Dogs Are Better Than Us: Everyday Magic, Day 150

It’s true. They just are. It’s not the same with cats: some particular cats might be better than some particular humans, but for the most part, cats don’t care about being good. Dogs, on the other hand, are the Boddhisattvas of the animal world, come back to earth to help us even though as enlightened beings, they could go to, say, Jupiter or other dimensions. Okay, they do eat the most disgusting things in the universe, jump up on us at unsuspecting moments, bark to go out and then back in with no rhyme and reason and occasionally fight other dogs. But just because they have issues doesn’t mean they’re not way better than your typical human.

My dog is especially better, which is not to say she is the only best dog in the world, but she’s sure one of them. We found her — of course! — at the pound. She was the dog the staff kept at their desks because she was so sweet they couldn’t bear to be away from her. A lab-mation (mostly black lab with a shield-shaped spread of white and dalmation spots on her chest, she loves everyone, and after 12 years with us, particularly us.

We got Mariah Lily Karumba Lassman because my then 10-year-old son Daniel needed a friend and our house in the country needed a dog. Did I mention I was a cat person before her? Despite her eating all the Birkenstocks in the house and being sock-obsessed, she was a pool of love from the get-go. She spent a good part of her life sleeping with one child or another, kind of like an 80-pound body pillow.

When guests arrived, even ones who didn’t like dogs, Mariah walked over, put her head tenderly in their laps and looked up with great understanding. She won them over. When delivery people or other strangers came, she ran out to greet them and rolled on her back. When any of us were sick, she slept on the floor, lengthwise against our beds, ready to jump up and follow us from room to room. When critters circled the outside of the house, she circled the inside of the house, barking them away.

She is also a wizard with cats. I once found her lying down, face to face with Saulina, our cat of 20 years who was so smart that she did our taxes for us. They stared at each other for hours in that position, and I realized this was probably a daily pit stop in their lives when the humans were gone. I’m sure they were transmitting life-giving information about healing properties of the universe, each from their respective planets. Mariah was a love bunny with a series of kittens, and is now good friends with Miyako. She’s also been a staunch defender of each kitten in his/her time from Judy, the old cat, who doesn’t mean to be so bad but suffers from PTSD.

Now Mariah is old. Her eyes are glassy (but the vet said she’s not blind), she walks with a limp because of her arthritis, and she’s graying at the edges. Yesterday, she wouldn’t stop cry-barking, so I took her to the vet from hard-core steroids and painkillers. “12 is old for a lab,” people tell me, but I haven’t really faced this reality. Yet this reality is coming fast, and as I carry-pushed her into our bedroom, where she’s slept for years on the floor beside us, I nudged her onto a large pillow, covered her with a fleece blanket, and prayed for this good dog to live happy years, and least happy months more. Some beings seem too good to die.

Writing Into Mortality & Beyond: Everyday Magic, Day 13

Today I had the joy of facilitating a mid-summer writing retreat for people living with serious illness at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing in Kansas City (actually Shawnee Mission, KS). While this is something I’ve been doing  for years, each time is new, giving me a front row seat to witness courage, curiosity and the power of how we create (even and especially in the face of mortality). Many of the eleven people who participated are carrying long-term progressive illnesses or stage four cancer diagnoses, years of trying one new medication or another, weeks that stretch into long deserts of moving through chemotherapy or grief, and other assorted hard stuff. One woman just lost her beloved to late-stage cancer two weeks ago; another balances late stage cancer treatment behind her and heart surgery ahead of her; yet another watches her strength and balance ebb and flow due to Parkinson’s.

Whatever the story, it’s a story about facing mortality: our own or our loved ones. As such, it’s a story about loss and grief — even if we’re lucky enough to only lose a few body parts and a false sense of immortality. It’s also a story of the joy found in being present for whatever everyday magic life gives us, whether it’s a glimpse of a red bird singing to one woman from a rooftop, reminding her someone is watching over her, or a hanging out at a family beach party for another woman, a welcome respite from cancer treatment.

In these workshops, I use writing prompts that aim us not so much toward the hope of returning to the old life, pre-illness, but the hope of finding meaning, connection, love, acceptance and strength in the current life. This necessitates also facing, and sometimes writing or talking through, the times meaning evaporates, connections dissipate, friends and families don’t know how to show their love, and it’s hard to not feel betrayed, weak and lost. I tell the people in such workshops to try to cultivate an attitude of curiosity and kindness for whatever comes up in their writing, to treat their responses or even moments of not being able to respond as they would a dear friend. I also encourage us to witness each other: listen carefully. In doing so, we open the ears of our ears and then can better figure out what our own lives are saying to us. I also bring snacks, and today, that included cherries because even if life isn’t a bowl of cherries (or a chair of bowlies as Mary Engelbriet writes), we can still find sweetness that replenishes and nurtures us.

We laugh a lot. We cry (and always, there needs to be a handy tissue box). We talk about struggles, breakthroughs, fears, and great loves. Yet I’m also amazed by how quickly people make a circle of support together, offering each other not just resources, but a kind of understanding that helps everyone in the group look into the issues tipping out when their mortality is stirred. In these workshops, we often speak of how to live, especially when the days are numbers and yet no one knows what those numbers are. There’s something about facing the hard stuff of life, whatever it is, that rips the veil of whatever-ness off, and lets us see clearly what matters, who we are, and how to live.

Photos from workshop used with permission of participants. For copy of My Tree of Life: Writing and Living Through Serious Illness, a book I edited of past participants’ writing, go to the Turning Point store. I also encourage people with serious illness or who are caregivers in the Kansas City area to check out Turning Point, make contributions, and/or take some classes. See a blog by one of the class participants.