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Monday, February 21, 2011

insights: it was the pink ears that got me

Icy, bitter, cold. Blue sunshiny sky. Being outside on that sunny January day the air was so bitter cold that just breathing hurt. I could feel the minuscule ice droplets in the air hit my teeth as if I were chewing an ice cube. I was walking to my car, pulling my wool hat down over my ears, my mittens grasping a cup of Earl Grey tea as I buried my face in my scarf, closing my eyes against the raging wind. In the car I turned the heater and seat warmer to high. On the radio the morning jocks bantered about the -10 windchill factor. I took a sip of my steaming bergamot tea and was putting the car in reverse when I saw them.

A woman in her 50’s, wearing a light blue windbreaker over a white t-shirt and dusty blue sweatpants was holding a sign. She was standing at the high traffic intersection to the entrance of the 405 wearing tennis shoes but no gloves, hat or scarf. I was close enough to see her bare hands were purple, curved about the sign asking for help, for a job, God bless it said. You see them all the time, the homeless, the destitute and you think, like I do, “God, how awful. I hope they find a job, a home.”

And then at her feet I saw it, or her rather. She was a mutt of undetermined origin, a small terrier perhaps, shades of white and grey with enormous pink ears. She was sitting on the cement sidewalk leaning against her owner. I watched the wind blow the dog’s tangled hair and the rope that was tied around her neck and connected at the other to her owner’s wrist. I was riveted. I froze walking the ten feet from Starbuck’s to my car and this woman and her dog were standing in the cold winter wind, nowhere else in the world to go.

I started to think.

When I started the Happy Girl Experiment I had just come off an 18 month-long exhausting period where everything that could go wrong did. After losing almost everything I valued in my life (including my life) I made a choice that I could either stay in the deep, dark hole I was in or make an effort to change my life and take notice of how I got there.

I decided that I needed to notice things in my life instead of gliding by on my la-di-da fabulous little life. When your life is good you tend to become narcissistic. I did. I was so concerned about my life, about which movies I was seeing that week, about what meetings I was (or wasn’t invited to), which flights I was taking that week for my job that I never noticed people or situations that weren’t in my little orbit. A Tsunami, yes terrible. Earthquake, awful, but it didn't affect ME or my world. Yes, say what you will. I agree. I wasn’t the nicest person in the world back then. I was all very much about me. Then of course I was knocked off my high horse and I was given the opportunity to get up and try again or stay on the ground.

Staying on the ground of course is much easier but the view’s not so good. Getting up slowly I made an effort to notice people around me, to SEE them, to be aware of them, to be open-minded to it all instead of thinking “Poor slob. Get a job.”

So there we were on that record-breaking ice-cold Seattle day, the woman, her dog and me. In the parking lot I waited through several light changes. No one stopped, no one rolled down their windows to give her change or a cup of coffee. I watched the woman and her dog and I thought maybe I can help by taking the dog for her. What kind of life is it for a dog (or a person, of course) to sit outside day and night with her master in below freezing temps? I didn’t know much about homeless housing in the suburbs of Seattle but I didn’t think they took dogs. Then I realized that this was her pet, her family. I am sure she would no sooner give up her dog than she would her child.

I pulled out of the parking lot and drove past her. I got on the 405 and got off in Kirkland. I arrived at the store and spent about 45 minutes picking things out. In my trunk I had an LL Bean canvas bag. I filled it with the coat, sweater, scarf, hat and mittens I was wearing as well as the items in the bag I just bought:

  • Ten small cans of dog food with the easy open top
  • A plush dog blanket
  • A fleece dog coat with reflective stripes
  • A fluffy, squeak toy
  • A collar and a leash
See the thing is-- there is seriously some kind of chemical reaction in your brain that happens when you think outside yourself. I felt HAPPY. I thought of how warm this woman and her dog would be later that afternoon and I hoped they were spending that night somewhere inside and cozy, not outside on the cement. Maybe this act of humanity would help restore the happy that she had lost.

I drove back to where I first saw her, fearful that somehow she would be gone but she wasn’t. I parked and freezing I walked over to her with the canvas bag in my hand. She turned to me and I saw that she was older than I first thought. She smiled at me and stretched out her hand to me. For a quick moment she reminded me of my grammar school teacher Sister Madeline.  I was struck by how cold, calloused and hard her hand was. I smiled back and handed her the bag. Looking down at her dog she said “This is Chloe. She is ten. Chloe say hi.” I bent down to say hello and it took everything I had not to pick up that little dog and tuck her inside my shirt. Chloe was shivering, her hair blowing over her eyes as she lifted a paw to me. I could easily imagine this woman living an ordinary life, going to her job, teaching her puppy tricks and then things go wrong in her life one at a time and she finds herself without a family, without a job, without a home but with her dog.

She looked at me and told me her name “Anna. I’m Anna. And my dog Chloe.”

I noticed then that a car was beeping. The car next to us had rolled down its window and the driver stuck his hand out as Anna and Chloe walked over to take a $5 bill. The car behind him though wasn’t amused. He beeped again and the driver waved goodbye to Anna, rolled his window up and got on the 405. I wondered if perhaps the man who beeped in impatience was like me, the way I was before, the way I was back when life was just about me and my meetings and “Don’t you see how busy I am?”

I said to Anna “Do you need anything?”

“A job,” she said looking at me.

“Me too,”  I said. And we both laughed as people do when they have a shared commonality as in “Hey, didn’t you go to college in New Hampshire?”

“How is she?” I said, nodding towards Chloe.

“She’s a good girl,” Anna said. “I wouldn’t have survived this without her.” And I believed her.

I said goodbye and rushed back to the car, my hands and ears solidly numb. As I started the car I watched Anna take out the fleece jacket and put it on Chloe. She took care of her dog before she took care of herself. That warmed my heart. I hadn’t felt this happy in a long time.

I’m writing about this because as part of this Happy Girl Experiment, I want to know what make a person happy. This did. What would happen if I did something like this every week, what if I did something for someone else and got out of my own head? What if you did? What if a bunch of us did?

I think about those drivers who saw Anna, Chloe and me that morning. Did they think “I could do that”? Did they buy a coffee for a homeless person? Plow their elderly neighbor’s driveway? Let someone merge without beeping at them?

I get it now, the whole Do Unto Others business that we were taught in Sunday school. I did unto others and it felt good. It felt happy.

I never did see Anna or Chloe again. Though every so often I take the same route just in case.

To help homeless pets visit The Animal Rescue Site. They have been featured on Ellen and they're incredible.

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