life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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We are each on our own path

I was meant to be a helper. The times I feel most alive and present, I am doing something that to help make the world a happier, more beautiful place. Since I was a child, I have been drawn to help creatures beyond the human realm. Bless my parents for opening our home to all kinds of animals, including the rabbit whose owner couldn’t keep it anymore, fish, gerbils, etc. I recently scooped up a magpie who had been attacked by other magpies and carried him to the forest to give him a chance to recover in a quiet spot.

I don’t know if I would call myself an animal whisperer, but I am drawn to help and there are many animals who either chosen to cross paths with my own or have at least humored me in my attempts to assist them. When I lived in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state, I rescued all kinds of animals: a racing pigeon with a broken wing, baby mice whose mom had been eaten or killed in a trap, birds that had flown into windows, the list goes on. A young squirrel sought me out when I was living in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts. I really wanted to bring him home, but he was young and healthy, a state that would not last if I introduced him to my two cats. [As an aside, my husband tells me I am part squirrel because I seem to create little nests of things. He refers to my collection of earplugs and Kleenex underneath my pillow on our bed as my squirrel cache. I recently scooped up a magpie who had been attacked by other magpies and carried him to the forest to give him a chance to recover in a quiet spot.My mom has also informed me that when I was baby, she would have to stick her finger in my mouth and do a sweep in my cheeks for hidden grapes and other items that I apparently stashed there, perhaps for a midnight snack? I can only wonder.]

My desire to help creatures in need is not completely selfless. I experience great benefit from this act. My heart practically bursts open from the love that comes pouring out. I feel alive and present. I think I also benefit from feeling needed by another being.

There is so much suffering in the world, and I often feel helpless to make a difference. On our recent visit to Rome, I witnessed animals in need of medical attention and food, but I knew that I could not help them all. When I bemoan my inability to save all creatures, my husband tells me that each animal is on its own path. We can help them along their way, but we cannot make their own choices for them. I have come to believe that this may indeed be true. We cannot know what goes on for each being, so I do my best to help keep them help them as I am able and as much as they will allow me in to their hidden lives.

The greatest gift I have ever received came in the form of a wolf dog named Okami. My husband and I adopted him from a rescue near our home in Prescott, Arizona. He was with us for only a very short while, but he imprinted deeply and permanently on my heart. We were inseparable. We went everywhere together. He followed me and became my shadow. My husband described him as a wise, Zen creature. Perhaps, he had experienced great suffering or trauma in his short life before our paths crossed. We couldn’t know, but his gentle, grounded demeanor was the most soothing influence on my own anxiety-riddled spirit, second only to my husband.

Okami shared five months of his life with us and then I made the difficult decision to put him down. He had been struggling for a month while our vet tried to figure out what was causing him to waste away. It wasn’t until I researched his symptoms online and suggested a tick-borne disease that we were able to determine the culprit. The vet admitted that testing for tick-borne disease was one of the first round of testing he normally did, but he had forgotten. The test came out positive, and we began treating Okami right away, but it was too late.

For a month, I had provided around the clock care for my beloved wolf dog. Even that fateful afternoon when I brought him to the vet because he could hardly stand up I would not have believed I would be leaving without him. When the vet assistant came to the exam room to tell me he was having difficulty breathing even with an oxygen machine to help him, I made the decision to put him down.

I left with his body in a box and the emptiest feeling my heart has ever known. Without Okami to care for, I felt adrift. I convinced my husband to let me bring home a baby husky the woman from the same rescue had told me about. I needed to be needed again. Our baby husky was full of joy and life, and she made me laugh every day. But she didn’t need me. When we made the decision to move to Brussels less than a year later, my parents generously offered to look after her while we were overseas. It occurred to me that her presence in our life may also have been meant to be only temporary. She helped my heart to heal in absence of Okami, and now she was going to my parents to do the same. We sent her to my parents not 48 hours after they had put their own dog down. They had been heartbroken, and my dad had sent me texts that read: Without Kota, there is no need to leave the house.

We were a little worried about sending them another dog so soon after the loss of their beloved Labrador, but it quickly became clear that Naih the bundle of husky joy was just what they needed. She gave my dad a reason to continue his walks through the woods. She gave my mom a grand puppy, which helped alleviate some of my own guilt at not having provided her with the human kind.

We miss her every day and hope to be reunited in the future, but we sense that her purpose in this life is to bring joy to as many creatures as possible. She is able to do this with my parents very well. In the short time she has been with them, she has helped a young boy overcome his fear of dogs and gained many friends—human and canine—at every dog park she visits. My husband and I joke that one day we will receive a letter from her, thanking us for giving her a home for the first year of her life and kindly requesting to stay with my parents forever more, where she has free reign of a 2400 square foot house, a huge yard, daily walks and visits to dogs parks, a canine best friend who lives around the corner, my mom to bring home toys and treats for her, my dad to wind around her little princess paw, and better healthcare than many people living in the United States and around the world will ever receive.

The spirit of the wolf continues to haunt my heart, and every time I go for a walk in the woods near our home I make a silent (and sometimes not so silent) wish that I will find a baby wolf who will fill the void in my heart and become my constant companion and shadow.

This afternoon when my husband and I went for a walk through the woods, we happened upon a young cat. It became clear that this cat needed help. Its collar had become wrapped around its neck and front leg, so much so that the fur had been rubbed off completely. As we approached, the cat mewed but moved farther away from us and underneath a fence. My husband and I went in different directions to try to get nearer to him.

I found a spot where I could manage to climb over the fence, and I moved toward the cat very slowly, stopping periodically to crouch down, whisper, and rub my fingers together in an attempt to cajole it closer.

Amazingly, kitten did come closer. We did this back and forth dance until he was nuzzling into my hand and legs while I say cross-legged.

Can you take off your shirt and toss it over the fence to me? I asked my husband. My own tank top would not be enough to try to wrap around the cat in order to carry it without being scratched.

If I throw it, he will run away, my husband said.

It’s ok; he will come back. I felt sure that he would. He needed help.

Kitten did run away, but he did come back. We danced a little more until I was able to wrap him up in the t-shirt and draw him into my chest. I whispered and comforted him until he settled into me. I thought I would try to hand him off to my husband so I could get over the fence, but I was afraid he would escape, so my husband held the fence down while I sidled and slip over the top. Apart from my leggings getting temporarily caught on a loose fence end, I made it over with relative ease. Kitten stayed calm for most of the walk except for some panic at the large road crossing between the forest and our quiet corner of Boitsfort.

Once inside our house, my husband cut the collar off and closed the doors between the foyer and the front door. I sat with kitten while he went through two bowls of food. I didn’t try to pry the collar off because I wasn’t sure if it was embedded in his skin, but it eventually fell off of its own accord. Free from the collar, he was much happier. He purred while he ate and let me clean his wounds with a soapy washcloth and wet wipes. He even let me cover the wounds with Neosporin.

My husband came in to say hello, but kitten was not so sure about him. Our other cats were very curious, so we let kitten out for a chaperoned meet and greet. It was clear that kitten did not want to stay inside. He immediately went for the large glass doors that led to our terrace. It was only a few more minutes before he discovered the open kitchen window that my husband had opened to air out the house from the awful stench his collar had carried. I yelled out, No! and went running out the front door in an effort to scare him back into the house, but he was gone.

My husband had walked around the corner to see if this cat might fit the description of a poster we had seen on several windows and light posts around the neighborhood. He did meet the description, but he was also no longer in our care. We walked over to the house where he had once lived and spoke with the owner. She was over the moon that he was still alive. We all walked around the neighborhood, looking for him, but to no avail. Kitten was gone.

Back home, I felt the return of the void. We had been so close, and the lack of resolution was woefully uncomfortable.

I had been texting my dad questions about how to care for the cat in its current condition and then shared my remorse when he escaped. He responded, an animal used to the outdoors would probably not want to live inside. Don’t feel bad. You enabled to continue doing what it loves.

My husband echoed my father’s words. You gave him a real chance to live, my husband told me in a reassuring voice. With the collar, he might have made it maybe three more weeks, but he would have died.

I know, but I’m worried that his wound will get infected. And he was so skinny. He needs to eat so much more food, I said.

When I started to cry, my husband wrapped his arms around me. I told him how I hadn’t felt needed since Okami had died and that I thought this was my wish for a wolf puppy come true.

I thought he would be my wolf cat, I sobbed into my husband’s chest.

You gave him a miracle; you gave him the ultimate wish to be free from a bonded trap that was killing him. His ultimate wish was not to be released from a trap only to be put into a larger cage, a house where he would live indoors.

I took a deep breath in and let out a slow exhale. I think you are right, I said. Maybe, he didn’t want to go back to live with that woman. He was meant to be a wild and free spirit. I hope he will be ok out there.

Even though I know kitten is now somewhere out there, roaming free, I left a bowl of food and an almost empty can of tuna in the windowsill, just in case.

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This time last year…

This time last year, it was unbearably hot

From early in the morning until late at night

We would close up the windows and draw the shades

And try to keep cool in the midst of the blaze

This time last year, when the sun would go down

We would walk near the house ‘neath the cottonwood trees

A barn owl would screech her babies were near

They left gifts of their feathers for me to find

This time last year when you were far away

It was just me and my wolf dog in the heat of the day

This time last year, it was unbearably hot

My wolf dog was with me, this year he is not


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What’s going ON in there?

About a week ago, I went to see a physical therapist for my recent shoulder injury and the subsequent pain I was experiencing (even more intensely than usual) in my neck and along the ridges of my shoulders.

 

During our time together, I spoke of long-term, chronic pain in my neck and shoulders. It has always been there, for as long as I can remember. It has gotten worth with time and pain in my right shoulder that I dislocated my sophomore year of college (April 1st, to be exact; that was a fun one).

 

After examining the muscles in each area, my PT told me that the pain I have been living with could go away.

 

It is caused by stress and anxiety, she told me.

 

Duh, I thought.

 

My sibling came for a visit the week before, and we had talked about the defenses children create to help them survive in the world while they figure out who they are. We had talked about the fact that we had likely worked through these defenses in our adult lives. I have spoken with pride about the self-work I have done. Well, it appears that my ego has been casting a shadow over the final bulwark, which has been stubborn in its continued presence, so much so that I have not even realized it has been working both for and against all of these years.

 

Yes, I have dug through and peeled back many many layers to find my own inner voice and to listen to it; I have been learning how to create healthy boundaries rather than presenting my self in the way I think others want to see me. However, all the while my brain has been continuing to send messages to my body to hold tension in specific areas just in case of an attack. Right before and beneath my very eyes!

 

Sneaky, non?

 

According to Amy Weintraub (2004), When we experience trauma or loss and it is not fully acknowledged or accepted at the time of the experience, energy can be trapped in the body…Yoga can provide a safe way to release this trapped energy, stored as tension in the body. We may have a symptom, like chronic neck pain or a constriction in the chest or abdomen, something that mirrors in the physical body what is blocked in the emotional body (pp. 212-213).

 

My body has been under the impression that it needs to protect me.

 

More specifically, the muscles in my neck have been under constant tension because my jaw clenches in response to anxiety and any situation where stress is experienced. She spoke of a muscular metaphor about a bridge being held open, but I cannot recall the details. Suffice it to say that my body has learned to remain in a state of constant tension. So now, all I have to do is try to convince my body that I am no longer under attack.

 

I experienced something akin to epiphany as she was putting pressure on the peck muscles on the right side of my chest. I had been wondering how I could convince my jaw to stop clenching while she was taking note of the state of the muscles in my upper chest.

 

I am hoping that I can convince them to let go with a little pressure, she explained.

 

Hmmm, I mused out loud. I wonder if I could talk to my muscles.

 

That is a great idea! She exclaimed. You are so creative with your writing that I bet you could create a dialogue with your muscles.

 

And she began a dialogue right there.

 

Dear muscles. I know that for a long time you have sensed that I needed protection. I am thankful to you for protecting me, but now it is ok to let go.

 

(Something like that, anyway.)

 

I could give the marble in my neck a name, too! I was getting excited. The marble was a particularly painful muscle knot that had taken up residence in the right side of my neck.

 

Perhaps, if I could befriend my muscles and muscle knots, I could convince them to ease up, let them know there was no longer any danger.

I think about this for much of each passing day and into the evening. As I feel pain in my clenching jaw, I take note and attempt to loosen its grip. I hold my head and lengthen my neck like my head is filled with helium. I rock my head from side to side and around in a circle, first in one direction and then the opposite.

 

I am convinced that with time, practice, patience, and compassion, I can overcome this last standing wall and see what lies on the other side. Whatever may be waiting for me, I am ready.

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The universe may not care, but I do

I like to make plans. Even though advice from friends and experience teach me time and again that my efforts to take control seldom pan out the way I hoped or anticipated they would, I continue to make plans. I think it may be that I cannot handle living in a world where this is no hope and envisioning the life I want is a way to continue going through the motions of living when I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning.

When I imagine what I seem to want or need, I am engaging with the world, and I am participating in my own life and destiny. For me, making plans comes easily. Where I have room to grow is in accepting when things work out differently. It is in the letting go where I need the most practice.

Letting go of the illusion of control is no easy feat, particularly for one as stubborn as me. My sweetie and I adopted a three old husky/malamute/question mark just under five months ago after our husky of ten years passed away quite suddenly at the beginning of the year. Silly me, I was certain that adopting a younger dog gave me some kind of certitude that he would be in my life for many years to come, ten at the least. When his health crashed a month ago, it hit me like a bowling ball to the stomach. But I held on for as long as he held on. And he held on for me, of this I am certain. I think his soul had no intention of leaving mine ever; it was his body that was at its end. And sensing this so deeply from him made it even more painful to make the decision to put him down when his body could not catch its breath even with the aid of an oxygen mask.

I had not gone into the vet that afternoon thinking I would leave alone. In the car were packed a blanket and a bowl for water in case I had to bring him with me to my yoga training. There they remain still, for I haven’t had the heart to take anything out of the car he touched, including the blanket that covers the back seat in its entirety.

48 hours after, I began a bit of a desperate online search to find the new body his soul had moved to. I studied reincarnation and sent out questions to friends from near and far of what might be possible. Everyone told me something different, some more gently than others.

What I began to realize was that no one else’s opinion mattered as much as what I felt in my own heart. So, I began to try to sift through the layers of grief and sadness to learn what may be floating, ever so tenuously, underneath.

And I continued to listen to signs from the universe. One told told me, The universe is mostly 2°K on average and doesn’t give a shit about us. What do YOU want?

The universe may not care, but I do. And what I began to realize was that my heart, so recently nearly bursting with love for my poor fated pup, felt aimless and empty. For me, this was a bad sign. I am learning that my dharma (sanksrit for “calling”) is to be a healer. It is what fills my soul and brings meaning to my life. I know that I need to be a healer for my own self as well.

I searched and found a dog who seemed remarkably similar to be my beloved Okami in body and spirit, but the foster parent would not let us adopt him because of our geographic location. She had had a bad experience with Arizonans in the distant past and had not yet realized that all people from Arizona were bad.

I was devastated, I think less because I felt connected to the dog but because I felt that I had lost Okami once more in losing the dog who most resembled him.

In my mind, I knew this was not true. I know that no other dog will replace him or be him, though some may resemble him. In my heart, I think it quite possible that our souls have been forever joined.

Another friend wrote to me: There is no control. It’s all an illusion. Things happen because things happen. Always be letting go.

Cognitively understanding something does not make it any easier to embody, particularly when one is grieving. So when I learned that a baby male husky had been adopted by a family in Tucson, I was devastated. He had been the only male in a litter of females, which I had taken as a sign.

My sweetie is always reminding me that it is important to dance with the universe. When one opportunity changes, you have only to shift your perspective to see the myriad others. I was so upset that baby boy husky was gone that I could not see the opportunity the universe was presenting to me. I had been holding onto the belief that I needed a male because my beloved had been a male. I had not even considered a girl. But there she was, looking at me through bright, blue, baby eyes.

As I slowly awoke this morning, I remembered something that happened a long time ago when I adopted my last dog. I was living in Washington state when our neighbors had an unplanned litter, the result of a hit and run from an unaltered male, chocolate lab from down the road. There were 11 tiny, black lab mix puppies. Having grown up with a black lab female who was the runt of the litter, I picked out the female runt of the litter. When I went to pick her up, I could not find her anywhere. The large, blue bucket that had been full of water for mom was sitting empty outside the run. When I realized what had happened, I trudged back home, vowing that I would not return. My plan had been changed without my consent. Sitting at home, I realized there were still 10 other babies in need of love and nurturing and an introduction to the world. I remembered a sweet, quiet male puppy that had often fallen asleep on my feet. I walked back, picked him up, and went home with him cradled in my arms.

This morning, I will drive down to Phoenix for the third consecutive week. The first trip was with my Okami; the second without; and now I will return with a soul that may or may not be new to me. I will just have to wait and see.

Non-attachment can be a bit loathsome, yet another friend wrote to me last night.

What I am learning and relearning is that sometimes in letting go, I create the space for holding on.


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Where are you, my love?

Since I felt Okami’s last wave of life leave his body, I have been wondering where his soul has gone. I know that it is with me, but I cannot help but try to find the new body it has inhabited or will inhabit.

I saw two dogs that appeared at a shelter in Tucson that look remarkably similar to my Okami. Could it be him? But those dogs are nearly three years old.

The woman who runs the rescue where we found Okami sent me a video of husky puppies. In the entire litter, there was one male. Could this be my Okami? These puppies are seven weeks old, though.

I don’t think reincarnation works that way, Rich tells me.

How does reincarnation work? Rich tells me. The Tibetan Buddhists believe it takes a certain amount of time for a soul to move from one body to another. Okami would have had to kick out the soul that has already inhabited this puppy.

Does reincarnation really have rules? I ask. It seems like something that would be somewhat mysterious and unpredictable.

Unless, I told him, because he knew he was going to die, he found a way to inhabit both bodies temporarily.

It feels like a sign that such a new life would come to the same rescue. Okami always followed me everywhere I went to make sure I was safe. He would send his soul to a place where he knows I will look for him. I think it could be in this puppy.

Rich and my dad worries that I am rushing my grief.

You honor Okami by mourning for him, Rich tells me.

I have been crying nonstop for three days, I say. And I am so lonely and deep desire to give all of my love to someone who needs it.

I feel a strong push and pull and also a kind of desperation to find Okami’s soul. Can one body hold two souls? Perhaps, he chose to join me. I would welcome him with open arms. Rich tells me Okami is my familiar.

I believe that whatever dog I find will be Okami’s way of finding me. I just need to trust in our connection and love for each other.

I may just be a heartbroken person looking for my lost love who left me far too soon.

In the end, nothing matters but what is in my own heart, and that is what I will discover and honor.


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Stay with me

I have laughed on many occasion driving by the veterinary hospital in Chino, which has a taxidermy shop right next door. I think today I am beginning to appreciate why people would do this to their beloved pet.

I’m going to bury him soon, I text to my partner, who left this morning to take his daughter to college. I just don’t want to not be able to see him.

And that is it. I need to be able to see him, to reach out and touch him. He lies in a grave that I filled in halfway. I went out just a little while ago, moved back the earth with my hands until I could see the fur from his head, and gently placed a heart-shaped, slate-colored rock and a piece of quartz that I found in the creek where we walked many times this past month on either side of his head. I covered him up, dug him out again just to feel his fur, and covered him up once more.

Walking back to the house, I wondered if I should have put the heart somewhere else. Should I lay it right by his heart? I told him I was giving him my heart when I placed the rock beside him, but was that enough for him to really know?

In the end, I am left with questions and no wolf pup. I remember pulling ticks off of him when we first brought him home. Were those the ones? Had he been sick long before we adopted him? I think the beautiful walks we took in the Granite Dells where we live. I think of him running with joy around the dog park, his enormous, fluffy tail curled all the way up.

As I sprinkled soil over him, I spoke to him.

Please stay with me, I whispered. I still need you.

I think he may still be with me. I know his soul chose to live; it was his body that was not able to follow.

I took a shower, my body shuddering from waves of grief and tears. I remembered how he would lie just outside the door. He always needed to be near me, to make sure I was ok. As I stepped out of the shower, I felt that he was there still, keeping me safe. And for a moment, I felt a little less alone.