Confronting Our Fears Yields Gifts We Might Never Have Imagined


Something extraordinary happened this summer. I have been slow to find words to describe the sequence of events that taught me that the things we fear most in life have the power to bring us great joy and peace. What if the scariest thing in your life – the thing you feared most – turned out to be the most peaceful, beautiful thing you never imagined possible?

Never would I have imagined that my dog’s passing could deliver such peace and gratitude. Don’t get me wrong… I miss my beloved Congo every day. I cry on walks without her. I go to bed saying her name, and I dream of hugging her in my sleep where I experience the very real delight of having her in my arms again. How could I not? We had nearly fourteen wonderfully bonded years together, always side by side.

Congo had been sick for a long time. It was painful to watch her slow deterioration, but she held on, and on. We never thought she would make it past the winter. It was a brutal winter with one storm after another. I remember waking before dawn one morning to shovel a path through two feet of snow in negative 10˚F so that I could carry her out to pee before she had an accident and carry her back in before she froze.

As the sun came up and cast shadows over the stillness, the purity and the white, I remember looking out at the silence and soaking it all up…the paths I had cut…my breath playing on the air…bare trees in half shadow and light. I remember saying to myself: this is EXACTLY where I want to be. There is NOTHING I would rather be doing

Our last winter together. A selfie with Congo

Our last winter together. A selfie with Congo

Congo held on through the spring and into the summer. I began to panic -seriously panic - when I realized that our summer holiday was booked and I would not be present for my dog’s passing. For more than thirteen years I had been living and breathing with her. Not being there for her last breath was an incredibly painful pill to swallow. This was not the way it was supposed to end. This was not “The Plan” I had in mind and yet, and yet…there is never a plan. 

Congo spent the summer as she always did - with my brother John and his partner, JP, at their home in Virginia, a place she knew well and loved, having spent six summers there with her two sons, Trouble and Noir. Her final weeks were spent taking part in happy, relaxed moments together with all "her boys" and adoring friends. I am deeply moved by John and JP’s deep commitment and love for her, and for me.  They lovingly picked up where I left off and helped us through this difficult time. I have written about it in a separate blog post [here].

Man’s love for his dog is boundless. It is as complex as it is pure and simple. For me and Congo, and for countless others, there is always a bit of magic wrapped up in it, too. 

Shortly after my husband and I married, we sold our townhouse in London. Together with Congo, we moved to our home in the South of France, for the proverbial year [or two] in Provence. It wasn’t long before Congo and I both fell pregnant. Unbeknownst to either my dog or me [or my husband], our village of Cotignac has a reputation for making ladies – and Queens - fall pregnant, and this is where the “magic” comes in to play, as ancient village lore threaded its way through our lives.    

The story of Notre Dame de Grace in Cotignac began in 1519 on August 10th and 11th when the Virgin Mary appeared to Jean de La Baume and asked him to build a chapel there. Et voila! The townspeople agreed and the chapel was built. Over a century later, on October 27, 1637 the good Brother Fiacre had a revelation that The Queen, Anne d’Autriche, wife of Louis XIII, needed to make three novenas to the Virgin in order for a son to be delivered to them – the first of those three was sent up to our village’s Notre-Dame de Graces en Provence. The queen then prayed with Brother Fiacre from November 8th until December 5th. Exactly nine months later, Louis XIV was born on September 5, 1638 and Notre-Dame de Graces en Provence is now, and not surprisingly, a noted pilgrimage.

Key dates from the story of our village chapel overlap with my own and Congo’s.  I find myself compelled by the coinciding dates and how they provide some “glue” to the age-old mystery of Love and Loss.  There is comfort to be found in context and connection, especially when confronted with loss.

It is possible [but not proven] that Congo fell pregnant on October 27th, 2002 - 365 years after Brother Fiacre's revelation and 66 days before she gave birth to nine puppies on January 3, 2003.

Congo had been deteriorating for over a year yet she held on through a crushing winter and spring in Massachusetts and eventually died in the state of Virginia [!] on August 11th, 484 years to the day the Virgin first appeared in Cotignac and as it happens, the same week that our baby daughter died there eleven years earlier, on August 15th – the day of the Virgin’s Assumption in to Heaven. 

August is definitely my month for angels in France. Our home there is a quiet place of peace and reflection for me.  As much as I resisted leaving my dog in her final days, it seems oddly fitting that I was in France when I received the news of Congo’s passing under the bright light of a super moon. 

I wrote to my friends back home in America letting them know that Congo had left us on a moonbeam. The following day my son and I rode our bikes up to the chapel of Notre Dame to light candles in remembrance and gratitude for the sweet life she shared with us. When we sat down and looked up at the painting of the Virgin lit by votive candles below, I gasped…there was the Virgin floating on a moon beam. This made me happy, deeply so, as though it confirmed all my thoughts of my dog going to heaven on a moonbeam.

We continued to sit there in the silence staring up at the painting and feeling the peace in the chapel. Moments later, I asked my son if he saw what I saw in the shadows of the painting, just above the left tip of the moonbeam. I admit it’s a little like “fifty shades of black” and maybe it’s just the way the shadows fall when viewed from the left pew…but there in the black background that surrounds the Madonna, peeks the little face of a black dog on the tip of the moonbeam. We both saw it and returned a week later to see if it was still there. It is.

Coincidence, synchronicity, chance or imagination – people label things differently. For me, I am not looking for a label, especially when one is not needed. The stars were aligned and the dates fell as they did and we saw what we saw in that peaceful chapel. No matter what it’s called – scientific or spiritual - I took huge comfort in knowing that my beloved dog and all the good in her was mysteriously aligned with an ancient story belonging to our village’s Virgin; and of all places to die, she ended her days in the state of Virginia. It made losing her and letting her go, somehow easier, softer, and I worried less. It allowed me to think less about Loss and more about Love.

Her death didn't have to be an ending. As I carry this love, I am grateful for the lingering sense that Congo has continued on, moving toward something new, something ‘higher,’ just there at the tip of a moonbeam. In the end, what I feared most did not break me. It re-shaped my ability to accept Loss and not fear and resent it. As I hold on to the many happy years Congo and I shared, always side by side, I am filled with Gratitude and Love and I know that this is a very, very precious gift indeed. 

Ohlala! Detoxing in France!? Seriously?

Mirabeau is just one of the many vineyards nearby

Mirabeau is just one of the many vineyards nearby

Here we are in the land of buttery croissants, tantalizing Rosé, excruciatingly gorgeous cheeses and yet we are detoxing. Ohlala. What the heck are we thinking?! Our friends give us crooked looks. They have 'non' respect for this sort of behavior and don’t hide their dismay: You are too American. Relax, be happy. What’s a little sugar?You are on holiday, yes?

I completely agree. They are right to question this odd behavior, for there is nothing better than to arrive at Nice airport, take deep breaths of the dry coastal air - an aromatic mix of thyme, rosemary, dried earth, sea and cypress – and count the minutes speeding down the Autoroute only slowing for speed cameras until you can at last press a chilled Rosé to your lips.

From the moment you touch down and say “Merci. Bonne journée” to the friendly immigration officer and then stuff your American passport away, every one of your senses is firing away, urging you to Relax. Enjoy life. Be in Rome when in Rome… or Provence. Fear not, my friends. Those lovely French sirens are not being completely ignored. They are just being held at bay, albeit for a ridiculous ten day sugar detox in the South of France. I’ve done stupid things in my life and this might be one of them, but hear me out: there are some very good reasons for it.

First off, if we were staying for a two week holiday, there would be NO detox. We would dive into life over here and enjoy all that is on offer and relax with impunity. We would deal with the consequences upon returning to the states and figure out some kind of detox after the fact ...but we are not here for 14 days. We are here for 60, so taking it easy for the first ten days is a healthy way to allow a digestive system to adjust gradually to the travel, time change and dietary wonders. Talk about Slow Travel…this is definitely a surreal stop on The Slow Road.

Despite all those concerned looks we’re getting from friends, it’s not all bad. It’s not like we are detoxing on multiple levels. We’re just knocking out the sugar for ten days.  Besides, it is far easier to detox away from home once you've broken your routine. My husband Tony and I quit smoking together twelve years ago. We went to Parrot Cay for two weeks and slept it out of our systems for the first three days and then spent the next eleven days replacing old habits with new. Tony opted for the impressive afternoon tea cakes while I opted for Pilates, yoga, and Reiki treatments. He's been enjoying tea cakes ever since and now he’s ready to jump off that proverbial cliff of a sugar cube and put an end to sweet urges.

This is my husband’s first sugar detox and I am really happy he is doing it - that’s why I am doing it with him. Granted, I have an unfair advantage.  I did my sugar detox once, and have since maintained a low glycemic diet so this is easy for me. I [truly] enjoy a routine sugar purge, but it’s tough going for him. He loves his morning toast with butter and marmalade or honey. His day peaks with tea and tea cakes in the afternoon.  He prefers his wine over tequila and can’t imagine a French meal that isn't capped with something deliriously egg-y, creamy and sweet.

To be fair to him, that’s why we are only focusing on sugar. To go the full nine yards for a total detox would be impractical, stupid … imagine no dairy, no wine and no caffeine in France…now that would be insane. Baguettes might not be sticking out of our market bag but we are still enjoying our grand crèmes [café au laits]; wrapping our gloriously stinky cheese in roti ham; and devouring piles of market fresh vegetables each day.

While I am not drinking alcohol, Tony has put aside the Pastisse on ice, chilled Rosé, and le petite pression [tiny beer]. Instead, he is discovering the no-sugar freshness of chilled tequila with lemon and fizzy water as an apéro.  After a session with his head stuck inside the engine of our ancient Renault [aka “Jolly” because she is not so Jolie] he admits the disarmingly simple Mexican tincture is “rah-ther refreshing.”

Apart from giving our systems a gentle introduction to all things new and French, there is also a subliminal bonus to this bizarre sugar detox in France. For all of us who travel, we know that from the moment the wheels hit the road, the boat sets sail, and the plane takes off, we leave “our world” behind. We move towards a realm that is beyond our every day and it is here where we can relax, let go, and “cleanse” ourselves of the weight of our every day. We replace it with things that are lighter, brighter, uplifting. In doing so we recharge, reboot and revitalize and let go of the debris that weights us down. That, my friends, is exactly what we intend to do this summer, but it goes even deeper for us. 

First morning. View from the olive terraces 

First morning. View from the olive terraces 

For every year that we have lived in the states we have spent as many away from our home in France. It is a place that is dear to us yet we tend to its taxes, its bills and its maintenance from thousands of miles away. The 300 year old stone farm house waits, silent and boarded up until our return. In turn, our year is marked by the time in between our two worlds. When we do return, we get straight to work. We haven’t stopped since we arrived.

As much as we are outwardly busy with projects, we are just as busy inwardly as we reconnect with a place that holds many memories and much meaning for us. For years, we have watched the sun cast shadows over its fields from morning until evening and apart from the mistral that currently assaults us, it is always peaceful and still. Soon the sound of the mighty winds will be replaced by the songs of cigales and while the wind continues to whip up and the shudders bang shut, we keep busy "putting things right". As each day edges us closer to full-on vacation mode, we let go of our day-to-day life in America.  The physical detox is joined by a spiritual detox as we process the past year and shift our focus to the silent, pensive parts of our hearts and minds. 

As odd as this may seem, our home is also in need of a metaphorical detox. Pipes are calcified from lack of use; my claw-footed iron bath groans as we turn her on for the first deep salt and lavender bath of the season; and the dishwasher and washing machine ache as they are called to duty. It will take a while for our house, as well as our own systems to unclog and reawaken after a year’s pile up.

Beneath all our chores, there is a metaphysical give and take between us and our home. It feels good to be back in our home attending to all her needs, breathing life back in and allowing air into all the dark corners that have been left untouched, not unlike the way a detox clears away our dark patches. We are swept up within her walls and over her fields where the rhythm of a home has no alarms to wake us and timing has nothing at all to do with hands on the clock. Unwind indeed. It is a peaceful place, a perfect sanctuary for proper rest and a healthy detox to clear away the cobwebs, literally and metaphorically.  

If home is indeed where the heart is, then on some magical level, this home needed our heart beats for it to come alive and for a pulse to run through it. For that alone, I can’t think of a better place to undergo a detox than in France while reconnecting with our home, whose pipes are as rusty as our own. Maybe, just maybe this detox in France is not such a crazy idea after all?