Learning to live in the present even in a pandemic

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By Jane Patten

I thought I had been managing my lifetime anxiety well. By lifetime, I mean I don’t remember not being a worrier. I was the first grader who struggled writing the number 2, and when I finally mastered drawing the slanted line it required, I cried that I could not bear to think of the trouble the number 8 was going to cause.

Throughout my life, anxiety simultaneously propelled me to do things well and disrupted my peace with promises of every future catastrophe that could occur. Now I was enjoying my retirement from teaching. And my anxiety, though not a thing of the past, was not as ever-present as it once had been, either.

Then along came the pandemic and its inherent threat of severe illness or death from COVID-19. The longer we quarantined, the greater my anxiety became. The goal of living in the present seemed sadly laughable when the present became a constant deluge of dismal news, disinfectant wipes, and separation from our loved ones.

At this time, I began to think seriously about getting a rescue dog. From my past experience with dogs, I knew well the healing power of pets. According to HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute), “Research increasingly supports the health benefits of human-animal interaction (HAI) and pet ownership on the mental health and well-being of older adults.”

This was the perfect time to add a canine family member—and as I perused the rescue sites, I realized that I was not alone: The Washington Post reported, “What began in mid-March as a sudden surge in demand had, as of mid-July, become a bona fide sales boom. Shelters, nonprofit rescues, private breeders, pet stores—all reported more consumer demand than there were dogs and puppies to fill it.”

I had told my neighbor who works in animal rescue that my husband, Tony, and I were looking for a small dog to adopt. A few weeks later, she called and asked if we could please foster a four-year-old part cocker spaniel, part corgi. We agreed, fell in love, and realized how easy we were to read. We were foster failures! Our neighbor knew better than us that this little dog would never be in a rescue kennel again.

Her name was Panda, named, certainly for her large black and white spots. Panda, in my opinion, sounded too close to “pandemic”, so, keeping the initial P sound, we changed her name to Piper.  She was well trained, shy, and overweight. As I cared for Piper, I became calmer and happier. I ensured that she got a daily walk and time outdoors and soon remembered that I, too, needed the health benefits of daily exercise and sunshine. She needed quiet time to rest contentedly in a safe home, and as I stroked her fur each evening, I appreciated anew that despite the uncertainty of the future, I could also reflect on the people and things for which I was grateful.

Despite Piper’s initial shyness, she did assert herself from the beginning on one issue, however. Here was our plan: Tony, the early riser, would take her out in the morning so I, the night owl, could continue my habit of waking later in the morning.

Piper had other plans.

Although she seems to adore us equally, she decided that I was the one who needed to rise at 6 a.m., take her outside, and wait while she did her business, which includes exploring the backyard, barking at the neighbor’s dog, and sniffing the lavender and sage that grow near the house. Tony tried repeatedly to take her out, but she’d ignore him and continue to shrilly bark at my side of the bed until I rose, stumbled, half asleep, out the back door with her.

And that’s how it is every morning. I sit at the patio table while I wait for Piper.  This morning, as Piper plays, Anxiety creeps in and takes a seat near me at the table.

Anxiety, both my friend and my nemesis, pulls her chair up close to mine and whispers: If your knees are stiff now, imagine how much you’re going to ache this winter when the cold really does a number on your arthritis.

Seeing my worried expression, she forges ahead:  You know that this pandemic could last forever. What if someone you love gets sick?  What if you get sick?

But I am suddenly distracted. I watch Piper standing across the yard, completely still, with her head lifted and her eyes closed. The wind is playing with her ears and she seems to be savoring the unseen brush of air. The tufts of hair on her short legs feather and wave, and for a moment, time stands as still as she. I too, close my eyes, lift my face to the sky, and feel the morning air on my face. Maybe this is what it means to just be. When I open my eyes, Anxiety has left for a bit, but Piper is beside me, ready to go in.

It’s really not such a bad thing to be the person your dog wants to be with first in the morning.  And who knows, maybe an old dog can learn some new tricks.

After retiring and moving to Huntsville, Jane Patten decided to write about her adventures thus far, including growing up in Delaware and her career as a teacher in rural Georgia. Her poetry has been published in Out Loud HSV: A Year in Review for 2017, 2018, and 2019. You can read a selection of her poems at www.janepatten.com.

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