Dog Tales

This post originally appeared in my column in the Financial Chronicle, November 29, 2013, Weekend Edition

Picture Credits:  Rachel Giese Brown
Picture Credits: Rachel Giese Brown

Anyone who loves dogs will vouch most ardently that they are indebted to their pets. When we brought home our puppy a few years ago, she saved each one of us. To think that one non- human can change the lives of all in our family without words, without obligation, without responsibility, but through consistent presence and unflinching devotion.

So when I found that Pulitzer Prize winning poet and American icon, Mary Oliver, had published a book of poems, Dog Songs, last month, I was excited. Exquisite poetry and a little prose about our best friends; a combination I could not resist. When the book arrived, I treated it with utmost reverence. Reading a poem, putting it down, picking it up again because I wanted to find out what secrets it unlocked. That is what it was, a little book with a magical key.

Good poetry makes you smile, nod and wonder. Great poetry makes you weep. Sometimes with joy. Many times unlocking some of the sorrow you have kept carefully at bay.

A private person by nature

In her own words, the reclusive poet, who has spent most of her life immersed in the natural world, says, “Writing poems for me, but not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world.” Lauded as “far and away, the country’s best selling poet”, Oliver’s work is easily accessible through its simple and profound wisdom that is gently threaded with exquisite language. Like the earthy and unshakeable ground that she constantly treads, her genius lies in her ability to act as the perfect interpreter. Always unpretentious, she helps us navigate the realm without losing sight of the truth of tolerance and co-existence.

The song of the dog

It is obvious from her latest offering that the poet speaks from experience. Through the lens of a life that has been enriched by the many dogs she has raised and rescued, she makes it clear that it might have started that way, but they in turn have rescued her right back. The book contains 35 hymns and one essay that carry the reader from puppy breath to growth, from exploration to expiration, extolling the significance of these halfway creatures belonging to two worlds. Half wild, half tame.

“Dogs without leashes”

I am fortunate to live in a neighbourhood that looks feels like a nature park. The houses are hidden, the driveways are meandering and the wildlife mingles without reproach. Most homes have dogs. Most of the time, the dogs are unleashed.

The theme of dogs without leashes runs through the book like a gentle river. Who cannot understand the symbolism of an unfettered life? How many times have you taken your dog outdoors, letting them loose only to revel in their joyous release, the constant stop and sniff, stop and sniff and the circular race. Who has not wished that for themselves? The poet brings us back to our need for control and our need to domesticate and remove the wildness that is so essential for our creativity. In her essay about Sammy, the dog who kept breaking the ropes to run away in search of adventure, she writes, “Maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.”

“For he was of the tribe of Wolf”

This observation around the possessive noun that holds good not just for our pets but each other as well, is a timely reminder. How can one life own another life? No matter the relationship, no one can be truly at ease under a regime of possession.

“A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not,
therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them.”

“As though I were just as wonderful as the perfect moon.”

We grow up being told to become better at every step of the way. Become a better child, student, parent, partner, and employee and on it goes. Not so with your dog. When your dog sees you, there is complete acceptance through eyes that view you as perfection. To your dog, you are the most wonderful, beautiful, interesting person in the world. You don’t age, you are not too fat, you are not too poor, and you are not too stupid.

“And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life”

There are profound and moving eulogies to the ones who left. The poet writes, “We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”

With the passing of these beloved pets, something truly good, solid and consistent about our world disappears. Our dogs remind us every day that despite our frailties, despite our uncertainties, despite the human predilection for some form of self-destruction, they can be counted on to stay the same. They try to keep us sane.

Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver, October 2013
Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver, October 2013


The way my dog chews on a bone
Carefully stripping the juiciest meat
Gnawing hungrily leaving nothing behind
But naked bone and then she settles in a quiet spot
Never turning her back to foes
Watchfully nibbling, holding carefully
Sharpening her teeth
She stays there oblivious to the passage of time
Intent and content
Till she has finished for the moment
She then seeks a place to carry it
Where other prying eyes cannot find it
Leaving it hidden for another time

The squirrel scampers looking for food
And finds bird seeds carefully encased
Hanging on the limb of a tree
Swaying in the wind, tempting and teasing
“You can’t have me, I am here for the winged ones”
He climbs up the tree and gets on the limb
Jumps on the feeder
I watch him fall as the first try failed
He climbs up and tries again,
This time balancing on only two legs
It doesn’t work, he falls once more
Undeterred he goes back again
This time he is the Hanged Man,
World upside down, swinging on a trapeze
And something shifts, this new perspective
He reaches the feeder, head first
Balancing precariously, he nibbles victorious
On seeds scattered on the copper plate

My little girl gets the latest Ninjago
Instructions, 256 pieces all from Lego
She sits at the table, working on the construction
Nothing outside can penetrate her concentration
She stays in this world so easily for an hour
Little pieces, little people, weapons and another environment
In her head the story is forming
In her hands another world is created
Possibilities emerge, time forgotten
Now it is completed, she steps back and finally exhales
Breathing out completion

Moments expand
Moments contract
It depends on how much can be added
Or what gets subtracted
On presence
And the degree of intensity

— Shaku Selvakumar March 2013


On Grace Therapy

Last night my eldest was working on her homework, tired and cranky after a grueling day at school.  Lanie came over and flopped near her and, of course as big dogs are want to do, sat on her homework.  Now in dog language that would mean, I am here for you and I am not asking for anything but for you to pet me so you can feel better.

Like the unpredictable Austin weather this winter, teenagers are cloudy, overcast and sometimes there is chance of pure sunlight.  Now I had tried that caring and nurturing “how was your day” stunt and was rejected completely. But the minute Lanie wandered over, my daughter softened.  She shakes her head and says “Lanie get off my homework.” and then stops and proceeds to hug her and play with her for a few minutes.  She nuzzles her face in her black and white fur looks up at me and says “Mama, how did we ever deserve a dog like Lanie.”

I don’t know the answer for that question.

To think that one non human being can change the lives of all in our family and a few in my neighborhood, without words, without obligation, without responsibility but through consistent presence and unflinching devotion.  To look into their eyes and see a reflection of your own perfection.

We grow up being told to become better at every step of the way.  Become a better child by doing blah blah blah.  Become a better student by studying blah blah blah.  Become a better parent, better employee, better boss, better spouse, better elder.  No matter the relationship, there is always something that can be done better.  The goal of being better is never met because apparently that happens only on the day you die.  Then miraculously many people gather at your funeral and say what a wonderful person you really were.  There are stories, there are incidents, there are anecdotes usually regaled with a whimsical smile or a sad tear or two.

But that is usually saved till you can no longer be present to hear it.

Not so with your dog.  When your dog sees you, there is complete acceptance and forgiveness.  To your dog, you are the most wonderful, beautiful, interesting person in the world.  You don’t age, you are not too fat, you are not too poor, you are not too stupid.  (more on this in 5 Lessons from Lanie)

I was touched by Anne Lamott’s eulogy on her beloved dog Sadie who dies after a prolonged illness “Having a good pet is the closest some of us ever come to knowing the direct love of a mother, or God.”

This is true.  Every other relationship but this one, can be marked or marred by love, tears and roller coaster rides.

I don’t know how we came to deserve a good dog like Lanie who chases rabbits, snores like an old man and hugs everyone.  How does she manage to go through her dog life living with her heart so wide open.

I don’t know whether at some point, someone above looked down below and said “Looks like they really need her since Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee have their own reality shows”

I can however, recognize the presence of Grace and I am grateful for the timing.

Yin Yang, Panda Dog
Yin Yang, Panda Dog

The sheep dog incident

So last Thursday I came home from a hectic day at work and completely overlooked the side glances the kids gave each other.  I should have known that something was up when they chorused in unison “Mama is home!”  It was the perfect set up signal.  That part when you know the inevitable surprise party is being thrown in your favor, and you are the victim to a joke known by everyone.  In short, I was being punkd.

If you know my family, you will know that we have rescued chicks that have fallen off nests.  Wandering turtles on roads have been picked up.  Slithering reptiles have not been beaten with a stick but have been gently deposited in some sanctuary near by.   In the recent past we even inherited roosters and hens that thankfully no longer inhabit my yard.

Anyway, I walked in and the girls said “You should go to the back yard and lie on the hammock.”  Normally spider senses tingle, but that day was especially tough so the brain was fried and I walked out like a zombie and nearly shrieked when I saw three billy goats gruff standing still and giving me the down low.  Now I think I handled it admirably when I turned around walked back inside and hit the bottle.

At this point, the girls looked at each other and at their dad and said “Wow, she is taking this very well.”  One of them actually came up to me and said “Mom, I am really proud of you.”  They didn’t know that I was hyperventilating and my left arm was tingling.

Why goats? Normal families buy lawn mowers, but not mine.  We rent goats to eat the grass in the backyard.

Fortunately, you guessed it, the goats were not permanent guests.  They would leave soon.  So I thought to myself  “There, Shaku, that is your silver lining.  Go back and have one more drink.”   The weekend progressed and I would walk down and jump out of my skin to see them standing in the patio.  Now not sure if you have seen goats up close and personal.  They are unnerving and stare at you as if they can glean all your secrets and tell you about your past life.  There was a kid amongst the three which was particularly cute.  But not that cute that I ventured to make friends.

You know my dog, Lanie, right.  Beautiful, friendly Border Collie/Mountain Bernese mix.  She was downright perplexed.  She had no idea if she was supposed to be the leader of this pack or if she was supposed to just observe.  Since there was a kid in there, we had to keep an eye out.

Over the weekend, I decided that the grass looked none the better.  There was goat poop on it now, the dog was decidedly not happy and I didn’t want this temporary existence to become permanent.

So Sunday morning, I announced that it was time for the nice goat family to head back.  We went to the quasi farm where there were sheep and other goats and took Lanie with us.  Now something strange happened.  Lanie was invited into the pen by the owner and he said to her “Go Lanie”.  She started herding the sheep and the goats and as she was chasing them, she was barking.   Not her usual bark.  But short sharp sheep dog barks and she didn’t bite them or hurt them.  She was herding the entire group and running after the stray kids.

I was stunned to see the transformation in my dog.

I realized that this was Lanie in a natural environment.  She was accessing her Border Collie instincts with relative ease without any practice.  Animals do this all the time.  Birds too.  Being natural, aligned to the core is what Nature does best.

As human beings, we often forget what comes naturally to us.  When we stray so far that we become dis-eased.

I leave you with this exquisite poem by Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Robert Bly.

The Swan

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

Nature's lawnmowers

5 Lessons from Lanie

Lanie and Frisco by the garden faucet

Everybody loves Lanie.  It is true.  Come over to my neighborhood and ask someone where Lanie lives and they will point to my home.  She is part Border Collie, part Mountain Bernese and there is some Great Pyrenees there as well.  But Lanie is one hundred percent friendly.  So friendly that she loves to greet people by standing on her hind legs and giving folks a hug.

I read this anonymous quote recently and loved it “My goal in life is to be as good of a person my dog already thinks I am.

At this point, you might be rolling your eyes and saying “Get a grip, woman.  We have pets too and ours are very special and there is no need to write an entire blog post about her.”  So let me make my case, tell you what I have learnt and you tell me what you think (and this is my third post about Lanie).

1. Barking a lot gets you nowhere

So Lanie is all of 18 months old, with fur as black as the night and as white as snow.  I wrote a year back about our family training program where we went off to PetSmart to get the girl trained.  We were taught a whole bunch of commands and were given strict instructions on being strict.  We followed a few, then let our instincts take over.  What Lanie figured out early on was that it is not necessary to talk a lot or make a lot of noise.  She barks once when she wants to go out and she will bark once when she wants to come back inside.  She has us trained.  So I am trying to see how I can imitate that by telling my kids everything once.  It hasn’t worked so far but I haven’t given up hope.  Jokes aside, repetition, a loud voice and anger don’t work as effectively as being able to state something and stick by it.

2. Make the first move  

I don’t say this because I am biased which I am when it comes to Lanie but the fact is she is a beautiful dog.  But what draws people to her is not her looks but her friendly nature.  Lanie will go up to strangers and greet them.  She sits on the driveway and sunbathes.  Yes it is a dog’s life.  So full of hardship.  All that sunbathing, eating, sleeping, snoring….So that is what Lanie does, she waits for folks to walk past and then goes up to them right in front of our home and greets them.  She makes the first move and there have been times when the gesture has been rejected and Lanie also knows to stay away from those people as well.  But she doesn’t let rejection rule her basic love of people.  She now has regular friends (humans and furry ones) who will come by with treats for her.  This christmas, Lanie got little treat bags from our neighbors.

It is interesting how many of us are too shy or too intimidated to make the first move.  Our fear of rejection almost always prevents us from expressing what is on our mind.  Being stingy with compliments is one form.  Being reticent to say thanks is another.  In both cases, it doesn’t cost anything but the returns are multifold.  I am always surprised how we also judge others by their appearance alone and come to definitive conclusions.

3. Saying sorry like you mean it

Oh that dog knows how to apologize and when she does it, she makes sure you know how sorry she is.  Of course, that doesn’t mean she is not going to chew your favorite shoe again.  Dogs can’t talk back which is probably why we love them even more.  When Lanie is contrite she makes us feel like making amends immediately and then feeling guilty that we reprimanded her in the first place.

Sadly we don’t like that word too much.  We associate an apology with the loss of power.  Many times we don’t accept the error.  Many times we accept it but will not admit it.  Many times we say it half heartedly just as protocol so we can move on and out of the deep ditch.  Few are the times when we apologize like we mean it, take full accountability and hopefully try to make sure we don’t make the same mistake again.

4. Happiness is chasing a squirrel 

Sometimes when I work from home, I look out of my window and see Lanie playing with Frisco, the gorgeous Labrador next door.  They run around, play fight, argue over a toy and sometimes just sit down exhausted, content to just be in each other’s company.  That might last all of five minutes and immediately after, Frisco leaves to go back to his home and Lanie doesn’t spend time crying, she goes off to chase a squirrel or something else that has her attention.  This applies to all animals.  I wouldn’t state the overstated “live in the present” mantra but will say that they enjoy being in their skin.

Happiness is where you find it.   If you actively seek it in your everyday life, even when there are dark clouds hovering above, it is the torch you carry inside you that tells you that our moments flee all too fast.

5. There is only one of you.

Lanie doesn’t worry that she is not a Chihuahua or a mountain lion.  She leaves the neurosis to the human kind.  She doesn’t compare herself to other dogs or worry that they live in bigger houses or have designer collars.  Lanie does what she does best.  She wakes up, goes out, greets people, puts a smile on our face, eats her food, sleeps wherever she wants.  She knows how to show you how much she loves you.  She might have nightmares and she snores like an old man, but she is not worried about wrinkles or diets.  She doesn’t worry if you don’t like her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.  She has no Klout score but see if she cares.  Lanie just is.

I was listening to David Whyte who says “Nature is unashamedly itself. A dog doesn’t question his identity. As human beings we have this extraordinary ability not only to not be ourselves but to pretend to be someone else and to hang a mask over our real identity.  We can even take it further and forget that we have masked ourselves and sadly over time, we become the mask itself.”