Saturday, May 21, 2005

New paths

On Friday I woke to doggy health problems. My well loved 11-year-old German Shepherd had a hot spot. Small things like this are big for Max, who has a replacement hip. Having come to me as a foundling, it was always a pretty sure thing that he would have the hip problems that are so common to the breed, and when he was five--far to young for me to accept the loss of this wonderful dog--his painful hips led me to get him a major operation, a hip transplant. The whole question of how one comes to the decision to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a hip transplant for a companion animal leads to some interesting discussions, but that's not today's topic.

For Max, post operation, any open wound requires him to go on antibiotics. An open wound puts him at risk of infection, which could rapidly go into the implant area. We are all obsessed with healthcare issues in Vermont these days, and as this well loved companion ages, I watch him tenderly. Whatever time he has left, I want it to be peaceful and happy and without pain. Some days I am overcome with my fear of losing him, although I know it is a day that must come. Some days, I just wail, please not quite yet. So I made an appointment with the vet, and by the end of the call, I was in tears.

My reason for moving to Vermont and the lesson I have continued to learn since moving here is that when emotion overwhelms me, it is time for some self care. The only thing on my calendar for the day was a dentist appointment, so I made a quick trip to the office and put up a sign: "Closed today due to medical emergencies." Many medical emergencies. My assistant's baby daughter in the hospital. A family member facing long term critical health issues. A dog in need of antibiotics. But mostly an emergency need to take a little care of myself lest I bite the next person who walked into the office.

I spent most of yesterday and today on the garden, laying out paths. The herb garden is new this year, and I am trying out paths of chamomile which grows wild here. I lay out my paths with string, then I turn the soil in the beds. As I go, I take the baby chamomile weeds from the plots and transplant them as much desired chamomile turf in the paths. The exercise of creating a path by cutting away the undesirable thatch of weeds between the paths is a meditation in itself.

The vegetable garden is in its second year. Last year I hired the plowing done, then laid out my paths with string, then dug a few inches down in the paths and put the soil on the beds to raise them up. Then I put down a layer of something covered by a layer of straw, and I had beautiful paths. The preferred underlayer was old dogfood bags, saved just for this purpose on long remembered advice from one of my gardening uncles. They turned out to be way slippery, and I didn't have nearly enough, so I tried black plastic on another row and then newspaper on another. Lack of planning turned experiment, and through the season, I found little difference in function on the paths.

The careful reader will note that this process is exactly the opposite of what I am doing in the herb garden. Vegetable garden--dig the path, herb garden, dig the bed. Throughout last year's growing season I nourished the hope that I would not have to rebuild the paths again, thinking of what it would take to pull out the remains of the dogfood bags and the black plastic, not to mention all my hard labor to move all that dirt. My favorite Vermont tractor guy showed up on Friday, he opined that he thought he could preserve the paths, and no, he wasn't worried about stuff in the garden. After the first pass, he stopped and used a knife to cut out of his plow blades the remains of dogfood bags, black plastic, and even a little pea netting unwittingly left.

Here's a lesson! Don't worry about the stuff under the ground. Just plow through it, then cut away the excess. Here's another. There is no way to preserve those paths. I have laid them out again, and I suspect that I will be a little less vigorous about moving dirt this year, maybe shoveling just enough to suggest terraces on the gentle slope. And I will use all newspaper. Five paths, five bales of straw, and it will be good to go again. It is hard to have to rebuild paths, but it is easier the second time.

In spiritual practice, too, it is building the path the first time that is the hardest work. We keep relearning the same old stuff, or at least sometimes it seems so. But it is easier each time we tackle an old battle. And sometimes we learn a new technique, like digging the beds instead of the paths. I have been reading a wonderful little book called Taming the Tiger Within: Meditations on Transforming Difficult Emotions, by Thich Nhat Hanh. Each right-hand page has a short thought which floats in visual space; each left-hand page is blank.

Here's one: Recognize and embrace your anger when it manifests itself. Care for it with tenderness rather than suppressing it.

Here's another: Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the energy of hate, of anger, of fear. We forget that in us there are other kinds of energy that can manifest also. If we know how to practice, we can bring back the energy of insight, of love, and of hope in order to embrace the energy of fear, of despair, and of anger.

And one more: Faith is the outcome of your life. As faith continues to grow, you continue to get the energy, because faith is also an energy like love. If we look deeply into the nature of our love, we will also see our faith. When we have faith in us, we are no longer afraid of anything.

Thich Nhat Hanh also wrote another wonderful book that Robert of Beginner's Mind gave me when I, a Christian, asked him in all sincerity about what attracted him to Buddhism. When he first gave it to me, I got bogged down in the introduction, but the book itself, Living Buddha, Living Christ is a rich treasure I have just begun to tap.

I have missed writing. It is one of my daily practices (the other is walking), and this blog community offers me real connections. I've had a crazy winter, and I'm feeling a little overstimulated, a little bruised. Time to build some new paths.


Mary said...

Good to have you back writing again Karen, and inspiring to read how you switched to self care mode when you recognised that you needed it. Thank you too for the tip on Taming the Tiger Within.

Very best to Max and yourself in the coming days - I know the intensity of the bonds that can build up between ourselves and our animal companions and in my experience too the fear of loss of a pet is indeed so powerful. May things go well with you both.

Robert said...

Have missed your writing, too. Glad to see you back in form, even if the contents are hard.