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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Matted

Max’s hair often gets matted, especially just under his ears. It’s hard to see, but once I start petting him and scratching around his ears, I often get a big handful of clumped up hair.

Sadly, there is not much Max can do about this and I am pretty bad at both preventing the mats and getting rid of them when they emerge. Since he very rarely shows any sign of being hurt, I quickly forget it is a problem. The mats grow on unseen until they are really too big to ignore.

And Max has taught me that while I don’t experience matted hair like he does, there are many dirty, useless things that clump up in my own life too. Whether it is nagging doubt, failures, hateful thoughts, or apathy, my heart seems to experience a similar state of matted material at times.

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After some quick research, I learned that Max’s mats are probably caused by a mixture of movement (scratching his head/ears), old hair loosening but not falling out, and external dirt sticking it all together. As the old hair is pressed together with dirt and clings to the hair still growing, it clumps together in a tangled mess.

Similarly, I recognize that when I just can’t let go of something that is wearing me down, when the stresses of the world press upon me, and when external concerns cling to me, my heart gets matted and tangled. If I don’t fully let the self-doubt and bitterness fall away from me, it gets tangled up in the new directions I am trying to move and is all pressed together by hatefulness that is still too apparent in the world.

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I have also learned that mats are bad not only because they impede the growth of new hair, but also because they inhibit oxygen getting to the skin and begin to pull on the skin so that it is weakened. On top of that they become potential breeding grounds for parasites that can cause even more damage.

The mats of the heart seem to create similar problems. They keep me tangled up in unhelpful issues and make new growth harder. These mats make it harder for my soul to breathe the fresh air of forgiveness and easier for other forms of carelessness and selfishness to emerge.

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The good news in all this is that mats can be removed. But, Max has taught me that they must be removed carefully and that often it takes the help of others. Since mats are formed close to the skin, which is thin and fragile, most mats need to be worked out by hand. I have had to cut out some of Max’s mats, but that too must be done slowly and carefully so as not to cause more harm. And usually I have to have my spouse’s help so that one of us can comfort and distract Max while the other works out the mats.

I’m the kind of person that has about the same amount of patience as Max when trying to work out the problematic parts of my life. And when doing something as personal as working out the mats of my heart, I do not want to open up to others. But Max has taught me it is crucial to take time and allow others to help, because my impatient scratching at these mats only tends to make them worse. He has taught me that it is important to really try to get at the root of the mat, but that sometimes I have to work away one tangled problem at a time. I have to identify and deal with each strand so that I can really let it go.

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The other good news is that the hair itself is not the problem. The heart itself is not bad. And the work of getting mats out reaffirms the importance and goodness of what had gotten tangled. Max has taught me that in no way is the hair or the heart problematic or awry. They just need care and maintenance.

Max has also taught me that even after getting rid of the mats, they tend to return quickly. There’s something about that spot that lends itself to matted hair. Which makes it even more important to regularly brush out the old hair and care for the new. He has taught me the importance of letting go of harmful things and cultivating the ways I can grow in love and compassion, and to do that over and over again.

So thank you Max for teaching me how to identify and carefully remove mats, whether they be literal in hair or more symbolic in heart. Thank you for being patient with me (and teaching me to be more patient with myself) as I learn better how to address these mats.