Lessons from a dog, post-9/11

The following reflection is from one of my favorite books, Dog Blessings: Poems, Prose, and Prayers Celebrating Our Relationship with Dogs edited by June Cotner (New World Library, 2008). When I re-read this piece recently, I was struck by how timeless and thoughtful it is, ten years later. It speaks to me of the role of dogs as spirit guides, leading us forward through unspeakable tragedy and loss, while reaffirming hope in the future.

Lessons Learned Post-9/11

by Reverend Roberta Finkelstein

Enthusiasm and engagement. That is the spirituality of the dog…My dog Pepper loves me absolutely, he thinks I’m wonderful all the time, and he is absolutely enthusiastic about the world.

The word enthusiasm has an interesting root. It goes back to the Greek en theos —the indwelling of God. Enthusiasm is not mindless; it is a deep and abiding belief in the goodness of life. That’s the spirituality of the dog — engaged with the world, out there seeing and smelling and interacting. And constantly affirming the basic goodness…

On September 12th, when I woke up the day after, exhausted from a mostly sleepless night and wondering how I could possibly prepare for the services I had promised that evening, it was Pepper who helped me get back my perspective.

For Pepper, the morning after September 11 was a morning like any other. He charged up from his bed, headed straight for the door, wriggled in anticipation while I hooked on his leash, then charged out the door and down the front steps. Oh, those first sniffs at the bushes! Ah, that first whiff of green grass. Always we go past the first couple of houses with his nose buried in the delicious smells of the neighborhood. Then, as we approach the mini-park, he stops and looks back at me. “Isn’t this great?” he asks, tail wagging. “Can you believe it’s all still here?”

I don’t know which was harder to believe that morning. That the Twin Towers were gone, that the seemingly impregnable Pentagon walls had been breached. Unbelievable! Or was it even more unbelievable what Pepper told me that morning? That it — the grass, the bushes, the familiar smells and stops along our regular morning route — it was all still there in all its glory.

Pepper doesn’t know much about terrorism or foreign policy. But what he does know is that all that was right and wonderful and dependable about our life on September 10th is still there. He knows it because of his enthusiasm for life — his ability to embody the indwelling of goodness and rightness. He teaches me, every morning, a most important lesson: be uncomplicated, be genuine, be glad to be alive. Because (sniff) it’s all still here!

(reprinted by permission of Reverend Roberta Finkelstein)

Reverend Finkelstein is currently the Senior Interim Minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, VT.  I asked her if she had any thoughts to add, reflecting on the ten year anniversary of 9/11. Here is her update:

“In the last ten years our son Danny, now an adult, has become very active in dog rescue work in the DC area. I guess it runs in the family.

Pepper (pictured here) is still alive, but he is an old man now. He has lost the sight in one eye due to glaucoma, and he is partially deaf. He has arthritis and moves very slowly compared to how he moved ten years ago. In fact after receiving your email I actually got tears in my eyes thinking about how spry he used to be. He takes very slow walks now, and much shorter. But he still stops to sniff every bush and blade of grass with intense enjoyment. I have learned to alter my pace to respect his.

What saddens me most approaching the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks is the sense that we, as a nation, have not learned the lesson Pepper tried to teach that day. We have given in to fear and made a false sense of security our priority rather than remembering the core values of our nation’s founding. It is not too late to remember together that all that we valued the day before is still here, if we would only pay attention.”

Thank you, Reverend Finkelstein, for these wise words.

I remember my dogs, Byron and Emily, being a great comfort to me in the days following 9/11. The routines of walking them and caring for them provided stability in the uncertain aftermath. And a few weeks later, as soon as air travel resumed, they flew cross-country with me to begin our new life in North Carolina. I remember them emerging from their crates after the long flight, and sniffing the clean mountain air with excitement and anticipation. I was fearful of what our future held, but they smelled the promise of new beginnings. In the midst of loss and transition, they taught me to keep my heart open. And they were right!

What lessons did your dog teach you?

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