Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Graveyard

Like many dog owners who live on Capitol Hill and don’t have much of a yard, I walk my dogs in Congressional Cemetery, an historic graveyard in southeast DC that dates back to 1807 (go to for more information). Walking dogs in a graveyard sounds strange at first, but it makes sense once you actually see it. In return for dog-walking privileges, each dog walker pays a yearly fee, and the dog-walking money funds the cemetery’s considerable ground maintenance bill. In addition, many dog walkers volunteer to help with various grounds-keeping and administrative projects at the cemetery, and some dog walkers have helped the cemetery procure major funding from other sources. The routine presence of people and dogs on the grounds transforms the graveyard into a wonderfully alive space, and most of the dog walkers find themselves falling in love with history and ambiance of the burial ground. In the view of most people involved, allowing dogs in the graveyard turns out to be a win-win situation (see for more about dogs at Congressional Cemetery).

Some folks on the cemetery’s board disagree with the established dog-walking program, I think because they view the presence of dogs as disrespectful to those interred and fear that having a critical mass of dogs on the grounds will transform what should be a somber burial ground into nothing more than a dog park that happens to have head stones. My view, however, is that if these anti-dog folks would just talk to the dog walkers, or maybe even better yet actually visit the cemetery during peak dog-walking hours, they would find out that the dog-walking program doesn’t turn Congressional Cemetery into a dog park but rather enhances it as a cemetery.

Although some burials still occur at Congressional Cemetery, most of the graves are old, forgotten by descendants, and rarely visited. The dog walkers basically serve as equal-opportunity visitors for all of those interred at the cemetery. We pay attention to the grave sites, wonder about the lives of the people whose graves we notice, and continually point graves out to one another. Even after walking there for years, people find themselves noticing new things all the time. Many of us, including me, could give you a comprehensive tour of the graves that are considered historically noteworthy, but we also could give you the saddest stories tour, the funny names tour, the I’m-really-perplexed by this family plot tour, and the list goes on. How many graveyards in this country can boast a whole legion of people each of whom visits daily (some of us multiple times daily) and in the process forms on ongoing and attentive relationship with the entire place and all of its inhabitants? Certainly having 50 or 60 happy dogs frolicking around the 33-acre grounds on a given morning or evening is a small price for that kind of stewardship. Plus the dogs really brighten things up, and most of the non-dog-walking visitors seem genuinely delighted by their presence.

I probably never would have discovered Congressional Cemetery, and I certainly would not have made walking there a daily habit, if it had not been for my dogs. As it has turned out, though, I have walked in Congressional Cemetery twice a day virtually every day for the last 5 years, and it has become one of the most important places in my life. First of all, the place is beautiful. It is like a wonderful mirror that not only reflects but also intensifies the particular beauty and ambiance of each season. The stillness and chill of winter, the rebirth and teeming energy of spring, the heat and sultriness of summer, and the crispness and rustling of fall – it always seems to me that each season is at its quintessential best in that graveyard. I also love the feeling of ever-present peace that seems to hover over Congressional Cemetery. Regardless of the season, there seems always to be a sense of tranquility in the place that nothing can shake. I consistently have found that, no matter how foul my initial mood, the tranquility of the graveyard somehow rubs off on me and I always leave more at peace than when I arrived. And then there’s the whole bit about how walking in a graveyard every day can inspire one to confront the “big questions” – is there a god, is there an afterlife, can there be one without the other, why am I here, what is my purpose, how can I make peace with the fact that no matter what I do I will die, etc., etc. My daily walks in Congressional Cemetery certainly prompted me to spend considerable time thinking about all these questions. On top of all this, walking in the final resting place of many people who were critical to the forming of our nation and its capital city has given me quite a history lesson. Last but not least, I have made a lot of wonderful friends while walking dogs among the tombstones.

I’m sure that, without Congressional Cemetery, I eventually would have found other places and ways to appreciate the full measure of all the seasons, to get an instant shot of tranquility, to contemplate life and death, to learn more about our nation’s history, and to make friends. However, I can think of no other place where I would have gotten all these benefits so strongly and so routinely, and I can certainly think of no other place where I would have found all these things simultaneously. If someone had told me 6 years ago that I would spend an average of two hours a day walking dogs in a graveyard and that those would frequently be the best two hours of my day, I would have thought they were crazy. But that’s how it’s turned out, and I am so very pleased that it did.

I love Congressional Cemetery. Sometimes I think that maybe, although I didn’t know it at the time, part of the reason I was drawn to live in Washington was in order to get to know and so richly benefit from this wonderful, special place.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Love Is a Wonderful Thing

I was a perennially single person for most of the first 35 years of my life, until I met the person who is now my fiancé. As the two-year anniversary of our first date approaches, I have been thinking a lot about our relationship and how it has evolved. I am constantly amazed at how different our experience has been from what the storybooks and the movies would have us believe constitutes romance, and I am even more struck by how much better our real-life romance has been than that fairy tale version.

In the fairy tale version, we only see the good parts, which usually are at the beginning when everyone is still euphoric and the hormones are running high. Although the early euphoric moments have their place, they are relatively unencumbered by that mixture of all the good and bad stuff that we typically call “real life.” A deep and enduring partnership cannot be made of euphoric moments alone because it needs time, and the challenges brought by time, to develop and find its richness.

Goodness knows my fiancé and I have had our challenges. I always had this idea in my head that I was an independent woman who was “meant to be alone,” so the fact that we even made it past the three-month mark was a real milestone. In persevering through life together these past two years, we have learned each others’ insecurities and foibles (and believe me, we each have our share!), and we also have trudged together through at least three things that squarely qualify as “major life changes.”

That my fiancé and I are still together sometimes strikes me as miraculous, because there are so many times during the last two years when it would have been very easy to give up. I particularly think that it would have been easy for him to give up, because at moments I have been just a hair’s breadth from completely unbearable. Yet we have managed through all our difficult moments to forge a stronger bond and make a wonderful life together. I think this is because we genuinely respect and listen to one another, we give one another opportunities to grow, we bring out the best in one another, and we are committed to staying together in a way that feels good to us both. Plus, at the end of a long day, when we relax into being ourselves, we find that it is simply and pleasingly good to be together. After 13 years of living happily alone and thinking that I would never share space with anyone again, I now cannot imagine being without this wonderful person who has willingly signed up to navigate the crazy waters of life with me.

It really is a splendid thing to love and to be loved in return, and it just keeps getting better all the time. That’s the part that the fairy tales don’t tell you about. Thank you, J, for staying with me. I love you and I hope that we are together for a long, long time to come.

Friday, August 29, 2008

How Much Can a Personality Change?

I was thinking this morning about how much my outlook toward life has evolved over the last year. I feel calmer, more patient, less judgmental of myself and others, more accepting and less controlling when interacting with the people and experiences in my life, and just generally more at ease with the world and myself. I also have more energy and a greater capacity for social activities than previously. I've had dinner or lunch plans just about every day for the past week, and not only did I honor each and every one of those engagements, but I also did not feel wiped out by them. This is highly unusual, because typically if I have a dinner date for even one night, I need at least a two- or three-day recovery period during which I stay home and read books. Thinking about how differently I'm going through my life these days made me wonder if maybe my entire personality is changing, so I spent the morning pondering this topic and doing some "research."

Last year at about this time I took a personality type test based on the Myers-Briggs personality type theory. The instrument that I took pronounced me an INFJ (introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging) personality type. I identified with this label immediately. When I read the INFJ description, which was titled "Counselor-Idealist," I found myself continually nodding "yes" and saying "that describes me perfectly." INFJs are purportedly the rarest of the 16 Myers-Briggs types, and that also really resonated with me because I feel like such a misfit so much of the time. I recognize that personality typing tools are just one of many methods for assessing personalities, and also that all such tools have their limits. However, I nonetheless felt that this particular test had nailed me pretty accurately, and I also understood myself and the people around me a bit better after having read about Myers-Briggs personality typing more generally.

This morning I found myself curious to see whether all the changes I've made during my "Year of Healing" (which is what I like to call my time away from the workforce), were enough to alter my Myers-Briggs result. I mean, am I still an introvert if I can go out 5 nights out of 6 and actually feel really good afterward? Am I still an intuitive-judger if I am more detached, open, and compassionate and less rigid in my conclusions? I just took the same version of the Myers-Briggs type test that I took last year, and I got the same result as before. Not only am I still an INFJ, the "strength measures" associated with each of the four letters remained almost exactly the same.

I was only partially surprised by today's result, because I feel that on some fundamental level I basically am the same person as ever. At the same time, however, there are many ways in which I think and feel much differently than I have in the past, and I strongly suspect that some of the people who know me would report that they perceive significant differences, too. I therefore still found myself wondering if, in spite of the consistent Myers-Briggs results, there were some sense in which my personality actually had changed over the last year.

I guess that the question of whether and how much a personality can change ultimately boils down to what "personality" really is, anyway. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that I typically consult on such matters has a lengthy definition, one part of which is, "The assemblage of qualities or characteristics which makes a person a distinctive individual; the (esp. notable or appealing) distinctive character of a person." But what does that definition really mean, anyway, and how much of whatever fits that definition is hard-wired into us vs. subject to changes of our own making? These are the kinds of questions that I could puzzle over for hours and still not have satisfying answers. At the moment, however, it seems to me that maybe the answer is something like this:

Maybe there's some core in each of us that deals with how we take in and process information and what we do to find energy (this is what I think the Myers-Briggs test measures), and that core has been there for so long that we probably won't, and maybe even can't, change it. However, even if our basic processes remain the same, we can let those processes take us to new and different places all the time if we choose. We can be "the same" in terms of wiring, but we have a wide range of choice when it comes to using that wiring to eradicate and cultivate various traits and thought patterns. Maybe that is why my personality type, at least as measured by Myers-Briggs, will not ever really change, but my experience of the world, and my comfort level in it, hopefully will continue to deepen and broaden over time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Last night I had a heck of time falling asleep because I kept itching. One place would itch, so I'd scratch it. That itch would be extinguished, but another would immediately pop up somewhere else. This process repeated itself over and over and over again, leaving me a little more forlorn each time. Have you ever had this problem? Very frustrating, yes?

The first thing I always think when this happens is that there are bugs crawling all over me, but a quick check invariably reveals that there are in fact no bugs in the bed, or on me. There may be a tiny amount of dirt, which is not surprising considering how many pets are liable to hop up on the bed from time to time (in fact I'm always surprised that the pet dirt situation is not a lot worse than it is), but even that is not enough to cause a problem of this magnitude.

So if there's no immediately obvious physical stimulus, why I am itching like there's no tomorrow? I can't go to sleep in this condition, so I decide that I might as well spend my time productively. I search for the cause of my predicament, in the hopes that in finding the cause I will also see the cure. Here's what I come up with -- I itch because I'm impatient, because I want to control something or know something, and whatever it is that I want is eluding me right at this moment.

It occurs to me that there are probably at least two reasons I am itching on this particular night. My friends with whom I just had dinner are moving to Vienna soon (Austria, not northern Virginia, thankfully). The selfish part of me is sad to see them go and wishes that they had more time in DC, while the part of me that wants their lives to be hassle-free wishes that they were already settled into their new home without having to go through all this moving-and-flying business that they are about to embark upon. I want two competing things, neither of which is available in the wee hours of this Wednesday morning. I itch for resolution. In addition, I have just started job hunting, and although I know there are several places that would be happy to have me, I don't know if any of them will be willing to take me on my preferred terms. Usually I am OK with the fact that my career is up in the air, but occasionally I panic. I itch for certainty.

It is about 2:30 a.m. when I finally figure out that I am itching not because anything is physically wrong, but rather because I am being particularly, stubbornly insistent that things be other than as they are right now in this moment. I know, both theoretically and from experience, that this is a losing battle, but I am unsure how exactly to quell this mental turmoil so that this annoying itching will cease and I can get some much-needed sleep. Then, miraculously, I am saved by the Beatles. I am not really a Beatles fan (sacrilege, I know), but in my itchiness the opening lyrics of a Beatles song that I do happen to like quite a lot present themselves as the solution--

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to to me
Speaking words of wisdom,
Let it be.

Let it be. That is exactly, exactly what I need to do! Let my friends' journeys evolve as they will, let my job situation sort itself out in due course, stop trying to control the world, stop even wishing that I could control the world, stop even worrying about this blasted itching. Just let it be. I didn't ever see Mother Mary last night, but I did heed her particular words of wisdom, and it turns out that they are a remarkable cure for insomniac itching. I strongly suspect that they are a cure for many other types of self-imposed suffering as well.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Does Politics Really Matter?

When I was younger, I thought that politics -- and by "politics" I mean the Democrat/Republican dance by which our country supposedly is governed -- really mattered. I voraciously read The Washington Post, tuned into the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour every night, and watched all the politico talking head shows on Sunday morning. I did this in the hopes of understanding all that was going on in our nation's capital and what those goings-on meant for the rest of us, because I was convinced that it was all so important.

When I moved to Washington in 1993, disillusionment with the political process set in very quickly. After seeing the goings-on in this town from a much closer vantage point, I soon concluded that most of what was happening in Washington had very little direct impact on the ordinary American. The president, the senators, and the congressmen seemed to be more like little kids who had divided into teams on the playground to throw things at each other than responsible statesmen concerned with governing our country reasonably. The conservatives kept getting more conservative, the liberals kept getting more liberal, and the fights between them kept getting more ridiculous. Let them do what they want, I thought -- life will go on just about the same as it would've anyway for most of the rest of us. After reaching that conclusion, I tuned out politics for a long, long time.

With the 2008 presidential election rapidly approaching, I find that I have changed my mind on the importance of politics yet again. I still think that much of the time the output of the political machine isn't important, or is important only at the margins, in shaping the course of our lives. However, I think that there are times when politics does matter; and when it matters, it matters A LOT!!! Our current president, for example, has done a miraculously good job of gutting our civil liberties, turning what had been a brightening fiscal situation on its head, and getting us into a completely unnecessary war that has encouraged anti-American constituencies around the world to hate us even more actively than they did before. Idiocy, incompetence, and hubris are never good in isolation, and having all those traits combined in a president who actually succeeds in pushing his policy agenda has proved disastrous. As much as it pains me to say it, George W. Bush has made a difference, and it has not been a good one.

As I sit here today, I am hoping really hard that our next president will be Barack Obama, and that he will succeed at counteracting the damage done by Bush. Americans have so much goodness as a people -- on the whole, people in this country tend to be generous, caring, fun-loving, and freedom-loving. The negative and divisive policies of the Bush administration unfortunately have leveraged some of our less-appealing national traits at the expense of these good qualities. Our country is so ready for an administration that makes room for concepts like peace, hope, liberty, generosity, and respect. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we had a president who inspired us all, Democrat and Republican alike, to embrace what is good about ourselves and our heritage again; if we had a president who could help us collectively to be our best selves? I am hoping that Obama will do just that. I am hoping, in short, that Obama will make a difference.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Pursuit of Happiness

Do you ever notice how so many people in this country are preoccupied with the concept of happiness? People spend tons of money on therapists and self-help books in an attempt to find the key to happiness for themselves. And how many times have you heard a parent say of his or her child, "I don't care what little Elmer does with his life, as long as he's happy." (Well, maybe not Elmer, because no one really names their kid Elmer nowadays, but you get the point.) I suppose all this focus on happiness shouldn't come as any big surprise, though, in light of the fact that the Declaration of Independence names "the pursuit of happiness" among our inalienable rights as American citizens.

The thing that has struck me a lot lately is that, in the United States as of the year 2008, we seem to have taken the "pursuit" part of this particular inalienable right more seriously than the "happiness" part. I get the distinct feeling that, for many people, "trying to be happy" has become more important than actually being happy. If you claim that you are happy but you admit that you have not spent some time and effort trying to achieve happiness, people in this country will tend to doubt your veracity.

I chased after happiness for many years, like it was some elusive animal that I had to hunt down and trap all by myself if I wanted to have it. Then one day I stopped chasing, not so much because I thought chasing was a bad approach as because I just got too darned tired to keep going. In a moment of particular weariness, I told whatever key-to-happiness theory was rattling around in my brain at the time to please hush. At first I felt like a failed pursuer of happiness, but what happened next was amazing. When I stopped trying to be happy, I realized that the potential for happiness had been there all along, but I had been too busy reading self-help books to see it. When I stopped trying to be happy, I actually was able to be happy. I now am convinced that it really is that easy -- happiness is available at any time, and you can choose it or not, as you wish.

If simply choosing to be happy works so much more effectively than running around in circles trying to find happiness somewhere outside yourself, then why don't more people follow that route? Certainly there are several major industries that spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to convince us that we can't really find happiness unless we buy their books, products, and services, which purportedly contain all the answers. But the underlying question is why, as a society, do we believe them when they tell us that?

Those of us who comprise American society seem to be plagued by the idea that we as individuals are not really OK as we are; instead, we seem to think that we first need to acquire some thing or some experience that we currently lack, or otherwise somehow adjust ourselves, as a prerequisite to being OK. Now combine that with the prevalent American belief that all the things that are worth having, including all the things that we believe we need for making-ourselves-OK purposes, are not freely available but rather must be earned through some amount of work. Now layer on top of all that the American tendency to want whatever it is that we want right now, which causes us to try out anything that is billed as a short-cut. And we are willing to try multiple short-cuts until we find the short-cut that works. With all these parts of our collective psyche going at the same time, it really is no wonder that as a country we pursue happiness in the particular way that we do, trying to earn happiness by testing out one magic-bullet theory after the other so that maybe, if we try, just hard enough, we can find the key to the happiness puzzle and declare ourselves happy and fixed.

What a pitiful lot we are sometimes, pursuing something that is there all along and that becomes more elusive the more we insist on working for it. I wonder if there will ever be a time when, as a society, we will internalize the notion that some of the best things in life really are free and there for the taking, and that we deserve them without having to somehow change ourselves first.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Some Thoughts about Spirituality on a Sunday Morning

I have referred to Buddhism and concepts associated with Buddhism several times in this blog (including the title), which has caused a couple of early readers to ask me if I am a Buddhist. The answer is no. When it comes to religion I don't fall into any defined category. I do, however, think a lot about religion and spirituality and read widely on those topics. I guess you could say that I am seeker of truth who is open to good ideas about religion and spirituality regardless of their origin.

The first religion to which I was exposed was Christianity. My parents raised me as a Moravian, which is a fairly liberal Protestant denomination (although technically speaking I think it really is pre-Protestant -- check out for details). The Moravian Church's motto is "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love," which seems to me to be a pretty good philosophy, both for a religion and more broadly speaking. I particularly like the Moravians' emphasis of love in all things, and I wish that people, including myself, would take up that invitation more regularly. I also like the Moravians' focus on personal liberty, which led them to do things like found a women's college in the 1700s; Salem College, located in my home town of Winston-Salem, N.C., is the oldest educational institution for women in the United States.

Probably because the Moravian tradition allows for so much free thinking, I found myself questioning what I understood to be the essentials espoused by the Moravian Church (the whole Father, Son and Holy Ghost business) from the time I was in junior high school. I went through high school in a bit of a spiritual muddle -- I wasn't really subscribing to the fundamentals of Christianity, but I didn't know much about what else was available. Then college offered the opportunity to learn about other religious traditions in a systematic way, and this began to shed some light on my spiritual puzzle. Although I haven't done any formal study of religion since college, opportunities for spiritual and religious growth have presented themselves routinely, sometimes in the strangest of places, and I have been trying to make the most of those opporunities as they arise.

Walking my dogs in a graveyard every day has been an amazing eye-opener in that regard. Spending a lot of time looking at tombstones, many of which mark graves of people who died much younger than I am now, really got me to thinking about "the meaning of it all" -- is there a God or other divine presence; is there an afterlife; can there be one without the other, etc., etc., etc. Of course I didn't ever find scientifically acceptable answers, but I did get comfortable with the fact that I could never have that kind of an answer to those types of questions. For me that was a big step, and I found myself worrying a lot less after I took it.

Spiritual awareness also has come to me through reading. I randomly picked up a book about Buddhism earlier this summer and found myself drawn to what I believe to be some of the fundamental principles of that tradition, such as the ideas that everything is impermanent and that nothing in life is certain except change. These strike me as basic truths, the acceptance of which is beginning to allow for a much more unfettered and meaningful existence in the here-and-now.

I also was recently struck by a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. A friend of mine posted on her blog a poem from The Book of Hours, which is Rilke's collection of "love poems to God." I kept re-reading that poem and thinking "maybe, the next time I read this thing, I will not get chills and start to tear up." Never happened. I mentioned this to my friend who promptly loaned me the book, which I started reading last night. The sheer and seemingly effortless beauty of these poems defies description, and the chills and teary eyes just keep on comin' as I progress further into the collection. I get a similar feeling to this when listening to my favorite pieces of music by Beethoven and Bach, which also possess a beauty that is beyond words and never fail to evoke an emotional response.

Nowadays, when I walk in the graveyard or the arboretum, when I read Rilke, and when I listen to those pieces by Beethoven and Bach, I can't help but feel that there is some kind of divinity (which is why I probably will never be a Buddhist). What I sense is not the type of formal creator/divinity who hands down commandments and decides who goes to heaven and hell, as described in the Bible, but rather some kind of higher awareness that is simply and constantly there. I have no idea how to label it and I know that I cannot begin to understand its nature or methods. I do know, though, that I acutely feel its presence, both "out there" in the heavens and also in all aspects of the world around me, including each blade of grass and each person I encounter. So that is where I am spirtually at this moment -- I see divinity all around, its presence gladdens me, and I am comfortable simply pausing to tell it hello without demanding anything more from it. I don't know if that counts as "religion," but I'm pretty sure that it involves some kind of faith.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Anticipation of Fall

For the past week or so, a hint of fall has been in the air. The daylight hours, although slowly dwindling, have still been summery and warm, but the nights and especially the mornings have had that particular crispness that I always associate with brightly-colored leaves, cooking soup, sitting by the fire, and reading really good books. The squirrels sense the shift, too, and already have started bustling around to collect their winter stashes (much to the delight of Jacob, my squirrel-hunting dog, as this greatly improves his odds for a successful catch). I've noticed this week that people around me have started buzzing about these and all the other little changes they observe as we march toward the autumn. It is so interesting who notices what -- some folks focus on light and temperature, others on the activity of animals and insects, others on changes in plant life, and still others on the general shift in energy that they have been feeling. The true connoisseurs of fall notice all these things and more.

I truly delight in all the little signs that fall is drawing near, and the group exchange of observations on that topic warms my heart. For me the fall is the most energizing and exhilarating of the seasons; everything is just better in the fall -- my senses are heightened (and they have so much to take in), my mind is unusually clear, and my body is grateful for relief from the summer heat. Although I welcome the arrival of each season in its due course, fall is the only one that I eagerly anticipate, and my anticipation begins at the exact moment that I get that first whiff of seasonal change.

In my anticipation this year, I have been reflecting on how the fall, in addition to being a time of transition for the earth, also has been a time of great personal transition for me over the years. Last year I quit my job in September and got engaged three days later. My fiance and I started dating the September before that. In the fall of 2004 I finished a major regulation-writing campaign at work, which was the most rewarding, but also the most draining, project I have ever completed. This fall could well mark another personal transition, as I start looking to re-enter the workforce after a very interesting year-long break.

There is one sense in which this fall will be different from all its predecessors, though. In the past, I welcomed transition on the one hand but feared the unknown elements it brought with it on the other. I spent a lot of my energy tilting at windmills in an attempt to know the unknowable and control the uncontrollable. One of the best parts of my year away from the rat race is that it has largely cured me of my desire for certainty and all the needless fears that such a desire can tend to produce. Believe me, that alone far outweighs the loss in income! This year, for the first time ever, I will be able to greet the fall, and whatever changes it may bring with it, with an open mind, an open heart, and a healthy dose of curiosity that is not diminished by fear. No matter what actually comes to pass, I have a feeling that this may just be my best fall yet!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Art of Equanimity

"Equanimity -- n. 1. Fairness, impartiality, equity. 2. Tranquility of mind or temper; composure; resignation, acceptance of fate." Source: The New Oxford English Dictionary.

I just spent the last three hours carefully crafting a post on the art of equanimity, only to erase it after accidentally hitting the space bar immediately after selecting all. How is that for an opportunity to practice said art?!?

Instead of trying to recreate the original (and lengthy) post, I will simply say that I have been inspired, primarily by some Buddhist reading I've been doing lately, to start practicing the art of equanimity on a more consistent basis. This involves neither clinging to nor fleeing from situations, things, or people (including myself), but instead just accepting things as they are. Another way to say this is that I now endeavor to see what's real, as opposed to projecting a storyline of my own making onto the things I encounter. It is amazing how differently things look when I can manage to see them before my preconceived notions and other imaginings enter the picture.

One thing that has been particularly interesting for me is to take an honest look at the instances in which equanimity eludes me, which it still regularly does, and try to figure out why. I have concluded that most of my non-equanimous moments are attributable to some sort of fear that usually can be traced back to the fear of death, which I'm thinking may well be the root of all fear. When one fears the fact that one's existence will someday cease, one tends to view all things through the totally biased filter of the all-important me. Or maybe it is the other way around -- maybe people fear death because they are so me-centric to begin with. Either way, when a person is laboring under that mindset, the ability to be equanimous pretty much goes out the window.

I realized today for the first time, when I looked up equanimity in the dictionary, that resignation and acceptance of fate are parts of the definition. At first that threw me a bit, because I always tend to focus on the parts of the definition that deal with tranquility, composure, and impartiality. But today, through all of the rambling I did on my original attempt at a post, I realized how important resignation and acceptance of fate really are to the concept of equanimity as a whole. After all, it would be pretty difficult for someone to achieve tranquility, composure, and impartiality on anything approaching a consistent basis if they had not fully accepted the inevitable and undeniable truth that they are not the center of the universe and that, indeed, their time in the universe is fleeting at best.

Wow -- it all comes together. Maybe this blogging business actually will be a source of greater clarity, after all!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Love of Dogs -- the Story of Jacob & Amos

I grew up always having cats, and for the first 31 years of my life I staunchly identified myself as a "cat person." The urge to adopt a dog inexplicably occurred in late 2002, and I started visiting the dog adoption section of the Washington, D.C. Animal Shelter web site ( in January 2003, right around the time I turned 32. It was kind of a whimsical thing at first -- a lunchtime distraction from my job, which was going through a boring phase -- but then I saw an adorable 4-month old shepherd mix named Santana. After seeing his huge ears, golden fur with black snout, and wise brown eyes, I knew I had to go meet him (plus I also wanted to meet whoever was naming these shelter dogs).

I'll never forget the first time I saw Santana in person. He was near the end of a long corridor of dog kennels, and getting to him involved going through a heart-breaking gauntlet. It seemed that every single dog in the NY Avenue animal shelter was barking at me as I progressed down the aisle, each pleading for me to choose it. When I got to Santana's cage, his kennel mate, a chow mix, immediately greeted me with the same desperate excitement of all the other dogs I had just passed. After mollifying the chow mix, I at last turned my attention to Santana, who in contrast to all his shelter mates had waited patiently and silently for me to come to him. He was now sitting calmly, gazing directly into my eyes in an unspoken communion of intelligent beast with intelligent beast. There was no doubt that he was asking to be adopted as well, but his was a quieter method which, in its confident and assured subtlety, managed to speak to me more powerfully than the incessant barking of all the other dogs combined. As I experienced seeing Santana’s golden beauty, feeling his calm but strong and happy energy, and looking into his disarmingly wise eyes for the first time, I fell completely and totally in love.

As I walked my new puppy out of the shelter a few days later, I turned to him and said, "Come on Jacob, let's go home!" He clearly needed a new name if he was going to fit in with the resident cats (Arthur, Thomas, and Leonard), but I'm still not quite sure where "Jacob" came from. He looked at me as I said it, though, as if signalling his approval of the moniker, so Jacob became his name.

Having a puppy was quite an adventure, seeing as I had never had a dog of any age before. I enlisted the help of a dog walker about 3 days after joining the dog-owning ranks (so much for my plan of going home at lunch every day to walk the pup), and I got a dog trainer not too long after that. Jacob grew from an adorable but naughty puppy into an amazingly beautiful and well-behaved dog. Man, is he handsome! -- I think he's a Belgian tervuren (I had never heard of it, either) mixed with a golden retriever, and he has the best of each breed. He is gentle, friendly, smart as a whip, and very protective of his people and his home. Although he has a stubborn streak that drove me crazy during puppyhood, now that he's grown many people share my assessment that he is "the perfect dog." This is evidenced by the fact that there's a long waiting list of people who would love to take him off my hands, so it's not just me talking here.

At first I was hoping that Jacob and the cats would become best buddies -- you know, take naps together, playfully tease ease other, share toys, etc. Two years after Jacob joined the menagerie, things were peaceful between the species but not particularly friendly, and I thought that Jacob needed more suitable company. I started thinking about getting a second dog in the summer of 2005, and this time it was Gennaro who gave me the "hi, Mom" look from his photo on the shelter web site (clearly the shelter's naming committee had not improved in the two years since I met Santana). He was another handsome shepherd, about 1o months old, and he had this pitiful look about him that just totally sucked me in. I tracked his progress on the shelter web site for about a month before I finally broke down and went to see him, thinking that his days were numbered.

He was cute as the dickens -- a smooth-coated collie or sheltie crossed with some other breed that gave him speckles on his white snout and legs. He was a little aloof when we went out into the dog run at the shelter together. I think that he was more excited about being outside than he was at the prospect of seeing yet another human, because I don't think his luck with humans had been too good up to this point. Gennaro was scheduled to go to a foster home the next day and his foster person apparently had a permanent adopter lined up, so my chances didn't look good. I had a feeling about this dog, though, and I didn't lose hope.

Two weeks later the phone rang -- the foster dad wanted to know if I was still interested because the adopter had backed out. So Jacob and I went to Dogs by Day, the doggy daycare on 14th Street, to meet Gennaro. I was getting this dog for Jacob, so I of course could not proceed without his input. After a few tentative sniffs and circles, the barrier between these two dogs broke and they played like the best of friends. When I sat down for a minute as I watched them chase and wrestle, Gennaro came over, sat beside me, and put his head in my lap. At that point it was all over but the renaming!

I went to pick up Amos, as I decided to call him, the very next day. My habit was to take Jacob to Congressional Cemetery twice a day for a large amount of off-leash exercise (don't worry -- this cemetery, unlike any other that I know of, has an organized dog-walking program), and I threw Amos into the world of off-leash graveyard walks immediately. I suspect, based on what I witnessed that day, that Amos had never been off-leash in an open area before. I will never forget seeing his eyes light up, about 10 seconds after he got out of the car, when he figured out that he was free to run. After this moment of recognition he bolted off to chase Jacob, who was leading by example and already an acre away, and didn't slow down the entire time we were there. I don't think I've ever seen a dog so happy, before or since, as he was during that first day of running, and he was crestfallen when I finally managed to catch him and leash him up. Don't worry Amos, I told him, we're coming back again tomorrow, and every day after that -- you're free to run all the time now!

At first Jacob was quick to bring Amos back when he strayed too far or for too long. After a while, Jacob stopped retrieving Amos, but he would discipline Amos on occasions when Amos did not come back promptly after I called. I already knew that Jacob was a great dog, but having a younger pack mate was bringing out a side of his personality that I had never seen. Amos's personality took a while to come out fully -- he revealed himself slowly but steadily over a period of about a year. At first he was shy and on his Sunday-best behavior -- I think it took him a long time to realize that this was his "forever home" and he could relax. I knew he was feeling at home the day I discovered that he had shredded my favorite dictionary to smithereens while I was at work. I am a serious word nerd (which explains why I have, or at least had, a "favorite dictionary," in case you thought that sounded odd), and it turns out that Amos is a big reader, too. After the dictionary, he "read" the Divine Comedy and Midnight's Children before I Amos-proofed my extensive book collection. He cracks me up everyday, this clever and funny little dog. Now that I know him better, in retrospect I sometimes wish that I had named him Slick.

Having dogs for the last 5 years has been one of the most rewarding, heart-warming experiences of my life. I can't imagine what my life would be like without dogs, particularly without these two dogs. When I think of what it means to be truly happy, I think of Jacob and Amos running toward me with their mouths open and curled into doggy smiles, the beautiful way they each smell when I bury my nose in their fur, the way Jacob looks so stunning when his golden fur is backlit, the way Amos has a special look that means he is up to something and I am soon going to get a good laugh, the way Jacob looks so wise and smart as he makes sure all his friends at the dog park are comporting themselves properly, the way Amos is so deeply tuned into human emotions, the way Jacob will shamelessly roll over for a belly rub as soon as he will look at you (and he won't get up until you deliver the goods!), the way Amos burrows into the bed and makes cow sounds in the morning as he wakes up my fiance. I obviously could go on and on (and on).

All this is a long way of explaining how a certified cat lady came to be a dog person. Although I felt like a dog person from the time Jacob was a puppy, I knew for sure that I was a dog person when I got them a car (a Honda Element, which they can get as doggy as they want -- thank you Daddy and Mother) in the fall of 2005. I still love my cats -- my fiance and I have 5 cats between us -- but my love for the dogs is something altogether different. They are my friends, companions, protectors, therapists, and constant entertainers. It is amazing how much of human emotion they understand, and how they always seem to know just what to do to make things better (except, of course, when what they do is roll in unspeakable things at the dog park, necessitating an emergency trip to the groomer).

I savor my time with these dogs. Each and every day I acknowledge how precious they are and thank the universe for blessing me with them. I grieved as two dogs in my neighborhood died earlier this summer (one at a ripe old age, another of acute illness at age 4), and another friend of mine recently has spoken candidly, and quite beautifully, about the decline of her geriatric dog. This reminds me that there will be a time when my dogs will cease to be. There was a time when such thoughts caused me great anxiety, and I lived in fear rather than enjoyment. However, now that I am more accepting of the impermanence of all things, thoughts of my dogs' inevitable demise, and indeed my own, make me feel more thankful than ever for the precious present, and I can greet each and every moment that we have together with joy and mindfulness. Fully inhabiting the present (which really is all any of us can do anyway) is especially satisfying on a beautiful day like today -- it seems that perfect September weather has come to our nation's capital a month early this year, resulting in an abundance of good dog-frolicking weather. Speaking of which, what am I still doing in front of a computer screen? It's time to go outside for a walk. Woof!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Starting down a new path

A good friend has been encouraging me to start a blog. Right now I am stuck at home with nothing much to do while the brick pointers shore up the back wall of my house, so today seemed like a really good time to call my friend's bluff! My hope is that blogging with some level of frequency will help me to clarify my thoughts and become a more enlightened sort of person along the way. I'm thinking of blogging as a sort of cyberspace version of sitting under the bodhi tree, which explains the name I chose for this blog.

One thing I've been thinking about lately is the role that choice plays in our lives, and how so often we don't realize a choice for what it is. Over the last couple years, I've been examining some of my long-standing habits of thought, such as wanting to maintain the illusion that I have control, my tendency to always have a nemesis of some sort, and my penchant for craving certainty about just about everything. I developed these habits from such a tender age and practiced them for so long that for many years I simply accepted them as "the way things are," or "the way I am," and never even considered that there might be a different way to go through life. What a revelation it was that I actually had choices when it came to what I thought about, and how I reacted to, the world and all the people in it! What an even grander revelation it was that making different choices could increase my sense of peace and well-being by leaps and bounds!

Realizing that some "fundamental" parts of my personality were really only choices that I had been making, unconsciously but quite consistently, opened my mind to the idea that there were a lot more things out there that really were a matter of choice. It now seems to me that so many things that people take for granted really involve some kind of choice, whether it be conscious or unconscious, personal or collective. I now have taken to wondering about what the limits of choice are, if any. Choice is such a powerful thing that is available so many times each day, yet so many people seem to cruise along in default mode so much of the time. Maybe the real limit on choice is that people routinely simply don't see that they are making one, let alone see that they could be making it differently.