Simplicity and Joy

Lessons From My Dogs


Simplicity and Joy

They are, from time to time, my greatest teachers—these dogs of mine.

From my three dogs Flash, Chance and Sasha, especially in the quiet moments when time seems to still and from an intimate distance I observe, I’ve learned lessons unavailable in the classroom, and yet more valuable than algebra or composition--for I learned the qualities of acceptance, enthusiasm, living in the moment, dignity, forgiveness, joy, compassion and love. My dogs’ teaching method is different from the average college professor’s, for my dogs instruct, intentionally or not I don’t know, from the heart. And when taught and received by the heart, and not the mind as is customarily practiced, our lessons stay with us forever. We use the expression to learn something “by heart” to mean we learn it well and never forget. In France, teaching the basic disciplines “par coeur” is a practice standard in children very young. Somehow animals instinctively live from the heart (or perhaps our anthropomorphic view lets us believe so—but the result is the same.)

Any animal is a good teacher: cats, dogs, birds, pigs, cows, horses, sheep, turtles, insects, with the inanimate such as rocks, trees, plants, clouds and air maybe the best of all, but mine, for whatever reasons, are dogs. Now, just to clarify, I don’t think that my miniature dachshund is a Buddhist guru disguised in a long rubbery dachshund body. He might be, but I don’t think so. I just think that animals embody many of the traits for which we humans strive: simplicity, presentness, enthusiasm, joy, and when we open ourselves to receive all the lessons available (even if there are no lessons and we make them up—it’s seeing the good in something bad), we start seeing the miracles of every day, we appreciate more, and we become better. And who better to help us than dogs, these near perfect beings? Dog spelled backwards is, after all, God.

My lesson for the day was joy through simplicity (or simple joy, or perhaps joyous simplicity.)
In the early morning, as I lay in bed, my body ached. Two nights a week I work late in a restaurant. It’s a hard way to make a living and equally hard on the body, and as I lay there, stresses, financial and otherwise, weighed heavily upon me. Then the dogs, who sleep beside me, began to stir. Mornings are always good in their world. The start of a new day, breakfast at hand, or at paw. They stretched, wagged tails, twisted on backs, and with little encouragement, Flash began to sing a beautiful song. Then Sasha our new family member joined in, and finally Chance, all belting it out, rivaling the crowing cock of dawn. For that moment my trifling human problems ceased to exist and I found myself smiling, laughing and clapping my hands in praise and in thanks.

Throughout the day it was hard not to be moved by just being around these gentle souls, and I was aware of the joy found in their simple world, small pleasures that rippled outward like circles on the pond reaching me at the shore.

Disliking to put anything I can’t or wouldn’t eat on my body, I often slather dry skin with coconut or almond oil. The dogs know the oil as “the cream” and come running when I call out the word to them. And as three heads, black, brown and tan, licked “the cream” from my hands, I knew I was smiling, petty problems now completely gone—this here was the important stuff!

Next I called, “Who wants to go for a walk?” Oh, the joy and enthusiasm. The racing around, the squeaking of toys. You’d have thought I’d said that we’d just won the 50 Million Lotto to merit such joyful, crazed activity. Yet had I told them we’d just won 50 million dollars, I know the response would have been, How many walks together in the warm spring sun can the winning lottery ticket buy? Or How many moments of joy found in watching a dachshund digging a hole, pursuing a long-escaped field mouse, or in awe watching beagles feathering across the pastures as they are programmed to do, fulfilling their simple destinies?

After the walk I asked, “Who wants a cookie?” Good heavens, the glee in their eyes. The twinkle, the shine, I swear they were smiling. You’d have thought I’d said I’d just won a Mediterranean cruise and the winning lotto ticket---to which I know they would’ve replied, But wouldn’t that take you on travels far and wide where we can’t follow? Or change you in some way from who you are now, a person of simple means and life, true. But also a person of simple, yet many, joys. They are right. They always are. How is it they’re born naturally all-knowing in those things that matter? Why are we the ones who need all the conk-you-over-the-head lessons?

And now as I sit in the lowering late afternoon light, the shadow of my house creeps nearer as the sun begins its descent behind the mountain ridge. Sasha and Chance lie like bookends curled up head to head on top an old apple crate. Their sides lift with each deep breath as they rest, full of treats, exercise and a day well spent, and Flash, a shiny black shoe beneath my chair, waits for the reflection of my watch to trace across the grass. At which point he will pounce on it.

In their simplicity, lying quietly outside, sniffing the spring air, I believe they lead far richer lives than I in all my rushing about, trying to accomplish. In their stillness they seem wise. And so I stop, and take the time to sit with them. Time slows and I know that these are the best moments of my life. Perhaps it’s when I stop and become still that I accomplish the most. And while my dogs accept me for who I am no matter what, I think they thank me for stopping to enter their simple world. If just for a little while.

Kay Pfaltz is author of LAUREN’S STORY: AN AMERICAN DOG IN PARIS. She is the wine reviewer for NELSON COUNTY LIFE, and a book critic for THE NEWS VIRGINIAN. And unfortunately it will be hard for her to win the lottery as she has never bought a ticket.