Amongst the dearest friends and teachers on my journey have been various animal companions, each bringing a different energy and wisdom to twine around my own path. The wheeling freedom sung out high in the sky as I walk beside the River Mersey, on wings that will take those same songs around the world; the watchful stillness of the undergrowth shade frogs in the scrubby patch of woods down behind the playing fields; the craggy-faced basking tortoise beneath his glowing heat-lamp; the sentinel cats that mark my progress down city streets from heavy-lidded eyes…. This animal energy infuses life with a vital source and seasoning that, if absent, would leave an only-human world one-dimensioned, pale and pallid.
At the moment, I’m sharing my home with a small, white dog called Bobby. Bobby, though cute, doesn’t look much like one of the world’s great gurus. She is filled with a great, puppy-ish energy at 1-year old, bestowing her with a joie de vivre that sends her quivering with anticipation into the arms of each new morning. When she is happy her whole body vitally feels it, wagging from the tip of her tail upwards until it seems she is one great wag in canine form, and when her own little soul is lifted in love – faced with a wide beach to scamper over, or thrilled with the ecstasy of a frisbee thrown far for her to chase – each time swells her entire being with the full joyful experience, moment by moment – as though it is the first time she’s ever felt such wonder.
When Bobby is tired, she rests. Like all animals, she knows that without deep rest life is dangerous. Curled by my feet in the evening she becomes lunar… her still, perfect, quiet orb after the activity of the day suddenly as distant and mysterious as the full moon she brings to mind. When she is hungry she goes to her food bowl and eats well, and she never forgets to drink. If she’s not in the mood to play she makes her feelings clear by going to her bed, rolling over, hiding her head… never once experiencing FOMO, never once troubled what I might think of her. She loves deeply, loyally and unquestioningly – she knows that what matters most is who she loves, who loves her, and taking care of our little pack. When the sun shines she borrows moves from her sworn feline adversaries, stretching languorously into any warm slice of floor and rolling this way and that – soaking up the warmth as easily as she soaks up love and any other moment. Moment by moment, this is how she lives…
In contrast yesterday, with news from No. 10 of the ‘roadmap’ out of the latest lockdown, the human occupants of my home conversations turned steadily to the coming months. Notifications pinged, impacts on hopes, plans and coming milestones were assessed, and opinions and anxieties began to emerge. After settling into a day-by-day routine that kind-of works (given all the limitations of lock-down, home-schooling, WFH life, shielding etc.) and becoming familiar with the new pace of life, everything was thrown up in the air again and needed urgent recalibration against our hopes, fears, beliefs, insecurities, sense of powerlessness…. I expect that this was the same up and down the country. We went for a walk near our home, partly to get away from the rolling news, but ‘the next few months’ was the main topic of conversation.
Meanwhile the sun hung low and golden, burnishing our faces amber and swirling heavy patterns in the air through the woodsmoke piping from the barges on the canal. Meanwhile the dusky chorus was in full song, the air around us filling with noise – robins and song thrush’s and all their fellow choristers in full throat, as a Buzzard soared soundlessly overhead and a pair of Mallard ducks fussed busily around their nest hidden in the reeds. Meanwhile Bobby lived like there was no tomorrow, just a life full of todays. Bobby ran between her people, full of trust that somehow – together – life would be good. Bobby enjoyed the moment in front of her, for it was all she had.
Of course, in many ways Bobby is protected and lives a version of reality that we would maybe not want. She doesn’t care about tomorrow because she doesn’t know about its cares and concerns, and if she were an animal who had experienced mistreatment or suffering (as many do) her approach to life would be very different. In any case, the wider point remains that animal wisdom which responds to any given moment, and not an imagined version of the future, sets the course. A deep intuition in our animal friends tells them what to focus on to survive, and the answer is often right in front of them. How often do we miss that as we set about our plans and our speculations? If we learnt, from time to time, to gift ourselves some of their moment-living ease, their freedom from introspection, speculation, guilt or anxiety, how much more joyful might we be? If we could just curl up, soar high, watch the world peacefully without needing to get messily entangled….? We have much to learn from our animal companions.
The poet Mary Oliver wrote much about the experiences and joys of living with her own dogs, particularly one called Percy. The following poem is one of many she wrote about him, and perhaps encapsulates within just a few words the wisdom of animal life – to live fully, love wholeheartedly, and – in the end – rest peacefully.
‘I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life’, by Mary Oliver
Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.
Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
- “I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life” by Mary Oliver. Red Bird: Poems, Beacon Press. 2009.