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Are You Using This?

When we were kids, my dad was constantly griping at us to turn off the lights in rooms we were leaving, to take shorter showers, to leave the thermostat alone, and not to stand in front of the fridge with the door open perusing our options while we let out all the cold air. He thought the dishwasher was a wasteful luxury, insisted we close doors, and taught me never to run the garbage disposal with hot water washing down the drain (there was a time I actually believed the disposal would break if you used hot water). We all rolled our eyes at Dad’s fanatic insistence on this stuff, but when someone is constantly forcing you to return to a room you left and turn every light off while he watches disgustedly, you tend to develop automaticity even if the habit was not your choice. To this day, I reflexively switch the faucet to cold before I flip on the garbage disposal, turn off lights as I exit a room, and feel just a little guilty about standing under a hot shower daydreaming.

Sadly, however, I allowed conservation “drift” when raising my own children. I did not pull my dad’s trick of bellowing from an empty room, “Who left all these lights on in here? Are you using this?” I didn’t knock on their bathroom door and shout, “I’ve heard that shower running for 15 minutes! Turn off the water while you soap up. It’s wasteful to let it run like that.” I didn’t spend the winter saying, “Who turned up the heat? That thermostat is off-limits to kids. Put on a sweater! It’s good for your circulation to be a little chilly.” Nope. I didn’t. My dad’s efforts at conservation were framed around saving money on utility bills, and I don’t worry as much about funds as my parents did (two teachers with four growing kids who ate a lot and needed shoes). So I did a poor job of training my kids to save the planet. I grew complacent about these small personal efforts because I forgot they are about more than money.

With only decades left for our human family to stall climate change before irreversible damage to our earth, it seems crucial that every one of us can name the simple steps within our sphere of influence to reduce carbon emissions. We must also elect people who will make us do the hard things we are too lazy to do: climate change personal trainers who will make us fitter and able to live longer even as we groan at them that this is hard. I loved the warm glow of my old lightbulbs and would not have voluntarily replaced them with those weird LEDs…but I adapted thanks to legislation beyond my control. We bought those twisty bulbs that took a minute to come on. No one died. And the technology improved until now they look like the old ones I’d forgotten I missed…but with 70% less energy required.

I never wish to add one thing more to the plates of busy teachers and parents. Still, we get the joy and the responsibility of the world’s most important work–guiding the next generation who will live here after we are gone. No child should escape learning the list of simple measures to save the planet they will one day need to sustain them. In fact, none of us should be unaware of the urgency of doing these things:

1. Choose a utility company that gets power from renewable sources and certified by Green-e Energy. (IPL is one of those. I checked.)

2. Weatherize our homes, and use less AC and less heat. My dad was right about that.

3. Buy EnergyStar appliances. It’s not much, but it’s something. And if you’re replacing the fridge anyway, pay more attention to that little sticker and less to whether it displays family pictures from your phone on the water dispenser in the door via voice commands from Alexa. Seriously, it’s a fridge. People used to store stuff in a root cellar. We’ll live without the bells and whistles.

4. Turn off the water…hot, cold…doesn’t matter. It all takes energy to heat, purify, deliver–especially the hot. Conserving water reduces global warming. It just does. Every shower my dad cut short by knocking on the wall takes on new meaning in that context.

5. Eat less meat and dairy. Producing them puts a heavy burden on the planet. Plants are better for us anyway. In fact, we could eat less everything. Wasting food wastes the energy it took to produce, distribute, and prepare it.

6. Use the LED lightbulbs everywhere.

7. Unplug things when not in use. Plugged in cords cause something called an “idle load” of electricity use that is a complete waste of power. I’m so glad my dad didn’t know that. I can just picture being called into a room with him pointing at outlets where I’d left things plugged in as I ran around pulling cords from the sockets. We have to keep appliances plugged in, obviously, but we could start different habits of unplugging when we turn things off. Yeah. I know. Sounds ridiculous. So does the idea of Hawaii disappearing underwater and the slew of days with heat index of 110 we just endured! If things change and we don’t…

8. Buy an electric car next time (or a hybrid). Drive it less. Keep air in the tires, and get a tune-up now and then. Apparently the mysterious “tune-up” my mechanic does can improve gas mileage from 4-40%. Who knew? I’m the one looking at the light that signals an oil change wondering, “is this seriously necessary now or just a scam to get the car company more money in repairs?” And even if it is…that new air filter contraption that they always want to sell me apparently does help the planet. It’s not just a “look at your dirty one…wouldn’t you like this clean new one for $15?” thing.

9. Plant trees…as many as you can. Leave them standing when you build…as many as you can. Encourage HOAs, churches, and community groups to do the same. Young trees pull carbon from the air. A trillion trees would scrub the environment clean.

Finally, we really do need to elect serious people who think this stuff matters and are willing to make the hard decisions and economic trade-offs to save us from ourselves. Most of us do default to a short-term gain, “do what’s easiest for me” mindset rather than a long-term, “this is hard but worth it” worldview. Any one of us would save our kids from an oncoming car at risk of our own lives, but unplugging the coffeemaker and the lamp in the family room to save the planet for them feels like more of a pain than we want. That’s why we need legislators and leaders who will make us do the right thing. We need people who will call us into every empty room where we’ve left all the lights on and insist, like my dad did, that we turn them off.

Morning Reflection

Come 

let us see 

what the wide world has for us today.

Snow laid lightly upon each branch, 

Artistry beyond measure, beyond time, 

beyond our own poor ability to create.

Light refracting through crystal droplets 

left one at a time after hurtling miles through space, through air 

to land here in our acre of earth.

Come let us look

and know.

This table was set for us by a universe that wants us here

as audience for the miraculous, for wonder, for gratitude, 

for joy.

What I Learn from Hallmark Christmas Shows

Tom has a weakness for the Hallmark Channel at the holidays (which, by the way, begin in July for Hallmark with a run of movies called, quite accurately, “Christmas in July”). I have tried to forbid these uber-premature Christmas shows in our home, and suggest that the more appropriate time for the Hallmark movies is as soon as Thanksgiving ends (just as it is with Christmas decorations—I’m talking to you, people who put your lights on in October “when it’s warm” AND TURN THEM ON!) or, if you really have to start early, a few weeks before Thanksgiving—so long as the weather is a bit gray and cold outside and most of the leaves have fallen.
(What can I say? I’m a purist. We enforce unwritten rules about these things in our family.)

The Hallmark movies run in the background, despite my rationing, for several weeks or a month each year during weekends and evenings as Tom works and occasionally glances up to say “oh, this is a good one” or “she was the angel in the one about the town without Christmas, remember?” The actors and actresses recycle—sometimes the gruff, graying character actor plays the town doctor, mayor, innkeeper, police chief. Sometimes the bright-eyed, glossy-haired actress in the fuzzy red sweater and big mittens and earmuffs is an angel, elf, orphan, big city CEO who works too hard. Archetypes abound: innocent children who see far beyond their years or the adults’ limited perspectives, busy men who have an awakening to what really matters in their lives, bitter grieving widowers who learn to laugh again, old women who bake, single firemen who happen to love rescuing damsels in distress and who are universally loved by everyone in their small town where there are never any fires… The plots are simple, reminding me of the deck of cards with settings/characters/conflicts I used to give student writers who said, “I’m stuck for ideas.”  

A classic trope goes something like this: we see a woman working busily at her desk on the night of the office holiday party (thank you, Charles Dickens). Her friend and colleague cruises in with a glass of wine and tries to persuade her to come play. The woman insists she has work to do and will be there through the holidays. Later, something will require her to drive a long distance on icy roads into the remote countryside—a boss’s urgent call, a client needing something delivered, amnesia…Her car will break down only days before Christmas outside a small town where the holiday spirit oozes warmth over this disbeliever whose past experiences caused a loss of faith in Christmas, family, love, and spirituality. The town mechanic may collude with the handsome sheriff saying the one part he needs for her car won’t be in on time in order to keep the lonely advertising genius there with them for the holidays (staying, chastely, of course, in a beautifully-appointed guest house owned by some chatty, lonely woman or a large family of children and their available father whose wife died of a tragic disease years ago). Eventually she will find love, and realize it, but not before some giant promotion she has been dreaming of is offered to tempt her away from Angel Falls or Reindeer Point, or River Crossing. Luckily, the local innkeeper is in need of a marketing assistant, and the job is hers if she will only marry the handsome widower and raise the children she has grown to adore (who also love her because she reminds them of their mother whom they do not remember well). They will bake cookies, trim a tree and look at the lights and talk about their childhoods. They will attend the town Christmas pageant or parade or singalong at the gazebo in the park. They will tell stories of how this has always been the tradition here in this little town where no one ever leaves except that one lonely woman’s son who calls at the last minute to say something made him decide to come home this year for Christmas to delight her and make us all a bit weepy.  

The people in this town do not watch or speak of the news or things outside this place. Their whole hearts are focused on each other and Christmas approaching. They don’t seem to know about poverty or tragedy or other scars on the world. They are relatively homogenous other than the different formative experiences that have made them into the archetypes they are, and they fiercely love Christmas and its magical transformative qualities. Cue the music. Oh…and it always snows beautifully in these places—light, fluffy flakes drifting through the air and piling in puffy mounds attractively on corners and shop windows. (Somehow it disappears before it gets gray and slushy, and no one ever has to shovel very much or salt the sidewalks.) Also…dogs. Dogs in Hallmark land lie gracefully on the rug by the fire or frolic in the snow and smile with tongues hanging out. They never eat decorations, poop in the snow, or ask to go out at inconvenient times. And I have never seen anyone feed one. They are magical, these dogs.

While it’s more fun for me than it should be to poke fun at this entire genre designed for grandmothers and shut-ins…and my husband, apparently…I do think we can learn something from the appeal of the Hallmark channel (which has expanded this year to TWO channels—one called “Movies and Mysteries”…ooooh!— and seems to have no shortage of advertisers of all types of polysyllabic pharmaceuticals and house cleaning products). The scary thing we could learn is the appeal of what they are selling: homogenous, non-diverse, small-town, old-fashioned perfection. Certainly, there’s something scary about that being ideal to people who may so deeply want that to be the truth that they cannot accept the reality of our messy, diverse, wonderful actual world or, worse, support trying to bring that world to pass in harmful ways.  I could travel down that dark alley with this line of thinking, but there are also some other more positive things to learn from studying the allure of these shows:

1. People love happy endings, no matter how predictable. Even cynics have to root for the angel-on-assignment-to-restore-Christmas-joy, hoping she will somehow be allowed by her heavenly boss to stay permanently in Reindeer Falls with the handsome fireman to raise a family and direct the Christmas pageant every year. (Not even the fact that most of the leading men are played by attractive gay actors interferes with my desire to see them “get their girl” at the end—although it has made me appreciate their acting skills as they play men swept up by the new woman in town and have to act all bro-y with the attractive mechanic guy at the gas station who would be perfect for them.) It’s impossible not to want to see that inevitable admission of love between our main girl and guy as well as the chaste kiss they will share while the whole town looks on and cheers or the kids spying on the stairs snicker and grin at each other because they’re getting a mooooother! So…what can I say? We’re sentimental saps who’ll believe anything. But that makes me smile. There’s hope for a human race of beings who yearn for happy endings. Perhaps someday we’ll work harder toward making them. 

2. People accept the possibility of magic and wonder all around us—even the very conservative audiences these channels gear toward. Many of the films have a magical component—an angel, an elf, a ghost, a wishing well, an enchanted Christmas statue, time travel, mysterious coincidence, a lucky talisman that’s an old locket or a key…or just some spiritual intervention that causes good things to happen to good people. The fact that these tropes repeat across movies tells me that somewhere we all long for things we cannot know are possible. Again, that makes me smile. Nothing wrong with people hoping the impossible is actually still possible in this world of ours. I especially like the belief in human redemption and the opportunity to change which have their own kind of special magic. Dickens nailed it long ago in his own Christmas classic, but I never tire of it, and apparently, neither do the Hallmark viewers.
It means there’s hope for all of us.

3. No matter how crazy we make the holiday season, people long for the simplicity of traditions and community—pulling out beloved decorations and putting them up together bya quiet fire, a town where people know each other and all fit in the church hall for a pageant year after year, a neighbor who bakes for you, people who notice you’re lonely and do something about it. The same things happen in all these movies because we want them to. People like watching people caring for one another and repeating rituals that represent home and continuity. We live in a busy, changing world where too many of us drive in and out on our busy journeys here and there without even waving to the neighbors, let alone baking for them. We often don’t take time for others or really feel known or seen or listened to deeply. On these shows, people live in small quiet places (where other than the shopkeepers and the waitress who runs the diner, they don’t really have to worry about going to work on a daily basis), so they take the imaginary time they are given by their writers to really know and care for one another…as we wish they would. As for the holidays, the fact that their fictional celebrations don’t ever change plays to our wish that the way they live and care for each other won’t change either. It’s a reassuring message in a rapidly-moving time. The idea that people can be stuck in a perpetual Christmas holiday as life carries a strange appeal.

4. In nearly every one of these shows I’ve seen, no tv/computer/ringing or buzzing phone or video games seem to exist. There’s no Alexa, no Siri, no Roomba, no smart home fridge with digital pictures on it beeping that it’s time to change the filter, no Amazon delivery parade of people dropping cardboard at the door. People do plenty of relaxing by the fire or hanging in the kitchen talking or getting things down from the attic. They do some occasional work outside, help with a community-wide town project, or stand with everyone in the city watching the lights go on in the park and singing carols. They spend time making a special gift to surprise someone (often in a barn workshop which everyone seems to have). They get outside and walk in the snow and cold, enjoying nature or watching the stars. They are never on a device or watching one, unless it’s a scene of someone in an office looking unhappy. Technology is not compatible with things that matter most…even on tv…ironically.

I could go on. The main theme of all these shows is, of course, love. Finding, reuniting, forgiving, falling deeply. The theme never grows old, and for some reason, it is especially potent at the holidays. Seeing people find one another under a sparkling tree or under the stars on a snowy night makes hearts swell and eyes grow moist. And while I often grouse that the people are too perfect, the communities too homogenous, the hair never mussed, the free time unrushed, the women slim and fit without saying no to cookies, and the clothes seemingly self-cleaning…I cannot deny that sometimes, just once in a while, and ONLY once December has come, I like to watch a happy ending or two and ponder all these things. 

Wild Geese

Hoarse trilling on high heralds the flying vee.

Heard before glimpsed, onward they come, fleet

in full formation,

ragged-edged outliers, collapsing and rebuilding

the pattern, weak drafting off strong.

Wings beat in unison,

Incising cuneiform wedges against smudged gray clouds,

Skywriting news of shortening days and dwindling light,

Messaging the ending of the year.

In the sharp air, I freeze,

Lift eyes to track their path

As they streak past,

So purposeful, their call

to flight embedded in their souls.

For one brief moment, I know I could go with them,

Join the airborne caravan

trekking southward toward the light,

Follow the sky track to its end,

Bask in warmth till springtime turns us home.

I would lift into the air,

Fight the tug of earth with all my might

Until, aloft, I found my place behind a fellow traveler

And I would fly.

Honks and cries recede

Before the ragged outline fades from sight,

A breath and they are gone,

Sweeping the year along in their silent wake.

And I resume my journey home

on foot.

On Ignoring the Bait…

The run-up to the mid-term elections has been full of those grainy dark ads with an ominous voiceover warning us about the demonic actions of politicians on every side. It would seem that in order to run for office, you must have only the worst of intentions, a shady history you’ve been keeping a secret, and words you’ve uttered that if pulled out of context and flashed for a millisecond on screen will confirm you’re “not for us.” Oh…and a blue oxford shirt open at the neck with sleeves rolled up…you’ll need that too.

I’m done with the ads.

When a hopeful candidate recently called me to discuss her campaign, instead of getting off the phone as quickly as possible, I unloaded on her about campaign ads. I told her if I saw her run even one with the grainy footage and low voiceover, she would lose my vote. She explained that she is also against the negative “scary” ads, but didn’t have much control over PACS that don’t need her approval for their media spots. “Unfortunately,” she said, “focus groups show they work.” A little research shows these negative campaigns are, indeed, quite effective. People respond to fear. They can’t help it. As someone whose profession is steeped in recent neuroscience research about what happens when the brain is exposed to various stimuli, I know that’s true. Even the design of the ads with the shadowy images that come slowly toward you on a zoom are designed to trigger instincts of being preyed upon that will capture your attention. No matter how sick of the ads you believe you are, unless you can get the “reasoning” part of your brain engaged with knowing more about candidates, some vague niggling fear will rise to the surface when you see that name on the ballot with the most recent evil-looking ad. It’s instinct—built to keep us safe back when we were running from large animals and trying to make fire. We are being baited, and the primal parts of our brains can’t help falling for it. Only a thoughtful, intentional over-ride by our more evolved side can compensate for the urge to take that bait.

When I think about “bait,” I can’t help remembering an animal control team I called years ago to trap a particularly pesky rodent that had decided to live under (and damage) our deck. As I watched, one guy put the wire cage out in the yard and put a “bait” in it that included fruit and peanut butter. I was skeptical that the wily critter digging away at our foundation would even consider entering the big wire contraption when food abounded all around in nature. “Oh, he’ll come,” said the exterminator. “They always take the bait. You’d think they’d learn, but they can’t help themselves.” Two days later when they hauled the cage away full of furry, angry rodent, I realized he was right. 

I thought about all this again as I read the news these past weeks. The recent focus on the “caravan” of asylum-seekers coming toward the United States is simply “hate bait” for mid-term voters. Several thousand people mostly from Honduras are walking to our border, fleeing poverty, drought, unemployment, and gang violence in their own countries. Not unlike the waves of immigrants that brought my own ancestors to these shores, they are risking their lives for the hope of a better one here. I don’t want to over-romanticize a group of people the size of a large suburban high school. Just like any student body, they likely contain a mix of people with different intentions, characters, backgrounds, and skills.

In thinking about the caravan, though, I have tried to consider what I would do if my country became a place where I could not feed my family, where my children’s lives and mine were threatened by violence, where I had given up hope of things improving. I’m not a hand-wringer. I hope I’d pack a backpack and find the courage to head for something better with my children rather than sitting around waiting to die. So I picture our family…walking those daily miles for months toward a border. Hot, hungry, dehydrated, exhausted, sick, sunburned…but hopeful. What would we plan to do when we crossed? Find work and shelter. Get food. Try to rebuild a life. Not attack the people who opened the door. I prefer to hope with all the optimism of a child born in the United States of America that the caravan holds more people like me than different, people who would do the same.

I read both a conservative news source and a more liberal one daily, and nothing I’ve read convinces me that this is a group to fear. The number of them alone and the fact that they are still nearly a thousand miles away covering 20 miles a day in heat and without provisions should make us rethink the frenzied claims that they are “coming to get us.” Those claims are simply meant to amp up our fear and get us to reflexively pull a voting booth lever. Last year alone, close to 400,000 people were detained at the border trying to enter the country. This group is less than 2% of that number. If the other 395,000 didn’t overrun us, we are likely able to handle this “Carmel high school gymnasium”-sized group when they arrive applying for asylum.

Most people I’ve talked to understand the reason we are being focused on this march and the fanfare about troops sent south to repel “the invasion”, but I confess I have mostly talked to friends, and we are friends because we often see the world similarly. I’ve also seen people interviewed on the news who are, indeed, very frightened by the news of this group heading north. They envision them draining social services, committing crimes—one woman from Minnesota was even worried that they would hike north and break into her lake cottage during the winter while she is in Florida. She said she feared they could be squatting there, refusing to leave, when she returned in the spring. I worry that she will vote for whomever promises to keep her cottage safe from Honduran asylum-seekers and their children.

This isn’t a rant. It’s just the fatigue with the negative campaigning techniques talking. I wish we weren’t so ready to nibble the bait being placed out for us during this campaign season—stories told to invoke fear, commercials designed to evoke instinctive responses. Perhaps we can see the trap clearly for what it is and the bait as poison to our democracy. Then we could avoid it, vote  thoughtfully based on knowledge of the candidates’ positions and character, and save ourselves from being carried away.

On Homecoming…

In the last months, we’ve been experimenting with leaving the dog loose in the house when we’re gone. The puppy days are over, and she’s proved that we can trust her not to nibble furniture or mistake the dining room carpet for grass (and pee on it). She’s also calm enough that she doesn’t freak out when the Amazon delivery person looms at the door with a big brown box and tromps away through the yard (something that still startles me now and then, to be honest). 

Leaving her free was a relief for me. I had a little trouble feeling good about being away for any length of time knowing another creature was patiently (or not) waiting in a cage for me to come home and release her. (Maybe some people are better at that. I simply didn’t have enough dog experience to be cavalier about it.)

But the real unanticipated benefit of having a dog loose in the house while you’re away is the greeting when you return. Arriving home to an eager face and a demonstration of exuberant delight that you’ve done something so simple as come back to the place you started from is a new experience for me and not one I intend to take for granted. Most dog owners will tell you they love homecoming. A rush of endorphins floods though you when someone meets you at the door absolutely ecstatic to see you. My sense of homecoming begins the minute I pull in the driveway and see the little face in the dining room window watching for me. I cannot help smiling when I see her peering through the glass expectantly. By the time I exit the car and open the door to the house, she has run to meet me. An absence of five minutes or two hours is met with the same joyful welcome back.

It makes me wonder how often I provide that sense of “homecoming” joy for the people in my life. How often do we take for granted the simple gift of greeting and welcoming? How often as a family over the years did we remain engaged with whatever we were doing when someone came back from an errand or home from school/work, forgetting to acknowledge one another’s comings and goings? While we humans would feel silly racing to the door with yips of joy and face licking for our family and friends, surely we can do at least a little better and try to live up to the example of these pets of ours. A bright smile and happy greeting. A sincerely delighted “I’m so glad to see you!” or “Welcome home!” A bright “good-morning” as we see each other at work. These are easy things to do for one another. And…as I have seen with this puppy of mine…simple, powerful acts of love.

Dog Days of Summer

Last fall, I got a dog. My first dog. I lived more than fifty years without one. Mom was afraid of dogs and allergic to cats, so having a pet wasn’t an option in our family other than the rabbits we raised in the back yard and a few short-lived tadpoles and turtles. We gave dogs a wide berth in public, too, since Mom worried that we’d be bitten or covered in germs. Thus, as an adult, I was one of those people who visit your home and cringe when your dog greets them at the door. The lively wet licking, jumping, and enthusiastic sniffing always intimidated me a bit. 

And then one night, about five years ago, at a charity auction, I started petting a sweet white puppy on a leash who had been donated to the cause that night by a local dog breeder. The puppy was well-trained, and his handler demonstrated its skills to me when she saw how interested I was. I’m sure she believed I would be a big bidder that evening. The puppy stood patiently while I stroked the soft fur between his ears. His tail thumped on the carpet, and he looked up and met my eyes with that lively, happy, soulful gaze a golden retriever has. I had never seen a white retriever before, and the handler explained more to me about the breed. English cream goldens look just like the typical golden but with a slightly stockier build and cream-colored fur. They have the temperament that makes golden retrievers popular family pets around the world, and their black eyes and noses give their face an expressive look that I fell in love with on sight. 

Tom made me leave before the auctioneer started the bidding on the puppy.  I think he believed my impulses would get the better of me. But that evening began a period of what I can only call “courting” the idea of having a dog. I researched different breeds, stalked websites looking at puppy litters for sale, read up on puppy raising, asked friends about their dogs with an interest I’d never had before, and curiously watched people out walking with their dogs in the neighborhood. On the advice of a friend, I even visited a local English cream breeder to see if I found the adult versions of these dogs as wonderful as the puppy I’d seen. I did. In fact, when a big female came and lay down next to me as I sat on the floor with a pup in my lap and put her paw on my leg, I felt myself relax. The pictures my son snapped of me holding the puppy look as awkward as anything you’ve ever seen. It kept wriggling and nipping, and I had no idea what to do with it. But one photo captured me watching the puppies play with my hand resting gently on the adult dog at my side, my fingers deep in her fur like we had fused together. Joe joked that I may be the only person who ever went to look at puppies and liked the grown dogs better. I responded quickly that I had also enjoyed him less as an infant than I do now! 

A year ago, I made the decision to stop full-time work after thirty-two years and spend more time writing, volunteering, consulting, and traveling. Some people call that retirement. I prefer to think of it as Act II.  A month into it, my husband challenged me to stop talking about a dog and get one if I was really serious. He’s never been wrong when he nudges me hard on these kinds of things. I’m often hesitant about change. He embraces it, pushing me off the cliff so I can discover flight. At his urging, I took the plunge and we bought a puppy. Bailey came to us in late-October, and last month she turned a year old. The first months of raising her nearly killed me. Friends who know me well couldn’t believe I’d traded a completely free and relaxed time of life for getting up in the middle of the night and cleaning up “accidents” as well as complicating travel and social life by having to drop off a puppy with a kennel or hire a sitter. They weren’t wrong. I almost lost my sanity trying to surmount the steep learning curve of having a high-maintenance puppy (yeah…she had a few issues). There were tears. They were mine. I’m not proud of it, but to be candid, I also shed a few tears over my children through the years. Everything worth having is hard. We earn the best things in life with sweat equity and intense emotional engagement.  

We survived the early days. Bailey grew up a bit and got used to us. I suspect she also forgave a multitude of mistakes I’m not even aware of making. We’ve only had her nine months, and already I can’t imagine our home and my life without her. How do people survive without a dog? How did I almost miss this experience? Suddenly so many things I did not ever understand make sense to me. I now get why people take time off work to take care of a pet emergency,  and why my friends who’ve lost animals still weep when they talk about them. I understand why someone would run home from the office at lunch every single day no matter how stressful that is “to let the dog out.” I understand the tug of some creature patiently waiting for you, unconditionally depending on you to care for it, and loving you with its whole heart that makes you leave somewhere early to get home for them. I see now how a dog fills a home with its presence. Even when I’m the only person in the house, I’m not alone because Bailey is snoozing on the floor in the hall while I work. I never come home to an empty house; she’s always waiting, delighted to see me again. She follows me around as I do some chore, and even the most mundane task feels less boring because she’s watching with intense fascination. Vacuuming? Laundry? They are pure entertainment to her. I sometimes talk to her as she sits watching me, solving something I’ve been thinking through in my head as I hear the words aloud. Other times, I’m the one watching her,  wondering what she is thinking about all these crazy human things she observes from her favorite place on the floor.

This post is more than just a paean to my puppy. People with far more experience in this realm have written millions of words about the love between a person and a dog. I am new to this relationship, just beginning to realize all I did not know. I am still struck by the instant bond that occurs with other humans when we talk about our dogs. I mention I have a dog, their faces light up, and the connection is forged immediately. I have seen more pictures of the pets of strangers than I have in my whole life. I’ve seen them in four different states and two different countries just in the last few months. I’ve met every neighbor in a mile radius, people I only waved at before as I drove in and out during the twenty years we’ve lived here. Now I stop to chat with them on our daily walks. I know their names, and, if they have one, their dog’s. I sit in my chair in the driveway with Bailey nosing around in the grass, and people stop by to talk and let their pup off the leash to romp in our grass. My house is less clean. My floors often sport little tumbleweeds of white fur that I have to scoop up. I have to worry again as I did with children about whether a few sneezes means allergies or a cold coming on, whether picking at food signals a stomach upset, and whether sleeping all afternoon is a nap or an illness. I’ve put miles on my Fitbit in heat and rain and snow. I am outside every single day. I notice the birds and squirrels, leaves dancing off trees in the breeze, and clouds scudding across the sky. I have made friends with a vet, a dog trainer, people at two kennels, the staff at the pet store, and everyone at Lowes and Home Depot where I run her through the store to practice training. I have filled my photo roll with pictures of Bailey, and sometimes I laugh out loud at something she does. It’s hard to picture life without this kind of connection, joy, and hard work. 

So this is about more than a puppy. It’s about adding something unexpected to what was already a full and happy life. It’s about coming to know and learning late. It’s about being taught patience and learning to let some things go (like fur on dark jeans, spotless floors, and perfectly styled hair). It’s about connecting to other people and nature in a way I could not before, and it’s about seeing that life can continue to expand in ways we did not realize if we are only willing to open to possibilities.