Thursday, May 03, 2018

REMEMBERING PIRATE

A dog named Pirate died in Calgary on April 20 2018. He died a peaceful death with medical assistance. You may have known him by another name and longed for his return. If so, we want you to know that he lived a good life, all things considered. His death will be mourned by many people who encountered him in the course of his life’s journey. One of them is me. Pirate was a lucky dog, lucky in a context of hope, which is to say that a considerable number of bad things happened around him and somehow he managed to move forward with his own special blend of forbearance and enthusiasm. If he had a motto, a code to live by, I believe it would have been: “Seize the day and love the one you’re with.” Pirate was a white dog, a white dog with some brown. According to veterinary estimation, he was born some time in 2003, Part Shih Tzu, part terrier. He was a small, one-eyed curly-tailed creature whose complete life history has thus far been shrouded in mystery. We can trace it with certainty back to an August day in 2005 when Maxine Thompson of Lougheed Alberta noticed him wandering around Main Street, searching for a lover, or a friendly human. We’ll never know which it was, possibly both. He wore a tattered leather collar that bore no identification. His mud-caked hair hung low off his belly and drooped over his face. Maxine, recognizing a probable resemblance to a well-groomed Shih Tzu belonging to my father, asked Dad to take charge of his care. She promised she would find him a home if his owner had not been identified by the time she returned from an impending vacation. Thus my father began a process of bathing and trimming and ratty old collar disposal that eventually revealed a dog much life his own, except for the missing eye and the fully functioning proof of manhood. It also became obvious that, at some previous point, this dog had both learned to love humans and to build good relationships with them. Two weeks passed with no person stepping forward to make a claim. My father’s dog and his new playmate became fast friends. Maxine was still enjoying her vacation. Dad was rapidly taking on the mantle of a two-dog man, a man in serious danger of keeping two dogs when he needed only one. So he decided to give the dog to David and me “You need a dog,” he said. “Here is a free dog. He’s even house-trained.” Dad was right about one thing. He was, in fact, house-trained. Together on separate journeys, we and Pirate were to learn that there is no such thing as a free dog. We welcomed the dog into our Edmonton home with a brief tour that included a visit to the food bowl. Almost immediately new responsibilities began to emerge. The first was to give him a name to which he could answer if he should somehow escape from our unfenced yard. The second job was to build a fence, seeing as how he escaped from our yard at the first opportunity, and every subsequent opportunity, claiming our entire neighbourhood and the adjoining river valley park as his own. The third job was to find a veterinarian who could reduce his sexual longings and possibly his need to wander, vaccinate him against all forms of pestilence and advise on what should be done with the empty eye socket. David suggested that we call him Pirate. It seemed a good fit for a one-eyed wanderer who’d been living rough. Pirate thought so too. It only took him a day to get used to coming when we called him for a treat or a walk. Building a fence took a little longer. With considerable assistance from two sons and a neighbour, David fashioned a smart white picket fence enhancing the front exposure of our colonial-style home. A Caragana hedge provided protection at the side. The vet vaccinated Pirate against multiple threats, then performed four surgeries for which Pirate was not entirely grateful, one to eliminate the lust for fatherhood, one to clear the eye-socket of debris, and two more eye surgeries to clear debris that stubbornly remained. By the time he’d been with us for a month, we estimated the cost of our “free dog” at approximately $3,000, not including food. Nevertheless, Pirate continued to pursue the idea of being a free dog. From the very start, he consistently showed us two things. The first was that he loved us. The second was that he was committed to living a life befitting his new name. He showed his love by welcoming us home joyously whenever we returned from work, allowing us to pet him when he wasn’t busy, promoting our physical and mental health by insisting on daily walks regardless of the weather, and encouraging us to experience generosity by giving him unlimited treats. He established his reputation for piracy by claiming his right to free himself from bondage by any available means. There seemed no end to the methods he used to assert his freedom. In the days before the fence, he simply declined to observe the yard boundary. When we attached him to a chain, he paced up and down the veranda steps until the chain lodged in the cracks between the boards, then insisted that we free him immediately. When we replaced the chain with a rope, he spent ninety peaceful minutes chewing the rope into six-inch lengths, thereby rendering that rope ineligible for further employment. And when the fence was at last established, he dug a hole between the stocks of the tcaragana hedge and had already found some stinking dead thing to role in by the time his skulduggery was discovered. Yet it seemed that Pirate did not want to be free so much as he wanted to believe that he could be free if he chose to be. One night I heard him barking, so I went to the door to call him in. The louder I called, the louder he barked. At last, rushing barefoot into the yard to retrieve him, I found him on the outside of the front gate, demanding to know why it had taken me so long to open the gate so that he could come in for a treat to reward him for coming back instead of making us search for him. “Why didn’t you come back via the route through which you escaped?” I asked, while opening the treat bag. “The escape route only goes one way,” he replied. “Don’t you worry that you’ll be lost and uncared-for like you were when Maxine found you?” I asked. “Don’t you worry that you’ll be hit by a car when you’re wandering the streets?” “No,” he replied. “Why would I worry? I do okay, don’t I?” “You’re counting on luck,” I retorted. Indeed, he was a lucky dog. When we lost him in the park, a neighbour recognized him and brought him back to us. When a cat threatened to scratch out his other eye, he managed to negotiate a peaceful settlement. When I was hit by a car while holding his leash, he avoided being run over. Pirate was a digger. On the days when he wasn’t trying to escape, he dug holes for reasons we could not always understand. The second time he dug a hole in the middle of the lawn, we informed him that he simply had to change—or else. Or else what, we wondered when we saw evidence of the third lawn digging. Faced with Pirate’s reluctance to change his behavior, I e-mailed a letter of inquiry to an expert. “How can we convince our dog to stop digging holes?” The response was prompt and matter-of fact. “Terriers dig,” said the expert. “Get over it. Give him toys to play with, establish places where he is allowed to dig, and treat him so well that he won’t want to escape.” We bought more toys and considered ways to treat him better. “You can dig behind the pink peony,” I told Pirate, while dusting myself off after the first time I fell into the hole he had secretly dug behind the pink peony. “Thank you,” he said, failing to mention the new hole he had already dug behind the white peony. He’d buried a toy back there and apparently needed to dig it up. “You might as well dig behind the red peony too,” I said a few days later. So he did. Then he went back to digging under the hedge. The sons who had built the white picket fence unfurled a role of chicken wire which they installed amongst the stocks of the hedge. Digging under the chicken wire took longer than digging through the hedge alone. We considered this to be a victory. As the expert had told us, terriers dig. He was a dog who never failed to answer when opportunity barked. When a big scary canine would pass by the front gate he would tear across the yard at top speed, furious and threatening things he would do if only that gate weren’t there to protect the interloper. We never had to go home early to let him out because he could control his bodily functions for 12 or 14 hours. But if we returned home after a fifteen minute outing, it would be absolutely necessary that he should go out. He could manage fine in a daytime thunderstorm, but thunder in the night would catapult him trembling into the space between us in our bed, issuing a challenge. “are you the kind of unfeeling people who would force a frightened dog to sleep alone in the rockingchair?” If our mother had died, or our father, or our sister, if we were recovering after cancer surgery, or nursing a broken foot or a broken arm, he would nuzzle us sympatheticly for a few minutes, then invite us to move past the pain by taking him for a walk. Though his digging made us think of him as a terrier, he was only part terrier. Another part of him was Shih Tzu. Shih Tzus are known to be serially loyal, meaning that they attach easily to humans, then reattach to new humans just as easily. Knowing this, and knowing that he had once been known by some other name, I guess there was always some part of me fearing that a previous owner would come forward and claim him. After all, someone had taught him to love humans and to empty his bowels and bladder in appropriate places. This fear was repeatedly tested during more than 3000 walks in the 10 years we spent together. We walked in an off-leash dog park where people were constantly calling their dogs by name. I couldn’t help but wonder what Pirate was called before we named him Pirate. It seemed inevitable that one day, someone would shout; “Here Herbert!” or “Here Rover!” Then Pirate, recalling his past, would run to this person, tail wagging. So it didn’t seem all that surprising when, in the eighth year, a stranger walking toward us in the park said, “Is that Gracey?” I was speechless. “Pardon me?” said David. “Is that gracey?” “No,” said David. “It’s Pirate.” “It looks like Gracey,” said the man. “But maybe it isn’t.” Then he continued on his walk. I wondered if he was on his way to the police station to report a dog theft. “Are you Gracie?” I whispered fearfully to Pirate when we got home. “Please don’t be Gracey.” Pirate didn’t answer. If he was Gracey, he wasn’t letting on. That night I went to bed wondering what would happen if Pirate turned out to be Gracey. I needn’t have worried. He wasn’t Gracey. We were assured of this a few days later when, on another walk in the park, we came face to face with the real Gracey. There she was, a little white dog with brown markings, curly tailed, one-eyed, a mirror image of Pirate. Facing each other their good eyes met and so did their missing eyes. Apparently it’s not all that uncommon for Shih Tzus to be missing an eye. It has to do with the structure of their faces. Pirate may not have lost his eye in a fight as we had originally suspected. It might simply have fallen out. Serially loyal dogs like you better than other people during the time when they live with you. Pirate liked most people well enough, and some especially well. One of his favourites was Wayne, who lived in Calgary and was married to David’s sister Lorna. Wayne liked to take Pirate for walks when he was visiting us. Perhaps every stage of life is a stage of transition. Pirate was around during times of letting go, of giving up beloved patterns and future plans we didn’t even know we had until suddenly they were derailed. But while we agonized over the changes, he went forward, seemingly unflappable. Pirate’s ability to transfer loyalty served him well. His attraction to Wayne proved to be a lucky attachment. David developed disabilities that forced us to move from the colonial home with the smart white picket fence and the reinforced Caragana hedge. What were we to do with Pirate? “Wayne needs a dog to walk with,” said Lorna. “We’ll take Pirate.” Grateful as we were that he had a new home to go to, we couldn’t hide our tears when Wayne and Lorna loaded their van with Pirates toys and moved him to Calgary. I last saw Pirate a couple of years ago, on a brief visit with Lorna and Wayne in Calgary. He greeted me with pleasure, jumped into my lap for a five-minute pet, then ran upstairs to crawl into bed with Wayne. He and Wayne were still together there when I left the next morning. The switch of allegiance was complete. Given that I couldn’t keep him, I had to love him for that. Pirate was with Lorna when he died, having transferred his loyalty to her. He would have stuck with Wayne, but Wayne had become ill. He had moved to a care centre. In the process of dealing with Wayne’s illness, they’d exchanged their home for an unfenced retirement duplex. Unable to build a fence, Lorna developed the habit of walking Pirate several times a day. This is how they lived until a series of seizures rendered him unable to stand without falling. “I’m sorry you had to deal with Pirate during such a difficult time,’ I said to Lorna when she told us that he was gone. “Oh, don’t be sorry,” she replied. “I miss him. I get home from visiting wayne and he isn’t there to greet me.” David and I know how she feels. We miss him too, though in a different way. We miss the petting sessions and the snuggles and the endless toy tugging competitions that Pirate always won. But beyond that, we miss the life we had when Pirate first came to us, a life where the future promised an untapped reservoir of good things and we had the freedom to say: “Sure we’ll take that dog.” If he could give us advice at this point, I feel certain he would say: “Look around you, see what you have, make the most of it and move on when you need to.” This we have tried our best to do. Somewhere out there we suspect there is a person who once lost a friendly little white diggedy dog, a dog with brown patches who dreamed of being free. We don’t know what your life was like, or how you came to lose him. But if you are that person, or any other person who loved Pirate, we are truly sorry for your loss.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

BACON DAY

On Bacon Day in long-term care Murphy nudges his wheelchair speed a notch above permissible Monica summons the breath to whisper: “Crispy!” Minnie shouts: “More bacon!” In a voice she might have used for “Fire!” On Bacon Day in long-term care Norman makes a sandwich with his toast, Nellie tucks a sliver in her purse and asks for just one more, Her empty plate the proof of need. Nigel rouses from beneath the cloud for one uncommon bite. And though I would not choose to be the janitor mopping up the spills, Or the nurse with the needles, Or the ones who wipe the bums, The worst job of all might be For the one who serves the food Compelled to say: “Sorry, no bacon available” On Bacon Day in long-term care.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

ACT OF DEFIANCE

A blossom burst out on the rose bush this morning Lush, and perfect and smelling like a rose A botanical act of defiance Against the shortening of the days That threatens an end to summer.

Monday, September 05, 2016

A NEWER ME

BE BRAVE TONIGHT By Samantha Reynolds http://bentlily.com/2012/03/05/be-brave-tonight/ Courage is not a genetic hand-me-down or a choice you can rely on in the moment it is a muscle if you do not use it it will shrink you will go to be brave one day and find you are floppy and unsure so try on your convictions start with your own echo the words that play in your head quicksand words telling you things like never stand up to yourself stare down the doubt in the pitch-black privacy of your darkest thought be gutsy remember that a shadow carries no weight rescue yourself and you will grow like a plant to sunlight bent towards valor. The old me wouldn’t have pushed a walker along a littered hospital corridor. A hospital corridor, after all, is no place for a blind person pushing a walker. Too many hazards: cleaning carts to the left or right, frail patients creeping silently, nurses checking their iPhones with backs turned, lab carts, blood pressure machines, intravenus poles! Fear of embarrassment, of being singled out as “blind”, of being banned from hallways by hospital authorities. If I ever worked on changing that, it was never a conscious action. But yesterday--when I wheeled David’s walker out into the hall, intending to park it outside his door, to motivate the staff to help him walk to lunch rather than taking the easier path of wheeling him, narrowly missing a silent woman who, not without cause, barked: “Watch where you’re going!”—I was thoroughly surprised to find that the old me had been replaced. The new me said: “I’m sorry. I’m a blind person.” It was true, has always been true, but this time I was only sorry that I had been careless, and I wasn’t a bit embarrassed. The new me simply shrugged when the offended party made a rude reply. And I noticed, later in the day, when I carefully wheeled the walker into the hall, that the same offended party politely said, “I’ll just go around you.”

Sunday, June 26, 2016

GIVING AND RECEIVING

I went to the Internet in search of the answer to a question I’d been pondering: Is it better to give than to receive? Of course I already knew what conventional wisdom would suggest, given the number of people who say: “It is better to give than to receive”, including a lot of people who probably don’t even know they’re paraphrasing the Bible, Acts 20-35. Normally I don’t get too bothered making comparisons between things like giving and receiving, but I seem to have been doing a lot of receiving lately, and it occurred to me to wonder: Am I really making a lot of people happy? Take this past week for example. Amy brought flowers and Anne brought jam and chili sauce. Mike strummed his intoxicating jazz until every nerve in my body was sighing in blissful contentment. John and Grace inconvenienced themselves considerably so that I could go to a party and David could get a ride to a memorial service. Bev carried my groceries and made an extra trip to return things I left in her car. Brother John gave up a morning so we could get a massage. Alamo reorganized his schedule so that we could attend a barbecue. All of these cheerful givers said, “Oh, it was nothing. We were happy to do it.” So you can’t blame me for wondering if they were happier to do it than I was to have it done. I asked Lawrence to give me his opinion on the matter last Thursday, while he waited for his dad to get ready so he could drive us to exercise class. “It’s better to give than to receive,” he declared in a no-nonsense tone. “Are you saying you are happier driving us to exercise class than you would be if I drove you to exercise class?” I asked. “Mother, you are blind and I definitely would not want you to drive me anywhere,” he said. “Besides,” he added, “That saying doesn’t apply to family. You give to family because you give to family.” Not entirely satisfied with this as the definitive last word, I turned to the Internet where thousands, possibly millions of opinions awaited me. I began by ruling out a few contributions. I did not, for example, accept the opinion of those complaining about paying taxes unless they had signed a declaration that they would forego all publicly funded services, including roads and health care. I don’t know why I excluded them, except that they always annoy me. I excluded all sermons written by ministers who were seeking money for their respective churches, which accounted for pretty well all the sermons given on the topic. It seemed disingenuous that they were asking people to make themselves happy by giving when what they wanted was to receive. I excluded all articles that mentioned Christmas, because giving at Christmas is an unavoidable institution as much as a generosity. After all was settled, I had unearthed this conclusion about donor happiness: “The overarching conclusion is that donors feel happiest if they give to a charity via a friend, relative or social connection rather than simply making an anonymous donation to a worthy cause.” Therese J. Borchard http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2013/12/22/how-giving-makes-us-happy/ And I got a little lecture on accepting what is offered: “Do not ask people NOT to give you a gift – this is the same as telling them you do not need their help when they offer it – you deprive them of the joy they get from the giving of the gift and shut down the energy flowing between you.” http://psy-chick.net/sacredness-of-giving/ Finally, a comment on asking for help: “he ability to ask for and accept help is a deeply human gesture, a recognition of the truth that no person can manage alone. The giver may appear to be self-sufficient, but we are all parts of an interconnected web, and to receive is to acknowledge this eternal truth about all of us.” Rabbi David Wolpe http://time.com/4353514/receiving/ As for my question about whether it is better to give than to receive, well, the jury is still out.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

IN SEARCH OF GRATITUDE

“The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.” BrenĂ© Brown, Rising Strong After spending more than a year on the market, our house sold. Our realtor seemed happy, if a little apologetic. Beside him I sat, scribbling initials here and there, scratching my full name on the line as he pointed. Then I waited for the surge of gratitude that would, if my readings of www.gratefulness.org were accurate, enhance my physical/mental health, contribute to financial stability, improve my personal relationships and contribute to the well-being of work/community environments. I waited for the unbridled shout of joy, the quiet contentment of satisfaction, the slight tug of a smile against my cheeks. Then I waited some more. Gratitude, it seemed, had gone missing. To my surprise, I didn’t call anyone to announce the good news about the sale, didn’t tell my friends, thought it better not to disappoint them. They had been summoning my gratitude—my relief at a minimum--ever since the negotiations began. “You must be so relieved,” they said. “You must be really happy to have the possibility of getting it done with.” If I can’t be grateful, then I must be relieved, I thought. I must be it. I have to be relieved for my friends, for my kids, for all the people who want to hear that I am relieved. They are counting on me to be relieved. But I was not relieved. I was anything but relieved. Instead of being relieved, I was angry—angry that it had taken more than a year to sell, angry that it had sold for so much less than we had ever imagined, angry that the buyer was demanding that we do routine maintenance before handing it over, angry that I hadn’t insisted on lowering the price long ago, angry that there had been a break-in during the negotiations, angry at myself for feeling sad every time I visited the house I loved, so sad that I only went there when forced to do so. So it wasn’t enough just to be angry. I had to be sad as well. I was sad to be losing the house that had made us so happy, sad that David’s illness had made the sale of the house the only reasonable option. I was sad to lose the house with the incredible veranda and the yard full of birds, the house where you could lie awake at dawn and count the birds you could hear through the open windows—five birds, ten birds maybe. I was sad to lose the rhubarb I hadn’t wanted to plant, the onions I couldn’t get rid of, the raspberry bushes that tore the skin off my arms, the lupines, the peonies, the lilac bush, the Solomon’s Seal started from a cutting stolen by friends from the front of Athabasca Hall for my fortieth birthday, the goat’s beard Mark once gave me for Mother’s Day. Adding it all up, I had to admit that I was far too sad to be grateful. On top of all this, I was resentful, resentful that it wasn’t enough just to be angry and sad. I had to be worried on top of it all, worried that the accumulation of all that had happened to me had somehow transformed me irreversibly into a sad and angry person who couldn’t be grateful for blessings, who couldn’t tell stories that ended happily without including long middle descriptions of the suffering. I worried that I might have lost the capacity to be satisfied with my life. Now I know that the best way to enhance gratitude is to list things for which you are grateful. I also know, from trying this myself, and from hearing hundreds of stories from clients who tried it, that listing things for which you are grateful is a practice that works best when you are already feeling grateful. When you are mostly sad and angry, a list of gratitudes quickly transforms itself into a list of yes-buts. Yes, I am grateful that we live in such a beautiful apartment, but I am angry that we had to move out of the house. Yes I am grateful that I was able to go to the house and collect two fragrant bouquets of peonies for the apartment, but I am sad that I will probably never grow my own peonies again. Yes I am grateful to have the best husband anybody ever had, loving children, delightful grandchildren, devoted friends, financial security, sunny days, the on-line grocery shopping service, and the electric wheelchair that has made it possible for David and me to cruise the streets of our new neighbourhood, but I’m angry and sad about the house. Take it from me. Satisfaction with your life is a hard thing to come by once you get into the intoxicating rhythm of making a grateful yes-but list One of my great disappointments in the positive psychology trend with all its potential for self-help is that it makes you believe it is possible to make yourself feel what you want to feel instead of what you feel but don‘t want to feel. If you can make yourself feel things, I haven’t yet learned how to do it. The best I can offer is that you can lead your unwanted feelings to the door, but you can’t shoo them out. They’ll leave when they are good and ready to do so. If you are lucky, the process of herding them toward the door will leave some empty space to fill with other feelings. Maybe you can do a little bargaining, practice the art of compromise. It took a while to come to it, but I’ve offered Sadness a deal. I’ll stop pressuring her to leave if she’ll stop pushing back. I’ve hinted that she might even be allowed to stay permanently. As for Anger, well, she’s already on her way out. I suspect she got a little jealous when I buddied up with Sadness and decided to search for an easier target. And as for life satisfaction, a visit to www.viacharacter.org has reminded me that satisfaction is strongly associated with five character strengths—hope, zest, gratitude, love and curiosity. With Anger consuming a little less of my time, I found a moment to take an inventory. Firmly in place I have love and curiosity. Hope, as you might expect, refuses to be left out entirely. Zest is making occasional appearances, and gratitude has promised to keep working against the yes-buts. As the peonies prepare to drop their petals, maybe tomorrow, but certainly the day after, I notice that I’ve even made a few calls to announce that the house has sold, and though I had to pinch myself to believe it, I am quite sure I heard myself say, “It’s a bit of a relief to have it sold.” Could it be that, one day soon, “It’s a bit of a relief” might actually be replaced by “I’m grateful”?

Saturday, June 04, 2016

ON VICTORY AND STRUGGLE

The motto of our high school was “palma non sine pulvere”: No victory without a struggle. Lofty, suggestive, possibly even inspiring, it was largely wasted in its representative role. For it was, in practice, a theoretical motto, since few, if any of the people who graced the classrooms knew any Latin, and even the English version languished in obscurity except when it was trotted out by valedictorians desperate to appear wise at graduation. I uttered it once, on the valedictorian stage, in brief reference to winners of the long jump, and future engineers who powered their way through Physics 30. After that, I never gave it another thought for 45 years. I could probably make more of it today, given my broader experience with both victory and struggle. But I do wonder if there might have been a motto that would have meant more to teen-agers. I was, as I recall, uncomfortable on that stage, not because of the obligation to speak, for the gift of the gab was early bestowed upon me. My discomfort related to the idea of victory and struggle, and the knowledge that, as a blind graduate in a sighted school, people thought of me as a symbol of that very motto. I didn’t want to be a symbol of victory and struggle. In fact, I didn’t want to be a symbol of anything. All I wanted was to be one of them—the people who, by virtue of their place in the sighted majority, were relieved of the burden of being a symbol of anything. I wanted to get a degree, and work, and get married—not because that would be a struggle for me, but because that was what I expected everyone to be able to do. Now, if I had achieved a reasonable distance in long jump, or persisted at any level beyond Physics 10, that would indeed have been a victory after unimaginable struggle! Then, just possibly, I might have made more of the motto.