Thursday, July 15, 2021

"Do You Ever Talk to Your Dog?"

Stella in conversation with grass people

The man in a Navajo print poncho asked me, "Do you ever talk to your dog?" 

"All the time," I answered him truthfully. "She talks to me, too. And we both try listen as well."

He looked satisfied, "That's good. Keep it that way."

At the next corner, my dog Stella asked if we should cross to the shady side of the street by pointing her entire body in that direction. The day was turning warmer, so I said, "Good idea," the words I use with her to indicate agreement, but first I said, "Wait," which is how I tell her we need to first wait for traffic. Several cars drove past before I said, "Okay," and we crossed.

She told me, by a slight pull on the leash, that she thought we ought to continue straight, but it was time to start heading toward home, so I let her know that I'd rather go, saying, "This way," and she hopped a little as she changed directions.

This is how most of our conversations go, the two of us making suggestions to one another. I suppose that ultimately I have the power because I'm bigger and stronger, but the older I grow, the more uncomfortable I become in any relationship in which power is out of balance. I don't like to be told what to do and I don't like to tell others what to do, even if that person is a dog.

Sometimes I'm distracted and forget to listen. That's when Stella "acts out" by lurching this way and that or by lagging behind, bracing herself against me. Sometimes, if I'm particularly inattentive, she'll stand on her hind legs and punch me in the hip with her forepaws. There was a time when these behaviors irritated me, and they still sometimes spark that, but I've learned that what she is telling me is that I've lost the thread. She is saying, "What can possibly be more important that what we are doing together, right here, right now?"

In Leo Tolstoy's short story "The Three Questions," the protagonist finds the most important time is right now, the most important person is the one you are with, and the most important thing to do is to help that person. Perhaps something was lost in the translation from Russian, but Stella expands this lesson: the most important thing to do is to help, but first you must really listen.

You'll notice that I'm referring to Stella as a "person." It's a tip I first picked up from a Tlingit storyteller, who spoke of "orca whale people" and "bear people." In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that in her traditions plants are people as well -- "maple people," "sweetgrass people," "wild leek people." If you haven't before, try it out and you'll find your relationship to everything shifts. When we're all people we suddenly have no choice but to talk and listen.

Stella suggesting we go "that way."

The world of human people that we've created is one of hierarchy. The stories we tell are of owners who have lost control of their pets; of employers who have lost the respect of the employed; of parents who are wrapped around the little fingers of their children. If you listen to our public dialog, it is comprised mostly of conversation about power and hierarchy. This is what I hear when I listen only to the human people, but the moment I tune in to the other peoples of this planet, I am overwhelmed by talk of cooperation, equality, reciprocity, and agreement. And this also goes especially for children people. More often than not, at bottom, their "challenging behaviors" tell us that they care nothing about our hierarchies and they resent our exercise of power over them. Indeed, they are telling us that it is an evil that seeks domination and it starts by destroying cooperation, equality, reciprocity, and agreement, trampling the grass from which the basket of life is woven. 

It seems that all the peoples of the earth, with the exception of the adult human people, are telling us to listen until we understand, help in the way that we can, and then, lastly, take only what we need. 

I'm sure by this point, I've lost many readers. They have scoffed at my "anthropomorphism" and clicked away. They have shaken their heads at my naivet√© and dismissed it as "wouldn't it be lovely." They have frowned at my oversimplification, and left before these final paragraphs to return to their news sites where people argue over their precious hierarchy. 

In our bodies, the cells that will not listen are called cancer, and we seek to eradicate them or they will kills us. In the body of the planet, we are the cells that will not listen, yet instead of eradicating us, the other people's of the world, including our own children, have not lost hope and are still begging us to simply engage with them in a dialog between equals. 

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