One rainy night fifteen years ago we heard a whimpering at the front door of our tiny bungalow. We peered out the window to see a large scraggy dog with matted brown fur huddled in the shelter of the creaky porch. We gave him some water and scraps but his whimpers turned to howls anyway. Within an hour the emaciated dog was not only inside our house but sleeping between us in the double bed my husband’s grandmother had given us when we moved to California earlier that year.
I was thinking about this story recently as I prepared for our Christmas trip to the east coast. As the trip neared I became increasingly worried that someone in our family would get sick. My hands are raw and cracked from excessive washing. I open doors in public spaces with my sleeve covering the knob. When I’m not freaking out about contracting a stomach virus, I fret about pesticides on our food, chemicals in our sunscreens, and radiation from our cell phones and laptops. I’m concerned that my choices or my ignorance will cause me (or one of the kids) to develop cancer. Most of the time I appear to function just fine, but I definitely don’t remember the carefree person that let a dirty stray dog sleep in her bed on that rainy night.
David Whyte, in his Poetry of Self Compassion lobbies for maintaining a youthful innocence as we age. Through his own and other’s poems he encourages us to continue to take chances, to see the world with fresh eyes and to incorporate wisdom without letting it stifle our courage or exploration.
I know I lost a large portion of whatever youthful innocence I had when I was thrown into the world of disability and illness with Oscar’s birth. I am now far more attuned to medical struggles and that knowledge fuels my feelings of vulnerability and fear. I worry about things over which I have no control. I don’t take risks. I berate myself for mistakes or my inability to accomplish all that needs doing. I see too easily the ways in which plans can be foiled and really struggle sometimes with imagining positive outcomes.
This time of year I always think about changes I’ll make in the New Year. I’ve had my years where “exercise more” is my top priority along with a vague notion to “take more time for myself”. This year, though, I want to be mindful of times when I am letting experience (such as three prior bouts of stomach virus during winter trips to the east coast) squash any remaining inner youthful innocence. I want to approach life less rigidly, and worry less about the consequences of every decision. Life is going to keep throwing curve balls and I could spend my middle years futilely trying to dodge every one or I could focus on possibility and see where it leads me.
I don’t, however, want a stray dog in my bed ever again. (What was I thinking?)