Thursday, March 26, 2009

Who's really at risk?

Earlier this week I attended the Highland Junior High Final Mentor Celebration at The Lab (a creative youth-based program of the St. Paul Public Schools). For the past couple months our dog Ahnung has been volunteering at The Lab. Sometimes we go together and give presentations; sometimes we go to hang out with one kid whom Ahnung has been developing a one on one relationship with; sometimes Ahnung even goes without me as my partner or another volunteer takes her and has her work with the kids [Note: Ahnung has written about it on her own blog].

I began volunteering at The Lab with the intention of wanting to help youth who have been given a label of “at-risk” and through Ahnung bring the healing and transformative energy to wounded spirits. I have witnessed the transformation in this one kid that Ahnung has become friends with, and I have witnessed transformation in Ahnung. The day they met two months ago, we thought dog obedience would be a good way for them to get to know each other. What resulted was a frustrated boy who couldn’t get Ahnung to “sit” and a frustrated Ahnung whose stubborn streak came out. “R” kept following Ahnung trying to get her to sit, and Ahnung kept moving away from “R”. Lesson learned – both needed time to simply be with each other, to simply get to know each other, to simply hang out. It’s about building a relationship. It's about learning to communicate by reading body language. It's about learning a whole new way of communicating.

Over the next few weeks, Ahnung and “R” built a relationship. There were weeks where all we would do is have Ahnung hang out in the room with us as we played scrabble and word games. Over the weeks, there was a calm energy that was created binding “R” and Ahnung. Now "R" can easily get Ahnung to "sit, laydown and rollover." Ahnung's not being "obedient" -- "R" and ahnung simply know how to communicate.

I loved to watch “R” arrive at The Lab at Homecroft. He would arrive in a yellow cab and on an occasional Tuesday, Ahnung was waiting by the front door. “R” would walk through the front door, and as soon as he realized Ahnung was there, I could feel his shoulders lift up, his body straighten with confidence, and his spirit soften. It didn’t matter how many others were around. It didn’t matter there was chaos and multiple conversations going on. All that mattered for “R”, and for Ahnung, was each other. “R” walked directly to Ahnung and got down on his knees to be at eye level with her. His face brushed up against Ahnung’s face and his hands brushed the top of her head. On one Tuesday, I heard him say to a couple other kids, as he stood proudly next to Ahnung with his hand on her head, “have you met my dog ahnung?”

I flashed back to the day they first met when “R” did not even want to touch a dog. These kids don’t have stability in their lives. They don’t have the good role models all kids should have. Many have been abused and neglected. Many witness violence on a regular basis. Many have been hurt time and time again, and have made a decision not to trust – a decision that helps them survive.

Here I am two months after I have begun a journey and volunteer experience working with Ahnung and youth at The Lab. I thought it was to help them heal. I am learning that this is as much about my own healing as it is about their healing. The trauma, abuse and deep losses of my childhood have been surfacing …. I imagine myself as a tree. The painful aspects of my childhood have remained buried for most of my adult life – roots buried under the ground. I am thankful to “R”, to Ahnung, to the kids at The Lab, for helping me recognize that it’s time for me to acknowledge my own roots, the good and the bad. It’s time for me to water my own roots. By watering my own roots, the branches of my tree can extend even further out than I could ever imagine.

These kids are not “at-risk”. These kids are full of love, compassion, creativity and possibility. We need to remove labels that define us and constrain us. We are all simply living beings with a desire to be loved, to be heard, and to be understood. If anyone is “at-risk” I have come to the conclusion it is me … I am “at-risk” if I keep my distance from what scares me and what makes me uncomfortable. I am “at-risk” if I refuse to water my own roots and peel back the layers of my own hurt.

I believe we all have a responsibility to make this world a more loving, gentle, compassionate world. I believe animals can help build a bridge. I believe we have a responsibility to be good role models for our youth. If we don’t then I believe we are all at-risk.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


On Friday I met Sophie, a yellow lab mix who was surrendered by her owner – a toddler had jumped on her while she was sleeping and startled her. She nipped. That nip was her ticket to a humane society in rural Iowa. That one incident placed her at the bottom of the adoptable list. Like many others, her days were numbered and a date set for euthanasia. Fortunately for her, though, the staff at the humane society fell in love with her gentle spirit and put a plea out to Pet Haven’s intake coordinator.

I don’t know what it is about Sophie. A fellow volunteer and I went out to Bloomington Vet to take photos of Porter and Sophie, two new dogs into Pet Haven’s foster program [You can view photos of them on my flickr site]. As Sophie came out to the lobby she immediately came up to me, moved into a “sit” and with eyes fixated on me, desperately tried to tell me something. Five seconds later, her right paw leaves the ground and comes up to rest gently on my leg. It’s as if I hear her saying, “I’m here,” while her eyes locked onto mine with a sense of desperation to not be left and to be noticed. Her rib cage was prominent – she was around 10 pounds underweight. Sophie is what we would call a velcro dog … she never left the side of any human kind enough to pay attention. Sophie has been granted a second chance. Some dogs grab onto your heart. Some dog's eyes lock onto your heart. Some dogs leave a mark. For me, Sophie is one such dog.

We are no different than Sophie. We want to be loved. We want to be noticed. We want to be understood. If we are startled or fearful we may display behaviors that could be misunderstood. At least we can attempt to explain why we acted a certain way. For us, one wrong move isn’t a death sentence. For dogs, it can be.

If only dogs could communicate with us in a way we could understand. If only we could open up our hearts to a possibility of a whole new way of communicating, a whole new language. What if the way of the dog were a wiser way of being?

Sophie will be up for adoption through Pet Haven soon. Watch for her on the Pet Haven website. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about Sophie email

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Our Place and our Purpose

For some reason today I found myself drawn to photos I took while I was at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota last summer. I found myself mesmerized by the behavior of the wolf pack last summer. I found myself mesmerized by the eyes of Grizzly the gray wolf. I remember observing the wolf pack for hours on end. It was as if I was watching a dance. The wolves … Grizzly, Shadow, Maya, Malik … all knew their role, their place within the pack. They have learned how to live together in harmony.

Why is it humans struggle to live in harmony and throw daggers at each other instead of extending a hand of compassion? Why is it hard for us listen, really truly listen? As humans we sometimes think that communication only comes in words. How humbling it was for me to witness communication of a more powerful kind – nonverbal communication. I wonder sometimes … if we were stripped of words and verbal language would we listen more intently with our other senses? Would we open up our soul? Would we feel the music of the dance in our heart? Would the rhythm and the beat come from within? Would we allow ourselves to be touched by the soul of another being? Would compassion simply be a way of being, not a way to be?

We all have a place and a purpose in this world. Our place and our purpose is both static and evolving … Our place and purpose is everywhere and nowhere. It’s everything and nothing, all at once.

Grizzly has called out to me today. His timing is impeccable. I am embarking on an effort to co-lead a new coalition in Minnesota where rescues, shelters, agencies and businesses are coming together in a positive, collaborative a respectful way to work towards our shared vision of a day when there will be no more homeless animals …. there’s a steep hill ahead of us yet the eternal optimist in me will continue to believe in the good of all humans. Like the wolves in Ely, we can learn to dance. First, we must listen – we must pause and truly listen - let the chords of a brand new song bind us together as we dance and discover our place and our purpose in life.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Spirit of protection

In the past week I have had events happen ... my car was broken into while parked at a well-lit parking lot (The Loft Literary Center) with a security guard patrolling. I came out from a writing class on a Thursday night to find my window smashed and my laptop bag stolen. Jagged glass edges of my once intact tinted window were scattered over Ahnung's LLBean dog bed. A couple days later my partner and I go out to dinner .. we are gone for a little over an hour and return home to our gas stove turned on by our dog Mister (we love him dearly despite his anxiety and separation anxiety issues ;-) .... i have had flash backs to July 20, 2000, shortly after moving to Minnesota with my first dog Splat (a black cocker spaniel who taught me more about loving and trusting again) ... I went out to dinner with some friends and left our 3 dogs (Splat, Shen and Shadow) in our big back yard in Eagan (we had a tall privacy fence) and was gone for a an hour and a half. Upon our return, I discovered Splat's lifeless body under our oak tree in the middle of our backyard. She was most likely shot -- as I had held her lifeless body the blood from a small hole in her neck -- her blood stained my lavendar sweatshirt. I could not wash that sweatshirt for two years after Splat's death -- it was all I had of a living creature who opened up my heart that had been sealed shut for many years.

I have been finding myself in a state of alert lately with what could've been images: ahnung sleeping soundly on her dog bed when the window is smashed; ahnung getting hurt or escaping out of fear and cutting herself profusely on the jagged glass edges; coming home to our house burned down and the loss of our 3 dogs and 1 cat .... I considered not leaving our dogs out on July 20, 2000 but I didn't listen to that voice. I continue to be haunted by that decision.

I have been counting on Ahnung to be my north star ... to be my light in the dark; to guide me through what can sometimes be murky water. This past week, the fear of what could've been, what could've happened and a split second decision to not bring her with me that Thursday turned that night's events into one that could've been a million times worse. I can replace material possessions. I can replace a laptop (which work has graciously already sent me a new one!). It does not take away feelings of violations and helplessness.

I find myself reaching out to a new star this week. A star that I know is always with me, no matter what ... watching over me, Ahnung, our home, our animals .... the star of my father. I lost my father when I was four years old. It is a loss even 40+ years later feels painfully fresh. In 2007, I wrote a piece, "Little Drummer Boy -- the Beat Goes on" as I reflect on my first year with Pet Haven and how my father, through my dog Shen, led me to the work i'm doing now.

Yes, I have had some "close calls" this past week. I remind myself as I find myself in a state of alert that Papa is with me. His body left me on December 20th, 1968. His ability to physically protect me was taken from me when he died as the music of Little Drummer boy played over the hospital intercom system. I remind myself, today, that Papa is still with me -- he is always with me -- and his spirit will forever protect and watch over me till it is time for us to be reunited.

Monday, March 9, 2009

What can I learn from you?

I've been reading this book "If Dog's prayers were answered ... bones would rain from the sky .. deepening our relationship with our dogs" by Suzanne Clothier. She poses a question that I have been using (not in those exact words) as the foundation for all my efforts as i muddle through the complex and highly emotional world of animal rescue/welfare and as i work (with the support and hard work of many, many others!)on starting a coalition here in Minnesota with a vision of a day when there will be no more homeless animals ... Suzanne asks the question from the perspective of humans relating to dogs. I believe the question is one we need to ask of all living beings and of each other, especially those whom we disagree with or those who have a different viewpoint. I believe our greatest learning and our deepest lessons come from our trials and our tribulations.

"To ask 'What can I learn from you?' is to open the door to an entire world of possibility in which our dogs can and do serve as our teachers. This is a participatory universe, and this simple question declares our willingness to participate in a very specific way..."

".. our dogs, like all spiritual beings, have lessons to learn as well as to teach. Whatever the physical form that expresses our small cup of the spiritual ocean, each of us contains the light and the dark, the fullness and the emptiness, the good and the bad. Woven through our lives are flaws of understanding, failures of compassion, places where we have not yet learned to sweep away the fear and let the love pour in as it wants to do. Our lessons in this lifetime are simply our struggles to smooth the flow of life through and around our particular flaws ..."

".. What I find so deeply moving is the animal willingness to let love flow and not block it. Never once have I seen a fat dog draw back in shame from a loving hand that offered a belly rub, nor a dog who would turn away affectionate attention because of guilt over past misdeeds. But moved by fearful reasons, I have countless times shrank back from love extended to me, turned away the gifts freely and generously offered, set walls against the flow of love through me. In doing so, I limited myself as an instrument through which love and life could flow. It seems to me that dogs and other animals are such effective angels for the human spirit because, like very young children, so little blocks the flow of love and life through them....

... for readers who find themselves drawing back at the notion that a dog is also a spiritual being, try this: Just crack open the door of Maybe. Emily Dicksinson wrote about the need for the soul to remain ajar, open to the ecstatic experience. You need not enter nor even peek inside. Simply leave the door of possibility open, and see what happens. Matters of spirit flow past and through and over the barriers we set in place, and given even a small crack in our fearful fortresses, spirit can move us deeply, and in surprisingly profound ways. See what happens when you examine an experience with this question in mind: 'What can I learn from you?' It is surprising what unfolds when you approach another being with that question humbly posed and a sincere curiosity about what the answer might be"

Over the past two and a half years I have come to learn so much from the animals and from passionate humans who work tirelessly on behalf of abandoned, abused and neglected animals. I have also come to learn how much I have yet to learn and how important it is for me to remain open-hearted. As I find myself in the middle of what often feels like turbulent water, I am committed to building bridges and this morning I am realizing how this one question "What can I learn from you?" is a simple, yet essential building block for a bridge that must be built for those of us in the community committed to a vision of a day when there will be No More Homeless Animals.

I am excited to say that the kick off meeting for the new coalition is set for the end of the month .... we are beginning to build the foundation for the bridge that will lead us to our vision. About a year ago I wrote a piece titled "A Panoramic View of Animal Rescue", using my passion for photography as a metaphor, and I end the piece with ...

"We welcome every person into our organization as someone with the potential to lead and change the landscape of the pet overpopulation problem. Every volunteer brings with himself/herself a new lens, a new filter, a new perspective. We must allow ourselves to be surprised and touched by every image. And hold in our heart, an image in the viewfinder, of a world where there are no more homeless animals."

Monday, March 2, 2009

Ahnung continues to shine ...

Before I left home this morning, I let all 3 dogs out in the backyard. While Missy and Mister were tearing around the yard, chasing each other and acting possessed in their usual playful, spirited self .... sweet calm, mellow Ahnung sauntered around the yard, sniffed at the bunny on the other side of our fence ... mostly though, she sat quietly looking out towards the sun.

I continue to be drawn into Ahnung's calm, wise, centered presence. I think she has a special way of touching human souls in a way humans aren't able to touch each other's souls.

Ahnung continues to hang out weekly with "R" at The Lab. It has truly been amazing to witness how much "R", a wounded spirit, has opened up ... Ahnung probably has no idea how much she is helping so many of us heal.

Ahnung (pronounced Ah-NUNG and means "star" in ojibway) ... your star continues to shine brightly. Thank you for what you have brought to my life and to lives of so many others.