Center of Attention

For the past 5 years, Max has definitely been the center of my attention while at home. That started to change 2 years ago when I got married and suddenly it was not just Max and me. But even then, Max drew a lot of attention from both of us since he was the only one who needed our care.

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Max relishes being the center of attention. Whenever people come over to visit, he forces himself into the middle of things and makes sure he is constantly known. He rotates from person to person to get petted and noticed. And I think he does it both to receive as much love as possible, but also just to make sure everyone remembers they are really there to see him.

Unfortunately for Max, that changed when a baby entered the picture. Now Max is not the center of attention from us or visitors. It is not that Max is ignored or cast to the shadows – far from that. Max still receives a lot of love and attention, but he is not the center of everything anymore. He has to share the spotlight.

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I realized the extent of this shift when I looked through my pictures of Max to pull some for this blog. (I will add that the fact he has a whole blog dedicated to him proves Max still receives quite a bit of attention.) As I looked through my pictures, I realized there were very few new ones of Max and even fewer of him without the baby also in the picture. Granted, the rate of pictures I take of him has slowed down each year, but suddenly in the past several months there has been a drastic decline.

Part of that is tiredness, but most of it is that there is another person now taking up picture space and attention space. I believe that love is limitless and can be extended to all equally, but time and attention are not. For Max, that means no less love, but considerably less pictures and constant focus.

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In reflecting on this new state of affairs, I do feel a little sad for Max. At times I can see that he misses being the center of all the attention. It is hard to share the spotlight of affection, especially for a people-pleasing, energetic golden retriever.

And then I realize that Max is teaching me that most of us want to feel a little special. We may not all want to be the center of attention, I know I definitely do not want that in any situation I am in, but still, that feeling of being noticed and considered special warms our hearts and makes us feel like we have an important role to play.

Max has taught me that the desire to feel special is not a bad thing. It is normal, and it helps give us meaning and worth. It is important to feel valued and valuable.

Max has also taught me that it matters to find a space where we can feel that way. Not one that makes us the center of attention, but a community that does value and love us.

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But that balance is hard to manage. Max has also made me ask myself: how can we share attention and show someone they matter without them being the center of everything?

I don’t have a great answer for that. I am still struggling to make sure Max knows he is loved, even when I spend more time with the baby than I do with him some days. And I don’t know that it is a science with a specific answer. I bet that striking that balance and showing love to all is an art, and it gets better the more it is practiced.

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I am at least glad that in all this Max has still shown me a lot of love. While he is clearly envious of the attention, I think Max understands that we still love him as fully as before. And he has shown me the value of loving others even when their attention is spread thin.

So thank you Max for loving me even when you are no longer the center of attention. And thank you for challenging me to figure out how best to show you and others they are valuable and special even when I’m sharing that attention around.

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Devotion

This week I went for a jog. As I usually do, I left out the back yard and let Max outside while I ran. Normally, I also finish by coming back through the back yard and I see Max ready and waiting for me. This time, though, I ran a different route and came back in the front door without Max noticing.

When I got to the windows, I saw Max very expectantly waiting for me to return. He was laying in the grass looking out the way I normally come back, with ears eagerly perked and with attentive stare. I just stood and watched for a while as he stoically kept watch for me.

It truly warmed my heart to see such an obvious expression of his devotion.

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And then I took some pictures because I could not resist and because I immediately knew I wanted to write about that feeling.

Max was solely focused on my return. His whole being was dedicated to patiently waiting for me to come back. It was an expression of love and concern and loyalty.

I know Max and I are close, but in the day after day normalness of life, I sometimes forget about that bond. And I am ever grateful for that chance reminder of how much Max cares for me.

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Max taught me in that brief moment an important lesson about devotion. He reminded me of his loving devotion of me, but he also evoked some questions that I was forced to think about afresh:

To what in my life am I that dedicated? What am I willing to patiently sit and wait for without any certainty that it would be fulfilled?

What do I hope for with such expectant hope?

What would I give all my focus to and be completely present for?

What is so important to me that I would set everything else aside to attend to it?

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Thanks, Max, those are some deep and weighty questions. I have thought about some of this before, but seeing Max’s vigilant example made me reconsider how devoted I am to the important things in my life. And Max taught me that it is important to reexamine that devotion from time to time to make sure other stuff hasn’t distracted me.

Max taught me that there is stuff in this life that is worth such whole-hearted dedication. He has taught me that sometimes I need to take a moment and discover what I’m willing to sit in a backyard and eagerly expect for as much time as needed.

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But as I was watching Max, I also realized that his vigilant patience, as touching as it was, did not do anything to help him realize his hopes.

In the specific case of Max, I am ever grateful that he did not decide to jump the fence and run after me in order to realize that hope. But I also see the limits in just sitting and waiting.

Sometimes we have to sit and wait to know what is worth that level of devotion, but then sometimes we have to do something to grasp at that hope. Max taught me that idle devotion is good for scaring the squirrels away, but not much else (and I am convinced the squirrels would eventually garner the courage needed to come in anyway). He taught me that idle devotion leads to deferred dreams. He taught me that I have to do more than eagerly listen and watch for change, I have to jump over fences and go on a pretty uncertain, risky journey.

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And I don’t think that realization detracts from the profound expression of and lesson about devotion that I saw as he lay waiting. Rather, I think it adds to it. Because when a door was open to Max (the back door that I eventually did open when I couldn’t take it anymore), he ran to me in a full expression of that loving devotion come alive.

So thank you Max for teaching me about the beauty of hopeful devotion. And thank you for teaching me that such devotion is truly alive when it is riskily pursued.

Barking

Max is overall a very quiet dog. The only times I’ve heard him bark at home are when he gets really excited and wants to play. It’s the kind of bark that is the result of excitement bubbling over uncontrollably. Those barks are surprising, but I really like them.

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Max is also relatively quiet when we go in public. There are some dogs in our neighborhood who bark like crazy when we walk by. Compared to them, Max is almost monk-like. But lately, he has started barking back more often.

And the more Max barks, the more I realize not all barks are the same.

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There’s Max’s playful, excited bark, which sometimes emerges on walks too. Then there’s his protective, warning bark –  a low rumbly growl that slowly builds to a solid staccato utterance. This comes out very infrequently when he perceives a dog to be an actual threat. I don’t know whether it’s meant to be a warning for me or for the other dog, or probably both, but it is both fierce and protective.

Similar to this warning bark, Max also has a bark that is straight up violent. It is sometimes hard to distinguish between the two, but this bark is much more aggressive and I’ve only seen it once or twice (and I intentionally say see it, because it involves his whole body – he gets tense and lunges as he barks).

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He’s also got his somewhat mindless responsive bark – the bark that sounds like a stuck record, repeating the exact same tone over and over. This bark comes out when there’s just a lot of other barking noise around him and he feels compelled to join in.

And Max has a bark that is almost more of a whimper – a bark to let me know something is not right with him. I’ve heard this when he steps on something sharp or when he gets sick and needs to alert me to let him out. It’s his cry for help bark.

So Max has his playful barks, his threatening barks, his violent barks, his noisy barks, and his cry for help barks. Max has taught me that not all barks are the same.

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And yet, it’s easy to forget that very important reality when I turn my attention to people. People make a lot of noise – we have many cries for help or violent utterances. And when it is not my own noise, it is hard to remember that not all noise, cries, yells are the same. It is easy to confuse the alerting yells from the violent ones, but it is terribly problematic when we do.

It is problematic and wrong to lump together the cries of injustice with the cries of hate – they are distinctly different and in fact one causes the other (hint – it’s the hate that causes the injustice).

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This important point of not lumping all barks or cries together was made very apparent to me when walking Max the other day. We wound up walking at a very popular time of day, so we passed many other dogs. And Max had a different reaction to all of them. With some he shared a playful bark and I knew not to be worried. With others he started to get threatening and I knew we needed to move on – I knew to pull him and silence that kind of barking.

Max has taught me that some kinds of barks are important while some need to be muzzled. I do all I can to silence Max in his violent barks or his barks just for the sake of more noise, and yet I listen closely and act on his behalf when I hear the playful barks or the barks signaling my attention. Likewise, some types of human utterance are important and need to be heeded (the cries of injustice, the cries that black lives matter) and some screams need to be hushed (the cries of hate, the cries of racist ideology and the cries of those supporting confederate symbols and monuments that perpetuate that racist ideology).

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Max has also taught me that sometimes I really have to know the dog or person to pick up on the subtle differences between the barks or cries. I have lived with Max several years, so I know his barks well. I can tell in a moment what kind of bark it will be. But when I encounter another person’s dog it is not always so easy. Some dogs come across as more aggressive, but it is just because I don’t know them well. I believe the same is true of many people I know.

Max has taught me that sometimes I need to take time to get to know those who cry in order to know what kinds of cries they are uttering.

But only sometimes. Because it’s still pretty easy to tell when a strange dog is barking in a way that indicates he wishes me harm verses a dog who is barking because something is wrong. I believe the same is true of many people I know, especially since for people I can tell the content of what is being shared. In the cases mentioned above, it seems all too easy to tell the difference between the types of cries.

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I’d do well to remember that not all canine barks or human cries are the same. I’d do better to attend closely to the cries of injustice and to do all I can to silence the cries of hatred.

Thank you Max, for teaching me that not all canine barks or human cries are the same. Thank you for helping me learn how better to attend to the barks that something is wrong or the cries of injustice. And thank you for helping me learn how to hush the barks of violence or the cries of hate.

Disturbing the Peace

This past week, Max woke me up in the middle of the night twice on Monday and once Tuesday. And by middle of the night I mean right in the dead center of what would have otherwise been some really peaceful sleep.

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He usually does not wake up in the middle of the night, but he had spent all weekend with some other dogs and had partied a little too hard.

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He had all kinds of stuff making his stomach turn that he normally doesn’t – other dog’s food, lots of bones, and even probably some people food. I expected it to be rough for him, but I did not expect to be woken up in the middle of the night. And on multiple occasions.

Max disturbed my peace.

And I have realized he disturbs my peace quite often, even when not in the middle of the night. I often work from home when I have things to do that require more focus than I am afforded at my job. And most days, while I am trying to get a lot done at my computer, Max comes up to me desiring some attention. Whether he is wielding a toy or just forcing his cute head onto my lap, it is clear that Max is on a mission to disturb my peace.

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While I understand the behavior, I usually get annoyed and let him outside. But the thing about having my peace disturbed is that there is another byproduct that I am beginning to notice. The community I help lead has been digging into the notion that when peace is disturbed, often inner thoughts are more fully revealed.

Max has been teaching and reinforcing that lesson as well. He has revealed that I have many assumptions and default motivations that rest just under the surface and which I often don’t really notice. And Max has taught me that I need a little disruption in order to bring those thoughts more fully into the light.

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When Max disturbs the peace I construct around myself in order to get more work done, he reveals that I don’t take enough time to slow down and really be present to what’s going on around me or especially to the people and dogs in my life. Max has taught me that my actions show that I value productivity over meaningful time spent with others and that my inner thoughts are focused far more on accomplishing tasks than on compassionately and lovingly attending to those around me.

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But Max has also taught me that there is some hope. In disrupting my peaceful sleep so much this week, Max has also revealed some more positive inner thoughts. Max has revealed that I care deeply for him, because I am convinced that a sure test of what people most value is what we will wake up for in the middle of the night. And Max has taught me that if I am willing to forego sleep to care for him, perhaps that level of care and compassion can influence all of my life, even when my inner thoughts seem locked in the little world I create.

So thank you Max for disturbing my peace, and in so doing revealing some of my inner thoughts. And thank you for helping me direct those inner thoughts in a more caring, compassionate manner.

But, I’d also be grateful if you didn’t disturb my peaceful sleep anymore…

Needs

Max cannot feed himself. At least he cannot feed himself in a healthy way. He has often knocked over the trash can and rummaged around for food, but that only makes a mess and leaves him sick the next day. Though I think it would be nice if he could learn how to give himself just the right amount of nutritious dog food, I know he has neither the will power nor the ability to do that.

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Max has certain needs, like being fed, which he cannot fulfill himself. And yet he also has such limited capability to express those needs. He can and does whine when he’s hungry or needs to go outside, but there is little else he can do.

And I have sometimes failed to meet his needs. I feel terrible when it happens, but there was a morning recently when my spouse left for work and expected me to feed Max when I got out of bed. I mistakenly assumed she had already fed him and went about my day only to find out later that Max had missed a meal through my poor communication and inattention. Thankfully, this is a rare occurrence, but it woke me up to an important realization about needs.

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Max has taught me that I cannot assume that the needs of others are being met, especially those who are vulnerable and cannot fulfill their own needs. Too often in my life I come across an expressed need and think that either the person will figure it out or someone else will provide help.

I am blinded by my own agency and ability to the point that I forget that there are many animals and people who do not have that same level of agency and ability. Max has revealed my ignorance and reminded me that so many people are trapped in situations where they cannot fulfill their needs for food, shelter, security, or home.

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Moreover, Max has taught me that the burden is on those with agency to attend to the needs of others. Max has a very small voice to express his need. While he should use that voice and use it often, the responsibility is ultimately on me to attend to that need by actively looking for signs of it. And then the responsibility remains on me to find the best way to fulfill that need.

This responsibility is easier to identify in my relationship with Max because I have willingly become his care-taker. Nevertheless, I believe the responsibility still applies to other people I encounter, even if it is harder to identify. The freedom and power of self-sacrificial love compels me to use my agency to attend to other people’s needs, especially those I encounter who cannot fulfill their own needs.

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Max has taught me to truly wake up to the deep needs of those around me – not with the grogginess that leads me to overlook those quietly begging for food, but rather with an alertness that actively seeks out expressions of lack. To do that, Max has taught me to step outside of myself, recognize the ignorance reinforced by my own agency, and use that agency to move toward others in love.

And finally he has taught me to do this work in a way that does not prop me up as a hero, but rather in a way that begins to embolden those with less agency to feel more comfortable expressing themselves. All of this is easier said than done, and that last part is especially hard to do. But Max is continuing to teach me how to best respond in a way that encourages agency in others instead of suppressing them with my own.

So thank you Max for revealing my short-sighted, ignorant view of others whose needs are not being met. And thank you for teaching me to use my agency to lovingly meet the needs of others. Please continue to help guide me in doing so in an empowering way.

Passersby

Max never ignores anyone he passes. It can be frustrating at times, but he goes up to every new person he comes into contact with, whether they be visitors to the house or strangers we pass on walks.

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I noticed this behavior most on walks over the past several years, especially when I began to hope that we would not pass by many people so that we could get through the walk in a reasonable time. Max is too willing to interrupt his routine to meet new people and is unwilling to pass anyone by without extending a chance to get to know them.

I think he is good at approaching people in part because he is very cute and who in their right mind could turn down that face?

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But also, he is intentional about it, and consistent. He sees every moment as an opportunity to meet someone and does not see any value in ignoring them.

I have a lot to learn from Max in this regard. I am a pretty reserved person and there are many times I am in public and I try not to make eye contact with the people around me. Especially on walks, I have often found myself not even looking at the people Max was eagerly meeting. And there was no good reason for that. Even on very busy days, those encounters only take a couple of seconds to exchange smiles and greetings.

Max has taught me that it is always worthwhile to pay attention to the people around me. Whether that encounter remains merely a kind greeting or develops into something more meaningful, it is an important use of my time.

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But Max has also taught me that such a disposition and action requires intentionality. I can’t just expect it to happen, rather I have to warmly greet those whose paths I cross. It seems that dogs and little kids are both very good at this, especially when they come across one another. I have been stopped many times on walks by little kids who want to pet Max. They are intentional and unashamed to extend kind attention to Max and me.

I don’t know that I was ever that outgoing as a kid, but I am aware that I have taken on layers of unhelpful distancing from people around me, especially those I don’t know. And Max has taught me that I have to let go of some of that attitude to be more open to other people.

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Max has also taught me that being a more welcoming passerby helps to develop a non-judging attitude. As we continually attend to all people, I learn more and more that they all have value, they are all important, and they all have a spark of something profound in them. Through practicing extending such attention to everyone I meet, I am slowly growing in my ability to encounter others non-judgmentally.

And Max has taught me how to give someone my attention gracefully, because there are many people who are set on their way and are not receptive to his greeting. When that happens, he is not obnoxious (at least on walks, at home is a slightly different story) and he is not disheartened by lack of receptivity, but rather he carries on to extend openness to the next encounter.

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Ultimately, Max has helped me see the value of not just passing by, but rather being kind, open, and attentive to others as we cross paths. In this sense, Max has taught me to cross paths rather than pass by, so that my life and the lives of those around me are all truly affected by one another. Crossing paths may be slower and more complicated than merely passing by, but it is much more worthwhile.

So thank you Max for teaching me how to better extend my attention and openness to all whom I pass. And thank you for teaching me to actively value others instead of ignoring them so that we can more meaningfully cross paths.

To Be Seen

Whenever I walk in my front door, Max patiently waits until I acknowledge him. Sometimes, this takes a while, because I enjoy making as few trips from my car as possible (two trips is too many), so I tend to load myself down and have something hanging from every appendage. He will often sit right in front of the door, leaving just enough room for me to come in, but positioned to where I have to notice him. Then, he just turns his head around as I put everything where it belongs and waits for me to come back to greet him.

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At first, I thought he did this as a way of guilting me for being gone so much. (That probably says more about me than him). Maybe he is a little sad to have been left alone all day, but I think there is something even more fundamentally important that he is conveying.

I think all Max really wants is to be seen, to be noticed.

Max experiences something that I think so many of us also experience – the desire to be seen. We all long to know that our often dreary lives have value and that others see that value. We find profound hope in not being overlooked or ignored.

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Being seen is often quite literal, especially for Max. He thrives on the attention I can give him and once I give him some of that attention, he is overjoyed. In that moment of being seen, Max knows he is cared for and loved. He knows that he is important and valued.

Max has taught me that being seen in this way is a powerful expression of loving care. He has taught me that so many people also long to be seen in this way. He has taught me there is power in really looking into another person’s eyes, giving them our attention, and, in doing so, assuring them that they are important and valuable.

Max has taught me that to really see others in this way is a wonderful, free gift we can always give. And it is a gift we can give to stranger and friend alike.

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That moment of greeting after coming into my house after work does not tend to last long. Granted, there are years of love and care that are the foundation of that moment between Max and me, but it really only takes about a minute. I get down on Max’s level, look right at him, and greet him with kind words and a head scratch. And then Max’s desire to be seen is fulfilled.

And I really don’t think I have to change much when I interact with humans in this way (except maybe losing the head scratch).

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Max has also taught me that the desire to be seen is insatiable. He craves it everyday. And I reckon we all have a consistent desire to be seen and valued. I don’t know why – maybe it’s the self-doubt that plagues our minds, maybe it’s because we are social creatures and this is the best starting point for connection to others, maybe it’s because in so many other ways we hear messages that we are not valued, or maybe it’s because it is nice and we know deep in our being that to see others and to be seen is just a better way to live.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that seeing and being seen is something that must be nurtured consistently. Max has taught me that it is something I should practice daily.

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And because it must be done over and over, it is easy to forget, or to think that I have checked that off my to do list. And so, Max has taught me to be a little more diligent in seeing him and others. I can be bad at that because I easily get lost in my own little world, but I hope on my good days, I can offer Max and all others I cross paths with this simple expression of care and value.

(as close as I could get to the original Hendrix version)

So thank you Max for teaching me the importance of being seen and valued. Thank you for teaching me to be more attentive, especially to those who feel overlooked. And of course, thank you for paying attention to me and showing that you too see and care for me.