Now and then: lessons from a shelter dog

Three years ago today, my own personal guru moved into our house.

My husband and I went to the animal shelter just to “look.”

We went to look for a puppy. What we found was an eight-year-old malnourished little mutt with eyes that were two different colors. She was not at all what we wanted. We couldn’t imagine adopting a senior dog and having to endure the loss of her so soon. We hadn’t even completely recovered from the loss of Cleo a year earlier.

But when we sat with Grace in the courtyard of the shelter, I burst into tears. J immediately knew that this dog was our dog, because whenever something important happens —  I burst into tears. We decided that we didn’t care how old she was. Whatever time we could have with this sweet soul was completely worth it.

We paid our $50 and we took home our Catahoula leopard dog/blue heeler/who knows what else.

We joyfully surrendered to the unknown.

photo 1

Grace going to her forever home – because who says no to this face?

But Grace was kind of a mess.

We knew very little about her past, other than the fact that she had been living on the streets for a while. Her claws were so long they wrapped around and dug into the pads of her feet. Half of her teeth had to be pulled because they were rotted. She didn’t know how to play. The sound of clapping made her cower. She had terrible nightmares that left her snarling and whimpering and snapping at anything she could reach. Life had not been easy for this dog.

Even with that history, watching her come into her own over the past three years has taught me incredible lessons about stillness, joy, acceptance, love and indeed — grace.

She reminds me that everyone has a past, sometimes wonderful and sometimes challenging. It all needs to be acknowledged, learned from and then let go. I don’t know exactly what Grace has gone through. She has a deep affection for the sound of an ice cream container being opened, so she’s clearly got some fond memories from her old life, too. But really, the details are irrelevant.

That’s the amazing thing about her. Grace doesn’t care if you’re divorced or you got fired or your parents sucked at showing affection. She just cares about this moment right here. How it feels to be present together. Nothing else matters to her.

As I transition from total denial of my former acting career, to embracing it and defining its place in my current life, this is an incredibly valuable lesson.

We all carry connections to our past – as we should – those experiences made us who we are and homage should be paid. Grace still gets excited when she sees a dumpster, since that was presumably the only way she ate for a while. Just like I still retain some of my old acting skills like hitting a mark and memorizing dialogue effortlessly. But those things don’t need to be in the foreground. They don’t need to take precedence over what is going on – just here, just now.

So, Grace and I learn how to put our pasts in the proper place. I still love and accept her when she feels the need to defend her food, and she does the same for me when I roll my eyes at the red carpet coverage of the Oscars. Then we both take a deep breath and feel grateful that everything that ever happened brought us to this moment right here.

And there is a lot to be grateful for. Grace reminds me that just going for a walk can be the most thrilling experience. And that sometimes sitting quietly on the porch and watching the birds is the best way to spend an afternoon. And that when you love someone unconditionally, you wait for them right outside the bathroom door, because it’s just nice to be close by.

She teaches me that we are all in this together – this struggle to live the best way that we can, deciding how we want to respond to the world around us. We might not have control over everything, but we control our perspective and how we want to live in the uncertainty. Despite everything, Grace has chosen wholehearted joy.

And since we are all in this together, love is always the answer. Whatever wounds we have can be soothed by the love that comes from waiting outside the bathroom door for someone  – when you know they would totally wait for you, too.

Happy birthday, Gracie.

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26 thoughts on “Now and then: lessons from a shelter dog

  1. I know this must be an important read because I’m crying. Being present and haunted by a difficult past… I hear ya Grace. So this spring it will be porch, going for a bike ride, birds, vaporizing clouds and when I walk out of the bathroom I hope that some special love will be waiting… To live with Grace is to truly live. Thanks Lisa, superb.

    • Thank you for this – I’m so glad you felt connected to it. I know you will find beautiful birds/clouds/bike rides and a lot of love waiting for you…

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’ve learned similar lessons from my cat Zoe. It doesn’t matter if I just got dumped, to her I am the same person I was yesterday. Oh, and I love that you compared your acting skills to Grace’s excitement about a dumpster. That made me laugh out loud. Happy birthday, Grace!

    • Ha! Actually, I think her dumpster diving skills might be more useful than my stand-on-a-mark skills… So glad you enjoyed the post!

  3. This made me cry, too! Two souls saving each other…..one of God’s most precious gifts! So beautiful and honest, Lisa! Happy Birthday Grace!

  4. Beautiful true story, Lisa. It reminds me of God’s grace offered so freely to us at such great cost to Him. May you and Grace have many happy years together! Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. I just stumbled upon this blog post by typing “animal rescue” in my search bar. As an animal activist and someone deeply involved with animal rescue, I’m always looking for stories from others! I struck gold reading this and, totally not ashamed to admit, I was all teary eyed by the end. I have 5 dogs my self, all but 1 are rescues and I love them more than I ever thought imaginable. I love that you shared this story with everyone and I hope it inspires someone else to adopt a fur-baby and give them a forever home. You know how it goes: We didn’t rescue our dogs. They rescued us.

    • I’m so happy you found me! I always love hearing from another animal person – I love that you have 5! I would love to have more dogs…but Grace has made it clear she wants to be an only child! Thank you so much for reading.

  6. Beautiful. Whatever dark past Grace may have had, I hope it’s a distant memory for her now. She was truly blessed the day you & your husband went to just “look”. Working in an animal shelter, I’ve seen lots of shelter pets find their forever homes in people “just looking” – more often than not, people leave with a totally different pet than they thought they wanted. Thank you for adopting, and happy birthday, Grace!

    • Thank you! I now volunteer at an animal shelter and I just love seeing the animals go off to their new lives. It’s so incredibly sweet.

      • That’s fantastic! I’m the volunteer coordinator at our shelter so I know how valuable and appreciated good volunteers can be. Thank you for volunteering. 🙂

  7. Great post! We have two rescue dogs, one that use to live in a garage and never went outside….He was so afraid of everything at first. He was a year old when we adopted him. Now he is eight and has had seven years of love and a big back yard to lord over. He enjoys chasing the squirrels along the fence. Our animals are such a huge part of our lives. Happy Birthday Grace!

  8. Love this post! This must be one of the lessons I most need to learn because it keeps showing up. I’ve had several reminders today alone. My favorite came in the form of a quote posted on Facebook the week before last: “If you are feeling sad, you are living in the past. If you are feeling anxious, you are living in the future. If you are feeling peaceful, you are living in the present.” Two out of three ain’t bad doesn’t quite work in this case–especially when I know I’ve kept the only one worth experiencing out of my life with consistently unhelpful thoughts.

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