Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Gilly's Adventure at the Alexandria Monthly Meeting Spring Picnic

June 15th, 2015

We found our cat, Gilly, under the front porch at our Quaker Meeting in September 2013.  He was a mostly starved, barely weaned, bright orange scrap of fur at the time. And so its not surprising I ended up adopting him. The Sunday school kids named him Gilly, after the founder of our Meeting, unfortunately named Chalkley Gillingham.

Gilly's grown considerably since then, but I still feel like he needs the chance to get back to his roots. So, when I get the chance, I put on his leash and kitty harness and bundle him off to special events at the Meeting.  Last week was our annual Children's Picnic, so of course Gilly had to come along. He was not particularly thrilled by this at first - it was *really* hot out and there were a lot of small children who *really* wanted to play with the kitty. Gilly spent a lot of time hiding under a picnic blanket. And I made sure we spent a lot of time out in the shade and relative privacy of the cemetery out back of the meetinghouse.
In the cat carrier, in the car, not at all thrilled to be there. 

But after lunch was over and the crowds dispersed somewhat, I let him off-lease to go roam around inside the Meeting room. He quickly recovered from his shyness and spent a good hour exploring under the pews and the heating stove. 

Photo by Deb Fuller - I just love the expression on his face here
 and that the skull and crossbones on his kitty harness shows so well.

And lest you worry that my cat was completely traumatized by this adventure, fear not!  He's been sleeping in his cat carrier ever since. And also occasionally sitting in front of the door mewing piteously and begging to go on another adventure. 

The perils of Meditating outside in the summer:

Bugs: Surprisingly simple to fix. Make all your mood candles citronella scented and burn sage smudge sticks. Sage smoke is believed to cleanse bad energy from an area.  I didn't put any stock in that until I realized it also drives off mosquitos. As far as I can tell, mosquitos are bad juju incarnate.

The Heat: Good luck practicing deep breathing relaxation techniques when its 90 degrees and 90% humidity.

Apartment Complex Lawn Mowing Day: Pretty much self explanatory.  Lawn mowers do not make white noise.

Also: Crazy neighbors are more likely to be being crazy outdoors instead of indoors. When you have about a thousand people in a 5 acre space, people tend to get a little nutty. (Case in point, some of us like to burn incense and meditate on our balconies when its stupidly hot out.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Spring Farm Day

May 9th, 2015

I've been living here for almost a decade and I still haven't adjusted to how "not-rural" Fairfax county is. Case in point: Frying Pan Park.  It's a park because its  a traditional working farm. That's how unusual farms are up here. They've tried to preserve the place to resemble a Depression era farm as much as possible. So its a combination of nature, with lots of very friendly animals that want to be petted, and the technology and scope of my grandfather's farm I spent a lot of time on as a kid. Its kind of natural that I'm drawn to the place.

Today was their annual Spring Farm day where they have all sorts of vendors and demonstrations for families to enjoy.  Its the season for sheep shearing so they wanted to especially focus wool and how it goes from being something the sheep wears to something a human wears.  So while the farm hands were shearing outside, they asked me to do spinning demonstrations inside. 

Oh it was so much fun! I was hungry and exhausted and losing my voice by the end of it. But I got to spin, and play with children, and cuddle baby animals for hours so that's about the best possible day for me.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Zen and the Art of Meditating with your Dog.

So I've discovered something kind of odd.

Some background:
I'm a Quaker.  But we're a weird, sort of hippie-ish people, so I occasionally enjoy worshipping with other faith traditions and experiencing spirituality through others' eyes.  This spring, I was honored with the opportunity to worship with a group of Buddhists and with a combined group of Wiccans and Druids. Both were incredibly inspirational and while I'm not planning on converting any time soon, I picked up a number helpful practices from both worship services.  Translation: I've started spending an awful whole lot of time burning incense and meditating on my balcony overlooking the woods. The neighbors seem completely unfazed.  Theres a very long list of weird things that happen in those woods, so I guess by comparison this is pretty tame.

More background:
My cocker spaniel, Theo, is a rescue dog and its pretty obvious he's been through some rough treatment in the past. Cockers can already be kind of neurotic, but Theo goes way beyond that. The jury is still out on whether dogs can get PTSD, but if they can, my puppy would be a classic case study.  And unfortunately, the balcony is kind of one of his triggers. Its like he's convinced the sliding glass door is the main security weakness in our apartment.  If I'd let him, Theo would spend hours  sitting in front of that door barking at the woods. Even if there was nothing visible to bark at. Its somehow his solemn duty to keep barking so that anything out there within hearing range knows that THIS HOME HAS A DOG IN IT.

This kind of became a problem when I started meditating on the balcony. As far as Theo was concerned, I was foolishly making myself a prime target for attack by marauding bands of ninja deer. Needless to say, I wasn't exactly finding my happy place with a manic cocker spaniel on the other side of the sliding glass door.

On a whim, I started letting Theo come sit with me while I meditated. At first it went about as you'd expect (hint: there was lots of barking). But its very quickly evolved into something very different. As long as I'm there meditating, Theo will happily sit still next to me and gaze placidly into the woods. He might woof quietly occasionally at a weird noise.  But for the most part he's just content to sit there.

I really don't have the words to express how weird this is.  Theo is not a "content to sit there" kind of dog. He's either defending our lives (aka barking), demanding cuddles, or sleeping. The absolute worst thing that can happen to Theo is for him to only have 50% of a human's attention. We can ignore him, or we can completely focus on him - but anything in between and he'll start nosing at our hands to remind us that hands are for petting. But as long as I'm kneeling there meditating, he's perfectly happy to just sit there next to me.  And if I pet him from time to time, that's fine, but it certainly doesn't have to be constant.

I've never heard of any studies on this, but as far as I can tell, Theo's getting a lot of the same things out of meditation time that I am.  When you think about it, dogs should have an intuitive understanding of Zen.  They live and focus completely in the moment because they don't really have any concept of the flow of time. (Being born without a prefrontal cortex will do that for you). But the quintessential nature of trauma is that until you process it, it traps you in the past. Abuse rewires your brain to survive it without any sort of assumption of an end date. And it takes time and work, and assurance of safety to rewire your brain for living in a world without abuse. I can't imagine how confusing it must be to be a creature without a concept of the past trying to put his past behind him.

But apparently that's what meditation does for us. It gives me the time to relax and focus and live in the moment (something humans are not naturally very good at - thanks, prefrontal cortex.); and it gives Theo the time to just be a dog.

I've also noticed that the cat likes the lay on the other side of the glass door and watch us while we're meditating.  But I'm not planning on inviting him to join us any time soon.  Gilly seems much more interested in the philosophy of Sun Tzu, and I can't imagine that would help Theo in his quest to achieve Zen.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

New Puppy

Theres a new puppy in the neighborhood - a teeeeny tiny, very young golden retriever. Only 8 weeks old, and he already knows how to "sit" and "stay" in two languages. And he has adorable blue-grey eyes.

I'm trying to make sure Theo is around him as much as possible. Theo is *terrified* of other dogs.  We have no clue what his past was like, but its clear he's had some bad run ins with other dogs bigger than him.  But he understands to concept of babies and so I feel like he should be able to get comfortable around a puppy, and then be less afraid of it when the puppy turns into a giant, goofy, full grown, golden retriever.

Theo's reaction is a weird combination of wiggling with happiness and excitement, and defensive barking.  Its like each half of his brain understands "puppy" and  "OMG OTHER DOG DANGER! BARK! BARK! BARK!"  and he hasn't been able to put those two thoughts together yet into a logical whole. But we're working on it.

Baby steps, Theo.  Baby steps.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A sad day on the internet

"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "What is there in this world that truly makes living worthwhile?"
Death thought about it. 
CATS, he said eventually. CATS ARE NICE."
-Terry Pratchett, Sourcery

My favorite author died yesterday of complications from early onset Alzheimer's disease. Its particularly poignant for me since one of my closest relatives (who had an awful whole lot to do with raising me) also died of Alzheimer's, and while I was in grad school, I had the honor of being able to contribute to the body of Alzheimer's research.

For those less familiar with the disease, one of the first parts of the brain to be attacked are the temporal lobes - the part of the brain that allows us to understand and produce language. Its a wretched disease for anyone to have to face, but its always seemed an especially cruel fate for a writer.

And for those less familiar with Pratchett, the man certainly had a way with the language. Fantasy and comedy writers rarely get as much respect as "serious" fiction authors, but for sheer skill in wordcraft, I'd have put Sir Terry on  a level with Steinbeck.

Most celebrity deaths don't hit me this hard.  Its going to be a long time before his fans stop mourning. I think I may have to go lock myself in my room and re-read "Small Gods"this weekend.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Theo's World

A dog's life is unbearably tragic.

The dog didn't know why he had become separated from his first pack. They seemed to have simply wandered off and lost their way without the aid of his keen tracking abilities.

Humans are kind of stupid that way.

He didn't think about them all that much anymore- dogs live almost entirely in the present - but foremost in his mind was always the intrinsic understanding that a pack containing humans was a fragile and delicate thing. Humans need nearly constant guarding and protection. They have a poor sense of direction and become lost without canine companionship. And they blunder through life heedless of the constant danger surrounding them. He knows he isn't alpha dog material. But at least he isn't an omega dog (he has successfully proven his superiority to several recalcitrant water bottles who now accept that their place in the pack hierarchy is firmly below his). And his duty is to his pack and he knows he will never let down his pack again. Ever.

The alpha male is a terrible hunter. He leaves the house every morning, all alone despite the dog's daily protests that the world is a dangerous place. Thus far, he has returned every evening, safe and sound.  But the dog knows that each day his alpha is taking a terrible risk.  And the day may come when he is abducted by a school bus, set upon by bloodthirsty deer, sniffed at by *other dogs*, or any one of a thousand other threats the dog cannot even imagine. Even though he appears to be an adept tracker and fighter, the alpha rarely manages to find food. The dog has never been able to understand that.  Theres a woods outback teeming with chipmunks, squirrels, and birds. If ONLY the alpha male would take him along on his daily hunting trips. He's CERTAIN he could catch increase their food stores.

 "The Agony of Resignation" Digital Photograph by Julie Courtwright - October 2013

The hardest part was getting used to his new pack mate. A good dog knows that to survive and thrive the pack must grow. But when the alphas brought home a new puppy, he knew immediately there was something wrong with it. It didn't smell right. It didn't understand that it was supposed to conform to its place in the pack hierarchy. And it had a *terrible* speech impediment. The dog was not cut out to have other dogs under his command.  But the odd deformed cat puppy was now his responsibility.  He tried his best to train it, but he has come to accept that the cat puppy will never be capable of fully pulling his weight in the pack. It would never bark at the deer like a proper dog, or guard the foolish humans from recklessly wandering the world without proper backup.

But life with a human pack is worth *every* hardship. Even without the rawhide bones and belly rubs, walks in the woods and the cozy bed he lets his pack mates share (except the cat puppy), the dog knows he is fulfilling his deepest purpose. He knows he is a *good boy*. And that is the highest standard any dog can aspire to.