My dog, Buddy, is a Maltese. It’s an ancient breed—two thousand years old. And since the Maltese wasn’t bred for anything but to be a cute companion, that’s two thousand years of lapdog-ness. In a dog-like devotion to please, he fails utterly. He doesn’t care one whit whether you approve of him or not. He is also not keen on taking walks or obeying. He’s kind of like a cat, actually. He is very cute, though.
One day, I went for a hike in the woods and I took Buddy. Once we were away from the road and in the woods, I took his leash off and he seemed puzzled.
“Okay, go run along the trail like a dog,” I told him.
He looked at me as if to say, “What part of ‘lap dog’ are you not understanding?”
I began hiking along the trail. Buddy followed, reluctantly. Then he started to get the gist of it. Oh! Sniff at stuff! Eat deer poop! And that’s when Buddy, ancient breed of luxury, began to let his wolf DNA filter through.
“Yes!” I told him, “you are descended from wolves!”
Now that he’s figured it out, Buddy loves to hike. He gallivants along the trail ahead of me. He sticks his little white head into crevices to scare chipmunks. He laps water from streams when he is thirsty. He hops from rock to rock with insouciance. And once, forded icy cold water up to his chest. He comes alive in the trying of new things.
Often I think we get too comfortable staying within the parameters of what we think are our boundaries—those things we think are our reality. But it’s all a big catch 22.
“Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.” David Bohm, physicist.
I look at the seed catalogues piled up on the little table next to the chaise. They have been piled there since December and I have not been interested. But the sun is at a higher angle and the air, while still annoyingly cold, has softness not discernable two weeks ago. The cardinal is calling, as are the chickadees, and the goldfinches are starting to turn from buff to yellow-buff. Yes, spring’s coming—hard to fathom as I look at the 30 inches of snow covering the landscape—but it must be. So it really is time to knuckle down and make seed decisions.
But I’m still not interested.
I’ve been planting vegetable gardens from seed every year for thirty years and I have to admit it—the thrill is gone. Maybe it’s because the local food supply around here is fantastic. I belong to both a meat and a vegetable CSA. I joke that all I need is a dessert CSA and I’m set.
So I’m thinking about something radical. I’m thinking about planting a flower-cutting garden in place of the vegetable garden. Flowers, big, honking, colorful armloads of flowers. A crop of color and scent. Can I do it? Can the practical Swede throw a season to the wind and be frivolous with flowers?
Ja, I believe she can.
At a whiskey drinking little get-together last month with a new French friend, Richie, Michel and I got onto the subject of being rescued, as in, “Mayday” which comes from the French, “m’aider”––help me. We had been talking about sailing and ocean storms and the type of person who likes to go to sea and risk their life. Richie likes to watch storms at sea on the TV; Michel and I are both sailors with blue water experience, so we like to experience storms at sea in person. But perhaps ‘like’ is not the appropriate word here since there’s not much to ‘like’ about being soaking wet, cut and bruised, sleep-deprived, nauseous, and fearful of dying at any moment. Maybe ‘appreciative’ is a better word.
In our coddled twenty first century Western world of home and hearth, we experience adrenaline surges as spectators. We root for our favorite sports teams; anxiously watching them live on TV. We watch reality shows that pit people with dangerous situations, just like the ancient Romans did at the coliseum. Participating in virtual, rather than actual adventure takes away the contrast. Taking away the contrast takes away the appreciation. And life should be appreciated. As the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was fond of saying: “Pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. Because your life is going very, very quickly.”
The acronym SOS, I learned from Michel, stands for “Save Our Souls”. This tugs at my heartstrings, as it seems so touchingly archaic. It speaks of a time when people held the soul, that anchor of life, as something rare, unique, and precious–something with weight and worth. I can’t really think of anyone thinking up the words “save our souls” in this day and age.
SOS today would more likely stand for “Save Our Stuff”.
Some years ago, in Tulum, Mexico where I was training in Reiki, a Mexican shaman, eyeing my tiny bit of chubbiness, pointed out that it was because I was an American. I thought he meant it was because I always had plenty to eat. But no. “You Americans are so full of fear,” he said. “You build up fat as a protection from the world.” Well.
But he was right. Just look at how many guns we have in this country. We are afraid of each other, and for no good reason. We are not at war on our soil. We are a rich nation. There are pockets, of course, of poverty and violence. But the majority of us are comfortable, and the majority of us are safe.
We are fed the idea of virtual violence; our adrenaline is stimulated and pumped up. Without an outlet, the adrenaline festers, feeding an illusory fear self-constructed to counter our complacent lifestyle. We want to feel something, but we have edited the actual adventure that makes us feel alive, out of our lives.
Many years ago, in a storm at sea, I faced the certain, in my view, extinction of me. It was an uncharted emotion and I felt rank, physical fear. I remember feeling surprised that facing death was not a noble feeling at all. It was a gritty, stripped down feeling without any room for the niceties of decoration.
I thought to myself I’m going to fight this storm for three days and in the end, it will win because it is so much stronger than me (and oddly, the storm did last for three days). But in the long hours of fighting to stay alive, I realized something about myself. I realized that I don’t give up. I realized that I will die trying. That was a very good thing for me to find out about myself then and it is a very good thing to know about myself now.
But I wouldn’t know it if I hadn’t been forced, by my real adventure, to find it.