Ode to my Pericardiums
Most people get one per lifetime, or maybe two. I, however, have been blessed with an exceptional karma of pericardiums, all of them perfect for where I was at just then. Looking back at them now provides me valuable insights into my needs and strengths at any particular moment in time, but most importantly leaves me with a feeling of such gratitude for the richness of my life. And this is what I want to share with you, if you care to know.
As you may have guessed if you are a reader literate in Chinese medical theory, I am not talking about multiple heart surgeries, but about the dogs that I have had the great fortune of sharing my life with. And for those of you who are not, suffice it to say that in Chinese medical theory, the pericardium is associated with the dog as its “zodiac animal” for lack of a better term. And this is one association that just makes perfect sense to me and has been a source of insights into both my pericardium, and thereby also the state of my heart, and into the behavior and role of my dogs in my life.
It is often said lightly, but not in this household, that dog is nothing but GOD spelled backward. I do see the reflection of god’s love in the deep devoted stare of my dogs, in the gentle morning wake-up bump against my bed, in the sound of a wagging tail just because I think of the dog snoozing by my feet, in their boundless passion and explosion of joy when I open the gate and let them out for our daily walk, in our heart-to-heart connection during groaning and moaning evening snuggle sessions by the wood stove, with the cat thrown in for good measure, every single day. It’s one of the things that keeps me going on dark days and fills me with a profound sense of joy the rest of the time. It just is, a bottomless wellspring of love and simple animal goodness.
While I could easily turn this story into a multi-volume book, I will for now limit myself to the four dogs that have been with me most recently and have truly been my own personal dogs, my keepers and protectors, my pericardiums:
First there was an unidentifiable black lab-type mix with adorable white spotted feet who just showed up one day on my front porch in downtown Tucson, right when I was going through a pretty terrifying divorce and trying to accept the unacceptable, that my young daughter, not even two years old, would be spending alternating weekends and holidays away from me, at her dad’s place. At that point, my life was literally falling apart, and I often felt like I was being swallowed up by a black cloud of anger and despair, with barely a roof over my head, a half-finished and totally impractical degree in Chinese philosophy suspended a year ago so that I could be a proper German housewife and mother, no family members this side of the ocean, and barely making ends meet teaching part-time mariachi violin, roofing houses in the Arizona heat, baking bread, and trying all sorts of other ways of squeezing by. Of course I could not resist, and I named my new companion “Nunca,” because at that time I had my head in Norteño songs full of vows of never-ending love. Unlike my daughter who was sometimes taken from me, Nunca was never going to be separated from me, and somehow she allowed me to transition into this new reality of my life. With her by my side, I slowly created a new family, different from what I had envisioned but strong and loving and good just the same. Nunca allowed me to move on from the trauma of my divorce and to rediscover happiness, whether in music, in gardening, in my academic pursuits, or in a more community-oriented lifestyle full of band practices and gigs and weekly feasts complete with Dulce de Leche desserts, in contrast to my previous nuclear family existence.
Both Nunca and I were suffering from intense separation anxiety, and I wish in hindsight that I had had a better understanding of her, and my own, psychological problems. We needed each other, and it was traumatic for her to be left behind with no explanation that she could comprehend in her dog soul. So she would chew up shoes, phone books, carefully installed drip irrigation lines, water hoses, pillows, or bags of dog food, only to throw up their contents all over the house. She was also an unrepentant chicken killer until I followed my neighbor’s advice and tied the last victim around her neck to let it rot there for a few days under the Arizona sun. But….she was also there for me through everything, including my first Christmas without child or family, when the two of us got ourselves lost on a power hike in the Chiricahua Mountains, probably exactly what we both needed but an adventure that could have easily had a less fortunate outcome. I believe it was her instinct that guided us back to the car in the dark.
A couple of years later, she moved with my daughter and me from Tucson to Taos, where she became a trusted and happy farm dog. Since I worked at home as a translator, these were good times where she was able to be by my side almost continuously, and we both settled into a good new life. She was even able to accompany me on a couple of long road trips to Tucson, where I would drop my daughter off with her dad for the summer. And what perfect company she was, lying there next to me with her paws and head on my lab as I sang along with Patsy Cline on the long drive home through the desert. Or that solo camping trip up to Montana, where she kept me feeling safe and loved in the middle of nowhere in the mountains…We had us some serious good times together! And then one day she disappeared, just like she had shown up, out of nowhere into nowhere. We were staying at a friend’s place while fixing up the farm that I had just bought, and one day I came home to find my friend’s fenced-in yard empty, with no trace of Nunca. I will never forget searching for her in the incoming snowstorm and darkening night, yelling and calling and crying for hours and hours and days and days. No fliers, ads, radio announcements, or sessions with an animal communicator could bring her back. It was a grave and drastic, totally unanticipated, lesson in impermanence that I didn’t think I was ready for or could survive. Did god really think I did not need her in my life any more and could live without her? It was my first experience of a loss for which I was unable to find a rational explanation. But ultimately that is what human life is all about, and my busy life on the new farm moved on. I have never since taken the blessings in my life for granted in quite the same way. About two years later, that same friend took me for a hike out on the mesa near her house and led me to a pile of bones that she had found. And yes, there in the dirt was a collar with a tag with Nunca’s name on it… Nunca, nunca, nunca will I forget you!
Maybe six months after Nunca’s disappaerance, that same friend, a fellow mom and dog person, who loved my daughter dearly and probably just thought that no child should grow up without a dog, took me to visit another friend who just happened to have a litter of puppies in the living room. Supposedly, these were pure blue heelers, the quintessential Taos dog, perfect for herding livestock and working the farm that I was setting up. Of course I couldn’t resist. So this is how Lulu came into our lives, a nice complement to my daughter Momo and Meimei, queen of our growing goat herd. Lulu ended up being your typical Taos mutt, in a challenging head-strong mix of blue heeler with beagle and who knows what else. Being a monkey myself, I think Lulu was too much monkey and not enough dog to be the perfect compliment for my pericardium needs, but the farming life kept both of us busy and happily bouncing around, chasing goats away from the trees in the orchards and defending ducklings and goslings against the roving pack of starving neighbors’ dogs. Lulu had nine lives, which at one point forced her to spend three months in a crate after being literally run over and having her insides crushed by a car right outside our front gate. In a complete miracle, according to the vet, all she lost in that incident was her tail! She loved to run away for days at a time, a habit that I never did get used to but that caused her boundless joy, especially when it involved rolling in nasty stuff and eating rotten elk carcasses in the mountains. She was also fiercely protective of all of us, which was a needed contribution to the safety of our farm. So she was the perfect farm dog, more a “normal” dog and less of a pericardium than the other dogs in my life.
When we eventually decided to leave the neighborhood warzone and move to a safer suburban existence in Oregon, of course Lulu came along. In our new life, her boundless energy, need for constant entertainment or employment, and fierce protectiveness were a bad fit and turned into neuroses, compulsive licking and chewing, and aggression toward other dogs. I made a decision that some people may not understand and that even my own daughter had a very hard time with in the moment, to find Lulu a new home and family where she could be happy again. Of course I had no illusions that Lulu’s trauma and neuroses were merely a mirror of my own, as I was trying to adjust to a radically different new life when my heart had been shattered by the loss of the farming existence we had left behind. Perhaps I wanted at least one of us to be able to return to that life, since I could not. So I found her a lovely young couple full of love and hope and in need of a serious working farm dog as they were building exactly the kind of life we had left behind. Unable to say anything meaningful, I handed them her leash and a bag of dog food and sent them on their way, Lulu happily wagging her tail at the adventure. I know in my heart that I did the right thing for her.
While we were still living in Taos on our farm, two other dogs came to me, both of which are still with me. When Lulu had still been a puppy, I had looked for a companion for her, to mellow her out and play with her, but never found the right dog. Then one day, when I had given up, I got a call from a friend who was involved with the local shelter. I will never forget. This is how Mr. Nilson came into my life: It was my favorite day of the year, ditch-cleaning day, in early April, where the men, and a few women, of the whole community get together for a day of very long hard work to clean the main irrigation ditch. During the lunch break I happened to stop at home and got the message from my friend that there was a dog at the shelter who I needed to see. What the heck, I thought, and jumped in the car for the quick drive. I walked into the reception room and there he was, in a crate by the wall. I knew in that tiniest instant. I sat on the floor, balled my eyes out, and just held him. He was literally skin and bones, with starvation having eaten away his muscles, severely abused and completely traumatized from being in that cage. I just sat there, held him, and then told the front desk person that I absolutely would not leave without this dog. The shelter lady told me that adoption of a dog was a long formal process, in need of multiple verifications and background checks that would take weeks. I simply refused. In a stroke of insight, I remember that my realtor was on the board of the shelter and asked her to call her for a reference. And the miracle happened, and twenty minutes later I walked out of that shelter into the sunshine with my pericardium by my side.
Mr. Nilson, named after Pippi Longstocking’s monkey for those of you who don’t get the reference, was severely abused and had barely survived the winter when I got him. He had dysentery with bloody nervous diarrhea and hid under the table for weeks, had no concept of playing with either dogs or humans, was terrified to come in the house, and would start trembling for the smallest reasons, often ones that we didn’t even know, so badly that he could not stand up. I learned to not pick up sticks or brooms in his presence because it triggered his trauma, and to never look at him cross. To this day, I cannot raise my voice around him, or he starts shaking. If you want to know what PTSD looks like on a physical, animal level, you can study Mr. Nilson. When another dog attacks him, as has happened a few times, he literally starts screaming in fear of his life even though he has never been visibly hurt in any of these scuffles. And yet, he has become the most tender loving beautiful old man, greying gracefully, soft as butter and mostly deaf at this point, but still bursting into spontaneous puppy dances of joy at random moments. He literally prances at times on our walks. A few months after I got him, he finally for the first time rediscovered his voice. He groaned! At first we thought that he had growled, which would be completely unlike him. He does not have an ounce of aggression in him, and has always been completely submissive to all the strong female creatures on our farm, from turkeys to geese to goats to the two other dogs and even the cat, who will plop down obnoxiously on his big dog bed and occupy it until I chase her off. Our dog groans the way a cat purs, when he relaxes and lets go of his tension, to express a deep sense of satisfaction that life is just right.
Mr. Nilson is my guy. In all his so visibly embodied trauma, he is the tender loving gentle aspect of my pericardium that allows both of us to melt away the scars of our past through the power of love and trust and safety. He is a black lab mix, in my mind with a bit of Nunca come back to us, with an extremely pronounced “occipital protuberance” at the back of his head, which one animal communicator told me made him “deep.” I don’t doubt it for one second. Mr. Nilson is not a normal dog. His presence in my life is a constant source of love, joy, and mystery. As a writer and translator, by necessity I lead a quiet and withdrawn existence, so that I can concentrate on my work. Nilson’s unwavering dedication and steadfast company allow me to embrace that aspect of my work. The fact that Nilson and I have found each other in this lifetime is a daily source of gratitude and mystery for me. It just is. At this point, he is getting old and grey, and visibly slowing down. I have told him that I will be okay without him and that I am prepared to let him go. I treasure every day we are blessed to have together. He reminds me of my dad who is far away in Germany and who I miss dearly and almost lost last year. Ironically the presence of my dogs here in Oregon keeps me from moving back to Germany to be closer to my aging parents. So be it. I can use whatsapp and the telephone to communicate with my dad. But for Nilson, I need to lay down on the floor beside him and hear him groan and moan in pleasure as only he can. This winter, when I repeatedly lost electricity and heat in a horrible string of ice storms that blasted my house with more than hundred mile an hour winds for days at a time and I was literally afraid of freezing to death, Nilson and I kept each other warm company. Just like Nunca helped me accept my divorce and the temporary absences of my daughter 18 years ago, so Nilson is now by my side, helping me adapt to my daughter’s more permanent absence as she has gone off to college. And I can only hope that I will continue to learn from his softening old-age presence, still mixed with his youthful exuberance at totally random moments, and age with a similar grace and simultaneous joy.
Last but most definitely not least, there is Rose. She is my fierce protrectress, warrior goddess, embodiment of concentrated female power at its best, and a constant inspiration for me to follow her example. Rose is the only dog I have who is not a rescue dog. She was actually purchased, as a working Livestock Guardian Dog, and we are taking her function on the farm very seriously. She is a rare breed called “Gampr,” imported from Armenia where these dogs are used to protect sheep from wolves while out on pasture. She is the most powerful creature I have ever had in my life! Before Rose showed up on my farm in New Mexico, bloodbaths of my livestock as the result of nightly, and sometimes day-time, invasions by the starving neighbors’ dogs, plus the occasional bear, cougar, or coyote visit, were a regular occurrence. Because of the nature of the terrain, no amount of fencing was able to keep predators out and our other dog Lulu in, which meant that Lulu had to be locked up in the house at night or when I left. I also had a lot of personal conflict with the neighbors and was regularly afraid for my own and my daughter’s physical safety. Who knows how Rose’s breeder in California found me or could have know that we surely had a need for this dog, when I didn’t even know this myself! She contacted me out of the blue one day through my website, which I had set up to sell goat milk and similar farm products, and told me about the breed and about this puppy that would just be so perfect for us. I had actually been looking into adopting a Great Pyrenees but had been unsuccessful for one reason or another.
According to Wikipedia, which now has an actual page on this breed, “The modern Gampr has changed little within the history of its existence in Armenian Highlands. It is one of few natural breeds not subjected to hard selection by phenotype. They preserved the genetic variation that other dog breeds had initially. This genetic variation was promoted by spontaneous and, in some cases, intentional periodic matings with locally indigenous wolves (still present). Gamprs differ by their vital capacity, independence, mind, strong self-preservation instinct, capacity for trustworthy defense and protection of livestock, and exclusive friendliness to humans.”
Needless to say, Rose is a dog unlike any other I have ever met, presumably because of the strong wolf genes. At the current moment, Rose complicates my life a bit, or limits my choices, since she prevents me from moving closer to my teaching work and community. So be it. God works in mysterious ways, and this dog and I are connected in a deep way that is simply an unalterable fact of life in my mind. Fiercely independent and impossible to train in the ways of a more “civilized” dog, she nevertheless expresses her devotion and acceptance of me as her alpha dog regularly and has not once growled at a family member or friendly visitor to my place. She has always been our outside dog and was raised with the clear and essential task of guarding our livestock in what used to literally be a life-and-death situation on our farm in New Mexico. When we moved away to Oregon, I actually intended to leave her behind, being clear that life with one of my farming friends in rural northern New Mexico would be much better suited to her wolf nature than my new suburban existence. But things didn’t work out that way, and at some point I had to jump in the car, drive down there, and claim her back. Sometimes the universe doesn’t give us a choice, and for better or worse, Rose and I belong together. I have not looked back since. She is that aspect of my pericardium that holds me firm in my connection to my former life and keeps me grounded in my wildness. I may not get to be a real farmer right now but Rose is my daily reminder that that wild wolf is also an essential part of who I am, one that needs to be nurtured and respected and incorporated into my life. Even though she accepts my dominance, she does not always come immediately when I call her. And yet, I know she’d never wander off and leave, the way most other dogs would if they found a hole in the fence.
My favorite interactions with Rose are on our daily walk when she will thunder off into the distance, like a lion rather than a dog, an unstoppable force of nature, only to turn around, race back, and block my path. Sometimes she invites me to play and dares me to chase her, but more often she just parks herself right in front of me and demands connection, enticing me to get down to her level and rub her and love her and reestablish that heart-to-heart link, whether standing or rolling on the ground, until she decides she has had enough and is ready to go on. And then she will walk right by my side exactly at the perfect height for my hand to rest on her back in a physically tangible connection that she sometimes chooses to maintain for a long time. No leash, no training, no “Heel” command, just pericardium connection. Rose does not ask for a pat on the back, she powerfully demands recognition whenever she needs it or the mood strikes her. Luckily for me, that is actually quite often. At the same time, she is fiercely independent and happily and ceaselessly performs her task of guarding the farm. Our connection is not one of devotion or need but of choice, given as a mutual gift to enrich both of our lives from a place of power and freedom. Having this force of nature in my life serves as a constant reminder to myself of my own animal nature. It also inspires me to exist in the moment in a non-rational presence that perhaps can temporarily transcend the subjective or objective experience of reality, as it is filtered through the divisive activity of the rational mind. This is as close as I come on a daily basis to the ideal Chinese state of “fasting the heart.”