The Therapeutic Value of Pets

Gerardie with dog

For the love of a dog

Even in my early years, I used to love reading the newspaper’s advice columns, not so much for the answers as for the questions. Every time a teenager was featured complaining about life, my mother would say “That child needs a pet.” She was a big proponent of the idea that if children could get outside of themselves by caring for an animal (or a number of them), they would be more compassionate people, that pet ownership was therapeutic. I of course tended to not listen to my mother, but I did take advantage of her tendency to allow various animals to reside in and around our home. I am told a cat even crawled into my bed one night to deliver kittens—though I have no memory of the event.
One of my very favorite stories involves a family friend who did research at The Ohio State University, involving dogs who he insisted be treated well. His boss wanted him to have the dogs de-barked and our friend adamantly refused. The office was located directly above a residential unit for disturbed children. One day, while the dog was barking above the unit, a child who had not spoken for six months said “Can I play with the doggie?” I love that story— this child hadn’t even seen the dog!
Animal lovers are getting more of these critters placed than ever before, despite the facts that living space is becoming more limited for many. And professionals are realizing their therapeutic value. Therapy dogs are not just German Shepherds for blind people any more; many are used to help with panic attacks, or to alert owners to impending seizures, to let diabetics know when their blood sugar has taken a dangerous dive…the benefits are extensive, as are the types of dogs utilized.
Then there is just plain ordinary pet ownership. You love your pet; your pet “gets” you. We can all benefit from that comfort.
(About the picture I selected: That is my young friend Gerard, who has recently started training dogs and appears to have quite a gift for it. Don’t you just love the look in that dog’s eyes? I know I do.)

Taking a Break

Emmet 2017 02 in treeNot too long ago, I became very ill, for a very short time. My fever lingered, though, and I took the opportunity to stay at home, away from anyone I could expose to whatever had hit me. I was lucky; I didn’t have an employer threatening loss of my job and I was not heavily committed to activities in the outside world. But it also felt to me like I should not be out among people while it was likely I was still contagious.
Prior to the advent of antibiotics, it was not at all unusual to see Quarantine signs on homes where one or more family members had a serious illness, and that sign would remain till the danger of contagion had passed. Quarantine in homes is clearly no longer the norm; we have depended on antibiotics to stop diseases in their tracks.
Illness is definitely not the preferred method for getting people to take a break. However, in a country with such a strong work ethic, we do need to fit breaks into our schedules. Maybe we can recall things we did as children: climb that tree, go see the neighbor’s new kitten, chat with the people closest to us about nothing in particular, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, go sit in a quiet corner with that book we have been wanting to read…
We are actually more efficient, more productive, more creative when we allow ourselves enough breaks. So let’s indulge ourselves, without apology. Let’s not wait for an illness or injury to be the reason we are sidelined.
Maybe, just maybe taking a break will make us kinder. Maybe we will even smile a bit more. Maybe we can even laugh like that adorable little boy in the tree.
Maybe enough people taking a break will even make the world a happier place.

“I Wish That Was My Biggest Problem”/Perspective

Carefree and Worry Free

Carefree and Worry Free

Here is how my mother used to annoy me to no end: I would start to complain about something and she would say “I wish that was my biggest problem.” Of course at the time I hated it. But now I see she was trying to help me put things in perspective.
A few years ago, when a friend of mine was seriously ill, we started making lists of what we wished was our biggest problem. And we had some fun with it. Here are a few of my personal favorites, in no particular order.
– If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head?
– Would I rather buy the Lexus or the BMW?
– Chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
– Would I rather go to the opera, or the ballet? Or maybe a comedy club.
– The speed limit is too low.
– Which book to read first.
– Should I go hiking in the woods on the weekend, or during the week?
– Which outfit should I wear to yoga class?
– My spouse/significant other is so supportive, I need to be careful not to gloat.
– How best to spend a month’s vacation.
– I have such wonderful friends, how do I make time for all of them?
– What to request for my birthday, since I already have what I want.
– Researching the best gifted classes for my child.
– Finding the best restaurant for a night of fine dining with friends.
– That candy is too pretty to eat.
Okay, you get the idea. We all need a bit of levity in our lives. And some perspective. Not that there aren’t problems that are overwhelming; there are plenty. But it’s nice to put the smaller ones in perspective. And as for the bigger problems—that is for a different blog.

Community

community of kids

community of kids

A sense of community can protect us, buffer us against hardships. This is not just geographical community; it can be family, friends—anyone you value. Sometimes it is a group we belong to, via accident or choice.
During World War II, the strong sense of community in Denmark saved most Jewish people from being deported to concentration camps. Why? Because their neighbors felt these people were Danish first, and they spread the word as quickly as possible when they heard the Nazis were preparing to do a roundup.
Today in Denmark, a sense of community is being utilized to prevent bullying in schools. I wish I could recall the article I read and give credit, but here is what I do recall: Every Friday, the children in each classroom gather with their teacher and pick a topic that concerns one or more of them. They then discuss ways to deal with this issue. And students are assigned to take their turn providing a pastry (home cooked or purchased) that the entire classroom can munch on while they chat. This strikes me as absolute genius. The students all feel a stake in resolving the problem. No one is excluded, and every person’s opinion matters.
I cannot recall if this involves children of all ages or only certain grades, but I was so impressed. Maybe we in this country would do well to devote less class time to standardized testing and more time to community building activities such as this. It not only builds community; it also helps these students develop problem-solving skills that will help them later in life.
One frequent target of bullying attacks, in-person or online, is often the “new kid.” It is entirely too easy to isolate this person as “not one of us” and avoid feeling compunction for our actions. Yet many people do the opposite, going out of their way to meet and get to know that new person, to help them integrate into the already-existing community. Maybe that would be a good example for more of us to follow.
Maybe we should start by getting to know our neighbors. Some of us may do better starting with online communities. Or simply being responsive to others who reach out to us.
That connection is essential, and how each person goes about it isn’t the most important thing. Going about it is.

Don’t Forget the Joy

Kyler Kaia joyful

What great smiles!

What would happen if you wrote down the best thing that happened each day on a slip of paper and put it in a jar? Maybe you do this for a month, or a year, maybe longer. Now imagine being able to reach into that jar and smile at a different memory with each slip of paper, smiling as you enjoy it the second time around.
Would your life improve if you could see the humor in difficult situations? If you could, while some fool keeps yelling at you, envision that same person wearing a diaper and sucking on a pacifier?

Suppose you are in the presence of a mom whose kids are tearing everything off the shelves of your store while she waxes on about how carefully she watches her children–and it is all you can do to not giggle at the irony. Perhaps a friend is suffering from chemo treatments and makes jokes about “no-hair days.”
Or maybe you just choose to escape life’s difficulties by watching slapstick comedy, or going to an amusement park. None of this means you are irresponsible; it’s a simple matter of seizing joy.

What is the point of life if you don’t have any fun? Our schedules get so busy, it’s easy to put that off till we forget how to laugh.
Prior to becoming a mental health counselor, I made my living doing family-oriented singing telegrams, creating personalized skits in the persona of several ridiculous characters. And I loved it! Making people laugh is the kind of thing that–well, it was impossible to avoid embracing some of that joy for myself. That helped me through some otherwise difficult times.
Children have a lot to teach us in this area. When they are in pain, they show it, and they don’t carry that weight any longer than necessary. They run, play, laugh–and bring joy to others in the process. I hope you, each of you, finds some of that same joy every day.
Let’s get started.

Yarn Bombing: Sharing the Joy

yarn bombed bike & stand

Did you knit that bicycle?

When my networking group met at a Granville coffee house this morning, we found ourselves right across the street from a “yarn bombing” site. For those unfamiliar with the concept of yarn bombing, a group of unknown people make a stealth “attack” sometime before sunrise, and decorate trees, railings, benches–you name it–with their knitting. There is even a world yarn bombing day, and apparently this is it. At least according to the notation they included on some of their work.
It puts smiles on a lot of faces.
I still knit a little; I did a lot of it in my younger days, even worked in a yarn shop and taught classes. We didn’t yarn bomb in those days, mostly followed patterns and made afghans and outfits for ourselves and our families. I do like the whimsy of the yarn bombing.
Mobility equipment is a favorite target of mine. If you are going to be stuck with a walker, or crutches, or a cane, why not have some fun with it? A wheelchair would look great with some creative knitting on the armrests or across the back. One friend of mine covered her medical boot with black knitted piece featuring a pink flamingo on the front and the word “Ouch” across the back. Me? I just use up scrap yarn to decorate canes and walkers. Got my start with my own crutches when I had foot surgery. A young girl told me I should call it “crutch cozies.” Smart kid!
If it makes people smile or laugh, and not in a hurtful way…well, I’m all for spreading joy. It’s only one way out of many. Personally, I kind of hope the Granville yarn bombers manage to stay anonymous; they are spreading kindness in their own unique way.

Feelings Matter

10849834_10204283008649005_4656505680773991841_nHave you ever been walking down the street on a day when it felt like your world would end, and a total stranger said “Smile; it can’t be that bad.” How would they know? Yeah, it can be that bad. And you have a perfect right to your feelings. While sadness is no excuse to be rude to others, I personally don’t see a need to appear totally cheerful 100 percent of the time. That is simply not realistic. Maybe you just had an ugly spat with someone dear to you. Or you learned your best friend has Parkinson’s. Maybe it’s just a pile of smaller things that have taken their toll. Whatever you feel is genuine.
This stranger may feel he or she is doing a genuine kindness to suggest you smile. Or they may just be uncomfortable with your sadness. But how they feel is their problem, not yours. Just as how you feel is not their issue (unless you choose to share it).
All your feelings matter. And they all need to be acknowledged, even the negative ones. If we don’t find some way to honor our negative feelings, we are too likely to keep them inside. Which leads to flattening all the emotions, good and bad, and can even lead to a general feeling of melancholy.
Infants and young children’s emotions have a tendency to “turn on a dime.” They may be laughing, then suddenly in tears, or vice versa. But there is no question about what they are feeling; it’s right out there. Then they get a little older, and they sometimes show frustration by acting out, and the adults in their world have the dubious privilege of interpreting this behavior.
If you are reading this, you have presumably reached adulthood. Which is certainly no guarantee of having it all figured out. All those years you were a child and figured that once you were 18 or 21 or whatever, you would always know what to do. But one thing is simple, though not always easy: Honor your feelings and those of others. Feel free to talk about them with someone you trust. When you can get the negative feelings out of the way–sadness, frustration, anger–in constructive ways, the happiness will be so much greater. Try it; you might free yourself to feel as playful as the little guy in the picture.

Writer’s Block

writing

Let’s get this write.

I don’t want to write this column. Just don’t feel like it. But it’s time.
So what to do?
Sometimes it helps to just do nothing for a while, to let ideas incubate so I’ll feel more like I have something to write about.
Nah, already tried that.
Maybe if I make sure I schedule enough uninterrupted time to ensure I can work uninterrupted–turn off the TV, work during the daytime when I am most fresh, and simply focus.
That’s not working either.
What if I go work in the yard a little?
Already did that. No luck.
Sometimes it helps to have just one teensy goal at a time throughout the day, to get the momentum going. But I’ve blown through a few of those today, and no momentum so far.
I’ve already seen to it that I have a fresh glass of iced tea so I won’t need to get up. My eyeglasses are clean. The room is at a comfortable temperature. Any and all emotional baggage has been mentally placed in a box and won’t distract me.
I’m even working under a deadline, albeit self-imposed. Many of us work best under pressure, don’t we?
So let’s see. Computer. Check. Quiet room. Check. Comfort level. Check. Worries set aside. Check.  Writer’s block dealt with.
Looks like it’s time to get started.

Valentine’s Day

romantic couple drawing red:whiteRemember exchanging Valentines in elementary school? Decorating boxes? Buying the Valentines in bulk, to ensure there was one for each of your classmates?
That’s how I would like Valentine’s Day to be, if I were suddenly put in charge of the whole thing.
Not that I don’t enjoy the whole idea of celebrating romance; I do. But it can be a time when anyone not currently in the most perfect love feels left out. And/or pressured to produce the “right” gift.
It’s too bad, really. Businesses want to make a profit, and that is certainly not an evil thing. Some people love to give and receive gifts. Fine by me. But others aren’t so keen on the idea, and feel their most important expressions of love involve having the other person’s back–showing them kindness in their everyday behaviors: complimenting them, preparing their favorite foods, noticing the endearing things they do.
In my own life, I have known people who treat those closest to them pretty shabbily on daily basis but never forget to buy flowers for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, etc. It’s almost as if they are buying their way out of good daily treatment. Some of these people don’t even stop to think what the recipient might enjoy but look instead to a high enough price tag to be impressive. Gifts don’t mean a lot under those circumstances.
Valentine’s Day was meant to be enjoyable, a way to say “I love you” one more time in at least one more way. And not just a romantic “I love you.” My vote would go to using the day as one of many opportunities to express appreciation to our friends, family members, anyone in our circle. And a reminder of our good fortune in having these same people in our lives.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Out with the Old…

There was a retaining wall behind my house that I just loved–the way it blended in with nature. It got so old that it started to crumble, and had to be replaced. At first it broke my heart. You can see from the accompanying picture, over the years this wall blended with its surroundings: ivy grew between the ties, moss grew along the front. It will take a couple years for the new one to attain that rustic look.
When the old wall was being torn out and hauled away, I was not a happy camper. Never mind that parts of it actually crumbled in the workers’ hands.
As the new wall was installed, I balked. Around Day 4 it started looking good to me, and by now I am glad for the change.retaining wall
Thus it is with the new year, or any new phase in life. Change needs to happen; old structures need to make way for new ones. We need to make maximum use of what we have, while also acknowledging the time for change.
As the year 2014 has come to a close, it is a good time to reflect on what we value and will intentionally preserve in our lives. It is also a good time to assess what needs changing, and what needs to simply be eliminated–from household items that have outlived their usefulness but could benefit someone else, to interpersonal connections that result from habit and have become a burden to everyone involved.
Though we do these assessments throughout the year, seeing the ball come down in Times Square to mark the beginning of 2015 served as an excellent reminder. And hopefully the beginning of a satisfying new year.