Stones in the river…

The first thing I saw on my Facebook newsfeed when I got home from church today was a post by my nephew who is in Afghanistan.   It was a collection of three pictures; young men who lost their lives on July 23 when their unit was hit with an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).  It was their first deployment.  One of the young men had been in Afghanistan less than two months.

My nephew graduated from college in December of 2010; was married in September of the following year.  This is his first deployment and in the few short months he has been there he has seen unspeakable things.  Friends losing their lives and their limbs.

I’m not here to argue whether this war is right or wrong.  Whether we should be in Afghanistan or not.  But I worry about these young men and women and wonder how they can possibly come back whole after what they’ve been through.

I have a friend, singer/songwriter Darden Smith who has started an amazing program called Songwriting With Soldiers.  The name is pretty self-explanatory.  They hold retreats where soldiers can come and be listened to.  And in listening, together the songwriters write songs with the soldiers.  It has been life changing for all involved.  The songwriters are taking what they do; giving their gift and honoring those who have given all for our country.

I know others who are working with veterans; taking therapy dogs to VA Hospitals and wherever they are needed to give comfort to young men and women who have seen things most of us can only begin to imagine.  Doing their small part.

Singer/Songwriter Carrie Newcomer has a wonderful song called “Stones in the River”.  The chorus goes:

So today, I’ll drop stones into the river
And the current takes them out into forever

And the truth is most of us will never know
Where our best intentions go
So I’ll drop another stone

While I am immensely saddened to see that three more young men have lost their lives, this blog is about gratitude.  First, I am grateful for the young men and women who make the greatest sacrifice for our country.  I pray that we as a nation can find the right way to express that gratitude, regardless of what we believe about this war or any other war.

I am grateful for those who are doing their part.  Darden Smith and all of those at Songwriting With Soldiers;  my friends who take their therapy dogs out to comfort our veterans; there are many others doing what they can; dropping their stones.

Now it’s my turn to ask myself.  What stones am I dropping in this river of life?  What can I do to make a difference?


P.S — I invite you to check out what they’re doing at Songwriting With Soldiers.  There are digital albums available of songs written at these retreats and other ways you can help if you feel so inclined.


I ran into Patrick Swayze one evening…

pats4aNo, seriously…I ran into Patrick Swayze.

Many years ago I trained Arabian horses, mostly young horses.  I would get them started under saddle, maybe take them to a few horse shows and then they’d go on to other trainers who showed nationally if they had the talent.  That was something I had neither the time, nor the desire to do.  One of the problems I would run into  was that where I trained I usually rode by myself, maybe with one other horse but never in a big arena full of horses.  Until I would get to a horse show.

So, here I was at the Great Southwest Equestrian Center in Katy, TX with one of my favorite young horses, “Shot in the Dark” a.k.a. “Houdini”.  He was an incredibly talented young horse and a really handsome one as well.  Back then Patrick Swayze owned and showed Arabian Horses and worked with a trainer in Tomball, TX so it wasn’t uncommon to see him at a show.  Patrick was really serious about showing horses and it was delightful to see him every time he won a ribbon because it obviously meant a great deal to him.  It wasn’t a given that he would do well and I think that made it all the more meaningful.

At this particular show the word had gotten out that Patrick would be there.  I felt bad for him.  Excited fans leaning over the rail while he was trying to warm up or show his Western Pleasure horse, a class in which the horse needs to be steady and obedient, wasn’t what he needed.  It was disruptive for everyone but especially for him when his horse would get spooked by some crazed fan. 

Things weren’t going particularly well for me either.  Houdini had never been in a ring with other horses; never been in an indoor arena and was so freaked out that I had people coming up to me and asking questions like, “Wow, how do you stay on him?”  Screaming fans with flailing arms weren’t helping.  After the first day I had pretty much decided that we wouldn’t be showing; we’d just stay there and work in the arena so he could get more accustomed to it.

The second evening of the show I was working Houdini in the warm-up ring and doing my level best to keep him from leaping into the air.  He was starting to settle in and stop seeing boogie-men everywhere.  Patrick was warming up his horse in preparation for a class.  Here I was going around off the rail in one direction; Patrick coming the opposite direction on the rail.  Everything was going OK until a rabid fan leaned out over the rail just as I was coming up even with him and his horse.  Houdini lost it.  He zigged one way and then wheeled around the opposite direction right smack dab into Patrick and his horse.  Wham!!  I was mortified.  Please, God, just let there be a giant hole open up and swallow me into the ground.  I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse if I had fallen off but I did manage to stay in the saddle.   I just wanted to disappear.  I have a vague recollection of mumbling an apology and slinking off.  

The good news is that Patrick was able to collect his horse before he had to go into the show ring.  I don’t remember for sure if he won anything but he put on a respectable showing and was none the worse for wear for having been body slammed five minutes before show time.  I mustered up the courage to offer a sheepish apology later on which he accepted graciously.  I didn’t know him well but he seemed like that kind of a guy.  He just wanted to fit in around the barns and be able to compete well and without a lot of fuss; difficult for a man as handsome as he was, much less for a movie star.

I can’t say that I’m grateful to Houdini for having attempted to do a tap-dance on Patrick Swayze’s head, but I have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to the opportunities, good times and good friends I met while training horses.  Houdini actually got his act together and went on to do pretty well in the show ring.  And I am very grateful for forgiving movie stars who get that things don’t always go perfectly, even when you’re rich and famous.

It’s just a cough, isn’t it…?

I have been the Hospital Manager at Westgate Pet & Bird Hospital since April of 1994.  I have been a client even longer—since 1991.  During that time I’ve had quite an assortment of animals many of which have had some significant health issues.  Over the years I’ve come to understand the importance of diagnostic testing and routine wellness labwork.  Many times this has helped to diagnose a serious health threat in its early stages thus allowing me to give my pets the best possible quality of life.

A few years ago my beloved Border Collie, “Jake” developed a cough.  At first I didn’t think too much of it but when it persisted for over a week it was time to get it checked out.  Dr. Davis gave Jake a thorough examination and recommended that we take some x-rays of his chest.  She indicated that we could treat the cough symptomatically however, because of his age (12 years) it would be wise to rule out something serious and the x-rays would help us do that.  I’m so grateful for that recommendation!!  The x-rays revealed a tumor on Jake’s lung—something that was not even on my radar screen.  A consultation with a board certified radiologist confirmed the diagnosis of a primary lung tumor – something that is quite uncommon in dogs.

Needless to say I was heart-broken by the diagnosis.  What was going to happen to my buddy Jake?  What was the best and most humane course of action to take?  Was surgery an option or would I be putting my pet through a painful procedure only to have him die from the cancer a few months later or have to be euthanized due to poor quality of life?  So many things to consider as I tried to decide what was the most loving thing I could do for Jake. 

After consulting with the doctors here at Westgate that I have come to trust so much over the years we decided that a consultation with a surgeon was in order.  Dr. Brandt put in a call to Dr. Kerpsack at Central Texas Veterinary Specialty Hospital who gave me very straight-forward and valuable information to help in my decision making process.  He indicated that, without surgery his cough would worsen to the point where it would make his life miserable.  He also said that, while the surgery would not be curative that, depending on the type of tumor Jake could have good quality of life for 6-12 months after the surgery and that the most common type of tumor held the best (and longest) prognosis.  He said that he would be hospitalized for 2-4 days after the surgery in order to control pain and that the challenge for most dogs was keeping them quiet during their recovery period.

So, Jake was scheduled for surgery the following Monday, less than a week after his diagnosis.  Dr. Kerpsack called me just before the surgery began and two very long hours later called to say that Jake was in recovery and doing well!!  He said that the tumor was much smaller than what he normally sees and that there was no sign that it had spread to his lymph nodes.  This was great news!  We had caught the cancer very early which meant that the prognosis for a longer, quality life was good.  Once again I had to thank Dr. Davis for her recommendation of that x-ray that helped provide that early diagnosis. 

Jake Post-op

Jake resting up after coming home from his surgery — did I mention one of the instructions was no jumping? Jake…what are you doing on the bed!

Two days later Jake was on his way home from the hospital with instructions for “no running, jumping or playing” for two weeks.  As I walked Jake into my house with him bouncing up and down on the end of the leash I knew this would be a challenge—he was already more energetic than he was before the surgery!  Within three more days his cough was completely gone.  Soon he was back to his old lively self and you’d never know that he had a life-threatening disease.   Jake didn’t live forever; but I was given the gift of an additional 8 months of good quality life with my dear friend for which  I will always be grateful :-).  Good dog, Jake!

On being human and the subject of grace…

Texas Mountain Laurel

Texas Mountain Laurel

I went to bed somewhat out of sorts last night.  Some people that I have come to care a great deal for had had a bit of a squabble.  It was no big deal really, but there were some hurt feelings and it left me feeling sad.  When it comes down to it, it was just people being people.

I believe that most people are good folks who are just trying to do the best they can.  The thing is that none of us gets through life without some level of brokenness and part of the human condition is imperfection.  We get tired, or afraid; sometimes when it’s email or posts on some Facebook wall stuff gets lost in translation and before you know it we’ve said some stuff that maybe we should have given a bit more thought to.  We all do it, it doesn’t make us bad–it just makes us human.

Singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer writes a wonderful blog called “The Speed of Soul”.  In one entry Carrie asks this question:

“What would it be like to start a conversation when we first  took a deep breath and remembered to believe in the very best in us- and not assume immediately the worse?  Might we hear a little different kind of story then the one we expected? ” 

Seems like a good question to me…one I could stand to ask myself on a daily basis; OK, maybe several times a day.

The good news is that there is grace.  It’s given to each of us every day and it seems only right that we should give some in return.  And it turns out that in the giving of it we receive a gift as well.

My friends will be fine; they are an amazing bunch of people.  I woke up this morning and went for a long hike at the greenbelt with Pippin and came home feeling like all was right with the world.  For this and for the gift of grace I am grateful.

Turkey bird…

I’ll never forget the day that the injured Eclectus parrot came in to the animal hospital where I work.  His name was “Turkey Bird” because he had been hatched on Thanksgiving Day the year before.  He belonged to a breeder who had put him in with a female to mate.  The female Eclectus are known to be somewhat aggressive and she apparently wanted no part of that.  “Turkey Bird” ended up with his lower beak ripped into three pieces.

The breeder couldn’t justify spending a lot of money on him; the prognosis wasn’t great and he didn’t think he’d be able to sell him if he did make it.  Plus, there were concerns as to whether or not he’d ever try to mate again after the trauma.  Rather than euthanize him he decided to relinquish him to the clinic in the hopes that maybe one of the employees would take him and try to fix him up. 

I had just lost the last sick, abused bird that I had brought home because the owners didn’t want to spend any money on him.   “I’ll take him”, I said.  “What do we need to do for him?”  That’s how “Turkey Bird”, now “Cowboy” came to be a part of the menagerie. 

Two surgeries later he ended up losing the middle portion of his lower beak.  Essentially, he has tusks now.  He ate mush for about a year and a half but then he figured out how to work those tusks to break up all kinds of hard foods.  So, despite appearances Cowboy is a happy, healthy, normal bird. 

I was concerned at first about how Cowboy would get along with my Doberman, Gretchen and the two cats.  I need not have worried.  Any thoughts that the cats may have had about having Cowboy for dinner were quickly put to rest the first time he took out after them and chased them off of their favorite sleeping spot on the back of the sofa.  The first time Gretchen put her pointy nose down to investigate and Cowboy pecked at it she wanted nothing more to do with him. 

Cowboy is a delight to have around and often provides comic relief.  Like the time I came in from the garage where I had been testing the smoke detector and he yelled out, “Fire, fire, save the bird!!!”.  Now, I had taught him to say that but how he knew to say it right then is beyond me.  Sometimes when I’m talking on the phone he must feel left out.  He’ll start having his own little conversation; not repeating things I’m saying but just talking, “Well…so…how ’bout that!…sure…ha, ha, ha”.  I’m not sure who he’s talking to but it sure is funny to listen to. 

Then there’s the time he was in my office and one of my receptionists buzzed back: 

“Mr. Smith is on line one”
“Yes, Mr. Smith is on line one”
“Judi?  Can you hear me?”

About that time I walked up behind my receptionist and she realized that she hadn’t been talking to me at all.  I wasn’t in my office, but Cowboy was!!

There was the time I was up sick in the middle of the night.  I had finally gotten up out of bed and was sitting in the dark on the sofa bent over double from a stomach ache.  From the other side of the room I heard a little voice, “What’s the matter?”.  Awwwwwwwww!!!  It didn’t make my stomach stop hurting but it sure did make me feel better.

Cowboy loves to take a shower; so much so that if he’s loose in the house and I’m taking one he will walk down the hallway and into the bathroom yelling, “Shower? … Shower.”

Cowboy preening himself after his shower.

Cowboy preening himself after his shower.

I must say I was shocked at how attached I have become to this entertaining little green bird.  He has an amazing vocabulary and he does and says some of the funniest things.  I love him dearly.  And, as he would say, “Cowboy’s the best bird in the world!”

On disorganized religion…

Journey IFC

Photo by Stephanie Sharif

Yesterday, we celebrated the nine-year birthday of my beautiful faith community here in Austin, Journey Imperfect Faith Community.   It would be hard for me to describe all that I have received from Journey and what this community means to me.  I mean, what can I say?  We’re a bunch of misfits who embrace imperfection and believe in radical inclusivity and are just trying to figure out how to love people and follow the teachings of Jesus.  No one will ever accuse us of being “organized” religion.   This community has been a place where I have been encouraged to ask questions, to stretch outside my comfort zone and have been challenged to grow spiritually.

flameandcupThere are so many wonderful memories from over the years.  We started in donated space at a YMCA and our standard joke was that we “came out of the closet every Sunday morning”–a pretty accurate description as we started setup about 6:30 on Sunday morning and had to have everything done and put away by 1:00 p.m.  Then came the warehouse where we were able to host concerts and share the space with groups from the community who needed a place to meet during the week.  The warehouse was our gift to 12 step groups, fledgling non-profits and many more.  Now there are new adventures in the space we share with the Rawson-Saunders School.  Through it all  there have been wonderful Sunday mornings that have been deep and meaningful with always something new to experience.  There have been Easter prayer vigils that have lasted from Good Friday through to Easter morning.  Service Sundays where, in lieu of a regular worship service we have gone out into the community to serve the homeless, people in nursing homes, the environment and other places where we were needed. 

There has been lots of laughter, our share of tears, but always love.  Always.  As I helped Renee lead the community in our theme song, “Let the Journey Unfold” yesterday I found myself getting choked up.  I love these people so very much.  Happy birthday Journey…I am so grateful that you are in my world. 


Devil dog…

Pippin 16

What me? It must have been the cat!

As hard as it may seem when you meet the sweet, loving dog that Pippin is now, he turned into the devil at about 12 weeks of age.  I have trained my own dogs all of my life and I have to admit it…I was at a complete loss as to what to do with this incorrigible, stubborn puppy.  What was I thinking??  It had been years since I’d had a puppy, 29 years to be exact…why didn’t I just get another Border Collie from Border Collie Rescue of Texas?  The last one had been a wonderful dog!

Nevertheless, I loved the little devil and wasn’t about to give up on him.  And, lucky for him he was adorably cute.  When not in his crate he lived on a 25 ft. leash tied around my waist to keep him from running rampant in the house.  He was good in a crate but he couldn’t stay there 24 hours a day.  He would occasionally take after me like I was some big, two-legged sheep biting at my feet as I tried to walk down the hallway.  Every time I would reach down to pick him up he would bite at me.  Oh, he never bit like he was serious about it but those sharp puppy teeth could still hurt.  And for such a smart dog he didn’t seem to learn very quickly that it didn’t stop me from picking him up anyway.   I remember thinking to myself, “This is why so many dogs end up in shelters.”  Not that I ever entertained that idea for Pippin.  No, I still loved him dearly and this was a commitment I had made and I needed to do right by him.

I had a friend living in my spare bedroom for a few months and he loved her.  He would run to her gleefully when she walked in the door like she was his savior or something.  Complete strangers?  He loved them too.  But me?  I was the one who insisted he behave, stopped him from trying to chew on everything in sight, made him sit, lie on his bed, kept him from tormenting the cat…I was convinced that he thought I was the devil too.  I remember vividly the night that I burst into tears on the living room floor crying, “I just want my puppy to let me pet him without trying to bite me!”

To make matters more difficult he couldn’t have cared less about food.  “You have to find a really high value treat”, trainers would say.  Ha!  There were no treats that Pippin considered more valuable than getting in to mischief and half of them gave him diarrhea.  The one thing that Pippin did love was his toys.  I had never had a dog that really cared much for toys and it took me a while to figure out how to use that to my advantage.  Pippin was (and still is) obsessed with toys.

I had taken him to a few K-9 Nosework classes but hiding treats for him didn’t really seem to motivate him.  Then I found a book that talked about naming toys and hiding those instead of treats.  That was the beginning of a transformation for Pippin.  He had a job.  It takes him less than a minute to learn any given toy’s name and if that toy is hidden he is on a mission from the time you say, “Pippin, where’s Frodo?  Go find Frodo?” until he finds his toy.  The only thing I have to be careful of is that he’ll ransack the house in his search.  He’s now up to about 25 toys that he knows the names of.  He can find them hidden in the house, buried in the back yard, up in trees — even in the dark.  We’ve started working with a trainer on trailing — one of the methods used by search and rescue dogs — and turns out he loves finding people too.

A sampling of Pippin's toys and their names.

A sampling of Pippin’s toys and their names.

So aside from turning into a good companion and a wonderful hiking dog Pippin now has a “job” to do and with a lot of work and even more patience I can honestly say that he is no longer the “Devil Dog”.  I am grateful…