An Unexpected Gift

IMG_0448When I became a volunteer dog walker at a local humane society, all I wanted to do was help shelter dogs.  My daily schedule was rather busy at the time, so I only signed up for a two-hour walking shift, one day a week.  That was over fifteen years ago, and I’m still walking dogs there, although now I do it three days a week.  And my “shift” rarely ends before all the adoptable dogs get out, no matter how long that happens to take.

Honestly, walking shelter dogs turned out to be a lot harder than I expected.  Dogs that spend their days alone in a cage are very excited when you leash them up for a walk, and many of them are also rather large.  And strong.  Sadly, I am no longer young and I’ve never been particularly athletic.  But no matter how many times I point out to the dogs that they have an old lady on the other end of the leash, they rarely modify their behavior to accommodate my aging (and often aching) body.

Humane societies do good work and save countless numbers of homeless animals.  But they are also stressful places, both for the animals that live there and for the people who work and volunteer there.  Some of the animals living at the shelter have been rescued from awful situations, and seeing the results of so much neglect and abuse is hard on people who love animals.  Personally, I know I could not have lasted fifteen years at the shelter if it wasn’t for the friendships I have formed with some of the other volunteers and staff at the shelter.

It’s really hard to explain just how close I feel to my humane society friends.  True, we have a common bond in our love for shelter dogs, but there’s more to it than that.  As one friend recently said, “We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst, so there’s no point in pretending to be anyone other than who we really are.”  And she’s right.

I have been blessed with many friends in my life, but the friends who see me at my most vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, are my humane society friends.  They are the ones who have seen me ugly cry and will hug me if I need it, even when I’m sweaty and beyond gross.  (When I’m at the shelter and find brown stuff smeared on my clothes, I just pray that it’s mud.  It usually isn’t.)  When you volunteer at an animal shelter, you shower after your shift, not before.

Not surprisingly, our friendship extends beyond the shelter.  We get together for social occasions, and often know each other’s families.  But mostly, when tragedy strikes in our personal lives, we know we can turn to each other for the same kind of support that we show each other at the shelter.  We cry for each other’s pain, and celebrate each other’s joy.  We are not perfect people by any means,  but we know that we can count on each other to be there in both the good times and the bad.

I signed up to walk shelter dogs all those years ago because I felt sorry for dogs that lived at animal shelters.  I wasn’t expecting to make new friends, close or otherwise.  Which just goes to show that some of the biggest gifts we get in this life are the ones we weren’t even looking for……

Look For It

IMG_1907One evening I was driving down the highway, my mind busy with its usual jumble of thoughts and concerns, when I came over the top of a hill and suddenly realized that I was driving straight into a spectacular sunset.  It was just gorgeous, complete with a fiery red sun that radiated streaks of color across the sky as it dipped slowly into the horizon.  I remember being surprised, because I have always associated beautiful sunsets with beach vacations, where the highlight of my day is often standing on a beach and watching the sun sink into the ocean.  I couldn’t quite remember the last time I’d noticed a sunset in my hometown of St. Louis, since my house sits too low to see either sunsets or sunrises.  And yet there it was:  a sunset just as spectacular as anything I’ve ever witnessed on a beach vacation, even without the ocean.

Simply put, the sunset surprised me because I wasn’t looking for it.  When I drive on the local highways, I’m watching for bad drivers, traffic jams and the upcoming exit I need.  I may even be keeping an eye out for an interesting billboard.  But I am most definitely not expecting to see a sunset….even though the sun does set in St. Louis every night, just as it does all over the world.

I believe that all too often, we tend to see just exactly what we are looking for, no more and no less.  Which means that if we are looking for signs that the world is a horrible place and becoming worse by the moment, we will see them.  If we are looking for rejection in our relationships, contempt from people who are different from us, and incompetence from coworkers, we will see it.  Because sometimes those things are there.  But if we look for acts of kindness and compassion, for creative solutions to long-term problems, for areas where the world around us is actually improving, we will see those things as well.  Because the good things are also there, but we have to be willing to see them.

I spend my days volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter which rescues unwanted, neglected and abused animals on a daily basis.  Sometimes I see and hear things that make me doubt in the basic goodness of the human race.  But if I choose to look for it, I also see things that warm my heart:  people who take the time to bring in the stray and lost dogs they see wandering the streets, people who donate supplies and give so freely of their time and money, or a once-neglected dog prancing happily out the door with his new adoptive family.  Usually, the mood I am in when I go home from the shelter depends entirely upon what I choose to focus on when I’m down there.

Just like my surprise urban sunset, there is beauty to be found in almost any situation, even during those times when it is least expected.  And I hope that I always remember to just look for it……

Time Out

I’ve been out of sorts lately, both physically and emotionally.  I’ve been tired and cranky, lacking the energy to perform even the most basic daily chores and not particularly interested in engaging in the social activities I usually enjoy so much.  I thought I might be coming down with some sort of virus, but days passed and I never actually got sick.  It took me a while to figure it out, but I finally realized what was wrong with me was that I was feeling totally and completely overwhelmed and that trying to keep up with everything I usually do was only making things worse.

Feeling overwhelmed now and then is normal for me, as it is for most people.  Most of us lead busy lives with responsibilities that we can’t drop every time they feel a little too heavy.  I volunteer regularly at an open-admission animal shelter, and I can promise you that every single person who either works for or volunteers at an open-admission animal shelter is all too familiar with feeling overwhelmed.  It’s just part of the package.  And I know the same is true for parents with little children, people with super-stressful jobs, those who are primary care-takers for aging parents, just to name a few.  There are times when know that we’re trying our best, but we also know that our best is not quite good enough.

Dealing with our own issues is hard enough, but we are also constantly aware of the onslaught of tragedies that are playing out in the world.  The Las Vegas massacre, Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the earthquake in Mexico–the bad news just keeps coming, and it becomes almost impossible to even process it after a while.  Honestly, it’s not  surprising that most of us feel overwhelmed at times.  And when we do, sometimes the best response is to take a little break from it all.

Taking a break doesn’t come naturally to me, probably because it feels too much like wimping out.  I have a tendency to think that I should be able to handle whatever life happens to throw at me, and that admitting there are times when I can’t is the same as admitting that I am weak.  But I’m not.  I’m just like everyone else:  I have my limits.  And when I hit them, I need to step back and allow myself to catch my breath.

So this past week, I didn’t write my usual blog post for no other reason that it felt like too much work.  I gave myself a couple of days to perform only the essential chores and let the other stuff slide.  I didn’t accept any invitations for social gatherings.  I watched only enough news to learn the basic facts, then either turned the TV off or switched to a different channel.  I let my phone ring out more than once, knowing that any important messages would be left on my voice mail.

And you know what?  It worked.  Taking a break from it all didn’t make the world any better or make any of my problems go away, as nice as that would be.  But it did change my attitude and it did restore my confidence in my ability to cope with the the things I need to handle.  My head doesn’t hurt anymore, and I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends this weekend.

I am a strong person, but that doesn’t mean I can be strong enough all the time.  And for those times when I’m not strong enough, a little “time out” is exactly what’s needed.

Life is like…

IMG_2531With all due respect to Forrest Gump, I don’t believe that life is really like a box of chocolates.  Personally, I believe that everyday life is actually far more like doing laundry.  Because no matter how many loads I wash, I know there’s always going to be more that needs to be done.  I never get to the point where I can say, “That’s it!  I washed, dried, folded, and put away all those clothes, and now I’ll never have to do laundry again!”  Doing the laundry is an ongoing process, which makes it very much like so much of the rest of my life.

For instance, when it comes to home and yard maintenance, we no sooner complete one project than we are faced with another.  We repaired out driveway last week, which means it’s time to replace our garage door and dig up three dead bushes.  And at the Animal Shelter where I volunteer, no matter how many dogs I walk and am thrilled to see get adopted into their forever home, there are always more dogs coming in that need to be walked and cared for until it’s their turn to be adopted.  Just like the laundry, it’s a never-ending cycle.

Even when I think something is coming to an end, I often find out that it isn’t.  I went to the doctor yesterday for what I thought was the final check up on the varicose vein treatment on my right leg, so I was surprised when he strolled into the examining room bearing a tray of syringes.  Apparently, I needed another treatment for minor veins, so here I sit in my support hose for another week.  (They look so fashionable when worn with summer shorts and dresses.)  When I was leaving, he asked if I wanted to do the next treatment in six weeks or wait until Fall, when he’s going to laser the varicose vein in my left leg.  And so the fun continues….

Just like laundry, life presents us with both loads that are light and loads that are heavy, and we have no choice but to handle them all.  And just like when we do laundry, sometimes we are successful (“I got the stain out!”) and sometimes we fail (“That stain is permanent!”).  Occasionally, we do something stupid (such as running a new wool sweater through both the washing machine and the dryer), and all we can do is forgive ourselves and move on, hoping we manage to handle things better the next time.

I honestly believe that few things in life are a matter of “one and done,” and that a big part of success stems from our willingness to just keep plugging away to the best of our abilities.  And it helps to remember that it’s not just the bad stuff, or even the everyday mundane stuff, that keeps on coming, but the good stuff as well.  We will always have something to celebrate and be grateful for, if we are willing to look for it

I could say more, but I think I’ve made my point.  Also, I’ve got to go throw another load of laundry in.

Moving Forward

I have what is referred to as a “pear-shaped” body, which is a kind way of saying that my upper thighs are a size bigger than the rest of me.  I complained about this for years before I finally lost the fifteen pounds that I was sure would give me the body shape I wanted.  It didn’t.  I still had the same body shape, just two sizes smaller.  Which meant that I still had an awful time finding pants that fit me, and I complained bitterly about that until a friend (who I’m sure was tired of listening to me whine about the same old thing) suggested I try having my pants altered to fit me.  So now I buy my pants on sale so that I can afford to take them to a tailor, who takes them in at the waist.  And just like that, my long-term wardrobe problem was solved.

I’m not going to lie:  I’m good at complaining.  Complaining comes as naturally to me as worrying, probably because they are closely related and tend to feed off each other.  It’s just who I am, and I’ve learned to accept that.  But what I have also learned is that the trick is to remember to move beyond complaining to actively trying to address the problem I happen to be complaining about.

It’s okay to recognize my worries and express my concerns as long as I realize that complaining isn’t going to solve a thing.  Complaining simply names the problem, but if I actually want to fix the problem, then that’s going to require some sort of action on my part.  Sometimes that’s as simple as finding a good tailor, while other times, of course, the problems are much more serious and complicated.

IMG_1157But even when the problems are huge and completely beyond my personal control, I can still do my part to try to make things better.  I can join groups that are working to change public policy, and I can volunteer with agencies that address the issues I care about.  For instance, I may not be able to single-handedly save all the homeless dogs, but I most certainly can spend my time at the local animal shelter, doing everything in my power to make the lives of the dogs there just a little bit easier.

It’s easy, I think, to fall into the pattern of simply pointing out the many problems we see around us and to believe that is as far as we need to go, or as far as we can go.  But I’ve discovered that when I do that, I end up feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and depressed.  Far better to see problems as something that need fixing, and to recognize that there is often something we can do to help solve them.  Not only does that make the world a better place, but it empowers us to discover that we really are capable of making a positive impact.

Moving from merely complaining to active problem solving is just as good for us as it is for the ones we are trying to help.  And in my case, it means that I finally have pants that fit.

Lessons From Dogs

Next month marks my fourteenth anniversary as a volunteer at my local humane society.   I could write an entire book about all the wonderful dogs and people I have encountered while volunteering there, but for the purposes of this blog, I’m just going to  highlight a few of the important lessons I’ve learned in the past fourteen years.

IMG_0445First of all, despite what I have always been taught, sharing is not necessarily a good thing. Yes, it is wonderful when dogs share their love, their affection, and their joy at being taken out for a walk after being cooped up in their kennels for many hours.  But the problem is, they don’t stop there.  Dogs share everything, (except food) and they share it abundantly and extravagantly.  That includes, but is not limited to:  their fur, their drool, their unique doggie smell, their poop, and on the rare occasion, their fleas.  If they have it, they will share it.  But that doesn’t mean you want it.

Also, always keep your mouth closed when you are close to a dog’s face.  I learned this the hard way when I was leashing up a German Shepherd that was still getting used to being handled by people, which meant that I always spoke to her in a calm, reassuring voice when I was getting her ready for a walk.  Unfortunately, I made the mistake of doing that while I was leaning in to clip my leash to her collar, and to show her gratitude, she suddenly lifted her head and gave my face a quick lick.  While my mouth was open.  Which meant that for a brief second, I had a dog’s tongue in my mouth.

Trying to be tough, I just shuddered a little and went ahead and took her for a walk.  But as I was putting the dog back, I spotted a note on her kennel that said she was being treated for worms.  Suddenly worried, and more than a little bit nauseous, I found the nearest vet tech and inquired as to whether if I had just been “french kissed” (as we used to call it back in the day) by a dog with worms, did that mean I could actually get worms?  When she stopped laughing (which took quite some time), she said, “probably not.”  I have to tell you, that was not the definitive answer I was looking for.  And from that moment on, I kept my mouth firmly closed when I was anywhere near a dog’s face.

On a more serious note, I learned that no matter how hard it is to go down to the shelter, day after day and week after week, to walk shelter dogs in all kinds of weather, for however long it takes to get each and every one of them out for a walk, it is ALWAYS worth the effort.  No matter how tired I am, no matter how sweaty hot or frozen I am, no matter how much I am smeared with smelly stuff, nothing beats seeing a dog who came to our shelter neglected, abused, or just plain terrified of the shelter environment begin to blossom into the happy, healthy and confident dog they were born to be.  And when they are adopted into a loving home, all of us volunteers have the satisfaction of knowing that we were a part of that transformation, which is nothing short of a minor miracle.

Most shelters are in desperate need of more volunteers to help them care for their animals.  And while volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter is not for everyone, and certainly not for the faint of heart, I really believe that if you have some time to spare and love animals, you should give it a try.  Yes, you will be tested in ways you haven’t dreamed of.  But trust me, if you stick around, the rewards will be more than you ever dreamed of as well.

Risk It

I have always been a very cautious person.  When deciding whether or not to try something new, I tend to carefully analyze the situation, weigh all the potential risks, envision every single thing that could possibly go wrong, and then, more often than not, I chicken out.  I usually decide that the risk just isn’t worth it, and decide to stick with the safety of my familiar routine. Luckily for me, I have found the courage to step outside of my comfort zone a few times in my life, and I am so glad that I did.

DSC03708While I was still in college, I volunteered at a nearby humane society, and although I learned a lot, I also found the experience so stressful that I developed the beginnings of an ulcer.  It took me years to decide to try it again, but I finally did shortly after we adopted our beloved dog Sandy from the local humane society.  That was thirteen years ago, and although volunteering at a large, open-admission animal shelter can sometimes be very hard, (both physically and emotionally) I’ve stuck with it.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about dogs, how good it feels to see a dog I’ve worked with get adopted, or how much I’ve grown as a person just from my volunteer experience down there.  Although I signed up only because I wanted to help the shelter dogs, I’ve also had the added benefit of becoming close friends with many of the other volunteers.  I’m talking about real friends, the kind who stick by you no matter what, who know what you’re thinking before you even say it, and the kind who will let you cry or curse when you need to, and then do their best to cheer you up afterwards. There’s a lot to be said for people who have seen you at your worst but still like you anyway.

I thought about starting this blog for at least two years before I actually did it.  I wasn’t afraid of the actual writing, but I was very afraid of sending my writing out into cyberspace where anyone could read it, and even worse, comment on it.  As far as I was concerned, no possible good could come from talking to strangers on the internet.  I had watched enough true crime shows to know that was an absolute fact.

But a little over a year ago, I did finally start my blog.  And thanks to WordPress, I know that it has been read by people in 52 different countries, had almost 5,000 visitors and over 10,000 views.  Yes, there is spam, but my spam filter catches most of it and I delete the rest.  But I have formed online “friendships” with so many interesting, kind, smart and talented bloggers that now I really regret how long it took me to find the courage to start this blog.  I had no idea how much support and encouragement I would encounter from people who only knew me through reading my blog.  I don’t care what anyone says, I now believe that there are many, many nice people in this world.

I know I will always be a bit cautious.  It’s just part of my personality, and I don’t think I can do anything about that.  But I also know that with each step I take out of my comfort zone, taking a risk becomes just a little bit easier.  With each risk I take, I expand my horizons a bit more, grow a bit more, and live life just a little bit more fully.  And that makes the risk so very worth it.

 

True Victory

There are many times when I wish life was more like the movies, where there’s almost always a happy ending.  I wish that I could know for sure that no matter how bleak things look, if I just keep on trying hard enough and don’t give up, that I will triumph in the end.  That I will have that moment of victory, usually accompanied by lots of applause and inspiring music.  Sadly, real life seldom works that way.

The truth is, sometimes my best just isn’t good enough.  I tried for years to become a commercially successful children’s book writer, but it never happened.  Instead of a shelf full of my published books, I have a file cabinet stuffed full of rejection letters.  I have taken aerobics classes, yoga classes, pilate classes, and spent hours on my exercise bike and walking around the neighborhood, but my chubby upper thighs are still with me.  (I strongly suspect that even if I starved to death, they would still be there.  They are that resilient.)

IMG_0411I head down to the local humane society three times a week to walk the shelter dogs, but no matter how many I walk, no matter how many frightened dogs I comfort, or how many rowdy dogs I work with to teach the most basic of manners, there are always more dogs that I don’t have time to help.  My husband and I work hard to take care of our house and my mother’s house, but no matter how much time and money we spend on them, there is always something else that needs to be done.

Real life rarely comes with a sense of closure, never mind triumph.  The older I get, the less I believe in the whole concept of winning.  I think I am one of the few people who approves of coaches giving the young children on their team a trophy at at the end of the season, just for being on the team.  Those trophies aren’t rewards for winning, but they do acknowledge the perseverance of showing up for every practice and game and always giving your best effort, even when you don’t win.  Which, if you think about it, is probably a better preparation for real life than playing on a team that wins every game.

The only thing I can ever offer is my best effort.  I don’t know whether or not my best effort is going to fix a situation or guarantee that I reach my goal, because the truth is that sometimes it will, and other times it won’t.  But I think the important thing is that I don’t get discouraged and quit trying, because that will guarantee that I never accomplish a thing, and I don’t want to live like that.  I want the courage to keep trying, the wisdom to change strategies when necessary, and the perseverance to never stop trying to make the little bit of the world that I touch a better place.

So I’ll keep writing, because I love to write and I’m not a happy person when I’m not writing.  I’ll get back on that exercise bike and head off to my yoga class because I’m a healthier person when I exercise, even if my chubby thighs insist on staying with me.  And I’ll keep heading down to the humane society to help shelter dogs, even with the terrible knowledge that I won’t be able to save them all.  Because I’m finally realizing that the real victory is not giving up.

In It For The Long Haul

When I was a stay-at-home mom with young children, every day was a unique, though not necessarily exciting, adventure.  No matter how hard I tried to establish routines, my days never had anything close to the predictable routine I was used to when I worked in an office.  Sometimes before he left in the morning, my husband would ask me, “What’s on your agenda today?”  And I would promptly answer, “Laundry.”  At that time, it was the one constant in my life.  Whatever else the day brought me, I knew it would include laundry.

The sad thing was that I hated doing laundry.  I like jobs that can be neatly checked off of a to-do list, and not have to be faced on a continuing basis.  But no matter how many loads of wash I did, the laundry basket just filled right back up.  Often before sunset.  It was a job I could never actually complete.

Now that the kids are grown and out of the house, I have lots of laundry-free days, but I’m still dealing with a task that, no matter how hard I work at it, feels as if it is never-ending.  Now that I have more time on my hands, I spend three days a week walking dogs at our local Humane Society.  And although I enjoy walking dogs much more than I did washing clothes, there is still the sense that I am swimming upstream with no end in sight.  Because the one thing that an open admission shelter always has is a constant stream of new dogs who need to be walked, trained, socialized, etc., while they are waiting for their turn to be adopted.

IMG_4349There are many mornings when I happily head down to the shelter, looking forward to seeing the dogs and some of my friends. But there are other mornings when I just don’t want to go down there and face the dozens of homeless dogs who are waiting to be walked.  Sometimes I don’t feel physically strong enough to deal with the big rowdy dogs; other times I don’t feel emotionally strong enough to deal with the abused or neglected dogs who huddle, trembling, in the back of their runs; and other days I just don’t want to risk finding out that, once again, we don’t really have enough volunteers to properly take care of all the dogs who depend on us.

But just like the laundry basket all those years ago, the Humane Society is something I can’t ignore.  Now that I know of the need that exists down there, now that I have actually handled shelter dogs and seen how much a positive difference my time, and the time of the other volunteers, makes in their lives, I can’t turn my back on it.  So I keep going down there, even on the mornings I don’t want to, and walk the dogs.  I can’t say I always do it cheerfully, although on most days something happens…usually a moment of connection with a dog or another person…that makes me glad I showed up after all, but I do it.  Because I realize now that I’m in this for the long haul.

I saw a quote on Facebook once by Mary Ann Radmacher that said, “Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” That pretty much sums it up for me.

Lucy

IMG_0143I didn’t really want another dog, as I was perfectly happy with the one we already had.  Sandy was a sweet-natured and happy dog who fit in beautifully with our family, and I felt that one dog, a long-haired rabbit who required daily brushing and a gerbil were more than enough for me to take care of.  But the kids really wanted another dog, so I foolishly told them that once the gerbil and rabbit were gone, we could get a second dog.  Unfortunately, within six months after I said that, the gerbil and rabbit both died.  Which is how Lucy came into our lives.

When we found her at the Humane Society, she seemed to be a calm, friendly dog who got along well with Sandy, so we signed the adoption papers, handed over a check and took her home.  The next day, we were surprised to discover that our new dog had suddenly seemed to acquire a very high level of energy indeed.  Closer inspection of her adoption papers revealed that we had adopted her less than twenty-four hours after she’d been spayed, which was a mistake none of us caught at the time.  That explained the “sudden change” in her personality.  She hadn’t been calm when we’d met her at the shelter; it was just that the sedation hadn’t completely worn off.  But by that time, she was already of member of our family and returning her was out of the question.

We quickly learned that Lucy was easy to love, but not so easy to live with.  We discovered that she not only had extraordinary energy, but was also very independent and unbelievably smart.  Sadly, her intellect has never been matched by a desire to please, or to abide by the household rules.  Lucy lives by her own rules.  She raided trashcans, even the ones with lids, which meant that she was constantly supplementing her diet with used kleenex and other disgusting things she couldn’t digest properly.  I’ll spare you the gross details.  She left muddy footprints in our bathtubs, strolled casually across the living room window sill, and waited patiently for the exact moment when no one was looking to jump on the table and polish off the cheese ball during a party.  She prided herself on keeping our backyard squirrel-free, and would also leave us little tokens of her love on our back porch:  a piece of charcoal, a chunk of our landscaping border, a dead vole.  Staying one step a head of Lucy required constant vigilance, and even then, I wasn’t always successful.

IMG_4966I guess I thought I’d be glad when Lucy grew older and slowed down a little.  But I’m not.  She’s thirteen now, and has been an only dog since last September, when our beloved Sandy died at the age of sixteen. Lucy seems a bit lost without her, and after Sandy’s death, she has aged much more quickly.   These days, the dog who was so independent and afraid of nothing trembles when I drive her to the vet, and sticks close by me when I’m home.  The dog who always launched herself enthusiastically at our household visitors doesn’t even hear the doorbell any more, and  the dog who once had boundless energy is happy to spend most of her time sleeping in a patch of sunlight, especially if I am nearby.

I may be middle aged, but Lucy is old, and there’s no escaping the fact that she is beginning to fade away.  Her hearing is almost completely gone, she’s getting cataracts and sometimes she seems bewildered and confused. I know she’s “just a dog” to many people, but those who truly love their pets will understand that I am just not ready for this particular loss.  Maybe its because we’re still adjusting to life without Sandy, maybe I’m still feeling the effects of the empty-nest syndrome, or maybe I’ve just known too many people who have died in the past few years. But for whatever reason, I sometimes sit with Lucy and quietly whisper to her, “Stay.”  She’s smart enough to know what I mean.