It’s A Dog’s Life: Lessons From My Dog Part VI (Don’t Look Back)

Sometimes you just need to get started.

That’s where I find myself these days: broken-brained, busy, and spinning in my tracks. I have all sorts of great ideas peppering my little brain at inconvenient times like halfway through a swim or as I am careening down the highway. As soon as I stop swimming or driving, the flash of brilliance has been overtaken by whatever it is I can’t forget to do or a child with a story to tell or a phone call or text message interrupting my attempt to hold onto my thoughts. Needless to say, I am really, truly brilliant, but you’ll have to just trust me because I can’t remember why.

Ah, life….you prankster.

Today I am stopping the whir for just a minute and compelling myself to slow down, sit in a chair, and show up. To the practice quiet. To calm the frenzied busy-ness in my head. To pause, clear the cobwebs, and set aside the do list. To breathe, long and deep. To finally stop dancing around my laptop as it sits folded closed on my desk and to write no matter how it turns out. To just get started.

Pause. Breathe. Come back to the present.

It can be so hard to stay in the present. We tend to project to the future (planning or looking forward to or setting expectations of what will be) or perseverate backward (replaying past events and conversations, comparing what is with what was (or what we thought it would be)). Both directions can provide useful intel, but dwelling there in the land of should, should have and could have isn’t healthy or productive. This type of thinking tends to be laden with judgy reproach and expectations. Meanwhile, while we are consumed sitting there thinking about it, actual life is passing us on by.

Dogs are masters of living in the moment. Generally speaking, they are known to live in the here and now; they are loyal and honest; they don’t hold grudges; and they love with reckless abandon. Of course, I am chuckling to myself as I write this, because my dog is all of those things except that he has serious FOMO. He looks over his shoulder at what we just passed and I egg him along to join me in the present where, I remind him, walking is a forward motion. He is a miniature reminder and example of what it looks like to live looking over your shoulder and attempting to backtrack: to the dog you just passed but didn’t sniff, or the acorn you wish you had picked up; to live consumed by the narrative of the things you wish you had said, ruminating about how life would be different if only X, projecting forward into the notion that once you get that raise or promotion or title or vacation then you will be happy.

Maybe.

But chasing extraordinary moments in pursuit of happiness is exhausting and often leaves you empty. The extraordinary is this life, right as it is happening now, in tiny little daily moments where you notice. Like when you notice your dog’s imperfections (and your own) and it makes you smile. Not because it’s extraordinary or exceptional – in fact it’s probably the exact opposite – but just because this is it folks. This is all we got.

Don’t get me wrong, there are absolutely forgettable moments. My days are not filled with perpetual delirious happiness, positivity, gratitude and good vibes. Some days I choose to be miffed at the world and some days the world seems to be miffed at me. But often neither lasts too long. I tend to find joy in the mundane, whether by disposition or conscious practice I am not sure. But I know for a fact that there is almost always some miracle of living out there to delight, typically forcing a deep breath and opening up a new perspective.

Dr. Edith Eva Eger, a Holocaust survivor, writes in her profound and moving memoir The Choice: Embrace the Possible, “Many of us experience feeling trapped in our minds. Our thoughts and beliefs determine, and often limit, how we feel, what we do and what we think is possible. I am here to tell you that the worst prison is not the one the Nazis put me in. The worst prison is the one I built for myself.” How can this be, I wonder? She lived through hell, horror and suffering beyond comprehension. She talks about living after with survivor’s guilt and how for a long time she turned her back from her past and (understandably) ran from it.

At some point she realized, though, that no matter how much time she spent beating herself up about the past, about what could have been different if only and why, it would never change.

[I have the choice] “to accept myself as I am: human, imperfect. To be responsible for my own happiness. To forgive my flaws and reclaim my innocence. To finally stop running from the past and do everything possible in my power to redeem it and then let it go. I can make the choice all of us can make. There is a life I can save: it is mine. The one I am living right now, this precious moment.”

Everything is temporary: pain, pleasure; past, future. But, the present, well, you’re always in it.

I’ve asked it before, thanks to poet Mary Oliver, and I’ll ask it again: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Go forth, Warriors. Go forth and breathe into the life you’ve got.

For more from Dr. Eger, check out her podcast with Brene Brown on my * Podcasts, Articles, Books, & Websites page.

Utterly Imperfect

I think the pandemic might have broken me.

I have been spending way too much time doom scrolling – the daily COVID case counts barely register anymore amidst all the horrible there is out there to discover. That’s fixable, at least, once it’s been identified. It’s common enough knowledge that human brains are wired with a negativity bias. We just lap that negativity up and tend to remember the negative over the positive. It’s a psychological thing. Google it if you don’t believe me. You can podcast it in many forms as well (click here for one!).

Needless to say, being hardwired toward negativity plus endless access to truly grim news means that essentially every time I open my laptop to write a new blog post I end up “just one more click”-ing myself into oblivion and never actually accomplishing a darn thing. And then it’s time to make breakfast (or sometimes lunch) and then my me time is O.V.E.R.

But I’m back! TODAY is the day! I figured out I was in this unfortunate cycle and am righting the ship and re-prioritizing my time. I have put an end to the doom scrolling and re-committed to putting the screens away earlier in the evening to preserve time before sleep to read an actual, held-in-my-hands book. Lo and behold, it works! Here I am writing again and getting back to what counts. I just updated my blog Resources pages and added a Happy Healthy Kids page. Hello world!

Don’t get me wrong, summer is also just wrapping up so I was a little pre-occupied with squeezing the freaking marrow out of this LIFE. Except it also rained a lot (wettest July on record – lucky us!) or was otherwise 95 degrees with 85% humid and truly, honestly, totally disgusting outside much of time. I may have started to mold, but then again I also didn’t need to water my plants much so there’s that.

It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.

Henry david thoreau

One thing I discovered over these last several months is that I seem to have left the feeling parts of my brain somewhere back in the spring of 2020 and now live in this strange numb-ish state – like I am sitting on the shore observing from a distance as my active self/life floats by down the river. It appears that the pandemic and all the endless foreboding desensitized me in some way so that what was once a heightened sense of grief or anxiety is now toned down a little. My scientific evidence?: I did a high ropes course with my kids this summer that we had done a couple pre-pandemic summers ago as well. I used to be downright shaking and sweaty-palm scared. I had planned not to participate this time, in fact, knowing how much I hated how it made me feel last time. But that seemed like a lame example coming from a mom who’s always saying things like, “we have to face our fears!”, “lean into the uncomfortable!”, “you only need to be brave for 10 seconds.” So I harnessed up and off we went to the treetops. Same circumstances, same heights, same equipment, same course, same me. Except that I was totally calm. I didn’t dread the bounce in the middle of the tight rope walk. I threw myself off the platform on the zip lines. I just kept moving forward. Sure, I was roped in and checked my gear appropriately, but I wasn’t stuck thinking on the platform. My brain is simply not as reactionary as it was before the pandemic. So that’s good.

However, it’s quite possible that this past summer I also didn’t have the correct date to pick my child up from sleepaway camp. And perhaps I planned a short getaway for my husband and I while the kids were away? To my credit (but really thanks to a friend’s super helpful intel a week before camp started), I figured out that said sleepaway camp was only 3 nights, not the 5 I had planned for in my head. Which meant that if I was in Rhode Island on my child’s third day of camp I would also not be in New Hampshire on what was not only the third but also the last day of camp (hypothetically speaking, of course). That was problematic. Did I mention it’s been a strange time?

Never fear, it ALL worked out. Everyone was retrieved at the right time and in the right place. But, seriously? Never in my prior life would I have imagined coming close to doing such a thing. I pride myself on my organization skills. DAMN. In my defense, I mean, the plans we had for like a year prior never really happened so I just kind of stopped paying too much attention to dates. I didn’t honestly believe the kids would actually GO to camp, so why worry about when they would come home?

Needless to say, I seem to have let go a little, both of control and of schedule (and perhaps orientation to time – maybe that one I want to get back). This pandemic period has taught me all about being imperfect. It’s an honest state of being human. Do your best, always strive to do well by yourself and others, but being perfect is so overrated (that’s the title of my forthcoming, yet-to-be-written book since I am, after all, an imperfection expert). It’s not such a bad thing (I mean, assuming all children are returned to their rightful homes safely and in a timely fashion, of course). Embrace it. Own it. Help others out. Tone down the judgey. We are ALL human, we are all imperfect.

Take a deep breath. We are on this planet, in this life, together.

Update: This Adam Grant article and podcast sheds some light on all the pandemicky feels:

“Adam wrote a viral article for The New York Times on a feeling many of us are struggling with right now. It’s somewhere between burnout and depression: languishing. This neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus—and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021. This article originally appeared in The New York Times on April 19, 2021, with the headline, ‘There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing’. ” Check out the podcast here and other good ones like it here!

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog V (From the Dog II)

Hi everyone,

It’s Tucker the schnoodle here again, back by special request from my little hoomans. They like what I have to say. They say I am a 300 IQ doggie, whatever that means.

I feel like I covered the basics in my first post but I’ve grown up a lot since then – I am now almost 16 pounds of sheer muscle and love – and have experienced spring for the first time so, yea, I suppose I have a few thoughts to share. Mostly, my ethos can be summed up by these three ideas some smartie put on the internet:

First off, WOW, just wow, about the nature that surrounds us! I have never seen so many chipmunks and squirrels and bunnies and birds! Such delight. Dead or alive, my investigation skills are fully activated. Sometimes I pick up what I find – dead squirrel, bird wing, hopping frog, beetle in the grass – you name it, I have picked it up. That causes much consternation. I would like to say that I learned my lesson, but being a dog I guess I bet I’ll do it again if I am given the chance. Life is short.

Sometimes I get so excited by all the smells during my investigations that I snort like a pig searching for truffles. Boy, that makes the hoomans laugh and laugh. I look at them with disdain – they can be so immature and undignified. Very un-schnoodle-like.

Lately I have added a new member to my pack – my Grammy! Actually, it’s a whole collection of new friends. My main hooman puts me in the car and we Go for a Ride and then we get out at this new place, which, it turns out, is where my Grammy lives! In my whole life I had only met her once and I was so busy trying to eat all the stuff on the ground outside that I barely noticed her. Now, though, we get to go inside and I think pretty much everyone there loves me. All the way down the hall I hear, “Tucker!” or “Tucker’s here!” They want to take pictures with me and give me pets. Sometimes there are dance parties and I participate. One friend likes to walk me and I let him. They all seem to feel really good when I am there. I think there’s some unspoken language of fur that happens between us. I am not sure of exactly what it is, but I feel like this is an important job. I do excel when I have a job. I may have found my people.

I have gone enough now that I know exactly where my Grammy’s room is and am not even scared of riding the elevator anymore. A little secret, though, just between us? I don’t think my Grammy likes me very much. I get this vibe that she prefers her stuffed dog to me. Never fear, I’ll keep trying, but I get the distinct impression that my kisses are not so welcome. It makes me want to try harder, of course, and some days are better than others. Isn’t that life?

I’ve also noticed that my main hooman is much better on our walks. She doesn’t hold my leash nearly as tight as she did after I got attacked. I mean, I can tell she gets nervous when other dogs are off-leash and come running up to us. I bark extra for those meetings, which she really does not seem to like at all. She tells me, “Read the room, Tucker!”, but just like with my Grammy, I’ll keep trying. Persistence is the name of the game. My main goal is to protect my hoomans. And dispense love. And eat the odd dead thing I find in the road. It’s that simple.

Finding Sanctuary

For years after having kids and while taking care of my mom, I had to modify what I thought my life was supposed to be to accommodate what it actually was. I spent far too long trying to shove the round peg that is me into the square hole that was my expectations of myself. Life intervened. Lessons were learned (painfully).

Eventually I let go of some things and I adapted. I left the working world and focused more on my family and my health. It was disorienting and I was consumed by guilt and grief because I wasn’t living the identity I had constructed for myself of being a “working mom.” A paycheck validated my worth and provided confirmation that I was contributing substantively to the world, as sad as that is to acknowledge. Without it, and without a title, I felt diminished and like my tether to and meaning in the broader world had shrunk. My life was fully in the service of others, consumed with sports schedules and camp sign ups, meal planning and doctors appointments. I craved purpose and passion. I got dirty diapers and dishes.

All moms are working moms.

a dear friend pulling me out of the abyss

I couldn’t accept for a while that this was a point in time, a temporary passage and where I needed to be for then, but not forever. I felt like I couldn’t hack it (and of course I assumed as I looked around that everyone else could and was doing “it” better than I was). What was “it,” you might ask? I am not even sure. Life? Work? Or, better, that most elusive work/life balance? My go-to mentality when I am up against a wall is that I must not be trying hard enough. But I couldn’t get out of my own way, and as most people eventually realize walls are pretty solid things. I remember reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and wanting to chuck it against the wall after the 13th page because what she prescribed was to sit with my discontent, essentially, and what I wanted was a to-do list to fix it.

When the pace of life and the noise in your head gets to be too much, where do you find sanctuary? For me, there’s nothing like the smell of warm pine needles on a forest floor, the lapping of lake water against an evergreen shoreline, a boulder-strewn mountain rising in the distance, the stillness of sitting quietly by a pond. No cellphones, no crowds, no distractions. With headspace I can reorient and find my center again.

But for the longest time when my kids were young, I couldn’t travel. The place I dreamed of, Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine, was simply too far away and my life was too busy and too consumed by caring for others for me to disappear into the wilderness. Eventually I would institute an annual pilgrimage to Katahdin, but what about all the time in between? I learned to seek elements of Maine closer to home, and to find stability and happiness within. This is what Pema Chodron teaches, but it took me a while to accept it. It’s still a work in progress. I still get wound up like a top and overwhelmed by life. I still am my own harshest critic. But I find my center by carving out time for exercise; laughing with good friends (always reliable for grounding); being curious and just saying yes! to something new sometimes; taking a walk in my suburban wilderness (often now with my dog); and delighting in the little things like a crisp blue sky, flowers, or a box of cookies arriving in the mail. These are highly recommended life hacks for moms and for everyone else who might feel like life is directing them versus the other way around.

Yesterday I was reminded, spectacularly, about the power of finding sanctuary, be that a mountain vista or a more traditional place of worship. At the end of a tour of historic properties in a small, central Massachusetts mill town, our tour guide invited us to see the interior of one of the local churches. As you might guess, I am more of a nature-than-built-environment-as-sanctuary kind of person, but I am also curious. We walked through a dark entry foyer, nothing of note. But as the door to the sanctuary opened, it was a like a curtain that had veiled and protected my heart through this long, challenging year of isolation, lowering expectations, and gracefully accepting our lot was swept aside. This sanctuary of towering ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate carvings forced a long, deep inhale. This church, modest in presentation from the outside and unexpectedly, stunningly beautiful on the inside, restored part of me that I didn’t even know was missing. It jolted awake a part of my brain that I hadn’t quite even realized was dormant. It reminded me of all the beauty there is in the world, and that you often don’t have to go very far to find it. There are unexpected treasures everywhere, if we are willing to stretch ourselves, be open-minded, and pull open the door to see it.

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part IV (Friendship, Community, and Humanity)

Virtue, tolerance, compassion, and kindness are, unequivocally, alive and well. It may not seem that way at times, but “the better angels of our nature” are on display much more often than not, especially in small moments and daily (even limited by COVID) interactions. There is plenty of headline-grabbing nonsense and legitimate worry about an abundant proclivity to act on our most basic instincts. There’s certainly much to unpack about human psychology and group think, demagoguery, isolation, and desperation. But there are also acts of unparalleled humanity, courage, love, and, fundamentally, connection, to celebrate.

“Emotional literacy is the foundation of resilience, empathy…connection. We are hard-wired for connection and, in the absence of it, there seems to always be suffering.”

Brene Brown

To keep with the dog theme, I’ll start with an example from the night Tucker was injured. As I scrambled to get him to the ER, I sent a quick text to two of his puppy friends (okay, their owners) to let them know what had happened since we had tentative plans to meet for a walk. The response wasn’t just “Oh my gosh, how awful” or even “how can I help,” but instead “I will add extra to the meal I am making for my family and deliver it to yours so you don’t have to worry about dinner” and “I will come sit with you at the vet so you aren’t alone.”

I ended up waiting at the ER for about four hours – there are LOTS of dogs these days and a correlating increase in incidents from dog parks gone wild (plus, I mean, COVID is the answer for any slowdown or SNAFU, isn’t it?). During that time, my family was treated to a homemade meal (not of my making – the best kind!) and I had a friend to help me process what the vet was saying and to remind me to eat something myself. When thanked for their help, both said “of course, that’s just what people do.” And I think that’s exactly right, actually. Generally, that is what people do. And it’s awesome.

Then there was December, a blur of a month at the best of times, which these most assuredly are not. This December was a season of too much loss and too many tears. Through it all I kept coming back to the simultaneous outpouring of compassion and love. Both/and.

During one week in December three friends lost loved ones (only one from COVID, a reminder that people are still suffering life-altering losses and then there is also COVID). COVID-19 – whether the cause of death or not – has turned all norms of grieving upside down with distance and masks and the migraine-inducing nightmare of holding back hugs when that is all anyone wants – and needs.

That awkward restraint notwithstanding, my breath caught at the lump in my throat seeing how people showed up, again and again and in so many ways, for those grieving. In one case, my friend organized a short ceremony outside at a cemetery. It was a frigid mid-winter weekday afternoon in the middle of a pandemic. But when I turned onto the cemetery drive I saw a long line of cars that I recognized, all loaded with friends and neighbors, individuals and full families, who came to pay their respects and show their support. When the bereaved family arrived, people slowly emerged from their vehicles and walked quietly up the frozen, grassy hill to gather around the casket. We represented multiple faiths, many cultures and different backgrounds – and we stood on that blustery hillside, spread at a distance, but together as a community, to honor the passing of our neighbor and friend, to support his family, and to show love despite and because of everything. The officiant noted that as human beings we have our differences and we don’t always agree, but we can all agree that death is inevitable, and we all walk this earth not knowing when the end will be just that it will come. There is unity in this fundamental humanity.

If you choose to peek around the formidable walls constructed by sadness, distance, difficulty, difference, and loss, you will discover some of the purest forms of community, commonality, compassion, and connection. These are where unity and humanity reside. It is from here that we rise up and hold each other up and together. Be curious and kind. Seek the good that emerges from difficulty. Our humanity is in tact. Love wins.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

amanda gorman – the hill we climb

To understand more about what makes us tick emotionally, here is a great podcast: Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda and Brene Brown (on emotional literacy , empathy, courage, and where they come from).

“Empathy is with someone, sympathy is for someone from over here.”

-Alan Alda and Brene Brown podcast conversation
In honor of my friend Ali

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part III (From the Dog)

Tucker here. I am the small Schnoodle that is the subject of much recent kerfuffle. Today I am your guest blogger, here to tell you about this dog’s life from my perspective.

Simply put, every day is JOY! That’s who I am and the spirit I live by. I look like a living teddy bear, for starters, but it’s also what I am all about – snow! food! friends! walks! my hoomans! My hooman thinks sooooo much – maybe too much? Me? I can distill life down to the essentials with me as the only fluff.

Here’s an overview of my day:

I wake each morning refreshed and ready to greet the day. I wiggle and wag at the Return of the Hoomans.

Before I do anything else, I enjoy a nice, long, delicious stretch. Downward dog….upward dog…maybe one more down dog before I sit for pets. That’s kind of the routine.

After that, I race down the stairs to the back door because it is OUTSIDE TIME. My hooman puts on my leash and I shake and shimmy and whine while they put on their shoes because it’s all so exciting anticipating the Opening of the Door!

As we walk around the block I literally smell the roses (and the leaf pile and the prior dog’s pee – the details are irrelevant. I sniff it all and enjoy myself tremendously).

When we are walking my main hooman is always saying, “Let’s go!” and “Come on, Tucker.” I wonder where we are racing off to and what’s the rush? Everything seems perfect to me – my hooman, fresh air, good smells. I’d never actually say, “Slow your roll, hooman” – that would be rude – but I attempt to train them better by locking my legs and focusing super hard on my sniffs so they have to chillax and take it down a notch.

Tucker the Schnoodle

When we get home, we EAT! Sometimes I need a nap first, sometimes I eat right away. I like to mix it up.

Sometime in the morning we usually go for a nice, long walk with my friends. We jump all over each other in greeting every time because yesterday – or even an hour – can feel like a very looooong time ago. And also because we live so much in the moment that every new moment is the BEST. Besides it is just so exciting to Meet the Friends. I don’t understand why hoomans refrain from showing such enthusiasm for their friends and curtail their jumping. Friends are important.

When I see my friends down the street I race as fast as possible, Chariots of Fire theme song a-blazing in my head, unbridled joy and love propelling me forward. My hooman gets her exercise, too, because she is always tethered to the other end of my leash. Joy and exercise for all!

tucker the schnoodle

Mind you, I would gladly run free, but I have been known to get a little carried away and forget to come back when called. Guys, there are SO MANY smells out there and the world is so much fun to explore that I just can’t stop! So leash walking it is. My hoomans say they’ve learned their lesson, whatever that means. I figure time will tell.

Usually during the Big Walk I find one special stick to bring home. It’s a big job, and I am a proud prancing poodle the whole way back.

After the Big Walk, I sleep. Beauty rest is important and also a lot of fun. My main hooman says things like “you look like the kind of dog that gets beat up” and “you better watch your back – you would be a delectable snack” but she’s from Philadelphia so, meh, what do you expect? Folks from the City of “Brotherly Love” have a weird sense of humor.

Speaking of getting beat up, the day I was attacked was such a surprise. I just wanted to be friends. With those dogs. With other dogs. With everyone. I did a good job loving the vets when my hooman took me to the ER. They gave me big hugs. Now I make sure that everyone knows I am out here waiting to be loved by barking my biggest, bestest barks and alerting the neighborhood to my joyful presence. I won’t make that mistake twice. Smart, right?

What else? OH! How could I forget Backyard Time and Riding in the Car?!? Anytime someone opens the door to the backyard, I race out to investigate any potentially nefarious activity in my domain by checking the perimeters and practicing my barking. I also love romping off leash, especially with my hoomans and my friends. Riding in the Car can be a little scary getting IN that big, loud, strange-smelling thing, but once settled I stick my schnoodle schnoz out the window – oh! the sensory stimulation – and thrill at the adventure.

Have I mentioned that I have these hoomans wrapped around my little paws? Yea, it’s mutual. I dig them too. Loyalty, unconditional love, and pure joy are my main game.

I could say more, but there is a squirrel on the fence, so I must go. If my schedule allows, I’ll come back another time. But, basically, it boils down to this: live in the moment, find and jump for joy daily, don’t hold on to hard feelings, friends are important, get your exercise, play, eat, and sleep. That about covers it. Oh, and take a deep breath and drink some water. It can’t hurt.

Pro tip: water tastes way better in a random plastic dish outside or from the pond than that boring stuff the hoomans procure from the sink and put in my bowl in the kitchen. Or maybe that’s just me?

My philosophy on life.

It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part II (Heel!!! Or Heal?)

My dog is okay now. He is back to bouncing around the backyard like a pinball and leaping and jumping for joy. We went to the vet 5 or 6 times during his convalescence for various issues that arose. He received stiches, two courses of antibiotics, two pain medications maxxed to the highest doses allowable, and laid low wearing the cone of shame for two weeks. It was ruff. But he has healed. Physically. Mentally, the jury is still out.

After the attack, I knew he would have some trauma and anxiety to work through. What I didn’t expect is that I may be in worse shape! And I have been noticing that I am prone to avoiding dealing with it. As in, in general, avoiding things that make me uncomfortable. In this case, I attempt to avoid other dogs like the plague. My dog? He just barks his head off. Meanwhile, I am cringing and telling him in the not-so-gentlest of tones to stop it. Stop it. STOP IT. Why must he call more attention to us?

I started working with a dog trainer to help get us through this period. I called her in to help me get his barking under control. We have spent a lot of time working on “heel,” helping him to understand that his job is to stay focused on my leg and to follow me wherever I might lead. He doesn’t need to worry about the dog up the path or the squirrel in the bushes. Just focus on my leg and let me lead.

For my part, I need to be a competent leader. As we walk, the trainer honestly spends more time working on me than my dog. She tells me, “Relax. Loosen your grip on the leash. Stand up tall. Breathe.” And she keeps saying it. Over and over again. I can’t be cowering in the corner and high tailing it in the opposite direction every time I see another dog and expecting my dog to “just relax.” I recognize now that it doesn’t exactly set the right tone when I see a dog up the trail and say, “Oh, God. Here comes another dog.” At first I didn’t even consciously hear myself saying it. But even if that message wasn’t said outloud – which it has been – it was definitely the energy I was presenting with. Everything out there for a while felt like a threat. And whatever I feel translates right down the leash to my poor pup, who is looking for reassurance from me.

These days, we actively seek out other dogs on our walks so we can practice. I would have preferred to stay in the backyard or choose a quiet, untrod path. My favorite walks, by far, remain those when we run into no one. The dog trainer tells me I need to breathe and relax and face it.

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I’ve heard these messages before. I’ve practiced a lot with facing my fears. I see a therapist every few weeks, I’ve taken meditation classes, listened to podcasts. And I keep forgetting. Or, more, I am who I am and I go back to my basic instincts. And, then, THEN, all the work kicks in and I notice the feelings and the narrative. And that means I can pull it back. Then I remember that I have to face into the fire to extinguish it, not run the other way. Pema Chodron explains it so well in her talk “Getting Unstuck: Fear and Fearlessness.” Writing this post was a great reminder to watch it again. “It’s a process of being here all along, not just when we like how it’s going. Instead of that making you more self-absorbed, it makes you very decent, very sane, and very open to the world and other people.”

Every time I hear myself say “heel” to my dog, in my mind I think “heal.”

Life keeps on giving us opportunity to practice. Keep facing into it and keep going.

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It’s a Dog’s Life: Lessons from My Dog Part I (Setting the Scene)

We walked home, my cellphone clamped between my cheek and my shoulder, my dog upside down like a baby in my arms, unable to walk from the bite wound. Cars whooshed past during the more modest but no less loud flow of quarantine rush hour as I waited for the vet to pick up while admonishing myself not to panic. “It helps no one if you lose it. Do not cry.”

When the vet answered, I explained what had happened. “You need to go directly to an emergency vet if he needs stiches. Did the other dogs have their rabies vaccinations?”

“Uh, I don’t know. I didn’t think to ask.”

“You need to find out. You both need rabies shots if you have open wounds.”

The enormity of the situation pawed its way through the fog and settled in. With moderate success, I instructed myself to take a deep breath to try to quell the out-of-control-coupled-with-a-strong-desire-to-crawl-into-a-hole sensation that was rising in my chest.

When I got home, I tiptoed up the stairs to find my husband, hoping to avoid drawing any attention from our kids before we had a plan. In whispers I described the surprise attack, showed him our wounds. “I think I need to take him to the ER?”

I said this as a question, almost imploring him to disagree with me. As someone who works with anxiety all the time I was open to the possibility that I could be overreacting, that maybe a gaping hole on the underside of our dog’s belly was not in fact something to worry about. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “the only easy day was yesterday” is the type of Navy ethos I was raised with. Which is a wild mindset to run smack into an anxious being, where the gray area between a real crisis and an anxiety-provoked one can be difficult to decipher. I know from experience that my gut instinct is actually pretty accurate, but I always do this little dance of second-guessing myself wondering if I should tough it out just a little longer.

It was late afternoon by this point. Having pulled multiple all nighters in the pediatric ER with a sick kid, I’ve learned to just go before it gets dark and all remaining rational thought goes out the window as fatigue sweeps in. The sooner you go, the sooner you get to go to bed.

Sure enough, once our dog was in the vet’s arms, I felt my shoulders drop from their alert perch near my ears as relief washed over me. That’s when the uncontrollable shaking started. Through chattering teeth I confessed to a friend over the phone that I couldn’t stop shaking. “That’s just the adrenaline leaving your body. It’s normal.”

Oh.

I had always thought when I got the shivers and shakes that it was a weakness, that I wasn’t tough enough, that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t just keep it together. I should know by now that what I perceive to be my unique oddities are very rarely only mine. A nearly decade-old memory of a dimly-lit, brick-walled classroom at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine surfaced. All of us patients were sitting in a circle with our eyes closed as the teacher led a guided meditation. I was rolling my eyes behind my shut eyelids, bracing myself against the “woo-woo” territory we were entering.

“You are walking down a path through a forest. There is a tree in the distance. Walk over to it. The tree is you.”

Silence (apart from my internal groaning).

“Ask the tree for guidance on a character trait you need help fixing.”

I could barely contain my snark. BUT, I had chosen to take this class to explore every avenue I could to alleviate my RA symptoms. AND I was in this room with all these other people so I felt committed to do what was asked (or at least to not be rude). I kept my eyes closed, looked at the oak tree standing tall and sideways (oddly), and asked it the question as instructed. Out of nowhere – I swear – a voice said “self-doubt.” Woah. That is spot on, but I had never really thought of it.

The room remained silent, everyone was still, but the rush of blood in my ears picked up in intensity along with the pace of my breathing. The teacher instructed, “Now ask the tree how best you can heal.” Again, this voice, intoned, “Love yourself more.”

The root cause of every damn thing that gets in my way is doubting myself. What a novel idea to treat myself with the same latitude and compassion that I give others, to stop assuming that I am in some way to blame when something – anything – goes wrong.

As I sat there at the vet I realized two things: one, clearly I still have work to do. But, two, I noticed in real time the negative messaging and suffering I levy upon myself. I noticed the flood of could have, should have, if only you had narratives that began to consume me as the adrenaline ebbed away, as if I could have controlled what happened, as if any of us can control anything more than our response to what happens to us. And those were awesome catches – historic, life-changing catches. I may be my own harshest critic. And I may be pre-programmed toward self-judgment, writing nasty headlines and elaborate stories in my head about my imperfections and inadequacies. But if I can insert awareness to those moments then, well, then we are getting somewhere. I know I am not the only person who faces these challenges. This was a major oxygen mask moment. Breathe.

To be continued….