Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Black Dog Syndrome - Take a Second Look

My entry into the world of animal rescue began in September, 2006 after the loss of our beloved collie-shepherd mix, Shen, to spleen cancer. I stumbled upon the Pet Haven website, and it wasn't long before I found myself immersed in the world of animal rescue. I also soon learned about the plight of so many big black dogs - I learned about something that is known in the animal welfare community as Black Dog Syndrome. In 2008, MSNBC wrote a piece about it. On September 23, 2006 Missy (a black lab/pit bull mix - photo on left) came to join our family. We thought we could simply foster her but we quickly fell in love with her. She had spent 8 months in a shelter in rural Iowa - rescued by some wonderful women of People for Pets - who continue to this day advocating for the big black dogs who are so often overlooked. Like pitbulls and cats, they are euthanized at high rates in shelters across the county.

In July, 2007 our sweet boy Mister joined our family. He too was originally rescued by People for Pets in Spencer, Iowa. Mister, along with two of his litter mates, were found in a ditch. Well, this beautiful black lab/flat coated retriever mix pup has grown into a handsome boy ... granted he's been quite an energetic handful with separation anxiety, we love him to death. This summer we may even begin training to see if he can become a therapy dog like his sister, Ahnung (our third "foster failure"). 

Ahnung, another black dog (with more white markings) officially joined our family in January, 2009. Adopted through Pet Haven but originally rescued by Karen of Red Lake Rosie's Rescue she was dumped with a litter of 8 pups. Mostly black (but with gorgeous white markings) her rescuer Karen knew Ahnung's odds of finding a home would be more challenging especially since it appeared that Ahnung (like Missy) was not only black in color but also had some pitbull in her. Top all of that with the fact that she had heartworm, it did not look good. Well, I fell in in love with Ahnung (like Missy and Mister) and knew that she needed to come live with us ... and so she did. These gorgeous big black dogs have blessed our homes with their uniqueness, their personalities, their quirks, their playfulness, their spirit and their unconditional love. Unfortunately ... Missy, Mister and Ahnung are the lucky ones. 

I stumbled across this video created by Black Dog Rescue Project which formed in June, 2009. It's a great video ... please help spread the word about Black Dog Syndrome and if you are considering adding a new furry friend to your family, please consider taking a second look at a gorgeous black dog at your local shelter or rescue.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Full Moon

Last night the skies lit up .... the beauty of a full moon is breathtaking. I found myself wishing I had a telescope; wishing I could catch a glimpse into a world, a universe, I have often taken for granted. I look up into the skies every night. I see the stars. I see the moon. Every morning I see the sun. The sun rises, and the sun sets. The gravitational pull of the moon on the earth causes the oceans to bulge -- high tides and low tides. I have come to take for granted the magnificence of our world. Yet something inside of me is asking me to pause, to slow down, and to ask questions ... there's curiosity that has emerged again and like a child I find myself asking questions like "what is the moon? how far away is it from the earth? ..." So I found some basic facts from National Geographic:

  • The moon is about 238,900 miles from the earth.
  • The moon takes about 27 days to orbit the earth.
  • The moon is 4.5 billion years old.
  • The moon rises in the east and sets in the west
  • At full moon and new moon, the sun, earth and the moon are lined up producing higher than normal tides, also called spring tides.
  • We always see the same side of the moon.
  • Calculation of Easter date: Easter is the first Sunday after the first Saturday after the first full moon after the equinox. (The equinox is quite often March 21, but can also occur on the March 20 or 22.)
  • An eclipse of the moon (lunar eclipse) can only occur at a full moon, and only if the moon passes through some portion of the earth's shadow. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth blocks the Sun's light from reaching the Moon. As a result the moon appears red. 
 The next total lunar eclipse will be on December 21, 2010. My partner and I will be vacationing that week at Marco Island. This will be our third trip to Marco Island, staying at Club Regency, which is located right on the beach with our condo unit being an ocean view. Many mornings I would wake up and simply look out into the ocean and be blessed with wild dolphins swimming along the shore line. On December 21st we will be at Marco Island. December 20th will be the 42nd anniversary of when my father/Papa died. I always imagine when I look up in the skies that Papa is watching over me.

On December 21st I will feel his presence even stronger as I witness the magnificence of a lunar eclipse. And back home in St. Paul, Minnesota I will know that he sent me Ahnung (which means star in ojibway) -- and that she will continue to be my north star, and the north star for many others, so that we can find comfort, peace, and a sense of renewal even in the darkest moments.

Yes, sunrises and sunsets are beautiful.

So are the night skies.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Writing as a healthy coping strategy

In recent years I have come to rely on writing .... my morning practice of journaling has been a life saver for me, a creative outlet. For youth at The Lab, a program of St. Paul Public Schools, they are shown this writing way as a healthy way to cope with life's stressors.

I've been volunteering at The Lab now for a year and a half .... my involvement has been in their animal assisted education as I partner with my dog Ahnung. As we walk through the hallways toward the rec center (where The Lab provides animal assisted education) we pass the "Writing Lab". We peak in the room and see a circle of youth, pen to paper -- writing, sharing, expressing, creating, exploring.... we feel a soft, gentle energy in the room. Each circle begins with an opening ritual:

Everyone in the circle is equal
No one’s voice is more important than anyone else’s
Everyone in the circle is a teacher
Everyone in the circle is a student
Everyone has his or her turn to speak within the circle
When one is speaking, all others listen
The circle is sacred and special

For so many of us, and especially youth who come to The Lab, they do not know they have a voice. For the time they are at The Lab they have a voice and what they say matters.

The image above is a sneak preview of the Poetry Anthology cover, vol VIII which The Lab is hoping to get published at the end of the month. Youth have the opportunity to see their poem(s) in print. The Lab needs to raise $500 by March 31st to print these anthologies and would like to give two copies to every student who has a poem published in the anthology. Imagine the smile on the face of one of these students ... can you donate even just $10, or $15, or $25 to The Lab to help with publishing costs? Will you be a part of making student 'J' happy to see his poem in print?


I need to re-evaluate my anger towards my mother.
I need to re-evaluate my anger towards my family.
I need to re-evaluate my stress.

We need to re-evaluate
and look at what's going wrong in the world.

We need to re-evaluate
the sadness and the stress.

We need to re-evaluate
the cause of pain for our loved ones and the ones who love us.

We just need to re-evaluate.

You can make a donation to The Lab online by clicking here. Or, if you would prefer to write a check, please make your check out to The Lab and mail it to:

The Lab at Homecroft
St. Paul Public Schools
Attn: Mary Tinucci, Program Coordinator
1845 Sheridan Ave
St. Paul, MN 55116

Although Ahnung is a part of the Animal Assisted Education work at The Lab (and has not yet participated in the Writing Group -- maybe some day they will invite us :) she believes (and so do i!) in the transformational healing that these writing circles provide to youth at The Lab. She's going to kick off this fundraising effort with a $50 donation to The Lab. She's dreaming (in the photo to the right) of these students being able to see their poems in print ... so PLEASE, PLEASE consider making a donation -- no amount is too small.

Click here to make a donation! Donations need to be received by March 31st.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Play ... because your life depends on it

A new theme has been appearing in my life -- Play. I have been doing everything I possibly can to take care of myself ... or so I thought, with nutrition, seeing doctors, acupuncturist, naturopaths, specialists, energy healers, therapists. In the summer of 2008 I saw an astrologer. I've never had my natal chart read. That summer I also had a "persistent cough" -doctors again couldn't figure out what was causing my persistent cough. After a couple months and a narcotic that gave me relief, the cough went away. It was winter of 2008 when my weight loss began. It was that winter that I also released myself from a deep, dark childhood secret. It was that winter when Ahnung came into my life.

Last week while at Chuck & Don's Petfood Outlet, Ahnung had an unusual outburst. It was almost like she was being a "bad girl" and wanted to get into trouble. She kept grabbing toys and treats at the store and while I was talking to someone even figured out how to get loose from her collar, and next thing I know she's running around the store! Playful, spirited! I had never seen her "act out" like that as she is a very calm girl with calculated spurts of spunkiness. I had to smile at her. I couldn't even get mad at her because it was a joyful, playful side of her I had never seen -- a side that said to me "I am not perfect. I can get in trouble too!" The next day I saw my energy healer, she also talked about the importance of playing. I then shared Ahnung's little outburst. She said, "I think Ahnung is modeling for you what you need to do."

Then on Friday I saw my astrologer. The first words out of her mouth (and without me sharing anything about what has transpired in the past two years) are "Pluto is opposite Mars ... Mars is in Cancer which rules the breast and the digestive system." My heart stops. "Pluto is opposite Mars which often can mean surgery. Last year Pluto opposed Venus." I share with her my current health challenges. She says "these issues began a couple years ago when Pluto opposed Venus. Right now Pluto is going through the 5th house (the natural house of Leo) which is about feeling innocent, playful, entitled." She pauses. "Pluto and Mars can be death planets." She looks me in the eyes and gently but firmly says, "you better learn to play to save your life." I felt something in my gut. For some reason I wanted to cry. She says, "Play, because your life depends on it." For a couple months something has been tugging at me to set up a session with Pat (astrologer). I didn't know why except it kept cropping up. Finally, I picked up the phone, called her and made an appointment. I said to her, "I have had this feeling that I just need to see you. I don't know why, so here I am calling you." She goes on to say that I have been giving, giving and giving. She said I understand the "great need" of the world and it shows in all the volunteer work I do with animals and now with youth. "You have reached the end of the rope. Your body has reached the end of the rope. You have to start putting yourself into the equation" and again she says "Play ... because your life depends on it."

I shared with her how scuba diving makes me feel so at peace. The conversation led to dolphins and the important role they have played in my life since I have come to the States. I've participated in 4 Earthwatch expeditions of which three of them have involved studying wild dolphins and simply being in their presence. I have dreamed about being in the water with a wild and free dolphin. I recently had a dream about swimming with a dolphin. The next morning I woke up with the first thought being "Play -- because your life depends on it." I didn't play as a kid. I didn't know how to. My current life is all about helping others ... I realized that if I don't figure out how to find balance I won't be around. The very next day my partner and I booked a trip ... we are going on a week long retreat with WildQuest and will have the opportunity to connect with wild and free dolphins in Bimini. A dream come true. From the dolphins I hope to learn how to play ... for many, play comes easily and naturally. For me, it's probably one of the hardest things. Pat is right though ... I am at the end of my rope. I must learn to play to save my life.

Top photo from here. Bottom right photo from here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Idiopathic -- a journey of curiosity

So yesterday I had my followup with my gastroenterologist, Dr. Mackie. I have to say I am so fortunate to be surrounded by such a wonderful team of health care practitioners as I have gone through my health challenges this past year. A few weeks ago I had the ultrasound of my pancreas which showed no structural damage or tumors -- that was the great news. As my doctor said, the not so great news is that they haven't been able to figure out what is causing my pancreas to not produce enzymes. He said (with a smile on his face) ... I have pancreatic insufficiency, then paused and said "idiopathic". I had a questioning and puzzled look on my face. "Essentially, it means we/doctors are 'idiots' and can't figure out what the cause it!" He smiles. I love his gentle way, his dry sense of humor and his willingness to spend whatever time is necessary with me and my partner. When I got home, I looked up the meaning of "idiopathic". The definition is "arising spontaneously or from an unknown or obscure cause." He tells me there is no medical code in their system (for insurance purposes) that he can put "pancreatic insufficiency" and he hesitates to label me with "chronic pancreatitis" because it could be used against me by insurance companies down the road. A catch-22 though. In order for insurance to cover the expensive drugs (pancreatic enzymes) I have to take, a diagnosis must be made. So I get that label added to my records ... at least for now.

I tell my doctor i'm feeling much better. These enzymes have done wonders. Not as fatigued and I have stopped losing weight. Other digestive symptoms have gone away. So what are some possible reasons my pancreas stopped producing enzymes? What could have been the reason for my massive weight loss and all my symptoms. He said there is obviously something going on in my body. It could be some kind of a virus that started it all. It could be something to do with my endocrine system. He mentions some possible concerns around diabetes. Knowing that I had thyroid problems back in 2001 where a large nodule was removed along with half my thyroid, he mentions possible autoimmune disorders. In a nutshell, he said that it's a good thing that the enzymes are helping but since they haven't been able to figure out what is causing the shut down of my pancreas that I should be watchful and pay close attention to symptoms and how i'm feeling. As long as I continue to feeling better I'm to continue on my pancreatic enzymes (at the same dose!) and return to see him in 6 months. A complete bloodwork will be done and he said we can explore at that time whether we can decrease the dose. I ask "is it possible for my pancreas to start producing enzymes again?" He says, it's possible. It's also possible, he says, that I may always have to take these enzymes.

Unknown cause for my symptoms. It's so interesting to me that the vets have said the same thing about my dog Ahnung. They have no idea for what is causing the growths on her ears. As mysteriously as Ahnung's lumps appeared, they are going away, gradually. Crazy as it sounds, I believe Ahnung is helping cleanse my body of whatever toxins have been in my body causing me pain.

I still don't have answers. And that's okay. It's a lesson for me in acceptance, in patience, and in a willingness to step into my world and my life with playful curiosity. Next "official" health stop isn't till June when I go in for my breast MRI to check on the pre-cancer cells. Two areas were removed in December. Hopefully I will get good news in June. But no point worrying now. I don't have answers for why my cells have started going awry and why my pancreas has stopped producing essential enzymes. That truly is okay though ... I don't need to know.

What I do know, is that the best medicine of all, is LOVE. I have plenty of that and I am grateful for the love and support of my partner, of Ahnung, Missy, Mister, and Henry ... and of all my friends. And what I do know is that spring is arriving in Minnesota and of how my partner relishes and experiences pure bliss when she vacations up north. This summer, if she dares to let me try ... I want to take a turn at driving the boat ... I told her she just needs to make sure she has a life jacket on if we capsize!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Healing at the deepest level ...

Today was a special day for me and for my dog Ahnung. It was in the fall of 2008 when we had our first experience volunteering at The Lab working one on one with a very special young man. It was that experience that opened my heart up to the healing that can take place simply by the presence of Ahnung. It was our weekly meetings with this young man, playing word games and just hanging out that taught me that simply being there and creating a loving, accepting space was the best medicine possible. I don't know who went through more transformation, growth or healing in those weeks -- ahnung, me, the young man? Maybe all of us?

Well, it's been almost a year since we've seen this young man. It's because of him that Ahnung and I are doing the work we are doing with animal therapy and volunteering at The Lab. Today was a special day because we had the chance to see him again for a small group. Today I saw connection at a deep level. For some reason, today felt different for me, and I think for Ahnung as well. I remember the trust dance that Ahnung and "R" went through when they first met. Ahnung had just been rescued … the memories of neglect and hardship probably still so fresh for her. Both wanted to open up; both wanted to trust. But the dance took weeks as they each took their time to find a way to connect with each other. My role back then was simple – to provide a safe space, for both Ahnung and “R.”

Today, the trust was almost instantaneous. They connected. They bonded. They spoke with their eyes. Magic.

Today, I had a chance to say "thank you" to this young man. Today, I received the biggest thank you in return as I watched him look with pride at the photos taped on the walls of him with Ahnung in 2008 and witnessed connection at the deepest level. He asked if he could have a copy of those photos. I promised him I would bring one next week. Meanwhile, I asked if he wanted a photo of Ahnung -- I had 3 he could pick from. He picked one and as I turned away, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pull ahnung's photo up to his chest and pause momentarily before he placed Ahnung's photo in his pocket.

Trust. We spent time today talking about trust. Truth is ... there's not much to say when you feel it in your gut and you witness it in the actions of a young man and his trusted companion. Ahnung is an ojibway word that means star. There's a reason she left the reservation in the fall of 2008. Her purpose is to heal wounded spirits. Her purpose is to light up the night skies - to help us find our way. She's touched and healed so many since then. I know for a fact that she continues to heal my spirit ... and in the process builds bridges for me to connect with youth who, like me, have had wounded spirits.

Miigwech Ahnung. Miigwech "R". Thank you.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

How to Know What you Need to Know

I ran across this beautiful poem and had to share. I was reminded today of how important my meditation practice has been for me over the past 15 years ... my morning time is what kept me grounded all these years. Every morning ... I breathe, I acknowledge my thoughts (and often they come in massive flurries!) and I let it go ... over and over again ...

May we have happiness and joy in simplicity.
May we find contentment and peace in what is.
May we love, simply and truly love, no expectations ... no strings attached ... simply,

just because.

Thank you Sandra for so eloquently writing a poem that reminds me ... that in the stillness, in the simplicity, in the now ... I will know what I need to know.

How To Know What You Need To Know
- by Sandra Turner

First, forget everything you have learned,
that the American Dream is a worthy cause,
that you need a couch and a dishwasher,
another opinion, pair of jeans, or
that complicated relationship.

Go alone to an empty, quiet place and stay
there until you don’t want to leave. Take a deep
breath and feel it swirl up your spine, wash your
mind and descend. Notice the ecstatic jitterbug going
on between your cells and then ask who you really are,

beyond appearance and accomplishment, thought and
feeling, history and hope. You know you’re there,
under all that you’ve learned as disguise, to
protect and adapt. To survive.
You are there.

Let go of fear and need. What matters will remain.
You don’t have to analyze or predict, and nobody’s
buying explanations anyway. Turn off the news, mongers of
artificial importance, of deep insecurity. Whose reality are
they reporting, anyway? Turn off the blathering
shows and tunes, and begin your own walk.

Notice your muscles stretch and sigh in relief, your organs
find their rightful places. Feel the excitement of your blood as
it tag-teams through the intricacy of your vessels.
Hear the music of the wind as it blows right through
the semblance of your solidity.

And feel how bits of you leave with that wind, carried off
like tiny mice to hawks, nourishment for another.
Let this go — it happens without your consent — and notice instead
what rushes in to replace the loss, and that
the loss was necessary for the new to arrive.

When you no longer know your name or what your kitchen looks like,
when the other lives you see are glowing orbs floating toward you,
and you feel a pull toward them, as to a beloved,
such intense joy you could explode into the billions of atoms you are,
you will know what you need to know. Remember your name and
close this manual.

Sandra Turner, 11/2009
(The first and last lines from Pamela Spiro Wagner’s “How to Read a Poem: Beginner’s Manual”.)

©2009 Sandra Turner