#amwriting, A Dog's Life, Animals, Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Dogs, Grief, Labra-doo-dad, The Inner Landscape

I am terrible at grieving, or an armored heart

I am terrible at grieving. I grew up in a family and an environment in which crying, generally, and grieving, specifically, were not only discouraged but practically anathema. When my Grandmother Spong died, my father, who was her only child and as close to her emotionally as he was to anyone, told me, “I’m all right if you’re all right,” which was his way of saying, “Don’t cry, or I might, too.”

As an adult, I faced three major losses in my thirties – first my mother, then a pregnancy at 21 weeks, then my father – and in each case, the circumstances made it difficult for me to grieve properly, at least as I came to understand proper grieving, ideas presented in classes at seminary, where I studied pastoral care through the life span and took a whole course on bereavement.

I’m not sure I got any better at grieving. Instead I learned to squeeze my eyes shut and keep the tears inside.

Crying, you see, frightens me. I associate it with a severe postpartum depression twenty years ago, a time when nothing seemed as if it would ever be right again, a time when everything seemed that mattered seemed poised to slip over the edge of an abyss. I said I had cried all my tears, but what I really meant was, I am not going to let things get that far out of my control again. If something threatens to hurt me, I will armor myself against it.

Molly was brilliant at eye contact.
Molly was brilliant at eye contact.

Just about the only exception to that armor was my first dog, Molly. She was charming, winsome, life-rearranging. I was 41 and had never lived with a dog before and had no idea how much it would feel like having a baby, another child to raise. A Bernese Mountain Dog, she had the terrible joints that some Berners do, and the crippling arthritis to go with them; that she lived to be almost 7 years old was a testimony to both my commitment to her and her incredible joie de vivre.

After her death, I did allow myself one good cry. (Emphasis on “allow,” which implies control, no?)

I always tell people who are afraid they will cry at a funeral that it’s exactly the right time for it, that their tears are a tribute to the person they loved and will miss, but I am confessing to you how poorly I do it. You may know what I mean. We hold ourselves together for the sake of others, because who doesn’t want to be a hero. And isn’t it a more secure feeling to be that hero than to let the feeling flow through and out of us? If we can only hold it all inside, we will never have to admit to vulnerability.

To mourn, to fully and consciously engage with the truth and pain of loss, is agonizing. It is something so difficult and frightening that incredibly successful people who are otherwise driven and aggressive risk-takers stereotypically shy away from grief.*

Grieve fully, feel Gratitude profoundly, and be humble enough to do the Grunt work!

Which is the hardest of the three g’s for you to practice to keep your faith simple? Grief, gratitude or grunt work?**

Books, darn it, sometimes make me think about things I would rather not, make me feel things I would just as soon compress into the components of more armor. Not long after reading both the quotes above and confessing to my journal that I am terrible at grieving, I opened Facebook on my iPhone and clicked on the daily memories they now provide whether I want them or not, and there I found this picture.

Hoagie, my last Berner
Hoagie, my last Berner

Now, he may not prove to be my final Berner, but Hoagie was the last of the Berners I had in Maine, a rescue who came to us at a time when my daughter and I really needed him even more than he needed us. He would have come with me to Pennsylvania, but he developed cancer and did not live long enough to embark on the new chapter of life with us.

“Oh, Hoagie,” I said to my iPhone, to Facebook, to no one in particular, as I sat in bed in the early morning half light. I blinked, because if you blink hard enough, or scrinch up your eyes just right, the tears will go away. Except that they don’t. Something calcifies. After kathrynzj’s Old Man Dog died last fall, we started talking about when and whether to look for a new dog, and where, and whether to get a puppy, and although my loss was further in the past, I could not say I was ready. I didn’t really grieve, I realized. I set my eyes toward the horizon, and I hardly stopped to let myself be sad, to grieve for the dog, the dogs, the life I thought I had, because of course the future looked favorable and many good things lay ahead.

I looked at the picture again, and I remembered the words I scrawled in my journal the early morning of the day before, and I looked at the picture again, and I cried.

Teddy at 3 months
Teddy at 3 months

At my house there is a new dog, this crazy puppy Teddy, a lab mix who loves my slippers, who is not a Berner, who is mouthy and likes hard pets and peeled carrots, and whose short coat feels different but good to the touch.

He likes to stand on his back legs to see what’s on the table or the counter, just like Molly.

He does this at the storm door when we leave the house, front paws up like a child, sending his heart with us in little cries of love and longing.

An armored heart cannot love that way. An armored heart cannot move into joy.


*Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson. Never Pray Again (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2014), p. 110. Check out their blog, Two Friars and a Fool.

**Becca Stevens. Letters from the Farm: A Simple Path for a Deeper Spiritual Life (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2015), p. 32. I received a copy from her publicist, and an advance copy, too. If you’ve read this far, and are interested in the book, leave a comment and I will send you the extra book.

Dogs, Revelation

Interspersions and Redactions

12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Those are the verses from Revelation 22 that comprise one of the lectionary readings this week. When I see something like that, I always wonder first, what are we avoiding? Babies' heads being smashed against rocks?

So I read the first segment, and it's lovely, Jesus is the First and the Last, and all we have to do to get into the Holy City is wash our robes (huh?), and if you just kept going in the lectionary, you would find yourself amongst familiar images, Jesus as the bright morning star, an offer for living water.

But what do we skip, I wondered, and I sought out the crucial verse between, number 15.

"Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehoods."

I'm sorry. Did you say the dogs are OUTside?

I object.

And if you would like to make the case that it's an understanding from that time, then I would ask you to consider that the whole book is written based on an understanding from those times, and give the entire opus the same weight. Surely, if we can come to understand dogs are not unclean (well, except when they are actually dirty), we can also let go of some of the other ideas that the passage of time and the discoveries of science and the general forward motion of the human race have shown to be no longer acceptable as "truth." Surely we can trust in the general themes of love for God and other and self without requiring the threats of plagues and death interspersed between the gifts and assurances.

It's one of those days I'm grateful to the people who developed the Revised Common Lectionary. For as Dear Helen, who participates in the Thursday Bible Study remarked, "I'm glad they left that out."


Dogs, Generation Hug, Gospel


PitBullHannahBoneShe looked a lot like this good girl, though her brown parts were darker, and she was thinner, and she shivered the way Sam does when I take him into a new and overwhelming situation.

It's new, letting dogs come with their owners into the soup kitchen. The other dogs I've seen are tiny, except for one rather oversized pug who still counts as small. I wondered what the exact rules were, and as I crossed the crowded dining room to bring milk to another diner, I went toward them, because for me, all dogs are irresistible, wherever I meet them. "Hello, lovely," I thought, but we never got a chance to meet properly, the dog and I. Only our eyes met, and then things began to happen.

I saw a staff member come over and ask her owner something.

"She's a service dog," he said.

While he talked to the staff member, he accidentally took off her slip lead as he fumbled with her and a backpack, avoiding eye contact with everyone. I was right next to them, and I wondered how this anxious dog would respond.

She went into a "down" and stayed put.

"I need to see her papers," said the staff member. 

"I know my rights," said her owner, a young guy with stitches in his chin.

Soon this escalated into a call to the police, a few minutes of high tension, a physical encounter I couldn't quite see, the dramatic spill of a bottle of red gatorade, various angry words spoken and the departure of the brown and white dog with her person. 

I have to admit my first thought in all that happened was for the dog. She was a good girl. In the midst of being challenged, her owner was opening his backpack to get her dinner out, a bag of Beneful.

Beneful One of my youth group members asked the question that really mattered, when we checked in to see how everyone was, to explain the underlying issues (the patron was intoxicated, and it probably wasn't the best strategy to use the dog to get him to leave; he put his hand near a police officer's face, and that's when things got worse). She asked what I want to know, too. "If you don't have anywhere else to get your dinner, what would you do with your dog?"

I'm glad I was able to say, because I heard the police officer say it, "The dog was not the issue."

Because she wasn't.

At the soup kitchen, the rules allow the person working the door to deny entry to people who are clearly high or drunk. But I know from many years of volunteering, and from discussions when I served on the board, that you or I might judge differently who is too out of it to come in, and who might just be better off sitting down to dinner. You or I might judge differently just what it means to be "beneful" on any given night.

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40, NRSV)

I wonder if I will see them again. The soup kitchen is just a few blocks from Downtown High School, and I drive through the area often. I think I'm going to get a bag of Beneful and put it in the car, just in case.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Cats, Children, Dogs

The White House Puppy

If you love dogs, as I do, a high moment in President-Elect Obama's speech had to be his words to his daughters, Malia and Sasha, promising that when they move into the White House, their long-held dream of a puppy will be fulfilled.

Here's a picture of the current occupant, Barney, referred to lovingly in remarks by our current President just this morning. (And apparently Barney is unhappy about leaving…)

Seven years ago, 11-year-old Snowman reminded me that I had promised our family would get a dog when I finished seminary. I pointed out that graduation was still six months away, but he pointed out that such matters deserve some study, and we invested in a book about dog breeds, which he perused exhaustively.

My real plan? To get a rescue dog, of course. Our cats came from the refuge league, surely our dog would, too. I believed in rescuing animals, not buying them. I certainly knew better than to go to the pet store in the mall, having some vague knowledge of puppy mills.

Daily puppy
There is no question that the
Obama's puppy search presents an opportunity to educate the public
about the right way to find a dog, whether a purebred or a mutt. If you
want a purebred, go through the national and/or regional breed club for
a list of breeders who meet the club's qualifications for ethical
breeding standards. In the case of a Bernese Mountain Dog, that
included doing certain kinds of testing for inherited health problems. If you want a rescued dog, check out the pups at your local shelter, and ask a lot of questions, including why certain dogs are not placed with certain families. (Chloe, pictured here, is a rescue pup featured on The Daily Puppy.)

In the late winter of 2002, I began visiting the Animal Refuge League, looking for a pup. But the refuge league had NO puppies (due to the
effectiveness of spay/neuter education in Maine) and would not place any of the
other dogs they had with a family that had cats and/or a child under 10. They
knew and liked us from cat adoptions, so it wasn't personal. I'm certain almost
any rescue group would love to place a dog with the new First Family, but
realistically, most rescue groups have standards for the families with whom
they place a dog, and those standards need to apply in this case,

Fall and Winter 02-03 035
We ended up seeking a Bernese Mountain Dog puppy, and Molly joined our family that spring. I still had not learned how to navigate the world of dog breeders; I did not use a referral program. We brought home a puppy with a long list of physical problems we would later discover, though no one could beat her for joyfulness in living. We couldn't possibly regret having Molly, but I learned a lot about the way to find a dog, the questions to ask, and the support available in the world of purebred dogs.

All over the web, well-meaning dog people have offered up opinions about what kind of dog the Obamas "should" adopt. I hope dog-loving groups and individuals will take into consideration the many
factors the Obama family will be considering as they choose a puppy to take to
the White House and not focus on making their choice for them. The last
thing the dog world needs is a bad match with a little girl's allergies and a
dog who has to be "returned" to rescue.

People are raising their "voices" to swear that there is no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog, but I want to ask for some peace and space for the Obamas.

If a Bichon is the little girls' favorite, please don't accuse them of going Hollywood.


Labradoodle-picture-logcabin1bIf they really love a labradoodle, let's not have a purebred fit about the fact that they are deliberate mutts, neither labrador nor poodle, okay?

Chinese crested
If they go with a nearly hairless Chinese Crested, let's not berate them for having an elitist purebred, agreed? (And if anybody says they're ugly, send them over to talk to me.)

BrownStandardIf they bring home a Standard Poodle, don't call them effete, but meditate instead on the idea that the whole family will be tall, athletic and smarter than most of the rest of us.

(And there is no rule that says they have to be, as Light Princess said when younger, "cut into shapes.)

Headshot smallA White House dog must adjust to multiple staff
members, people coming and going, even Secret Service protection. Temperament
and training will be crucial to a happy placement.  Molly tells me she would willingly volunteer for this national service if only her coat would not make a child feel ill.

(Sam feels he can better serve at home, although should bad people try to get through the gates, he could certainly bark at them, fiercely. While wagging his tail.)

Finally, the Obama family will be fine on two of the touchiest issues with both breeders and rescuers. At the White House, *someone* is
always at home. And the yard? Definitely fenced-in.

Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Cats, Dogs, Psalms

Full of God’s Creatures

O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Psalm 104:24, NRSV

Last night I got a phone call from a friend in the regional Bernese Mountain Dog Club (or Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, as St. Casserole dubbed them), to check in about planning a picnic for this summer. Yes, I do belong, believe it or not, to a breed club. Two, actually: one regional, one national. It happened because Molly had many orthopedic problems as a puppy, and when I went to the Internet looking for information, I found the clubs.

I had always been a cat person. It came as a great surprise that I could love a dog, and now two dogs, with the abandon and occasional anxiety previously reserved for my children. I expected larger cats. (Yes, I hear you dog people chortling at my foolishness.)

Dogs and cats, and any animal we can love, really love, prove God for me. Oh, there are other things, too. Sunsets, harvest moons, lilacs, daffodils, mountains, the ocean, things so beautiful they couldn't possibly be merely random. And then there are human relationships, with their aggravations and their deep satisfactions, and physical pleasures. Love, and really good sex, and a piece of gooey pepperoni pizza–all these things transcend ordinary reality and make me want to shout, or purr, or wroo-wroo my praises.

Animals, with their determined focus on their own pleasure or their desire to be faithful to us, with their enthusiasm for chasing each other or rolling in something that smells delicious, for curling up next to us when we feel low, for simply being present to us–they are made in God's wisdom.

Yes, even Baby, the cat who brings wildlife indoors, brings some of that wisdom to the fore. She loves me as much as a cat can love a person. She suffers when I turn her out of the room, hoping to sleep. She spends her days contentedly on my bed, rubbing up against anything of mine I don't think to put on a hanger.

If only I spent my days as attentive to God, even when God seems absent…

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to God, for I rejoice in the LORD.

(Psalm 104:33-34)

Dogs, The Body Electric

The Daily Puppy

After a trip to the sports medicine doctor (yes, LOL, Songbird at the sports doctor, hi-larious), I am wearing two of these, which are more comfortable than the other version, but this doctor wants me to wear them 24/ 7.

I am looking for things to cheer me, and The Princess suggested adding a gadget to my iGoogle page.

She was right. Go see The Daily Puppy and you will understand why.

(P.S. The disembodied arm? Not mine.)