Happy New Year from my winter place to yours! I write this on a very cold late afternoon under grey, pondering skies. Outside, the juncos are making prints in the new snow on my deck. I seemed to have evoked the spirit of Change by sending out that last Musing, and she is delighted to have found me. I’m not so sure the sentiment is mutual.
Change is an old, wrinkled nymph if you can conjure such a paradoxical image. She is dressed in gypsy clothes because she is a constant wanderer, visiting here and there and everywhere. Her hair is long and gray, but her eyes sparkle with child-like mischief and just the softest glimmer of compassion. She says, “Susan, Blackie’s passing will not be done with so soon. The changes her leave taking initiated are not through. Stop fretting and shaking your head at me! This is just the way it is.”
It all began with the death of Blackie, our dog, who left behind Hannah, our remaining canine.This terrible event catalyzed a kind of death in Hannah, too. Hannah, our border collie/terrier/anybodies-guess mix, has never lived any part of her four years on Earth without the company of a resident dog. She transitioned from her puppy litter, to a humane society kennel occupied by herself and several dogs, to my home with my old collie, Arrow, to my new home with Carter and Blackie, to our current home with only she and Darter, our cat, claiming the animal space.
Luckily for Hannah, we babysat our son and daughter-in-law’s dog, Toby, over Christmas. I called Toby Hannah’s special gift. A young and spunky Chiweenie dog with a tiny spiked collar, Toby ran circles around and under Hannah, ripped up all her toys, ran away with her balls, and in every sense of the word, danced Hannah to doggie paradise. Never had Blackie—with her old age and bad hips—EVER been such fun! For ten days, Hannah simply glowed. Who needed Christmas tree lights?
Unfortunately, Toby’s stay was temporary, and the coming of the New Year ushered in a remarkably quiet house. I know this is very twisted humor, but I sometimes refer to our house these dark afternoons as “the mausoleum.” Carter and I have mixed feelings about this change in house tempo. Parts of us like the deep quiet. Parts of us sorely miss the spark of life Blackie took with her when she left Hannah and us behind. Carter and I talked it over, and decided we really were not at a place to take on a new dog. We were making peace with that. It was feeling pretty good, actually. But not for Hannah. There is not much light in my dog’s eyes these days. Her shoulders slump, and she is becoming skittish and uncertain of herself, never having wanted to assume the mantel of “head dog.” Recently, she began squatting and peeing in the house. A vet visit revealed no problems anywhere, whatsoever. At length, the vet and I talked about the grief and stress that had overcome Hannah. Hannah was not meant to be an only dog. It was not in her stars, and nothing in her heart wanted any part of the Leader-of-No-Pack thing.
Leaving the vet’s office, I figured I had three choices: 1) do nothing, 2) rehome Hannah to a place where she could have her much, much, much needed dog companionship, or 3) bring home another dog. Pondering these things made me—well, to be honest—angry. I didn’t want to have to put my attention to solving a new dilemma. I had my share of dilemmas last year, thank you, and I’m done with that. But Change says, “I don’t think so.” And so I am angry. Not at Hannah, of course, but at what is. Eckhart Tolle, the mystic, says it is utter insanity to be mad at what is, because it is already here, and what is the point of being mad at what already is? Good point, and I still feel anger rising up. I don’t like being put on a spot, and my “spot” seems to be no Hannah or a new dog. Neither feels particularly good, of course. Forced changes never feel good, I would wager. Ah, yes—that old familiar feeling of change coming down—uninvited—for a visit.
But how do dogs bear these things? How do they make room for change in their hearts when they are forced into change without the human or wild-thing blessing of self determination? Hannah’s life is determined by my choices. If she has to adjust to her totally new and stressful role in the family, what choices does she have? Where do the animals we call pets find the strength, the mind-boggling trust, and the resolve to mentally and physically adjust to life turned totally upside down—perhaps many times?
I watch Hannah, telling myself, this is the face of change, of courage, of stress, of grief, of endurance. Let me look closer. What tools does a dog muster to deal with change when she doesn’t have the option of blame, victimhood, leaving, or just flat avoiding it in some manner?
This is what Hannah does: First, she feels it. I see the change in her eyes and her demeanor. No putting on a face to cover up. She hangs her head, sighs, pees when she gets really distressed, and just feels it. Clearly, she misses Blackie deeply. And she misses how life was when Blackie was here. Then, I notice her looking for new anchors, new habits, to craft a new life. She turns to me for new direction and seems to ask “What now?”
I see the sobering truth that when we are forced to bear what we cannot reconcile, we become diminished. I believe that in this way, irreconcilable change kills us in tiny steps by affecting our psyche and our health. If we can’t find a new passion that guides us into an entirely new direction, or a good substitute for what we lost, we fade a bit, and some of us continue fading a bit until we simply fade out over the years.
Yes, Hannah can comply with her new “only dog” fate if she must, but she will not, cannot, express the fullness of her being. I look back at changes that have come upon me over the years, and I see that some of them did indeed shrink me. Sometimes, it took a few years to adjust to the new circumstance, or to find a new creative substitute for “the way things used to be.” And I realize as I watch Hannah and ponder the nature of change, that it is not the habit of life to give us everything all the time. We will be shrunk and expanded and twirled and fractured and danced by life, and some of us will wind up with chronic arthritis or shin splints from all that fancy footwork we never wanted to learn in the first place. But as Eckhart says, what is, is.
I am not a dog. I am a human creature with an ability to drop beneath the circumstances of my life with prayer, meditation, “attitude adjustment,” and reflection. When change comes, I have many choices and many avenues to turn toward for help and reconciliation with what is. Hannah has only her heart, and she will bear what cannot be healthily born because her choices are few. Free choice: what a gift we have! Perhaps our circumstances are not chosen, but our response always is.
And my free choice allows me to make the best choice for Hannah. So last week, in the middle of winter when change is best delayed for a few more months, Carter and I brought home a five week old puppy. He came from a litter of nine abandoned pups, dumped in front of a school building when they were only two weeks old. We named him Mazeltav. We made this choice out of love for Hannah, and hope this choice will bring good to our entire little family. So far, it has. Mazel has brought his rambunctious light into the house, and I find we are laughing out loud again.
Spring will come soon—the season for welcoming and playing with change in the form of new growth, new plans and ideas, and whatever else new the growing seasons have fated for us. For me, a bit of spring has inserted her energy into my life a little early this year. Still, here in the middle of winter, I continue to take these months to look at change like a fairy in a chilled champagne glass that we may hold up to our eyes for scrutiny. Let’s look at her closely, marveling at her color, her power, and her mystery.
Look back at the changes in your own life—not those that may be confronting you now, but those already past and put to bed. What worked for you in reconciling those changes? Conversely, what did you find in your tool kit that was absolutely worthless to you? Many changes are upon our country today. Everyone feels it. It is worth exploring how we experience this visitor, Change, because I think we’ll all be seeing a lot of her in the months to come!
My good friend Ann Kreilkamp has republished—in new form—her wonderful magazine, “Crone: Women Coming of Age.” It is published now twice a year in a great journal format that provides really thought-provoking reading for women who are headed toward, or in, their “crone years”—a time of great power and great wisdom. We are the first women “elders” of our kind: collectively, our generation of older women is larger than any in history, and we are living longer into our elder years than women lived in any other time on Earth. Our crone years mark not the end of our days, but the beginning of an entirely new cycle of being. I’ll be contributing my writing to Crone, and would love to see you there. Crone’s website is www.cronemagazine.com, and you can read more about the magazine and subscribe there. Please give this little jewel a close look!
Until next month, may the gifts of winter shine down upon you in these cold days.