Monday, February 23, 2009

The healing power of animals

Ahnung, my north star continues to shine brightly.

What is it about animals that is so healing for all of us?
What is it about animals that nudges at our once closed heart, and touches a part of our soul once untouched?
What is it about animals that calms us?

Through the loving, forgiving, resilient, playful spirits of animals ...

I have witnessed transformation in myself
I have witnessed transformation in others
I have witnessed transformation in other animals ...

so what is it? what is it about animals that brings out hope, love and kindness? what is it about animals that dare us to risk and trust all over again? what is it about animals that reflects back to us what our true selves are capable of ... compassion, gentleness, understanding, resilience and forgiveness?

I ask Ahnung ever day ... what is it?

Today, I wish to simply be more like my dog Ahnung.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Ode - brave spirit is officially adopted!

Today I had the honor of finalizing Ode's adoption. Ode (pronounced 'Oday' and means heart in Ojibway) came into Pet Haven's foster program in July, 2008. At 12 weeks of age, she was rescued by Karen Good of Red Lake Rosie's Rescue. Ode was found wandering on a baseball field in Redby, Minnesota with her ears severely burned - a victim of horrific abuse. In the 6-7 months she has been in our program she has been loved by her foster family and fellow Pet Haven volunteers and all lucky enough to meet her. About a month ago she went to live with Pam and her two cats -- they were fostering Ode with the intent to adopt. Over a cup of tea, delicious homemade ginger cookies, and Pam with one hand petting a content, relaxed Ode on her favorite chair, the adoption paperwork was completed. Somehow Ode must've known what was going on. She seemed happy, content, and at ease.

As Celayne (Pet Haven's dog adoption director) and I left, we gave Ode a hug and a kiss, exchanged hugs with Pam as we said "Welcome to the Pet Haven family." And Ode gave us a Valentines card that went out to Pam's friends... "Dear Auntie Marilou and Auntie Celayne ... what a difference a month makes! Despite many trying hours (days, even) since I joined DogMa (you know her as Pam) and the cat girls (aka Kiss and Ladybug) in their humble abode, I've finally reached my decision (and yes, as they say on that dumb TV show, it's final): I'm adopting them!" .. and Ode goes on to share some stories and ends with "much love and slimy pooch kisses, Ode Almondine Funny Girl Bambi Christian."

Well, Ode Almondine Funny girl Bambi Christian, we love you and we are so happy for you!

Shortly after Ode arrived I made a movie to share her story:

To view more photos from today, click here.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day ..

Today I spent the afternoon at my studio, painting with a couple friends who were kind enough to give me four hours on Valentine's Day to paint the large gallery space. I chose two shades of yellow: overjoy and solaria. I am loving how my studio space is coming together ... it feels full of possibilities. I brought Ahnung and Mister with me, while Missy got to hang out at home with my partner. Mister doesn't get to hang out with me at the studio much so he was in heaven, as you can tell from the photo :)

I came home tonight to an email from a journalist who writes for the Best Friends Animal Society website letting me know that she had posted an article and was linking to a piece I had written titled "A Panoramic View of Animal Rescue." I am honored and moved that she felt compelled to share my piece with a larger audience.

Ahnung also has a special Valentine's day posting that she asked me to put up on the Pet Haven dog blog. If you have a moment she would appreciate you reading it. Click here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Compassionate Leader

I believe there's a leader in each and every one of us. Last summer I spent time up in Ely, Minnesota at the International Wolf Center. On my first visit, I was greeted by Shadow, one of the white wolves, an arctic subspecies of the gray wolf. Shadow is the leader of the exhibit pack and tends to be shy of strangers, keep his distance and watch from afar. For some reason though, that morning, with only a glass pane separating us, he came right up to me. I spent a week observing the wolf pack, taking photos and simply being with them. I captured this photo of Shadow on my first visit and out of this image was inspired to write a piece in his honor.

The Compassionate Leader

Be still.

to the songs and the cries of the suffering

the potential of hope unseen

in a world where compassion is the Way

Be Bold. Be Creative. Be Authentic.

Dare to risk it all.

- Marilou Chanrasmi

I put into a video photos from my week up north. What a healing, transformative week. I look forward to visiting Shadow, Malik, Aiden, Denali, Grizzer and Maya again.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Osso Update: From Sadness to Hope

In January I wrote about the pain of giving up a family member. I wrote about my first meeting with Osso and his guardian. I wrote about the deep sadness I could sense in both Osso and his guardian. You can read about it here.

Over the weekend we received an update from Osso's foster. It was one of the highlights of my weekend! The sadness in his eyes has been replaced with hope and joy. While waiting for his new forever home, he gets to hang out with one of Pet Haven's best fosters.

Osso's foster shared the following:

"I just wanted to give an update on Osso to everyone. He is doing GREAT!!!! He is such a fun dog to have around. He is really playful but not annoying over the top playful... He loves to play ball and will play for about 10 - 15 minutes and then is ready to just hang out and sleep. He loves his rubs and when you stop he gives your hand the shove for more which I find adoreable. Osso gets along great with my dog, he hasn't had much interaction with my cat. He did bark at him tonight but when I told him no, he immediately lost interest and went into the other room. Osso is doing good in the crate that I picked up on Saturday. He doesn't love it, but he is putting up with it!!! The treats help. I have some pics attached. I took a bunch tonight and attached the one's I thought were best. I can take more if you would like."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Black's Story

Marilou, when you have a moment I need for you to take some photos of Black” says Ann, Pet Haven’s intake coordinator, as I arrive at the dog adoption event. “He’s a new dog in our foster program. He’s an 8 month old lab/husky mix and an absolutely sweet dog.” Without prompting, two other volunteers who assist in the evaluation of dogs into our foster program nod and validate what a wonderful dog Black is. I look over and see an African-American woman sitting on a fold-up gray metal chair, book in hand, while she holds onto the leash attached to this gorgeous black dog with a patch of white on his chest and the shiniest coat I have ever laid my eyes on. A, Black’s guardian, is one of almost 30 individuals lined up neatly forming a rectangular perimeter at the entrance of the Eden Prairie Petco to highlight all of Pet Haven’s adoptable dogs.

I get down on the floor next to Black to greet him. I let him sniff my hand and I can immediately tell he is super-friendly. Before I know it I am sucked into the “black hole” that Pet Haven volunteers claim my house is … the black dog, black hole where every black dog I have attempted to foster, has ended up being adopted by me. I fall hopelessly in love with them and can’t bear the thought of letting them go. With three big black dogs in our home, I accept I can’t bring anymore home. I am consumed by Black - the softness of his coat; how shiny, healthy and full his coat looks and feels; and the sweet, wild aroma emanating from his pores. I bury my head in his fur and rub his belly. Black responds by rolling on his back, paws up, with eyes pleading “more – don’t stop!” For an 8 month old dog he is super calm and listens well to his guardian. I look up to the woman holding onto the end of Black’s leash. I can feel love surrounding this dog. I can feel the love from her spirit radiating around her, around Black and around me.

Not long ago, I had witnessed the pain of an owner having to give up her beloved dog Osso due to financial circumstances and personal reasons. It was heartbreaking for me and I could feel the sadness from Osso and his owner. In this case, I could feel smatterings of sadness; more than anything else though I felt love. I look up at the woman and ask as gently as I can, “so what’s Black’s story?” She kindly and calmly responds, “we are having to move. Our home is being foreclosed on and we need to be out by the 23rd.” Her words come down on me like lead pressing down on my heart. Is this what compassion is? Is compassion what makes my heart ache over and over again. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” I am grateful that the heartache and suffering of the work we do at Pet Haven has not hardened my heart – if anything, I have found my heart expanding to feel a deeper compassion for not only the animals but as importantly, for people. I feel strongly that the work we do at Pet Haven is as much about showing compassion for animals as it is about showing compassion for people.

I engage in dialogue with A while petting Black who is laying calmly by her feet. She is a proud mama and her eyes sparkle as she raves about how perfect he is and what a beautiful dog he is. I cannot stop the sharpness I feel in my gut. I want to make things better for Black. I want to make things better for Black’s family. In conversation we discover that we don’t live that far apart. I tell her I wish I could bring Black home but I have a small yard and already have 3 beautiful big black dogs. She jokingly says, “you could buy our home and you would have a nice big back yard and could also have Black.” I smile. Deep down, I’m wishing I could. I’m wishing I had more money to spare and that I could buy their house and give it to them. I’m wishing loving, kind, hard-working people like A didn’t have to face one of the hardest choices in life and didn’t have to not only lose their home, but lose a beloved family member. I am humbled by A and Black. I am humbled by the way in which A is handling a very difficult situation – with dignity, integrity, love and even gratitude. Last night, after I shared with her a blog posting I put up on the Pet Haven dog blog, she responded with:

Thank you again, Marilou. What you shared on the blog brought tears to my eyes. He is just so BEAUTIFUL, I wish I could keep him! I am so thankful that I had an opportunity to meet so many people who genuinely care for animals. As I said at the event today, I think Black could tell too, as he opened up to you like no one else!

I truly believe he will find a loving home with the help of Pet Haven. God Bless

I woke this morning to a dream where I was in the middle of the open ocean and a raging storm, desperately trying to save dogs and puppies who were flailing, submerging and drowning all around me. I swooped as many of them up and placed them in a floating metal garbage dumpster. I frantically worked to save as many as I could. Finally, the storm subsides and I look into the dumpster to see if the puppies are okay. The pile of puppies and dogs have transformed into a pile of human bodies. Many of them are not breathing. I panic and scream out for help as I administer CPR and try to bring back to life as many as possible.

I am grateful for the dream I had last night as frightening as it was. It tells me that it is truly no longer just about helping animals for me. It is as much for me about helping people as it is about animals. Fear and adversity can hold us back if we let it. I am grateful and I am humbled to have met Black and his loving guardian A yesterday.

When the storm hits my life in a way that it has hit Black and A’s life, may I remain as centered, loving, calm and grateful as these two incredible beings.

For now, I will fight to find Black a loving home. I will fight to give A the comfort in knowing that Pet Haven will love her family member as one of our own. I will fight to keep my heart as open as I can and to welcome in the suffering of all those around us.

If you would be willing to consider fostering this gorgeous boy, please email me directly at

2/16/09 Update: I am happy to report that someone read this blog posting, fell in love with Black, and Black moved into a home with a young couple ... they are fostering for now but there is a very good chance they will adopt him!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hold onto me

Early one morning, as Ahnung and I (along with another Pet Haven volunteer Laura) were preparing to meet with a group of at-risk youth at The Lab, she pawed at me. Our objective for that day's session was to share more of her story and to work on an art project. Could I, she asked, transcribe for her some words she wanted to share with her new friends??

How could I possibly say no?? I have learned that Ahnung can reach beyond walls and touch the wounded spirits of these kids in ways I am unable to.

Later that day, I read Ahnung's poem to them as she napped quietly off to my side - her quiet, calm, comforting presence filled the room. Through my volunteer work with The Lab, I am bearing witness to wounded spirits connecting and helping each other heal.

Hold Onto Me

I am your north star.
I am here with you, always.

When you feel angry, hold onto me.
When you feel sad, hold onto me.
When you feel like giving up, hold onto me.
When you feel alone, hold onto me.

Hold onto me and I will walk by your side.

I will love you and all your feelings.
I will honor you and protect you.
I will be your bright star in the dark sky for as long as you need me.

And when you are ready,
and only when you are ready,
we will saunter out together into the open fields.

We will play.
We will explore and discover new things.
Or maybe, we’ll just hang out and take a nap,
as we all need time to rest.

I am your north star.

But you too, are a bright star.
You are unique and you are special.
Together we will light up the night sky.

Hold onto me.

And know I am holding onto you too.

Ahnung was abandoned with her litter of 8 puppies at Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. When she was rescued she tested positive for heartworm and lymes disease. She carries physical scars from her rough beginnings (a pellet in her nipple and no front teeth – her teeth ground down to the gums as a way of survival to find food or escape). Her spiritual self, however, only knows how to be calm, loving, confident, wise, forgiving and present.

Each student received their own copy of their poem with a special dedication just to them, from Ahnung, along with her "signature."

I share with the kids how Ahnung has been a source of healing and comfort for me and how she continues to be my star. There is an Ahnung in each and every one of us.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Healing wounded spirits

The other day while quietly reflecting during my morning routine of meditation and writing, I found my mind wandering. I made a conscious decision to let my mind go, to let it follow the source of so much inspiration for me and the source of so much comfort -- I allowed myself to gaze into Ahnung's eye trusting that a scene for my writing assignment would emerge. I followed Ahnung and she led me to the volunteer work we are doing with at-risk youth:

Healing Wounded Spirits

I am standing in front of a classroom of 9th graders, comprised of at-risk EBD youth of the Rivereast day treatment program in St. Paul. Next to me is my dog Ahnung, a 4 year old, bully breed mix whom I recently adopted through Pet Haven, an all-volunteer foster-based animal rescue. I share with the students how my journey led me here; how grief, loss and pain led me to follow my heart and to find comfort in giving back by volunteering and helping abandoned, abused and neglected animals.

Facing Loss

On September 15th, 2006 we lost our beloved collie-shepherd mix Shen to cancer of the spleen. It was a spring-like Friday afternoon when the vet at University of Minnesota called me at home. I had just arrived home after spending the entire morning and early afternoon at the animal hospital pacing the floors while Shen was in surgery: “There’s not much you can do. You only live 10 minutes from here. I will call you when you can come back and see Shen.

I left not realizing it would be my last time to see her soulful eyes gazing up at me.

The caller ID on our phone says ‘Univ of MN”. My heart skips a beat as I pick up the receiver of the phone. On the other end, the calm voice of the doctor says, “I’m sorry. Shen’s cancer is far worse than we had suspected. It has spread throughout her body. She will need another blood transfusion.” Hours earlier, consumed with tears, I desperately tell the doctors to save Shen’s life at all cost. Letting go was simply not an option. Not then. But how many transfusions would I put her through? How far would I go to save her when the doctor had told me “anything we do is palliative. She is dying – it’s a question of how long.” As the doctor asked for my permission to allow for another blood transfusion, I felt Shen’s spirit take over me, and as I took a deep breath in, I could hear her say, “it’s time.”


I don’t know why and I don’t know how. Somehow I felt a calm acceptance permeate my body as I said to the vet, “No. No more transfusions. It’s time to let her go.

I rushed back to the University of Minnesota. As the doctor gently administered the lethal dose of a drug that would stop Shen’s heart from beating, I held her paw. The doctor, with her right hand clasping the diaphragm of the stethoscope placed gently against Shen’s chest, made eye contact with me. Slowly and deliberately, she nodded. Shen was gone.

Anger and Denial

The floodgate of tears burst wide open as I felt Shen ripped from me. Calm acceptance – where did calm acceptance go? I was angry – angry at the injustice of it all. I was angry my beloved Shen was ripped from my life and from my heart so quickly. Anger and pain consumed me. I wanted to scream, I wanted to curse anything and everything, yet all I could do was bury my face in her now lifeless body. The cloud of anger was so thick I couldn’t feel Shen’s spirit hovering over her body, hovering over me.

I pause and look out at the kids in the classroom. “Have you ever felt so angry? Have you ever felt so much pain you didn’t know what to do with it? Have you ever felt like kicking and screaming because something horrible happened and you don’t understand why? And you don’t think it’s fair? Where do you turn? Where can you find comfort? That afternoon I felt so lost.

Healing begins

I continue my story. Eight days I am fostering a dog through Pet Haven – a 2 year old black/pit bull mix named Missy who had spent 8 months in a shelter in rural Iowa. Missy has since become a permanent member of our family. In less than a year, after the loss of our second dog Shadow, also to cancer, we welcomed into our family another big black dog, Mister, who was found in a ditch in rural Iowa with two of his littermates. Since September, 2006 I have immersed myself in volunteer work with Pet Haven. Giving back and helping abandoned, abused and neglected animals was what I needed to help me move through the grief of losing Shen. For the first time, I felt so alive. My life had purpose and meaning. I was making a difference. I was healing and finding comfort and learning from the loving, giving, forgiving and resilient natures of these furry beings.

Ahnung - our north star

So is Ahnung your dog too?”, asks one of the kids.

“Yes. She wasn’t planned. I met her in October 2008 at Red Lake Rosie’s Rescue on the west boundary of Red Lake reservation. She was abandoned with her litter of eight puppies. I remember seeing her in her outdoor kennel, metal bars criss-crossed in front of her face as I pointed my camera towards her. She was nursing her puppies and her nipples were full and almost touching the ground. She looked worn down and haggard. She weighed almost 70 pounds – a solid black dog with unique white markings: one white front paw, patches of white on her face, a white chest and a black tail with a white tip, as if someone had dipped her tail in white paint. Her tail has a curl of a husky. Her face and body type are bull doggish and pit bull-like. Her wrinkles and heavy coat scream shar pei.

So why this one dog? There were many other dogs in the shelter – in their outdoor kennels and others running around. There was something about her eyes – was it sadness, was it wisdom, was it acceptance? There was something about the way she looked at me, something about the way her piercing eyes looked right through me. She has a story. She has a purpose. That “something” brought me back one month later to bring her into Pet Haven’s foster program. She arrived testing positive for heartworm, lymes disease and coccidia. We soon learn she has a pellet in one of her nipples, having survived a gunshot wound. She has no front teeth as she has ground it all down which, according to our vet, is probably her attempt to escape from a metal cage. Her rescuer, Karen Good of Red Lake Rosie’s Rescue says many of the pups she rescues have ground down teeth as they struggle to find food and eat dirt and gravel in search of food. Whatever the case, Ahnung’s first 4 years were hard and full of struggles. Her body holds the scars of her past. Her spirit only knows how to live in the present moment.

Ahnung’s rescuer Karen initially gave her a temporary name of “Mama”. Aware of the bond that had formed, she asked me to name her. I chose “Ahnung” because I wanted something to represent and honor her roots and the hope she embodies. Ahnung means “star” in ojibway, the language of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

My partner and I officially adopted Ahnung on January 3rd, 2009. She is my north star. She is hope in the midst of darkness. Her calm, confident and wise presence provides guidance when life seems unbearable. She is reminder of how goodness prevails in the end.

As I look at a room of seven kids intent on hearing my story and Ahnung’s story I realize that the light shining from Ahnung’s star is so much brighter than I even imagined. These kids are deemed “at-risk”. Pet Haven (with Ahnung as the ambassador) is partnering with a program called The Lab of the St. Paul Public schools where youth are inspired, encouraged and empowered to discover, understand and share their voices and the truth of their lives. These kids, like Ahnung, have been tossed aside. I look out at the room and I see one of the kids on the floor next to Ahnung petting her and rubbing her belly. He smiles, “man … this dog is loved. I can tell this dog is loved.” I later learn that this young kid had not been engaged in class for the past week and for the first time came alive in class. I would never have known.

We need to build bridges to our youth. We need a kind, gentle and compassionate way to chisel away at walls built over years of abuse or neglect. I believe animals can be that bridge.

In mid October when I first laid eyes on Ahnung little did I know she would be instrumental in lighting up the night skies for urban at-risk youth with the brilliance of her star. Her work is just beginning as she heals wounded spirits and gives hope to so many. I tell these kids, when something bad happens and something hurts so badly, I want them to close their eyes and imagine Ahnung. She is the north star for all of us. I want them to hold onto her tightly and trust that she will guide them out of the darkness back into the light. I want them to feel Ahnung’s calm and loving presence. And I want them to know they are not alone.

The young boy grins again and says “man … this dog is loved. This dog is really loved.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ramblings ...

I am taking a 12 week writing class at The Loft, "The Art of Creative Non-fiction". Last Wednesday was our first night. Our assignment for this week is to write about a scene: who, what, where, when, why. There are a million scenes in my head; a million images that tug at my heart; a million memories -- some i vividly remember, some i try not to remember. So how do I decide on one scene? How do I decide on one moment? And as I start on one moment I discover the complexity of the scene and the fluidity of time and memories. How do I connect the dots, the ever changing landscape, the dimensions that shift both inside of me and around me.

I am grateful to have this incredible studio space where I can write. I am grateful to have a space where Ahnung can hang out with me. Today she napped - her snoring was comforting to me and almost hypnotic. When she woke up and she stared out towards downtown Minneapolis I found myself wondering what she was wondering .... her calm, wise presence has been such a healing force for me in my life these past couple months. Ahh... my mind was drifting, away from the scene I was writing about.

In my morning time where I meditate then journal I allow myself to free write. I allow my pen to go wherever my mind goes. No structure. In meditation I acknowledge the wandering thought, whatever it may be, then return to my breath. Not a solid structure -- I call it a frame :) Now, as I find myself wanting to write more and to become a better writer I am realizing that maybe, just maybe, I may need to have a frame and some kind of structure. Granted, so much of my inspiration comes from Ahnung, my north star, so is it wise to create structure when maybe room to explore and create and look into Ahnung's eyes are what feeds my soul?

Today I decide to simply ramble.

Today I decide it's important to pause for inspiration.

Who knows ... out of the rambles a scene may emerge.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A space to create ...

I had the good fortune of spending most of yesterday at my new studio with my partner and our three dogs Missy, Mister and Ahnung. I finished painting my office .... the long wall with a deep studio purple and the back wall a lighter purple. While I painted, the dogs napped in the sunshine while my partner got some work done.

I'm excited to have a space that calls to me to unleash possibilities and to dream big. To have a space that simply says, "create" --- "write" --- "dream" --- "believe" --- "be."

I'm not exactly sure what this year will bring and what will emerge as a result of all that's brewing and percolating in my head and my heart. It feels good though to give myself the time and the space to explore, to dabble, and to follow my heart.

To feel alive. To feel like our lives have purpose and meaning. To feel we have a place and that we belong ... don't we all want that on some level?

and to be surrounded by love and acceptance ....

i am grateful.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

To keep exploring

Today is the first day of February. Today marks a new beginning. Every moment in fact, marks a new beginning. For many years now I have been striving to embrace the Buddhist way of being - of acceptance, of letting go, of living in the present moment, of being comfortable with uncertainty, of impermanence, of non-attachment - even though it's a part of my daily morning practice I still find myself struggling - a life long learning. This past month I needed to go in the direction of my truth, which meant getting off a track I had forged ahead on, accepting the risks and losses associated with that choice, and creating a new path. Jumping off that train has not been easy. But as I find my place in this new train, I am discovering my place is in the driver's seat. I am embarking on a journey with a new sense of freedom, to go where I want and to go at whatever pace I want. I am on a journey where I can explore the unexplored and I can feel free to land and take off as many times as I want.

As I travel this journey I commit to allowing myself to land with ideas and explore the possibilities, and I commit to landing to give myself time to rest.

I commit to being true to myself and to honoring my uniqueness.

I commit to creating my own path.

And I commit to letting my wings spread, taking risks, and soaring -- because who knows what I will discover.

The February saying on the Pema Chodron calendar hanging our kitchen speaks to my spirit. I wonder if Pema is right here with me, knowing just what i need to hear :)

"The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find something is not what we thought. That's what we're going to discover again and again and again. Nothing is what we thought."