It’s the journey itself that matters most

This morning at the end of our walk, Gus bounded up the front steps and plopped down as he always does to wait for me to toss him his cookie.  There he is in the picture, sitting and waiting for our little ritual that marks our return home.  It suddenly dawned on me that, in the four years we have spent together, Gus and I have been on more than 1200 walks!  When I think about the mileage we have covered, it is truly mind-boggling.  I have worn through several pairs of walking shoes to prove it.  As I pondered this, I was struck by an even more incredible fact.  Despite the distance we have covered together, we always end up in exactly the same place at the end of our walk:  right on our own front porch where we started!  I suppose you could say that, despite all of our walking, we haven’t really gone anywhere at all.

What a concept.  Walking and walking, yet ultimately ending up right back in the same place.  To some, it might seem crazy.  But not to me.

You see, for Gus and for me it’s the walk itself that is the whole point.

Sure, a daily walk is a great source of exercise and fresh air.  I highly recommend it for all the obvious reasons.  But, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you will know that  there is so much more that happens when we are out walking together.  Every day on our journey we meet people and dogs. We make new friends and share experiences.  We are inspired by magical sights right in our own neighbourhood.  In fact, it is while we have been out walking, ultimately going nowhere, that all the important lessons have occurred.

Today is my 49th birthday.  I’ve had a perfectly lovely day.  I got hugs and good wishes from family and friends near and far.  I had lunch with two incredibly special women. I had dinner with my wonderful family.  And I started it off with a very long walk outside with Gus on a beautiful snowy day.

I was thinking this morning that life itself is like these daily walks.  I don’t want to be morbid, but let’s face it, we are all going to end up in the same place we started out eventually.  Dust to dust, and all that stuff.  Each time we mark the passage of another year, it’s as if we are setting out on another walk – one that will end up at our next birthday.  I truly feel that the years themselves aren’t the point at all.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been hung up about revealing my age.   To me, it’s what we’re doing on that journey between the milestones that really matters in the long run.

As I look back on the past year, I am overwhelmed by all that I have seen, done and learned on my journey.  I have met and developed relationships with so many incredible people.  I have marveled at the wonders of the changing seasons and the magical sights that have been right in front of me all the time.  I have learned valuable lessons about myself and what I believe, and I have a clearer sense of who I am and what I value.  There have been high points and low points, but all in all it has been an incredible ride.

Tomorrow is February 11th once again, and I will lace up my shoes and set out off the front porch as always.  I can’t wait to see what I will discover next, as my journey continues. . .

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The day can be whatever you choose it to be

Gus happy on a windy fall day

I’m always amazed to see it.  Over the last few weeks, the fall mornings have become darker, colder, windier, and wetter.  At six o’clock, when I stagger downstairs to make my morning coffee, it takes so much effort  just to shake myself awake and think about the day ahead.  As I look outside into the dark and drizzly yard, I have been feeling an overwhelming urge to crawl back upstairs and snuggle under the covers, where it is still warm and cozy.  Then I look over at Gus.

At this point, he has also made his way downstairs after slowly rousing from his own cozy bed.  He always takes his time, and stretches and yawns before gradually getting up.  Here is where the difference between us ends. While I am still fumbling with the coffee, Gus always goes and stands by the back door.  He will wait there patiently until I let him out.  When the door is finally opened, he explodes out into the yard, like a shot from a cannon.  He lets out a yelp of joy, and then he proceeds to tear around the yard at top speed.  If he finds a toy he’s left lying there, he will pick it up and shake it back and forth for a bit.  Then he will drop it and run wildly again, until he has checked out every corner of his space.  The whole time he is doing this, his tail is wagging like crazy, and you can see by his behaviour that he is just so completely happy! This routine is the same every day, no matter what the weather is like. When he eventually comes into the house after his morning ritual, he is always in such a great mood, and it inevitably rubs off on the rest of us.

On the deck with a ball on a rainy morning

Yesterday, as I watched this display, I thought about how Gus perceives the morning.  He doesn’t focus on the darkness, the rain, or the chill in the air.  He is just so happy to be in a place he loves, out in the fresh air and in the freedom of the yard.  He is so full of positive energy, and it often seems to be in defiance of the atmosphere around him.  It made me stop and think.

By 7:30, as I drove through the grey drizzle on my way to work, I had made a decision.  I was on my way to give a three hour lecture on connective tissues on a dreary Friday morning.  It was the end of a long and stressful week for my students.  I knew that things had the potential to be pretty low energy when I walked into the room. It suddenly hit me how I had a the ability to choose the energy that I brought into that classroom. So here’s what I did.

I walked in and said my usual “Good Morning” to the class.  Then I announced that, despite it being a miserable, rainy, grey Friday, we were not going to let it get to us.  I told the students that we were going to shift the energy, and we were going to do so by focusing on what was positive about the day.  We went around the room and, starting with myself, each person took a turn and completed the sentence “I feel good about _____________” by sharing some small thing they were happy about.  The comments ran the gamut, from simply being happy to be there, to looking forward to specific events, or to seeing friends and family on the weekend.  It didn’t really matter.  What happened, though, was quite remarkable.  Within a few short minutes, the room full of students was buzzing and laughing, and almost everyone was smiling, as we all shared our positive comments.  As a group, we had chosen to shift the focus of the day and, along with it, the energy in the room.

That positive energy stayed with us throughout the whole three hour class.  In fact, for one of the most boring lectures I have to teach, it was actually a lot more fun than usual.  I was struck by how differently things had turned out from how they might have been, if I had just walked in and made some comment about the crummy weather, and then started into my lecture.

I guess the lesson for me was that we really do have the power to choose how we want each day to begin, despite what the weather is outside.  Even more striking was the realization of how great the impact of my choice was on so many other people around me.  It was kind of exciting and scary at the same time.    Now all I have to do is remind myself of this each morning, when I’m tired and fumbling about in the dark, trying to get my coffee going.  I’m lucky though, because all I will need to do is look out in the yard and see Gus racing happily about, and it will all come back to me.

What you focus on is what will come to you

Gus tractor beam

We call it the tractor beam.  If you’ve ever seen the old Star Trek series, you’ll know exactly what I mean.  Whenever we are eating, Gus will join us in the kitchen.  He’s very quiet about it, but his strategy is clear and consistent  As you can see from the photos above and below, he will fix his gaze intently on whatever food he is interested in.  His eyes never waver.  They will follow that food from plate to hand or fork, to mouth; without so much as blinking or looking away for a second.  His focus is absolute, and his mission is crystal clear.

Tractor beam 2 with Mom

Okay, I know all you dog people who listened to your trainers are aghast by now, as you’re anticipating what’s coming next.  One of the cardinal rules of dog ownership and good manners is “no table feeding.”  Well, I’m sorry to confess this, but we’re not so good about that one!  Gus’s persistence is usually rewarded with a small bite of whatever he has been staring at.  Hey, as a family, we believe that sharing is a good thing! And don’t worry, we are pretty healthy eaters, so what he gets is mostly fruit and vegetables, or the odd bit of toast with peanut butter or smoked salmon.

Gus has totally figured out that if he concentrates hard enough, whatever he fixes his gaze on will eventually end up right where he wants it – in his mouth.  What a smart guy!

Now, neither Gus nor I can take credit for figuring out the “secret” here.  In fact, some other people have written about this “law of attraction,” and they even made a video that has made millions of dollars.  It all comes down to a very simple rule:  whatever you focus on is what will come to you.

This rule has been given many different names over the years, and it can be applied to everything from table scraps to relationships to finances.  Despite a lot of hype and marketing, it’s really not rocket science.  If there is something you want, focus all of your time and energy on that thing, and eventually you will have it.

I did watch that famous video a few years ago, and, while it has a good message, I feel that it over-dramatized the concept.  It’s not as though things will just magically appear at your door because you conjure them up in your wishes.  What happens is that, by focusing on what you want and making it your priority, you start to act and think differently.

At minimum, by focusing like this, you begin to devote a significant amount of your time and energy towards that goal.  This effort alone tends to go a long way towards helping you reach it.  Just the other day I was saying to Josh that if what he really wants is a high mark in math, then I should see him working on math most of the time, instead of playing the guitar. At the college where I teach, I tell my students all the time that they are actively choosing the mark they want in my course by how much time and effort they are putting into working on it outside of class.

In addition, what I have found is that, when you are really focusing on something, you start to recognize opportunities that are right in front of you; things that you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed.  If you are in this goal-oriented mindset, you begin to take advantage of these opportunities, and that’s where things really get rolling!  A while back, when I was chatting in the park about my blog and all the inspiration I get when I am out with Gus, one of my friends commented, “you must have more interesting walks than I do!”  I don’t think that’s the case at all.  I just think that, because I am in this mode where I am focusing on what’s going on around me all the time, these ideas jump out at me from my everyday interactions.

So, what do you make of all this?  Whatever you choose to.  But the next time you are moaning about something you want, stop and remember Gus with his eyes on that bagel.  Ask yourself, “how much of my energy am I really focusing on this goal, and what am I actually doing to make it happen?”  You might be surprised at how much power you have to bring it within reach.

It all evens out in the end

It’s kind of interesting, the way things work out.  On most days, Gus will bring a ball along as we head out for our walk.  He has quite a collection to choose from, and he will often deliberate for some time before selecting just the right one.  Off he will trot happily, with his ball in his mouth.

Throughout the course of our walk, Gus will stop and sniff here and there, and of course he will leave a little reminder of where he has been.  He usually drops his ball while he does this, but he is diligent about going back to pick it up before we move on.  However, there have been many days when we will be halfway across the field and I’ll suddenly realize that he no longer has his ball in his mouth.  I used to get stressed and circle back to find it, often taking 15 minutes or so to search for it in the field.  Then, one day I realized that Gus couldn’t seem to care less.  It was as if he had suddenly lost interest in that particular ball, and had happily abandoned it in the field.

So here’s the interesting part.  What I have found is that on those days, more often than not, we always seem to find a new ball in the field to compensate for the lost one.

Gus found a ball

It’s almost as if Gus knows that it’s no big deal to leave the old ball behind, because he is confident that a new one will be waiting somewhere ahead, along the way.  He is always thrilled with the new ball, even if it is rattier and more destroyed than the old abandoned one.

Gus happy with the ball he found

So what’s the point here?  It seems to me that Gus knows a bit about the laws of the universe.  In one of my chemistry lectures, I teach about a particular phenomenon in which the total amount of matter in the universe stays constant.  Under normal conditions, there are no atoms of anything created or destroyed;  they are just “recycled” into different configurations through a whole host of chemical reactions.  In other words, everything around us will always be there; it just might be found in a different place, or in a slightly different form.

Maybe Gus knows that a lost ball will be replaced with a found ball, in order to keep the state of the universe constant.  Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t seem to stress when his ball goes missing.  He understands that things will even out in the end.

I have to agree that this philosophy can make life a lot less stressful, and it can smooth out a lot of issues between people as well.  In all of our personal relationships, there is an ongoing saga of give and take.   This is ultimately how we care for one another, and how we show the people close to us that we are there for them when they need us.  Perhaps it’s as simple as who’s buying the coffee today.  Or maybe it’s more involved; as in running each other’s errands, or taking the time to sit and listen patiently while a dear friend pours out their troubles for a whole evening.

In the strongest relationships, there is no counting of pennies, and no running tally of who owes what to whom.  We just know that, over the course of our lives, we will each pick up the tab the same number of times, and we will be the one to lean on just as often as we will need the strong shoulders of those dear to us.  Running a tab takes the focus away from what true friendship is all about.  Of course there will be countless cups of coffee to pay for, and we each will cover our share over time.  With our close friends and family, we know that there are times when we need to sit back and accept assistance and support, and we can do so gratefully, confident that we will surely have the chance to return the kindness at some time down the road.  It’s what makes the universe work best.

You don’t have to be best friends with everyone

Gus and Fluffy at Uta's

Today Gus came with me for an outing to the hairdresser’s.  I love going to Uta’s because she’s local, she does a great job cutting my hair, she’s always full of fascinating information, and she’s a dog person, so I get to bring Gus along.  I always call first, to make sure there isn’t a client there who’s afraid of big dogs, and usually it’s not a problem.  It’s good for Gus to get out to see new and different places, and now that I’ve trained him to not eat the hair cuttings off the floor anymore, it’s all good!

Today when we arrived, Uta’s dog Fluffy was waiting at the door.  As any normal dog would do, Fluffy began to bark when Gus and I approached.  The two dogs greeted each other with all the usual sniffing, and I sat down to have my hair washed.  Now you can see from the photo above that Fluffy is significantly smaller than Gus.  According to Uta, he basically just isn’t that fond of large dogs.  I don’t know, maybe he views himself as the official greeter of the salon, and he resented the presence of this rather large slobbery dog who was busy saying hi to the other client in the room.  Whatever the reason, Fluffy wasn’t too impressed with Gus, and he let him know it by barking quite a lot.

After several stern comments and requests to be quiet, Fluffy was rather unceremoniously removed from the salon. He continued to bark from another room.  Uta and I then resorted to bribery.  We brought Fluffy back in and I gave the two dogs some tasty treats together – the hope was that Fluffy would think that the treat was from Gus, and change his point of view.  No such luck.  He just wasn’t impressed, and he wasn’t about to let this big dog hang out in his space without letting him know it.

Eventually, after deciding that he’d made his point, Fluffy finally calmed down, and the two dogs settled into a somewhat peaceful co-existence while Uta finished up my hair.  Before I left, we tried to get the two guys to sit nicely beside each other for a picture, and you can see the hilarious result above.  I think the uncomfortable expression on Gus’s face, and Fluffy’s “I’m ignoring you” look say it all.

Let’s face it, there are lots of dogs and lots of people in this world of ours.  Just because we throw two individuals together, we can’t expect that they will automatically become best friends simply because we think it’s a good idea.  I’m reminded of when my kids were little and I’d arrange “play dates” for them.  If I met another new mom and we’d really hit it off, we’d try and get our kids together as well.  Often this would turn out great, but sometimes it just didn’t work out.  I truly believe that there is a sort of chemistry that exists between certain people and between dogs as well.  It’s easy to see when a natural, comfortable friendship is developing, and it’s just as easy to tell when things simply don’t jive – like today.

The natural inclination is to feel embarrassed and awkward when people (or dogs) we think should hit it off just aren’t interested in each other.  But really, what’s the big deal?  We can’t take it personally if they just don’t have as much in common as we think they should.  As long as there are no hard feelings and everyone is amicable, it’s okay to have new acquaintances who don’t turn out to be lifelong friends.  I learned a long time ago not to meddle in my kids’ friendships.  They are excellent judges of who they relate best to, and they have all done fine choosing their own social circles without my help.

Likewise, I don’t get hung up worrying that all of my different friends are friends with each other as well.  I am lucky to have a diverse group of special people in my life, and they come from many different realms.  Each one is unique and dear to me, but I don’t usually bring them all together and expect them to hang out as a big social group.  They are just different people.

As for Gus and Fluffy; well, I do plan to bring Gus along again the next time I go for a haircut.  Maybe they’ll get along better in five weeks, or maybe they won’t.  I’ts all ok with me.

The power of touch

Sarah and Gus black & white

This is one of my all time favourite pictures.  It shows the strength of the bond that Gus and Sarah share, and it projects beautifully the warmth and easy comfort between them.

There’s a joke in our family that our household productivity plummeted when Gus came into our lives.  None of us can walk by him without stopping for a snuggle, a belly rub or even a simple pat.  I’ll often walk into a room to find one of the kids wrapped around him, asleep on the floor.  There’s no question that he is our living stuffed animal.  He’s like a blankie for all of us.  I’ll often sit with Gus in my lap, and just run my hands through his coat as a way to calm myself down. During these past weeks of great stress I have often buried my hands and face in his fur and had a good cry – it really helped.

There is a huge body of research on the power of touch.  In terms of known benefits, it reduces stress, boosts the immune system, decreases pain, calms the mind and lifts the mood.  I teach at a massage therapy college, so I guess I should know!

Yesterday I returned to work at the college after almost two weeks absence.  I was bombarded all day by my wonderful students wishing me well and expressing their concern for me after what I’ve been through.  As you’d expect from a bunch of future registered massage therapists, they are a very physical bunch.  I  received so many warm hugs and gentle touches – I was blown away by the energy of it all, and it made me feel so good.

As a society, we tend to keep pretty much to ourselves, and we are inclined to save touch for our pets, our partners, or specific people in certain situations.  After reflecting on what I’ve experienced and what I’ve just written, I’m making a personal commitment to relax a little and to hug a lot more.