Helping a Pet Through a Breakup

small earnestThe only thing that can prod me through writing a book is caring about my topic. Everybody knows I care about dogs. But in my new novel, Earnest, I care specifically about dogs’ distress when their people separate and their human family falls apart. Earnest, a lovable, galumphing Lab, faces this crisis.

Half of U.S. marriages end in divorce and forty percent of cohabiting couples split up within five years — so there are millions of “Earnests” in the world. Many are hauled off to a shelter if neither partner wants or is able to care for them. Others are fought over in custody battles. Fifteen years ago I read about a San Diego couple who spent $100,000 on a trial to determine who would get their pointer-greyhound mix. The wife won, and the judgment seemed rational and tidy. But I kept thinking, what about the dog?!

Legal wrangling over a pet is fraught with peril. Though a few enlightened judges consider the animal’s feelings and wellbeing, usually judges consider him a material possession to be disposed of like a sofa. Or in court they have the ex-partners call their dog at the same time, and award him to whomever he runs. Even if no judges or attorneys are involved, the separation can be hard.

Earnest gets upset when his family breaks up. He misses the partner who’s moved out and left him. He can’t seem to adjust to the monumental change and loss. The tension between his people also tarnishes his sensitive soul. He mopes and pines. Usually impeccably behaved, he gnaws on a table leg. Normally a promiscuous glutton, he stops eating.

Fortunately, in my story a wise veterinarian intervenes and enlightens Earnest’s people about how to help him through the crisis — advice that any separating couple might heed: Stop fighting in front of your pet. Share custody and meet for weekly walks so he’ll see that his world hasn’t fallen apart. Individually spend extra time with him, and try not to make big changes in his routine. Keep his life as stable as possible.

When people are fighting, often nobody stops to notice the pet. A sad state, indeed. I hope my new book will raise awareness of the dog’s point of view so all future “Earnests” will be treated with consideration. Reducing their grief is my latest crusade!

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Earnest’s Birthday

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Today is the birthday of Earnest, the yellow Labrador retriever in my new novel of the same name! Some of you may be thinking, Wait a minute. He’s fiction. It’s his publication day, not his birthday.

But I beg to differ. To me, Earnest is as real as any Lab I ever knew, and I couldn’t love him more if he were resting his chin on my foot this very minute. Today I want to celebrate his beautiful spirit and his entrance into the world.

I have created Earnest, nurtured him, and seen him through fictional scrapes and triumphs. I watched him mope and refuse to eat when his humans broke up and fought over custody of him. He didn’t like their split, but being an intelligent and resourceful dog, he began a campaign to chasten and reunite them. When they had a spat one afternoon, he gave them a withering look that said as clearly as anyone ever said anything, Your scrapping is intolerable. You are the ratfinks of the western world! At times Earnest showed better judgment than they did.

On this day I mentally hug him and tell him I love him with all my heart. I congratulate him on being born and on being one of the very best dogs that ever lived. And with joy, I unleash him and send him out into the world to romp on the grass, make new friends, and sniff messages left on the street by other dogs. I have confidence in him – he’s a strong and sterling animal. And he’s smart. He can make it on his own now.

All I ask is that he remember me and come back to visit once in a while. I’ll be waiting for him with a dog biscuit and one of the Granny Smith apples he loves, and I’ll be glad to throw a stick for him until my arm is sore. I will always want to see him and and hug him and know how he is doing.

Kristin and Maggie, who inspired Earnest:

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Adopting a Dog

BridgetWhile I have dropped off the earth to write a new novel, a wonderful thing has happened. Bridget, the world’s most beautiful German shepherd, has come to grace my life.

Her former people, who deserve withering disdain, dumped her in the San Bernardino desert.  After who knows how long, someone found her, desperate, starving, flea-bitten, and tick and parasite infested.  She was taken to a shelter, where a vet discovered that she’d recently had puppies.  He decided that in her deplorable condition, she should be put down.  At the very last minute, however, volunteers from the Washington German Shepherd Rescue spirited her to Seattle, thank goodness.  Randy Ehrlich, a sainted German shepherd lover, took her in and brought her back to health.

And then I met her!  Love at first sight!  Everyone who meets her loves her.  My friends invite her to dinner.  My family asks to petsit.  She has fans all over the neighborhood.

Now strong and regal, she is proof that time heals wounds, that courage triumphs over hardship, that beautiful hearts can survive the worst of times.  No one would guess that she weathered harsh, rough months alone, and she seems to hold no grudges about her past.

With devotion, she protects me from FedEx deliverymen.  And despite all she’s been through, she is still trusting.  You can see it when she sleeps on her back with her legs in the air and her vulnerable stomach is exposed.  If you set a slab of wood on her paws, she could be a coffee table.

When I think about the miracle that brought Bridget and me together, I mentally thank all the kind strangers who rescued her and saw her on her journey to a new and better life.  I am grateful to them beyond measure.

So here she is:  Bridget the Brave and Good.

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Bridgie

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Little Everyday Happinesses

 

squirrel at feederA week and a half ago, An Unexpected Grace was officially launched at the Eagle Harbor Book Company, my local independent bookstore.  I gave a talk about the novel to a crowd of kind strangers and beloved friends.  Later, feeling joy about my book and the audience’s support, I told my husband, John, “We don’t get many days in life as happy as this.”  And he said, “That’s why you should enjoy it.”

Abraham Maslow would have called my bookstore talk a “peak experience,” a rare moment of pleasure and excitement to be held dear to the heart.  I’ve been lucky to have my share of major highs, but lately I’ve also thought about the minor ones.  My father once pointed them out to me when I was mulling the meaning of life.  He said, “It all boils down to little everyday happinesses.”

In their own quiet way, those little happinesses can be crucially important.  They’re the simple pleasures that get us out of bed in the morning.  And once we’re up, they’re the comforts and encouragements that keep us going.

Today, for example, my favorite squirrels showed up at my bird feeder and gluttonized on seeds.  Next, a ring-necked pheasant strutted under my plum tree in all his stunning, multi-colored glory.  Then for lunch I got to eat a chunk of brie left over from last week’s gathering of friends – all that delicious, forbidden fat!  Ecstasy.

You get the picture.  Little everyday happinesses parade through our lives and feed our souls.  The small joys can add up and create a feeling of wellbeing.  Another joy is happening before my eyes this very minute:  As the sun is setting behind my hedge, the sky has turned a soft lavender-pink.  Thank you, Mother Nature.

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Why I Write About Animals

An Unexpected GraceIn the last few weeks as I’ve promoted An Unexpected Grace, people have asked why I write about animals.  My answer is simple:  There’s no way I could not write about them.

I was born on October 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, and I have always been supremely sensitive to creatures.  My father took me as a child to western movies; and when cowboys dug their spurs into horses’ sides, I cried so hard that he had to take me to the lobby.  During a drought in Texas, where I grew up, I worried the whole summer after third grade about the thirsty deer, raccoons, and squirrels.  All my life I rescued dogs and kitties.

As an adult, I became a freelancer for magazines but never thought of writing about animals.  Then I had an accident and injured four disks in my spine.  Unable to work for months, I lay on my office sofa with Beatrice, my beloved beagle, loyally cuddled up beside me, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be pain-free enough to write again.

When your career is hanging in the balance like that, you do some serious thinking.  And I slowly realized that I’d been frittering away my life, writing about subjects that had meant nothing to me – and I’d left my heart behind in the dust.  I wondered, what’s the meaning of my life?  Beatrice reminded me that, no matter our species, meaning comes by loving and helping others.  One day it occurred to me that I had always loved animals more than anything — so I should write about them and try to improve their lives.

I vowed that if I were ever strong enough to work again, I’d align my heart with my career.  And that’s what I’ve done in articles, nonfiction books, and now a novel. I’ve tried to show how worthy animals are, how important they can be to us, how much they have to teach.  Every morning I get out of bed, knowing I’ll work for something bigger than myself, and trying to give back to the world the love and kindness that animals have given me.

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The Healing Power of Pets

 

dog comforts dental patientAfter a stressful day this week, I went to visit my friend Patty.  She wrapped her Chihuahua, Lucy, in a blanket and set her on my lap.  I petted her and watched her eyelids sag closed as she fell asleep with her chin resting on my knee.  In a few minutes, she’d smoothed my rough, ragged edges and made me relax.  Fur therapy, I call it.  It’s the healing power of pets.

The grace of healing is a major theme in my novel, An Unexpected Grace.  Lila, the main character, and Grace, a golden retriever, help each other recover from trauma and abuse.  Lila provides a stable home for Grace and slowly coaxes her to trust.  Grace boosts Lila through “attunement,” a process that many of us have surely experienced with our own pets when they watch us, feel our distress, get in sync with it, and invariably try to help us.

I’ve interviewed countless people who have told me about their kitty nuzzling their neck and licking away their tears, or their dog putting his head in their lap, the best he could hug them without hands or arms.  One woman was going through chemo, and, discouraged and exhausted, she fell asleep on her sofa.  When she woke, she was covered with Frisbees, tennis balls, stuffed animals, a squeaky carrot, and a rubber duck.  Her dog, Chuckles, had brought her the entire contents of his toy basket to cheer her.  She said, “He gave me everything he had.”

Animals’ soothing presence has been shown to decrease cortisol, a stress hormone, and to increase dopamine and serotonin, hormones associated with wellbeing and calm.  Fur therapy also lowers our blood pressure and heart rates.  Hospital patients visited by dogs and cats report less pain, and people with cats at home have 40 percent less risk of a heart attack.

The sound frequency of cat purrs can help heal infections, soft tissue injuries, and even broken bones – to say nothing of frayed nerves.  No wonder Florence Nightingale brought animals to mental hospitals, and handlers arrived at Sandy Hook with golden retrievers like Grace to comfort the terrified children.

Has an animal ever helped you heal?  I’ll bet the answer is yes.

higgins

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The Day a Book is Born

An Unexpected GraceI believe that early morning musing is important. I lie in bed in that sleepy zone between my conscious and unconscious, and let hazy thoughts come to me.  Sometimes they arrive as ideas for projects or solutions to problems.  But today I woke to a message from my spirit.

I opened my eyes, and, oddly, the first thing that came to me was Rudyard Kipling’s poem If.  I rarely think of poetry when half asleep, but I remembered Mrs. Watkins, my fifth grade teacher, looking sternly at our class of twelve and reading the poem from a big red book, marked with a frayed red ribbon.  She often made us memorize such masterpieces as the Gettysburg Address, and I must also have learned at least a part of If.  What floated through my mind today were snatches of the first three lines:

            If you can keep you head when all about you

            Are losing theirs…

            If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…

I blinked and thought, Eureka!  A message indeed, surgically tailored for me.

Today is the day that my novel, An Unexpected Grace, is officially out in the world, available online and in bookstores.  My publisher is doing an email blast to launch the book, and I’m supposed to tweet and pin and post about it.  Though thrilling, this is not an easy, simple morning.  Anxiety lurks in the shadows of my excitement, and I feel almost overwhelmed.  It’s definitely a time to do what Rudyard Kipling says:  to “keep my head” when life is out of my control and “trust myself” when others doubt or question what I’ve written.

Kipling said that inspiration for If came from the British politician Leander Starr Jameson, who led a raid against South Africa’s Boer government in l896 at about this time of year.  Though the raid was a failure, Jameson’s dignity and courage made him a hero; and his strength of character was said to trump his defeat.  A book launch may be a gnat compared to the elephant of his military action, and I’m not anticipating his failure.  But a launch does call for Jameson’s mettle and determination.  I vowed this morning to rally it, as must all writers when they sit down to a blank page every morning and are said to open a vein and bleed.  Or when they go out to promote a book.

Thankful for this morning’s message to gather up my spunk, I can only say:  Hello, world!  Here’s my novel about Lila and Grace, a woman and a dog!  Their light shines from my heart and leads my way.  I hope you’ll enjoy their story.

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Benevolent Chickens?

3 chickensYears ago I interviewed a woman who had a sanctuary for needy chickens. She told me about sitting on her porch steps one afternoon and wiping tears off her cheeks. Her favorite in the flock jumped into her lap, cuddled up to her, and — the woman was sure — tried to console her. I believed her. Humans are not the only compassionate beings on our planet.

I had forgotten about that woman and her chicken until recently when my friend Elsa sent me a New York Times article: “What a Blind Chicken Can Teach Us About Humanity.” The author, Ellen Chase, noticed that one of her chickens was bumping into things and another was roosting next to her, following her through the grass, and staying with her nearly all the time. When the blind chicken disappeared, Chase found her under the hen house with her companion watching over her. One day in the garden, the kindly chicken grabbed a worm and set it in front of the blind one like a gift. Continue reading

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Choosing a Dog

germshep Since the deaths of my two beloved dogs last January, I have been longing for another furry friend. But my husband, John, who is a sensitive soul, has resisted. “I can’t go through the loss again,” he said.

I respected his feelings and didn’t want to push. However, by June I couldn’t stand being dogless for another minute so I started a wheedling-and-cajoling campaign.

“A house isn’t a home without a dog,” I told John. “I am desperate for fur therapy.”

“No way.”

But by August I’d worn him down a little: “Well, maybe eventually…” he said. Continue reading

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Learning from a Book Launch

An Unexpected Grace

In January my new novel, An Unexpected Grace, will be available on Amazon and in bookstores.  Since last summer, I’ve been preparing for the launch.  I set up a website and author pages on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Google+, and Pinterest.  I’ve learned to tweet and have coaxed everyone I’ve ever met in my entire life to be my friend on Facebook.

When I look up from my computer screen, I shake my head with wonder that a writer’s life could change so drastically in a few years.  Before, I wrote a book and then promoted it in bookstores and on radio and TV — a month, and that was it.  Now promotion has become a permanent part of my lifestyle.  For hours every day I search online for pictures to pin on Pinterest boards and for interesting information to tweet.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, as if social media is swallowing me in one big technological gulp. Continue reading

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