Tag Archive | life lessons

Dead Dogs

Stellar enjoying his nose on our short walk this evening, after a long few days.

Tonight, as I reflect on them, I’m grateful for all the dogs who’ve died on my watch. There was Sam, the pregnant stray I picked up in college; Knobby, who picked me up at a campground; Mocha, renowned for her sweetness; serious Mr. Brick, the golden bobtail, my first puppy; mischievous Raven, who died in my arms. Each of them died a different way.

I see growth over the course of this progression in my understandings of life and death. Karmically speaking, I can only hope that by the time dear Stellar dies, I’ve been able to purify the negative karma I incurred when I had Sam put down. The memories still traumatize: She won’t feel a thing, they assured me. She bucked and fought on the table, the whole time glaring at me in wide-eyed terror. It was the most horrible thing I’d experienced thus far in my young life. And the reason I did it? I’m ashamed to admit it, because now, knowing about no-kill shelters like Best Friends, I would never have even considered it. I rationalized it as the most compassionate thing to do, and it was the most compassionate way I knew at the time.

The object of my thoughts for days has been whether or not I could ever euthanize Stellar. During his seizure Sunday night, I was perhaps too willing to let him go, prematurely welcoming relief of my own suffering (and inconvenience, I have to admit). All this morning I perused online Buddhist perspectives on euthanasia. I spoke to his vet around noon, and she thinks he may have a bladder infection that’s exacerbating ‘everything else.’ So I drove to town this afternoon to pick up antibiotics.

I’ve had a couple of dreams in the past six weeks after which I vowed I would not have him put down. It’s never gone really well. The best deaths have been those rare affairs when a beloved dies on their own. A local vet came out after staving off Knobbydog’s time for a week; I ended up sleeping outside on the patio with him his last two nights before she came with the shots. A friend had helped me dig a grave down near the canyon rim: I’d never have had the courage to buy this land without the security of Knobbydog. He had a fast-growing cancer in his mouth, and was half dead by the time we took that last walk. As the vet strode briskly ahead down the trail, chatting, Knobby stopped to sniff the base of a juniper. After what seemed to me sufficient time (for his last long sniff, really?), I hurried him along. To his death.

We stood on the lookout rock together, the three of us, the vet chatting, Knobby sniffing the breeze and looking his last look into the canyon, I so sad. She gave him a sedative. After a few minutes she suggested we should walk to the graveside before he fell asleep. There under the Ancient One, I sat on the ground and held his knobby head in my lap, my arms around him, while she gave the lethal injection, chatting all the while about people I neither knew nor cared about. ‘Just shut UP!’ I kept screaming in my head. I have always regretted that I let myself feel rushed, and rushed him along. Also, I vowed to never have that vet come kill another pet for me.

So I had Doc Vincent come put down Mocha, when she could no longer rise for walk or food due to kidney failure. He was the exact opposite. He strode through the gate while I explained to Brick and Raven, and by the time I got inside he’d already wrapped the rubber around her leg. She, objecting, had crab-walked across the living room to get away from him. I gathered her into my lap on the couch and held her, cooing, while he finished the process. We had a communal funeral for her and Michael’s cat Luna, burying them both in the hole I’d dug to plant a peach tree the following spring. While that death went more smoothly, it still unsettled me. I happened too fast, and she was frightened. She didn’t understand.

Mr. Brick… I tried to let him die on his own. It was in the low twenties night after night, and he wouldn’t come inside. Paradoxically I both feared and hoped he would freeze to death, but he just hung on day after day. After days of pacing, he chose a favorite spot down by the pond and didn’t get up. But he didn’t die. Raven required a midnight run to the ER vet in Grand Junction. Stellar was a puppy and needed a lot of attention. I was exhausted. By then I’d come to believe that if I was going to do it, I should do it myself. So I consulted with another vet, gathered up my mom’s leftover morphine, some sleeping pills a friend kicked in, and my own Lorazepam prescription, and mixed up a brew, which I fed him with a syringe. But still I was impatient. It felt like hours and still he didn’t die. I feared then that he might wake up and keep living like a vegetable. I can’t write what I did next, but again, my intention was pure. Though again, tinged with concerns about convenience. Anyway, it worked, and I felt like he never woke up, though his head thrashed. Ack.

How much negative karmic imprint have I incurred so far? This is why Raven’s death was such a gift.

Some of the things I read this morning suggested that we listen to our pet; some argued that euthanasia is the compassionate option, others that it is the easy way out. Some raised the question of whose suffering are we trying to relieve? Many referred to the Buddhist precept of ‘no killing, not ever,’ and also used karma as a basis for ruling out euthanasia, both the pet’s karma and the person’s. Karma aside, since I’m still not clear in my understanding of nor faith in it, there was one argument that has stuck with me all day: The sense of betrayal and confusion a pet might feel when the loving hands that cuddled become the hands that kill. I thought of Sam, of course.

As I lay beside Stellar tonight, my forehead against his, stroking his soft ears, his thick ruff, his thin legs, it came clear to me. Just thinking about euthanasia had thrown a wall between us, was robbing my attention from whatever life remains to him. I chose to reaffirm my dream-inspired vow not to kill. There was an immediate sense of relief, a letting go, a flood of love released. We both relaxed. I reassured him as I did during the seizure that I will do whatever it takes to make sure he’s comfortable, and be fully present with him until his journey’s natural end. I committed to attend him with boundless patience. I felt deeply the true value of his precious life; understood viscerally for a moment the meaning of sentient being.

Maybe the antibiotics will slow down his inevitable demise, give him a few more walks in the woods, slow down the flow of pee and make him more comfortable; maybe not. He’s in doggie hospice now either way. Between the seizures and his deteriorating hind end it’s clear his neural pathways are failing. My mission is simply to ease his transition. I’m grateful for all the dead dogs that led me to this realization, and for the mindfulness practice that enables me to receive it with equanimity.

Continuing Education

Just the simple fact that I keep on learning, something, every day, at least one thing; I’m grateful for continuing education. For example, no wonder my cookies turn out so flat, even when I follow the recipe to a T: I always let the butter get too soft. So chilling the dough in the fridge before I finish even mixing it turns out to be a prize-winning success.

I’m so grateful for the latté ritual that makes the Sundays of this pastoral life hold meaning: ok, not the only thing, but ‘my’ Sunday morning latté is definitely a ritual worth appreciating.

I’m grateful for the national celebration of the arts that is the Kennedy Center Honors; this year it was filmed all over the grounds in the leadup to the final production. I’m grateful to Mary and Chris for both alerting me to the broadcast; and I’m grateful for the technology I have learned to engage with to bring it into our lives. I’m grateful that I live in a rural community that has benefited from Midori’s initiative to bring music to the more random and isolated communities in the country. Our little Blue Sage Center for the Arts, which I’ve watched evolve since its inception into a place where, Cousin Jack was just asking me today, world-class musicians come to perform, grateful that Midori is one of these, grateful to learn more about artists I barely know, and those whose names I’ve known for most of my life. It’s a special place where I live, and I’m grateful for the palpable sense of community that enticed me to stay here, all those years ago.

It was a beautiful presentation that only kept getting better, until at last … well, I’ll leave it that the Garth Brooks segment, which was last, was also the most powerful for me. Grateful, especially, that I can enjoy and participate in this celebration without leaving the comfort of my living room.

Contentment

This morning brought the promise of rain, which ultimately manifested as only a few misty sprinkles between hours of cool sunshine. Stellar and Topaz walked with me through the woods, I baked some cinnamon buns and enjoyed the sugary treat outside with coffee on the patio as phoebes flitted and titmice tittered, and I finished reading a pretty good novel. Then I attended to my lesson plan and taught the first of eight classes to a second pair of students, embarking on the last practice session before I get certified to teach mindfulness. After that, we walked again, to the canyon in evening sun, and then I made dinner and watched some shows. It was a mundane, simple Saturday, the kind I love, and I’m grateful for every living moment of this day spent in contentment.

I only checked the news headlines a couple of times, and each time I felt discontent, frustrated, angry, and sad. People can be disappointing. Human nature has an evil streak, try as we might to deny it. Greed, hatred, and delusion are the three poisons of mind that cause the most suffering in the world. The Buddha recognized them 2500 years ago: They were with us then, and they remain today; they may have evolved along with our other, better qualities as we became the human species, and there may have been an adaptive advantage then, but there isn’t now. I truly don’t see any hope for eradicating them in general, but I can sure do my best to diminish them in my own mind. By choosing to turn my attention away from the so-called ‘news’ that is full of them, and toward the living, breathing planet under my feet, I’m able to water the seeds of gratitude, compassion, kindness and joy. This brings a pure, deep contentment to each day.

I found the motherlode of globe cactuses, some as tiny as a fingertip, while we wandered aimlessly home this morning.
And in the evening, we made it to the canyon where we discovered that the ice has melted in Ice Canyon, and the cottonwoods are leafing out.
I was overjoyed to see the number of buds on the large claret cup cactus on the trail home.

I’m grateful that I have lived long enough to find contentment, after a lifetime of chasing illusory ideals of happiness. I’m grateful for every step that led me here (though I think I could have done without several-many of the more painful lessons along the way), for each right step, and for each wrong step that taught me something, offered an insight, invited a course correction. I’m grateful that I survived my poor decisions, and finally understand the power of choosing where I place my attention.

Itty Bitty Kitchen Ants

The ants are too tiny for me to get a picture, so here’s a little needle-felted hedgehog that I just bought for Topaz from the Snow Leopard Trust. Topaz isn’t grateful yet for this new toy, but I am, and I’m also grateful for the good work the Trust does on behalf of this magical cat and its surroundings, including human communities.

These itty bitty ants are back in my kitchen, and this year I’m grateful for them. Last year when they first showed up around the cat bowl, I didn’t mind, I’d take the bowl outside and knock them off; but then they started showing up on the kitchen counters as well, and I got annoyed. I don’t like to kill anything, even little ants, but before long I was sweeping them up with a paper towel, and sometimes smushing them on purpose. They just kept coming! Once I’d vented my frustration on them sufficiently, I started to think about them differently. Then they tapered off and disappeared over winter.

Yesterday I noticed a couple of them. Today there were more. Well, I had left dirty dishes on the counter, what could I expect? I’m grateful to the little kitchen ants for providing me incentive to get back on track with keeping the dishes flowing through the sink daily, keeping the counters clean and empty ~ removing the ants’ incentive to invade my kitchen. Thanks, itty bitty kitchen ants!

Speaking of snow leopards, I’m also grateful for this remarkable artist, Steve Nowatzki, whose work I discovered at an art fair in Florida a lifetime ago, and who is still crafting exquisitely haunting etchings reflecting human assaults on the wild world. Above, Melting Snow II.
I’m also grateful for cocktails at the pond (and for the great company) for the first time since last fall. It was 63ºF this afternoon, and only slightly cooler by happy hour.

Lessons

This once-beautiful pink stone represents a lesson in humility that I learned twenty-five years ago, which still causes pangs of regret almost daily. But just little bitty pricks of regret, no more waves of guilt or shame.

Today I’m grateful for lessons: The avalanche of lessons I’m learning now, and the lessons I’m planning to teach; the easy lessons, and the hardballs I’ve tried to dodge throughout my life, thrown at me again and again til I finally catch on… I’m grateful for all kinds of lessons.

Is anything ever NOT a lesson?” she complained.

Nope. Nothing is ever not a lesson. Everything’s a lesson. I knew this twenty years ago but I wished it to not be so, so I kept looking for the thing that wasn’t a lesson, that was just a thing. And I can assure you there isn’t one. There’s no such thing. There is no thing in this life of being human that isn’t a lesson. 

I’m grateful for all the lessons represented here, and also for tulips emerging around the garden Buddha…
…their tender leaves protected from marauding mule deer with old chicken wire; grateful to have that lying around.

I’ve finally absorbed these words of wisdom, “Let me be a learner, learning life’s lessons.” I find that only by slowing down enough to even try to understand breath can I begin to absorb and embody this life’s lessons.

Lessons can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The good news is that doesn’t matter: they’re all good, any lesson learned is a good lesson, no matter how many tries it takes. So I’ve surrendered to the fact that nothing is ever not a lesson, and I’m enjoying learning again! Once I quit resisting, much of what was unpleasant became neutral, and many things heretofore neutral became a cause for gratitude. And even that doesn’t matter. The ultimate lesson is to hold all the lessons in equal regard, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral: this is one facet of equanimity.

I’m grateful I only wrenched my big toe trying to get this shot, and didn’t sprain my ankle; practically running alongside Stellar (grateful he can move that fast!) trying to get ahead of him, watching the camera not my feet on uneven terrain. There’s at least one lesson in there.

Granny’s Fudge

Baker’s Unsweetened baking chocolate: one square equals one ounce.

I’m grateful to have most of my mother’s ancestral recipes. One I hadn’t made in at least forty years was Granny’s Fudge. Granny was my dad’s mother, but my mom adopted many of Granny’s wonderful traditional Tennessee recipes as her own signature dishes, and fudge was one that only came out at Christmas. Along with May’s sugar cookies that we’d decorated that day, these were the two things we left out for Santa on Christmas Eve. I don’t know how the fudge lasted til Santa came, honestly; I just made my second batch in a month and have already eaten so much my teeth hurt.

It seemed so complicated and time-consuming when I was a child. I’m grateful that years of experience have shifted my perspective on fudgemaking, as on so many other and more vital subjects. It’s pretty simple, but it requires close observation and finesse to do things like “cook to soft ball stage” and “beat until just right.” It requires attention and skill, just like living mindfully.

Boiling butter, sugar, and milk

I modified the recipe just a bit. It calls for oleo. I’m sure this was my mother’s substitution because I’m sure Granny made this for decades before oleo existed, so I used butter, of course. You melt the butter in a heavy pan, and mix together the sweeteners and milk, then add this to the butter and bring to a boil. Gradually add the chocolate til it’s all melted, stirring the whole time. I remember as a little girl peering over the top of the pan and being cautioned. One splash of this molten candy, I realize now, would cause a serious burn. I’m grateful I’ve learned to back away from dangerous heat.

Molten fudge

I made a couple of mistakes with the first batch, resulting in a tasty hard candy rather than the creamy fudge I was expecting. A perfect example of impact bias. Impact bias describes how “our mind consistently misjudges how much happiness or how much suffering (and its duration and intensity) a future event will bring us.” I expected a certain level of delight in the finished fudge. I was very particular, using a candy thermometer to take it up to 235º with constant stirring. Well, at high altitude, I figured out (too late), soft ball stage is at a lower temperature: It was pretty much hard ball when I dripped a drop into the ice water. Then I made the mistake of scooping it into a cold metal bowl to beat it, thinking that would make the beating process shorter, and it did: the fudge suddenly set as I was beating it and I barely managed to spread it in the pan before it was hard. Too hard. So this thing, that I though would taste so delicious, whose texture I craved, and I was sure would make me so happy… it let me down. I wasn’t nearly as happy as I expected to be as I stood there crunching on hard candy with the right taste and completely wrong texture. 

The second batch, however, has made me happy all day! And I know it’s made some other people happy, too, since I sent some home with the Bad Dogs after they delivered groceries. I’m so grateful to these dear friends for continuing to deliver groceries and other necessities, long after many people may have given up on humoring my self-imposed isolation. Their consideration gives me a strong measure of peace in this fraught time. After ten minutes in the post office last Friday I was traumatized for the whole weekend. Out of five men who entered the tiny space while I was shipping packages, only one wore a mask. Three lingered and chatted right behind me, one of them huffing and puffing with forceful exhalations. I couldn’t find the words to simply turn around and say, “Excuse me, can you all please wait outside? I’m at high risk for the virus.”

I couldn’t find the words because I assumed them to be Covid deniers, based on the absence of masks. Unskillfully, I couldn’t give them the benefit of the doubt, nor trust my own voice. My head fills with static sometimes under stress. I couldn’t stay there another minute with the big bad wolf three feet behind me audibly spewing whatever microbes he was harboring into that tight little space. I wrapped up the transaction without mailing my last parcel, which required a customs form. Skillfully, I left. The grocery store’s not much better, with a pretty consistent rate of at least 50% of customers unmasked. I get that my risk threshold is extreme compared to most people’s. But so is my familiarity with devastating chronic illness. So I’m grateful for friends who will shop for me, and eager to reciprocate their generosity.

Yes, the second batch delivered, just solid enough with the perfect creamy texture. After looking up my hypothesis, I recalibrated the temperature and pulled the fudge off the heat at 225º, then “beat like hell until just right (thick and not glossy).” I got it poured into the buttered pan just barely in time to smooth the top before it started to harden. I had to leave more in the pan than I would have liked as it set so quickly. These timing and texture details are what makes it seem like a difficult recipe, I guess. You have very short, very specific windows in which to accomplish essential actions for a successful outcome, as one often does in threading a day. I gained just a wee bit more experience that will improve my next effort.

When life gives you too much fudge set in the pan, grab a spoon and start scraping.
I ate as much of the pan scrapings as I could, and spooned the rest into a bowl to await my plan for them. After dinner, I sprinkled some onto a small bowl of coffee ice cream. Oh man!

I’m grateful for this day that brought me kindness from friends, success in my culinary venture, and a mouthful of insights about how these human minds, with their expectations and biases, yank us around like a powerful untrained puppy straining at the leash. And then, outside for a work break, I cried out in wonder and delight as I spied the first crocus blooms! I shared that joy with a friend that I knew was also waiting for this harbinger in her yard, and she replied with a fitting quote:

"A single crocus blossom ought to be enough to convince our heart that springtime, no matter how predictable, is somehow a gift, gratuitous, gratis, a grace." ~ David Steindl-Rast
I’m grateful for these tiny, hardy flowers, and all the beauty they comprise now and promise to come.
Granny's Fudge Recipe
3 squares unsweetened chocolate
1 ¼ cup white sugar
1 ¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup white Karo
⅔ cup milk
½ stick butter

Melt the butter in a heavy pan. Mix sugars, Karo, and milk, and add to melted butter, stirring. When this boils, gradually add chocolate. Keep stirring. Cook to soft ball stage and remove from heat. Add one pinch salt. Beat like hell until just right (thick and not glossy). Pour in buttered pan, and cut before it hardens. 

So simple, and so delicious!