Thursday, January 14, 2016

Thankful Thursday - My Dog Trainer

Our neighbors have a new dog. A beautiful little Snickerdoodle or some other extra cute combination of dog breeds. His name is Toby and he is adorable, frisky, easily excitable - like every puppy. They have hired a woman to help them train him. When to give him treats and when not to. When and where to walk him and when and where not to walk him. Leash or not. Collar or harness. Turn your back on him when he does this, face him when he does that. So much to remember. So much to practice.
How cute was Toby when he was teeny weeny?

In some ways, their three month old puppy is already better behaved and obedient than our ten year old dog. He will retrieve his favorite toy dozens of times, with increasing excitement and precision. One afternoon, we watched him run back and forth across their backyard, chasing that little purple donut toy more times than Maya has retrieved anything in all of her life. All ten years! My daughter and I shook our heads in amazement - and I came home wishing we had done a better job of training our little beast in the early years. I'm pretty sure that I don't have the patience to train our old dog any new tricks. Nor do I want to pay a dog trainer. I'm way too cheap for that.

Besides, I already have a dog trainer. Not the kind of trainer who comes to the house and trains the dog and dog owners how to interact. Not that kind. My dog is my trainer - get it? Dog trainer. For the last ten years, my sweet little Yorkie has been training me to be a better wife, better mother, and better person.

 Meet my Maya.

Here are a few ways in which Maya is training me.

1. She is training me to be contented with what I have. That dog has had the same squeaky toys for most of her life. One of them is a well-used gray hippo, small enough to fit into her tiny mouth and cart around. She picks it up and tosses her head back, throwing it across our family room, sometimes up onto the hearth, sometimes up onto the couch. Then she runs to pick it up and throw it again. How did she learn to throw it like that? I have no idea. But she loves that little toy. I am married to somebody who likes buy her new toys. But she doesn't care - she goes back to her little hippo.

I need to learn to be more contented with what I have. The people. The relationships. The clothes. The food. The house. The body. The challenges. The joys. All of it. I mean, I like my stuff. I love my study and all the books and journals that line the shelves in there. I love my clothes and my shoes and boots. And I have more than I need. But still... but still... It is so easy to go shopping for things I don't need, to stock up of stuff, just in case. In case of what? I'm not exactly sure. Doomsday prepping, perhaps. What if it snows and we lose power? We need lots of canned food and other things that don't need to be cooked. What if it gets hot and we lose power? We need bottled water. What if? What if? What if? When in doubt, buy more canned beans, more pairs of socks, and more wine. If we lose power, I may need a strong drink to stay calm.

Maya has no fear of a doomsday. She doesn't worry about the latest toy gadgets or new foodie recipes or having a sparkly new collar. She is happy to be alive, to have a warm place to lay down, food in her bowl, and water in her tea cup (yes, she drinks out of a tea cup). She exemplifies contentment. I need to follow her lead.

2. She is training me to be more alert to my surroundings. When she holds her head up as high as she can, her face is about nine inches from the ground. When she lowers her face, it is only about one inch from the ground - or closer. She sniffs everything. She wants to investigate every crumb she finds on the floor and wander through every tuft of grass outside. Her curiosity and interest in her surroundings are inexhaustible.

I need to learn to keep my head up and not down. When I walk, I tend to look down at my feet. I tend to be clumsy and have been known to trip over cracks in the sidewalk frequently. But the other night,  on a frigid Charlotte night, when I went out walking with my dog trainer, I looked up, all the way up at the sky. Stars. Millions of stars. Peering up at the starry sky, I nearly tripped over my tiny dog - who was peering down and sniffing everything around her. I thanked her for dragging me out into the cold night - not sure where my husband was and why he wasn't out there with her. But I suppose I owe him a word of thanks as well - if I hadn't taken her out, I would have missed the majesty of the heavens.

Same thing is true about my emotional life. I tend to be an optimist, always looking for the silver lining, the rainbow, the happy cliche to lift my spirits. But like everybody, I can sometimes lean the other way, finding more reasons (excuses?) to complain than to be grateful. That's when I need to look up - look up at the sky above me, look up at the journals on the shelves above my desk, look up at the roof over my head, look up at the chandeliers in the sanctuary of the church I love, look up into the eyes of my son, look up at the shelves in our pantry, look up at the photos on the shelves and walls of my family room, look up to the sky and say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, Lord, for the bountiful blessings of this life you have given me."

3. Maya is training me to get outside more. Whenever anyone opens the front door or the door that goes out onto the back deck, that little dog comes running, barking. The only time she doesn't want to go outside is when it's raining. She will chase the squirrels that appear on the deck. When she's tired of chasing squirrels and snapping at the bees buzzing around her, she will plop down under the bench and take a nap. On spring days, when she is done with "doing her business," she will plop down on a neighbor's lawn and pretend that she can't walk another step. She will bark at people as they walk past our house. (See? She's terribly trained. She's practically not trained at all.) She wants to be outside all the time.

This past summer and fall, I walked more miles than any other summer of my life. I joined an awesome group of people who decided to walk 100 miles here in Charlotte, getting to know the city and each other after the tragedy of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. I made the acquaintance of dozens of people I would never had known otherwise. We explored areas of Charlotte I wouldn't have known otherwise. We Walk Together Charlotte will gather together tomorrow morning to begin another round of walks here in our beloved Queen City. Rain or shine. Cold or hot. Get together. Get outside. Look around. Look at each other. Look within.

4. Maya is training me on how to love. That dog is madly, and I do mean madly, in love with my husband. Mention the word "daddy" in her presence and she will instantaneously wake up from a nap, jump off of whatever piece of furniture she's on, and run to the kitchen door, tail wagging. When he's at home, she's with him. When he's not at home, she's looking out for him. She wants to eat what he's eating. She wants to sleep where he's sleeping. When we are out for a walk, she stops to stare at every car that approaches to see if it's his car. Believe me, she recognizes his car when she sees it. And when it is his car, when he drives past us headed for home, she becomes my 9 pound sled dog - pulling, pulling, pulling, tail wagging, all the way home. Her love for him is immeasurable and immovable.

How cute and young were we???

There was a time when I loved him that way. There was a time when he was the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing on my mind at night. Truthfully, that is still often the case - but mostly it's me being annoyed by his snoring before I fall off to sleep and upon waking. I won't lie - there are also quick flashes of "What is that smell?"

Don't get me wrong; I love my husband. He's the most generous person I have ever known. He takes better care of his mother than any other man, any other person I know. He has siblings, but he is his mother's only caregiver. He cares for her with a level of humor, patience, and consistency that I cannot begin to comprehend. And don't get me started on how much he adores and spoils his children. 

Having said all that, I confess that I need to relearn how to love him and my kids and my friends the way Maya loves: freely, fully, unreservedly. I calculate. I keep score. I keep a journal - a written record of the ways and times that I think I've been wronged. I often don't even come downstairs to the kitchen when my family members come home from their many outings and activities. I need a transfusion of some of Maya's passionate, undiminished love potion. I need to regain my sense of humor around marriage and parenting. 

I need to return frequently to the photo albums and journal entries of earlier parenting. Back when my kids didn't talk back. Back when they volunteered to do chores. Back when they went to be before I did. At the same time, those photos and journals remind me that I had to drive them everywhere they wanted to go and then wait for them to be done. I had to do their laundry and make their beds. I had to make sure they woke up at the right time and completed their assignments. I don't have to do any of that anymore. I am enormously grateful for how well they have raised themselves.

I need to return frequently to the journal of my recent trip to Hilton Head with my husband, the written account of the best week of our marriage. We have continued to honor and enjoy other's company since that trip, but I want to do even better. I want to be even better. I want to take more lessons on love from my sweet little beastie dog. 

5. Maya is training me in trust and faith. She trusts that we will feed her and walk her. She trusts that we will pet her and scratch her back. She trusts that when we leave, we will come back. She trusts that she is safe with us. She trusts my husband the most, but she trusts all of us.

I have sooooooo much to learn about trust and faith. I want to learn how to go deeper in my trust that all is well, that all shall be well. Even when I'm angry at the tenor of politics in our country. Even when I'm worried about money. Even when I'm jealous of the success of other writers. Even when I get nervous in movie theaters, wondering if someone has a loaded gun and is planning to open fire on us in the darkness. Even when I am impatient with and critical of my seminary classmates. Even when I am journaling furiously about how much I hope to the Powerball lottery, buy a one way ticket to Madrid, change my name, and live in a penthouse apartment above el paseo de la Castellana in the only city where my soul is completely at home. I am learning to trust that God walks with me right here in Charlotte. God works with me as I sweep and dust and do laundry. God hears me as I pray, as I complain, as I give thanks, as I share my heart with dear friends and other loved ones. God's faithfulness and tenderness are increasingly evident in my life - or perhaps God hasn't changed. Perhaps I'm the one who is changing, seeing more, hearing more, believing more, trusting more. Either way, I want more faith, more trust - so much more.

6. Maya is training me that age is just a number. Well, except for the stiff joints in the morning, the teeth that have to get professionally cleaned and pulled when they rot, and the hesitation to run and jump quite as much and as vigorously as she used to. Yes, all of that is about Maya - she has knee caps that slide out of place. She needs to get her teeth cleaned every year, and this year, one of her teeth fell out while they were being cleaned. Poor thing. She used to jump down off our bed when she heard Steve come in from work - yes, I put her up on the bed every now and then. She doesn't sleep up there, but sometimes she gets to lay on the bed and watch television with me. Anyway, she used to jump down when she heard the kitchen door open. No more. She will stand at the edge of the bed, tail wagging, but she won't jump anymore. In dog years, she's more than 70 years old. She will turn 11 in May. But even the veterinarian's nurses and groomers comment on how young she seems.

I've got a few sore joints of my own - aching and cracking ankles and knees. I definitely don't jump or run as much as I used to - I am grateful to be able to walk these long morning walks and jump on the rebounder. Running is overrated as far as I'm concerned. My hairline is receding. My skin is beginning to create lines and wrinkles. I get my teeth cleaned twice a year because I don't want any of them to fall out.

Yesterday, I sat for several hours with my mother-in-law before and after her oral surgery yesterday. The last of her teeth were removed so that she can be fitted for dentures. During all the years I have known her, more than 25 years, she has commented about my teeth. "Look at those beautiful teeth." "You have such beautiful teeth, Gail." I'm not bragging about my teeth; I am pointing out that she always points out my teeth. Her compliments make me extremely uncomfortable. Every time she says something about them, I feel like a horse being looked at before being sold. "Check her legs. Check her feet. Check her teeth." Someday I will be brave enough to say, "Claire, I am neither a horse nor a slave being considered for purchase. Stop staring at and talking about my teeth." In the meantime, I will keep brush and floss these pearly whites - I want to keep them for at least twenty-five more years. To that end, I have dental floss stashed in my car, in my purse, in the drawer of my nightstand, in my desk drawer - I'm a bit of a dental floss fanatic. Perhaps because of the circumstances, perhaps because of the quinoa I had had for lunch, I flossed my teeth while waiting for my mother-in-law's teeth to be extracted.

Like my favorite doggie trainer, I too am getting up there in years - and also in experience and joy and gratitude. There are many people who don't get to live 50 years. There are lots of people whose teeth don't last 50 years. There are many people who don't survive kanswer. There are many people who don't have ankles or knees or legs.

Age is just a number. But every one of those numbers is a gift, a blessing, an honor and a responsibility. I am so happy, so grateful to be alive. No shame. No covering up. No denying my age. I have lived long and lived well. Thanks be to God.

I am enormously grateful for every mile these creaky knees have carried me. I am grateful for every smile that has etched a line on my face. I am grateful for the buckets of tears I have cried - all of which were once carried in the bags under my eyes. I am grateful for all the books I've read - even the ones I have forgotten. I am grateful for the classes I've taught and the ones I've taken. I am grateful for the photo albums and journal pages. I am grateful for the scars too - the scars I etching into my legs and knees and elbows from dozens of falls during my 50 years, the shingles scars that formed on my neck when I was in 9th grade, and the post-kanswer scars in my armpits, across my chest, and on my abdomen - because they all remind me that I have survived 100% of the challenges I have faced in my lifetime. Thanks be to God.

I don't know how much longer Maya will be with us.
I don't know how much longer I will be with Maya.
But this much I do know - I will be grateful for every day.
Every meal. Every toy. Every walk.
Every hug from my husband and children.
Every safe trip and every safe return home.
Every flight. Every ride. Every journey.
Every birthday and anniversary.
Every Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve.

I am grateful for every training session Maya has given me over these past 10+ years.

Grateful, grateful, grateful, grateful.

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