Reflections are dangerous territory, of the best kind. They are carved out spaces that allow us to venture into the zone of unloading uncomfortable thoughts that make an appearance every now and then despite our efforts to suppress them. Most often, the thoughts are questions, wonderings, and connections. If we are lucky (and by “we” I include the environment we occupy and hope to enrich and enliven), those reflections transform into doable actions that can alleviate suffering, end destruction, and make space for the joy of companionship and community. My reflections shared here are inspired by my personal relationship with Shiva, my four+-year-old Golden Retriever I grew up believing was impure (honestly dirty) and not belonging in the home of a pious Muslim, who gently teaches me lessons on life, home, and the only certainty we are born with: our mortality. But there is also so much in between, and it is that space in time I am most interested in.
I noticed Zach on my first “official” run on the seawall in Vancouver, a couple of weeks after arriving to our latest home in a long list of homes over the past few decades. I didn’t know his name. I didn’t even know this glorious being was a he. All I saw was a big, hairy, black mountain dog, sitting on a bench by the sea, resting his head on his human’s lap. The first sighting was at the onset of my run, so I had a long time to think about the dog, the human, and that undeniable, palpable comfort of home they gave me. I told myself all sorts of tales about them, how they woke up early in the morning excited for coffee and their time by the water on that steel bench, people watching and water gazing, living in the moment with an aging body and a peaceful mind.
Two days later, as I approached the same location, I remembered cute, big hairy mountain dog –and home. I wondered if he would be on the bench with his human. He was, one front leg hanging off the small bench, the other resting lovingly under his chin on his papa’s lap. I smiled and promised myself to stop next time to ask about him –maybe take a picture to post on my blog.
Next time came two days later. I hesitated about speaking to them, most likely afraid to burst the bubble of warmth I constructed in my head. But I stopped. I made a mental note to read the dedication plaque on the bench at some point, a habit I picked up after friends of my brother-in-law’s dedicated one to him in a beautiful space that also feels like home in London when he passed away 18 years ago. I learned his name was Zach, a senior dog grounded with years of wisdom and confidence. He graciously sat up and posed for me when I asked permission to take a picture of him. The bubble of warmth, as I expected, was indeed slightly burst –not by Zach but by his unfriendly human. He seemed a little abrupt to me, reserved with his words and his privacy. But there was no denying the easy love, connection, and comfort between the two of them.
I think about them often these days, about that special bond some of us human animals are fortunate (and sometimes more comfortable) to experience with non-human animals. I wonder what makes it so unique. Is it unconditional love, or the very conditions of mutual benefit/survival/thriving that tie the two together? Does it matter why? Isn’t it enough to acknowledge the sense of warm comfort, safety, and authenticity that drives the existence of all those involved in this relationship in which everyone wins?
I feel those very fruits of this relationship are the essence of what we call “home,” irrespective of physical location, and these also happen to be the very prerequisites for any connection to what is beyond our human mind’s conscious ability to grasp, measure, and define. In other words, the essence of spirituality, that ground that is not only under our feet, but around us, above us, and very much in us.
And this is a very dangerous relationship to have when one operates within the boundaries dictated by a patriarchal, traditional religious culture I like to call “men in beards” that dedicates most of its energy to policing its adherents away from that which cannot be controlled: home and love.
The Holy Quran mentions 35 animals, including dogs in beautiful tales of companionship and compassion. Some sects sanction the companionship of dogs, citing the story of the dog in the cave and the teachings from the life of Prophet Mohammad (Peace Be Upon Him). I think a lot about dogs because of the relationship I have been fortunate to enjoy with my Golden Retriever friend. As a child, our family adopted two German Shepherds who were kept outside in the garden because of a cultural, religious-guised belief that dogs were dirty and did not belong in the homes of Muslims who needed to ensure purity of body, clothes, and location. My father took charge of caring for those lovely beings. We used to make fun of him for having a thousand and one outfit changes a day for his many chores around the house, especially the dog walks and the dog cooking. They were Zaki and Zoro, two wild, beautiful canines who not only controlled our garden, but also terrorized the entire neighborhood. I may not have developed as strong a connection to them as I have now with my Shiva, but I am certain that seed was planted in me the day we brought those puppies home. The effort and hours of caring and nurturing another being are essential for cementing a connection. Maybe that is the “social contract” psychologists and sociologists speak of. It could be that sense of co-existence and maybe even co-dependency that begin to construct the building blocks of safety and comfort. When they are not present, the relationship weakens, not very much different from a distant admiration of a cute baby/dog/animal we encounter fleetingly. The safety is in the effort, the time, and the emotional entanglement of care. That missing effort is also what creates the distance the men in beards really want to keep and possibly expand from That to which they claim they hold the key.
When I carried the 15-month-old Shiva onto the trunk of my car, I thought about the outfit changes. I knew my father was looking down at me with a wicked smile. I told him secretly that I will not buy chicken legs to cook at home for the dog and have my children subjected to tales of their home smelling like rotten chicken for the rest of their lives. (Incidentally, according to the men in beards dead flesh is not dirty. My dog’s fur and saliva were.)
The outfit changes lasted about a week, the showering for every prayer even less. But the process was very organic and gentle. I am convinced she knew the internal struggle I was having between centuries-old teachings that made no sense to me whatsoever, and my discipline to be a “good Muslim”, just in case the beards were right and there is a paradise out there for women who remain pure. She had a small twinkle in her eye every time the idea of paradise came to me, this knowing “You cannot be seriously believing that the paradise you are promised is really a paradise for the beards to whom you will be serving too, albeit without outfits all together.” She knew. But she kept a comfortable distance, never stepping on my prayer mat, and never licking me unless I was covered in sweat after a run and sauna session, in which case she couldn’t suppress her mama instinct to lick me dry. She knew I was showering after anyway.
And so it slowly matured, this fuzzy connection that brought comfort, familiarity, and safety between us. It overflowed to encompass my entire world: my prayer was deeper and more connected. For the first time in my life, I felt free: there was no gatekeeper holding any keys. There was not even a gate. She was in my prayer, a loving addition to the list of loved ones I prayed for every night, walking alongside all those lives present and past that give me purpose and guidance. The wordless language she so gently teaches me has opened my eyes and ears to universal communication of life unfolding around me in every encounter I am fortunate to have every day.
But most of all, she has shown me what humility truly means. The ills of the world can only be ascribed to humankind’s arrogance, that sense of entitlement and power our small minds have convinced us we have over every other being, taking us on a trajectory of self-destruction. The premise from which mankind operates almost always comes from this arrogance, not from a place of life-honoring, of co-learning, co-creating, and co-existence. Instead, we teach, preach, and rule. We abuse, we exploit, and we consume until we have killed life, including our own. We prostitute concepts like sustainability, empowerment, and liberty, numbing our arrogance with lip-service to tired language we no longer even understand, and possibly never understood in the first place.
Arrogance and fear reside in the same space. They are at the gate, with its keepers in turbans, beards, robes, and suits, so far away from home they no longer see it. Meanwhile, Zach rests his head on his human’s lap, watching the seagulls dance to their tunes, pausing in peace on the steel “home” dedicated to a departed loved one, accepting the sole contract every life must honor: mortality. The companionship of non-human beings from trees to butterflies reminds us of the space before where no keepers are needed. Us and them in a glorious wordless communication that honors the sanctity of life –and living.
 I don’t mean to denigrate any man with a beard. Nor do I wish to exclude men in suits, women who raise men in beards, turbans, robes, and suits. Maybe I should just call them oppressors.