Grains of Sand Escape Even Tightly-Clenched Hands
“To love is not to possess the other person or to consume all their attention and love.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Live
In his five-part treatise “How to Live,” Thich Nhat Hanh teaches healthy approaches to living through sitting, walking, relaxing, eating and loving. Love, in the context of these teachings, is not the common sentimentality with which we are generally familiar. Rather, it is a compassionate interaction with other beings. A quest and exercise to truly understand others. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the necessity of balance as the scales of interconnection slope toward and away from attachment or aversion. He offers that to love “is not to possess the other.” Instead, it is to apply one’s own completeness when living in relation to others and, by extension, to aid others’ in attaining a sense of wholeness.
Many of us hold tightly to others –commemoratively, literally, metaphorically. For some, there are beings –human or animal– that represent warm memories of irrepressible joy, moments of jubilant abandon, tales of distinguished successes and unexpected triumphs. We build sturdy walls of retention against the eroding surge of time, press senselessly to seize a hand that has loosened its grip and begun to pull away. The lover who has lost the feeling of love. The friend who took the crossroad at the intersection. The favorite boss whose eyes now glint for a new star performer. We hold tightly because this is our version of love: binding, holding others in place.
One weekend afternoon, in early 2008, my fiancé at the time suggested we go for a drive. It was a sunny but cool and wintry Saturday, following a cold late Friday night of unrestrained drinking, and an even later nightcap of intense bickering! At this point, the threads that seamed us together were bare. Even still, we would spend the next three years senselessly patching ourselves back together, over and over. This day we mended our tatters with a visit to the Humane Society. I was opposed to adopting an animal into a home that was volatile. I did not say this. Instead, I pointed to our frequent travels and late weekend nights away from home. To weaken my resistance, I was allowed – that is, without input– to choose a dog we would name Venus, after my favorite tennis player. During those years, I negotiated for a living, and typically knew when my opponent was in the superior bargaining position. This was such an occasion.
I surveyed the entire selection of dogs, various ages and breeds, coats of multiple lengths and textures, dogs mixed and pure. I needed time to walk us away from this path, a cogent justification to put distance between us and this sudden impulse to have a dog. The final room housed small dogs and puppies! It is fairly difficult to resist a puppy, and seeing their anxious faces razed what was left of my opposition. I had been outwitted, outplayed, and was completely unaware it was all happening. Bounding wide-eyed toward an entire cell block of puppy siblings, I admitted defeat. The puppy that attracted my attention had been named Becky. A black lab mix, with a beautiful down-coat that was soft as fresh snow. She was eight weeks of puppy perfection. I reached into grab her, and she ran away from me. Her siblings whined and vied for my attention, but I reached over and around them to chase Venus down, because this was Venus. Even as a puppy, Venus was agile, and she deftly evaded my grasp. I insisted, but she ducked and sidestepped. Apparently, this day I was both an ineffective negotiator and clumsy maneuverer! A Humane Society volunteer rescued me, stepped into the block, scooped up Venus, and put her in my arms. My heart melted. We walked directly to the office and adopted her.
I spent the entire evening, and most of the subsequent three weeks, watching videos on a new platform called YouTube and reading pamphlets, all on how to train a puppy. I bought carefully-researched toys and the best dog food. I got up early to take her on morning walks, and walked her again two hours later, before leaving for work. We hired a dogwalker who fell in love with Venus the moment they met and who agreed to stop by our home once a day to spend thirty minutes walking Venus and playing with her. Venus, in turn, resisted everything but the lavish attention. She resisted her leash. She resisted her crate training. She resisted walks beyond the front lawn. And, she vigorously resisted being trained to relieve herself outside! Our dogwalker would later reveal that, for two months, she would enter our home to the stench of Venus’ crate, covered with dog waste, top to bottom! Venus would also be covered. She would become so enraged at the indignity of being left in a crate that she would lose control, eliminate waste from every possible orifice, and then jump up and down, unwittingly covering herself in it. Venus was stark-raving, puppy-barkingly mad. We knew she did this in the evening before we arrived home. We were not aware that she also created this spectacle for the dogwalker!
Equal to Venus’ disdain for the crate, were her feelings of contempt for her leash. She would turn and chew it, bite it and tug at it. She would plant her paws firmly and attempt to work the halo of the leash over her fuzzy ears. She was still pulling away from me, and I was still holding on tightly. After the first two months, Venus eventually relented and accepted her crate. It might have been the treats we left inside of it. She also began to relieve herself exclusively outside. It might have been the two early morning walks, the now one-hour break with her dogwalker in the afternoon, and the three evening walks. In short, Venus trained us.
When our engagement ended, my fiancé, the parent who gave her the most freedom, gained custody of Venus. I hugged Venus goodbye, recognizing that she was in more capable hands. For three years, my hands had been closed tightly, hoping to never lose her. My fiancé, by contrast, parented Venus with open hands, off leash and with a far more relaxed approach. And, that was love: allowing Venus to choose to stay, existing as a whole person without forcing the family dog to participate in the process. Letting go of a relationship that had years earlier loosened its grip.