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An Animal Lesson From the Heart

It was the second week in June, in Iowa, a few Wednesday mornings ago when my 10-year-old collie Merlin must have decided it was time for me to grow. For the past six years my husband Mark and I have lived on acreage we fondly call El Shaddai. We have lovingly shared this space over the past six years with Merlin, two house kitties, two or more barn kitties, four horses, assorted aquarium fish not to mention our wild friends ranging from deer, turkey's, coyotes, ground hogs, bunnies, weasels, possums, raccoons, eagles, swallows, hawks, humming birds and on and on. Anyway, you get the picture. They have all, at various times, been our teachers, our companions, our challenges and our adversaries. All their roles have expanded us beyond measure.

This particular morning, I was absorbed in writing, when a friend called me from California to share his latest trials with me. As we were talking, the sky suddenly turned very black. I can remember I was standing in kitchen seeing blue sky on the east side of the house and the greenish black churning clouds we Midwesterners learn to take notice of on the other side. The air was very still.

We continued talking about another ten minutes or so. By that time, I had focused my attention entirely on his story, forgetting the approaching weather. Suddenly a force shook the house and it felt almost as if all the air was sucked out of it. The wind started to blow ferociously and papers and other lighter weight objects began to fly all over the house. Several plants even crashed off the windowsills on the sun porch. I ran around slamming windows closed while still talking to Jonathan on the phone, describing to him what was going. Rain cascaded over the roof for a short time and then, as suddenly as the winds came, they seemed to dissipate. By the time I had said good-bye, the sun was shining again.

Our housemate, Chatrigna, had been running errands in town at the time and when I told her about the strange weather, she said in town it just rained a little, not much wind or anything. Well, these are strange times and the weather patterns have been very unpredictable all over the planet. Later that afternoon, we discovered two very large trees had fallen close to, but fortunately, not into our barn. My husband Mark was out of town for a few days so we decided to take a walk in the woods after dinner and see if any trees had fallen and blocked our trials. (As an interesting aside, although we have lived here six years, it has only been in the last several years that so many trees seemed to be dying and falling down.)

Sometime after 7:00 pm Chatrigna and her dog Tome as well as Merlin and myself headed off down the trailhead. Merlin had been diagnosed several months earlier with hip dysplasia and he already was no longer able to negotiate the stairs or jump into the back of the car. But, he still loved to walk with us in the woods and kept up a fairly good pace. At times Merlin might get tired and lay down and wait for us to return, or, if we were too long, he might head back to the barn and wait for us there.

We only discovered one tree down. It had fallen across the trail just on the other side the winding creek that runs through our property. It was easy enough to step over but we knew we wanted Mark to remove it when he returned to keep our trial clear. I remember seeing Merlin at that time, drinking out of the creek and sniffing around the rocks. We continued on through the woods and up into the back hay field. As we were heading back up the ridge toward home, we realized that Merlin was not with us. I called a few times but I was pretty sure we'd find him waiting for us ahead on the trail or back at the barn. I was not very concerned at all.

After we returned, I was disappointed to see no Merlin had materialized. There had been rare occasions when he would be distracted and not come home right away so I convinced myself that he would be along anytime but my gut was telling me that I really wasn't very convinced at all. Within a short time, Chatrigna and I had created a plan of action for a search party. We realized, finally, that perhaps he never made it over that fallen tree by the creek. If he tried an alternate route to meet up with us further on, he may have not been able to negotiate his return, as his back-end was so weak. The sun was setting, but there was still enough light. We split up and began searching and calling with our cell phones in hand. As I walked my search area, I could hear Chatrigna calling Merlin from time-to-time and I was doing the same. I found it very unusual that there was no response. Merlin always came when he was called

As darkness overtook our search, we met back at the house and decided there was nothing much more we could do that evening. We sat around thinking of all kinds of scenarios that may have played out but it did nothing to help my feelings of helplessness and fear. In my heart, I knew something was wrong. I just knew Merlin was stuck or he would have come home. I didn't feel he was dead, but I knew he was in trouble. As I think back on that night, I wonder why I didn't call my friends and neighbors and fill those woods with people, one of who would have surely found him. I suppose I didn't do that because I was hoping that any minute I would look out the door and he would be laying on the front porch waiting for me. It was certainly a lesson in the making and my soul was going to make sure I moved into the emotion and got the message. That night, however, the lesson was the last thing on my mind.

I finally went to bed around eleven but certainly not to sleep. My crazy mind was wild with visions, some positive and others terrifying as I flipped from one possible outcome to the next. One of the worst thoughts I created centered on a pack of coyotes that travel this area all along the ridge. Some nights you can hear them howling in our woods. Chatrigna's room was facing that side of the house so I was unable to hear them very clearly from our bedroom. Sometime around 2:00 AM I heard thunder rumbling and I began to time the length between the lightening and the claps of thunder. Over the course of the next hour, the storm came closer and closer and once again the winds picked up. Merlin was never a fan of thunder and he always sought refuge as close to us as possible when storms developed. In fact, Merlin hated any loud noises. During hunting season he whines and barks as every shot rings out. The storm finally turned North without dumping the rain I had expected, but I could not erase the image of my Merlin stuck somewhere in those woods all alone, frightened and vulnerable.

Finally by 4:30 in the morning, I was beginning to see a slight hint of the approaching dawn and that was good enough for me. I dressed and headed down to the barn to get my appaloosa, Kola, ready to help me search the woods. The sun had still not broken the horizon, but there was plenty enough light to see. Had I not been in such a state, I would have really appreciated the beauty and magic of the woods at this time. I had never been on the trail quite this early before. I also realized that I had a much better view of the landscape mounted on Kola then I had last night on foot. I wondered why it never dawned on Chatrigna and I to saddle up rather than search on foot.

For the next hour Kola and I walked everywhere as I shouted and called to Merlin. I couldn't imagine where he could be that he would not hear me and respond. Chatrigna and I had decided last night that he probably tried to follow us along the creek when he couldn't get over that fallen tree so I focused on the deer paths that ran in and out along the creek, but to no avail. Finally as the sun rose and lit the woods, I decided to head home with a very heavy heart.

Chatting in the kitchen a little later, I shared my morning search effort with Chatrigna. We got the idea to put on our rubber boots and actually walk the creek on the slim chance that Merlin couldn't respond to our calls for some reason or that he may have been hidden from view, perhaps even both. I went ahead and got started as she finished up with the morning chores. I climbed down the steep ridge that had been formed by years of erosion as our creek headed south to meet the Cedar River. As I walked along, I somehow knew in my heart I was getting closer to him. Thinking back on it now, I realize that I was scared that I would find him injured or dead. It was almost like I wanted desperately to find him and, at the same time, I was frightened of what I would find.

As I turned the final bend before trail crossing, I could here a chattering noise, kind of like a clicking. It seemed loud and I remember wondering what animal could make such a strange noise, perhaps a snake. Then, straight ahead of me, I saw my dear Merlin. He was buried up to his chest in creek mud and the water was flowing all around him. I cannot describe to anyone the heart reaction that ran through me. The whole scene was more than my emotions could interpret or my head could make sense of. I just knew I would never forget that moment and that something very poignant was happening.

I let out a cry and moved toward him as quickly as I could. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he actually thought I would be mad at him for getting stuck. I have rarely if ever gotten mad at Merlin and never have I punished or struck him. As I approached closely, I realized that the noises I had just heard were actually his teeth chattering! I plopped down in the creek by his side and hugged him and told him what a good boy he was and how relieved I was that he was alive. Quickly assessing the situation, I knew that I would have a very difficult time extracting Merlin from the deep muck. My boots sunk in every time I took a step. It was almost like quick sand and I could easily understand how his struggle had mired him more deeply until he finally just gave up. (Now that sounds familiar doesn't it?) I opened my cell phone to call for help and thankfully I got through. There are places in our woods where cell phone reception is not the best. Knowing that Chatrigna and our neighbor Denny were on their way certainly was a relief.

Alone with Merlin, I decided to try to help him out of the muck while I waited for help. I knew it would be very difficult to get him up the steep bank. Also, I had no idea how his back-end was doing after such a trauma. By the time I heard Chatrigna calling, I had managed to dislodge him from the muck and drag him carefully over to the waters edge where the current was less and it was very shallow. I was covered with muck, exhausted and very emotional as I realized his hind legs were not working at all. At least his teeth had stopped chattering.

The three of us finally managed to lift Merlin up the embankment and load him onto Denny's gator. I got in the back with Merlin as Denny began the lurching drive over the trail back toward home. As I rode along holding Merlin's head, I could feel his exhaustion, totally unaware of my own. I was feeling he would not be able to walk again and my heart was so sad. Finally at home, we moved him off the gator by the lower patio and thanked Denny for his help as he headed home to do his own farm chores. Chatrigna washed him off while I prepared a space for him with blankets and towels. Finally we managed to somehow lift a dripping Merlin into the house and lay him in his recovery area, so to speak, where he slept for the rest of the day, barley moving.

Later that evening when Mark returned, we had lifted Merlin out onto the grass so he could be outside with everyone. He had eaten quite a bit and seemed brighter. I asked the question of them that I had asked of myself. Where am I stuck in the muck so badly that I can't see it? Where is my reflection? They were very supportive and helpful, as we all knew this lesson was directed specifically toward me. We also discussed Merlin's future. My friend Chatrigna is excellent with animals and has her own business called Animal Healing Realms. She said he was just exhausted and she felt he would be able to stand and walk again. I honestly doubted it as I watched him struggle to get up and fail every time. I was already preparing myself to say good-bye to him.

To make a very long story a little shorter, the next morning as I was preparing to call the vet to come put him down, Chatrigna stood him up and after wobbling a bit, he walked away from us on shaky legs over to the pasture fence and pooped! While on the one hand I was thrilled, on the other hand my heart ached for my lack of faith. I was looking at my career, my novel, my relationships with him as well as various friends and family members trying to understand and hurting badly the whole while. It wasn't until later that evening as Mark and I were discussing Merlin's lessons for me that he suggested I look inside rather than outside.

Finally the next morning while soaking in my tubby (This is where many of my greatest revelations seems to occur.), a huge part of the gift settled into my heart with a thud. I had a pain buried so deep inside my own muck that I didn't even know it was there. My life flowed all around this one place that hurt so badly, but I could not reach it. Although I still didn't know exactly what the pain related too, I did now know, it existed. As the next days unfolded, more and more of this pain came up in surprising ways. As clear as I can be and as easily as I am able to interpret Spirit as it flows in my life and the lives of others, this huge empty space in me never really believed. I didn't believe Merlin would walk that morning and there is a part of me so wounded I don't belief it can heal. Because I looked everywhere but there, I continually sabotaged things I passionately try to create. I gave up before I could fail at times. Perhaps then, I may not have hurt so badly. Sometimes I would never allow myself to see anything as a failure or feel that space. (Read my story on radical trust to find out more. I am an expert at traveling quickly to the higher perspective leaving the part that hurts behind. Just as I tried to do with Merlin, releasing him to cross over rather than feel my way through the gift of his lesson.

As I write this story about ten days after the drama unfolded, I can honestly say his lesson is far from over. Perhaps it never will be and for that I am actually grateful. The girl with the heart light is facing a new facet of the pain she teaches everyone to feel but couldn't find herself. During these days, I have felt deep abandonment and rejection I didn't know existed. I have walked through several layers of denial with my husband Mark. I have been responding to life so differently. Merlin helped me crack open my heart once again and in so doing I have remembered the beauty and exhilaration of being vulnerable enough to break through the walls and find the buried treasure. I am sure my continued healing will find its way into the pages of my writing from time to time.

But, for now, I can tell you that there are places where we are all stuck in the muck of our denial and the clues to these discoveries are unfolding all around us. It comes to mind that river and sea mud are often used as a poultice or mask to draw out the toxins and deeply embedded dirt. How appropriate for me that Merlin was willing to endure this experience to open a doorway for me to find myself more clearly. I know from the response to my mention of this story in my last Heartlights Update that many of you have been moved by our story. I have never had so many people respond to a story as they have responded to this one. So here it is in it's entirety. I know this journey metaphorically touches us all. May Merlin's gift multiply as the days, weeks and years unfold and may everyone find the ability to face what is right in front of them buried in the muck and rescue themselves.

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Thank you. Nancy Joy