Charley’s Last Walk

I never appreciated dogs until I met Charley. She and Bob lived next door to me for a while, and as I became friends with him, I became friends with her. Charley and I truly bonded the day she crawled out from under the fence around his backyard during a thunderstorm when he wasn’t home. I found her flattened on the sidewalk with a foreleg stuck through her chain collar a result of her desperate scramble. Unable to move, terrified by the thunder, she gave me the most pleading, vulnerable look I’ve ever seen. After I extracted her leg from the collar, she still stuck to the ground in fear. Somehow, I persuaded her to get up, then gently led and nudged and prodded until I could put her inside Bob’s trailer.

She was medium sized and golden-red-brown, with a black spot on her tail and a matching black spot in the middle of her tongue. Her features were dingo-like, her body solid—and amazingly strong when she was being stubborn about where to walk. I used to try to convince her enjoy some variety, but when she didn’t want to do something, she would put on her brakes and just look at me, so we settled on a fixed route that made her happy and gave her a long enough walk. Once she won that argument, she kept up a brisk pace like she was on a mission, making me almost jog to stay with her. Sometimes I wondered if Charley thought she was walking me, and since Bob insisted that she take me out, she should be the boss. And why not? She was smart and responsible. She cooperated with a wide variety of verbal commands, if not suggestions about where to walk.

In her old age, she acquired new skills in avoiding dog-to-dog conflict. If a dog was on a leash in the distance, she paused to let it go past. If it was off-leash and coming toward her, she sped up to a trot and evaded the encounter, making me speed up with her. This impressed me, because even two years ago she would crouch and low-walk as if ready to spring when she saw a dog she didn’t like, and when she was young, she “got a ticket,” as Bob put it, for tearing the bandana off a pit bull. When it came to humans, though, she was a loving, sociable dog.

On what turned out to be her last walk, she chose the same route as always and did all the same things. Her key destination was the T or C Brewery and the people drinking on the patio. I made her keep her distance, though I could tell by those longing glances she really wanted to go up and put her nose in people’s hands and be petted, like she could in the old days before the pandemic. (Bob would ask her, “Want to go grab a beer, Charley?” And she would jump to attention.) She also liked to walk past a certain Akita and make him bark, and past her old home from before Bob moved. She took an interest in the smells along the bottoms of buildings without breaking her stride, only stopping to sniff at one specific corner where all the important canine information seemed to be, then headed home with me in tow.  Neither of us had an inkling it was her last walk.

The next afternoon, Bob called to ask if she’d acted normal on her walk, because she was sticking close to him nonstop and having some symptoms. I assured him she’d been fine. He made arrangements to get her to the vet the next day. She didn’t whine or make any fuss, but by night she had trouble standing. He lay beside her on the floor, and once in a while she laid her front paw on his arm. At six a.m., she quietly slipped away. After twelve good years of life, she had around twelve hours of knowing something was wrong. Love was her last moment. Her last walk was filled with the simple pleasure of her familiar neighborhood, and perhaps her memories of being the most popular dog on the Brewery patio.

She’s not taking me for walks anymore, but she guides me in spirit. Some of my most serene moments have been in her company, as we headed up Marr Street at sunset toward the church from which the bats emerge. Something about the sight of her sturdy back as she paced along and the bats in the sky framing my view of Turtleback Mountain silenced all the chatter in my head, as if I could enter Charley’s mind-state, immersed in the act of walking and the experience of my senses.

She taught me this: Live today with love and enthusiasm, fully present. Be yourself. Grow wiser with age. Thanks, Charley.

Wisdom on Wheels

A pair of large RVs came rolling down the hill on the back road between Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte as I was driving up it. Across the front of the first vehicle, where the sleeping quarters rose above the truck cab, was written Solitude. On the second vehicle was the word Reflection.

Good advice. Thank you. I needed the reminder.

Everyone is my Teacher

640px-very_large_array_cloudsIt’s surprising what you can have in common with someone when at first it seems there might be nothing. At a friend’s birthday dinner party, I was seated next to a graduate student in astrophysics who specializes in radio astronomy, a young man whose hobbies include ice climbing. All these things are fascinating, but far out of my realm of experience and expertise. We  managed to make conversation, though, and somehow discovered a mutual interest in meditation. I’m not sure how we got there. Perhaps from talking about his childhood in Vietnam and how he’s not a practicing Buddhist but follows the philosophy without the religion, or perhaps from talking about my work teaching yoga. “I can learn from you,” he said. “Everyone is my teacher.”

I didn’t feel as though I taught him anything. However, he did, through example, teach me. He was so enthusiastic about adopting daily meditation, so aware of its benefits in the stressful life of a Ph.D. student. I’m older and have been practicing longer, but his deep gratitude for the effects of this simple commitment reached me. Yes, I also practice daily, but how mindful has my mindfulness been? Could I take a little longer, become a little quieter?

His work in radio astronomy is listening—finding ways to hear the universe. It works for me as a metaphor for meditation and for everyone being my teacher. What subtle signals have I not yet heard?

 

Working Together, Washington, Wisdom and Walnuts

This week my college’s entire faculty and the president and the provost got together and discussed a major change in the academic calendar, a change which some support and some oppose, and we worked toward a compromise. Though we didn’t solve the problem yet, we agreed to keep talking. If we didn’t keep cooperating and communicating constructively, the institution would cease to function and it would fail the needs of those we serve, the students.

A few days ago, I finished reading an eight hundred page biography of George Washington, which I reviewed at length on my Booklikes blog. Washington was flawed, as all of us are, leaders and unknowns alike. He was successful because he listened and took time to think.

Here are two of my favorite quotations from his letters (also quoted in my review):

In this one, he was writing to his adopted grandson: “Where there is no occasion for expressing an opinion, it is best to be silent, for there is nothing more certain than it is at all times more easy to make enemies than friends.”
 

The following is an excerpt from a letter Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Philadelphia. Note that the word “demean” back then related to one’s demeanor and didn’t have its modern meaning of debasing. It meant comport or behave. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship. It is now no more that tolerance is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily, the government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” He found religious tolerance to be too weak a concept, too condescending toward religious minorities.

Between two classes today, I took an outdoor yoga break. My route out the side of my building passes under a walnut tree and then across a lawn beside the tennis courts. Earlier in the fall, it was hard to tell a walnut in the grass from a tennis ball. A closer look at the bright yellow-green spheres revealed either the smooth texture of a walnut pod or the fuzzy skin of a tennis ball. Now the walnuts are yellow, resembling golden delicious apples, and some have softened open or been punctured by squirrels for the nut inside. The tennis balls, of course, are still firm and green. I place them on the wall of the court or toss them inside, in case they can be used again. Once they’ve been hit past the fence and left there, though, I wonder if they can serve any purpose in the game, or if these wild shots can’t be reclaimed by either the tennis players or the earth.

Spider Old Woman, Part Two

A synchronicity isn’t just a coincidence. It’s one that means something to the person to whom it happens. My synchronicity story is about a Spider Old Woman story.

Quite a few years ago, I was in a relationship with a man who denied that he was keeping secrets from me, secrets that were unhealthy for our relationship, but the evidence added up and I broke off with him. A few months later he got in touch and persuaded me that I had misunderstood what was going on. I had planned to drop him from my life and move home to New Mexico, but I chose to disregard my intuition and judgment and trusted his words instead. I still moved, but we had an unexpected reunion the day before I left. After his visit, I sat on my back porch in rural Virginia gazing out into the woods, and the herd of deer I had come to know as my closest neighbors came into view. I was stunned to see an unfamiliar animal among them. At first I thought it was a horse, though it made no sense for one to be in the woods—but it was a white deer, gazing directly at me. It felt miraculous, a sign of some kind.

On my way out of town early the next day I stopped by my landlady’s antique shop to drop off the key to the house and she had a sculpture of a white deer on display in the window. The message seemed to be begging for my attention. I was sure it had to do with this man, and since the deer was so beautiful, I took it as a positive message that I’d done the right thing.

I stayed in touch with him while I lived in Santa Fe, but we didn’t see each other until another change of jobs brought me back East, this time to Northeastern North Carolina. Shortly after we had our reunion number two, I went to the Meherrin tribe’s powwow where I bought the book, Spider Woman’s Web. In it, I found the story, The Woman Who Kept Secrets. My short retelling below doesn’t do justice to it, but you can get the message—and then read the book.

A long time ago, on one of the ancient Pueblos, there was a woman who waited until all her friends had married before she would commit, and only when she was lonely did she finally agreed to marry a young man who loved her, though she didn’t love him. He was kind, and for a short whole they were happy enough, but then she became restless. Sometimes he woke at night and discovered that she was gone. One night—though she claimed he must have dreamed her absences—he decided to find out where she went. He pretended to be asleep, but once she’d gone far enough from their home, he followed her by moonlight and came to kiva outside the pueblo. (A kiva is a ceremonial underground chamber) He peered in and saw a strange ceremony going on.

Some versions of the story have a shape-shifting shaman in this scene, an act of possible witchcraft; other versions have people misusing the sacred chamber by coupling with partners other than their spouses. The man was discovered and thought he might be hurt or killed, but instead he was invited in. His wife sat beside him and assured him all was well, better than it seemed, and he fell asleep with his head in her lap. When he woke up, he was on a narrow ledge on a cliff, hungry and thirsty and alone. His wife and another man were on the far side of the canyon on another cliff. They threw roasted corn to him, but if he moved to catch it and eat it he would fall. He had to avoid snakes, too, so he held very still. He lost consciousness and woke again, this time in the home of Spider Old Woman. She gave him medicine, an ointment to rub on his wife’s shoulders, which she promised would solve the problems in their marriage.

That night as the man and his wife lay together he rubbed the ointment on her shoulders. To his surprise, she became agitated and got up and went outdoors. He followed her. She began to pace, looking wildly about, and then her body started changing. Her legs, her torso and then finally her face became those of a white deer. The deer gazed at him for a moment with tears in its eyes, and then joined a herd of other deer and ran off. He never saw her again, and he got on with his life.

In my new home in North Carolina, I encountered another white deer, this one grazing with its brown herd-mates in the field behind my house. I’m not the only person ever to see a white deer—Northeastern North Carolina has a few of them—but for me, they carried a message. I had been right the first time. I needed to send this man out of my life for good, and I did. He was the man who kept secrets. The white deer.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/528968.Spider_Woman_s_Web