Letters To Pushkin, the book!
On Sunday morning, February 1, 2009, Pushkin the beagle went to sleep in my arms for the last time. Three and a half weeks later, it was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Catholic Church’s Lent season. When you’re younger, Lent is usually about giving up something, such as giving up chocolate for forty days. As adults, though many still opt to give up something, others take a more proactive approach: perhaps making the effort to say one kind thing to their partner each day or to volunteer at a local soup kitchen. Lent, in this way, becomes a time of ritual and reflection culminating in the observance of Holy Week and celebration of Easter. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to commit to writing a letter each day to Pushkin. It would be a way of spending time with him, and a way of helping myself heal. The collection of forty-seven letters begins on Ash Wednesday, February 25th, and the final letter was written on Easter Sunday, April 12th.
The letters, as a collection, document one experience with grief. These letters were never intended for publication; they were intimate conversations that I wrote out each day in a small journal. With Pushkin as my inspiration, I pondered the big questions of life and death, welcomed the love and support that sometimes came from unexpected places, and embraced the changes that inevitably come with such a dramatic life event. Reading back over the letters now that considerable time has passed, I am struck by how my mind moved from a state of abstraction to a restored state of equanimity, the resiliency that enabled me to become more hopeful and joyful again.
A Web Site Is Born
Having found letter-writing so helpful to my own healing process, I decided to launch a free web site so that others might do the same. I wanted to create a safe space, where people could express their feelings about losing companion animals without feeling self-conscious, where they knew others reading their words would understand the depth of such grief. With the help of my husband Seth (the computer wizard of the family), building the Letters to Pushkin web site became a shared labor of love.
On the site, people can choose to keep their letters private, share with just family and friends, or post for the public to read. I have had quite a few visitors communicate to me that, although they weren’t ready to write their own letter, they found comfort in just reading some of the letters written by others. Each time I hear from someone, I feel so blessed, just knowing that more good has come out of my own loss; and that, in this way, Pushkin’s light continues to shine.
Letters To Pushkin made its debut quietly in July 2009, with a single promotion card tacked to the bulletin board at the Taking Action for Animals Conference in Washington, D.C. Since then, I have posted cards at Starbucks, college campuses, Whole Foods, and restaurants from L.A. to New York. I always travel with a handful, ready to spread the word wherever I can.
But it was quite a remarkable thing when people started asking me if they could have some cards to distribute on their own. Veterinary offices and schools and animal shelters also have gotten on board with LTP. Through word of mouth, the Letters To Pushkin community has grown beyond anything I could have imagined. Two hundred letters have been publicly shared, letters to all kinds of animals — dogs, cats, horses, fish, ferrets, chickens, bunnies, and more.
And, since that first TAFA conference, Letters To Pushkin has returned to the annual event: this July will be the third year LTP has had its own table in the Exhibit Hall. It’s become a new family tradition. Once a year, Seth and I roll out the banner with the larger-than-life beagle. We hand out free t-shirts and other materials. We talk with people who are eager to share stories about their companion animals — those still with us as well as those who have passed on. It’s a whirlwind weekend, and it’s also become for us another way of honoring the spirit who now has touched so many lives.
Facebook: The Support Network Grows
In an effort to keep the letter-writing experience on the LTP site free from any kind of negative responses, it remains comment-free. However, I recognized that visitors might benefit from being able to communicate with each other. As the promo cards express: sharing our grief can be a way of sharing hope. To this end, in March 2010, I created the Letters To Pushkin Facebook page. It quickly became a natural extension of the site as an online support network. I am amazed each time I visit the page to see how generous people can be in responding to others who are struggling. Gentle, kind, compassionate. Offering simple words of comfort. To date, the page has more than 6,100 friends. Wow.
Foursquare, Twitter, & NCIS
The LTP crowd enjoys some lighter moments, too. People seem to be having fun checking in at Pushkin’s Bench on Foursquare, which is located in New York City’s Riverside Park, just outside the dog run at 105th Street. Our old stomping grounds. And on Twitter, @letterspushkin sends out tweets of animal rescues and adoptions, local fundraisers and animal-related events, and retweets about everything from healthy dog treats to animal-friendly hotels. Another fun LTP fact: after first appearing in the 2009 Thanksgiving episode of CBS’s hit television show NCIS, a photo of Pushkin has become a “regular” on the set, pinned up in Ziva’s cubicle. A second portrait shot of Pushkin is posted in McGee’s cubicle. It’s always nice to hear from viewers, all excited to let me know they spotted the beagle.
And Now… The Book!
Early on, while the web site was still in the works, a dear friend suggested that I share the letters I’d written to Pushkin during those weeks of Lent. Until now, only the very first letter I wrote has been available on the web site. I wanted to keep the web site’s focus on others and their own use of letter-writing as part of the healing process.
However, there have been numerous inquiries over the last three years by others wanting to read more than just the first letter. On a couple of occasions, I emailed a few additional ones to people who were really having a difficult time. Still, I held onto the letters I’d written as deeply personal and something I preferred to keep on a low shelf right next to Pushkin’s picture, where I sit and begin each day with my morning meditation.
Ultimately, what convinced me to make the letters available in book form was the realization that, as a book, Letters To Pushkin had added potential in a few key respects: first, my hope is that the book, like the web site, is a source of comfort to people who are grieving. But reaching further than the web site alone, the book is something tangible that friends or family members can give to someone who is facing great loss; and maybe reading or receiving the book will lead someone to the web site, where she can write her own letter to the loved one she’s missing. Second, my letters — like the letters shared by others on the web site — serve as a testament to the important role companion animals have in our lives as family members; as an animal advocate, I look forward to the day when animals are regarded as more than “property” in our legal system. Once someone has read the letter to Tilly the chicken, he likely will never look at a chicken the same way again. And, finally, with 50% of the royalties going to Bideawee (the NYC humane organization that brought Pushkin & me together), the book will raise money as well as awareness to help other animals in need. With the possibility of so much good, how could I not?
People will learn a lot about Pushkin and about me as they read these pages. Throughout the time I was writing, life was happening: friends were visiting, there was a business to manage, and decisions took me in new directions — not the least of which was my decision to pursue a law degree with a personal focus on animal law. So, the book is more than just page after page of weepy journal entries. Rather, a story naturally unfolds that I hope readers will enjoy and want to share with others.
My Little Heartbeat
Pushkin was not a story. Pushkin was a real life, and a life that touched me and changed me. I’m not sure what heaven is like, or if he can hear me when I sing to him, but I do hope that somehow he knows, every time someone reads through the letters, how very much he is missed and still loved.
Buy the Book!
Letters to Pushkin is available for purchase on Kindle, iBooks, NOOK, and in print through Lulu and Amazon. Please help us spread the word! And thanks to all who have been so supportive!