spirit flows thru -- Alison Rittger's spiritual reflections on finding the holy in the daily

Vow Now? How?


PictureFoxiebeau considers a vow
Do dogs resolve to improve? Because I don’t get along with other animals except Cooper and birds, I can’t ask other animals if I should vow to be better or other than I am. I know every chance they get and especially when there’s a beginning, two-leggeds promise themselves and others to improve. Here we are weeks into the new year and I am still mulling over the ifs and hows of vows.

What is a vow anyway? I know it’s a small word and small words can have big meanings. A word like “sit” for example. I notice that when I am told to do it and then do it, happy results ensue. Pats on the head, treats, pride and approval from my one and only, especially if I sit when and where others can see me. My one and only beams and I sense an increase in her self-regard. Almost as if she, herself, had done something noteworthy like plop down on cold tiles when told.

“Yes” is another small word with big impact. As is “no.” People with more no in them may want to sprinkle more yes in their daily interactions. Yes folks could be overextending themselves and need to dig in their heels with a “no” or “not now.” I am not really responsive to either word, so I can’t do more here than repeat what I imagine my one and only would say had I asked her for an opinion.

It has come to my attention that another word for vow is promise. Said like that, I know I am not one to promise anything. My basic animal nature prevents much frontal lobe activity. And that’s the spot from which promises get made. Animals are more about the limbic system, wouldn’t you say? Animal equals amygdala.
I believe those who train performing cats and dancing dogs use food to get desired results. Food would work for me, but my one and only hasn’t the patience to teach me. I have seen TV ads with highly trained dogs turning over because, and only because, their trainer gave them enough treats. And I wager months of dieting had to pass before those dogs looked fit enough to be filmed for the commercial.

I have biblical permission to skip vowing altogether. Better not to make a vow than to make it and break it. (Ecclesiastes 5:5) How clever of me to become better in this new year by not vowing! Wow.

PictureHappy New Year 2016 / Flickr
Awake from his New Year’s nap, Foxiebeau could see his one and only sipping tap water from a paper cup, water she’d measured with the eight-ounce measuring glass kept next to the one-cup Keurig. The methodical nature of her current water consumption, her counting the swallows as she downed each cup looked to Foxie’s untrained eyes like a habit in the making. Moreover, she was marking small straight lines on a discarded envelope. He could only suspect his one and only of embarking on a New Year’s resolution without telling him.

Suddenly competitive, he felt an urge to set some intention for 2016, although only a few times in the past year could he recall falling short of ideal pet behavior. Growling at sounds and reactivity toward other dogs or pant cuffs in a hurry was too far out of his control for correction. A Chihuahua mix, especially a rescue, had to play the genetic cards dealt him. Or so he had overheard.

However, it soon became even more alarming to Foxiebeau to notice that he was now appearing in wwwspiritflowsthru.com in the third animal singular. No longer in the “first animal” pronoun, “I,” he had been replaced by an omniscient narrator! At least he could be cheered that whoever was now in charge rarely referred to him by the generic “dog.” With a sigh, he recalled how his commission to blog had, in fact, begun as an act of rescue. His one and only said she felt mired in her own “non-sense” (her word) and sought a perspective slightly different from her own. That she had been rescued by her much loved dog was just good luck.

But how explain this further distancing? Did his one and only see it as an improvement that Foxie had been demoted from first animal singular to third animal singular? Wouldn’t this change of narrator affect her place in the chain of command? Would being seen from a greater distance rather than directly from a devoted pet’s perspective, which is how it had been until today, make her lose agency? Sure, a more extensive vocabulary would be in play, but Foxie wondered if that was a good thing. And he wondered if his one and only wasn’t pulling an Olive Kittredge on herself. Oh how he wished to reclaim his first animal singular point of view and rescue her once again! But who knew when or if that could happen? After all, he was no Saint Bernard, or was he? 

PictureFoxiebeau amidst native habitat
Foxiebeau apologizes. These first two days of 2016, he hasn't been writing; he’s been coming off a New Year’s doggie sedative. He began to doze in the early afternoon of 12-31-2015 after gobbling the little pink pill mixed into Puperoni treats, a pill meant to mute merrymaking, letting him relax into the next year. His one and only sat by his side, questioning her memory. Should it have been half a pill or an entire pill? Then his one and only sat at his side until 12:58 as though her wakefulness could guard him against the intrusive drumming that bumped through the window from across the street. The following day was an additional day of rest for the dog, although he did manage to be dragged out for several stops along familiar curbs.

Further, Foxie apologizes for being incommunicado the week leading up to Christmas. He had been traveling to Los Osos to spend the holiday with his one and only’s son and granddaughter and Shiloh, the resident large dog. And this intergenerational holiday didn’t facilitate sharing experiences. He was too wary of fast-moving pant legs, sometimes on eight-year olds and sometimes cuffs about the ankles of larger males and females coming and going. And always there was a chance to contribute to the cacophony of greeting strangers: Shiloh’s low convincing bark mixed with his own shrill, “me too, me too.” So sans a routine, communicating was hard for le chien.

If Foxie were presently awake, he would say that in Los Osos, mornings were probably his favorite times despite the cold. Alone with his one and only. they drove the dark, deserted streets to warm and holiday-music-filled Starbucks and then made the rounds of close-by building and bushes. Then the two drove to Baywood and walked near the water and in the street. Usually no one at all was awake and the street was empty, so they could walk in the middle of the street until around six when the café opened for coffee and some regulars would arrive. One morning, Foxie hung around until breakfast was served and shared a veggie burrito while he and his one and only stood on the landing and noted how at high tide the usually grounded canoes bobbed near shore.

Almost every day Foxie rode to look at the new house. The rooms were being painted so he could not go inside. But he walked around the back of the house into the fenced yard; perhaps he contemplated life without a leash. In the few years of his life, he could remember only animal control being on the same level as the rest of the world. Once he came to live with his one and only, there had been indoor life and then stairs or elevators to reach outdoor life. Now what? Could he thrive once the cord was cut?

Driving to their new house was an additional adventure. Being new to the neighborhood, neither he nor his one and only knew a direct way to reach what would eventually be their home. Streets paved partway became dirt and bumps. Streets that went through took them many blocks past the actual address. It was all so confusing to a dog in the passenger seat. At the onset of each trip to the house, his one and only would calculate what she learned from a previous trip and correct for a street that dead-ended before their street, only to discover a second street doing the same. Needless to say, they always got there.

In conclusion, Foxie would want you to know that he has made no New Year’s resolutions. Once he fully recovers from the pleasant haze of holiday sedation, he will get back to covering the home front. Meanwhile, he would want you to know that his one and only also resolved nothing, but she did discover an affinity for jigsaw puzzles. At her son's house, if her granddaughter did not finish a puzzle my one and only was helping complete, she found herself drifting back to put the finishing tails on the mermaids. Presently, Foxie can see that his one and only is perplexing her way through a 500-piece puzzle of a New Yorker cover, dog reading a book. And she’s doing it in the kitchen while top dog continues to doze on the couch. Happy New Year.

PictureBaywood Park Estuary by Ajay Hunnur
My one and only already anticipates the anxiety I will certainly feel when we move in March from the Bay area to a house in Baywood Park. She has been streaming Best Friend Radio – tunes to calm anxious canines. I think I recognized a mellow instrumental version of Ch-ch-changes, this one by David Bowwow.

When my one and only bought that house in Los Osos/Baywood Park, she did not ask me if I wanted to leave the Bay area. I might have reminded her that in less than a year we have moved twice: once from our condo in San Francisco and again after our big move to Oakland. We stayed a mere few months in Senior Independent Living, across the street from Lake Merritt, and then we came to this tall building a block from the lake but closer to BART, which, by the way, I have never ridden. And probably won’t before we pack up and head to our next location, which is south of here near Morro Bay. We will be living less than a mile from my one and only’s son, her eight-year-old granddaughter, and their dog.

My one and only says from our new house we can go right out the door and down the street to the Elfin Forest. There we will find not just 200 species of plants, but 110 kinds of birds, 22 species of mammals and 13 species of reptiles and amphibians. If coyotes roam the Elfin Forest and they look like dogs, I will probably want to attack them. My one and only says they will want to attack me too. Okay, bring them on.

Or not. Maybe I will change when we’re out of the city. I already peacefully mix with birds at Lake Merritt and mingle when we visit the estuary in Baywood Park near where we will be living. My one and only says we are not next to the water, so we will be walking on a marked trail to the estuary and the two blocks that are downtown Baywood Park. There’s a grocery store, two restaurants, two inns and a coffee shop where you can only sit outside. On Monday afternoon there’s an outdoor market.  Should we crave bustle, San Luis Obispo is 12 miles east of us.
My one and only also mapped our early morning outings to the nearest Los Osos Starbucks, saying it could take us 27 minutes if we walk at full speed and don’t stop. Doesn’t sound like a plan to me: I don’t want to walk in the dark or in the rain; I will resist and insist that we drive. In turn, she will insist I use the yard and we will both hope I figure things out for myself. So, two big changes pending: no elevators and less leash time.

As for what she’ll do with me each month when she goes north to meet her Bay area commitments and her friends. She could put me in a kennel or hire a house sitter/dog walker. Maybe she’ll take me with her and I can stay with Cooper, Greg, and Victor who live where we did in San Francisco. I am always happy to stay with them, seeing as I am still familiar with the streets we used to walk when we lived there. This could be a good urban corrective for the rural life I will soon be required to live.

PictureFoxiebeau enjoys the snuggle blanket.
We can’t let Thanksgiving recede too far or too fast without expressing some special gratitudes. Thanksgiving morning when we headed out into early morning darkness for our coffee, we enjoyed very silent streets. We were grateful for the warm coffee shop open at 5 am and the friendly greetings. Both my one and only and I appreciated that no large dogs loomed from under blankets pushed up against buildings. We are also thankful for the people who invited us to share their homes with them on Thanksgiving Day and wanted to do the meal planning and cooking. For in spite of my one and only’s sizeable investment in an online vegan cooking course, she got only as far as the knife lesson, acing the test in fingertip protection. But that was about all. Later, she learned that although she did not do much or earn a certificate, she would have lifelong access to the material, the videos, etc. of the cooking course. This made her very happy and grateful! I stayed crated on T Day while our friend, Kate, cooked the meal at her house and fed my better half.

Now that the actual eating day of Thanksgiving has morphed into gratitude without meals attached, my one and only continues to be surprised by good will and unconditional friendliness when and where she would not have expected it. Just this morning as we waited a long time in the busy Starbucks, a young man thanked my one and only for giving him and his friend money the day before. In the darkness, we had not seen the faces of the two young men outside Starbucks, but one of them must have recognized me or my one and only’s puffy red jacket because he thanked us. He also complimented me on going with the flow. I guess he mistook my standing still for having a temperament I don’t actually have. My one and only corrected him with the observation that I would be fine as long as the flow didn’t move too fast or change direction. Whatever that means. Metaphors are not my forte. However I could sense that had we been carrying money other than the tip for the baristas, we would gladly have gifted the young man once again.

I will end with an additional gratitude. This for the thick snuggle blanket, we now have on the couch. Because my one and only doesn’t do well with written instructions, we have not turned on the heat. (Sigh)

PictureResponsibly leashed large dog.
Foxie is taking a nap. He’s been napping a lot since Thursday night. That evening when both of us were mellow from meditating with our friends and were walking around the block, a large dog without a leash jumped from the back of a car and knocked me to the ground as I bent to pick up Foxie, who as we know is dog averse. Foxie tore out of his coat for cold weather which fastens with velcro and ran into the street. Perhaps in the process he tweaked his leg or perhaps the dog was able to bite him. At the time, seeing my tiny terrified animal race into the street, I was not considering damage, just dreading that a car could hit him.

Two men who belonged to that unleashed large dog ran after Foxie as I lay on the curb and screamed and screamed for them to get my dog. Meanwhile the young woman with the two men and the unleashed dog, wrestled the big dog back into the car, assisted me off the ground and helped me limp to a bench in front of the burger bar where the unhappy event was taking place.

The following two days, Foxie continued to favor his left back leg.  Lacking the courage to wait any more days to look for improvement, I thought we needed to visit the vet for an x-ray. Foxie's leg was swollen and he couldn’t put weight on it, but no fracture. The vet said not to walk him so much for a while, feed him fiber, like broccoli and carrots, dose him with a pain and anti-inflammatory pill for four days and check back if he doesn’t improve. No one at the vets would say whether the scratch on my wrist was a dog bite or the result of being clawed. It is healing. My right knee and thigh are also healing.

In the meantime, although initially terrified and traumatized, Foxie and I agreed to wait until the desire to tell our most dramatic story had quieted. Because the offending animal is a breed much maligned, and I have had special reasons in the past to love particular dogs of this breed – my son’s dogs, Leeloo and Otto, I hold the irresponsible owners responsible for what happened to us that night. I wish the dog had been on a leash and someone had been holding the leash. And I wish I had taken their names and addresses or they had offered them so they could pay the vet’s bill. That would have made what looks like it will be a happy ending, even happier.


PictureFoxiebeau on short leash
If my one and only had asked me before she tackled the topic of boundaries, I would have recommended she read Setting Boundaries for Chihuahua Mixes. While essential reading for folks with small rescue-tempered dogs, the thin tome can be read as a metaphor for life. Unfortunately, it is currently out of print.

Stay on a Short Leash. My one and only claims to have had her own personal and profound experience of a boundary, but it was in therapy and the rope, as she termed it, was of an indeterminate length. It was nothing like a leash, and I don’t mean the retractable kind. I had one of those once, but the trainer we hired to go with us to the dog park said I should be kept on a short leash. The point being a fixed length of sturdy material attached to a harness sets a more realistic boundary. Even as a metaphor, it works better. You always know how far you can go. Recognizing limits is reassuring. On a short leash, my one and only can never go astray. When she isn’t going to the dog park or walking around the block in the dark, she can try the retractable kind.

Be Consistent
Another boundary for us smaller, more sensitive animals that would work well for my one and only is consistency. And I don’t mean a “foolish” consistency, which I have heard my one and only say is the “hobgoblin of little minds.” I mean reliable limits. Because my one and only loves me so much, she doesn’t set reliable limits. For example, when she is on her iPad, I can sometimes jump into her lap and knock it on the floor and she laughs. Other times, given the same iPad, the same couch or chair and the same lap, I am swatted to the floor and admonished. So, which is it? Until I know for sure, I will continue to make the leap. Eventually, I will get it right.

Less Talk
The actual list of boundaries for Chihuahua mixes is pretty long, so I will let the next one be the last for this post. This suggestion goes back to the time of Shakespeare and was spoken by Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes in the play Hamlet. “...brevity is the soul of wit…” For our purposes, think that less talk to your Chihuahua is smarter than more talk to same. And here is why. We respond to tone, not to verbiage.

Small dog persons can orate, as does Hamlet that they are"... but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” (Probably another kind of bird.) There may be no sense in this for small dogs, even knowing that the meaning generally given to this passage is that "birds tend to fly with the wind, and, when the wind is northerly, the sun dazzles the hunter's eye, and he is scarcely able to distinguish one bird from another. If the wind is southerly, the bird flies in that direction, and his back is to the sun, and he can easily know a hawk from a handsaw. When the wind is north-north-west, which occurs about ten o'clock in the morning, the hunter's eye, the bird, and the sun, would be in a direct line, and with the sun thus in his eye he would not at all be able to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw. "

While some might find this explanation interesting, a small dog, not hearing words it knows like “food, stay, treat or walk” is at a complete loss. And thus are words wasted. My point is say it short, say it clear, and smile. As for my one and only, the less said the better.


PictureFarmmech by Dana Erland
It was my turn on Sunday at the First Unitarian Universalist church to be the Worship Associate and to speak on the topic, Barriers and Boundaries. After the service in the greeting line with the minister, I met some people pleased with my Reflection, what we now call the five minutes of personal thought that tie into the minister’s sermon and into the theme. One kind woman asked if she could read my words. I knew she could listen to it again in the church’s on line archive, but not read it. I said I would share it in this blog. So it is as follows:

My work in the world is to be the sole employee of the Barriers into Boundaries foundry founded and funded by me for me. Yet meant to benefit all beings. My goal is to approach the end of life free to love from within flexible boundaries by recognizing rigid barriers of habit and reactivity that have kept out love, loving these barriers into protective boundaries.

In part, this business has been inspired by the poet Rumi’s directive: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” That was my invitation to recognize habits and reactions that walled me in and others out. And I noted that Rumi doesn’t say get rid of the barriers.

In this work I struggle to recognize and accept aspects of myself that once probably served me well, but are no longer skillful or useful. Once these parts transform, in my remaining years I can be so open to life that it lives itself through me while I continue as this particular person who interacts in particular situations. In other words, I don’t expect a complete do-over. 

 I was shocked to discover that I could not honestly say I have ever felt brave or safe enough to stop being hyper vigilant about how others might perceive or judge me as well as how I perceive and judge myself. If it is confidence in one’s personal boundaries that fosters bravery, then I have often substituted bravado, replete with personality quirks that sometimes felt to me as if I were in the bullring, waving the red cape at toro.

I really do know how lacking safety works because for years I have been tackling childhood trauma issues with a therapist trained in somatic experiencing, a kind of non-conversational approach that focuses on the body to locate and release the hold of early terrors that originated in a time preverbal.

On our first appointment, Jane handed me a length of what looked like soft white rope and asked me to place it on the floor, wherever and however large or small I wanted it to be. I did. Then she said this is your space and no others can enter unless you invite them in.

I stood in the center of that circling rope and felt a kind of fierceness rise up. Almost apologetic, I wondered if it was wrong to feel such a protective surge within this circle. I could have growled the way Foxiebeau, my dog does when he protects his territory.

I have noticed that when feeling safe, I can be open and kind, able to face experience with curiosity; whereas from behind barriers, certainty plants the flag and claims the territory for safety’s sake.

I will continue to be curious as to the efficacy of this late-in-life job of reshaping barriers into boundaries. So far so good. I hope it will continue to pay daily dividends and none may find me cold or lacking in compassion.  

PictureFoxiebeau and Friend
When my one and only rang Greg’s doorbell, I was released into the hall. I saw her. Joyfully, I leapt upon her, racing up and down the hall, coming at her from many angles. Cooper too bounded into the hall and he jumped on her. On her hands and knees, she petted and kissed both of us, his fluffy white face and my brown one. Finally she fell over uttering a short word I doubt is Sanscrit or Pali. In the midst of the ruckus caused by Cooper and me, she smiled, and I could see a radiant light around her. Maybe not. But she was happy.

I heard her tell Greg she didn’t talk at Spirit Rock, even to ask the time. After the closing circle when people cried and held each other, she exchanged names with the two dishwashers she had been teamed with for work meditation each morning after breakfast. She gave her name, phone number and email address to a woman she’d loved deeply for 20 minutes while they sat across from each other and gazed into each other’s and their own hearts. My one and only said that those who chose to be part of this closing loving kindness meditation had paired with a stranger, and when the five teachers finished guiding the practice, the room was thick with unconditional friendliness. My one and only said it felt beautiful. Could she have loved this woman as much as she says she loves me? I do not feel jealous in the least. Not even of Cooper, the white dog, when he kissed my one and only and she kissed him back.

Since we’re back in Oakland, my one and only meditates as usual every morning. I will still interrupt her for string cheese or an urgent walk to the park. After we return, she resets her meditation timer. As the sound of three singing bowls settles her, I settle too. We are again a sangha of two.

PictureFoxiebeau in San Francisco
When I see my one and only cart my sleeping crate from its usual spot and place it near the door, I suspect we are not just going to the rose garden. On short trips I lie on the front seat. Long trips mean the crate. This time we are going to San Francisco. When we turn left on Gough Street, I know exactly where we are going. My one and only wants me to hang out with Cooper, a fluffy white dog I like and his companion, Greg. I will eat and sleep there and walk around the block just like I did during the ten years we lived in that building on the second floor.

My one and only is going to Spirit Rock. There she won’t talk to anyone most of the time, except maybe briefly to a teacher. She will sit and walk and sit and walk, eat and sleep. She will be a lot like me. She says she is ready to do that, but she is not ready to go a week without coffee. Even though my one and only goes every morning to Starbucks, she is kind of a coffee snob. She won’t drink decaf or instant coffee. But, she did buy instant coffee to take to Spirit Rock. They won’t serve coffee there, she said.

I know this is kind off topic, but I want to explain why every morning I am walked to Starbucks. My one and only says she really likes coffee from Philz. But at Starbucks she likes the workers because of their kindness training. They remember her only drink, my name, and hers. We are always greeted and made to feel like it matters we are buying from them. It’s not just because we don’t complain and never steal, not even Splendas. For my part, I don’t lift my leg on their displays.

So my one and only has left me, her dog, Foxiebeau, in San Francisco. I will be glad to see her when she picks me up at the end of the week. She has promised to tell me what it was like there. She is hoping not to have too many thoughts, so her briefing may be really brief. In the meantime I will sit and walk and sleep and eat while my one and only goes away to practice what to me comes naturally.