Dig It

Max is a pretty weird dog in that he doesn’t like swimming in water, won’t play fetch, prefers human attention over other dogs, and does not dig in the yard. At least (for that last one) until recently.

Last month, Max started digging little holes in the backyard. It came out of nowhere and I honestly thought he didn’t even know how to dig or that digging is a thing dogs tend to do.

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It really took me by surprise, and then I got mad and told him to stop. Since then, I have not seen any new holes, but that also could be because the weather is ridiculously hot now and Max does not want to be outside any more than he has to be.

Still, Max’s short foray into digging has made me really consider how well I do or do not know him. I don’t question that we have a bond and I recognize that I can typically predict his behavior, just as I am sure he can predict mine. But Max taught me that there is still some mystery hiding just below his surface.

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And often that mystery is frustrating, because I really want to know what’s going on with him (both in a good, helpful way and a not-so-good, prying, unnecessarily curious way). I too am tempted to dig. I want to find some way to uncover Max’s motivations and know without any shadow of doubt what makes him feel and behave the way he does.

I recognize my fear of uncertainty in that desire. Maybe it comes from wanting to control things or maybe it comes from discomfort with change, especially sudden unexplained change. Regardless, it is a gut reaction through which I seek to uncover something that is not really my business, or even worse it is a reaction through which I seek to impose my own desire on the matter.

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Then I remember scolding Max for digging and wonder if I should heed that advice myself. Max may confuse, frustrate, or even baffle me sometimes, but in doing so he reminds me that relationships are not equations to be solved or experiments to be dissected or forces to be controlled. Rather, Max has taught me that relationships are mysteries to be appreciated and explored.

To be sure, I am all about honesty and authenticity in even the most superficial of relationships, and Max consistently teaches me how to be and express myself openly and fully. He reminds me not to conceal or deceive by being transparently present in all he does. But it this moment of digging, he also taught me that I can’t claw my way into understanding someone completely. There are certainly layers to people which can be wonderful to uncover and explore, but a frantic disturbance only leaves fatigue and a dirty mess.

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Maybe that exploration is less like digging for information or certainty, and more like appreciating the deeper and deeper layers of connection we can share and develop as we live life together.

Maybe that exploration is less like exerting my control or insecurity on another, and more like embracing the reality that we are not simplistic and can consistently expand the ways we value one another.

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In that sense, I certainly dig Max and the many other important people in my life. I may not completely understand everyone or the things they do, but I dig the mysterious fullness of who we all are, and the way we can learn more and more about one another every day, even without unnecessarily digging into things.

So, thank you Max for teaching me the real value of exploring and appreciating the complex nature of our relationships with others. Please don’t dig any more holes in the yard, and know that I dig you even when I don’t understand you.

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What Is Love?

Max has consistently shown me love and taught me what love is. I recognize that I write this at the risk of overdoing it on this theme (even the last post was on love), but I continually find new and inspiring realizations from this very loving companion.

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To be fair, Max is only one in a large group of family and friends who have helped me continually discover and rediscover what love is, but through his pure and simple relationship with me, I see both my mistakes and the truth of love very clearly. And even when I thought I was describing and showing love pretty well, Max has taught me that there are some important things to sort out. 

This is what I have learned:

Love does not seek to hold power over another.

Love does not possess another.

Love does not seek to change the other.

Love does not insist on certain patterns or markers in life.

Love does not keep accounts.

Some of these are more obvious than others – love is in no way manipulative. But some of these things are actually important in my life and for Max – things like accountability and transformation (the whole point of this blog is the many ways I have been transformed through what I have learned in relationship with Max).

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Accountability to certain ideals can be a good, helpful thing in certain relationships. But Max has undoubtedly helped me realize that such accountability is not love. Real accountability is an act of care, if it is truly established to help people attain the values or goals they set in their lives (sadly, accountability is often twisted to describe punitive consequences when someone does not uphold another person’s values…which is not a helpful form of accountability, and definitely not a form of love).

I have often been tempted to say that my desire to keep someone accountable or to express power over others is love. Even in my relationship with Max, I have been tempted to think that my stern insistence on obedience is a form of love. It is not. It is important and keeps him safe, but it is not love.

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Here’s why – Max has taught me on the positive side that:

Love is merciful.

Love is self-giving.

Love is forgiving.

Love is patient.

Love is affirming and valuing of the other.

I don’t like thinking that I am limiting love, and am sure that there are plenty more descriptors, but Max has taught me that love is a distinct force of good in this world recognized in those ways. He has taught me that too often I use the word love to describe acts that are not merciful, self-giving, forgiving, patient, and affirming, even if those acts are helpful to incorporate into my life.

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My relationship with Max would be incomplete without a certain sense of accountability (extended both ways) and assertiveness and learning from one another. But my relationship with Max is fundamentally distorted if I think any of that is love.

So, thank you Max for loving me and teaching me what love really is and is not. Thank you for helping me be a more loving presence in your life and in the lives of many others I meet.

Greedy

Max often comes across as greedy. I think it is mostly because he is terrible at waiting when he knows there’s something else he can snatch up.

For instance, when we go visit other houses with dogs, Max immediately goes to eat whatever other dog food is lying around. He waits for no one, especially whoever is telling him “no” or the other dog looking confusedly and helplessly at the sight. The same goes for any toys that are lying around – Max will greedily claim them as his.

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His greediness with food and toys can be frustrating and embarrassing, but I’ve also noticed a different kind of greediness – Max craves a lot of attention and love.

I imagine that right now, that is partly due to him still adjusting to the new baby in the house and wanting to be in the middle of things when we are playing with her. And so I do try to carve out time in the day where I show him direct attention and he gets to be close by when we play with the baby.

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But it never seems to be enough. Max wants more and more love and attention, whether it is from us on a typical day, or from friends who come by for an evening. Max tends not to leave people alone as long as they have an empty hand to pet him.

And that has made me wonder – is there ever a time that it is good to be greedy? Could it be good to be greedy for love?

Love is certainly a good thing and experiencing it is a need of living beings, but I’ve always been taught that greediness is inherently bad – it’s one of the seven deadly sins after all. But then again when Max craves more loving attention, it just doesn’t seem bad, even if it interrupts whatever I am doing.

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I think it is complicated because love is a different kind of commodity than food or toys or other tangible items. Love is not just something that is received (at least not at its best), rather it is something that is mutually shared. As much as Max is greedy to receive loving attention from me, he is also eager to show me that he loves and cares for me.

That means the “greediness” is not purely consumption – it is not just Max taking and taking selfishly, which seems to be the evil root of greed. Rather, Max’s greediness is as much a giving as it is a taking, and he teaches me that perhaps if I was more “greedy” to give love to all those around me, the world might be a better place and our connections might be strengthened.

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Moreover, when I think about what Max is doing, I see that he is teaching about the importance of assertiveness. Max is asserting his real need for receiving more loving attention and giving more loyal companionship. That kind of assertiveness is important to maintain a healthy, mutual connection of love where he feels needed.

Max has taught me the value of being more assertive in need for love, and the value of really paying attention to the expression of that need. He has taught me that it is not so much a matter of greediness, but really a matter of sharing more abundantly in the loving connection we have.

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And ultimately, he has taught me that greediness can be good when it is not just about taking or consuming. When love is in the mix, greediness can help us experience the goodness of boldly giving of ourselves more and more.

So thank you Max for being a little greedy for loving attention and for teaching me the value of assertiveness and abundance when it comes to love.

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.

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.

Celebrate

Hi, I’m Max and I like to party.

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Max is always ready to celebrate. We had people over at several times this past holiday season and each time Max came to life. He would be half asleep on his bed, not expecting anything special to happen. Then the door would open and in came people he has seldom or never seen before, and he popped up and was immediately a whole new dog.

It could be that Max just loves human attention…well, that’s definitely a primary reason. But I am still inspired by Max’s ability to always be ready to celebrate something.

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In a lot of ways, this past year has not been one of celebration. The news cycle has worn me and many others down and I have felt more disheartened and anxious about so many things.

And yet, each day I get home and Max is ready to party, ready to celebrate.

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On one hand, he has taught me that it is easy to celebrate when you are ignorant of all the sad things going on in the world. But he has also taught me that the escapist lifestyle is not a good path to follow.

So, I’ve been searching for some other lesson related to Max’s celebratory demeanor. And I have found that Max has also taught me that there is good in the world in the loving presence we share. That is worth celebrating. That is worth offering to others.

Max has taught me that things are never going to be perfect, but that in whatever is going on, there are people (and dogs) to love and share life with.

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While this kind of celebrating does come from a privileged place, I don’t think it is sugar coating otherwise crappy realities. Max has certainly taught me to mourn when things are sad and he has even been there for me in the downs of life. But Max has also helped me cultivate an underlying joy that guides me to celebrate the love I experience in my life even when it can be hard to find reasons to by happy.

Max has taught me that celebrating love and shared life does not always have to come with tail wagging. Max is certainly exuberant every now and then, but also I know Max celebrates in the more mundane things, like mornings laying by my feet as I get ready and evenings as we all watch TV.

And I have noticed that he is celebratory even before he receives anything. He is happy just because we are around each other. I think Max celebrates being able to show me attention as much as he is happy to receive it. Max has taught me the joy that comes with both receiving and giving loving attention and presence.

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As I look back on the past year, I am grateful to remember all the times Max celebrated our time together – the ways he shared love just because we could be present with one another. And as I look forward to a new year, I hope to celebrate more of that presence and love with Max. I certainly hope it is a year that brings more joy and light in the darkened places of the world, but regardless, Max has taught me that there is a love worth celebrating and highlighting in this world over and against any darkness.

So, thank you Max for celebrating with me. And thank you for teaching me to look for and celebrate the love I can give to and receive from others this year and every year.

The Importance of Being Max

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took Max out to my grandma’s lake cabin for a night. It’s a quiet little cluster of houses around a small body of water and is a great place for some peaceful reflection.

Or, a great place to go absolutely crazy, which is exactly what Max did.

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He’s been out to this cabin a couple of times before and he always gets so excited. Usually I can’t even drag him close to water (he’s a weird Golden Retriever in a lot of ways), but at this particular lake, he immediately runs across the lawn to take a dip in the water.

He even interacts with the water in his unique Max way – he doesn’t jump in and he doesn’t really swim. Taking a dip is the best way I can describe how he wades out until the water covers his back, but he can still stand on the ground, and then he walks around in the water.

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Max proceeds to come out of the water so that he can roll around in the dirt and grass, only to go back in the lake immediately. And then repeat it all over and over and over.

By the time we left, Max was filthy, matted, and really smelly. But he was also happy and fulfilled.

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While I was a little confused by his actions and frustrated by how filthy he got, I also learned something from Max’s frolicking around the lake. Max taught me the importance of being myself.

When Max was let loose from leash and the confines of living in a city and when he was free to enjoy the day however he saw fit, Max was authentically his weird self. Max usually does not have many constraints even when he is home, but there was something about our time at the lake that made him come alive in a way I often don’t see.

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Max taught me the importance of authentically enjoying life in a way that cuts through any expectations I load upon myself. I know I often constrain myself with arbitrary rules of what I think I should be doing that begin to mask who I truly am. But Max taught me that we are all unique and appreciate things in our own way and that weird diversity is good. Max assured me that how I see and appreciate the goodness of the world is different from him and a lot of people, but it is something to be celebrated.

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Max also taught me that sometimes I have to get out of my routine to express myself in this authentic way, and it is well worth it to have such opportunities. But just as Max carried a lot of the stench and dirt of the lake back with him, he also taught me that such earnest living is important to develop throughout life.

We eventually had to leave the lake, and I am aware that there is not always such a safe space to be as vulnerably authentic as Max was. It’s hard to be earnest all the time. While that reality is tragic, I am encouraged by the ways that, with the right community around him, Max continues to be himself at home. When there is not a lake sanctuary to retreat to, it may take a little more effort to sustain a space of safety, but Max has taught me that that work is important too. It is important to establish that safe space for myself and as much as I can to create spaces for others to express and love themselves.

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Max’s authentic expression of self is rooted in a sense of security, but it also involves some sense of daring. I am continually inspired by the ways Max dares to be himself every day, even when he acts really weirdly.

So thank you Max for teaching me the importance of earnestly loving and expressing myself so that I can more authentically connect with the people and world around me. And thank you for teaching me to create the spaces that allow such earnest living to happen.