I have always been a Cat Person.
And then I became a Pretty Major Rabbit Person.
And then I morphed into a (really predictable) Guinea Pig Person.
But, I never considered that I’d become a Dog Person. I’d never really even had a dog.
My parents had an era of dogs that came to a close right after I was born. So I co-existed with a dog or two at one point, but only for a short time. We always had cats, who I dearly loved, and were sometimes host to a variety of other small critters, mostly temporary boarders that ended up coming home with my dad, who was a middle school science teacher. Never a dull moment!
Years ago, when I met Erin, our first outing together was a hike in Wintergreen Gorge with her little dog, Sunshine. Wintergreen Gorge in Harborcreek, PA, just outside of Erie, is just a mile or two from where I grew up and has always been a favorite spot. I spent countless hours there in my younger days hiking back through the woods behind my house and following Six Mile Creek all the way to the Gorge. Sometimes my mom would pack me lunch in a brown bag, and I’d ride my bike over to my friend Ann’s house. Then we’d hike a different way there from the woods behind her house. We’d splash around in the swimming holes, follow little minnows on their twisty paths, and eat our peanut butter sandwiches in sunspots on the smooth shale that covers the creek bed.
And now, as I watched little Sunshine zip around through the water and bound through the beautiful mossy, ferny paths of the surrounding woods, I realized that hiking, an activity I never considered could be even more fun, was now 100% more fun! I already loved hiking, and now I loved hiking with a dog! I loved watching her find and explore all the things I’d never have seen or noticed without her. Being outside and running free in the fresh air gave her so much joy (and still does!) that I found myself not being able to stop noticeably smiling during hikes.
Over the years, we’d talked about getting Sunshine a friend in the form of another dog, but it never seemed like the right time. Because we have so many other little animals, too– always a bunny or two, and we’ve adopted 3 Pandemic Guinea Pigs– it seemed like it had to be just the right dog with just the right temperament, and well… how do you know what specific dog will come with that? Having a puppy with no preconceived notions who we could train to love our trio of guinea pigs seemed ideal, but we really wanted to adopt a rescue dog, and we just couldn’t quite figure out how to make both of those things happen easily.
But then, we learned about Harold.
It was like a friend of a friend sort of situation– Erin’s daughter knew someone who knew someone to whom accidental puppies had happened, and suddenly, there were 10 little nuggets who needed homes! Our schedules were such that we knew we could be home a lot to supervise during the formative months and make sure he got lots of energy out each day. It was both the right time and the right circumstances. We decided to meet the puppies.
That was a little over a year ago. We fell in love with little Harold the moment we saw him, and the rest is history!
This past Saturday was the anniversary of when we brought him home, so it really made me think about how having Harold has changed my life.
Also during this past week, the world lost a great teacher when Thich Naht Hanh passed on from this life. While reflecting on some of the many lessons I learned from him, it made me realize that some of the most important lessons I’ve learned from him have definitely been augmented by Harold.
For instance, one of the things Thich recommended is trying to smile each day, first thing in the morning:
“Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”
He recommends putting a picture or a painting or something that will make you smile in such a place that when you open your eyes, you can’t help but smile as your first act of the day. Though I’ve tried to do this on various occasions, until Harold, nothing has worked consistently, every day without fail. The moment I hear the squeak when he yawns, or he makes his odd honking sound at the cat, or he is suddenly standing on me and giving a million kisses, I cannot help but smile! It helps to have someone else who actively participates in my morning smiling challenge, even if he has no idea he is involved.
Another thing Thich advocates for is walking for walking’s sake. That is, walking as a form of mediation:
“There is no need to run, strive, search or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as if you have nowhere to go is enough.”
I’ve found over the years that, though I walk a lot, it is almost always to get somewhere– to work, to the store, to the art studio, etc. Dogs have taught me to walk simply for the sake of walking. Harold wants and needs a walk first thing every day! So pretty much, after I wake up and smile at him, I am putting on my shoes while the coffee brews, and off we go for our walk! Not only do I get the daily privilege of seeing the world through his fun and exploratory lens, the thing I first experienced with Sunshine the dog, I get to go outside first thing each day no matter the weather, and breathe the fresh air and look up at the sky, which is also a great meditation. It is a great daily practice of gratefulness and smiling as Harold and I make our way around the neighborhood, him stopping to look for each squirrel we hear and sniffing around to see where last night’s cats have slunk through the hedges.
So as we close out this first year of having Harold in our lives, I’m grateful for so much. He and our other animals fill our days with joy! But the main thing I am thankful for is the way in which Harold makes me slow down. He doesn’t take no for an answer when he wants me to pet him or to go for a walk, and sometimes that’s what I need. Sometimes it’s what we all need– just to stop for a moment.
“Many of us have been running our whole lives. Practice stopping.”
Thanks Harold, for making me walk, and smile, and stop. Thank you for the gifts you give without even knowing it.