Cleavers

Max is a pretty hairy guy. He so graciously reminds me of that fact every spring and summer as he sheds his hair all over the house. And somehow, even after shedding so much hair, he has loads of it that stays with him.

At this point in the summer, I am much less bothered by the hair he sheds than I am by what happens with the hair he keeps. Because the weather is pretty nice, Max enjoys being outside in the yard, rolling around, and exploring any sights or smells of other squirrel or bird friends. As he does all of that, especially the rolling around, he tends to get matts in his fur.

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But those matts are not even the worst part. Also at this time of year in our yard, plants that I believe are called “cleavers” or galium aparine are growing like crazy. They grow up fast and spread like wildfire all along our fence, right where Max likes to sniff around.

And that would be just fine, except that these plants have little seeds with hooked hairs that tend to cleave to anything they touch, and Max has his significant furry coat. Even when I actually try to stay on top of things and pull up those plants, Max finds a way to rub up against them and get the seeds all throughout his coat.

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Even at that point, it would not be a problem if Max had opposable thumbs. But he does not. And his attempts to pull the seeds out with his teeth only makes things slobberier and more tangled.

The annual struggle with managing the plants and all the seeds in Max’s coat typically takes a good deal of time. But Max has taught me that it is necessary.

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Max has taught me that cleavers happen, the stuff he and I brush up against throughout the day sometimes sticks to us. And often what sticks to us is not all that helpful. It causes tangles and for Max those tangles quickly turn into matts of hair (often with one of those little seeds at the center) that grow more and more uncomfortable.

Max’s cleavers may be more visible, but he has taught me to be more aware of my own less visible ones. Those negative messages I scroll across on social media that do nothing but make me mad and spiteful, those messages I see and hear in other media that I am not working enough or successful enough, those fears and worries that spring up like weeds and cleave to me until I give into the ever increasing entanglement of self-doubt or anxiousness or despair.

Max has taught me that those cleavers can make a real mess and that they can spring up quickly just about anywhere. He has even taught me that often we may not be able to remove them easily by ourselves. But he has also taught me that they can be dealt with.

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Max helped me realize that the best solution to those cleavers is being around others who care enough to help brush them out. I am grateful that I can provide that for Max and that he continues to remind me of the importance of having a community that can help, even if all that community can do is sit with the tangled mess and slowly work those cleavers out.

But Max has also taught me that it doesn’t take any elaborate training to get them out. Since we all know what it is like to have those cleavers, we know how to sympathize and help. All I need is to bear witness to the tangles and then set aside some time to work through them. And that is exactly what a caring community can offer.

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At the end of the day, Max has taught me that even with the cleavers, the yard is still full of wonder and beauty. He certainly does not avoid going outside just so he doesn’t get the cleavers. In fact, I think he has the confidence to run and play out there in part because he knows he has a community here that will take care of him if he were to get too tangled. That trust provides him not only security and untangling help, but also the freedom to be himself fully. And through that, Max inspires me that if I have a community that can help me deal with the cleavers that may spring up all around, then it is still worth it to explore and roll around in the grass and venture out into wild places.

So thank you Max for teaching me not only about the reality of that which cleaves and leaves us all tangled, but more importantly about the value of community that can help with the untangling and provide the assurance for a life of freedom and adventure.

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Sympathy

The first day of summer is just around the corner, and it is already quite hot. I know it will only get worse and worse over the next several months; yet, Max still has to be walked outside.

I prefer the warmth over the cold, but I dread being out in the hot Texas sun, even for a little while and even when I am able to dress as cooly as possible. Then I look down at poor Max who is excited to be outside, but is beat and exhausted from the suffocating heat.

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Max has so much hair, even after shedding gobs of it, and he looks pretty miserable in the heat under that thick coat.

As we walk, I find myself starting to sweat profusely, and I look down at him to see how he is holding up. I am amazed at how differently his body is built to handle the heat. Max’s body is not built to sweat like mine is, so he pants to cool down. Our skin and how our bodies respond to the heat are fundamentally different from each other.

I am more and more amazed at this simple fact the more I think about it. Max can’t feel the light cool breeze that gives me such relief outside (at least not in the way I feel it). And even indoors, Max can’t feel the reassuring warmth of a light touch (at least not the way I feel it). I have to rub or scratch him pretty forcefully for him to feel that comfort.

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Through this difference, Max has taught me that though we can experience similar circumstances and feelings, I will never fully understand what it’s like to be him.

We both get very hot in the summer, and I can sympathize with his exhaustion, but I will never know what it is really like to bear the heat under his fur. We both get hungry, and I can sympathize with him when I have to wait a little too long for a meal, but I will never know what it is really like not to be able to fix that hunger myself.

Max has taught me that sympathy has limits. I can experience the same thing as other people, and, in good faith, attempt to connect to them through sympathy. But I will not really know what it is like for that other person to go through it.

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This reality seems to me to apply across many differences, such as races, genders, and cultures. For instance, I know what it is like to be insulted and mocked, but I will never know what it is like to experience that as a Black, Asian, Native, or Mexican American. I know what it feels like to nurture and care for another, but I will never know what it is like to experience motherhood.

Given these fundamental differences in experience, I sometimes wonder if attempting to sympathize is unhelpful. But Max has taught me that sympathy is an incredible tool in relating to others. When people seek to share and understand the deep pains and joys of life, something incredible happens to bring them together. Max has taught me that sympathy has its limits, but that just means I have to find appropriate ways to exercise it.

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I can use the openness and attentive understanding of others to be more compassionate and thus be joyful when others are joyful or bring comfort in distressing situations. I can connect with others on more than a superficial level.

But, I cannot say I know what it feels like. Because I don’t. My biology or cultural heritage or society’s response to me is fundamentally different. And it is only when I am fully honest about such differences that I can make the turn to really listen and try to understand what the other person is going through.

Yet, Max has also taught me that these very differences are incredibly valuable and are meant to be celebrated and cherished. I learn things from Max that I would not otherwise think about because he is so different. Moreover, I am pulled out of my own self-centered world in order to sympathize with Max. As I become more open to him, that openness begins to define my connection to many different people.

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It is fascinating and fantastic that Max is different and it is fascinating and fantastic that I can learn from him, establish a relationship with him, and find ways to step outside my own world to walk with him sympathetically – bearing the heat together (even if it means one of us is panting and the other sweating) and exploring the beauty of creation together (even if that means one of us is sniffing all around the ground and one is gazing across the horizon).

Max and I are fundamentally different in many ways, but when we embrace and respect those differences, we can begin the work of open-hearted understanding that is the foundation of our sympathetic bond.

So, thank you Max for teaching me about how limited, yet important, sympathy can be. Thank you for teaching me how to better connect with people who experience the world in vastly different ways compared to me. And thank you for bearing those hot, summer walks with me.