Safe Spaces

A note to startI have written and rewritten this post over the past several months. At first I had intended it to be pretty lighthearted, then the weekend I was going to write it up there was a school shooting, and I didn’t even have words. Then there was another shooting, and another, and another. Sometimes they happened right when I was going to put up this or a different post, so I waited a week. Every time they have happened, they take the words out of my mouth and I am left speechless. And yet, I return, not because I think this will solve all our problems, but because Max gives me hope and makes my life better, and I think we need more of that. At least I need more of that.

Last year, I got Max a dog bed. Before that, way back when it was just the two of us, he had been allowed to lay on the couch, then I married and moved and we got a new couch and Max got kicked off. It’s not because we didn’t love him anymore, it’s just that he treated the previous couch pretty rough.

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We also got rid of a comfy chair that was basically only for him, because we didn’t have room. That was over a year before I got the dog bed, so it was a little overdue, but Max is resourceful and makes do with whatever he has.

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When I got the dog bed I was worried he wouldn’t like it. But that worry was soon eased when he began spending a lot of time on his bed.

He does still like my kneeling cushion, and random hallways, and probably the couch when no one is home, but at least he’s using his own cushion too.

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In fact, his cushion has become a sort of safe space for him. He is able to look out to the front yard and still be close to us. But even more than that, his cushion provides some safety from the vacuum cleaner.

I vacuum about once a week (because of Max’s hair, just to give credit where it’s due), and almost every time, when I come to the living room, I find Max perched on his cushion. I don’t think he is super scared of the vacuum, but he definitely does not like it. And he stays there as long as he can. The cushion seems to provide the safe space he needs to make it through vacuum day.

It is trivial – the vacuum poses no real danger to him – but thankfully it is the worst danger he has to face. We’ve been lucky to be able to provide an overall safe space for him.

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But Max has taught me the real importance of creating and maintaining safe spaces. In a world of uncertainty, fear, and danger, whether that comes from vacuums or something far more sinister, we all need some space where we are protected and where we know we belong.

This lesson has only been heightened by the recent events of shootings in Parkland, Florida and Santa Fe, Texas, not to mention the many, many others that have also already tragically happened this year.

We need safe spaces, not just because of the violent acts that continue to take place, but especially because of them.

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In light of this need, Max has taught me that safe spaces are created, they don’t just emerge out of thin air. He could go find a secluded corner, but that is not the same. A safe space is a place where there has been intentional work done to set it apart and make it comfortable and protective. And so, safe spaces take time to establish, just as trust in anyone or anything takes some time.

Max has taught me that it is up to those of us who do feel safe to create those safe spaces for those who are more vulnerable. I do not expect Max to create his own safety in circumstances outside his control.

And Max has taught me that safe spaces are fundamentally different from unsafe spaces. His dog bed is a unique place just for him that does not negatively effect others or contribute to unsettling peace anywhere else. It seems weird to say it like that, but I am very aware that many examples of creating “safe” spaces around the world involve making other places unsafe. But unsettling others to protect us is in no way creating safety, rather it is just reciprocating or redirecting the fear and danger.

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And then, when I see Max sprawled out in the middle of the hallway far from his bed, I realize that he is also teaching me that we shouldn’t need safe spaces, because our world should be safe for everyone. There is no excuse for us maintaining a world in which safe spaces would be needed, because there is no excuse for us perpetuating a world in which there is danger or violence or any tools that could contribute to such states. Max should know that he is safe in my house at anytime. He should know he is safe when we walk or travel or do anything.

Max has taught me that it is such an important part of life to be yourself, which can only happen if we feel secure from threats. He has taught me that by now we should have created a world in which that is a possibility for all.

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But until something actually changes, Max has taught me we do need safe spaces.

So thank you Max, for teaching me the importance of offering safe spaces to those in dangerous circumstances. Thank you for reminding me of my role in intentionally creating and maintaining such spaces, and working toward a world in which they are not needed. I hope you always feel safe here.

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FOMO

Max likes to be in the middle of everything going on.

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In fact, the only time I have seen him anxious are when he is in a place but cannot be involved in the main action.

For instance, about a year ago I took him with me to a day full of games with my friends, but I had to tie him up while playing. He barked the entire time and strained against the chain to be involved. He did not like missing out.

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Then, just yesterday, I took him to my mom’s house so he could play with her dog. We left them both in her big back yard to play and sat down to chat in the living room. Instead of playing, however, Max just sat at the window and stared at us.

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Max feared missing out on what we were doing.

And his fear of missing out kept him from actually engaging in the wonderfully fun setting he was in. He had a backyard full of toys and new smells to explore and another dog to play with. My mom even mentioned that one of the bones he likes was out in the yard, but he never found it because he stayed right by the window, wishing he was involved in a different setting.

He was stuck in a state of not getting to do what he feared missing and not taking advantage of the opportunity all around him.

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Max taught me that it is all too easy to be struck by a fear of missing out. And he taught me that it is not just a matter of longing for the greener grass. Rather it is a paralyzing state that both keeps one from noticing the good opportunities all around, and also makes one believe that some amount of worth or importance is tied to being involved in what other people are doing.

Max’s fear of missing out taught me that it is worthwhile to find ways to be fueled by an eagerness to engage the opportunities afforded me, rather than fear of what I may be missing. Both set my vision on new things and keep me in just enough discontent to yearn for new ways of interacting in the world. But whereas fear of missing out paralyzes me as I look toward those new opportunities, eagerness to engage my actual surroundings enables me to live and create and experience fulfillment.

Max has taught me that as I am afforded opportunities and different paths to take, I should live with the knowledge that I will miss out on some things. But he has also taught me that I should live with confidence that when I find myself in a certain situation, I can engage it with joyful eagerness and thus experience wonderful new things.

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So thank you Max for teaching me not to become paralyzed by a fear of missing out. Thank you for teaching me instead to look around and find the treasures in my own backyard.

The Unknown

A couple of weeks ago, when Max and I were walking through the snow, we came across something new to Max. Two snowmen sat happily right by the sidewalk. Max had no clue what to make of them. First he backed away a little while intently staring at them, then he stood in eager expectation. Eventually, he crept close to them, sniffing in overdrive.

He stood there sniffing the tree branch arm for a while before I started to pull him away. Yet, even as he was being dragged off, I could tell he was still very curious. He had not yet figured out what that new creation was and wanted to investigate more.

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During the rest of our walks that week, Max continued to slow down and stare at the snowmen whenever we passed by. He still did not know what to make of them, but he had a determined, cautious curiosity.

Max has acted the same way before when we walked close by some cows. One day the cows had come right next to the fence and Max could see and probably smell them. New sights and smells captured his attention and he paused, waiting to gain some better understanding of what the thing was.

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So, I began to notice a pattern in how Max approaches the unknown. He slows down, but I don’t think it is because he is scared. Rather, he gives it solemn attention and tries to glean as much as he can about that unknown thing. Then he slowly approaches, cautiously finding out more and more about it.

This approach is quite different from what is often my reaction. Granted the unknowns I face are a little different from snowmen and cows. The unknowns in my life are far more often the next step in the future of my career or personal life, the uncertainty of whether something I’ve planned will succeed, or a new development that I haven’t had to work through before.

I am the opposite of reckless, so sometimes when I am faced with these unknowns I freeze. Not Max’s attentive pause in which he tries to figure out the situation, but a full on freeze where I either try to ignore the new thing or become immediately overwhelmed with not knowing where to begin.

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Whenever I finally get unfrozen, I don’t approach the unknown until I have it all figured out. I don’t have Max’s courage to ease into it, and since I can’t figure it all out if I don’t approach, I sometimes stay stuck.

Whereas Max stays calm and approaches with a healthy curiosity, I sometimes get anxious and treat the unknown as some opposing force or task to be conquered or overcome. Rather than treating it as an opportunity for me to grow and learn, I treat it as a test of my worth or an obstacle to full living.

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But Max has taught me to approach the unknown things in my life in a healthier way. He has shown me the value of treating these situations cautiously, but also eagerly. He has taught me to embrace the unknown as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than become anxious and fearful.

Max has taught me that even when I have no clue what to make of something, I should neither run away from it nor be overwhelmed by it. Rather, I should take the little steps necessary for getting to know it so that I may enhance my understanding by embracing another part of this complex, interesting, sometimes weird, sometimes cool, sometimes hard, sometimes awe-inspiring life.

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So thank you Max for teaching me how better to approach the unknowns in my life. Thank you for your cautious courage and eager curiosity that inspire and challenge me.

Paranoia

Max has developed a weird habit when we walk through a certain section of the trail around my apartment complex. He starts picking up speed and constantly looking back as if something threatening was chasing him. We sometimes even run through that section as he pulls me along. Then, once we get around the bend, he goes back to normal as if everything is fine.

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I think this behavior developed from a couple times when neighbor dogs that lived in that section got out and actually did chase him down. Normally Max loves encounters with other dogs, but these are the kind of dogs who really don’t want other dogs around their house, so they barked and chased Max until we were around the bend and far enough away.

So, I don’t blame Max for not liking that stretch of trail, I sure wouldn’t want little tiny bully dogs barking in my face (though I wish Max would realize how much bigger he is and that he really shouldn’t feel threatened).

But I also recognize that those encounters haven’t happened in a very long time. In fact I don’t even know if those dogs still live there, as there is so much turnover in these apartments. I can’t even hear them barking from within the house anymore.

And yet, Max is still haunted by something.

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Assuming it is the bad memories of the bully dogs, Max has taught me how gripping paranoid fear can be and how much it can impact daily tasks. Max is clearly uncomfortable in those times when he could be having a really nice walk. And this is a real shame, because he used to like that stretch and all the unique smells it had to offer.

Something from his past that is not even real anymore has taken control over how he is living his life now.

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Not to get too Freudian here, but Max has taught me that if he doesn’t face that fear, if he keeps running away from it, it will continue to haunt him. In running, that fear only chases him farther down the path. I am pretty sure that if Max walked over to that apartment and smelled around and realized that there was nothing to fear, he wouldn’t be so paranoid when walking by.

Max has taught me that it is easier just to run by, or to avoid that section when possible. He has taught me that it is easier to give that fear the space it needs to grow and prosper.

But he has also taught me that it is not a good, comfortable, wholesome way to live.

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The worst part is that Max doesn’t even realize he has created such a space of fear in his life, and until he does his fears are far from being resolved. So, he has taught me to examine my own life to see what fears I am running from, so that I might find ways to face them and create spaces of understanding, joy, and acceptance rather than paranoia.

So thank you Max, for teaching me that fears have real power over our lives, even though those fears are often unfounded. And thank you for teaching me that it is much better to face those fears than to run from them. I do hope you find a way to face your fears, overcome your paranoia, and begin to enjoy that stretch of our walks again.