Lessons on Love from a 20 Pound Dog

 

Just over fifteen years ago, Kira came into my life. I was in my last year of massage therapy school in New York, and just entering into what would become a long and difficult divorce. My ex-husband was allergic to dogs. And so my first declaration of independence was to get a puppy.

I had wanted to adopt a shelter dog, but when I applied to the shelter, I was told that adoptees who were getting divorced were not proven to be responsible pet owners and most dogs adopted by people in my position were eventually returned to the shelter.

I assured them I was not that person. I assured them this dog would have a wonderful life and be part of my family forever. I had a beautiful fenced yard. And I had references.

I was still denied.

I would not give in though, and with the help of friends, I made my way to a reputable breeder.  I visited his home and met the three puppies that were available. I was standing in the middle of the finished basement, holding a tiny and timid apricot cockerpoo, about to choose him as my new friend, when his larger buff colored sister gracelessly charged across the long room, crashed into my feet and gripped her paws around my right ankle. She would not let go.

The breeder said to me, “You might want this one, but that one wants you.”

And so I gently put the apricot pup down and picked up the buff colored pup. I fell in love with her boldness. She made me laugh. And for some reason, she seemed to have a great fascination with me.  She melted me.

I brought her home weeks later, after she was weaned. She howled like a beast into the night. As I tossed and turned, I marveled at how anything so tiny could make a sound so large. Within hours, she was sleeping in bed with me and settled right down. And that’s how it always went with Kira. When she dissented, you knew it.  And you learned to do it her way. And over the years, it’s worked out just fine.

She was headstrong.  We attended puppy kindergarten and failed miserably. The instructor told me the treat held no power over her because people intrigued her more than the reward.  What is a puppy parent to do, but embrace the uniqueness of their four legged child? We skipped the advanced training class. We’d figure it out on our own. And so we drove back home into the dark December night.

But Kira was quite smart. Brilliant, really.  So long as it was something she cared to learn. She understood commands in three languages. And then she took up learning hand commands. Within days she learned how to ring the bell I hung on the back door when she needed to go out.  She took to housebreaking like a champ. And she could howl out sounds that were clearly words to anyone who understood the soul of a dog. She loved to learn so long as the learning was fun. She loved to please. And she loved to hear me laugh. I didn’t have cable TV for nearly a year because Kira occupied my every leisure hour. Nothing on cable could compete with her. And on days when the drudgery of divorce litigation beat my spirit into the dirt, Kira was the reason I’d get up in the morning. Because if I didn’t take her out and feed her, no one else was going to. She gave me purpose. And confidence that if I could be responsible for the wellbeing of a 20 pound dog,  just maybe there was a chance I’d come out of this divorce okay too.

I can have something of a snarky sense of humor, and so when I would introduce Kira to people, I would tell them she was the four legged dog who replaced the two legged dog, but she was much smarter, more affectionate, and far more loyal.

But the truth was, despite my smart mouth, Kira came into my life to teach me about love.

As new relationships presented themselves, in hindsight, I realize now she was giving me her feedback on each of them. One would play with her and rile her up so she didn’t settle down to sleep for hours. Another would spoil her rotten and make it difficult to get her back to a routine for days.  At the time, I hadn’t realized she was trying to tell me they were lovely distractions, but none of them was “the one.”

Kira is fifteen now. Her body is frail and tired. But her spirit has been strong, despite her failing body. She has been in congestive heart failure for well over two years. Soon after that diagnosis, she lost her hearing.  In the past year, she’s lost almost half her weight. And she’s lost almost all her hair.  In recent months she developed a steady and hacking nighttime cough that is the telltale sign of fluids filling the lungs. But the hardest thing in recent days has been the dim look in her eyes from oxygen not reaching her brain. Even after she lost her hearing, we’d communicate through hand signals and she would demonstrate that she was still eager to learn. As hypoxia began to set in though, learning came harder. And it seemed to make her nervous. She seemed to know I wanted her to do certain things, but she couldn’t recall what they were. If I left the room, I would find her anxiously searching the house to find me. Her eyes took on a disturbingly vacant look this past Saturday morning. And I could see fear in her eyes for the first time. It killed me.
Anyone who knew Kira knew hands down that she was fearless.

When a dog comes into your life, they bring untold joy. But you know too that one day they will leave and they will rip your heart in two. And so when Kira came into my life, I knew the responsibility would one day fall to me to make that hard decision when she was having more bad days than good days. I have been watching her closely and waiting for her to tell me. In the last few days she has. This Thursday, on the eve of the new moon, which speaks to new beginnings, we will be visiting our holistic vet across town where Kira will begin her next journey and be freed of the body that limits her, along with the panic that consumes her. It is the heartache I must step into in exchange for all the love and caring she has given me over fifteen years.

Since early this year, I have had an awareness that Kira came into my life when love disappointed me. And that she was getting ready to say goodbye because she knew she had already taught me what to notice when it was time for a real and lasting love to enter my life. Here are some things I suspect she’d want me to remember when that love shows up:

  • Remember to always be yourself and find someone who thinks that’s an awesome idea.
  • Be bold. Be fearless. And don’t be shy about claiming the things you want in life.
  • Make sure you find someone who lights up your world and that you find them more interesting than the best treats.
  • Never quit learning, but remember to have fun while you’re doing it. (And never waste time learning silly useless things that you’re too smart for).
  • Find someone who is fun and interesting enough to make you not care if you own a TV.
  • Make sure he spoils you, but not so much that you become complacent. Remember to spoil him too.
  • Make sure you really like the sound of his laugh.
  • And make sure something about your crazy heart makes him laugh often.
  • Never get tired of seeing his smile.
  • Remember that being timid and easy going are overrated and the good stuff happens to people who know they deserve it.
  • Love him no matter what. And make sure he loves you no matter what.
  • Sometimes howling like a beast is a good idea when no one is listening to what you know you need.   
  • Be patient with each other when you grow old.
  • And when it’s time to say goodbye, know you have loved each other with all your heart and that that kind of love will never end.

Blessings and peace on your journey, my sweet Kira.  You have been an awesome girl. And an outstanding teacher. I love you!

©Maria Grace Mandarino

October 16, 2017

22450085_1922372141335716_4542840418804282387_n

Advertisements

Poetry Post: Prayer on a Full Moon

Over the past two years, I have been developing classes in contemplative writing. One of those classes focuses on prayerful writing according to the rhythm of the moon. Experiencing the cycle of life with the phases of the moon is something all ancient cultures did. And it is an art we have lost in the modern world. We have lost our connection to the God’s expression in the natural world. Living and creating with this rhythm has been a powerful process for me in my own inner work. And it’s something I look forward to sharing soon with my students. 

Here is one of my recent full moon prayer-poems. 

 

Prayer on a Full Moon

On this moon of completion

help us to release old things,

heavy things which have outlasted

their purpose,

attachments and expectations

that are burdensome,

ancient,

and senseless to keep carrying.

Lift the weight of chain mail,

and unbind the shackles

that keep us from love.

 

Bless us with courage

to shed old ways,

and with faith

to believe we are enough,

and don’t need to drag

outdated furnishings

into a new home,

a home where you have plans for us.

 

Give us the conviction

to walk into a new room

in a new way.

 

Copyright 2017

Maria Grace Mandarino

09.06.17

Turning the Corners

I have been asked to pray for a lot of people in this past week. People grieving loss. People dealing with serious illness. People facing paralyzing fears that come with major life transitions. People who are scared, overwhelmed, in pain, and fresh out of hope.

Then there have been names like Irma and Maria.

Places like Las Vegas.

How do you hold all of it? How do you pray for all of it?

As spiritual directors, we encourage our directees to seek out forms of prayer that call them into a more intimate relationship with God. Usually these are not the prayers found in a prayer book. Oftentimes we talk about body prayer. The labyrinth is one such form of body prayer.

This morning I attended a business networking function to promote my acupuncture practice. I don’t even think about the hat I wear as a Spiritual Director at these meetings.

And then a spirited woman sat across from me. We had a conversation about our respective professions. She complimented me on the Brigid’s cross that I wear. It opened a conversation and we talked about church, community, and serving others in need. She, like me, was an Episcopalian, and a former Roman Catholic. The odds of sitting across from this woman and having this conversation in this moment at a professional networking group were slim. And I suspected the movement of God was involved.

I am not a natural at networking events. I can do them. But I am an introvert. And after such extroverted activity, I find myself wanting to decompress, usually alone and in nature. But I had things to do at the office, and other appointments to get to later on.

On the way to my office though, I took a wrong turn. And I passed the Unity Church that is less than a quarter mile from my clinic. It houses a breathtaking labyrinth that I promised myself I’d visit once the triple digit summer temperatures dropped. I turned into the parking lot, expecting to spend maybe ten minutes there. The word “turn, ” by the way, is significant.

I spent a half hour there.

That half hour held the power of a weekend retreat. Alone, against the backdrop of an Autumn desert blue sky, with the warm sun on my back, I was in awe of the hummingbirds, butterflies, and honey bees at work all around me. I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth and thanked these creatures for allowing me to share this holy space with them. Desert flowers of orange, yellow, fuchsia and purple, framed in shades of sage green, framed the circular path. The sound of water from the large fountain behind me filled the space.

My heart was overwhelmed.

God was everywhere.

I began to walk. I usually walk a labyrinth at a medium pace. I like an even rhythm. On a walk. And in life.

The turns were hard today though. They seemed narrow. I was wearing a low heel. My balance felt off. The long spans were easy. But the turns threw it all off. I slowed my pace.

Slowing down was not enough though. I still bobbled at the turns.

I don’t like to bobble and I was uncomfortable.

On the next long pass, I knew I had to navigate the approaching turn differently. I stepped. And paused.

I waited longer. And I listened. To the sounds of the fountain, the honey bees, the birds. Even the train whistling in the distance.

In the Benedictine tradition that I am trained in, we are taught to listen with the Ear of the Heart. And so I listened in this way too. And I heard, “Step again. Then wait. Again.”

I did.

And then I pivoted slowly to continue in the other direction.

I did not bobble.

I stepped again, two feet landing side by side.  I paused again.

I still did not bobble.

And then slowly and mindfully, I continued on in this way.

 

The labyrinth is a metaphor for life. I like predictability. When I strike a pace, on the physical path, or the spiritual path, I like to keep that pace. I appreciate patterns and rhythms. They comfort me. And they have always been where I’ve found God. But nothing about these past weeks has been predictable. Or comforting.  And I’ve felt a little disconnected from God.

In moments like these, when the old ways no longer work, you can either keep walking as you always have, or you can seek a new way.

 

I have not been able to pray easily this week because of the monumental sorrow of so many people around me.  As I prayed for these people as I walked today, the labyrinth taught me a new way to be with sorrow, and how  to make space for hope and the movement of God in what might feel like hopeless and spiritually vacant times.

When I became an Episcopalian, the Bishop spoke of the importance of turning. Turning away from the things that were not in alignment with the flow of God. The questions beg:  what do we turn away from? What do we turn toward? How do we navigate those turns? How mindful are we in making those turns? How slow? How fast? How willing? How unwilling? How patient?

In my walk today and in the hours that followed, I thought about the Bishop’s words and how significant the idea of turning really is on the spiritual path.

We are living in new times. We are all figuring things out, day by day, and often hour by hour. If your usual ways of prayer feel limiting, try a form of body prayer. While moving and praying, listen. Listen with your feet. Listen with your legs. Listen with your lungs. Listen with your heart. Listen for the voice on the wind. Stand there as long as it takes. Take off your shoes. Wait a few seconds. Maybe a minute, or ten. Then wait a little longer still. Step again. Pivot, with your feet, with your mind, with your heart. God is working in all those movements, in the stepping, in the standing, in the turning.

 

Blessings and peace on your journey,
Maria Grace Mandarino

Sacred Space Spiritual Direction

www.MariaMandarino.com/spiritualdirection.html