A meditation on Red Flags, hoofs, and paws
Sometimes when we walk, we must now pause, since Kai-the-dog is 98 in human years. So we stop. We pause to rest our paws.
Perhaps because it did not speak? Perhaps because it did not wag its tail? Perhaps because it smelled of metal?
We recently paused in a small seaside park. I don’t know why Kia-the-dog so studiously ignored the other dog in our local village by the Salish Sea. I expect it was because it was not a real dog. Its sculptor made it to look like one and did a fine job. At first glance, it looked so realistic. But Kai-the-dog can smell and that was not a dog next to which he was resting old bones. It was a chunk of metal that appeared to be a dog.
This is a small spot in the village in which I live on Whidbey Island. There are views of the Salish Seas, and the Saratoga passage, in particular, that will sometimes offer sightings of passing whales and orcas. It is a pleasant place to sit when Kai and I walk through the village to read and get a pint of apple cider and a dog bone at Double Bluff Brewery.
Because it did not speak, or because it did not wag its tail, or – most probably – because it did not smell like a dog; Kai ignored the sculptures of the boy and the dog. Not long after this, Kai was passed by a mean dog whose low growl sent Kai’s wagging tail between his legs and caused him to avert his eyes and, well, growl back.
Kai is a good judge of character. Always. I, on the other hand, tend not always to be such a fine judge. I find I make occasional and terrible choices about people because, like most humans, I want what I want.
Perhaps it’s just me, but sometimes I choose people just so that I am not alone. Loneliness can be soul-crushing, its remedy, ironically, is the discernment that can emerge from solitude.
At this time of year, the Church makes a big deal about the “Desert Fathers and Mothers.” I used to also, but I am increasingly less convinced. Did they go to those caves because they were so super-spiritual or did they go to them to get away from some of the terrible humans in whom they found themselves entwined like a branch wrapped in beautiful poison ivy?
When I lived as a monk, I would stare out my cell window through their steel mullions. Some days the mullions kept me locked in the cloister – feeling imprisoned and confined. On other days, most days, in fact, they kept the world out – protecting me from being hurt. In time I realized that a monastery is not there to protect me or to connect me. I had to do both for myself and take the risks of connection in order to win the benefits of it.
I watched Kai-the-dog in this little park. While he ignored the statue and avoided the mean dogs, he bounded towards anything that would pet him, sensing danger only with a small few of those who passed us by. He was able to protect himself, even after 14 years of countless wagging tails and occasional bites from other dogs, by his own form of discernment. As much as he craves attention, he has the ability to evaluate the people and dogs around him. He processes information – yes, smells, even countenances.
Every day I find myself wanting to be more like my dog and so, in this way, I agree with the myriad of bumper stickers to that effect. Kai-the-dog is discerning and kind. His kindness makes him vulnerable to the occasional bite, but his discernment in solitude is his real secret defensive weapon. And ours.
I suppose it is possible to retreat to a cave and avoid humans after to many disappointments. And if one spins it as a “spiritual calling” then I guess one may be perceived as super-spiritual. But I find its best to remain out there, vulnerable but discerning.
In our over-scheduled, over-caffeinated, over-shopped culture, December is a dangerous month to be an American. As a work-addict, I try to anesthetize my pain and loss with work – more pottery, more books, more fundraising. My insecurities drive me to lower my standards rather than raise my awareness. As I talk to people this time of year, I find we are all whispering the same thing.
It is hard to let go of counterfeit things the way Kai-the-dog was able to ignore the bronze dog nearby. In our rush to wag our tail at passers-by in life, it is tempting to ignore the smell of danger from them. In our natural enjoyment of beauty, it is tempting – without discernment – to buy things, make friends, engage lovers, binge-eat foods, agree to commitments that are more anesthesia than joy.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, we must wait for the sun to rise this time of year. Then it sets even before the workday ends. But I am finding that in those early and late dark hours there is time to think. Time to discern. Time to pause. Time to notice, as Augustine would say, that… that lamb there…has paws beneath that pelt. And then time to ponder what that means. And finally, if necessary, time to summon the courage to growl.