My husband and I are getting ready to leave the house to go to a concert in Iowa City. Since this means a two and a half hour round trip on top of the concert itself, we will be gone for the bulk of the evening. It is the longest we have left Maisie on her own and while I know that she will be perfectly fine being inside all of that time (indeed, would be inside all that time, and most likely sleeping, if we stayed home), I can’t help but be a little worried about her. She is perched on her small green bed in the living room, and looks at me with those liquid gold eyes. The question in them, statement really, is “I’m not going, am I? What if I sit up really tall and behave perfectly?” She looks mildly concerned but there is acceptance in her face, as though, while she is going through the motions of I’m-Perfect-Surely-You-Are-Taking-Me-With-You, she has already realized she is staying and should settle in for the duration. When I bend down and rub her scraggly ears and tell her, “we’ll be back in a little while” (oh, how easy it is to lie to a being who has such an entirely different concept of time), she plops down, chin on her front paws. She remains still but her eyes follow me to the door.
It is close to midnight when we arrive home and she is overjoyed to see us. She jumps up on me and then my husband and although this behavior is not an acceptable one, it is hard to discourage because I, too, am overjoyed to see her. Maisie is young and healthy and vibrant, so I am working to shake the habit I developed the last six months of Henry’s life, one of being overcome with anxiety every time we left the house, for even just a little while. Maisie, of course, is fine and she follows us in, dancing in little circles around us, biting her tail, jumping on us, then sitting for just a moment, every muscle twitching as she tries to contain herself. As always, she is us giving a most joyful welcome home party. My sister used to joke that no matter where she went, and no matter how long she was gone, even if it was just to take out the trash, her return was the most celebrated and festive moment in her beagles’ day.
If at any point in the evening Maisie was upset at being alone, she has instantly forgotten it and forgiven us, for we are all here now and that is all that matters to her. After our exuberant reunion and three minute party, my husband and I go about the business of coming home — hanging jackets and keys; checking the voice mail, the email, the snail-mail; surveying the kitchen, left in haste, to assess what the day’s damage control duties will be — and promptly ignore the sweet little dog who has so patiently suffered our absence, has forgiven us for leaving her, has shown her deep gratitude for our return with gleeful abandon, and now must accept our pursuit of stupid human tricks until we once again take notice of her and take her for a midnight stroll. She watches us ignoring her and then plops back down on her bed with a nearly inaudible sigh of resignation. And while we are not actually showing up for class, she is demonstrating, yet again, what it looks like when a far more enlightened being walks through this world.
I grew up in a good Catholic family and as such found myself sitting on the hard wooden pews each and every Sunday morning, and for each and every feast day, each and every Holy Day of Obligation. While other churches sequester young children into more age-appropriate Sunday School classes, Catholic children learn very early on how to sit on those hard benches for the hour-long mass and muster up some version of self-control, or at least keep the squirming to a minimum. My older sister sometimes entertained herself (and her siblings) by reciting the different parts of the mass in a Cockney accent; I think my brother simply tried to distance himself from his three annoying younger sisters. But I took the mass very seriously. I wanted to understand it, make sense of it, receive something of value from it.
The Holy Trinity — the concept of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is a cornerstone of Catholicism and I remember pestering my father, and subsequently our kind and patient parish priest, Fr. Tom, about this concept of three gods in one. I’m not sure they knew what to make of my constant questioning, and I’m not sure I was ever really sold on the concept, but I do know that I dutifully repeated the phrase, “in the name of the father, son, and holy spirit” from the time I could pronounce the words until the time in my late twenties when I walked away from the church.
For years after I left the church, when I would find myself in a moment of crisis, my first instinct was almost always to make the sign of the cross in supplication, my right hand hastily and sloppily skimming my forehead, breastbone, and each shoulder (first the left, then the right). In lighter moments, when the “crisis” was much more of a minor inconvenience, I would often accompany this brisk movement with a laugh, an eye roll, and a mumbled and mangled version of the Latin words — In nómine Patris et Fílii et Spíritus Sancti — I had heard my father say quietly every Sunday. I never really knew exactly what those words were, my father the only one I knew who said them, the only one I knew who remained true to the Latin rites of the Newfoundland church of the 1930s and 40s in which he grew up. I’m sure he would have been horrified at my butchering of the Latin had he heard me. Still, even though I no longer subscribed to the notion it represented, this small movement, this tiny connection to my Catholic upbringing, offered me comfort and grounded me in whatever I was going through.
All of which brings me back to my spiritual guru — or my 17 pound overlord, depending on the day. Truthfully, most days she is both. Maisie is helping me see that, even though I no longer turn to the sign of the cross when I need a little support to get through, everyone could use their own personal holy trinity. There is something about the power of three: Peter, Paul, and Mary; Larry, Moe, and Curly; Tom, Dick, and Harry; peace, love, and understanding; snap, crackle, and pop. Maybe it goes back to early childhood, to A-B-C (“easy as 1-2-3, simple as do-re-mi” — yes, I am singing along to the Jackson Five here, I can’t help myself). Or maybe we teach children in threes because we know it will stick. Perhaps the early church knew the persuasive power of three (something advertisers seem to know about, something that has recently been confirmed in a new study) when they came up with the Holy Trinity. Whatever it is, I like the concept and so I’ve come up with my own holy trinity.
The past few years, I’ve noticed a trend towards the expression of gratitude. Everywhere you look there are gratitude quotes, gratitude challenges, gratitude journals — hell, there are even gratitude seminars and workshops now. It’s one trend I can say I’m happy to see. Back on a particularly challenging tour a few years ago, my husband and I started using the question “What are you grateful for?” whenever things went awry. It was a quick way for us to focus our attention back to remembering how blessed we were instead of dwelling on how cursed we felt, particularly in those more discouraging moments. I am a big fan of gratitude, of those two perfect words, thank you.
But sometimes gratitude is not always enough to get you through the day, because sometimes gratitude is hard to muster up when it feels like the world is conspiring against you, when life is not the perfect day in the sunshine you had planned. When you’re being good and sitting on your little bed and you’re not barking or whining, when you’re doing Everything Right — and your pack is still walking out the door without you. And that’s when a little acceptance really comes in handy, when looking at the world with 20/20 vision can help you get to seeing a little more of your world through rose-colored glasses.
I have spent a good part of my life fighting against things over which I have zero control (which, really, is about damn near everything). The weather is too wet or too dry or too hot or too cold, someone’s talking is ruining my experience at a concert, the politicians in Washington aren’t doing what I know they should do, my dog is barking — again — at the squirrels, war and poverty and ecological destruction are never going away. I can viscerally recall the physical manifestations of all of that fighting, the angst and misery it handed to me as a little gift for all of my efforts. And while I do remember one of the first times I threw my hands up in true surrender (it’s too long a story to include in this post, but let’s just say it involved a snow-packed road, a mountain pass, and my Subaru demonstrating that all-wheel drive sometimes just means all-wheel sliding), it really has taken me many more years to put the lesson of that day — the lesson of letting go, of dropping the fight for control, of accepting what IS — into any kind of regular practice.
Maisie, however, is an expert at practicing acceptance; I sometimes wonder if she learned it in her two weeks in the slammer, had to practice it every time someone visited her and then closed the door and left without her. Wherever and however she learned it, she demonstrates it on a daily basis when she resigns herself to the fact that, once again, the day will not be spent playing in perpetuity, the humans will continue to go about this thing they refer to as work, they will sometimes leave her behind while they go off, surely, to chase squirrels or tennis balls, and she will not be free to run amok without that blasted harness and leash. She accepts what is, even if it is not what she wants.
And all of this leads me to the third aspect of my holy trinity, one that seems to be so goddamn hard for humans, but not for dogs, who always seem to forgive our shortcomings. (In reality, dogs actually lack the brain development required for holding grudges, but that does not mean we can’t still learn from them.) While forgiveness is truly the most difficult practice I can put into place in my life, it is also the most important. It does not mean being weak or not seeking justice or ignoring the pain and suffering we may experience. Some grievances can take decades to come to terms with, but in the end forgiveness really is, at its core, not so much for the benefit of those who hurt us, but a way to heal our own hearts and open ourselves to living with far more peace. It is an extraordinarily difficult concept to grasp and explain, which is why I love Phillip Moffitt’s take on it; he gets at the heart of it far better than I could and it is definitely worth a read.
I keep a journal and even if I have limited time to fill its pages, I try to at least fill in my holy trinity every day: one thing I’m grateful for, one thing I need to accept, and one thing I need to forgive. It is a practice that takes less than five minutes but has a profound effect on the rest of my day. Sometimes the things in my list are “big ticket” items, sometimes they are the most simple, indeed seemingly insignificant, things. But the forgiveness piece can be really challenging at times — and you can be sure that entry is a bit suspect when it is laced with expletives — so when my heart feels closed or hardened, I start with forgiving myself. Which might sound like an easy out, but it is actually pretty damn hard and probably central to the reason I sometimes struggle to forgive others. Really, it is probably where we all need to start.
It has been a long, long time since I have made the sign of the cross, but perhaps I will start calling it up again, doing that grounding practice in moments of challenge, in the Name of Gratitude, Acceptance, and Forgiveness. Now, if I could only find the Latin translation.
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Dear readers, what are the practices that you use to keep yourselves grounded, to bring yourselves back to a truer version of yourself? Is it something from your childhood, from a religious or spiritual practice, or perhaps something you have learned from an animal companion? I love to hear from you, so please feel free to share in the comments section below.