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[Note: this story does not end badly for the dog. Not to worry.]

There’s a man we have known for over three years. He is 50 and lives on the street. When we have jobs that need doing, we offer them to him if they’re in his wheelhouse.  We feed him when we see him. He is disorganized and enthusiastic, at his core a kind soul.

Two weeks ago, he encountered another street person with a dog. The dog was sweet-natured and cute, but this other person said he couldn’t take care of it any longer. It was too hard to care for a dog while having to take care of oneself on the streets of Portland. This other person planned to take the dog to the animal shelter.

Shih Tzu

Our friend hated the idea of this dog going to the shelter, which he imagined was as a good as a death sentence. He offered to take the dog himself. He’d grown up with dogs and had never thought he might be able to have one given his circumstances.

For a few days, our friend was over the moon, enamored with his dog. Then, as more and more of the places where he returned cans for money closed  – those sites understandably trying to “flatten the curve” by reducing the human gathering that occurs at canning sites, but also making tough lives significantly tougher – he discovered that having to travel to the edges of Portland to find a place to return his cans was so much more challenging with a dog.

Ten days ago, he asked if he could tie his dog up in our yard for awhile each day while he returned cans. This was pre-shelter-in-place Portland, so sometimes we were home when he dropped his dog off, sometimes not. He set up a cozy little bed for the dog under our picnic table. The dog wore a harness, and our friend tied the other end of the leash to the leg of the picnic table to keep the dog from running out of the yard.

Last week, during the handful of days when the dog was in our yard for several hours each day, social distancing arrived in earnest. Portland’s weather was gorgeous so we were all outside when we could be. We spoke to our neighbors from six feet away.

This past Friday ended such a weird week. Garth eventually worked from home exclusively. I saw some clients in person, most over video or phones calls, and the on-going uncertainty fried me a bit. By the end of the week, I felt exhausted. After dinner, Garth and I and our two kids piled onto the couch to watch a show.

Over time, a sound reached my awareness – a small sound, kind of like a squeaky wheel. At first I thought it was in the show, but at some point it was clearly out of sync and we turned off the sound. Nothing. We turned it on again and eventually the sound resumed. I asked Garth to go see if our friend had gotten his dog from our yard yet. Garth headed out, and we waited, and waited. By now it was about 9:15 pm. I finally poked my head outside and there was Garth, the dog in his arms. “It’s tangled in its leash,” he said. “I detached the leash from the table, but I can’t really see well enough to get it loose.”

Image result for tangled knots

I’m something of a getting-knots-undone wizard so Garth brought the dog up to the porch. It wasn’t just the leash that was tangled around the dog – it was quite a bit of thin twine as well. And it had wrapped really tight. My daughter came to the door. “Would you bring some scissors?” I asked her. We had to cut all the string and leash rope off, carefully, the dog distressed, me trying not to accidentally snip dog rather than twine. We sat on the porch with the dog. His back legs didn’t seem to be working right, and he was terribly agitated. His head swung back and forth and his breath came in little bursts.

Garth, Kami and I sat with the dog, discussing our options. He was usually so mellow. Was this agitation a sign of its understandable upset over its legs not working, or was it something bigger, more systemic? Then one leg seemed to return in functionality and we figured the legs had gone to sleep from the circulation being cut off by the twine. But the other leg didn’t seem to be bouncing back, and the agitation persisted. With his third leg back on-line, he turned around and around like a dog settling for sleep, only he never settled. I smelled an abundance of flea powder, and even outside on the porch, my asthma started rattling in my lungs.

What to do? We decided to call Dove Lewis, our local awesome animal emergency clinic. Was this the right thing? It wasn’t our dog; what if we made a decision for treatment that our friend wouldn’t have made? But our friend wasn’t here. We aren’t pet owners and somehow we couldn’t tell if we were making a good decision. (Maybe the jangling week of encroaching covid-19 had something to do with our diminished capacity?)

We decided to call our neighbor, L, whose dog, Rudy, is a family favorite and who we saw as our Expert of All Things Canine. In short order she brought dog food, and Rudy’s carrier, and after talking with the folks at Dove Lewis, Garth and the kids piled into the car with the dog; the dog, still with a non-operational fourth leg, still anxious.  I stayed behind in case the owner showed up.

It was 10:00 pm. A text came in just after my family left with the dog. It was L, asking us to keep her posted on the dog’s condition, and to let her know if she could be of any more help. Someone outside of our household knew what was happening and wanted to be of help. This fact was more reassuring than I can describe.

After responding to L’s text, I noticed one I’d missed from earlier in the evening. It was from one of our newer neighbors, R. She’d sent it right around the time Garth had gone out to check on the dog. It read: “Do you hear a puppy? I can’t tell where it’s coming from.” I answered her text, and back and forth, the story came out. R wrote: “I know you and Kami are allergic, please let us know if we can house the pup until the owner returns.”

Garth, Kami, and I had talked about this while we’d perched on the porch, waiting for L: could we consider keeping the dog overnight if Dove Lewis released it? It would mean a night and morning of inhalers for me and my daughter. I felt twitchy about anything having to do with our lungs: there was a lung-eating virus out there. Surely we should protect our lungs where we could?

Once again, R’s text reminded me we didn’t have to navigate this alone. Knowing this was – everything.

Then the text from Garth saying Dove Lewis wasn’t super-concerned but would keep the dog overnight; my family coming home; the call the next morning from Dove Lewis saying the dog was fine; filing a report that would put the dog into the hopper for possible adoption (no-kill shelters in Portland, thank you very much); our friend showing up much later that afternoon with a cane and ankle wrap, describing how he’d stepped wrong disembarking from the bus, had to visit the emergency room, worried for his dog, sad and also relieved to hear it would be okay and someone would soon have it who could care for it better.

If I were maintaining a laser-sharp focus on the personal essay challenge I set for myself at the beginning of the year, I’d have already tried to finesse some way to link conditions during the pandemic with this story. But my focus these days is unreliable. Instead, I will simply state the obvious: because we felt vulnerable with the situation we were presented with, we reached out; and in reaching out, we realized we weren’t alone. There would be help.

***

*Gate A-4  by Naomi Shihab Nye (thanks for the poem, Pete and Polly)

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning

my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Image result for people reaching out

It’s a Wonderful Life. You know the story: George Bailey, a young boy, then a man with an adventuresome spirit, time and again sets aside his dreams to care for the people in his community. And when it all starts to unravel (absentminded Uncle Billy, mislaid money, opportunistic Old Man Potter), he learns that his years of sacrifice and generosity have amounted to something. He longed to see Tahiti and travel the world, and he felt the loss of that keenly at times. In the meantime, he built the very life he’d wanted to escape, and discovered it contained riches he hadn’t anticipated.

I especially want to understand that part of the movie, the part where George Bailey sets aside his dreams, over and over. What did the director, Frank Capra, mean for us to make of this? In a more do-your-dreams, you-can-have-it-all, American-type movie, George would have made it to Tahiti in the end. The reward for his kindness and selflessness would have been everything that happens in the movie, plus somehow he’d wind up in Tahiti.

But that’s not what happens.

Instead, we’re given to believe that he can live with his lost dreams as he learns to cherish what’s in front of him.

As teenagers, didn’t we all believe that to become an adult meant giving up one’s dreams? Most of us knew or heard about the things our parents had longed for and given up on. Flavored with a little contempt, didn’t our adolescent selves wonder how grownups could so easily give up on themselves? And didn’t we believe that we weren’t going to give up on our passions the way our parents had? We’d stay true to ourselves. 

Rather than hearing about our parents’ lost dreams, perhaps it would have been helpful to hear how they made peace with that loss. It would be like George Bailey saying to his kids, “I thought to live a good life I needed to travel, but it turned out by doing what I was good at, I built a rich life. I thought I was living a life that amounted to less than what I’d dreamt of, but it turns out it was more.”

What would George Bailey need to do before he could think of his lost dreams this way?

This question is not academic to me. Every holiday vacation, or on unexpected days off, my plan is to write, to make good on a dream I first had when I was 8 years old. Most times, I manage barely a toe-dip in that lake, and certainly nothing like the full immersion I long for. Nearly every time, a tension is created between the writing plans I make and what I’m able to actualize.

This vacation, I find myself wondering if it’s time to give up on this writing dream? It’s unpleasant and painful, the tension between longing and reality. Maybe that’s what all the adults were doing when they “gave up.” Maybe they needed to drop their dream because it seemed the only way to resolve that tension: Maybe I won’t feel so bad if I stop wanting what I want. 

But even while I feel discouraged, I also wonder if there’s a way to resolve the tension without dropping the dream?

I’m a student of Buddhism, and a foundational Buddhist concept speaks to the tension I’m describing by suggesting that we cultivate a stance where we neither cling to our dreams nor push them away. 

Doing this is hard.

Of course I’m thinking of giving up. Because it’s one thing to know the stance I need to cultivate and it’s another to actually mange to do it. How do you want something, and yet not want it so much that it causes distress, that it makes you wish for a life other than the one you lead?

This kind of suffering – called dukkha in the original language of the Buddha – is like any other suffering.  Dukkha describes how life is like a wagon wheel that’s out of true, and so it wobbles, one moment achieving balance, the next falling out of balance, and so on and so on. If it feels like just when things are going our way something  happens to mess it up – well, that’s just life being life. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong, though we will suffer doubly if we think it should be otherwise.

Maybe George Bailey was secretly a Zen master. At every moment in the film when he wants life to be other than it is, he remembers that life is a wobbly wagon wheel, so if it wobbles – if he thinks he’ll finally be able to leave Bedford Falls and travel around the world – he understands it’s life being itself when that’s suddenly snatched away by his father’s death, by his brother’s out-of-state job opportunity, by love.

If I were such a Zen master, I’d remember that if it didn’t work out for me to write quite as much as I’d hoped, or if I sat down to write but felt everything I wrote was crap – well, that wagon wheel is wobbling. It doesn’t mean it’s time to let go of my dream. It means our dreams are also part of life, and so they’re subject to being like life is.

It is a wonderful life, but wonderful doesn’t mean perfect or without trials. Wonderful might be possible only if we also notice what exactly is wonderful in our lives. When George Bailey gets his life back, as his friends and neighbors pile into his home to add their money to the overflowing basket, no part of his brain in that moment is wishing he had been able to travel more. He is simply present to the life he has.