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What My Dog Is Teaching Me

MaxandmeOne of the things that surprised me most in writing my book was the frequency with which I referenced dog stories in its pages. Time and time again as I was writing it, I would be grasping for a visual to describe what something felt like and — BOOM! — in would pop a story about Polly, Durango, Milo, or Max.

Living with a dog, it seems, offers me a mirror or a bearing for my soul.

Maybe that’s why one of my first decisions after I got a job at a boarding school in Western Massachusetts was to get a dog. Maybe that’s why I’ve always felt a little lost when we don’t have a dog in our life — like when we’re grieving the loss of one, but don’t yet feel ready for another.

Maybe that’s why when I was driving a red jeep on a beach in Nantucket this past week, I felt a little hole — a dog-sized hole — even through everyone I loved was right there with me. I remember turning to my husband and saying, “If you ask anyone growing up with me what my dream was, they will tell you it was to have a red jeep and a golden retriever.” And then, because it felt weird not to have included him or my boys in there, I added, “…you know, plus you guys.” He smiled because he knows me — and that dream — well by now.

Our dog these days is Max, a two-year old string bean of a mutt that has lots of lab in him with a dash of shepherd to boot. I adore him. But unfortunately, he wasn’t invited along on our family adventure last week, so he went “camping” at a kennel up the road. To make up for Max missing out on the miles and miles of empty beaches on Nantucket, I decided to take him out for a Maine beach adventure of our own today.

We have this habit of narrating what we think Max is thinking in our family, and this morning as he launched himself into the back of our car someone said (for Max), “I don’t know what this means or where I’m going, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be awesome!” That’s our Max — a furry optimist if there ever was one.

The crying from the back of the car began in earnest when Max got his first whiff of the ocean. He does this howling-growling-moaning thing when his greatest hopes get confirmed and are soon to be realized. They reached a crescendo as I pulled into the parking lot and turned off the car, noticing how his little mouth formed a blissful doggie smile as his nose pointed out the open window.

When I opened the back of the car, I told him to wait so I could put on his harness-leash thingy (which takes a fair degree of concentration). His whole body quivered as he physically restrained himself from launching out of the car and making a beeline for the water. But he’s a good boy, our Max, so he held still while I fastened the clips and hooks and tugged him this way and that. And then?

IMG_1498He could contain himself no longer and exploded from the car like he’d been shot out of cannon. With me trailing behind him, eventually letting go of the leash so it dragged behind him with the little purple bone-shaped poop bag container bouncing merrily along the parking lot pavement.

Watching Max crest over the dunes and see that wide open ocean, I was struck by how much this dog is teaching me about life —and how best to live it. The same could be said of all my dogs, I suppose, but Max is the one we’ve got in our life now and I suspect it’s for a reason.

Unlike flatulent Polly who sat idly by with me watching my parent’s marriage implode, or spirited Durango who shared the ride with me on my first taste of independent living, or patient Milo who endured the sleepless years and consuming chaos that came with young children, Max has come along at a season in my life where my deep desire to play is melding (sometimes clashing) with my intense need for introspection.

So I watched Max today at the beach. I watched him as a student would watch a teacher – intently and earnestly. I watched him for clues that would illustrate and point me to whatever it was I was grasping for these days, hearing once again that Max voice narration in my head that had it all make sense.

Here is what Max is teaching me:

It’s easier to access JOY when you’re off a leash
The quality of Max’s experience outside grows exponentially when his leash comes off. It amplifies. It gets louder, more full-bodied, and less heady. It struck me today that this is canine version of what I’m talking about when I say I want to live “unscripted”. A leash only has him going so far. A leash has him asking for permission more and honoring his instincts less. A leash has him compromising his needs over someone else’s and settling for less than he desires. A leash keeps him under control, restrained, and alert to changes that are governed by someone other than him. That’s not exactly a breeding ground for Joy to take root. In fact, I can see just how hard Joy would have to work to get my attention in that scenario. When I unhooked Max’s leash today and watched him take off with his happy doggie smile, I found myself taking stock of where I might have myself on a tight leash — expectations, shoulds, guilt, self-imposed shit — that I could “unhook” from more.

When you want something, want it with your WHOLE BODY
Max is one of those dogs that will clear off a coffee table with one sweep of his big tail. When he greets us each day after work and school his whole body wags in delight. He’s one of those dogs you can tell is wagging even though you can’t see his tail – just because his head is doing that side to side move. When he comes over to be pet, it’s not just enough to come next to us, he nudges underneath our legs and feet, so he’s literally feeling the physical weight of our love on him. His love is that big. And we give it back to him accordingly. When Max is “sleeping” in his bed when we’re eating dinner, you can feel his eyes fixated on your fork as it goes up to your mouth, and you can see his nose wiggling wildly with desire. He can turn into a frozen statue of desire at the sight of a piece of bacon. Which usually works to his advantage. The thing Max is teaching me is to bring everything you’ve got to expressing your desire. It’s not simply about thinking a desire – it’s about embodying it. Being completely fully and present to that desire with your whole heart, your whole being. It works for Max, so maybe he’s onto something.

MaxonbeachYou can make big, awful, very bad mistakes and still be “GOOD”
When Todd and I came back from a trip to New Orleans a couple years ago (another time Max went “camping”), we woke up the next day to find our entire map of NOLA as well as our Lonely Planet guide book ripped up in itty bitty pieces. Max was sleeping soundly in a pile of map detritus, making no bones about his feelings of our trip. Bad dog, Max! Another time I came home and the sheepskin lining of my Ugg boot (just one of them) had been chewed off. Bad boy, Max! Then there was the time I came home to find three months worth of birth control pills cast about our home, with little sucked pink pills mixed in among twisted bits of plastic, remnants of a chewed pharmacy bag and some white placebo pills. Max! Bad, bad boy! But what I love about Max, is that he moves on quickly from his mistakes. He doesn’t let his short-comings or missteps define him — he just learns from them and moves on. Because somewhere in his little doggie heart, he must know he’s loved — and he feels that love more deeply than any one mistake. Sure, you could make the case that he’s “just a dog” and that it’s easy for him. But from where I stand, it’s inspiring. I want more of that love-feeling and moving on he’s got.

Greet everyone on the beach, but BE SELECTIVE about who’s butt you sniff
Max is a greeter. When someone new comes into our house, he’s up and at the door, ushering them in or sussing them out with the best of us. And he’s no different on the beach. I watched him race all over creation this morning, running up to poodles, tussling with a couple of other labs and even mixing with a pekinese. In these cases, there was much tail wagging and circling about, sometimes even with the classic butt up in the air, down on the front legs “wanna play” invitation dogs do. Inevitably they would sniff each other’s butts as part of this exchange, amicably either partaking of a sniff or offering up an anus. But then there was this other dog that just stood there, not circling, not wagging. Max ran up to him enthusiastically, and then at the last minute, just veered to the right, kind of doing a fly-by or buzzing the tower of the dog. Somewhere in that short stretch of sand, he had ascertained “this one’s not for me” and simply aborted his mission right then and there. No wavering, no “maybe I was wrong” second-guessing, no shame. Just a fly-by. What a visual that was to see. And permission for me to keep flying by when something just doesn’t feel right.

You don’t need a tennis ball to PLAY
When my husband heard I was making an impromptu trip to the beach this morning with Max, the first thing he asked was “did you bring a tennis ball?” Um…no. For those of you with water dogs, you’ll know that it is damn near a crime to bring a dog to the ocean and not bring a ball for it to chase. I’ll be honest, the realization was almost enough to have me turn around and go home. But then I thought of all those desperate mom moments I had under my belt – the times I was caught with a poopy baby and no clean diaper, or the wailing kid in the backseat with no pacifier – and I knew I’d be resourceful and work something out. But the thing is, Max soon showed me that he didn’t need a tennis ball to play. Sure, he would have loved to chase one, but there were dead sea things to roll in, dogs to meet and lots and lots of things to sniff. And when that all fell short, he would just go and lay down in the crashing waves. Happy as a clam. Watching him play this morning had me start to understand the degree to which I can get all fetched up in orchestrating play for myself — to have all the circumstances to be just so before I will drop down into playing. Max showed me that the only thing that’s truly needed is the desire. Anything beyond that — like a tennis ball — is just icing.

Love is ALL AROUND you if you look for it
This was the last little gem that Max delivered to me this morning on our walk, and it goes back to that part about Max being an furry optimist. I see how Max looks for love wherever he goes, whomever he’s with, and whatever he’s doing. He will go to the outstretched hand, he will wag at the smiling kid, he will click on his doggie toes to whomever is laying on the floor. It’s in his nature as a Lab, for sure, but it feels like something more. It feels like a choice he makes. It feels like a magnet he possesses, to be drawn to the love and not the other nasty stuff. And what’s really cool, is that by seeing it, and by allowing himself to be drawn to it, he is essentially bringing that love with him wherever he goes. He’s a love pollinator.  As I was studying him this morning, I was also sitting with my own magnetism and how keenly it is tuned to love — or something else. It has me wanting to play with that a bit more to see how much love I can see around me – and how I can become a pollinator in my own way.

So thank you, Max. For giving me a reason to get outside on a beautiful day. But mostly? For being such a good boy. We love you all the way to the moon and back, buddy.