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

Daring to Dream Again

 I caught myself out a few months ago as I told my youngest daughter as she was staring into the distance,

“Stop dreaming and finish your breakfast.”

I realized that had been told to me too when I was growing up by well-intentioned elders.
I had stopped staring into the distance.
I had stopped dreaming.
I had stopped the dance and stopped the play.

I don’t believe in coincidences…only in serendipity.  I discovered Whitney Johnson’s blog and I was inspired by her conviction.  I started following her on Twitter and picked up her book on Amazon.

When I found out about the inaugural #DareDreamDo Virtual Circle , I knew without doubt that I wanted to be a part of it.  It meant that I had to commit one hour every week for four weeks. Juggling a full time job with IBM and coming to a full house with three kids meant that every available hour was usually claimed.  But I signed up any way.

By way of introduction, Whitney sent a wonderful email asking questions about me.  Questions that made me sit and think.   Putting pen to paper.

Becky Robinson, the wonderful CEO of Weaving Influence set the lively social stage.

There we were, ten strangers from different demographics and geographies, in a virtual circle knowing nothing about each other except that we all wanted to dream again.

We would, in the four weeks that followed, discuss with honesty and many times with startling clarity about our hopes, our fears, our dares and other saboteurs.

We instinctively trusted Whitney.  She was sincere.  She was gracious.  She listened.  She wanted to help.  She was always present. In every email exchange that I have had with her, there has been warmth that cannot be faked.

Sincerity is often undervalued in our age of hype and hyperbole.  But time and time again, those who hold our attention always bring their heart into the conversation.

“It doesn’t matter what you have accomplished; show me how sincere you are” ~ Mark Nepo

You may read her book.  You may join her circle.  You may follow her blog. Do one or better still do all.  It doesn’t matter where you start as long as you start somewhere.

Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream
Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare To Dream

From suiting up and showing up, crafting your personal narrative, activating your name to playing up to your strengths, holding on to deeply held beliefs and finding your dare to dream team to dating your dreams, her book is a community of voices, of dreamers who dared, did and continue to do.

A Conversation with the Connector

Whitney Johnson
Whitney Johnson

I caught up with Whitney Johnson and asked her a few questions.  True to form, I got the answers back immediately.

1. Whitney, in your experience where do you feel most of us hit that proverbial roadblock.  In daring.  In dreaming. Or in doing?

For me, it is the dare piece — because I find myself gripped by fear so much of the time.  I have to dare to dream the dreams I really want and dare to start with what I can do.  Some women are full of derring-do, and they know precisely what their dream is, but I think that is rare.

2. I loved being part of the first DareDreamDo virtual circle.  What was the most important take away for you in hosting it?

This is a completely selfish takeaway — but I loved doing this.  We talk about what makes us feel happy as a clue to what our dreams are, and our talents.  If I believe this is true, then I suppose this is one of my talents.  Having a moment where I can talk to each of you, hear you share who you are and aspire to be was an unexpectedly grand gift.

3. You are a community builder and a true connector.  Can you talk about isolation and the importance of the Dare to Dream team?

Because the strengths of women (like relatedness and nurturing) tend to be less visible, some of what we do well often goes unacknowledged and undervalued.  As a consequence, we start to question ourselves, our instincts.  When we dream together, we are able to validate our thinking, we begin to find our voice because we are heard — plus we get a kick of oxytocin.  And then there is the frill of the network effect.

4. What is next on your own Dare Dream Do page? 

One of my big hairy audacious goals for 2013 is to do a lot more speaking — so I am working on putting in place the pieces for that to happen.

The first step is the hardest

When you hear without distortion, see without conditioning, feel without inhibition, the direction is clear.

I believe that each one of us knows about this path with heart. Some of us have followed it and some of us have stood on the sidelines wringing our hands choosing the dictates of the head instead. There are no right or wrong answers as to each a journey as unique as a fingerprint.

Back in January 2012, I had the opportunity to hear IBM’s newly appointed CEO, Ginni Rometty talk at an Austin Townhall.  She gave an inspiring talk about being “essential” to your customers, your community and as a company.  She also said “Growth and comfort don’t always go together” and urged us to be passionate about what we do and to never stop learning.

There are those who know very early in life exactly what they are going to do when they grow up.  It is a burning passion that keeps them focused through school.   There are those who are in the “muddling middle” and still searching. I found clues to my dream in college and then digressed because I didn’t quite understand the signposts.

Five years ago, I rediscovered poetry.  This was triggered by the loss of a good friend.  I first started posting on my wall and then found the courage to publish it on my blog.   Those who create anything will tell you that everything is personal and nobody is thick skinned enough to take rejection.  Having said that, you reach a point where birth is not an option, it is a necessity for your own survival.  I had to remind myself to switch off the “Please approve me” button every morning.

With twenty years in the corporate world, across continents, from Fortune 100 to start up, I wanted to have it all.  Time to work, time to be creative, time to write that book, time to raise my family, to pay attention to health and well being.  I had become a multitasking monkey.   But I was no longer present in many key conversations.  Or present to invest in ideas that would pop up like fireflies just to die out before daylight.

It was a tough decision to take but after much contemplation and cliff hanging, I decided to leave my job at IBM last month.

Sometimes, you can add something into your existing life.  Sometimes you have to clear the space so the new can enter.  Taking a leaf from Nature’s book, a time to be a seed, a time to seek the sun.

MetamorphosisPicture courtesy
Picture courtesy

In Transit

There is a place so well known
Where travelers wait for the path to unfold
Some are uncomfortable, squirming and uneasy
This place of no plans is dangerous to them

Are we there yet?

Some fall asleep, hoping to turn off the mind
Of endless questions without answers
Of checklists and nostalgia
Of connecting flights, delays and baggage claims

Wake me up when we get there

The lucky ones, get up and stretch
They look around, as the ground shifts
They find a thread, they pause and pull
As it takes them along
Listening, absorbing, feeding the muse

Here is where I am

In transit
Is where the embryo grows

~ © Shaku Selvakumar, November 2012

On Spirit and Bloodroot Mountain

A good story entertains but a great story leaves a mark on the psyche.  Like Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “Writing, real writing, should leave a small sweet bruise somewhere on the writer . . . and on the reader.”

Bloodroot Mountain by Amy Greene is set in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains and spawns four generations…from the great Depression to the modern day.  Central to the story is the wild Myra Lamb with the “haint” blue eyes whose attraction to the brooding, magnetic John Odom is near fatal in its consequence. 

Bloodroot is a flower that can cure or poison and it’s name comes from the bulbous root that once cut, bleeds red.  This powerful story combines magic, mysticism, and the unrelenting harsh realities of life.  Narrated by different voices and to each a story and perspective so riveting.  From Myra’s grandmother Byrdie who experiences devastating loss and hopes that the “curse” will be lifted when Myra is born to the twins Johnny and Laura Odom, you are drawn into this heartbreaking epic waiting for redemption. 

 Through our own inevitable ebb and flow of life, you hold on to something that grounds you.  Like Myra who clings to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and the hope of Bloodroot Mountain to hold on to her sanity.  When you read a story such as this, you understand the tapestry of our lives, the unravelling of it through choices and the resilience of the human spirit.


That bird, she soars
She hurts, she roars
She falls, she cries
She bleeds, little she dies
A gilded cage, an open door
Unused wings, the cold unknown

That spirit that defies
That spark that ignites
That bird broken inside
Yet again takes flight
Reaching for the open skies

—Shaku Selvakumar© 2010