Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On Family: The furry, fuzzy members

Dan and I both grew up with dogs and cats (among other four-footed beasties); you could rightly call us dog people and also cat people, and I don't think either of us would have it any other way. I love my two furballs, even when they scratch up my new furniture, knock over vases full of flowers, and keep me up at night chasing each other around. I don't mind scooping their litter box (well... I tolerate it, anyway) or putting up with their yowling when we move. All of that is made up for when Dash crawls up onto my chest and starts purring madly when I pet him, or Vanyel curls up between Dan and I in the early morning looking for love. I get so much joy from them both; I couldn't imagine my life without them. And I have vivid memories of Shadow and Pippen, the two kitties I had growing up. They were a huge part of my childhood. When Shadow died the day after my 21st birthday, at the ripe old age of 15, I was utterly heartbroken; he will hold a special place in my heart that no other creature will ever touch.

So, I love cats. But I miss having a dog around. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if even one of my close friends had a dog I could love on, but the best I get is the three or four times a year I make the trek home to Durango to visit my parents. I've wanted to get a dog practically since I moved out on my own, and held off because, until recently, I haven't been in a position to be a good dog owner. Between work and school, tiny apartments I could barely afford, lack of money, and lack of time, I knew that I couldn't be fair to a dog, especially of the large variety that I tend to prefer. But now, for the first time, I have time, I have money, and I have a place, not to mention a wonderful cohort in the endeavor. I am beyond excited about this fact; to the point where doing dog-related research has been a real distraction from my schoolwork. However, getting a dog means something different to me now than I did when I first moved out. This dog will likely live to see my children born. This dog will significantly shape how they think and interact with animals for the rest of their lives. They will remember this dog forever, as I have remembered my own family pets.

I remember all of them, and clearly. Bayta was our first dog; she was a year old when I was born, and died not long after I turned thirteen. She was a german shepherd/husky mix, a big girl who loved to hike and camp with us, and didn't mind when my sister and I climbed on her, hugged her, pulled her tail, and fell asleep using her as a pillow. She was super chill, tolerant of cats and other dogs, smart and obedient, and a beloved member of our family. One of the most intense memories I have from my childhood is of the day she died; she had been in pain for some time, and that day the vet came out to our house, and the whole family gathered with her under a tree in our yard, petting to her and talking to her, and the vet gave her a shot and she went to sleep. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and my first real experience with death. Bayta formed the foundation for everything I think a dog should be, and I'm glad. She set a high standard.

We had other dogs throughout the years, all of whom left their impressions on me. By the time Bayta died, we had acquired Kenya and Dakota; they were littermates, half golden retrievers and half... something else. Chow for sure, and now that I'm a little more familiar with the breed, I think they may have had some mastiff or newfie in them as well, among other things, especially since they were big! Dakota was right around 100 lbs when he was full-grown. We lost Kenya (hit by a car :() when she was only a few years old, but Dakota was around for a long time - he had an incredibly tight bond with my mom, the kind of bond I hope to have with my own dog when the time comes. When he died, she was devastated; she kept his collar next to her bed where he used to sleep for months after.

Lacey, the only small dog we ever had as a family, and who we inherited when my Uncle Ben passed away, left her own impression. Smart, sweet, and affectionate, still, having her around confirmed for me that I will never be interested in owning a little yappy dog. "Lacey, SHUT UP!" was a common phrase in my parents' house while she was around! My mom is convinced to this day that she taught Kagan and Talya, who according to our research weren't supposed to be barkers (incorrect research by the way! The breed ARE barkers!), to bark at everything that moved. Still, she really was a sweetheart, and I will never forget the way she used to tear around the house like a crazy thing every time we gave her a bath, or the very special bond she had with my sister.

Kagan and Talya taught me about the value of really understanding a breed before you bring a dog home. My parents bought them from a ranch in the Denver area; cute, fuzzy little Anatolian Shepherd babies who my parents brought home to fill the big-dog void left after Dakota's sudden death. We did research before we got them, but not enough; having never really met an Anatolian Shepherd before, my parents were unprepared for their independent, willful, stubborn natures, as well as some pretty serious dog aggression, problems that were made more serious by their strength and size. Even with those flaws though, those two were great dogs, very affectionate, and almost too smart for their own good. After Kagan died unexpectedly and Lacey died of old age, Talya became the only dog and seems to have mellowed somewhat; I am hopeful that with time and patience, she will be persuaded to get along with my dog.

My dog. That phrase holds so much wonder for me. It isn't happening until this summer; Dan and I are at our max for pets at our current place, plus my schedule is pretty packed until school is over in May. But it is happening. And when it does happen, it's going to be a mastiff.
I make this choice with the knowledge at the forefront of my mind that this dog will be a significant influence in my kids' lives, just as Bayta was for me. Thus, I am making my choice carefully; I don't plan to bring the dog home until mid-August, but I've already begun researching and planning. Learning from my parents' mistakes with the Anatolians, I joined a wonderful online forum which is specifically for mastiff owners, and I have been asking copious questions of the members, about the breed, their experiences as mastiff owners, supplies I'll need, how to introduce mastiffs to dog-nervous friends, how to deal with fearful or curious strangers, what to expect from a rescue, etc. I also plan to start volunteering with Big Dogs Huge Paws, the rescue from which I plan to adopt my dog, as soon as I finish with school. That way, I'll be able to get real exposure to the dogs, as well as learning the ins and outs of rescue, plus I'll be on the "inside" when it comes to finding my own dog. That's good, because I'm looking for a pretty specific dog - old enough to be over most puppyishness, but young enough that, barring illness or accidents, I'll still get many years with him (especially since mastiffs, like most big dogs, tend to be a fairly short-lived breed); also friendly with or at least indifferent to kitties, friendly with strangers, gentle with kids, and mellow in general. I want the "goes everywhere" dog - a dog I can take over to a friend's house (with their approval of course), or take out on errands with me, take hiking and camping and maybe even to work. Finding a dog like that, especially through a rescue, may take some time.

Why a mastiff, you may ask? For one, I've always been drawn to big dogs, and you don't get any bigger than a mastiff; some breeds are taller (great danes and anatolian shepherds, for instance), but mastiffs are by far the largest breed by weight, with males and even some females sometimes exceeding 200 lbs. In fact, according to the Guiness Book of World Records the largest dog recorded was a mastiff named Zorba, who was eight feet long from tip to tail , over three feet tall at the shoulder, and weighed over 300 lbs. I'm not really looking for a Zorba-sized dog, of course, but I am ready for a big fella. Even more than their size, though, I'm drawn to the incredibly close bond mastiffs form with their people, and the calm, gentle temperament of the breed. As a rule, mastiffs tend to be big, cuddly, lovey goofballs, called "gentle giants" for good reason. Their early ancestors were dogs of war, bred to pull cavalry soldiers from their saddles during battle, but the modern mastiff, while protective of their family in the face of a perceived threat, is far from bloodthirsty. Even in situations where another dog tries to start a fight, a well-socialized mastiff is likely to end the fight by the simple expedient of pinning a smaller dog under its weight; in fact, one of the members on the forum I joined told us that her dog often breaks up dogfights at the dog park they frequent by shouldering in and defending the weaker dog until the aggressor backs off. How cool is that?!?

I've been doing obsessive research on this dog, about the breed, the best food, supplies I'll need, rescue organizations, and training. Supplies have been an enlightening subject; I mean, there's the obvious of course: food, bowls, collar, leash. But suggestions from the forum have included baby gates as a must-have, as well as dog bed(s), a crate (XXL size, which usually means special ordering it), a doggy first aid kit, and the furminator. One member pointed me here for a pooper scooper; Dan did not find this joke nearly as funny as I did. Something else that came up was having a big enough car - thank goodness for my Subie! And on the training front, I discovered that the Boulder Valley Humane Society has a freaking awesome, very affordable, training program. By my calculations, over the course of six months and for just over $500, I can take my dog from basic obedience up through intermediate and even some advanced training, including being able to earn his Canine Good Citizen certificate. I also have about half a dozen highly recommended books on training already en route from Amazon, which I'll be reading whenever I have time until school is over, and which I expect I'll devour once I have free reading time again. Especially with a dog as big as a mastiff, having him be extremely well-trained is so important. I have friends who are nervous enough about this crazy undertaking of mine; my goal is to turn them, if not into dog lovers, at least into dog likers, which will be that much more likely of the dog is clearly under complete control. I also am also keeping kids in mind - not just in the future sense, but in the here-and-now. Dan's sister visits us with her two young boys quite frequently, and I want them to be cool with the dog; my cousin just had a baby who will before long be a toddler, and also has a really cool lab that I think my pup could be doggy friends with; and even just at parks and on trails, I don't want the kind of dog that will freak out if a little kid comes running up to pet him. I have no way to know how much training my rescue dog will have had, either, so I'm trying to prepare for the worst. And no matter how well-trained my new dog is when I get him, I plan to start the BVHS classes from the beginning, and ASAP - after all, even if my dog is already an expert, I'm still an obedience n00b, and if there's one thing most dog trainers agree on, one of the most common sources of obedience or behavioral problems tend to be problems with the people, not the dog.
This dog is going to completely change my life. I have no illusions about that. But I welcome it. And, hopefully, when it happens, I'll be ready for it!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

On Religion:

This post is as much or more for me as it is for anyone else; it's been a long time since I laid out what I really believe about faith and God and church and religion, so I expect this will be something of an internal journey. And as such, let me add a disclaimer: My beliefs are not necessarily your beliefs. I will not be offended if you do not share them. I am happy to discuss religion with anyone willing to abide by that same rule, but I refuse to have someone else's beliefs shoved down my throat. In addition to exploring my particular beliefs, I'm sure my feelings about various religions will come out in this post, and some of my opinions are likely to be unflattering towards the religions involved. Please know that even if I have a fundamental problem with a certain religion, or have had bad experiences with some person or people of a certain belief system, I never lump all people all into one group. So if I have a criticism about your particular religion, please do not feel personally attacked.

This post has been a long time coming, but the timing is sparked by an e-mail I received from Dan's mom recently. I have talked about our radically different family dynamics in a previous blog post, and the hugest difference is in religion; namely, his parents are deeply religious Baptists, and I most definitely am not. Her e-mail, while well-intentioned, raises an uncomfortable issue for me. She wants to be my "spiritual mother," to "feed [me] on spiritual milk and then meat to grow in Christ" to be sure that I have accepted Jesus into my heart and am saved. She truly is concerned for my soul, especially since I will likely marry her only son and be the mother of her grandkids, to whom I'm sure she hopes I will pass on these Baptist teachings. While I don't have a problem with Dan talking about the Baptist religion with our kids, I have no desire to become a Baptist, ever. I have serious problems with aligning myself with a religion whose leaders promote intolerance, spread misinformation, and embrace hate as a way of life. Again, I'm not saying that all Baptists are this way (I have had plenty of great experiences with individuals), but the leadership in my experience often has been. Look at Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church, which proclaimed on its website that "God Hates Fags, God Hates Fag Enablers and God Hates You all in Boulder."
Obviously, I can't tell Dan's mom that. Especially since I know she shares some of the very viewpoints that I find so repulsive, although she at least is not hateful about it. And frankly, it's about more than just my distaste for how the Baptist religion in specific and Christianity in general is portrayed in the news - after all, the only people who make it to the news are the worst, most far-out, most crazy, most extreme members of the faith. It's like judging all Muslims based on the actions of a very few fundamentalist extremists.

The truth is that, in all honestly, I can't call myself a Christian of any kind. I find beauty and wisdom in the Christian religions. I have read most of the Bible (never could get through the bits about the apocalypse or Leviticus) and found it intriguing, enlightening, and moving. I have known many Christians who find great strength and meaning in their faith, and I admire and applaud this. I have attended Lutheran, Mormon, and Baptist churches, with mixed results. I have studied the Bible on my own and in school. I have read Christian literature, and listened with an open mind to well-meaning Christians attempting to convert me for the good of my soul. However, I also grew up on Jonathon Livingston Seagull and Illusions; Stranger in a Strange Land and Mary Summer Rain; Deepak Chopra and Celestine Prophecy, in a household that encouraged questions, exploration, and thought, and frowned on blind faith. I mention this to perhaps provide some insight into my religious background and where I'm coming from, because I have some fundamental problems with some of the major tenets of Christian faith:
  1. I do not believe in the Bible as the literal and uncorrupted Word of God.
  2. I do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God , the Savior of mankind, or God made flesh.
  3. I do not believe that anyone who does not believe in Jesus and His sacrifice can't go to heaven. I'm not even sure I believe in heaven, at least, not the Christian version.
  4. I don't believe in Hell.
  5. I don't believe in the inherently sinful nature of mankind.
  6. I do believe in reincarnation.
I do realize that not all Christians believe all of those things (or don't believe, as in the case of 6), but they are generally the exception, not the rule. It takes more than belief in God and acceptance of the existence of Jesus of Nazareth to make one a Christian, and I don't have it. Allow me to elaborate.

The Bible.
There is great wisdom in the Bible. I don't debate that. I would contend, however, that there are many passages that, taken out of their historic and cultural context, mean something entirely different than what was originally intended. Moreover, it is a historic, scholarly fact that the Bible has changed over time. In the days before the printing press, mis-copies were common; additionally, scribes were wont to change certain passages to better convey what they thought they should mean, or for their own agenda. Even without the possibility of corruption on the part of scribes (or priests, or politicians), the simple fact of translation is an issue. As anyone who speaks more than one language knows, translation is tricky even between two languages which are similar and still in vigorous use - inevitably, certain fine nuances of meaning are lost or changed, and the experiences and worldview of the translator influences the final product. The problems with translating the Bible (from ancient languages that haven't been used in centuries and which are wildly different in structure and style from most modern languages) are even more widespread and complex. There is a fantastic book, written by a formerly-Christian scholar, called Misquoting Jesus which I think everyone interested in the Bible should read.
Another problem I have with the Bible, not necessarily related to it being the literal Word of God, is the cherry-picking that goes on. For instance, why are some parts of Leviticus important, and others ignored? I thought part of the point of being Christian was that the New Testament wipes out basically everything the Old Testament said and starts fresh?
I think the Bible is beautiful and wise and in most cases a thoughtful guide for how a good person might live their life. But I also find it to be a very human book, written by generations of scholars just trying to understand their world and their faith.

I don't want this to be taken as me not believing that Jesus existed. I just don't believe him to be any more or less the son of God than any other human being. I can get behind Jesus as an exceptionally enlightened, spiritually evolved man who chose to live a life devoted to helping others accelerate the pace of their spiritual journeys. I find questions and theories surrounding his "lost" years fascinating. But I believe all of mankind to be the sons of God, with a spark of the divine, and I think Jesus' miracles were a result of greater knowledge about the nature of existence, rather than any kind of inherent holiness.

Salvation through Christ.
This is a major sticking point for me. Part of it is because of other beliefs (which I'll get into when I get into reincarnation). Part of it is because I simply cannot accept the belief that those who do not believe that Jesus died for their sins are doomed to Hell, or at best Purgatory. For one, I find the idea rather petty for a supposedly omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God; to me it reeks of the very human concept of "I'm right so you can't possibly be right as well, and that makes you not only wrong but willfully ignorant and malicious." Who among us hasn't had that very feeling during a heated argument, even if we know in the backs of our minds that the other person has a point, and that the other person is not going out of their way to hurt us? I find it colossally arrogant for any single religion to claim to have the only possible answer to the nature of existence; I think it likely that what lies beyond our known world is infinitely more incredible and complex than our poor human brains can even comprehend.
The other reason for my problem with this idea is a deeply personal one. Both of my grandparents died this year, within months of each other. I still grieve for them deeply; I think about them every single day, and I have completely broken down on more than one occasion. I still find myself thinking about calling them to fill them in on my life, my grandmother especially. When I think that someday I'll graduate college, get married, have kids, all of that life stuff, and they won't be there, it breaks my heart. Something that gives me great comfort is the feeling in my heart that they still exist somewhere, be it in heaven or as higher spiritual beings or whatever, watching over me and loving me and being proud of me. But, while I do know that since my uncle Brad passed away a few years ago my grandma had been attending church, neither of them was "saved" in the Christ-died-for-my-sins sense of the word. My grandma's thoughts on religion were a lot like mine, actually. And so you see, if I believed that the only way to heaven was through Christ, I would have to not only have to give up this idea which is one of the only things that gives me comfort when I think of them, I would have to believe that they had gone, not to a better place, but a terrible place. And that's not something I could ever, ever believe.

Hell, Reincarnation, and the inherently sinful nature of mankind.
I believe that the purpose for our existence as spiritual beings is first and foremost, to learn. I believe in a spiritual body and spiritual realm beyond that of the earth; I believe that we are all far more spiritually advanced than most religions give us credit for; and I believe that we live many lives on Earth. I believe that we (or perhaps a higher power, or a more spiritually advanced teacher) decide ahead of time what we need to learn in this life, and plan accordingly, though I don't believe that our lives are entirely predestined. Part of the fun, after all, would be in free will - not only your own, but that of those around you. Thus, we are free to make mistakes, even terrible ones, and in so doing perhaps learn an even greater lesson, or teach one to someone else on their own spiritual path. And I believe we do this over and over, living many lives (which are, after all, an eyeblink in terms of eternity), until we have learned all we can on this world, and then we move on, to whatever is next for us on our spiritual journey. And because everyone is here to learn some kind of lesson, I don't believe in Hell - no, not even for Hitler. Who's to say that Hitler was not some spiritually advanced soul who chose to live a terrible life in order to teach the human race a lesson which still informs our consciousness even today? I'm not saying Hitler should be nominated for sainthood or anything; I just think that Hell is a a flawed oversimplification of what I believe to be a more complex situation. It's certainly a primally satisfying idea - who doesn't want to imagine a truly awful person spending eternity in torment? I can see how it came to be a part of human belief, and some version of Hell seems to exist in many, many religions, past and present. But it's all tied up with these ideas of vengeance and punishment, and it seems to me that a true, all-powerful deity would be above such pettiness. I do, however, remember reading about one version of Hell which made sense to me. It was, ironically, in an Anne Rice vampire novel called Memnoch the Devil. I realize that this is an unlikely place to find some kind of legitimate theology, but I found her portrayal of Hell quite compelling. In the book, Hell is not so much a place of punishment as it is one of learning; it is a place where the soul of a person who has committed wrongful acts must go in order to come to terms with those acts and embrace the beauty and perfection of the Creator, before they can advance to Heaven. Sometimes these souls, in horror at realizing the terrible deeds they committed, punish themselves, severely, living in torment, until gradually, hopefully, they are able to move on. For my belief system, this is a much more compatible version of Hell - as a place of reflection, where one absorbs the lessons of the life just lived, sheds the pain and sadness, and moves on spiritually.
One more reason for my belief in reincarnation. As I mentioned before, the span of a human life is a mere eyeblink, a brief flash, when compared to eternity. I cannot believe in a God who gives His creations such a brief window of time before determining how they will spend the rest of eternity.
So, because of these beliefs surrounding the nature of our existence, I cannot buy into the idea of mankind as inherently sinful. Each person is a completely perfect spiritual being on his or her spiritual path, here to learn some kind of lesson.
Now, in saying this, I'm not saying that people shouldn't try to do right. You still have to live with yourself, both now and later when you look back on this life. And while you may have set out on this journey with particular goals in mind, since you can't remember exactly what you decided before you were born, you have to muddle through, listening to your "inner voice," that feeling inside of you that tells you when you're on track. I've heard it numerous times in my life; in fact, it was its lack that prompted me to try to shake things up and sparked my move to Boulder. Since the move, I've heard it often - finding roommates, finding jobs, finding Dan. Little cosmic indications that my life is on the right track - that I'm right where I'm supposed to be.
I also think that some people are in your life for a reason. We form attachments as humans - why not as spiritual beings? Those people who you meet, who you instantly feel like you've known for your whole life, or the ones who stick around forever, the ones you feel linked to on a deeper level... I think you really are. A sort of cosmic family, so to speak. That goes for adversaries, too - after all, who's to say they aren't really a friend, put into your life as a favor, to teach you something?


I really like Dogma's take on religion, especially two quotes from Selma Hayak's character, Serendipity. First one, "I have issues with anyone who treats God like a burden instead of a blessing. You people don't celebrate your faith . . . you mourn it." And, even better, "When are you people going to learn? It's not about who's right or wrong. No denomination's nailed it yet, and they never will because they're all too self-righteous to realize that it doesn't matter what you have faith in, just that you have faith. Your hearts are in the right place, but your brains need to wake up." Religion is so often portrayed without a sense of humor, and I think that's a shame. Dogma's take, that it's the faith that's important and not the name you put to it, is something I've always believed, from the very beginning. Maybe it comes from my early years, reading The Chronicles of Narnia over and over. In The Last Battle,the final book, which was always my favorite by far, there is a great battle between good and evil. In the end, of course, Aslan prevails against the evil god Tash. And those who follow Tash are destroyed, and those who follow Aslan join him in paradise. But one man who followed Tash joins Aslan and the rest. When he asks Aslan why he has been allowed into paradise when he worshipped Aslan's adversary, Aslan tells him, "Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?' I said, 'Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.' But I said also (for truth constrained me), 'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.' 'Beloved,' said the Glorious One, 'unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.'"
Of anything I've watched or read though, the book I've found that most perfectly sums up my beliefs is called Communion With God written by Neale Donald Walsch. It's a good read, and one of the few religious-type texts that I have ever found myself agreeing with completely. Despite the title, it is not a particularly Christianity-oriented text.

So, there you have it. The somewhat complex result of years of reading, exploring, questioning, and wondering. It's a rather odd mix, I'll admit, but it brings me peace, which is the most important thing right?