The Difficulty–and Importance–of Resurrecting Good Habits

A few years ago, I used to take a 30-40 minute walk on a near-daily basis. It was rare for me to miss a day, even when it was bitterly cold. The thing most likely to deter me was extreme heat and humidity (which we get more often than not now). Even then, I made it out there most days.

It wasn’t easy. I work long hours, and in the short time between getting home and going to bed, I have to feed all the livestock, cook and eat dinner, do the routine chores, and hopefully get a little writing done. A daily walk wasn’t virtuous on my part–it was necessary. I had a big high-drive dog who needed the daily exercise to keep him sane enough to wait until my day off to take him for a longer hike. The only way I’d get it done was to walk in the door and go straight to his leash–if I didn’t do it right away on getting home, the chances were much slimmer I’d take him out for the length of time he needed. Especially, after dinner, when exhaustion would kick in. But I made it work because it was necessary.

Fast forward two years: my beloved but difficult dog Sampson succumbed to cancer, and Remington, my current big dog, though young is made of less intense stuff. Remy is also even more heat intolerant than I am, which is saying something. Then back in January, I injured my foot, which exacerbated an old knee problem, and the next thing I knew, I was no longer walking every day. By the time the foot/knee problem improved, I’d gotten out of the habit. I’d gained weight and my fitness was down as well. Now it was the hottest part of the summer and it was just easier to throw the ball for the dog in the shaded yard where he could jump in and out of the water trough at will than it was to force myself to do that daily walk again.

Likewise minding my food choices. See, I have a mild form of acne rosacea, which has gotten progressively worse with age. In my case, while stress is a player, food is definitely a trigger for me. Which means many of the foods I could get away with eating when I was younger are no longer an option. And yet, sometimes I forget that. No, scratch that. Sometimes I choose to ignore the truth. It’s especially hard for me around the holiday season. For me, the worse triggers are cinnamon (sob), cheese (double sob), and wine (bawling now), but also tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes (anything from the nightshade family), vinegar, and citrus. I recently discovered that people with acne rosacea frequently have hypertension too (which makes sense, as rosacea is a vascular problem), which means I’ve had to take wine off the list permanently. Along with caffeine, it sends my blood pressure into the stratosphere. I also seem to be sensitive to gluten and peanut butter, staples of my diet for most of my life. No cheese, no snickerdoodles or apple pie, no wine, no coffee, no chocolate (yep, there’s caffeine there) no bread, no pasta, no peanut butter? Is there really anything left? Anything left I want to eat that is?

Recently on a trip with friends, I choose to ignore my ‘rules’. After all, I’d broken them over and over again without major penalties, right? Only the combined effect of abusing so many rules at once was two days of feeling like crap while I had a major rosacea and hypertensive flare, which left me unable to enjoy my time with my friends. In response, I made a strict effort to eat according to the rules as I knew them, limiting myself largely to roasted chicken and massive salads (no dressing, limited tomatoes) for the rest of my trip.

What I discovered was not only did I calm my current BP and rosacea flare, but I felt better than I’d felt for a while. It made me realize that all that “cheating”, while it hadn’t erupted into an outright flare, was keeping me from feeling my best. From wanting to take the dogs on evening walks. From wanting to do anything more than flop on the couch when I got home from work. Even from writing. Because let me tell you, when you feel like crap, it’s much much harder to be creative.

You know what else is hard? Picking back up your good habits when you’ve fallen off the “habit” wagon. Just like exercise (or writing), practicing a good habit is a muscle that gets stronger with use and weaker with disuse. And when you’re already tired and not feeling well, finding the fortitude to stick to the changes that will make you feel better again isn’t easy. I come back to this point again and again in life: the realization that my current (minor) health issues now must dictate my eating choices, something I’ve resisted mightily ever since I was diagnosed. I drum my heels and wail in protest like a two year old, and yet the only one I’m hurting in all this is me.

I also know without a doubt that if I don’t start, I’ll lose even more ground than I already have. With fitness, with my health, with my writing… and even though I don’t feel as though I have the time to chip away at making these habits part of my life again (seriously, by the time you walk the dogs, and go shopping to keep fresh food in the house, or food prep in advance, and don’t forget that yoga/meditation/prayer–30 minutes here and there adds up to hours you must carve out of your daily schedule), if I want to see change in my life, I have to be the one to make changes.

I used to believe it took 21 days to create a new habit, good or bad, and honestly, that doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It’s not even a month. Anyone can manage 21 days. But the truth of the matter is this is a misleading conception: It takes a minimum of 21 days to effectively instill a habit. It can take up to 90 days of regular (ie daily) engagement to make a habit stick.

At first glance, that seems discouraging, I know. After all, I’ve been telling myself I need to get my act in gear for years now. I’ll try for a few weeks–sometimes, depending on how hectic my life is only a few days. Invariably, I slide. But really, the only difference is time. We’ve been taught by too many advertising campaigns to Expect Results in 2 Weeks or Less! It’s just not true, whether we’re trying to institute new habits or return to old ones. No matter what we want to do, whether it’s to change our eating habits or get back into some form of regular activity, or learn a new craft, or improve your current skills–the key is regular practice of the thing in question. So really, the long time course to creating a habit is a good thing. It means I can keep trying and not give up.

I took this photo today and it made me so happy. 🙂

November will soon be upon us, and I know many will dive into NaNoWriMo as a result. Not me, I know that particular pressure isn’t one I need in my life right now. However, I fully intend to take advantage of all the great articles and conversations surrounding NaNo, and hope to make daily writing another one of those habits I pick back up again.

Today, I started with throwing out some of the trigger foods I know are problematic for me. Others, like the unopened jars of peanut butter, I’ll donate to food banks. I also took the dogs for a nice long walk in the woods, and though I’m a little stiff tonight, I managed without the pain I feared the activity would trigger. I ate a relatively healthy dinner too. Now I’m going to sit down with the WIP.

You don’t have to run a half marathon, go on a radical diet, or force 10 K words out of yourself in a single afternoon to call it progress. Slow, steady, and regular wins the habit-making race.

Dealing with Writer’s Block: Creativity Thrives in the Quiet Places

I’m in the process of final edits on my current project with a tight deadline, so I’ve been spending a lot of time with the manuscript lately. To the exclusion of just about everything else, I might add. No long walks with the dogs. No taking photographs on my rambles. Not riding the horse or swimming or anything. I sure as heck am not cleaning the house!

Just me and the manuscript, day after day. I’m in the final stages of polishing—looking for typos and making sure I have my ellipsis with consistent spacing throughout—that sort of thing. No major changes.

Yesterday we got a cool breeze rolling in, another hint of fall to come, and I decided to ride for an hour just to clear my head and move some muscles.

Shortly into my ride, as I was trotting around the arena in a circle, I had a eureka moment about the final scene in my book. Something that by changing, I could deepen the connection between the main protagonists and honor the fact that real character change doesn’t happen overnight. It was a great moment, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and make the changes.

I love these moments, but as I finished my ride, it occurred to me I’ve been having less and less of them lately.

It’s really not that hard to see why. Fifteen years ago, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to take a phone with me on a dog walk. Ten years ago, when I began writing again, the phone stayed in my back pocket while I climbed hills and crossed creeks behind my dogs. Five years ago, when I began writing intending to publish, the phone was in my hand, but mostly to take pictures. But two things have happened in the last couple of years that give me pause. The first is an injury has sidelined me for months from many of my former activities. I haven’t been walking in ages because of plantar fasciitis, and then a knee injury.

The second is more insidious. I’m always looking at my social media feeds.

I used to watch my dogs at play, or take pictures of cool mushrooms, or close my eyes to the sun on my face and listen to birdsong.

Now I endlessly scroll, react, comment, or RT. Most of the time, to be honest, I’m in a state of rage over what I read. Not good for my mental health, but not good for writing, either.

In the book, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, the author speaks of the importance of freeing the creative power within you. Of releasing the imagination to go on rambles of its own. She describes how talking 5-6 mile walks does this for her, but only if she exists in the present during those walks. If she heads out on them with the intent of either plotting a story or performing “exercise”, the ideas don’t come. I recently read that Tolkien plotted out large bits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on similar rambles with his dogs.

But it doesn’t have to be a long, physical activity. The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, once said she got her best ideas while doing the dishes. I find this to be true myself. Some of my best ideas–my eureka moments–come while I’m doing mindless tasks, such as cleaning stalls. And Ueland herself describes “little bombs of revelation” that go off when doing other things: sewing or carpentry, whittling or playing golf, and yes, dreamily washing the dishes.

The problem is, we have less and less time to free our minds to wander these days.  Something constantly demands our attention. We have tendonitis from constantly scolling and a crick in our necks from looking down at our phones. And that wonderful, lovely brainstorming time, those little bombs of revelation? Well, they aren’t happening nearly as often because our brains are never quiet enough to meander freely. And I’m coming at this as an adult who didn’t grow up with a smartphone plugged into my ear. I can’t imagine how much harder it’s going to be for the people behind us to find that sweet spot of creative revelation. It’s not just so you can get those little bombs going off either. If you’re blocked on your current project, I believe letting your mind out to play is one of the best ways to get around whatever hurdle is blocking you.

I’m reminded of an article I once read about a bomb-sniffing dog who got burned out on the job because his handler used to take him to the golf course on the weekends and have him find missing golf balls. The handler mistakenly thought the dog was having fun doing this simple activity, but what he didn’t realize was the dog took finding golf balls as seriously as hunting out explosives, and the poor dog was effectively working seven days a week as a result.

So I plan to incorporate more ‘free time’ into my brain’s activity each week. I challenge you to do the same. Find “your moment of Zen” by whatever means necessary. If music takes you there, make a playlist and run it on repeat. Pick back up some of the activities you’ve set aside so you can grind out your stories. Stop grinding and let your brain out to play.

You’ll be glad you did.

The Right Dog for the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine lost his dog a while back. After a prolonged search for the ‘right’ pup to replace his beloved Max, he finally brought home a gorgeous little Aussie female a few weeks ago.

And has been bending my ear with complaints about her ever since.

She’s too energetic. She’s mouthy. She’s being difficult to housebreak. She’s not cuddly. Max was never this bad.

I get it–I do. It’s hard when everyone you see on social media with a new puppy seems totally besotted with it–and you’re not feeling that same joy. It’s hard to get back into puppy mode when you’ve had 14 years of not-puppy mode. Time tends to blur your memory of how difficult the last puppy was and grief over your loss places the previous dog on a pedestal.

But after constant texts and phone calls from my friend, my stock of patience is used up.

Probably because I’m annoyed with myself as much as I am with my friend.

See, I did the same thing. My beloved Sampson was diagnosed with cancer less than a month after my mother died of a heart attack. I had to say goodbye less than a month after that. And though I knew better, I made an emotional decision to get another puppy right away rather than waiting until I was ready.

After telling everyone I’d never have another big, energetic dog again–that it was time to downsize–that’s exactly what I got. I found myself impulse-buying a puppy after I’d brought my husband with me to look at the litter for the sole purpose of preventing me from doing just that. And it probably would have been okay, only the cycle of loss in my life wasn’t done. I took hit after hit that year and into the next.

I didn’t neglect the puppy. I worked hard at socializing him–both with people and other dogs. He met over 100 people by the time he was four months old, and I set up scores of play dates with appropriate dogs to teach him the skill set he needed to get along. We went through Basic Obedience 1 and 2, and when he was old enough, I started him in agility classes. He even passed his Canine Good Citizenship test (admittedly by the skin of his teeth).

I love him. How can you not love that face? But with all my grieving, and then the subsequent depression, I withheld the one thing he needed the most: me.

I didn’t give him my whole heart. I was still protecting that.

It took listening to my friend gripe about his Not-Max puppy for me to fully realize what I’d done. Remington turned two recently, and I’m only now recognizing that for all the dogs I’ve had, he’s one of the calmest, most “adult” puppies I’ve ever raised.

I don’t think I could have dealt with anything more energetic than he is. He is extraordinarily gentle in nature. I’m so very lucky to have him.

I don’t deserve him.

He came into my life when I was mentally, physically, and emotionally unable to connect. I based my decision to get him on a gut feeling without giving it the full commitment to make the choice a good one.

But as I said in the previous post about Sampson, I believe specific dogs come into our lives to teach us specific lessons. While Sampson’s final lesson seemed to be to teach me how to live in the moment, Remington’s lesson right now is about commitment. That you only get out what you put in. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about puppies, or relationships, or that story you’ve been working on.

I told my friend he needed to commit 100% to his new puppy. Right now. And don’t look back. Because sometimes you get the right dog for the wrong reasons.

And Now We Are Two

Captain and I took our first walk together without Sampson this evening.

After an uncomfortable evening, in which more than once I woke up because I didn’t hear the stertorous breathing that has marked Sampson’s respirations these past weeks and I thought he had died, he only picked at his home-cooked breakfast this morning. His legs threatened to give out on him when I took him outside, and I knew it was time.

Of course, he perked up when I took him to the vet’s–enough to eat treats at the hands of the staffers who have known him most of his life–but that’s exactly what I wanted. Him still able to motor in under his own steam, if somewhat wobbly. Not glassy-eyed and in distress because he couldn’t breathe. Still bestowing tail-wags and kisses, even though the wide stance of his legs was yet another indicator of how hard he was working to move air.

The process went as smoothly and peacefully as anyone could hope for. He was ready. A pawprint was made. Next week, his ashes will be returned to me and together, Captain, my husband, and I will scatter them along one of our favorite walks.

But oh, it felt so strange to be just Captain and me this evening. This is the first time in nearly twenty years I haven’t had a big dog by my side. I was conscious not just of the absence of his presence, but of a sense of vulnerability I haven’t felt in a very long time.

There will be another big dog at some point. I’ve been looking at my schedule and seeing when the best time to introduce a puppy would be. Not because I didn’t love Sampson, or because I’m trying to replace him, but because I loved him so much his absence leaves a huge hole that only another fuzzy little face can fill.

Goodnight, Sampson.

Who’s a good boy? You are.

Take Your Time

These days, we’re walking more slowly.

Where once the dogs dragged me along as though we were running the Iditarod, these days, there is slack in the leash. Sampson either walks alongside me in perfect heel position, or lags a few steps behind. Captain and I are learning to match his pace, to not push him too much.

I no longer play Pokeman Go when walking the dogs. Though I still enjoy the game, these days, I’m more aware of how Sampson is breathing, and whether or not I need to give him a break. We’ve been blessed by cool weather–for days now, the breeze has been damp caress, ruffling my hair gently in passing. I’m grateful because it has given us a little more time. I realize even without the increased heat our time together is limited, but the typical Carolina humidity is going to play havoc with Sampson’s ability to breathe.

But each day, I see the gradual decline. His appetite is beginning to fail, and I, someone who can barely be persuaded to cook for herself or family, am scouring the internet looking for tempting, wholesome recipes for my dog that won’t upset his stomach. In the past month since his diagnosis, he’s begun to lose muscle at an alarming rate too. And he seems to have gone gray almost overnight. The rate at which the cancer is aging him is nearly unbelievable. It’s like when one of those space vampires on that show Stargate Atlantis suck the life out of their victims, leaving them old before their time. The hiking trip we took just a few weeks ago would be impossible today. I’m so glad we went when we did.

And yet, while I think he is enjoying being spoiled with special food, I don’t think he needs special trips. He’s happy just to go on our daily walks. These days, we mostly go to the playground, and he actually slows down as we pass the jungle gym in the hopes some children will come out and tell him how handsome he is.

The days when he desperately needed to run off leash to burn the energy off of him are gone. A car can pass within feet of us and he barely reacts. That’s okay. It’s kind of restful, actually. And when we’re in the big hayfield behind the house, I do let him off lead. He and Captain putter around in the weeds, the little Jack Russell running circles around the tired old Shepherd.

And he is getting tired. I can see it in his eyes. I know the time is coming when I will have to make a decision. But today, we sat in the hayfield for a while, admiring the view. I have him to thank for that. For making me slow down. For reminding me to listen for the calls of the meadow larks and the redwing blackbirds. To close my eyes against the background hum of lawn mowers in the distance, and smell fresh-cut grass on the damp wind.

 

Today by the ball field, we were approached by a family who wanted to pet him. Soon we were surrounded by a small crowd, with Sampson in the middle, wagging his tail and holding court. The mother, sharing that they too had a Shepherd, asked how old Sampson was. My voice caught as I answered because his birthday is soon and I’m not sure he’ll see it. I found myself telling them he had cancer. You could feel the sorrow close over the group as soon as I said the words.

Afterward, Sampson turned back toward the car, choosing to cut our walk short for the first time in his life.

I wish I’d started these posts sooner. I know Captain and I will still go walking once Sampson is gone. I know I will get another dog, and will share the joys and frustrations of having a puppy again after so long without one. But Sampson has taught me that more than ever, life is but the blink of an eye, the space of one heartbeat and the next. I’ve never had a decade pass so swiftly in my recollection. More than anything, I’ve spent that decade working. I know I will have to continue to work hard to make ends meet.

But life is also more than just making ends meet. Sometimes we have to chase the ball. Sometimes we need to lie in green fields and drink in the late afternoon sun. Mostly, we need to just be.

That’s the greatest gift dogs teach us.

 

Walking with Sampson

My dog Sampson is dying.

He has a mass in his chest the size of a grapefruit, a lesion called hemangiosarcoma, which is common in older Shepherds. It’s a miracle he’s even breathing, let alone eating, playing, and seriously considering chasing that car when it goes past us on our evening walks. Aside from breathing a little hard all the time and slowing down on our walks, you wouldn’t know he was as ill as he is. The last three evenings I’ve taken him down to the local playing fields. Children are drawn to him like a magnet. They come boiling off the baseball diamonds and tennis courts like a swarm of bees, running up to us. “May we pet your dog?”

I make them slow down (because seriously, you don’t run up to a Shepherd waving rackets or baseball bats) but my fears are groundless. Sampson’s ears melt back in happy anticipation of the adoration that is his due, his tail wagging as the kids run their hands all over him. Several times I’ve been tempted to say something. To tell them he has cancer. But I don’t. I don’t because he is so happy and they are so happy, and how can I spoil that moment?

He doesn’t have much time left. We know this.

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.

I firmly believe that dogs come into our lives at various times to teach us lessons when we need them most. I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing dogs in my life. My first Shepherd taught me what it was like to be loved completely and totally for who I was. My second taught me life was more than just getting through the day and set me on a path of life-changing self-discovery I’d never have taken without her. I changed careers because of that dog.

Even though Sampson has an inoperable mass in his chest, I consider us fortunate in that not only do we have time to adjust to the realization we’re going to lose him soon, but he is teaching me much about living for the present. Making the most of each day. How to be a dog.

I spend far too much time these days either living in the past (reacting to events that should no longer be affecting me but still do) or worrying about the future and things I can’t control. Each of us only gets today. Yes, we’re probably overworked and utterly exhausted because that seems to be the American Way, but we have to remember the things that make life worth living. Believe me, it seems like only a couple of years ago, I brought home a fuzzy little moose-puppy. In reality, it was over a decade, and yet it seems like the blink of an eye.

When I go walking with the dogs in the woods, I am reminded of Thoreau: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

That is what Sampson is teaching me right now. I’m very much aware I’ve spent a good deal of the last decade griping at him to go lie down. I wish now we’d gone hiking more often. That I’d been more patient with his enthusiastic energy. That I’d told my employers ‘screw it’ and spent that time with those that I love.

I can’t undo that now, but I can be the person my dog thinks I am. I can’t quite manage the bucket list thing, but I am determined to make the time Sampson has left be the best it can be. I know on some level, he’s happy as long as we’re together and he doesn’t have to fight for my attention. That’s not quite enough for me, though. So a few weeks ago, I impulsively rented a dog-friendly cabin at a state park, and the four of us–the husband, Sampson, me, and little Captain– went away for an isolated weekend in the woods.

The weather was perfect. The daytime temps were in the upper thirties and lower forties–brisk but not so cold to make long walks in the woods unpleasant. The nights were brilliantly cold in the manner that took your breath away, as did the stars overhead when you stepped outside the cabin at night. No internet. No television. We sat in front of the fire and read while the dogs napped at our feet, tired from the day’s walks. I didn’t want to come home. Best. Weekend. Ever.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. A reminder life is more than just getting through the day. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Hawaii to reconnect with those you love. You just have to unplug and look at them.

There will be more walks with Sampson. And when he is gone, there will be more walks with Captain, and whatever new dog I accept into my life. I just hope I can retain these lessons in my heart so the next dog–and everyone else I love–can benefit from them.

The cabin had a little journal where campers could leave messages. The book was nearly full–there was just a tiny amount of space left on the last page. Most of the entries had been written by children, stating how much they’d loved their week of swimming and hiking. I left this post: