Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dreamwork: little black dogs

I have a dear friend whose dog, a small, black dog named Andy, is very ill, and we're all grieving in advance along with her. Few things are as hard as the impending loss of a beloved animal companion.

Little black dogs touch my heart, as do dogs in general. But my own little black dog was Sparky. Sparky was a toy poodle who belonged to my Mom and Dad. After my Mom died, late in 1995, Sparky was Dad's closest companion when I couldn't be there. We all know the magic of companion animals: they love us unconditionally, help to raise our spirits, snuggle with us for warmth and comfort.

Knowing how my parents loved Sparky, I naturally brought him to live with my family after Dad died unexpectedly in early 1997. I had young children who adored him, and he became my 10-year-old daughter's bed companion from that moment until she went off to college.

Sparky grew old in our home, and brought me constant reminders of Mom and Dad. When he died in 2006, at the ripe age of nearly 16, Sparky severed the last living link I had to my family of origin (I am the only child of two only children). 

Or so I thought! For many years now, Sparky has appeared in my dreams, chasing through the house, sleeping on beds, begging for food at the table. He never changes, never grows older. In a recent dream, I recall exclaiming to my husband about Sparky's great age: born in 1990, he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday with us. He was the oldest dog I had ever known!

Well, it's not too difficult to understand these dreams. Grief for lost family members may take years to process, and perhaps I have some deep issues involved in letting my parents go. In my dreams, Sparky gets older, exceeding the normal lifespan of his species, but does not die. If only Mom and Dad had been able to do the same. apparently, on some deep level, I am still not reconciled to their loss.

Change and process: it's the stuff of life, what Margaret Atwood called "The Ladder of Years" in her novel of the same title. We humans resist change, cling to memory, reluctantly process our griefs. Yet process we must, though it may take decades.

In a dream one of these nights, I hope to be able to let Sparky die, and to finally move on a bit myself. Then, perhaps, he can rest in peace with Mom and Dad.

Do you have a dream you'd like to share?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Peace in the upper balcony

Amid ongoing family drama and "wars and rumors of wars," I was blessed to be able to attend a talk given by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, last Saturday, in New York City.

I hadn't been to New York in decades -- cities aren't really for me, and are not usually my destination of choice. I am such a provincial! Going to New York is, for me, like a Gaulish tribesman's arrival in Ancient Rome. But with my husband and a dear friend to guide me, I made it to the upper West Side and took my place in the upper balcony of the Beacon Theater.

Prior to the actual teaching, there was music and group song, led by monks with violin, cello and drum. The audience stood and bowed when the teacher arrived onstage. What an experience! Nhat Hanh, or "Thay" (as his students call him -- it actually means "Teacher") was small and far-away when seen from my perch. Seated in front of his accompanying group of monks and nuns, all nearly indistinguishable from each other in their brown robes, Thay has a presence that tells you how comfortable he is in his own skin; watching him prepare to speak, I felt his deep peace filling the theater.

We began with a meditation, then listened to a lovely chant. When Thay began to speak, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop in the theater. His voice is low -- at moments I had trouble hearing -- but he somehow manages to make you feel as if he is speaking directly to you, that you are the only other person present.

The teachings were ideal for me in the moment, facing family and global uncertainty, and focused on the several dimensions of mindfulness. One prominent point -- the need for reconciliation in order to move forward -- resonated deeply with me in light of our situation with Syria. Above all, Thay made the point that interbeing is a reality: the mud is necessary for the lotus. There is no joy if there is no suffering with which joy can be contrasted. And an "ah!" went through the audience when Thay remarked that today's fresh flower, after becoming tomorrow's garbage, eventually manifests as a flower again. Nothing is ever lost.

We are all connected, and nothing (and no one) is ever lost. Such a message of comfort in the midst of our many difficulties.