Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Inspiring Kids To Write...

I was at a book signing a few weeks ago and a woman told me about her daughter who likes to write.

"Is she here with you?" I asked.

"Yes. She's looking around."

"Please tell her to come by and say hello. What's her name?"


A few minutes later, a tentative pre-teen was hovering nearby. "You're Amanda, aren't you." I smiled so as not to freak the poor kid out. She nodded shyly. "I understand that you like to write." She nodded again. "Tell me about one of your stories."

That's all it took for her passion for writing to explode out of her. In between signing books and chatting with book buyers, Amanda and I talked about writing dialogue, creating believable characters, and the dreaded writer's block. And then it appeared, the bane of most creative people: self-doubt. "I really hope to have a book published someday," she confided in me. "But I try not to get my hopes up. It probably won't happen."

I reached for one of my promotional postcards featuring the cover of Painting The Invisible Man. "Amanda, I want you to keep this postcard right next to your computer. And every time you look at it, I want you to envision that this is your book cover instead. Okay?"

She smiled as she reached for the card. "If you believe that you can get a book published, Amanda, then you will do it. You have to believe in yourself and your talent. And if you can do that, then you will succeed."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Conversations With Dog

Several people have asked me to post Conversations With Dog, a sermon I wrote and delivered at the BUUC. Here it is, folks...enjoy! Oh, if you aren't familiar with the poem Rainbow Bridge (it is referenced at the end) I heartily suggest you read it.

Conversations With Dog
by Rita Schiano

(Sermon presented at the Brookfield Unitarian Universalist Church, Brookfield, MA March 12, 2006.)

Imagine if you could ask God any question you wanted and you could actually receive an answer?

Several years ago writer Neale Donald Walsch was very unhappy with every aspect of his life personally, professionally, and emotionally. He felt his life was a failure on all levels. Now being a writer, he did what most writers do. He started writing his thought and feelings down. He wrote letter after letter to people he felt didn’t understand him, or had victimized him in one way or another.

And then, still quite frustrated, Walsch decided to write the ultimate letter to the ultimate source, a letter to the greatest victimizer of them all—he wrote an angry letter to God.

It was a spiteful, passionate letter, full of confusions, condemnations, and many, many angry questions. He asked God,
• Why isn't my life working?
• Why can I not find happiness in my relationships with others?
• Was financial security going to elude me forever?

Finally he asked God the Big Kahuna of questions:
• What bad have I done to deserve a life of such continuing struggle?

And then, to his surprise, as he scribbled the last of his bitter questions, the pen began moving on its own. It wrote: Do you really want an answer to all these questions, or are you just venting?

Thus began Neale Donald Walsch’s now famous series of books, Conversations With God.

The renown psychologist, Thomas Szasz, wrote, “If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.” I’m a pray-er. I often talk to God. I ask all sorts of questions…and favors….but I’ve yet to get a direct response from Him.

However, there is one of God’s messengers with whom I talk with daily. And from whom I’ve learned many an answer to many a question. You see, I have conversations with my dog. You may laugh…but I’m going to let you in on something. I’m not the only person in this congregation who has Conversations with Dog.

Throughout my fifty years I’ve shared my life with seven dogs. And each one has taught me, in its own unique way, lessons that have bettered my life.

There are certain attributes that we attribute to dogs: loyalty and unconditional love are two that come to most minds.

I first heard the phrase unconditional love in Catechism class many, many years ago. God’s love is unconditional, I was taught. Now that statement fueled one of my earliest battles with my Catholic school teachers. Because I couldn’t understand, and they—the nuns and priests—couldn’t explain, how it was that God loved me unconditionally, yet was willing to condemn me to hell for missing Sunday Mass—considered, not a venial sin mind you, but a mortal sin on par with murder. Is it no wonder there are so many ex-Catholics in these pews?

A mother’s love is unconditional. However, I don’t think young children truly understand that notion until a little later in life, when they are able to comprehend that reprimands and punishment do not translate to, “My mother hates me.”

I think a child’s first understanding of unconditional love, and loyalty, comes from having a pet, specifically (and I admit to bias) from having a dog. This is by no means an original observation since untold movies, television shows, poems, books, and songs have been produced on this very theme. Lassie and My Dog Skip are two that come to mind.

Coco was my first dog, my childhood dog. He was a standard poodle, he was scrappy, and he was obsessed with legs. It didn’t matter if you were sitting or standing. If Coco spied a leg, he had to ‘have his way’ with it.

One day, an all-too-common scene between my parents erupted. I wanted, desperately, for the fighting to stop. But I was too young, and too little, to do anything about it myself.

However, earlier that week in religion class, I learned that if something is troubling you, you need only to talk to God; to ask that He intervene. “Turn the problem over to God,” Sister McCrenna said. “Place it in His hands.”

I remember I was holding Coco in my hands, hugging him to my chest as I talked to God, asking Him, respectfully, to please make my parents stop fighting. I ended my prayer by repeating over and over what I had learned in religion class: Let go, and let God. Let go, and let God. And just as the words passed my lips for the last time, Coco jumped from my arms and onto the floor. He stood a moment looking at me, as if he had transformed into my favorite cartoon character: Mighty Mouse. “Here I come to save the day!”

And with that, he tore into the kitchen, and grabbed onto my father’s leg. And not in his usual leg-hugging manner, but with his teeth. My father tried to get him off, but Coco would not let go. My father kept shaking his leg, yelling at the dog. “Let go!” But Coco would not let go until the fight was out of my father. That day I learned to put my faith in God. I let go, and let Dog.

Barbara Hale told me that she, and I quote, “always admired dogs for being rather stoic individuals, who take what comes as part of just being alive. They adapt to whatever situation life throws their way.”

Barbara would have admired Jazzy, Too!—my fifth dog. I first learned about her on July 3, 1990. I was in the Sturbridge post office and on the bulletin board next to the Wanted posters was a photocopy of a young pup. “Sweet dog needs good home.” Signed the Sturbridge Dog Officer. I still remember her timid-looking face, her terrified, eyes, that seemed to plead, “Please, please give me a home.”

The following day, the Fourth of July, I was at a cookout at the home of friends. There were a dozen or so people sitting around the yard discussing politics, as was usual when we all got together. I was enjoying a hamburger and my friend Nancy’s scrumptious baked beans, when the conversation turned to the picture of the dog in the post office. “You should adopt that dog,” Nancy said to me.

Later that afternoon when my friend, Tim, arrived his first topic of conversation was the dog at the pound. “The dog officer said it was really sweet,” he told us. “And if no one takes in the next few days he’ll have to put it down.” Tim then faced me squarely. “You know, Rita, you really should adopt that dog.”

Now I already had 1 dog and 2 cats at home, and a relatively young restaurant to tend to 16 hours a day. Another responsibility? I didn’t think so. Yet, being a believer in Divine Intervention, I decided I had to, at the very least, go and see this dog.

I left the party and drove to the pound. My arrival was greeted by the desperate barking and yelping of several dogs. I scanned cage after cage for the little black lab. And then I saw her, this filthy, muddy, scrawny little dog trembling against the wire fencing. She looked at me with those desperate, pleading eyes.

“Have you come to take me home?”

“Not really,” I answered. “I was just curious about you. You’re the talk of the town.”

“Please, take me home,” she begged. “I promise to be the best little dog in all the world.”

“I’m sorry, but I really don’t have time for another dog.”

Before she could say another word, I went back to my car, started the engine, shifted into drive…and drove about three feet.

If no one takes it in the next few days he’ll have to put it down. Tim’s words sounded in my head.

I grabbed a business card from my wallet and scribbled a note to the dog officer. I stopped by her cage. She was huddled in the farthest corner. “I’ll be back for you tomorrow,” I called to her. “And you will have a home. I promise.”

The next morning I picked her up, brought her to the vet for a check up, shots, and grooming. She was jubilant as I drove her to her new home. She thrust her head out the car window, her long ears flapped in the wind. “I love car rides!” she told me.

We entered the house. Jazzy was greeted joyfully by Fresno and the two cats. And this gentle, timid dog with the desperate, pleading eyes…transmogrified into Psycho Pup from Hell.

For the next three days and nights Jazzy would not sleep, sit, or rest in any way, shape, or form. She cried and paced back and forth, back and forth, a distance equal to the length of her cage at the pound. Even a double dose of Acepromazine couldn’t settle her down. She’d shake it off and continue pacing and crying.

At mealtime she was so crazed and I had to chain her to a hook on the wall. After five days of no rest or quiet in my once peaceful household, I began searching for a shelter that would take her, but not destroy her. I eventually found one in Upton.

“I’ll bring the dog there tomorrow,” I told the shelter owner.

But no sooner had I hung up the telephone, my decision was met with a nagging feeling in my gut. I had made a promise to her. And if I my promise was worth less because she was a dog, what, then, was my word worth to another human being? If I chose to run from a dog because the going got tough, how could a person ever trust that I would stick by him or her through thick and thin?

That night when I got home, I brought Jazzy into the guest bedroom and closed the door. It was just her and me. No cats, no dog, no one else. “I gave you my word,” I said to her. “I promised you a home. So, we’ll just have to find a way to make it work. But, I need you to help me understand what it is you need?”

That’s when I noticed she was still. For the first time in five days she was not pacing, not crying. I reached out my hand to pet her head. She pulled back and away, but did not growl or nip this time.

“Okay, Jazzy. Here’s what we’re going to do. It’ll be just you and me. For as long as it takes until you can trust me, and I can trust you.”

For the next month, I brought Jazzy into that one room with me while she ate, and again each night when it was time for sleep. It took a few nights before she’d lie down in the far corner, and a few more after that before I saw her actually sleep. Maybe it was sheer exhaustion, or maybe she felt a little safer. Whatever the reason, it was a new beginning.

The following night I sat on the floor several feet away from her. And did so each night for the next three weeks. And each night she did her part. She came a little closer until, finally, one day Jazzy closed the gap.

She inched over until she lay alongside my legs. She placed her head in my lap, and slightly splayed her back legs so I could rub her belly. And from that moment on she was true to her word, too. She became the best little dog in all the world.

That prolific sage, Anonymous, wrote: The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue.

Sometimes I was surprised my dog, Frisco, had any friends at all. She had the most to say, and not only to me, but to everyone who crossed her path. And her manner of speech was inimitable. Her favorite expression? “So, what’s your point?” Yet, despite her sassy attitude, Frisco was beloved by all who knew her.

Misty-Dawn is fond of saying she grew up with Frisco. Which is true , really, for I have known Misty since she was fourteen years old and Frisco, then, was a young pup.

Misty didn’t have a dog of her own, and Frisco didn’t have a kid of her own, and so they bonded immediately. The happiness Frisco exuded whenever Misty-Dawn was around was a joy to see.

After Jazzy joined our family and underwent her transformation from Psycho Pup From Hell to The Best Little Dog in All the World, she and Frisco found their common bond and, soon, became inseparable. And even though Jazzy still needed to be chained at mealtime, Frisco insisted on eating alongside her, as if partaking in communion.

When Jazzy died suddenly and unexpectedly, Frisco mourned the loss of her sister. For weeks on end she was inconsolable. She barely ate, laid curled in a ball in the corner, her fur began to fall out in clumps.

I called Misty-Dawn and told her Frisco needed to see her. I can still remember the shocked expression on Misty’s face at how thin and despondent Frisco had become.

“You have to start eating more, Frisco,” Misty told her. And Frisco responded, “What’s the point?”

I was planning a vacation to Florida the following week and Misty agreed to stay in my home and care for Frisco while I was gone. The day before I left, I stopped at the vet’s office. Frisco suffered from epilepsy and her meds were running low. I mentioned her despondency to Dr. Mak. “Some dogs,” he explained, “need to be part of a pack in order to thrive.”

The need to be part of a pack in order to thrive. I tried to imagine my life without those with whom I share a common bond. How very empty it would be; how despondent I would be. Extending those thoughts from the past to my life today, I see how blessed I am to have adopted this religious community, one in which I am free to question doctrine without the threat of eternal damnation.

This community, which shares my essential belief that we must discover and honor our connection to one another. This community, which understands and embraces the moral imperative of attaining a peaceful and just world community.

I need to be a part of this pack in order to thrive.

It was clear I needed to adopt another dog. I asked Dr. Mak to keep an ear attuned for me. That, ideally, I would like a female dog, around three years of age. He promised to do so.

Two days into my vacation I called home to check on Frisco. Misty was ecstatic with news. Dr. Mak had called the day before and they had a dog for me—female and three years old. He said one of the vet techs would care for her until I got back.

Immediately upon my return I went to see Dr. Mak. The vet technician, Brian, greeted me sadly. “She’s such a great dog I almost hate giving her up. But I have two dogs, three cats, and four kids at home. And by the way, Brandy gets along with all of them.”

Brian named her Brandy. “She responded to two-syllable names that ended with an ‘ee’ sound,” he explained. The moment I saw Brandy’s smiling, sweet face I knew she was the one.

Brandy entered our home and Frisco looked at her, and then looked at me. “This is Brandy, your new sister.” Frisco approached her cautiously, and the two stood face to face. They spoke in their own language to one another. I don’t know what was said, but suddenly Frisco ran and got a toy and dropped it at Brandy’s feet.

Within a week Frisco had gained weight and her fur stopped falling out. She was truly happy once again.

But something wasn’t settling with me. Brandy. The name simply did not suit this loving creature. And so, with her permission, I renamed her Saatchi—two syllables, ends in a ‘ee’ sound, and means happiness in Japanese.

Frisco died about a year and a half ago, three weeks shy of her fifteenth birthday. Telling Misty-Dawn the news nearly broke my heart.

On the anniversary of Frisco’s birth (which, by the way, is the same date Misty and Jenna selected for their wedding day) Misty and Jenna, and Michelle and I celebrated Frisco's life, and the joy she had brought to us all. We spread her ashes throughout the yard in which she loved to run. We shared our favorite memories and anecdotes of that sassy dog. We ate cake. A celebration without cake? “What’s the point?”

And now it is just Saatchi and me. She doesn’t mind being the only dog. She finds happiness and peace no matter what the situation.

If Saatchi subscribed to a system of belief, then she would be a Taoist. Lao Tzu, Taoism’s founder, wanted his philosophy to remain a natural way to live life with goodness, serenity and respect. He laid down no rigid code of behavior. He believed a person's conduct should be governed by instinct and conscience.

To cull Taoism into five precepts it would be:
• The Tao does not speak.
• The Tao does not blame.
• The Tao does not take sides.
• The Tao has no expectations.
• The Tao demands nothing of others.

My dog is a Taoist.

Taoists believe, too, that people are compassionate by nature...and left to their own devices, they will show this compassion without expecting a reward. Okay, sometimes Saatchi does look a treat. I suppose then, too, Saatchi could subscribe to Hedonism.
Eat. Nap. Drink. Nap. Be Merry. Nap. For tomorrow we die. Nap.

It’s said that one year in our life is equal to seven years for a dog. Absolutely. I’ve no doubt that’s true. We go to sleep, we wake up, and it’s the next day. A dog naps several times a day. Each time it wakes up, “Poof!’ it’s another day.

How many people here have a dog? Then you know what I mean. I step out of the house, walk down the driveway, collect the mail, walk back up the driveway, reenter the house, and my dog is so excited to me see! And it’s no wonder---to her I’ve just been gone half the day!

Imagine living your life so in the moment!

Imagine living your life with that amount of freshness!

Barbara Hale thinks, and I quote, “Dogs accept their natural life better and smarter than human beings. They don’t shun other dogs that are mutts when they themselves are purebreds. They don’t nip, tuck and dye like humans – a little white around the muzzle never bothers them.” And she observed, “When they get old and begin to feel the effects of aging, they slow down. And when it is time for them to die, they allow their people to help them pass comfortably.”

Imagine leaving your life so peacefully.

"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went," wrote Will Rogers.

I hope there is a Rainbow Bridge…and when my time on this earth is through, Coco and Little Bear and Jazzy, Frisco, Jazzy, Too!, Jesse, and Saatchi—and the other dogs yet to enter my life—come running across that green meadow to welcome me home. And together we will cross the Rainbow Bridge. That’s when I will see the face of God. After all, Dog is God spelled backwards.

— Update 11/7/07: My beloved Saatchi crossed the Rainbow Bridge on July 26, 2007...