The Joy and Sadness of Being Open to Others

 

Walking Dali and Oskar past the man-made lake in our neighborhood, I tip-toe around the annual goose-poop on the side walk. Every year since we moved here about seven years ago, I have enjoyed watching two geese return to their residency here, have their babies, raise their goslings, and then migrate to wherever they go in the fall.

I had to teach Dali and Oskar that we leave the geese alone. We would carefully pass Momma and Papa Goose and their fluffy, little babies who eventually grew until I could not distinguish them from their parents. If Papa Goose felt that we got too close, he would flap his wings, make a sound and come towards us. I learned to give them a wide berth.

One day I saw the goslings go up a boy, who was on his way to Middle School, and pull on his shorts with their beaks. I asked the young student whether they had done that before and he said “Yes.” I was so touched at the connection the boy had made not only with the baby geese, but also Momma and Papa Goose. The parents trusted the boy enough to let their children go and make contact with him.

A few days after I had welcomed the geese’s return, I saw one of the them by him or herself. And a day or two after that, I noted he or she was sitting on the dock, his or her head buried in his or her feathers. I sensed a deep mourning and realized that one of the geese must have died. I shared this news with my husband and cried out of empathy for the goose, as well as grief for my own loss.

I learned that sometimes we don’t realize we are attached to someone until we lose the connection. We can experience loss about many different things: a loved one, a job, moving, loss of our hopes and dreams, the ending of a friendship, finishing a project, and a goose.

I also was reminded of my husband’s kindness. He honored my sadness and comforted me, even though he didn’t share my experience.

The next time I passed by the lake, the goose was again sitting on the dock with his head buried in his feathers (for simplicity, I’ll refer to the surviving goose as male because my sense is it is Papa Goose). I paused and told him that I saw him there, that I knew he was grieving, that I was sad too, that I hoped his companion passed away peacefully, and that I wished him a lessening of his pain over time. I felt better after I shared my sentiments with this other living being and I hoped that my acknowledgement of him helped him feel a little better.

I returned from my walk hours later and saw the goose swimming in the lake. His glides, although solitary, were beautiful and I felt some peace that he was enjoying the water.

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

 

Learning to Say “I Don’t Have it to Give Now”

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I take my responsibility as a guardian to Dali and Oskar seriously. I know that I decide when they go for a walk, how long they walk, when they eat, what they eat, how much they eat, if they go to the vets, when they go to the vets. I decide most things in their life. Although this isn’t completely true particularly for Oskar because he is very fast at finding what I call “bad garbage” and eating it while looking up at me to make sure I am seeing him and daring me to try to take it out of the steel grip of his jaw. But, still, you get my point. Because I am aware that they have limited choices in their lives, I try my very best to make their life fulfilling. I am happy to do this and see this as part of my responsibility as their guardian and I have learned an important lesson about setting my own limits too.

I take Dali and Oskar for long walks – about 1 ½ hours in the morning. When I’m working, I have a dog walker come and take them out so they don’t have to spend long periods of time sleeping alone in the house. I take them to different places because I get bored walking the same route and I figure Dali and Oskar are stimulated by different routes and the different smells on those routes too. I take them, when I can, into different stores when I have to do errands. I play games with them so they exercise their brains.

I like making them happy, but sometimes doing so conflicts with my needs. They could walk and sunbathe, when the weather allows, all day. I do enjoy our time in the outdoors and I also have other things I like and need to do. When I extend myself beyond my limit, I typically get frustrated. This, of course, negatively impacts my relationship with Dali and Oskar.

After many years, I have learned that recognizing and honoring my limit and needs is better for Dali and Oskar and our relationship than pushing myself beyond what I have to give. I tell them that I am very sorry, that I wish I could run with them all day, but this is all I can do right now. This alleviates my own guilt and they seem to understand the sincerity in my voice and give in to me – mostly.

I can better understand times when my mother would get angry with me, which hurt my feelings. I can see that she was torn between wanting to give to me and having limits of her own. I would have liked it better if she would have been able to let me know that she loved me, but just couldn’t talk anymore. Having her model that for me might have helped me, too, to learn to listen to my own needs and set appropriate limits.

Luckily, I continue to learn and Dali and Oskar are forgiving of my mistakes and accepting of my imperfections. And that is a wonderful gift they give me.

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

 

Life As Haiku

Years ago, The Washington Post ran a series called Life is Short:  Autobiography as Haiku.  I don’t remember reading that section religiously, but I sure am glad I read Lynda Van Kuren’s piece.  I cut it out and have had it on my refrigerator ever since it was published on August 19, 2007.  I’m sharing it here because I think it has some good life lessons for us all and it brings a smile to my face every time I read it.  Here is the picture that is featured beside the haiku:

st/shortlife

 

And here is the poem:

I loved her with all my heart.  Little did I know that this little dog was my teacher, showing me how to negotiate life’s journey.  Shana’s lessons:

Hang out with the people you love, and get as close to them as you can.

Always be ready to play.

If someone doesn’t like you, don’t worry about it.  Lots of others do.  Spend your time with them.

Don’t spend a lot of time being sad.  Find something to do that makes you happy.

If someone upsets the one you love most, pee on their side of the bed.

Be joyous.

 

When we realize we are inter-connected, we can learn life lessons from all animals.  Maybe that is one of the most important lessons.  To keep our hearts open to other living beings. 

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Feeling Understood

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4S-N7xWWrbo

Dali and Oskar can have strong opinions about where they want to go for a walk.  Most of the time I will go the way they want because I want them to be happy and be able to make some choices in their lives (I am well aware that I decide much of what happens in their lives, but that is for another blog post).  Sometimes, though, I am clear within myself that I am not going to go the way Dali and Oskar want and have another direction I want to take.

This happened the other day.  Dali and Oskar wanted to head downtown and I did not.  I said “let’s go” and headed the way I wanted to go, but they stayed put and turned away from me, looking in the direction that they wanted to walk.  Very clear, nonverbal communication.  🙂 Sometimes I will get frustrated and simply go my way.  Typically, Dali will sulk the rest of the walk.  She will walk so slowly it feels like she is walking backwards.  And she will stop to smell every blade of grass.  Oskar is much more flexible and will make the best of the situation.

Instead of going down their route, I said to them, “I know you want to go downtown.  I can see that.  I know it is disappointing for you, but we can’t do that today.  There is going to be a lot of salt and that is going to hurt your paws and we’ll be too far from home for mommy to carry you home and I can’t carry both of you.  So, we need to go this way.”  They intensely looked at me and then turned and willingly headed in the direction I wanted to go.  (Interestingly, research shows that dogs are more capable of understanding things from a human perspective than previously thought (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21411249).)

People – and other animals – need to feel that someone else hears and understands them before change is possible.  As a therapist, I know how true this is.  My experience is that if change is to happen, my client and I need to understand together how much it makes sense where he or she is at presently.   Then we can start to see doors to open for something different. I also see this in my relationship with my husband.  If I feel he understands me, then I can soften to understand him and then we can move forward.  And vice versa.   

In fact, understanding another’s perspective is one of Dale Carnegie’s principles in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People.  He quotes Henry Ford, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” 

When we’re calm and relaxed, it’s easier for all of us to do this.  It can take a lot of practice to be able to see things from another’s perspective in the heat of the moment.  The more I work on slowing myself down, the more fulfilling relationships I have with my husband, my dogs, my friends and family, and my community.  I believe it is worth the effort.    

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Understanding

Dali and I are a lot alike.  We both have difficulty feeling comfortable with others of our own species.  When Dali sees another dog, if she’s the least bit afraid, she barks hysterically.   When I see another person, I don’t bark hysterically, but I’m not comfortable in groups of people and can get a bit aggressive out of my fear.

Dali is unreachable when she gets in this zone.  There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do to reassure her.  Out of my helplessness, I have gotten very frustrated with her.  Then I feel bad and apologize to her.  I do believe she knows what “I’m sorry” means because I’ve said it so often to her.

One day, I was talking to a dog trainer about Dali and he explained that Dali was probably bullied when she was very young, before she came to live with us.  Her vulnerability grew from the original antagonizers to other dogs.  She was also bullied after she came to live with us.  Early on, I took her to a dog park.  She was so incredibly fast.  Other dogs would chase her.  One dog started to pick on her and got a group of other dogs to join in.  It was scary for me, so I can only imagine how scary it was for her.  That was the last time we went to the dog park.

Now I have more understanding and empathy for Dali.  I remain calm when she gets triggered and launches into her I-must-tell-the-world-there-is-a-threat-until-I-know-everyone-has-heard-me barking campaign.  With my new empathic response, sometimes I notice that she has a quicker recovery time, sometimes not, but I know I’m not adding to her distress and lack of safety by getting angry with her. 

As my empathy grew for Dali, my compassion grew for myself.  Now when I’m with groups of people and feeling uncomfortable, I am better able to calm myself down.  I talk to myself the way I would talk to Dali, soothingly.  I remind myself how much sense it makes that I get afraid and that I’m not alone in this feeling.  I don’t love groups, but since I’ve learned to exercise self-compassion from being compassionate with Dali, I’ve had more experiences that feel alright rather than shaming. 

A wonderful organization that helps at-risk children heal from trauma uses the idea of self-compassion by learning compassion for animals is The Gentle Barn.  Children, who may not be able to relate to care givers, can identify with the vulnerability of animals and heal some of their own emotional pain by interacting with a pig, cow, chicken, or goat.  This nontraditional form of therapy includes telling the children the stories of individual animals who are survivors of abusive situations and how each animal has learned to love and trust again.  The youths leave with a sense of hope that change is within their reach.   

Here is an inspiring and informative video about The Gentle Barn and the healing that is possible when we recognize how we are all interconnected:

http://www.byutv.org/watch/2494c327-dc7e-412f-9f1a-962b42bd6a5a/turning-point-the-gentle-barn

If you’d like to share, I would welcome to chance to read about how the human-animal bond has helped you heal.

 

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Just because it’s fun

Years ago, soon after we welcomed Oskar to our home and before he knew all of our rituals, I took Dali and Oskar to the airport to pick up my husband, Irwin.  We were waiting for him in the baggage area and after I received his call, I knew to keep a look-out.  When I saw Irwin, I alerted Dali and Oskar:  “Who sees Daddy?”  Dali looked around, spotted Irwin and started running towards him.  She had a goal.  Oskar ran along with Dali.  He was so much in the moment, simply joyous to be running with his buddy.  Oskar was in a moment of play.  Running just because it was fun.    He ran right past his Daddy.

Sometimes Dali and Oskar will rough and tumble play.  Dali doesn’t play as much as Oskar would like and I feel bad about that, but when they do, it is so much fun to watch.  It is like they are in their own world.  And that is part of play, too.  Play participants are in a state of abandon, a zone.

According to play expert Dr. Stuart Brown (what a fun job he has!), play is important throughout our life.  There are many different types of play and the basis of human trust is established through play signals.  Play helps with our emotional regulation, cognitive and physical development, innovation and creativity, and bonding and closeness.  Nothing lights up the brain like play does.  All species seem to be able to play and there is a very powerful and deep signaling system that exists between various species.

In his TEDTalk, Dr. Brown gives this example of a polar bear coming upon chained sled dogs.  The polar bear is in a predatory approach with eyes fixed, stalking movements, and claws extended.  One of the sled dogs gives a play bow and when the polar bear receives the message, everything changes.  Their interaction becomes good-natured and trusting.

I’ve certainly experienced this with Oskar.  Oskar can be very playful.  He can make me laugh out loud.   One time, I was at the foot of the stairs calling to Oskar at the top of the stairs to bring the ball-ie.  He doesn’t like to bring the ball.  He likes me to chase him.  I don’t like to chase him.  He just stood motionless and so after a couple of tries, I left my post and walked away.  Moments later, I hear the ball hitting each step.  I started to laugh.  Oskar had pushed the ball down the stairs to lure me back, but he found a way to do so without bringing the ball to me.

Although hard to define because it is pre-verbal, play is voluntary, fun for its own sake and seems purposeless.  It can be active.  It can also be imaginative and inward.  Some of my favorite times have been walking in the woods with Dali and Oskar.  I explore places and climb in and out of small creek beds I never would if I weren’t with them.  And I daydream.  I hadn’t understood these times to be a form of play until listening to Dr. Brown.

It is important to bring play in to our lives.  It is important for our well-being.  Play deprivation results in rigidness, lack of optimism, a negative view on life and depression.  It is important for each of us to be true to our own temperament to find the activities of play that fit us best.  This will help us be more effective in work and different areas of our life.  I recently started painting and found my anxiety decreased dramatically.  I love using a lot of paint and because I enjoy the gooey feel I sometimes use my hands to cover the canvas and mix paint.  Doing this brought up memories of photos I had seen of myself as a toddler playing in the mud.  Perhaps a trait I was born with was to enjoy exploring through a sense of touch and physical movement. 

Play is also important in our couple relationships.  If we neglect the fun side of our relationship, this can trigger a spiral of distress.    Each couple needs to incorporate their ways of play into their lives and so some things together just because it is fun. 

The video at the top of this blog post always makes me smile.  My mirror neurons probably fire watching the dog and sheep play tag.  I hope they and my blog inspire you to find ways to play that fit who you are.  

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Belonging

In the early days after Dali came to live with us, my husband was sitting on the floor playing and cuddling with her.  I was on the couch, looking on, and longing to be with them.  I had a felt sense that I would be welcomed if I joined them.  I hadn’t had much of a sense of belonging in my life and Dali brought that when she joined our family. 

Years later, before we welcomed Oskar home, a neighbor said to me, “Dali has an air about her that says that she belongs to a family.”  My heart filled with joy.  Dali had given me the gift of belonging and I had been able to return the favor.  

Dali treasures her sense of belonging.   One evening, we had to take Oskar to the emergency animal hospital.  We were going to leave Dali at home, but she ran out the door.  I knew she wasn’t going to run away.  She didn’t want to be left behind.    And as almost always, Dali got her way and we went as a family to take care of Oskar.

Dali has other things she does to try to keep us together as a family.  When we’re getting out of the car or going to the car, Dali will herd me and my husband to make sure we stay together.  If my husband is going to walk Dali and Oskar, Dali will come sit next to me, and look at me mournfully, as a way to get me to go on the walk, as well.  When I do decide to join the outing, Dali literally jumps up and down for joy. 

The desire to belong is a fundamental motivation.  When we have a sense of belonging, we are more confident, better able to handle difficult challenges, and we can manage our emotions in a way that feel less like a roller coaster and more like a rolling brook. 

The desire to belong is found in other animals, as well, and strong bonds benefit other animals in similar ways as humans.  For example, studies have shown that cows are more resilient and less frightened by new situations when they are with their friends.  They also learn more quickly when they are with other cows than when they are alone. 

In The Inner World of Farm Animals, I read about a female cow who gave birth to a stillborn calf.  Although weak from medical complications from the delivery, she traveled a good distance though many fields to find her own mother.  The next day, they were found together, the mother comforting and grooming her distraught daughter.

Belonging is a powerful force.  Belonging sustains us.  Belonging gives us the strength to be ourselves.  Belonging provides a source of acceptance and comfort.  Belonging need not be restricted by boundaries of race, gender or species.

 

(professional website:  http://www.bethlevinecounseling.com)

Everything is OK

Life is easier and more joyful when we know that there is someone who has our back.

Dali, Oskar and I were taking our early Saturday morning walk.  Sometimes we are out before 7 am.  It is one of my favorite times of the day because it is quiet and peaceful.  We had made it to the grounds of a church about a mile from our house.  Dali and Oskar were busy exploring when a woman walked by, headed toward a bus stop on the other side of the property.  She shouted out to someone who had passed by just a bit ago.  (I guess Dali, Oskar and I aren’t the only ones who like to be out early.)  It was quite a jarring sound in the soft, silent air.  Alerted to danger, Dali ran to see what was going on.  She stood next to me, ready to take action if need be, and she turned around to check-in with me.  “It’s okay,” I said.  Reassured, Dali went back to scout out the smells around the bushes.

It is very fulfilling to know that I am a safe haven to Dali and Oskar, meaning they will turn to me when they are feeling threatened.  I also feel deeply appreciative that I am a secure base to them.  In other words, my relationship with them provides them with a foundation to explore the world and solve problems. 

They also are my safe haven and secure base.  I was running a supervision group out of my home and the participants were flexible enough to allow Dali and Oskar to join in on the learning.  During one of the sessions, I was feeling anxious, unsure of myself as a teacher.  Luckily, Dali was by my side and I started petting her.  Here was someone who was happy to be with me even when I was feeling insecure.  My anxiety subsided.  And sometimes, when I’m very afraid like when I’m flying and there is a lot of turbulence, I think of Oskar licking my face and it helps me get through these stressful moments. 

I am lucky to find this security in some of my relationships with people, as well.  When I am feeling at my worse, my husband almost always lets me know that he has had similar feelings about himself.  When I don’t feel so alone with painful feelings, my sadness eases.  I have learned from my husband the power of letting another know how I can relate to their difficult experiences.  I even do that with Dali and Oskar.  When Dali is wants to go one way on a walk and I want to go another, and in the rare times that I don’t acquiesce, I will say to her “I see you Dali.  I see that you’re unhappy.  You didn’t get to go the way you wanted to go.  I understand that disappointment.  It is unfair.”  Just being seen and understood helps her mood.

Life is easier and more joyful when we know that there is someone who has our back.  Couples therapy can help partners find that safety in their relationship.  Individual therapy can help people begin to feel safe about sharing their distress with another and be able to take these experiences to other relationships.   When we feel safe and know that another is happy to see us, even when we’re at our worst, we can go out into the world and explore, the way Dali went back to seeking out adventure when I let her know everything was OK. 

Being There

This is Dali (pronounced Dolly).  We adopted her in 2005 when she was about 7 months old. And  this is Oskar.  We adopted Oskar in 2008 when he was about 3 months old.

This is Dali (pronounced Dolly). We adopted her in 2005 when she was about 7 months old. And this is Oskar. We adopted Oskar in 2008 when he was about 3 months old.

Soon after we got Dali, we went to visit my parents. Dali made herself at home there and my parents loved her. One afternoon, my husband and I went out and left Dali with my parents. While we were gone, Dali followed my mom wherever she went. My mom went upstairs, Dali went upstairs. My mom went downstairs, Dali went downstairs. At some point, my mom couldn’t find Dali. She went all over the house, calling out for Dali, but Dali never barked. My mom remembered she had gone downstairs and put something in a walk-in closet and thought to look for Dali there. She checked the closet and sure enough, Dali was there.

Why hadn’t Dali barked to get help and let my mom know where she was?

It’s part of mammals’ and many other species’ instinctive behavior to call out for help. Dogs and people are similar that way. We need to know we will be responded to.

I believe Dali was taken from her mom and litter-mates when she was too young and ended up in a shelter, perhaps after being with a family for a short time. She, luckily, was rescued by a rescue organization and then she became a part of our family. So why would she bark, and call out for help? She hadn’t had the experience of someone responding to her needs.

I remember that something similar happened years later. Somehow, Dali got shut in the basement. This time, when I called out for her, she barked. I was thrilled because it meant that she trusted me to be there for her. Since being a part of our family, she had had enough experiences of us caring for her that she knew she was not alone in this world. She knew she could call for us and we would be there.

We all need that. We all need to know that when we are in need someone who is special to us will come for us when we call.