Tag Archives: aging

The universe provides … with practice

Spring 2015 BestOne of the most misunderstood syllogisms of our time has to be: ‘the universe provides’.   Those who accept it as a special exchange with the Great Provider take up a more challenging deal where we are trying for a constant  relationship with the cosmos.  Those who accept the journey also eschew magical thinking, or a knowing wink at the dole, or the myth of natural talent.
In exchange, the universe provides enough glimpses of our goals met and scored to keep us hurrying along, trying and re-trying, for another glimpse of mastery.

Here’s the rub: if you want that engagement and you choose what Julia Cameron calls ‘the artist’s way’, can you do it without expectation?  This doubles your dharma and makes the journey even more provocative: you may have to go for extended periods with the existential mud dragging on your heels, and still stick to your practice.

If practice starts to make you feel low – and it can do that because it is so slow, demanding, and only occasionally yields a noticeable reward – you can reflect on this small sweetener: persistence deepens understanding and all along the way bright, heartening insights can occur. (You can also try this, by the way: shake your head briskly, give your scalp a good, rough scratch (scrambling your brains, I call it), stre-e-e-e-tch your whole self – now smile and return to your practice and see if your atomic being is jingling again.)

Of course, if persistence feels too boring, you can at any time throw the whole process away and do something else … but then you may deprive yourself of the chance to see what would have happened if you’d only kept on keeping on.

To ‘keep on keeping on’ means holding faith with Jung’s insight: “Change takes place at glacial speed” … but it rest assured, it does take place – change is still the only constant.

As an example, a woman I met a couple of years ago was suddenly widowed and then discovered her late partner had mismanaged their joint funds, leaving her virtually penniless.

She’d been born with artistic talent, but “reality always got in the way of the dream”.  She had followed the pragmatic journey of a working wife and mother, always imagining – as we do – that one day she’d have the space and financial security to develop her gift.  Now she was over fifty, standing alone on very shaky ground.

The next couple of years were challenging, sometimes frightening, but she gradually righted her ship.  On the voyage, she discovered she now had one precious, wholly-owned asset: her time.

Never in her adult life had she had so much of time to spare – nor been so aware of how finite it is – it seems for reasons both biological and cultural, that the gods do not permit us this insight until we reach a certain age.

At first the woman struggled to manage this abundance of extra time.  All to often, loneliness came to fill the space, and with it a loss of faith in the singular miracle of life.  Then one Saturday afternoon a friend invited her to a life-drawing class in the city.  She felt the charcoal’s grittiness on paper, her eyes began talking to her hand about lines, light, shade … two hours later she ‘came to’, as if she had woken from an hypnotic trance.  Twelve drawings she had executed, tentative and rough, and the time had whipped through her, charged with extraordinary energy.  That night, looking at her work, she made a pact between Self and Universe – she vowed that for one solid year she would do a drawing every day.

I met this woman at the end of her 365-day drawing practice, and at the start of her Master’s Degree in Visual Art.  After so much consistent focus on her internal and external universe, she had produced an extraordinary body of work.  Not only because the final pieces were so strong and persuasive – but because you could track, from the first tentative sketches, the gathering of her energy.  She was a storm of productivity, a living evocation of “energy out, energy in”.

“I will never be comfortable again,” she told me, “From now until I die, I will have to acknowledge the stone in my shoe and let it drive me forward. And be at peace with that.”

As we practice breathing, we can understand the foundation value of practice itself: with each new breath, nothing special happens … except the miraculous provision of the next inhale.  With each new breath, another chance to express your gift, and gradually we build, expression upon expression, until we understand:

the only provision the universe makes for us is the next breath, and we have no other choice but to keep taking it.

NuniLooking

Remembering the Funny Little Dog. Stevie. Felix. My boy.

Vale my boy, Stevie the Brave, the FLD (funny little dog), the best mommy’s boy of all.  Two years this week.

I went to get him at a house where they had thought it would be nice to have a dog and then decided it wouldn’t. They had him in the tiny yard because Mother wouldn’t tolerate him inside, and there he sat on the other side with his round nose making a smudge on the glass doors.

The father carried in the dog for me to look at. The advert said ‘border collie x’ but this was a small, log-shaped entity with short hair and legs, and a white flash on his chest – not a border collie’s arse, as far as I could see. But there you are, you’ve driven half an hour to see this ‘puppy free to good home’, and this somehow inclines you to say yes more than no.

So he wasn’t what I had in mind as a friend for Ruby, my other dog, a very definite border collie x (Ruby’s ‘x’ was with blue heeler, so you couldn’t fool either half of her).  But I had left home saying I was bringing her a dog, and here was a dog – just not the kind we’d had in mind …

Felix.  He was supposed to belong to the little boy of the household, but now the lad stood to one side, chalky-faced and silent, with tears an nth from spilling.  They said Felix must go because the boy, only ten years old, wasn’t taking sufficient care of him, and Mother had “had enough.”

Father explained: the boy had all sorts of after-school activities, everyone was ‘too busy’ for Felix’s walks, plays, for his puppy-hood.  Father looked a little ashamed, standing there with the black sausage in his arms. 

HHe told me Felix was a very, very good dog. It was just they didn’t have time – nobody had time.  He said Felix was house-trained, never barked and did not dig.  As he lined up those merits, a little bell went off somewhere internally, but I decided to ignore it, as you do at such moments – only to remember them later. 

I looked at the dog. Felix, meaning joy. His tail fanned at a hundred miles a moment, the whites of his eyes were showing because he was frightened. He knew.

They said I was the only person who’d responded to their advert and it was clear that if I didn’t come through, the pound was high on mum’s to-do list.  I didn’t like Mum.  Felix and I went home with his kennel, his bowl and a red collar they’d bought when he still seemed like such a good idea.

Ruby was completely nonplussed; this was not the border collie-anything she’d been promised.  It was a Felix, with a white star on his chest and tufts of long white hairs on his otherwise black toes.

<span style="font-size: 13px;Felix, meaning joy, joyful, became Stevie.  He barely knew his old name anyway, which made me sad.

A few days after he came home I had a phone call from the little lad.  He wanted to know how Felix was doing.  He hoped I wasn’t disturbed by his call.  He just wanted to check.  I felt strangely angry with that family.  I could have been more compassionate with the boy; as it was I told him Felix was fine, settling down well, but I said goodbye quickly as I could.  I think I told the boy he could call any time he wanted.  He never did.

I once had a professional dog-handler look after the dogs while I went away for a fortnight. Each day she came to the house and fed, walked and played with them. You could trust her; she reeked of Whisperer; both dogs sat and stared at her as if she had every kind of treat packed into her pockets. When I came home she told me: “You can never separate these dogs …”

Who would have thought?  Up till then my impression of their relationship was that only the laws of self-preservation prevented one of them from leaving home in disgust.

I began to look at their relationship differently – and my relationship to each of them.  I felt The Whisperer had taken me up a notch, too – watching her interact with the dogs I began to see them differently, as individuals, ‘persons’ in the sense that personhood is meant in the abortion debate – entities with their own inner lives, souls, their particular relationships to the world.  I learned to see their lives and needs way beyond the basics of ‘She’s ready for a walk’, ‘He wants his dinner’ – I saw who they were separately from me, from my responsibility to them. This is a subtle transition in a person’s perception, but if you know what I mean then you have also learned to see the lives of dogs the other way – and the way they learn to see ours.

For the first eighteen months at our house Stevie did it all.  He dug up the garden and barked hysterically.  And he was not house-trained – seven months, and not house-trained.  Thank you Boy’s Mother, I knew I didn’t like you. 

He was also afraid of everything, and the smell of his fear put him at risk of other dogs; one day at the park two hooligan Staffies jumped him with such ferocity even their owner wouldn’t intervene. I came out of the fray with a bite through the palm of my hand and my boy with stitches in his ear and a bleeding gash on the back of his neck. For years after we were both afraid of Staffies, alert to their distinctive shape.

In a thunderstorm he climbed under the doona.  If he sensed a human male was pitching the woo at me, Stevie climbed onto my lap and flopped down for the duration. 

He found a mouse in the kitchen and backed away as if he’d seen a cobra, and when on a sunset bush walk we saw a real red-bellied black snake on the path right ahead, the FLD turned instantly on his heel and walked back toward home.  But on the beach he was intrepid with other people’s cricket balls and made me chase him to retrieve them; embarrassment; disrupted games; annoyed players standing about with their hands on their hips, Stevie in the shallows running like hell. 

He always looked funny, like Stimp, a Comic Book Dog. With his white star and whispy white toes, fat round belly and the curly rug of back-hair  – a corgi x staffie x other terrier, the vet said.  My boy. The border collie x – not.

Thirteen years later, my Ruby developed cancer and died. Stevie suffered such shock I feared he would die too. He was two years younger than Rubes, but within weeks his muzzle turned grey.  For six months he was afraid, followed me from room to room, was nervy and territorial, lost his appetite.  He spent long hours sitting, sitting, sitting – the light was out, I feared the onset of dementia.  Dogs do get dementia.

Then literally overnight he came through it. One dawn I woke to see the brown eyes full of naughty knowledge, the muscular rat-tail wagging brightly.

So then we were just the two, me and my boy.

One day three years on from that we were having coffee in one of those funky village coffee dens where people talk to people sitting next to them, and dogs are allowed.  The man beside me gave Steve a pat and a chat and watched him waddle away.  He said, “I’m a vet, you know.  You’ll need to have tests done, but I think he has an endocrine cancer.”

My boy. My little chap. Felix. Joy. Stevie the Brave. In July 2012 my boy died, in the night he crept out of the room and into the garden and lay down beneath a bush near the bedroom. I weep now – but then I slept. In the morning he lay there on the dry leaves.

During the last long afternoon I lay on the floor and held his paw. Strange how a dog can be desperately ill, dying, yet continue to be himself, as if whole and well.  He wanted me to scratch his chest, kiss his forehead, hold his paw while made his usual grunts of pleasure.  Just as if he was well.

Science confirms there are more nerve endings to the heart than to the brain, so I see the heart as a metronome, marking the rhythm of our journey, internal and out. Mind only collates and analyses, but heart is our metaphysical keeper.

For the last two weeks I have been dreaming about Stevie. Joy. Felix. Funny Little Dog. Vale.