My dog is terrified of storms. They are debilitating for her. Her legs shake, she can’t eat, she can’t sit or lay down and she pants as if she has been running for days. She is a bundle of nerves and anxiety. A real mess. The hardest part to watch is how quickly this fear descends on her. She can be fine one minute, sprawled across the floor peacefully snoring, maybe even passing gas. Suddenly an ear perks up, she lifts her head, stands quickly and begins to shake, starting with her back legs. In only seconds her entire body is trembling and she has this look in her eye that I can only describe as a plea for immediate rescue. But there is nothing I can do to help her. We’ve tried the trendy thunder jacket and CBD chewies. Advice from friends led us to give her melatonin and slather lavender over the veins in her ears. We’ve put on music, but that only helps drown out her deep-throated panting – a moment of peace for us, but not so helpful for her. For the length of the storm, my dog is on the edge of sanity so we have learned to wait it out with her, and know that when the storm passes she will lay back down and all will be well.
Here is the difference between my dog and me: when something causes me this level of terror, I worry about it coming. I project horrible scenarios and play out the ways that this could destroy me. My brain reminds me that I have things to fear that I should be thinking about. But my dog doesn’t do this. I’m confident she doesn’t spend her happiest moments of taking a walk, playing fetch, or getting belly rubs with a constant under-the-surface buzz of anxiety about the next storm. My dog doesn’t project doomsday scenarios and then plan how she will respond.
And so here we are in the midst of a pandemic, racial tension, leadership crisis, and social isolation. We’re on edge as we watch numbers of the sick and dying climb, wondering if we or someone we love will becomes the next statistic. We’re not sure if there will be enough hospital beds and no one seems to be coming up with a workable solution for our children to return to school. North Korea might be building a nuclear warhead and there are murder hornets. I’m sure I’ve left something out.
It’s becoming apparent that I have lessons to learn from my dog. This actually isn’t a new revelation. Animal experts tell us that our pets can help assuage our anxiety because they live in the moment. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow. These days I’m needing more mindfulness, which means focusing on what’s happening in the present moment. This has been a lifelong struggle for me, but for the past two months I’ve been overloading on thoughts of both yesterday and tomorrow. If I’m not wishing for the days when we could throw a party and hug each other, I’m worrying about what happens if my husband’s immigration law practice doesn’t survive the crisis. I ping between the past and the future, rarely paying attention to the moment I am in.
I’m working on this, and my dog is helping me. Her name is Grace, by the way, and she is a beautiful old woman with a gray beard, terrible teeth, and a little pudge belly. Also, her tail is crooked because she broke it years ago wagging it against our dining room wall. True story. She just turned 70 in dog years, she has never had puppies, and she eats cat poop when she gets the chance. All of this could be a source of regret or worry for Grace, but she is quite happy in the moment until the storms come. And every time the storms come, they also pass.
Today, I spent some time thinking about all of this as a heavy rain rolled in. It feels like 2020 has been a constant storm that keeps my legs a little trembly and my breathing shallow. Should we look to the animals to help guide us a bit? I think so. Maybe their “in the moment” vibe can help guide us toward more mindfulness. As Eckhart Tolle famously said, “I have lived with several Zen Masters – all of them cats.” Grace and I spent some time in my home office listening to the rain. I tried to talk her through the momentary anxiety, and then when the rain stopped she sat down on her corduroy dog bed and stared at me like she was lovestruck. For her, the storm was forgotten as if it had never happened. I decided to spend the rest of my day without my thoughts hurtling too far back or forward; paying attention, not ignoring the current crisis, but hanging on to what I can control and doing good work here in the present. My dog returns the favor and shows me what it looks like to stay centered in the now, even though a storm could pop into my life at any moment. You’re a good teacher, Grace. I’ll keep the lavender nearby for the next clap of thunder.