To read the first article in this series, Zen and the Art of Elder Dog Care Part 1 – Acceptance, please click here
Zen and the Art of Elder Dog Care
Part Two — Caring
By Maryanne Pope
“We can dramatically change the quality of our lives when we consciously seek to restore serenity to our daily endeavours.” – Sarah Ban Breathnach
Amen sister! But HOW?
“When women stop behaving as if they were whirling dervishes.” – Sarah Ban Breathnach
‘Kay . . . got that lesson drilled into me. Looking after Sable didn’t leave me much choice. I made the decision to keep her alive after she lost her sight; I damn well had to learn how to look after her properly, which demanded that I slow down.
Trust me: other than driving, you can’t do a heck of a lot quickly with a twelve-year-old deaf and blind German Shepherd in tow . . . well, except for learning patience: that comes quickly.
“Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches . . . patience and faith.” - Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea
I hadn’t yet arrived at the sea — but in the meantime, my dog certainly seemed to be trying to teach me patience and faith. Serenity, however, was another matter.
For being patient with Sable didn’t automatically remove the underlying panic that lurked below the surface of my slower-moving exterior. If anything, at first I found that being forced to physically slow down actually caused my anxiety to increase exponentially. At least when I was in busy-bee mode — zooming around, attempting much and accomplishing not so much — I had the illusion of living purposefully.
Slowing down, however, was going to entail far more ‘being’ than ‘doing’ . . . and this, I soon realized, was not a skill to be mastered overnight. In fact, rather like a drug addict trying to quit cold-turkey, being yanked out of busyness was initially akin to withdrawal. When a mind obsessed with checking tasks off a list begins to ask the bigger questions about one’s life, the lure of the daily details soon becomes all-consuming again.
Here’s a snippet of what my monkey-mind was chattering on about during the move from Calgary to Victoria: would Sable make it through the mountains before the pressure in her remaining eye spiked? With her history of bleeding issues, when the time came would she survive the inevitable second eye-removal surgery? Would I be able to find a suitable place to live within our new six-week timeline? Would my Visa be paid off in time to pay the movers? And on and on . . . perhaps you know the drill
Similar to the sea, it would seem that patience and faith are not permanent . . . they come and go like the ebb and flow of the tide. But it all worked out beautifully and as I settled into my new life and home in the town of Sidney by the Sea on Vancouver Island, I returned again to one of my favourite authors for wisdom on this serenity business.
“Today we must start to recover our sanity,” writes Sarah Ban Breathnach in her book, Simple Abundance; A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. “And the way to do this is to concentrate slowly on completing one task at a time, each hour of the day, until the day is over . . . we will act ‘as if’ we are serene by bringing all our attention and conscious awareness to whatever we are doing . . . and what we will gain from this exercise is the inner peace that comes from living fully in the present moment.”
This sounded lovely but I could never seem to get the hang of it in daily life. Ever since I was a kid, my natural tendency had been to spend the present moment thinking or worrying about future moments. And because of the path I chose after John’s death, much of my last decade was spent thinking, writing, and speaking about the past. But last summer, I began to realize that at some point in the fairly near future, due to Sable’s age if nothing else, the future wasn’t going to include her. And since the present was where she was, that’s where, at long last, I began to learn to live.
Well, sort of — for old habits die hard. Which might be why the Universe sent in the big guns (a completely dependent creature) to get through to one of its, er, slower students (that would be me) on the finer points of slowing down and being in the moment — which bring us back to the Zen-portion of the program.
“Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of the process, to achieve an inner peace of mind.” – Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Now, obviously Sable was a living creature versus an inanimate object — but I suspect the key word in the above quote isn’t the noun, it’s the verb: caring. Maybe it’s not what or who we love that is as important as how we do so. For it wasn’t until last summer that I truly began to understand the significant difference between “looking after” another and “caring” for another.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to bring up the rather obvious point that Sable was a dog versus a child, spouse, sibling, parent, friend, or any other mortal companion. To some, the fact that she was an animal might lessen the importance of the impact caring for her had on me. But Sable was what I was given to care for during that period of my life — and care I did.
As I mentioned in the article, Zen and the Art of Elder Dog Care Part 1 — Awareness, it wasn’t until Sable depended on me to implement three key strategies for living a more balanced life — putting barriers/boundaries in place, asking for help, and focusing on priorities — that I was actually able to do so. Likewise, I was really only able to reach that Zen meditative-state — that inner peace of mind — while caring for another being.
Hmmm . . . there seems to be a theme here.
“Yeah,” said my friend, Rob, when I told him about the article I was working on. “It’s called love.”
Ah hah! For in contrast, meditation to me used to mean sitting cross-legged in my living room, staring at the flame of a candle while trying to quiet my mind. This sometimes worked for five seconds or so.
Yoga, which I’ve taken up since moving to Sidney, is a bit better. As I sit cross-legged on my yoga mat in a yoga-class, listening to the yoga teacher repeatedly remind me in a calm and soothing voice to focus on my breathing, this does get my mind off my thoughts — in ten-second increments.
In other words, my trying to ‘be’ in the present moment wasn’t inducing much in the way of a Zen-like state. Rather, it was when I was doing an activity that involved caring for Sable, loving her, I began to experience the meditative state that Zen can bring — because that’s when being in the moment, being fully present, actually mattered. For if I let my mind wander when I walked Sable around the block, she’d walk into a telephone pole. Unfortunately, I say this from experience.
Then I began to realize that being in the moment always matters.
Why? Because caring for Sable — walking her around the yard, preparing her home-cooked meals, hand-feeding her, taking her to the vet, helping her in and out of the back of the car, bringing her water in the night, helping her get up from the slippery hardwood floor, hiding her treats and watching her sniff them out (with or without sight, “search” was her favourite game!) — took my mind off my own damn self and my incessant, never mind exhausting, determination to make my corner of the world a better place through work.
Gently guiding a blind dog up a mountain trail was compassion in action and probably spoke far louder than words ever could.
For me, it was the process of caring that became a portal to the Zen-like state. And yes, I did experience moments of serenity. But mostly I felt reverence.
“Reverence is the altered state of consciousness when you feel awe and wonder because you know you are in the presence of spirit. Reverence wraps you in perfect peace because there is no past or future, only the present moment, and you are one with Heaven and Earth.” – Sarah Ban Breathnach
It was like reconnecting with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. For I have felt the magnificence of reverence before — at the top of a mountain while skiing or hiking. I’ve felt it in the forest, surrounded by trees. I’ve felt it at the beach, watching the waves and I found it again while sitting on my kitchen floor, holding Sable’s food-dish in my hand as she picked through her kibble for the choice bits of beef.
I also felt reverence, eventually, during our 3 a.m. sojourns into the backyard. At thirteen, Sable was starting to experience kidney failure so she was drinking a lot of water and therefore couldn’t make it through the night without a pee-break. When this routine first started, I found the middle-of-the-night treks tiring and inconvenient. But then one night, I actually looked up and saw the starriest sky I’d seen since the Sahara desert. I was again reminded that we are all part of something far larger than our individual selves.
And yet . . .
“When we look up at the sky, we are trying to find the way back to ourselves.” – Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
This is also what caring for Sable did for me. By forcing me to slow down, she inadvertently helped me find my way back to my old self and all the activities I used to love to do — hiking, gardening, swimming, walking on the beach, eating, camping, road trips, reading in the hammock or on the couch — before I turned into a task-obsessed, rather joyless workaholic living in a constant state of reacting.
For once I learned how to care for a blind dog (de-toxing at the rehab centre, if you will) I began to have fun again. What a concept! Sable, Soda and I explored our new neighbourhood and the nearby beaches, lakes, and forests. We went wilderness camping in Uclelet, where I awoke to see Sable lying on her back, wedged between the side of the tent and the edge of the air mattress with all four legs sticking up in the air! May I be that adventurous and easy-going when I’m ninety We went to the Kingfisher spa, Rathtrevor Beach and on a two-week road trip to Oregon and California with my friend Terri. I had more fun in those four months than I’d had in years.
Perhaps similar to a recovering addict, I began to look back on my old Calgary life with new eyes. There, I worked all the time. Why? What had I been trying to achieve . . . or prove? I lived in fear of the phone ringing, dreading the next demand placed on my time. What now would be asked of me that would take me away, yet again, from what I really wanted to be doing: writing and spending time with my dogs? Maybe the more important question to have asked myself would have been: why couldn’t I say no?
Well, I’m asking it now. For that is an entire decade I’ll never get back. And thanks in part to Sable, it’s not one that any future decade will ever resemble. Last fall, I began to realize what I was learning through caring for Sable was how I wanted to live the rest of my life . . . gracefully, gently, carefully, compassionately, courageously, authentically, patiently, and perhaps most importantly, joyfully.
Not surprisingly, it was Sable herself that let me know whether I was still on the right track or not in terms of caring for her in the manner to which she had become accustomed. If she was smiling, I knew she was happy and felt cared for. If she wasn’t smiling, I knew I had slipped back into ‘looking after’ mode. At the end of November, Sable stopped smiling. Looking back now, it makes sense that the start of the rainy season corresponded to my working more and laughing less.
Sure enough, being the effective teacher that she was, Sable left one of the toughest and most important lessons till the very end. The cosmic clock struck again in December 2010 when, six months after she went blind and two months before the end of her life, she began to bleed from her nose.
To be continued in the next article, East Meets West in Near Fatal Collision for Canine
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening. Maryanne also writes short stories, play scripts and screenplays. She is the Founder and CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. Maryanne lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
The Bellagio Butterfly Keeper
(updated May 15th, 2012)
I was in Las Vegas with a friend last year and saw a magnificent sight.
In the atrium of a hotel was a greenhouse filled with beautiful butterflies. Also inside the greenhouse was a butterfly keeper, working diligently at what was obviously a very precious task.
From a small white box, the keeper would gently remove a little transparent envelope. Then, with a pair of scissors, he’d carefully snip off one end of the envelope and softly shake the contents out into a small shrub on the counter. And out fell a butterfly! Sure enough, within moments, the creature would flutter back to life — out of its dormant state — ever so slowly flapping its wings until it had gathered enough strength to fly.
My friend and I watched in fascination as the butterfly keeper did this over and over again. There had to be hundreds of dormant butterflies in a single box!
At the time, I didn’t understand how this worked – but I figured if any place on earth could bring butterflies back to life in front of our very eyes, Vegas was it
Upon further reflection, the writer in me got to thinking. I likened what I’d seen to us, as people — or, rather, the beautiful and unique parts of us.
“It’s not true that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’: There has never been, and never will be, anyone who sees, thinks, or responds exactly the way you do. Whether you’re revolutionizing physics or making a quilt, you must display your differences to make a difference.”
— Martha Beck
And yet it seems that we often work so hard inside our little chrysalis to grow up — or heal from a loss, or overcome a tragedy, or achieve a dream — to become a butterfly and then someone comes along (or, as is more often the case, we do it to ourselves), squishes us into an envelope and puts that inside a box. Then back we go into a state of dormancy, waiting for someone — a butterfly keeper — to come along and free us again.
If so, then we need to be aware of who we’re spending the bulk of our time with. Are they are encouraging us to free the best part of ourselves?
“A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”
— John O’Donohue, Anam Cara; A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Or are they keeping us exactly as we are, where we are, doing what we’ve been doing for an awfully long time?
When I got back home from Vegas last year, I checked with a local butterfly expert and told him about the envelope butterflies. He said that regardless of when the butterflies were put into their envelopes – either before emerging from their chrysalis or immediately after – they would’ve only had about twenty-four hours max before they had to be set free. Otherwise, they’d die in that dormant state.
Here’s a powerful description of the danger of us remaining too long in a state of dormancy:
“Do you experience little real joy or excitement, merely maintaining the status quo? Commonly known as apathy, this condition is subtle, insidious and soul-destroying. Ironically, the problem with apathy is that we are not emotionally invested enough to really care about being apathetic.”
— Claire Scott, Butterfly Wisdom; Gifts from the Dying
And, whether we like it or not, time is passing.
Maryanne Pope is the author of A Widow’s Awakening, the founder and CEO of Pink Gazelle Productions Inc and the Board Chair of the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund. To subscribe to Weekly Words of Wisdom, please click here.
Zen and the Art of Elder Dog Care
Part 1 – Awareness
By Maryanne Pope
I find the term ‘Zen’ tends to get tossed around in conversation with the intention of evoking feelings of calm, serenity, peace, and quiet. But when I sat down to write this article about Sable, although I knew the title was going to be a play on one of my favourite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I realized I didn’t know what Zen actually meant.
So I looked it up. And, according to Wikipedia, Zen is basically a meditative state that emphasizes experiential wisdom in the attainment of enlightenment.
Ah hah! For what is experiential wisdom but the kind learned from experience? And caring for Sable, particularly over the past three years, has certainly been a life-changing experience based on incrementally learned lessons. But it was only when I looked back at some of the more Zen-like moments experienced with Sable — those in which I felt fully alive, as in connected to something far bigger than me, but not necessarily comfortable — that I began to see a sort of . . . curriculum emerging.
Now, I suppose it depends on one’s outlook on life — but to me, caring for a dog with as many bizarre health challenges as Sable faced over the past three years, I couldn’t help but notice that from a spiritual perspective, there certainly seemed to be significant potential for teaching me multiple life lessons . . . from self-worth, self-respect, strength, and slowing down to patience, courage, compassion, and unconditional love.
But all that’s in hindsight, of course.
For developing the willingness to learn these lessons — which was first necessitated by being open to the possibility that my furry, four-footed friend was, in fact, a spiritual teacher — was a preliminary lesson in itself . . . rather like a child needs to develop good learning habits in grade one so that she can understand what’s being taught in grades two and three.
However, just as I was in grade one — talking to my friends and daydreaming about the cute boy in the third row instead of listening to the teacher — February 2008 found me far too busy to be paying attention in the classroom called life.
Enter Nasty Wake-Up Call #2 (#1 being my husband John’s death at 32): “Let’s see . . .” said the Universe hypothetically. “What shall we do this time around to get Maryanne’s attention? Ah yes, let’s threaten to take away — again — that which she loves the most.”
So there I lay, a week before my fortieth birthday, on the floor of the ICU visiting room at the emergency vet hospital, holding Sable’s paw as she slowly bled to death from internal haemorrhaging that had started after minor surgery and was continuing for unknown reasons. She was nine. She was also the dog John and I had together; given to us as a wedding present.
Then, just like that — there on the floor of the animal hospital — my mind took me back eight years to the ICU at the human hospital, holding John’s hand as he passed away. As I recalled this horrific memory, it occurred to me that, metaphysically-speaking, I had been ‘here’ before . . . as in, I’d done the ICU-moment, shed the tears, got the t-shirt, lost half a decade to grief, had gone through a couple hundred grand, and learned the lessons.
Or had I? For if I’d learned all there was to learn about losing a loved one (before the natural end of his or her life) then I probably wouldn’t be back here for a re-test.
“Fine,” I said out loud to the Universe (via the walls of the vet hospital). “I’ll make you a deal: if you let Sable live, things will change. I’ll change.”
Otherwise known as bargaining in psychological circles, I prayed for a miracle in exchange for some behaviour modification . . . which was a good start to doing things a little differently this time around — experiential learning, if you will — because praying for a miracle was something I didn’t have the courage to do the day John was dying. Why?
Partly because that would’ve been irrational and only set my heart up for further disappointment — and partly because, on an intuitive level, as much as I didn’t like what was happening, I knew John was going to die and no amount of praying was going to change that outcome . . . it was fixed in stone. And, unlike in Sable’s situation, there was no hope left for a miraculous recovery for John because he was already brain-dead.
I’ve since learned, however, that reality-defying miracles do occur on occasion, regardless of the apparent impossibility of the situation. I’m not saying miracles are necessarily the result of our prayers (because I have no idea) but just that, from a strictly scientific perspective, medical miracles do happen. Regardless of the reason behind the mystery, perhaps the least we can do when we get what we ask for is fulfill our end of the bargain.
Sable’s miracle came in the form of the good old-fashioned antibiotic Doxycycline — which would make logical sense if it was an infection that was causing Sable to bleed in the first place, or preventing her blood from clotting. But despite extensive testing, there was no evidence of either. Still, it seemed that it was Doxycycline that saved the day and my damn-near-death dog bounced back for another three years of life.
But the countdown on the cosmic clock to February 10, 2011 had begun.
So what did I promise the powers that be, in exchange for more time with Sable? That I’d slow down enough to learn a thing or two from her mysterious haemorrhaging. And I did. I learned the very difficult lesson that self-loathing is what results from grief that has been allowed to fester — and, just like Sable’s internal bleeding and external bruising, by the time we actually notice the damaging effects of the resultant low self-worth on the surface of our lives, a massive amount of internal damage has already occurred. But that’s another article unto itself. (Saving Sable)
Yet once I’d “learned” this lesson — as in becoming aware of the underlying causes leading to behaviour that wasn’t conducive to an authentic life, but not necessarily changing said behaviour in any significant way — I sped up again. For, as is often the way, once our immediate crisis passes, we more or less return to normal.
My casual use of that word should have been the first clue that the Universe might feel the need to step up the learning curve a bit — for my “normal” was, in fact, insanity. An insane work schedule. An insane social schedule. Insane writing deadlines. Insane workload. Insane amounts of demands on my time. Insanely low standards of how I allowed men to treat me (so much for learning the self worth lesson). Insane amounts of debt. Insanely big home to care for. Insane amounts of people in my life.
I was so busy trying to keep up to the demands of a life that had evolved out of good intentions, obligation, and guilt, that I’d completely lost sight of the life I wanted to live.
Bonnngggg! went the cosmic clock when it struck again one year later. In the winter of 2009, Sable went blind in her left eye due to glaucoma; high blood pressure in the eye. Hmmm . . . I lost sight of the need to slow down — and my dog lost sight in one eye.
Six months later, in November 2009, I waved the white flag of surrender on my chaotic life in Calgary and made the decision to sell my home and move to BC. Although it was a theatrical production of the play, I Claudia, which finally yanked me from my slumber, versus a one-eyed dog, the powerful Zen-moment in the theatre that led to hours of unstoppable crying did the trick. But that’s yet another article (And Then the Day Came).
I suspect, however, that the Universe wasn’t going to take any chances of me slipping back into my old ways and simply replicating my unsustainable Calgary-life in BC — for Bonnngggg! went the cosmic clock again and, one year after Sable lost vision in her first eye, she lost the sight in her second eye . . . one week before the movers arrived to pick up my earthly belongings.
Suffice it to say, the high blood pressure culprit that led to Sable’s blindness now threatened to send my stress level through the roof. How was I was possibly going to look after a blind dog and still ensure all twelve thousand pounds of stuff was packed up and ready to go? Although the details of this time are in yet another two articles (Saving Sable Part Deux and Right on Time), the message to me was clear: one way or another, I was going to learn how to slow down for the next chapter of my life in BC.
Except that I still had ten days left in my Calgary-life to navigate through . . . kinda like a final exam. So what did I do? Since failure wasn’t an option, I took the crash-course offered:
- I hauled out the old metal fold-up gate that John and I used to put up around the Christmas tree when Sable was a pup and used it as a barrier in the kitchen to keep Sable away from the stairs
- I asked for help and got it: without my brothers, I wouldn’t have met the deadline
- I focused on my priorities: keeping Sable safe and getting the house packed up
It’s rather odd how I wasn’t able (or willing) to implement these key strategies into my daily life — putting barriers/boundaries in place, asking for help, and focusing on priorities — for more than a decade and yet, when I was forced to learn these practical lessons within a ten-day period, both for Sable and my future, I did so.
But it was in the Zen-moment I experienced the first time I walked Sable as a blind dog — on her leash around my backyard — that I finally began to understand what faith might mean. As I watched her tentatively walk around, sniffing the ground and finding her way, while trusting me to keep her from harm, I wondered if maybe this is how the Universe, Spirit, God, Allah, Angels – whatever it is that’s greater than us – works?
If indeed there is some greater entity, maybe it — or its representatives — is watching over us as we stumble through our lives, helping us as much as possible by moving obstacles out of the way, slowing us down, and trying to steer us in a different direction when we’re approaching dangerous situations?
Regardless, just as Sable trusted me to be her eyes to see that which she could not, I figured faith might not be a bad thing to have in the weeks ahead, for so much of what needed to fall into place was beyond my control.
Then I thought back to the last time I distinctly remember Sable looking at me, which was the night before she went blind. She’d come into the guestroom, where I was sleeping in those days, and looked right at me with her one good eye and then gave this saucy little bark. I don’t remember what she wanted — probably more treats — but I do recall the look. It was one of mischievousness . . . as in “Tee hee, hee, Momma, things are gonna change and you’re gonna have to pay me even more attention!”
I mention this because it was in stark contrast to the last look John gave me, outside the back door of the police station so many years ago. His look had been one of doubt . . . as in “I sure hope you’re gonna figure this all out, Pope, because my time here is done.”
The next day, of course, was spent saying goodbye to him in the ICU.
With John, I didn’t get the chance to implement in my own life what he’d taught me — while he was still alive to see it. And regret was an awfully heavy suitcase to drag along on the journey through grief. With Sable, however, I’d not only been given a second chance when she nearly bled to death in February 2008, her blindness gave me a third chance to learn — and implement what I was learning — while she was still around to enjoy the benefits.
And in so doing — I can safely tell you from the viewpoint of writing this article six weeks after Sable’s death — I also inadvertently grieved her death before she died. And trust me, as a person who has spent far longer than necessary in the life phase known as grief (which, after a certain point, some might call “detention” in the classroom of life), this is significant.
Now, I don’t think either John or Sable were consciously aware of the meaning or intent behind their expressions or actions. Rather, I suspect they were simply conduits . . . spiritual teachers who didn’t know they were teachers, which is probably why they were so damn effective.
At any rate, once the crash course — and the extra tutorial on faith — had been completed and the final Calgary-test passed, Sable, Soda (my other dog) and I were free to move to BC . . . on to the next grade, if you will.
For there was still a great deal to learn from Sable — and the cosmic clock was ticking.
To be continued…