Random, scattered thoughts on dogs, people, movement, and bodies:
A couple years back, I started taking this new medication, a night- time “muscle relaxer” called Requip. This isn’t actually a muscle relaxer: that’s just what it does for me. Requip is a non-ergoline dopamine agonist frequently used for Parkinson’s, RLS, and SSRI rebound syndrome. If you’re a neuro/ medical nerd, it’s fascinating to see how these chemicals work. If you aren’t a neuro/ medical nerd, all you really need to know is that this is a kind of hardcore med for me.
I only take Requip late in the evenings, and even now I have some pretty strict rules about what happens once I’ve swallowed this tiny green pill: I don’t go out, I don’t participate in the internet, and I don’t make any non- urgent phone calls to anyone I’m not wicked close to, because I’m not 100% myself.
When I first started taking it, though, I thought it might be another gabapentin: take it for a week or so to acclimate, no big. My body is a champ at that, unless we’re talking about Benadryl. So there I was, in the front yard, half out of my head but somehow still upright and walking Hugo just before bed, and friends: watching my little dog do his thing was so fascinating.
I’ve turned objective observation of my animals into a regular practice since then, because that moment was enjoyable in an intellectual, not- stoned- on- high- grade- pharmaceuticals sort of way. Removing myself from the idea of being his person friend and caretaker for a few moments in order to observe Hugo purely as an animal as he dogged his way about, industriously doing all his little dog things, that was fantastic. Not just hey, look at my dog doing stuff- I mean, that’s great, but really mindfully, objectively observing him as an animal, from a distance.
There’s an element of Wild Kingdom to this, and I do have to squelch the occasional Marlin Perkins narrating the action from the back of my skull: “Behold: the majestic Hugodog as he carefully surveys his environment in the evening. Assured the lawn is yet again serene and secure, he releases a contented ‘mouff ,’and settles in to find the perfect spot. Yes, yes. This fence post, having been marked in the day by a passing, neighboring canine, provides the Hugodog with a sense of unease and purpose. He sniffs the air, uncertain. Is it safe? Has the danger passed? It has. He sniffs again, and then, jauntily, the wild Hugodog cocks his leg.”
Don’t even think that the animals’ interpersonal (inter- animal?) relationships are safe, either.
I try to avoid the Wild Kingdom narration moments, though, and simply witness. This is half a mindfulness practice, half a deep interest in the practice of animals and people cooperating & co- habitating, a subject of endless interest. Animals are fascinating, and our relationships to, with, and around them are so complicated. A lot of our work in wool, textiles, etc, revolves around how we relate to livestock, although that at times seems to get eclipsed.
Sam and I frequently comment on how much we love that our dogs’ feelings are so obvious; dogs don’t lie, which is one of the reasons I love them so much. There’s something very honest about someone who shows you through their ears, torso, tail, or head exactly what they’re feeling that moment, and that’s really reassuring. They’d be crap at poker, but they don’t have pockets or jobs so it’s not like they could bring anything to the table anyway.
Most of us lose those tricks— communicating with that bold- faced honesty, living in our bodies so comfortably and fully— somewhere between second and fourth grade, sometimes sooner. You can see the change in how children move their bodies, how they carry themselves, and once you notice it, it’s strange. Shoulders come forward or drift toward the ears, hips creep forward, we don’t move our arms when we walk, we don’t sit on the floor much- if at all- any more. It sucks. We stop all that beautiful, constant movement and spend more time sitting, more time learning how to be acceptable, more time just being still. Once we’re in more social settings, too, we can take the harmful things we may be learning at home out on each other, so some of these children take on even more protective postures, and those are can create all sorts of physical issues. Damn, I see some backs, shoulders, and hips carrying some old hurts. We’re all just walking around wearing our old playground insults and sports injuries like badges. They each wear differently, but we sure do hold on to them.
Seriously, we’re complicated, and it’s complicated having a body.
It’s been so cold here lately, friends. Brutally cold in the evenings, that sort of chill that sinks in and sticks with you. (I am STILL banging on about dogs and bodies. Stick with me here.) We were outside a few evenings ago and I had this hunch that we had to be in the single digits, possibly sub- zero with wind chill. I was basing this off of two things: first, it just felt like those godawful unheated nights in Bagram, and second, my right knee, an old runner’s injury from my early 20s, was letting me know it was Too Goddamned Cold For Outside.
I think that’s supposed to make me feel old and decrepit, but I have this weird Yankee pride in having a knee which predicts/ shouts about the weather. BEHOLD: I am a stereotype.
The dogs were on their last walk of the evening, and I was doing my witnessing/ mindfulness thing with Hugo, watching him just dog about. He loves the idea of snow, but hates snowball fights, including those that don’t involve him. Snow should never, ever touch his belly, but it seems to be a fun, magical, interesting thing that happens every year for him; he investigates, climbs, tries to eats it, all the normal stuff. Unfortunately, he can’t be out in it for terribly long; folks who’ve been reading here for a few years might remember that Hugo broke his leg before he turned 1, a nasty break that took months to heal. Hugo can stand the cold for a while, but if he stays out for too long his leg bothers him and he’ll even start to limp. He won’t make any sound (dogs don’t tend to “tell” you when they’re in pain) but he’ll walk toward the front door to say hey, let’s go back where it’s awesome and toasty now.
When we come in, though, he’ll run around the house like a frantic little businessman, all scurrying feet, vigorously rubbing himself onto the couch & blankets to get warm, especially if I’m using a heating pad. He’s warming up, the same way a kid would by jumping up and down, shaking hands and arms. The adult human response to pain and cold is frequently to retreat into a fetal sort of huddle (get small, save body heat) which can allow muscles to freeze into nasty, uncomfortable knots. By moving and stretching, Hugo is getting his blood flowing to get warm faster and is also keeping his as musculature as supple and comfortable as it’s going to be in this weather. Instincts are great.
When I messed up my knee- by not listening to my body and running hills far too often- it took a doctor and a physical therapist to set me right again, which makes sense. I narrowly avoided surgery, for which I’m grateful, but the answer was PT, which is where I began to learn that the answer to many of my physical discomforts is perpetual movement. A body in stasis is a body in pain; we are built to move. We don’t have to move as much as a very small dog (dear glob please don’t, going to the grocery would become a nightmare) but every time I attend a children’s yoga class and see how self- possessed we are when we begin, how we own ourselves until at some point we’re told that isn’t okay any more, I start thinking, well, hell. What’s going wrong in there?
It’s all mixed up in there, too: movement, feeling comfortable in your own skin, the way we carry ourselves. They’re interconnected. And trust that I get physical limitations and how that changes how much movement happens in your day; that’s the song of my people. Slow, gentle neck and shoulder rolls, wrist mobilization, ankle turns, point- by- point ensuring the joints are turning & moving correctly, gently stretching out the limbs while reclined, all of this can give a really awesome feeling of well- being and proactivity. On days when I’ve been too sick to get out of bed, I’ve used this technique to both keep things physically feeling better and to feel like I’m still trying (because those days can get inside your head if you aren’t careful).
Still, even with yoga- teacher tricks like these, I’m no Hugodog. I’m unlearning decades of body- consciousness. I have days when I worry whether I look silly working on a pose when I’m alone at home. That is the height of ridiculousness and self- absorption, friends, boof. Yoga, bodywork, and meditation have been wonderful shortcuts to coming home to my body. Disability, too— that was unexpected. Gratitude, you’re a funny friend. Like funny: ha- ha, and also funny: well, no, I did not order this Zamboni, but now that it’s on my front step I think I’ll keep it.
A few closing rambles: if you’re interested in the relationships between people and animals, Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat is a great place to start reading without accidentally getting a treatise on why you are a monster if you haven’t already become a vegan. (I am not against that lifestyle! I am against shaming people, though.) Conversational non- fiction, some great info, and hey, killer cover design. I tore through it and I’ve picked it up to re- read chapters a few times since. I also cannot say enough good things about Karen Fowler‘s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which is a well- researched, fictional account of a family involved in the Nim Chimpsky experiments. I find myself challenged when I try to pitch this book to friends, because it is different (unsurprisingly, no one, wants to read about animal experimentation; I can promise that while completely unacceptable, this is at least not the gory sort, if that’s any help). Words I use to describe this book: beautiful, heartbreaking, haunting, and revelatory. Apes had never been terribly interesting to me before, but I could not put this down. Worth your time, friends.
Have you read anything along those lines? Suggestions welcomed; the relationship between animals and humans, it’s a side interest, but reading material is always welcome. Books are like art supplies & food: you know you’ll go through them, it’s best to have a little bit extra, and lists of ideas for down the road.
Thanks for listening to some scattered, rather less organized thoughts today; I’ve been thinking so much about movement, posture, taking up space, all of that lately. In my physical practice this winter it has been really helpful to observe others who are naturally comfortable in their skin (animals, children, dancers & acrobats, other yogis) as a way to remind me to check back in with myself and make sure I’m doing the right things to get through a harsher season. I’d love to hear if (and what!) any of you are doing, if you’re doing any of the same.
I’ll be writing up some notes on meds/ medical stuff later this week, for my MS/ chronically ill/ chronic pain/ disability and caretaker folks! Stay warm & dry.