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

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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

 

Blog Post: Wherever You Go, There You Are

Six months ago, I had promised I’d write more about the unfolding of my journey into the healing arts. When I began on this road seventeen years ago as a student in the massage therapy program at the New York College of Health Professions, I was quite linear. I was learning. And I was a damned good learner. Muscle origins and insertions, innervations. Kinesiology. Neurology. There was plenty to keep my linear mind busy. Not to mention sitting for one of the most grueling massage boards in the country.

When things started to open up on that journey, I really didn’t quite understand what was happening and my linear mind wasn’t keen on making space for the non-linear stuff it didn’t understand. When I started to grasp it through T’ai Chi and Qi Gong, I couldn’t quite accept that it was happening to me and that it was happening so fast. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to happen over time with dedicated cultivation and the guidance of a wise mentor?

Over the years though, I came to realize this cultivation of energy had started long before I got to the massage program. This did not happen in a two year massage therapy program.

In Spring of 1996, I was a pretty intense Type A sort, working in medical editorial, driven by the almighty deadline. My boss, a physician from India, didn’t play into such physical world dramas, and one day when I had probably had one cup of coffee too many, and was chomping at the bit to select manuscripts for the next issue, he suggested that I learn to meditate. As only a dedicated Type A New Yorker could respond, I said, “I don’t have time for that stuff.” He nodded, smiled graciously, and said, “Precisely when you need to do it most.”

Some weeks later, I found myself in an independent bookstore on Long Island that was closing its doors. Everything was marked down. “Misplaced” in the literary fiction section was this book, facing outward so the title boldly stared me in the eye. It read, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”

I was fond of the Clint Black song by the same name that was popular at the time. So I took the book off the shelf.

It turned out to be about Zen Meditation. I recalled my boss’s recommendation. The book was half price. What did I have to lose? I bought it. I opened it when I got home and devoured it. It was the first thing that made sense to me in a long, long while.

That book altered the course of everything that followed.

Three months later, I received a phone call at work — a defining moment for which nothing could have ever prepared me. I learned of the death of a childhood friend who was only 30 years old. It was impossible to breathe. Sound distorted. Vision blurred. My mental focus was lost and stayed that way for months. I plunged into despair. And there was no consoling me. I wanted one last time with my friend. One last conversation. One last song sung together. One last moment of raucous laughter. One last hug.

There would be none.

It was my first adult journey into grief. And I had no resources to guide me, except for the daily Zen practice I had begun three months before. Practice grounded me. It calmed me. It slowed down my racing heart. The very thing I had told my boss “I didn’t have time for” was the very thing I made time for — now twice a day. And eventually practice acquainted me with the peace of letting go. That process took nearly a full year.

But my opportunity to cultivate my energy wouldn’t end there.

But for a half hour, it would have been the first anniversary of my friend’s death. I was driving home from my grandmother’s house after her funeral, a funeral which came after an arduous two weeks of her failing health. During those weeks, I watched my grandmother decline in a hospital bed and stood by my mother and helped her make the decision to remove her mother from life support. I was present when she died. I saw her spirit leave her body. Although I told myself I had imagined that. The thing was back then, if you had asked me the point from which the spirit left the body, I would have said the crown. Because back then, even though I was meditating, I still lived wholeheartedly in my mind. The problem was, the gold spiral of energy I saw leave my grandmother’s body just before she flat-lined? It rose above her heart.

I was beyond thinking about it. I was emotionally drained. And I was making the journey into another layer of grief.

That night after the funeral, I was only about 15 minutes from home when traffic came to a stop at a construction site on the northbound Sagtikos Parkway.  I saw the cars in my rear view mirror cascading off the road as they were struck one by one, a ballet of headlights as cars were pushed onto the shoulder in a surreal blur. I remember bracing against the steering wheel and the brake pedal. And then the unforgiving sound and feel of metal hitting metal as my car was struck hard by the drunk driver, propelling my car into the car ahead of me, which my then husband was driving. I remember the sensation of my body moving upward against the strain of my seat belt. Then a violent slam back down into my seat. And then nothing.

I don’t know how long “nothing” lasted but it couldn’t have been long.

I remember being suspended in blackness. A peaceful silence. And these tiny beautiful sparkling lights permeating the blackness. I felt like I was floating. The stillness was welcomed and I was held in it for what seemed a long time. Then I heard a man’s voice. It was not a voice I recognized. But it was clear and firm in its directive: “You need to go back. Your mother cannot handle losing you and her mother.”

And then the next thing I remembered was sound. Loud and intrusive sounds. My husband was banging against the driver’s side window, screaming my name, pounding his fists against the glass. I wanted to tell him to shut up. A distant car horn was piercing the night. And then I saw my husband’s face as he continued to pound on the window. I recognized a frantic look I’d never seen before. I had been married to Joe Cool. An attorney. Nothing flustered him. Nothing. But this had him unearthed.

I got out of the car. I could walk, even though people told me I shouldn’t. I remember pacing like a wild animal on the shoulder, wrapped in a blanket until help arrived. We went to the ER. No bones were broken. Nothing required stitches. But soft tissue injuries and chronic pain plagued me, which provided me with more opportunity for Zen practice over the months that followed. I was also left with a heightened emotional sensitivity and spiritual awareness I didn’t understand and often scared me. And I was hesitant to breathe a word about those things to anyone for quite some time.

It wasn’t until years later, while in my first Myofascial Release class, that I had recall of a similar experience, when I was 17 years old. I grew up on Long Island and any Long Islander knows you never turn your back on the ocean. I had been taken under by a silent wave that rose up behind me. I remembered losing my footing and spiraling in the water, not sure what direction I was moving in. I pushed down on the ocean floor in panic and could feel my hands and legs being scraped by sand and rocks. I struggled. I fought. And then I had no fight left. I let go.

I experienced that same blackness with the sparkling lights. The same restful silence. The same feeling of suspension. Time ceased.  And then the harsh intrusion of sunlight as I found myself on the shore.

I told no one about this, not for years anyway. My linear assessment of the event went like this: 1) I was infinitely stupid for turning my back on the ocean, and 2) I was damned lucky to not be carried out to sea. And that was all I was capable of understanding at the time — luck had beat out stupidity. No need to celebrate it.

While I had forgotten about that day at the beach, when I experienced the blackness with the sparkling lights after my car accident, I knew I would never be the person I was before that night. I knew I was here to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. It would be a long time before I could give any of this a voice and put language on it. But the one thing I knew without a doubt was that after that night, there was positively no going back to life as I had known it.sedona-cairn

Blog Post: Alchemy and the Radical Transformation of Metal into Water

 

We are soon approaching the Winter Solstice, which in Celtic Spirituality is said to be a thin time, a moment when the spirit world is a bit closer to us, a time which celebrates the end of darkness and awaits the return of the light.  We cannot see it yet. But the promise of light is near.

In Five Element theory, we hold a similar idea. We leave the season of Autumn and the element of Metal as we progress toward the season of Winter and the element of Water. In the practice of acupuncture, we call this particular transition a radical transformation.

Consider the process. How can one transform Metal into Water?  Metal is hard, dense, and unyielding. Water is fluid, embodies movement, and life is born from it.  How can we logically explain such a drastic transition? The creation cycle of the other elements is clear: Water creates Wood. Wood creates Fire. Fire creates Earth. Earth creates  Metal (minerals).

But what of this radical transformation of Metal turning into Water? How does it happen? How can we apply laws of physics?

We can’t. This process involves magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

In Five Element theory, the shift out of Metal and into Water is said to be the movement of death into birth,  similar to the Celtic view of the Winter Solstice and moving from darkness into light. And so this is why the shift from Metal to Water is called a radical transformation. We must make a giant leap. A leap that science cannot explain.  A leap of faith. Hard and unyielding Metal will be affected so deeply by some inexplicable force that minerals will be turned into water and life will start anew.  It is a transition beyond the mind’s reach.

Magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

This transition involves a belief in a divine process,  in divine law, not man’s law. A process which requires us to make space in our lives for divine movement. This is the space in which God plays. And it is the space in which we wait and trust in our Creator’s deep love for us and in the belief that life will go on, despite what seems to be highly unlikely odds.

We experience this transition — this waiting between endings and beginnings — in times of grief and sorrow as well. In Chinese Medicine, it so happens that grief and sorrow are associated with the element of Metal. And the element of Water is associated with fear.

Ah, now, doesn’t this get a little more interesting?

When we grieve, we hurt so deeply that we are convinced we cannot survive our pain. Grief is a momentary death of our spirit. We are at the end of the cycle of Metal. Water is on the other side. Grief checks us. Fear stares us down from the distance. We are afraid of what’s on the other side of sorrow and grief. We wait in darkness, immobile, resisting the alchemical shift from death into birth. We are at an impasse. We are terrified of living again, of feeling again.

On the other side of darkness though is emerging light. Always. The Celts knew this. The ancient Chinese knew this. Metal waiting to be turned into Water. Death waiting for rebirth.

Magic. Alchemy. The hand of God.

To consider rebirth though and to start this cycle again is to risk great pain. We clutch at the darkness. Darkness is at least familiar. It is not normal or sensible to want to feel pain.

Birth is painful. For the woman. For the child.

But it offers immeasurable joy too. Birth is the only path to the human experience. To experience joy means to eventually experience sorrow. You cannot have one without the contrast of the other.

As we move toward the Winter Solstice, ask yourself these questions:

  • What in me has died?
  •  What in me is waiting to be reborn?
  • Am I willing to take the radical journey of alchemy from Metal into Water?
  • Am I willing to make space for magic and trust in the hand of God?

And in the tradition of a woman who asks no one to take a journey she has not taken herself, I assure you that I am on the path of radical transformation as well, walking right alongside you.

Blessings and peace to you as we all await the light’s return,

Maria Grace Mandarino