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“A Portrait of a Dog as an Old Guy”

When his owner died in 2000 and a new family

moved into their Moscow apartment,

he went to live with mongrels in the park.

In summer there was plenty of food, kids

often left behind sandwiches, hotdogs and other stuff.

He didn’t have a big appetite,

still missing his old guy.

He too was old, the ladies no longer excited him,

and he didn’t burn calories chasing them around.

Then winter came and the little folk abandoned the park.

The idea of eating from the trash occurred to him

but the minute he started rummaging in the

overturned garbage container, a voice

in his head said: “No, Rex!”

The remnants of a good upbringing lower

our natural survival skills.

 

I met him again in the early spring of 2001.

He looked terrific. Turning gray became him.

His dark shepherd eyes were perfectly bright,

like those of a puppy.

I asked him how he sustained himself

in this new free-market situation

when even the human species suffered from malnutrition.

In response he told me his story;

how at first he thought that life without his man

wasn’t worth it, how those

who petted him when he was a pet

then turned away from him, and how one night

he had a revelation.

 

His man came to him in his sleep,

tapped him on his skinny neck and said:

“Let’s go shopping!” So the next morning he took the subway

and went to the street market

where they used to go together every Sunday and where

vendors recognized him and fed him

to his heart’s content.

“Perhaps you should move closer to that area?”

I ventured.—“No, I’ll stay here,” he sighed,

“oldies shouldn’t change their topography. That’s

what my man said.”

Indeed, he sounded like one himself.

 

Katia Kapovich is a modern Russian poet, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early ’90s.

I wasn’t familiar with Kapovich’s work until I went looking for a “dog poem” and found this one, which immediately charmed me. Sometimes, that’s enough for a poem. Poetry shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden of significance all the time. Sometimes, a poem should be enjoyed, just for the pleasure of it.

For me, one of the highlights of this poem is the personification and cultural relevance that get applied to the life of the dog. He finds himself in a “free-market” economy; he’s too old to chase the ladies, or run around burning calories. His “good upbringing” keeps him from surviving like the rest of his comrades in the park. But all is not lost; he goes “shopping,” finds a sustainable food source, but won’t move any closer, since “oldies shouldn’t change their topography.”  The sweet absurdity of it all made me grin. Kapovich was describing the life of a particular dog, but it could have been my 88-year-old grandfather, or perhaps even her own, with all his peculiar, but dignified ways of doing things in the last years of his life.

Since I have never had the pleasure of growing old with a dog, or the pain of having a dog grow old with me (or perhaps it’s the reverse), my first instinct as a reader is to stick with a surface reading of the poem, the creativity and humor. But if I were a dog-owner and a dog loved me the way this dog loved “his man,” I have no doubt this poem would mean much more.  I can see the tenderness and loyalty of their bond, the cruelty of the new apartment owners who threw  him out, and the kindness of the street vendors who sustained his life, but if I were a dog owner, I would feel it, deeply, on an empathetic level. That’s why I always try to read a poem more than once.  I may, or may not be pleased on a first go-’round, but there is probably something to be learned regardless, an insight into something I know nothing about.

So, thank you, Katia Kapovich for helping me learn something new about a man and his best friend.

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Graduation night with Richard Rohr, my teacher and hero

Disclaimer:

It’s been difficult for me to write after my last post about “The Conspiracy of the Universe,” about Sarah, adoption, and family. Those ideas are so big that writing about anything else feels small. My fear is that you’ll open this post thinking, “How’s she going to top that?”

The answer? I’m not.

I can’t top that story, but I can’t stop writing either, so I’m going to ask you to bear with me while I get this one, the one after the “good one,” out of the way.

 

“Being Sent”

 

Before the kids went back to school (8/24), before my 45th birthday (9/11), before the cosmically-engineered beach day (9/18), I celebrated another major milestone. On August 25, I was “sent” from The Living School for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM. While a graduation implies some kind of mastery over content, a “sending” is something else entirely. My “Sending Certificate” says it all:

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These words perfectly reflect the essence of my last two years of (in)formal education. As a cohort, we studied church history, the mystics, the ascetics, the prophets, cosmology, theology, spiral dynamics and non-dual consciousness. We read a lot; we wrote a little; we discussed much and I loved it all. I found friends and perhaps most importantly, I found a deeper, truer version of myself. It was liberating to know that I was going “all in” and that nothing else would be coming out. It freed me from the need to impress, or excel. I could just show up, do the work and trust that it would be enough.

But a lot of people have asked me why I did it, or what it was “for,” so I thought this might be a good place to try to explain.

From the time I was young, I had a sense that there was “something more” to faith than my religion teachers were telling me, more to it than the priests were letting on. I looked around at the people in the pews, just going through the motions, and I thought, “What’s the point if you don’t really mean it?” By the time I was a teenager, finding that “something more” and making it matter became a constant call in my life. I was always searching for meaning through books, at retreats and conferences, and in church communities. And each step of the way I found something deeper and truer about God and myself, so I just kept going.

One of my most transformative experiences was a retreat led by Paula D’Arcy, where she challenged me to get out of my head. As forty approached, she assured me, it was time to start working on transformation and integration, not just on the level of information. With her encouragement, I started my early morning walking meditations, body prayers and conversations with a spiritual director. I started sitting in silence, not always using my words to make sense of everything. (Believe it or not, I actually write far less now that I used to.)

When I applied to The Living School in 2013, I had other choices, including a traditional Catholic seminary, but my major criterion for deciding was this: I wanted to make it count. I was and continue to be a wife, mother, part-time teacher, volunteer and writer. The calling and curiosity were my own, but the resources I was going to be using were not. So whatever I did, I wanted it to work for all of us. Even if I was the only one overtly seeking “something more,” I wanted all of us to experience it.

So there was really only one place I could go and that was The Living School, because they promised not just an education, but transformation. According to their website, you should only apply if you “are willing to receive the lessons of darkness and suffering, and are open to profound transformation and change of consciousness.” And even better, despite your commitment, “formal degrees or certification are not offered. The reward is the experience itself—the learning and practices that will support your continued growth as a fully human, God-indwelled being.”

I was attracted and terrified by the prospect, which is a pretty compelling reason to move forward with just about anything in my mind. Of course, my ego screamed at me to head for the high holy ground of a traditional seminary, but my heart told me I was finally home – that I had found the place and the people who would offer me “the more” I had been looking for my whole life. The core faculty Fr. Richard Rohr,  James Finley and Cynthia Bourgeualt didn’t disappoint. They not only showed me “the more” in their teachings, but they showed me how to find “the more” for myself – in ancient texts, like Bonaventure, John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart to name just a few, as well as in modern teachers, like Ilia Delio, Raimon Pannikar, Ken Wilbur, Thomas Merton and Teillhard de Chardin. They showed me how to access “something more” through personal practices, like centering prayer and chanting.

Most significantly, they showed me how to recognize the “something more” in my every day life. For me, that is where “the more” matters the most – in how I respond to the people I love, as well as the people I don’t.

I’ve always thought that what we do matters more than what we believe. But through the Living School, I have also come to see that what we do is not more important than who we are and how we show up in our lives. Our actions matter, but so does our energy. Our presence makes an impact, but so do our intentions, (something our Buddhist sisters and brothers have been trying to tell us all along).

To quote one of Richard Rohr’s favorite lines, “How you do anything is how you do everything,” and so for the past two years, I have been learning to do “everything” in a whole new way – from a contemplative stance – not led first and foremost by my own agenda, or my ego’s need to be right or successful, or even on the timetable I set for myself. Of course, this “(un)learning” was and continues to be a dismal failure much of the time, but the Living School accounted for that too.

Unlike the formal religious education I had previously received, the faculty affirmed that “It all belongs” –my life, my work, my family, my gifts and especially my failings. God is the Great Recycler and so nothing is wasted. Not one poor decision, mistake or over-reaction. Not a single moment of consciousness, of freedom, of forgiveness, or letting go. God uses all of it. Every conscious act of love is a participation in the Divine economy of the Trinity, a non-stop waterwheel of selfless, generative, creative and life-giving action on behalf of the world.¹

The Living School gave me the education to know and the experience to confirm that we are not separate from that Holy Love and relationship; we are an intimate and intrinsic part of it. Like Jesus the Christ, we are also God’s beloved, God’s chosen, God’s unique manifestation in the world. And while we cannot force that recognition, or make those experiences of divine union occur (We cannot be mystics on demand!), in the words of James Finley, we can “assume the inner stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by those moments of graced awareness.”

I believe that “knowing” our true identity is absolutely critical to the healing of the world. If you look at the lives of the mystics, the holiest of saints, the Mother Theresas, the Gandhis, the Martin Luther King Jr.s,  it was “knowing” their chosen status, as well as their confidence in the grace of God that changed everything for them and allowed them to change the world as we know it. It was “knowing” their place in the Divine flow of Love that allowed them to be the yeast that leavened the dough, the mustard seed that created a living sanctuary for others to flourish. If we don’t get that piece right, if we don’t know who we are, then everything else falls flat.

Now, if all this sounds a little cosmic, a little too touchy-feely for you, I will admit that a different student would talk about The Living School in an entirely different way. Everyone enters the program with their own agenda and finds their own outcome.

But when it comes right down to it, what I learned through almost three years of daily contemplative study and prayer, practice and community, in the midst of my beautiful and chaotic family life, is that Love is the engine of it all.

And unless I spend time every day doing the work of unmasking my ego, its illusions of power and control, separateness and superiority, I can grind that engine of Love to a halt, and for me that is the greatest failure. And yes, I fail, but in the words of Maya Angelou, “Still, I rise” and try again each and every day.

  1. The Divine Dance is Rohr’s new book about the Trinity that just came out. If you are at all interested in changing, improving, or even destroying the traditional Christian image of God as a bearded old man, sitting on a cloud in judgment, READ THIS BOOK!