to figure out how to change myself so as to snag someone. So I’ll just be me. And alone.” I shrug. Content with someone who’s known me since 5th grade. She didn’t argue.

He came over around 9pm. Curled up on the chaise lounge, he stroked my back and said, “You look ready to go to sleep. Would you be more comfortable in the bed?”

I sat up and stared into his face. He really meant it. No innuendo. No agenda. Not that he was going to turn anything down, but right then, right that moment, he was simply thinking the girl in front of him was tired and what would feel better for her.

He turned out the lights and curled up next to me.

“You’re nice to sleep with, you know? I don’t mean the sex – although that’s great! I mean just sleeping.”

“Why?”

“You fit.”

I’ve heard that so many times. When am I going to hear that and it will mean more than the fact that I’m short and curvy? When will I fit? Me? All of me?

I’ll take last night until that day comes.

Redo

Today’s events – Pros and Cons

Pros:

1) Did not get stopped for drug trafficking due to ten bags of organic catnip.

2) Kept baby sitting next to me on plane (of course) from screaming by amusing her with jingly necklace.

Cons:

1) Family tragedy caused me to call for the reserves – no new boy to sweep me into a hug when I left the plane. I don’t know when I’ll get to see him.

2) Ability to check gmail for the first time since last Saturday allowed me to find out that my lioness died last Sunday.

All in all, I’d kinda like a re-do.