My journey back to joy started one month before my 49th birthday -- in March 2011. I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, "I'm doing everything right. I have everything I thought I wanted. And I'm miserable. I can't keep doing what I'm doing." Miserable, of course, is relative. I had a wonderful partner, a beautiful home, a successful business, and two amazing dogs. But what I didn't have was my soul. Somewhere, far too far back for me to remember, I had lost it.
"So I went through this grandiose, dramatic moment where I invited God into my life. After that, nothing really felt the way I expected it to. I had thought that things would improve. It’s as though my life was a house, and I thought God would give it a wonderful paint job—new shutters perhaps, a new roof. Instead, it felt as though as soon as I gave the house to God, He hit it with a wrecking ball.
'Sorry, honey,' He seemed to say, 'there were cracks in the foundation, not to mention all the rats in the bedroom'."
I didn't write those words. Marianne Williamson did. But I could have. For the past five years, God has been tearing my life back to the studs. The beginning of 2016 has initiated another round of major demolition. . .
On the first Wednesday this January, the thought came through loud and clear: "If you are going to really lay everything on the line to pursue your dream of living a soul-based life of service, you are going to have to seriously clean house."
AGAIN? I thought! Geez. I've already let go of so much.
AGAIN -- AND THIS TIME FOR REAL. (I heard it loud and clear.)
Then I heard something I really didn't want to hear: You have to let go of your dogs.
Up to that point, I thought that the one thing that was keeping me sane while spending 250+ nights a year on the road was the idea of coming Home to My Dogs. But in that moment of clarity, I understood something I had been trying to ignore: It had also been breaking my heart -- as well as my bank account. I hate it every time I leave my dogs. Actually, that's not true. My fifteen-year-old Dalmatian, Jack, lives in his own reality these days, and seems very happy to have anyone with him who loves, feeds and walks him -- not necessarily in that order. Knowing he is cared for and loved is my primary concern -- and he has been, so beautifully. It's Nina, my alpha Chorgi (yes, that's a breed -- just not according to the AKC) who I miss every single day when I'm on the road. But the bottom line is that, despite much generosity from my friends and dogsitters, I could not afford to pay out more money than was coming in for people to take care of my dogs -- and Nina is not really a road dog. So, something had to change.
My dear friend Cynthia and I had been talking about "sharing" Nina. Her two dogs had passed the year before, and she has been Jack and Nina's most primary caregivers while I have been on the road. One day last year I got a text from her which read: "I asked Nina to marry me."
I wrote back: "What did she say?"
"Yes, but she'd like to live with you."
That made me smile. It also made me know how much the two of them loved one another. Then over Christmas, Cynthia was dogsitting Louie, my friend Pamela's beloved terrier. Louie and Nina see each other almost every day when Pamela and I go for our walks. But something revelatory happened when I met Cynthia and Louie on a walk: When we parted to go our respective ways, Nina did not want to go home with me. She wanted to stay with Cynthia. She howled and pulled on her leash and refused to budge. It's amazing how strong a seven-pound Chihuahua can be! I thought -- Wow does that little dog love Cynthia. . .
So on that Wednesday in January when I heard The Message, I realized that it was time for Nina and Cynthia to get married and move in together. I would be there if they needed me, but Nina needed a new forever home. I knew it was the right thing for both of them, and ultimately for me. It just didn't feel very good. Which is to say, I was a blubbering mess for days and days and days.
But what was I going to do about Jack? I began calling around looking for foster homes while I was on the road, trying to find any good solution. I was losing hope when a miracle happened. Onto my computer screen popped an email from someone who runs a local horse rescue saying that a lovely woman from South Africa was in the United States studying and taking care of elderly dogs in exchange for a nice place to live and study. No. Really. I actually got that email.
One week later, the three of us had met, Jack had given his tail-wagging assent, and everything was set in motion. To say I was grateful is the understatement of the year.
But last Friday, the rubber hit the road: I had to send Nina off to live with Cynthia.
It was not a good week for a variety of reasons. Which is to say -- Letting go of my beloved dog would have been hard enough. But the Universe decided to kneecap me in a stunning variety of ontologically delightful ways. Hah!
Marianne Williamson also wrote: "I had read about people surrendering to God and then feeling this profound sense of peace. I did get that feeling, but only for about a minute. After that, I just felt like I’d been busted. This didn’t turn me off to God so much as it made me respect His intelligence. It meant He understood the situation. If I was God, I’d have busted me too. I felt more grateful than resentful. I was desperate for help. A certain amount of desperation is usually necessary before we’re ready for God. When it came to spiritual surrender, I didn't get serious, not really, until I was down on my knees completely. . Until your knees finally hit the floor, you’re just playing at life. The moment of surrender is not when life is over. It’s when it begins."
So, to add irony to injury, knees on the floor, guess what I had to write last week -- due to my publisher on the exact day Nina left? The intro to my dad's wonderful book about his beloved dog, Joe.
I was dreading dreading dreading writing that intro, but when I did, something miraculous happened: My grief lifted.
I've been realizing lately that a lot of what I get to do in this blog is to Write Myself Whole. That's what happened when I wrote this short piece:
Children are like anthropologists. They gather clues about life by observing the world around them. And the thing about which children most want to learn is, of course, love.
As the child of a man who was adored by everyone he knew or met -- family, friends, and strangers -- numbering into the millions; a man who loved many people, places and things (art being his greatest and most public passion); learning about love from my father was tantamount to being taught how to swim by being tossed into the Pacific halfway to Hawaii and being told to head for shore. Whatever he did, he did it "big" and with his whole heart. Love was no exception. So, I just swam in the sea of his love and let the currents take me.
But ultimately, when it comes right down to it, children are pragmatists. While I could feel my father's huge heart in everything he did and every encounter I witnessed, I realize now that I learned most about HOW to love by watching my dad with his dogs. What I learned was that when love is true, it is simple, sweet, and shared.
Dog is Love.
That would be my three-word synopsis for this wonderful little book -- my favorite of my father's books. I am not the first person to believe that dogs crack open our hearts in ways that other human beings sometimes can't, just by being totally present and loving unconditionally, no matter what. In doing so, they help us to be better people.
Joe found my dad at a time of great upheaval -- during a nasty divorce that took his son away, followed by the death of both of his parents. To say my father loved Joe makes the word love seem suddenly inadequate -- as words often are to describe the feeling of giving our whole hearts to someone. But in the end, it is my father's words, his gift as a storyteller, that allow us a glimpse at the sweet, simple, shared love between a man and his dog.
I was a very little girl when Joe passed. There would be many more dogs in our lives: Paisley the Skye Terrier, Puffie the pug, Pretty the Pekingnese. (All P's -- you'll find out why, when you read this book!). My stepmother brought her Chihuahua, Tiggy (short for Antigone) with her from England, when she moved to California. More Chihuahuas followed: Maile and Fendi. The last dogs in my dad's lives were two Schipperke sisters, Willi and Kiki. My dad loved them all in the darling uncomplicated way we dog lovers love our dogs. But Joe was special -- as you will read in this love letter from a man to his dog.
This little gem of a book has been out of print for a very very long time. So, it gives me great pleasure to re-introduce readers to one of the sweetest love stories I have ever read, written by a man who taught me as much about love as anyone I have known. World: Meet Joe. The Four-Legged Love of Vincent Price's life!
Dog IS Love.
When I wrote that preface, I was so filled with gratitude for everything all the dogs in my life have taught me about love, all the ways they have loved me unconditionally, and taught me to love more -- so grateful for the time we have had together. And gratitude always trumps grief. Gratitude always heals.
So, today, Valentine's Day, I am in Austin, Texas, where I will be working for the next six weeks. Nina and Cynthia are happily enjoying their first Valentine's morning together. Jack is sharing his home with a lovely South African woman who is grateful for his company and their mutual sanctuary. We are all in our right places. Because Love is always the right place.
But I'll be honest. It doesn't always feel that Hallmark card. The road can be very lonely place, and the idea of my dogs being my home has often felt like the only place marker that has meant anything to my peripatetic heart.
Enter, stage RIGHT, my daily practice of joy: As those of you who read this blog know, one of my go-to joy practices is poetry. In addition to posting a poem and one of my photographs every day on MY ONE BRAVE LIFE FACEBOOK PAGE, I keep a headful of poems that have become lifesaving mantras. This one was a gift from my wonderful brother Barrett, who shared it with me over one of our glorious but far-too-infrequent lunches. It's by h.d. (the amazing Hilda Doolittle): I go where I love and where I am loved. . .with no thought of duty or pity.
When my brother shared those lines with me many years ago, at a time when they were much much needed, I realized the degree to which I had conflated love with duty and pity. Yesterday, while taking a class, those lines came to me again -- reminding me that one of the greatest spiritual lessons my dogs have taught me is the necessity of releasing, over and over again, the illusion of personal responsibility. Love is not a duty or a job or a badge of honor. Love isn't love if it comes from pity or obligation. The words should and love are ultimately incompatible. Isn't this what dogs teach us: No shoulds, no sorries, just unconditional love encased in the cutest of bodies, soulful eyes, and perpetually wagging tails.
For reasons I sometimes can't explain, even to myself, I am choosing to spend much more time on the road these days than at home -- following the scent of my soul back to my heart. Last year, although I knew my dogs were so happy, thinking about being away from them was often the one thing that prevented me from being fully present in joy on the road.
I see now that the Message I was able to hear on that first Wednesday in January was one of Love's great lessons disguised, as Love's great lessons often are for so many of us, in the shape of an animal. . .in this case my dogs: Love cannot be bought sold, or kept on a leash. Love and ownership are oxymorons. Really to love is always to be letting go -- of expectations and ideals, of fears and of hopes, of shoulds and should nots. Love means wagging our tails when we see or hear our beloved; reveling in spending time together -- whether it's sitting on the couch watching mindless TV or going on the adventure of a lifetime; a well-timed kiss, a head on a lap and a scratch behind the ears, a yip of joy for no reason other than we're both here together and how awesome is that! And most of all, love means loving who we are with when we are with them, right here and right now.
Releasing my idea of what was best for my dogs was really releasing an idea of what I thought would make me feel loved. Doing that, I see now, is love. Love is always letting go of illusions and instead being fully present to the next right thing, and the next, and the next and the next.
When we do that, Love usually opens a door where another closed. Because one of the things on my full travel calendar about which I am most excited is the release of The Book of Joe. So, I came up with the idea of partnering with the wonderful animal rights organization founded by my godfather, Cleveland Amory. I am ridiculously excited about doing some events with the Fund for Animals/American Humane Society to raise both money and awareness for animal rights. In addition, I will be donating a portion of our proceeds from sales the book to the Fund for Animals.
Turns out, I get to love animals and have them in my life this year in a whole different way!
As my dad wrote in his preface to The Book of Joe: "This is a tale of how I went to the dogs or, to be numerically correct, to the dog. Now please do not expect this book to end with a glorious proclamation of rehabilitation. Not a chance. After fourteen years I’m incurably hooked on, intoxicated by, and addicted to - my dog Joe.”
Growing up with parents who were as peripatetic then as I am now, our dogs were the ones who were always there for me, wagging their tails when I got off the school bus, loving me unconditionally and with so much joy. It's probably safe to say that I have learned more about joy and love from my animals (dogs, horses, cats -- even birds and fishes) than I have from any humans -- even my dad. So what could give me greater joy than to be able to give even a little of that love back to them? Right now, I may not be able to take my dogs on the road, but I can take myself on the road to the dogs -- and all the other animals who need our help to advocate for them and love them.
So stay tuned for some joy-filled events around the spring launch of The Book of Joe. And if you want to order a signed (by me -- not my dad unfortunately!) copy of the book in advance, just click HERE for what, to my mind, is one of the best love stories ever written.
Happy Valentine's Day to all of my fellow joy practitioners! May we all learn to love ourselves and others even a wee bit as well as our animals love us and one another.