16 July 2017

Attitude: Maria Comes Out Of The Closet Of Shame

Attitude And Life: Maria's Belly

Maria looked at me, her computer in her lap, her face full of tears. "I feel horrible," I said, "just writing about my stomach I feel horrible." It looked like she might go through a whole box of tissues writing about this.

If you know or live with Maria, you know not to be disturbed by her crying, it is just another way of talking through things, a sharing of emotion.  It can mean great pain, or great joy.

Her piece was a beautiful piece of writing, authentic and heartfelt and brave.

Today, and on and off all day, she was working on a piece about the shame she has always felt about her body, and especailly her stomach, she has often told me how she feels fat often, she is ashamed to show her body. Last week, she began a belly dancing class, a wonderful way, I think of coming to terms with this painful neurosis, she can speak about it herself, and in her own voice.

As many of you know, shame is the hallmark of the abused child, the feeling that they brought degradation onto themselves, and that there must be something wrong with them to have been targeted and demeaned. I think I understand, I am familiar with abuse, but I believe women understand this body shaming much more than men do, since they experience it much more often than men do.

Many men have learned to objectify women, to see them in terms of certain notions of the body, rather than the mind or soul. Maria never looks at me that way, thank God, what I look like is of no interest to her, she sees much deeper than that, something men could learn from if they could listen.

If she loves me, it is not because of how I look.

When Maria first told me she was fat, some eight or nine years ago, I laughed, I thought she must be joking. But it wasn't funny.

She is skinny as a stick, not that it matters to me, yet I saw soon enough that this was a symptom of a much deeper agony: she was ashamed of herself, this remarkable, gifted, intelligent, caring and very beautiful person had somehow been made to feel that she was repulsive and not worthy of love or pride.

I told her then what I told her today, this was not about her stomach, it was much deeper than that.

But you can't tell a person who thinks they are repulsive that they are not and persuade them. Why should they believe you? They are the only person they can really trust about that.

You can love them to death, and support them as best you can, but they  must ultimately decide whether they are worthy, or beautiful or not, and not in men's terms, or even in other women's terms, but in their own terms.

I am not the one who can convince Maria that she is not repulsive, only she can really do that, and it is a long and hard road, I have walked on that path. We get that about one another.

Maria is working on it, and hard. Her piece today was a big step forward in coming out of this suffocating closet of shame.

So is her art, which is filled with images of empowerment, strength, and and radical ideas about beauty. So is her belly dancing class, where she will be showing her belly for the first time to other people than me, and she has often tried to hide it from me. One day, I hope she will do her belly dance in public.

She says she is excited about her belly dancing class, she means to dance with "attitude."

I can't speak objectively about Maria, of course, I simply love her too much and too completely. I love every inch of her, inside and out, certainly including her stomach, which I do get to see from time to time. Her soul is a thing of great beauty, and when I can, I love to make circles on her stomach, it puts her sleep and calms her down just like it puts Gus to sleep: instantly.

Sometimes hubris strikes, and I think I can persuade a bit that the shame that sometimes envelops her is not in any way her fault, or a reflection of how she is or really  looks. It is simply not true that she is repulsive or has anything to be ashamed of. It is a question of truth, I believe.

She is coming to that herself, bit by bit, step by step. When I read her piece today, I wanted to cry too, because I know all too well that when you come out of the darkness and into the light, that is the very meaning of what it is to heal.

Dance right on, girl.

Posted in General

Gus’s First Field Trip: This Boy Loves To Travel. And Will.

Gus's First Field Trip: Photo By Maria Wulf

We decided to take Gus with us to Brandon, Vt. today, where we go several times a year to drop off the shorn and skirted wool for cleaning and weaving into yarn. (Next time, Maria wants to get some of dyed.) I don't like to take Red on long trips when it is hot, I don't think he cares for it.

And we never take Fate on long driving trips, she would drive us crazy, and would herself be restless.

So we decided to bring Gus and expose him to a field trip, his first, although he has been in town a hundred times already.

Gus was game, in fact, he was stellar. We are conscious of not spoiling him or treating him as anything but a dog, so he didn't ride on anybody's lap (he isn't wearing any sweaters or booties this winter either). We put him on the back seat under a blanket and with a couple of rawhide chews.

The drive to the knitting mill took about two hours. Gus looked at us for a few minutes – I think he wanted to come in the front seat. We ignored him, of course, and he chewed on the rawhide, and went to sleep. He stayed asleep until we arrived and then we let him out of the car on a leash, to be safe.

He saw Deb, the owner of the mill and rushed over to say hello to her, and walked – I let the leash drag onto the ground – into the mill office and sat down on the floor while Maria and Deb went over the wool. I took the leash off and Gus and I went outside, and took a walk on the vast green lawn outside the office.

Gus eliminated both ways right away – he seems quite housebroken now – and then we turned and walked back to the office, passing some curious alpacas along the way. Gus glanced at them and walked away. We went back to the office, Gus was happy to see Maria and then sat down and munched on some loose wool.

Back in the car, he looked out the window for a bit, tried again to get to the front seat, failed again, and then chewed for a minute or two, curled up in a corner and went to sleep. We stopped in town and interrupted his nap by picking up some sandwiches and going to sit under a cupola by the beautiful river that runs through the town.

Gus sat on the ground under our picnic table and sat quietly, I didn't see him or hear from while we ate and talked. He was on a leash wrapped around my foot. I never felt a pull. We are scrupulous about not giving him human food ever, and so he doesn't pay much attention to what we are eating or pester us. I dislike that habit in dogs, and just don't tolerate it.

The way to avoid it is to never give them any food outside of their bowls, and no food ever from the dinner table.

As we left, I picked him up off of the ground to let him see where we were, and Maria asked if she could go to the car and get her Iphone for a photo. I said sure, I'm accepting being photographed, Lord knows I do it enough to other people. And a picture with Gus in it is usually a success.

He is very much Maria's dog, and that is neat, but we are great buds, and I love our relationship.

It is one of the easiest I've ever had, second only to Red, who will always be known in my mind as The Dog.

If they never do it, they never think to do it. I don't know what he was going down there, but it had nothing to do with us.

It works.

On the ride home, we went back to sleep and lulled by the movement of the car, he didn't wake up until we got home. It was a great field trip for him. He was right at home at the knitting mill, greeting everyone, strutting around like a King, like he owned the place.

Gus has the makings of a great ride-a-long dog, his first field trip was, in our minds, a great success. This is socialization period, and I don't think any of us could handle Gus seeing any more people than he has. I like him more and more as a therapy dog. He loves people, likes to be handled, he can be trusted. We'll see.

I can see how easy it is to spoil these small dogs, they are endearing and it is tempting to pick them up all the time rather than train them. We are conscious of that, and resisting it. So far, so good.

Posted in General

Battle Of The Red Chair: General Gus

Battle Of The Chair

The struggles between Fate and Gus now rage all over the  house, erupting at odd times. Chairman Gus, who routinely steals Fate's toys, has figured out how to hid under the dining room chairs, already pockmarked by years of use. Fate sticks her  head underneath to try and get to him, but Gus bobs and weaves and does the rope-a-dope, he lives to pull on Fate's whiskers.

Nobody has told Gus that he is the size of a small rabbit, so he thinks he's Chairman Mao. I might take to calling him Chairman Gus. I worried about whether he could handle himself against the wily Fate, I now worry about Fate.

Posted in General

The Refugee Kids: On The Boomerang At The Great Escape: “We Stand Or Die Together!


The refugee kids had the time of their lives at the Great Escape Amusement And Water Park in Lake George, Saturday. They were given a surprise when they arrived, Great Escape photographers took a photo of the group and gave each person a copy to taker home.

Ali said they spend four hours at the water park on the rides there, "they loved the water so much!" He said the food was plentiful and amazing, and they hesitated for awhile to go on the park's up-and-down and famous "Boomerang Ride."

"Some were afraid to go, but then we did our change, "we live together, we ride together, we play together, we die together!" And they dragged Ali along and they all went on the Boomerang, and more than once. Sounds lie an important moment for all of them.

Ali (their teacher and mentor) said they were at the park for 10 hours, they went on every single ride at least once and he said most of the kids told him it was of the great days of their lives. Thanks so much to Kimberly (who I have been trying unsuccessfully to call) for supporting this trip, it meant a great deal to these children, refugees and immigrants from all over the world.

They have been through a lot, they deserved a day like this, and hearing about it made me happy almost beyond words. Such generosity yielded so much joy. They have seen enough of suffering, they spent a drinking wallowing in joy and connection. Ali said every single thing about the day was perfect.

Thanks to the Army of Good, and especially to one good-hearted woman in Minnesota.

This weekend, I have a new idea for these kids: A trip to New York City to see the Statue Of Liberty, which has meant so much to refugees and immigrants all over the world, and which must be weeping now, and something of New York City. None of them have ever seen the city, I ought to be able to arrange a trip to the statue and a tour of New York. To me, the Statue of Liberty is one of our most important monuments, how valuable for these new citizens to see it. It has marked a new and safer and better life for so many people.

I hope to talk about it with RISSE this week.

I want them to see that the torch is still burning.

Ali says it's a wonderful idea and I want to start researching it and get a realistic idea of what it might cost.

The Great Escape was a great experience, and I believe it will show these children part of the real America, a welcoming and generous nation. And a place of fun and adventure. The Great Escape is a rich part of the American experience, especially for kids. Ali says they will all be talking about it for some time.

Thanks, thanks, thanks. it is so much better to do good that to argue about what good is.

Posted in General

Pets And Human Development: Can Mankind Survive Without Animals?

Pets And Human Development

Are human beings broken away from nature and animals?

In 1972, a psychologist named Dr. Boris Levinson, a social scientist teaching a Yeshiva University in New York City, wrote a book called "Pets And Human Development," which almost shockingly foresaw the dehumanizing and polarizing forces taking shape in America.

He also chronicled in much detail the growing evidence that dogs and other pets would increasingly be used to re-humanize society. His book was an inspiration for one of my books, "The New Work Of Dogs," which argued that the new work of pets was supporting the emotional lives of increasingly disconnected and alienated Americans.

Levinson's book, which drew little media attention, was nonetheless influential. It  helped to give rise to the Dog Therapy movement in America, and the animal rescue movement, and it highlighted the new work of dogs – providing emotional support to fragmented and anxious and dissatisfied people.

Unlike the animal rights movement, which has over the years argued more and more intensely for the removal of animals from human life, Levinson said animals like dogs (and other pets) were essential if people were to live in harmony with themselves and with nature.

A connection to the natural world, he argued, was essential to human survival.

Unfortunately, it was the animal rights view that gained traction. Animals, said the movement, much be liberated from the cruelty and unworthiness of people. Animals are not our partners, but our wards.

Since the 1970's,  animals other than dogs and cats have been vanishing from our world – ponies, carriage horses, domesticated elephants, and politicians and even animal lovers cheer this tragic evolution as humane.  The elephants are gone from the big circuses now. Where are the supporters of their rights as these elephants are being put to death all over North America because there is nowhere left on the earth for them to go?

Pets were not, Levinson warned, a panacea for the ills of society, for the pain of growing up or growing old.  Alienation and isolation, he warned,  were increasingly created by a technologically driven society whose values and institutions were – are – dehumanizing.

"One of the chief reasons for man's present difficulties," wrote Levinson, "is his inability to come to terms with his inner self and to harmonize his culture with his membership in the world of nature." That statement is so much truer today than it even was when he wrote it nearly a half century ago.

Pets can aid people in the future, he wrote, in that they help to fill needs which are not being met any longer in other, perhaps better and historically important ways. Every day, animals of all kinds are being drafted into emotional support work, as the society at large refuses to consider the root causes of human suffering.

It would be better, Levinson wrote, if we were not so mechanized, routinized, and "cut off from the vital rhythms of the natural world." Increasingly, he predicted, unhappy people whose lives were often bereft of spirituality or real meaning would turn to animals, who would provide some  relief, give much pleasure, and remind us of our origins.

In a sense, I think, animals are now being asked to do the work of priests, rabbis, political leaders and the makers of technology. These were the people we once counted on to guide and sooth and lead us. We seem on our own today.

Levinson foresaw the new work of dogs and other animals as well as the rise of the animal rescue movement. He predicted as well as the increasing use of dogs in medical and emotional therapy work.

In a larger sense, he foresaw the emotionalization of animals by people who were no longer being sustained by politics, technology, or religion,  institutions that were no longer lifting people up and grounding them. We don't look to political leaders or priests for inspiration, they have disappointed and discouraged us. That leaves us frightened and in conflict with one another, our shared values are vanishing.

This view – Levinson's view –  became a central theme of my writing, both in books and on the blogs. Yet I've always had the feeling people who turn to animals for emotional support do not really want to think too deeply about what it means for them and their lives. I've always felt I was, like Levinson, exploring important themes many people were not really ready to consider.

People would much prefer reading about cute dogs and animals who rescue people. And I certainly contribute to that.

Our lives, he wrote in his book, were becoming highly planned and structured and complicated, they were bereft of the "heirlooms of former generations which gave us a sense of continuity with the past and hope for the future. City dwellers lived – often alone – in  megastructures far removed from nature, their lives marked by little emotional closeness or knowledge of their neighbors.

Because we no longer preserve neighborhoods, there is now a great hiatus between generations, he wrote; our rootless civilization is encouraging alienation and is leading towards chaos.

I can only guess at what Levinson might have made of the Internet, which claims to connect people, but which pushes people into like-minded bubbles and creates the illusion that electronic e-mails and messaging is the same thing as  real friendship.

His book was written long before social media and the rise of a "left and a right," new political and social structures dooming us to governmental dysfunction and widening divisions. Man is also, he wrote, entering a period of great detachment, even estrangement from nature now that man had conquered, even devastated the natural forces that created the world.

Re-reading his book this week, I am struck once more by Dr. Levinson's foresight, and also his balance. This essentially,  is why I moved to the country, to re-connect with the natural world and its rhythms, I could sense the healing power of a farm.

"Rational man has become alienated from himself by refusing to face his irrational self, his own past as personified by animals. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that the two agencies which have held out hope for man's liberating himself – science and religion – have largely failed him." And this, before social media, bitter-divided political systems, and the rise of the Internet, which tore people apart from one another and imprisoned many in their homes.

Technology, the handmaiden of science, has created an almost impregnable barrier between between man and the rest of nature, including the members of the animal kingdom.

I know of no better metaphor for this than the New York Carriage Horses. People who call themselves animal lovers are determined to drive them out of New York forever in the name of preserving their rights and our safety. What greater disconnection from the animal kingdom could there be than a movement spending millions of dollars over many years to remove animals from our lives and from our world in the name of loving them?

Can dogs and other pets fill this void?  As Red and I approach our therapy work together, I see every day the power of animals to heal and uplift dispirited and alienated people. It isn't that the dogs perform magic, they are not miracle workers. Rather, they are a bridge to our inner selves, our pasts and natural identity. They help to re-humanize us in a de-humanized world.

Technology and corporate and political greed – just look at the news – have caused us to see nature as an inexhaustible source of wealth for the wealthy, an endless mine of riches for the few, as a kind of global whore to be exploited at leisure and then abandoned to its fate. We are no longer even pretending to protect Mother Earth, only looking for new and easier ways to rape her.

We deny the sickness of our beloved home, the earth, only to keep rich people rich and richer. Mankind got this far, history, suggests, because people live and worked with animals and cooperated not only with people but with animals, who helped to build our world, and are now being abandoned.

Levinson argued at the end of his book that we need a new understanding of animals, we need to see them as acceptable and even desirable participants in our social order, not as dangers or nuisances or piteous beings to be removed and hidden away in preserves. He saw that we need animals not only in the country but especially in crowded urban areas, where most people are. We need to grasp the pleasures and benefits they bring to anxious and disconnected people.

"If those who believe pets are a real need for human beings in this day and age can show the way toward maximizing the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of keeping pets in the home or in an institution, reluctant and even hostile individuals and groups may be won over," he wrote.

That is precisely the conflict raging in New York City over carriage horses. Some people insist in the face of overwhelming and contrary evidence that the horses do not belong in New York. Others grasp their historic, cultural and emotional importance to so many people in the city.

People who love animals – people like me and perhaps you – can work to create a favorable climate of opinion among political leaders and the general public so that animals can once again be regarded as a valuable resource rather than a nuisance or danger. The political leaders of New York ought to be fighting to keep the carriage horses there rather than banning them  – they do so much more good every day than the people protesting their existence  – have ever done.

"It is certainly worth the effort to bring about this change in attitude, for while it is quite possible that animals can do without man," Levinson concluded, "it is much less likely than man can do without animals."

I believe these attitudes can change, I have seen this. I received hundred of messages in the last few years telling me my own writing on the horses has caused some people to re-think the future of animals, and change their minds about the carriage horses. It can be done.

it is interesting that in Dr. Levinson's time, many people were still opposed to pet ownership for all kinds of reasons. The need for pets has become a social tsunami, people are taking ducks on airplanes for emotional support for fear of flying. In Dr. Levinson's time, there were about 18 million owned dogs in America, today there are more than 75 million owned dogs, and even more cats.

Nobody is arguing about pet ownership any more, there are raging conflicts everywhere about the future of animals.

Other animal species have not fared nearly as well as dogs, more than half of the animal species on the earth have vanished in the past 25 years, according to the World Wildlife Federation.

Many people who call themselves lovers of animals would prefer to see elephants slaughtered by poachers and exterminated in their shrinking habitats than entertain and uplift people, as they have been doing for thousands of years. The people worried about their welfare pay no attention to their deaths or extinction.

I understand that the time Dr. Levinson was different from ours. Were he alive today, I imagine he would see the new and awful reality about the animals in our world. it seems that cannot do without man, they are vanishing from the world or being driven out of it at an accelerating and catastrophic rate.

But he was a prophet and a seer. The farther we get from animals and nature, the more troubled, angry and unhappy we seem. Pope Francis has identified this as a profound moral issue for his Church. Levinson saw it would be a problem for all of us, and he was right.

And it  seems more true than ever than we cannot do without them, as what we call the so-called "news" reminds us every day – every hour –  of our lives.

Posted in General