“My life inspires my work, and my work inspires my life.” That is a statement that has defined me for a long time. The story I am about to tell you couldn’t embody that more.
For many years I had a recurring event client who hosted annual fun, but small, black tie dinners. The dinner always had a theme that was a surprise to their guests the moment we opened the doors each night. I had to get really creative with them when I came up with the design, and since they were small they also came with a budget to work with. One year they had a South American wine pairing dinner, but with very specific countries for the wine, including Argentina. So I created a South American outdoor café (but indoors!) complete with sultry Argentine tango dancers.
Another year the theme was simply “1974”, the year the company started. I knew they wanted a disco theme when I saw their invitations (even though disco had not quite become popular until many years after 1974) but, just to be thorough, I did a lot of research and came up with pop culture references to the year. For instance, the Brady Bunch ended in 1974,
so I had a design that was inspired by the Brady’s orange and avocado green kitchen. I also presented a design that was inspired by Mary Tyler Moore’s actual living room in her Malibu home in 1974,
as the set of her show, which was popular at the time, was really quite boring. This particular design featured a lot of Kelly green, floral, plastic and ferns. But, alas, it was disco they wanted and a sparkly disco I gave them, complete with a mirror ball and a DJ in a baby blue ruffled tuxedo. My final year working with the client she asked very specifically for a Kansas City Speakeasy theme, or a Delta Juke Joint theme. With such a specific request I once again did my research very carefully to see what I could use for inspiration. I had recently been to Kansas City (to see the Rolling Stones in concert!) and fell in love with it, so I poured thru ideas for that but it was the Delta Juke Joint that really sparked my interest, as I wasn’t as familiar, as my experience with Mississippi had been very limited at that time.
After much research I laid out a design of a mish mash of what you might collect from a garage sale and Grandma’s house, as I found so many of them were in run down, unassuming buildings or on the down low, not so much about aesthetics as they were a great place for people to go dance, listen to some blues and let off steam. After all the research, in the end we did a bit of a pivot and went with a Chicago speakeasy theme.
I found myself stuck on the Delta Juke Joint. One in particular kept appearing in my searches, called Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in rural Mississippi, that was still operating at the time. It inspired how I had laid out the design for this option. But it also inspired me to look into it more. I wouldn’t call myself an avid blues music fan, but I have been a pretty consistent blues music fan. If you asked me what my favorite things in the entire world were I would tell you: my dog, trees and the Rolling Stones. I would call myself a die hard fan of the Rolling Stones, who were heavily influenced by the music of the Mississippi Delta, like Muddy Waters, especially. The Blues had seeped its way into my life and I often found myself turning it on as background music when guests arrived, or the music I played in the background during meals. And now I needed more.
A few months after this event design proposal I found myself on a very spontaneous cross country roadtrip. My dog, Finn, was with me, of course. I would look at the map every day and decide what route I was going to take next and where I was going to stop and for how long. Well, as I made my way across a southern route west to Colorado…. Clarksdale, Mississippi landed in my sights and I did some research. Po’ Monkey’s Lounge was nearby and was only open on Thursdays. I balanced my driving with this in mind and landed in Clarksdale a couple of days before.
Clarksdale is a small town with a big personality. You will find murals of blues artists, the birthplace of Muddy Waters, BBQ joints and the Delta Blues Museum.
The town looks like it has seen better days but that only adds to its charm, in my opinion. My first night there I went to Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by Morgan Freeman, and a well known fixture in the town. Finn stayed back in the hotel, as he often did, when I ventured out to places he couldn’t go. It was a quiet time in Clarksdale but there was of course a blues band, and walls and tables and things for me to write on, as that seemed to be the thing to do. As the club was mostly empty I sat in a table near the front by myself, which apparently got the attention from the singer who wouldn’t stop coming to sit with me during his break. When he got up to sing again someone came over to me and told me I was in the “groupie seat”, when really there just wasn’t anyone else around.
I took Finn back to the club the next day as we explored Clarksdale. As he stood on the front porch of the club we met a man named Mike who asked if I would buy him lunch. Instead I asked him if he would sit on the couch with Finn and take some photos and ended up with some of my all-time favorite photos from Finn’s travels. There Finn stood, on the porch of a weathered Mississippi blues club, with the iconic outdoor ceiling fan of the south in the background, and a man sitting on the couch, cigarette dangling from his fingers, with smoke clouding his face from the camera. That was the ultimate cool dog travel photo for me, with the ultimate cool dog. As often is the case, sometimes you just cannot plan for these moments, they just happen and you have to embrace them when they do.
That evening I made my way down the unmarked dirt road to Po’ Monkeys. The building looked very fragile, like a tinder box ready to burst into flame. But I headed inside unsure of what to expect. And honestly…you would almost have to be there to believe it.
Christmas lights and toy monkeys filled the ceiling, along with a disco ball that made the room spin. There wasn’t blues playing but there was a DJ in the back of the small, one room shack. I sat down at a communal table where I met a couple who bought me a beer and we began talking. They told me how brave I was to come there alone. But I had to. I was so curious about this Delta Juke Joint that had been operating since the 1960s, by the same proprietor, Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry. The joint was known for being integrated from the start, all were welcome there, even during civil unrest.
Seaberry had constructed the shack himself on the plantation he worked on in the 1960s, originally sharecropper’s quarters, made of tin and plywood. It was one of the last rural Juke Joints in operation. Seaberry sat in the middle of the room, his customers sat and took in the scene, a mix of local regulars and curious travelers, black and white, while people approached him like the Godfather.
Not only did I have to go there, I had to meet Po’ Monkey himself, the legendary Willie Seaberry.
That experience will live in my mind forever. There will never be another night at Po’ Monkeys as Willie Seaberry passed away suddenly a few months later and Po’ Monkey’s Lounge ceased operations. But it solidified my relationship with the Blues. A book about the Mississippi Blues with a photo of Po’ Monkey’s on the cover sits on my coffee table now. On my walls are portraits of blues artists, from Muddy Waters to Buddy Guy, that Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones did. And on my shelves, of course, are every book I can get my hands on about the Rolling Stones.
And at Sunday Brunch at my house the blues continues to play in the background. I fell in love with Mississippi on this trip and the relationship only grew from there with more visits to other parts of the state over time. Many years later I would find myself sitting on an Advisory Board in Coastal Mississippi helping them with a rebrand to draw in more visitors. The white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast is a place I had visited with Finn just months before our Clarksdale experience. My relationship with Mississippi and the music that defines it had become very deep. Having grown up almost as far north as you can go in the United States, in a house that once upon a time harbored escaped slaves in the Underground Railroad, one might find this fascination with the Deep South unlikely. I would call it fateful.
Fast forward several years later… after the loss of my beloved dog, Finn, in the spring my mind immediately turned to all the things I would miss about him and how I would soften the blow, one being the fall and how much I had loved our walks thru the colorful woods. I worried about how sad those months would be for me after he was gone. Our last fall together I had savored every chance we had to go for those walks together, deep down knowing they were probably numbered. Finn off leash as he usually was, slowly exploring, sniffing, taking in the sensory overload that fall can be, catching up to me at times, his white frosty paws trotting towards me, with his joyous signature smile. It was my favorite thing in the world. There is a term for the sadness you get right before the fall begins, in the Northern Hemisphere it is when the start of school approaches and summer is coming to an end. It is called the August Blues. With his loss, I was very afraid of the August Blues this first year without him there.
But sometimes in life a small twist of fate steps in when you are least expecting it.
Five days after Finn passed away I received an email from his breeder*. It was one of her typical announcements that she had a litter of puppies and when they would be available. She and I had kept in touch as I delivered updates to her about the most perfect dog she had provided me all those years ago. On this day for some reason I clicked on the email only to find she had a litter of black lab puppies. After all these years I knew she never had black labs, she almost exclusively had yellow. My mind actually started to consider this. I emailed her and delivered the news of Finn’s passing while also inquiring about the puppies. She said she understood if it was too soon for me, but sent me photos of them as I had requested. There were 11 of them, all very uniform in size, unlike Finn’s mixed litter. I thought about it, I reached out to others who had gotten another dog soon after losing their once in forever dog. Everyone I asked said do it, it will be the best way to heal my heart. It was also a pandemic and everyone was staying home. The thought of staying at home alone this sad didn’t appeal to me, not to mention I usually travel for work and no one was traveling now, which never would have allowed me the time to raise a puppy. The universe was sending me a message. So I did it. I felt it was a sign from Finn, and I loved that they would have this connection in having the same beginnings. Plus it was priceless that I wouldn’t have to vet her and she wouldn’t have to vet me, I already knew what I would be getting from one of her dogs. He would be ready to come home in a month, which forced me to not delay the emotional task of cleaning up and packing away some of Finn’s things that I would never use again rather than leave them out as a sad reminder of his absence. I knew I didn’t want to wallow in his death, but rather remain inspired by his life and continue with all that he had taught me. There would only ever be one Finn. This new guy was coming for the continuation, and to create his own legacy. I packed up Finn’s bed and some toys I wanted to save, threw away food and medicine, had my carpets cleaned and my car detailed, and washed everything I could. While my home has always been full of his travel photos, and those will remain, only his collar still hangs on the hook by the door.
So just two days before Fourth of July weekend, one month and one day after I said good bye to Finn I said hello to a new puppy. I drove for two days to Kansas to pick him up, just as I had with Finn. It wasn’t the same joyous occasion it was picking up Finn 13 years earlier. Finn was my first dog, I was over the moon with excitement. With this new guy I was still very much grieving Finn. My first reaction to seeing him was, “he is much smaller than I was expecting.” At 9 lbs he wasn’t the almost 100 lb dog I was used to seeing. Tears streamed down my face as I drove home. I thought about back up plans in case it really was too soon and didn’t work out. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go. But I knew I didn’t want to be sad come the fall taking walks in the woods.
His whole purpose this first year was to prevent me from getting the August Blues, afterall, and I had all summer to work with him. With that idea and my history and love of the blues and that once in a lifetime experience with Finn that made me love Mississippi I named him….
August Blues Bixby, or Gus for short.
The first month was hard. He didn’t know anything but he was very quick to learn. I still cried every day for Finn. But then, about a month in, I realized Gus was exactly what I needed. We began doing things together, like taking hikes in the woods. He was learning to play, learning to fetch, learning to swim, albeit reluctantly. I was warming to him as my #2.
Although very different, he was going to make a good protégé to Finn. We went on his first big roadtrip when he was 3 ½ months old and he did great. I knew he was what I needed. I was now balancing new beginnings with Gus with grieving Finn, though, and will be for a very long time. I took up meditation, tennis and yoga, in that order, over those first few weeks without him to help manage my emotions and channel some energy. I also fulfilled the vow I made to myself to help steward others thru the painful decision of letting your pet go, responding to dozens of people in a support group over the summer who asked “how will I know its time?”
It was a question I had asked myself and others privately as a first time dog owner, and I felt an obligation to share my story and my experience so they knew they weren’t alone and knew what to expect. I also sent out dozens of pet sympathy cards to people going thru the same loss I had just weeks earlier, having realized the importance of acknowledging that loss. Every response drained me emotionally, but it was important to me to help others thru it. But I had Gus now to snap me back into the present tense a dog lives in.
Those walks in the woods when the leaves began to change….those happened, too. I began to take a different route through the woods than the one Finn and I took, to give Gus a chance to not live in the shadow of a giant. I needed those walks, and, as it turns out, I needed a little August Blues to help heal my heart.
Now you see how that one event proposal that never even came to fruition many years ago took me on an unexpected adventure and influenced a journey I would take many years later.
And now you will believe me when I say:
*I am a big believer that there is an experience for everyone when it comes to finding their perfect pet. Whether you adopt from a shelter or adopt from a breeder, get a puppy or adopt a senior, there are enough options to go around. With all options it is very important you vet and ask lots of questions of the place you are getting them from, Always ask for references to ensure a great experience and a long, healthy life with your pet.