MindLetter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater.
Teaching may have ended, but our support is still here: drop-ins continue on Tuesdays and Fridays until the end of next week; we have a day retreat this Saturday; and I'm beyond delighted that so many of you have signed up to my new postcard-writing project, Why Don't You Write Me. The first round of cards go in the post tomorrow.
It's double-jumper weather in Edinburgh, and this week's post is in homage to our quiet companions during this time: the ones who keep us warm amidst it all. Enjoy.
Ben the collie has been teaching me a new game. He lies on his furry belly on the ground, and traps a tennis ball beneath his muddy paws. I poke the ball. It is surprisingly hard to shift. Ben is a large dog, and he, like many of us, has gained two kilos of what we are calling ‘lockdown muscle’.
The ball moves a little, but so does Ben. Those paws are strong. I stroke his silky head, and the ball rolls just out of paw reach. We stare at it with bated breath. Will he let me?
In one movement, I grasp and throw it. Ben is off, delighted. This is a game we both win.
As the days grow darker, the night creeps in, and the virus keeps coming, Ben is my furry support bubble. In this I am not alone. As a nation of dog-lovers, the pandemic has revealed our true colours. Rescue shelters have emptied; dog-borrowing websites are swamped. Ben’s owner, Pam, receives new messages every day, mostly from lonely students. Puppies have tripled in price. ‘He’s a lockdown dog,’ said the couple on Blackford Hill with the young fox terrier. ‘Twelve weeks,’ said the owner of the cockapoo, a tiny cloud of fur, on the Meadows. In a matter of months, I have watched the German Shepherd puppy down the road grow from a ball of fluff to a handsome adolescent.
It is no surprise that amidst isolation, uncertainty, and distress, we have turned en masse to the furriest of friends. These last countless weeks and months, many of us have gone untouched; our hunger for connection is skin-deep, and more. The people we live with cannot always hold us as we need. I’ve guided students who live alone to hug themselves, to practise self-compassion, to lie on the floor and sense the ground. I invite them to notice the moments of interaction, as well as those of solitude. I teach from experience, as well as science, because I do these too.
And where possible, I recommend a dog. Take Ben, for example. There is the greeting – exuberant, squeaky, paws on knees, kisses behind gossamer-fur ears (watch for the swing of that powerful head). There’s the way he runs back to me with the ball, passing always on my right side, just close enough for a stroke at speed. The tight lead at traffic lights: ‘hey,’ I say, clicking my fingers in front of him, to distract him from the passing vans. (He is a sheepdog. He wants to herd anything bigger than himself.) ‘Good boy,’ I say, with a rub of the head, when he is still again.
Then there’s the fact that Ben doesn’t speak. For amidst the hours of howling silence, the boredom, the energy-sapping frozen faces on MS teams, the survivors’ guilt, and the relentless ping of emails into our inboxes, we have discovered that it’s not always talking that we want. Conversations by appointment don’t hit the spot; another Zoom call, thinking of things to say, leaves us enervated rather than restored.
But the language of Dog is universal, quiet: a pull on the lead, a slowing of pace, a nose to the ground, an appealing glance up, a suddenly rabid eye, pricking ears, the spontaneous nose-kiss. Indeed, when I lost my voice earlier this year, Ben and I communicated entirely through Dog. He stayed closer than before, changing course when I whistled. Around a bend I’d glimpse his face, checking that I followed before he trotted on. We conducted games entirely through eye contact: the ball dropped in front of me, the tilted head.
What we crave tells us what we need, and our turn to furry creatures during the pandemic tells us that more than anything, we need presence. We, too, want to cease our cares at the mere sight of a ball. We want to delight in the crispness of fresh snow on the grass, to smell the vital multitudes of squirrel contained on the rough bark of a tree, to move simply from play to rest to food. And we desire the presence of others who do this, because amidst the boredom, powerlessness, anger, loss, churning thoughts, and dark nights, we need to see that another way of being in the world is possible. We sense it in the touch of a paw on a hand, a nose on a knee. We sense it in the moments we can speak without words.
So borrow your neighbour's dog, this week. Extend a hand to the border terrier on the Meadows. (His name is Rum, and he'll be delighted.) Comb through dog photos on the internet, and don't feel guilty. Think of your dog at home, and hug yourself while you do. And if you see a large border collie trit-trotting down the street, watch the ears. The flip-flop flip-flop is everything you need in this moment.