There is a little pit bull named Shandy at the Cleveland Kennel. He’s all white except for a sprinkling of black spots at the tips of his very tall, very expressive ears. At just 2 years old, he’s described as “full to the brim with excitement” and “a bright dog who picks up well on learning new tricks and games.” Right now, however, the volunteer trainers are working with him on the Art of Doing Nothing. It seems Shandy’s one flaw is that he has trouble settling down when there’s nothing to do.
I can relate. For me, learning to do nothing has been the hardest part of dealing with this pandemic. Don’t get me wrong. I am completely aware of the immense suffering many people are enduring and I marvel every single day over our nurses and doctors and hospital aids who manage to keep going in the face of constant heartbreak, unreasonable exhaustion and fear of exposure. I don’t for one minute feel that what I’m experiencing compares. However, after keeping up, over so many years, with a job, a husband, four children, numerous dogs and cats, a goat and several horses, I am definitely finding it a challenge to have no responsibilities beyond myself, two very easy dogs and two geriatric cats.
I try to schedule at least one project a day but, by noon, I’m either finished with what I set out to do or, if I’ve chosen yard work or major cleaning, my body has given out. That makes for very long afternoons. In the past, I have always responded to any disruption in my normally satisfying life by taking on another project. Now I simply cannot do that, and I often find myself with nothing to do. I usually settle on the couch with a book. Soon, however, since I’ve read, or at least started, just about every book in the house, my attention wanders. The next thing I know I’m waking up from yet another nap – and angry with myself for wasting yet another afternoon.
Shandy, I’m happy to say, is doing much better than I am. The other day one of the volunteer trainers posted on FaceBook that she took Shandy into the play yard and, as instructed by our staff, gave no commands and simply waited. Not long ago, Shandy would have responded by turning into a whirling dervish, racing around the play yard, leaping and pawing the volunteer in a constant, highly annoying and sometimes painful demand for attention. But this day, Shandy briefly skirted the play yard, checking out the new scents, and then just lay down at the feet of his handler. Then, only then, did the volunteer acknowledge him and reward him with a treat. Other volunteers immediately jumped in to confirm that Shandy was indeed responding to the exercise and learning the Art of Doing Nothing.
Sadly, I have no idea how to train myself. But my first visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary some years ago gave me another perspective to consider. It was mid-morning and there were 700 dogs to be fed by cofounder Faith Maloney, her daughter Carragh, two staff members, my fellow traveler and me. The task was to mix huge vats of kibble and canned food and divide it into 700 bowls, each of which would then have various individualized meds and supplements added before being stacked on the back of a pick-up truck and delivered to specific spots in the octagon shaped buildings where the dogs lived. At the time, Faith was handling animal control for the county and she received a call just as we were beginning the process. As she calmly talked trough the latest crisis, I kept on opening cans and mixing, mouthing questions to Faith in a well-intentioned effort to keep us on schedule. Finally, Faith put down the phone with some annoyance, turned to me and said slowly and carefully, “Timy, what we do here is take care of the animals. That’s all we do. We have all day to do it. The dogs don’t care whether they get their food at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. I’ll be with you as soon as I finish dealing with this call.”
That was more than 25 years ago but I’ve never forgotten the message. Now I’m just trying my best to live by it.