Maisie has two modes of leash walking. One mode is her daytime walk, her nose pointed straight ahead, tail pointed back and slightly down, ears relaxed and dancing in time with her steps. She is very clearly on a mission to get somewhere —anywhere — and she walks with intense determination, as if she is running late for a Very Important Meeting. She does not care who or what might be in her way, she just needs to get there.
Her other mode of leash walking is her nighttime walk. After the sun goes down, she is highly alert, standing taller than when she is trying to get to her Very Important Meeting. Her steps are shorter, though just as brisk and determined. Her ears are perked up, the ends folded forward in a constant state of curiosity, bouncing in time to her clipped steps, and her excessively abundant tail, often looking decidedly in need of a good brushing, stands straight up in the air, overflowing like a little waterfall. Like a little canine periscope.
It was this display of her tail that caught the attention of a young street kid in downtown Denver, as my husband and I took Maisie for a late night walk. He was sitting on a concrete ledge on Larimer Street, wearing a dirty, too-big khaki canvas jacket, his skateboard standing on end between his knees, his hands resting over the top of it. “Hey, what kind of dog is that?” he called to us. “Don’t really know, she was a rescue,” I answered, to which he replied, “Well, that is a fan-TAS-tic tail.” We laughed and said, “Yes it is.” Because it really is a fantastic tail.
It seems to me that this world of ours is constantly seeking some kind of balance, and downtown Denver is a lens through which one can see that attempt at balance. Street kids with their dreadlocks and the distinct aroma of now-legal pot coming off them mix with the business people in their polished uniforms and tidy hair. The more extreme one is, the more extreme the other seems to move in the opposite direction, each trying to balance out the energy.
One day while we were in there, a tall, lanky young man stood barefoot on the corner, his unkempt hair barely contained in a long ponytail. He was calling out with unfettered enthusiasm, “Free hugs! Free high-fives!” And so as I passed him, I raised my hand up and received my free high-five, along with a boisterous smile, and a “Have a great day!” This fleeting connection — like the one with the kid who admired Maisie’s tail — made me smile and made me happy.
But as I continued on my way and as he continued making his offer to the other passers-by, I heard a gruff voice behind me say to him, “Get a job.” It was a little pin prick in my fleeting balloon of happiness, and I silently returned my own gruff comment toward the man, thinking, “Why? So he can be as miserable as you?” I was surprised at how quickly my mood shifted, being swayed one way, then the next, by these two interactions that occupied less than a minute of my life.
Maisie adapted exceptionally well to our brief time in a big city, and we saw much in our daily promenades in downtown Denver. In the LoDo district of Denver, not too far from where we were staying, there is a senior housing residence. It is not the kind of retirement home advertised by the folks at AARP, with sprightly, polished seniors playing golf and eating out; instead, it is a residence run by a charitable organization for low-income elders and adults with physical and mental disabilities. The folks living here do not look like they have had an easy time of things, not for one minute of their lives.
But when they would sit on the benches outside the building and Maisie would come trotting by, they smiled. Sometimes they said hi and asked to pet her. She always obliged. She did not turn away and pretend they were not there, like so many of their fellow humans do, like I might have done if she had not been with me. She wagged her tail and gave them her head to pet and gave me the opportunity to exchange a few words and a smile, perhaps learn about a dog they once owned, or a dog who scared them away from dogs, that is until Little Miss Maisie walked by. When she was done receiving her pets, Maisie would just prance along on her merry way, while I was left thinking about humanity and our interactions with each other.
Maisie did not have distinctly different reactions to the people we encountered on our travels. She views people pretty much in the same light, and that is as someone who might have a hand to rub her ears or someone who will offer her a treat or somehow send some love her way. Even if it is an admittedly opportunistic light, she still seems to view people through the same non-judgmental lens.
And if the passers-by seemed uninterested in her — which I cannot understand, as it is nearly physically impossible for me to see a dog without wanting to say hi, rub its ears, fall in love — she worried not one whit about it, hell, she didn’t even notice it, and just carried on with her day.
We were on the road for several weeks and our time in Denver seems like it was a hundred years ago. But looking back at our trip, at the widely diverse landscapes in which we found ourselves, I got to observe how that little dog has the same boundless open heart towards all the people she meets: the barefoot street kids and the solicitous sales people; the bankers on their lunch breaks and the ski bums looking for the next adventure; wealthy vacationers driving around in shiny new cars and the people taking a cigarette break behind the kitchen or tending the obscenely fragrant gardens at the vacationers’ swanky hotels.
And it is not just Maisie, of course, it’s all dogs. Dogs just seem to have eternally wide open hearts. They hold no judgment and they don’t care what one’s status in life is. Dogs don’t worry about whether the person who is taking care of them is a street kid or a homeless person, a CEO or a professional dog walker, their owner or a trusted friend.
Maisie, unlike me, would not have judged at all, never mind so harshly, that gruff man who snapped at the free hugs kid. If I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that I can turn my propensity to seek out people from the fringes of society as some kind of badge of honor, something that makes me so much more evolved than Mr. Gruff. But it doesn’t. It just makes me a different variety of judgmental.
I was so irritated that day in Denver, when my briefly euphoric high-five moment immediately went south. Mr. Gruff certainly caused me to view Mr. Free Hugs with a different perspective, and it was a perspective I was not in the mood for. But if I would have come down off of my high horse for just a moment, maybe I would have understood how the gruff man could have had a different view of someone offering high-fives all day long, particularly if he had to pass by him (or others like him) on a daily basis, presumably during his work day. I had no idea what his day had been like up until that moment or what might have led him to snap at that kid, and even if I had, I had no right to judge him one way or another.
The truth of the matter is that I was once Mr. Gruff, working a nine-to-five job I wasn’t in love with, taking the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, muttering under my breath when I was confronted with someone asking for change on my way to work, tired and irritable and brewing over with resentment towards the world; just generally pissed off (at everyone) that my reasons for being in New York — pursuing a master’s degree in music and my engagement to a jazz musician — hadn’t actually panned out the way I had planned.
While I haven’t exactly gone the way of standing on the corner offering free hugs and high fives, I left my last “real” job in 2000. And so instead of muttering at the homeless people on my way to work, I can sometimes do a really bang-up job at judging those who have more than me — those with real jobs and real paychecks and budgets that don’t resemble a threadbare, frayed shoestring or those with more Facebook fans and more gigs and more traction in the treacherous world of independent music. I’m especially good at this when I’m having a particularly tough time of things.
At the crux of all of this rambling, the impetus of which was a street kid’s jubilant compliment of my sweet little dog’s fantastic tail, is the why behind Maisie’s lack of judgment towards others. Maisie, and her canine companions, have no inner judgment towards themselves. They don’t compare, they don’t worry about how they stack up, they have no need to turn their own inner judgments outward in a twisted attempt at self-preservation. I have written, in some form or another, about living with these harsh inner judgments here and here and here. Apparently, though, in spite of having Maisie there to guide me, I’m still struggling with this particular lesson.
And so I continue on with this, probably my most challenging lesson: to learn how to just be, to learn how to just do, and let go of attachment and outcome, but mostly of judgment, the harshest of which is always, always, always reserved for my own battered soul. I want to be like Mr. High Five or Mr. Fantastic Tail, I want to be like Maisie, my canine Buddha.
And I want to tell Mr. Gruff that it’s okay, I’ve been there too, and sometimes life is really hard and things didn’t quite turn out as planned and it makes you angry, because it’s far, far easier to be angry than sad. But maybe the best remedy for the anger and the sorrow is to receive those little offerings of sunshine — even if they’re fleeting, even if we take exception to the offerer’s chosen lifestyle — and let them open our hearts a bit more. Maybe it would help us all bridge the ever-widening gap we find ourselves creating, help us live in a world with a little more compassion and a lot less judgment.
I’m going to end what was supposed to be a short little post about Maisie’s Fantastic Tail with the words of someone else, words that have been attributed to Plato and to Ian McLaren and who all knows who else. But the author is not nearly as important as the sentiment, a sentiment I want tattooed on my heart: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
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Dear lovely readers, it’s been a little while since I’ve managed to post, and so I offer my apologies. Apparently writing and posting while on the road is not quite as easy as I had hoped it to be. But I’m back, and as always, I love to hear from you. What has your experience with judgment been? Have you had the privilege of traveling with your animal companions, and as such, seeing the world through their eyes? Let me know what you think in the comment section below!