I awoke sometime near 3 AM the other night to the sound of my seven-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, Eli, dreaming. I love to hear and see him dreaming; he is adorable to watch, as he twitches and tries to bark in the midst of his dreams, chasing what I imagine is the elusive, plump squirrel of his fantasy world. I find it fascinating that dogs, like people, find it hard to speak or shout out during their dreams.
That night, when I first awoke to his dream-induced sounds, I mistook Eli’s whimpers for distress. I almost got up to check on him, curled up on his dog bed at the foot of my husband’s and my king-size bed, but then I recognized the familiar sound of him trying to bark, and I realized he was only dreaming. As I drifted back to sleep, I contemplated the number of times Eli actually has been in distress and realized it has been relatively few. No, like most Labs, Eli is pretty content most of the time. He’s only in actual distress when something is, well, actually wrong, like it’s too hot and humid outside and he’s panting and needs water, or he’s hungry and ready for breakfast, or he’s threatened by Bear, the German Shepherd who lives down the street and who, despite his calm demeanor, looks threatening. Otherwise, Eli is good. He has no need to generate additional drama in his life or fall victim to imagined ills.
Unlike the rest of us. Or let me specific here: me. The list of items that might plague me on any given day range from the way I cooked the broccoli (did I cook it just right, tender enough but still crispy and green, full of vitamins?), to the price I paid for said broccoli (I currently live in New York City, and I have discovered something native New Yorkers know instinctively: it is inevitable you will find a grocer somewhere in your neighborhood selling the exact same product you just bought at another store, only the second grocer is selling it at half the price), to the friend I didn’t have time to call back (she needs me now, but I just didn’t have time today—I want to call her when there’s adequate time for an extended conversation), to the writing I did not get to (I’m never going to do it if I don’t sit my ass in the chair and write, but I can’t sit my ass in the chair and write until I go shopping, walk the dog, go for a run, and pay the electric bill). Some days I remind myself of the character in A. A. Milne’s poem, “The Old Sailor.” I won’t recite the entire poem here, just the first and final two stanzas (but if you have not read it, you can find it at http://ahistoricality.blogspot.com/2005/08/thursday-verses-old-sailor.html):
There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin,
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.
So he thought of his hut…and he thought of his boat,
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst)…
But he never could think which he ought to do first.
And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved –
He did nothing but bask until he was saved!
That poem is one of my favorites, as I completely relate to its portrayal of a man who can’t accomplish one task without thinking of all the other things he could or should be doing. In the end, he accomplishes nothing, makes himself fairly miserable, and fails to quiet the existential unrest I surmise is at the heart of his frenzy.
At the end of many days, I have a vague sense I haven’t accomplished all I could or should have. I notice this sense regardless of whether I actually managed to call that friend or write those few pages or pay those bills. No, this sense can visit no matter how many tasks I have tackled. I have come to the conclusion, in fact, that it is not actually connected to the amount of work I have completed. On other days, when I have done very little work and allowed myself to see an afternoon matinee with my husband or get a massage or go shopping, I don’t have the sense of having failed in some unnamable respect. Some days, it is almost as if the sense of incompletion is inversely proportional to the number of tasks I actually have completed. Fascinating. This vague sense, no doubt, allows very little room for peace or a feeling of well-being. And there it is: I have managed to create my own sense of dissatisfaction, sometimes even approaching misery. Something Eli never manages to do.
Why is it that on the days when I actually do allow myself to metaphorically or actually put my feet up and relax, I often have a greater sense of peace than on the days when I am straining to accomplish numerous goals, even finishing many or all of them on my list? Do they not matter? Are they not important in the end? Does my brain somehow know that it is more important to allow rest and the occasional afternoon matinee than to run one more mile or wash one more load of laundry? All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl, so to speak. Add that to my list of worries, why don’t we? I’m dull, too.
But Eli never goes there. He lives his day easily, like clockwork and seemingly with very little stress. A typical day for the seventy-pound child my husband and I never had goes like this: he wakes up when we do, usually around 7 AM, goes for his morning walk around the block, comes back to enjoy his daily breakfast of kibbles in a broth of water and special joint powder, takes a nap until his midday walk with my husband and me, naps some more in the afternoon, eats dinner around 7 PM, chews a rib bone while we eat our dinner, and embarks on a final walk at the end of the evening. His days don’t change much. And he seems to be one of the happiest creatures I know on this planet. No complaints, no drama or self-criticism about the squirrel he didn’t catch, the nap he didn’t take, the tail-wagging he didn’t accomplish. He wagged his tail, by all accounts, as much as he desired and didn’t think about it further. What a concept.
Eli, otherwise known as one of Buddha’s disciples, seems to be saying, “Do what you need to do, Mom, and then stop striving so hard. Wag your tail a little more, self-criticize a little less. You can chase that squirrel tomorrow but for now, enjoy the moment and be glad you arrived at the end of yet another glorious day and are here to reflect on it. Enjoy your dinner and a get good night’s rest, with Dad by your side and me at the foot of your bed. It’s all going to be O.K., Mom, really it is. You’ve taken care of the big things and the Universe will take care of the rest. Relax and chill. I love you, Mom. Here’s a tail wag and a lick to prove it. And don’t worry about me if you wake up in the middle of the night and hear me dreaming; I’m fine, just cleansing out my dog-like thoughts and recharging the batteries for tomorrow.”
Remarkable advice from a relatively non-verbal creature, but there you have it.