by Marion Agnew
The house where the three dogs live is on the lake side of the road, just beyond the spot where the speed limit increases from 50 kph to 80. I peer around my husband’s hands on the steering wheel as we approach and then behind his head as we pass the house, so that I can see the full length of the driveway. “No dogs today,” I say.
I’m not disappointed, though. I enjoy seeing the dogs, but more than that, I enjoy looking for them. In fact, the act of counting dogs throughout the day is one of my spiritual practices.
I’m pretty sure my parents wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about—probably not counting dogs, and maybe not a “spiritual practice” that’s separate from the life of a church.
“No spot is so dear to my childhood”
My parents raised my siblings and me to be at our Methodist church every time the doors opened, and our home included ritual as well. We “said grace” before meals—the first verse of a hymn (“Awake, Awake, to Love and Work”) at breakfast; before lunch and supper, we held hands and said my father’s family blessing.
But we didn’t share much spiritual talk. I didn’t know much about my parents’ beliefs. And I had no idea what I believed or needed in order to live a spiritually full life.
As a young adult, I fell away from attending church, partly because of philosophical and political differences, but also because I was wary of the demands of church membership. Going to church required time that I felt I didn’t have.
I can’t remember when I recognized the possibility of a spiritual life separate from “going to church.” Perhaps it was part of the zeitgeist of the 1980s. Regardless, for the past three decades, I’ve slowly learned what I need that traditional church services didn’t provide.
For many years, I needed silence—away from life’s hustle and bustle, yes. But I also needed quiet between my ears, a silence that is surprisingly hard to come by. Morning Prayer filled my head with words, not necessarily my words or words I agreed with. So I tried meditation.
I’ve practiced meditation at several different times in my life, following no particular system. I’ve used mantras and gone without. I’ve meditated in the morning, evening, both, and “whenever”—when I feel particularly rattled or bewildered by my response to an event.
Although I don’t do a specific form of daily meditation, meditation is an effective practice for me. I’m not very good at it. I have a strong, persistent internal narrator. Sometimes she’s willing to meditate, but even then she wants to talk: how is it going, what about a mantra, maybe just repeat a number, come on wholeness and oneness and eternity, how long it has been so far, you’ve got to be kidding, two minutes????
Add to my narrator the grumble of my internal CEO, whose 24/7 job is to wonder whether what I’m doing is the best way to spend my time. In the working life of a freelance writer, the CEO keeps me on track. But she is fond of suggesting that fifteen minutes sitting on a cushion is not “productive.”
Identifying both voices, and meditating anyway, has been…interesting. Although I say “I’m not good at it” and own the humility of that statement, I also know that “being good at it” is an essentially meaningless concept. Doing it is by definition good enough.
The yoga classes I’ve taken off and on for the past decade have provided much the same experience. My inner narrator is quiet so I can listen to the instructor. And because the instructor is in charge, my internal CEO happily takes some much-needed time off. The physical movement feels good, and “being good at it” is again a matter of showing up.
Remembering to Look
Finding silence in meditation and yoga was a good start. And as my parents aged, I recognized the value they’d found in traditional church membership. After my mother died, the church choir embraced my father, giving him new “family” of all ages. When he died, church members mourned with my siblings and me.
I’d been desultorily going to a church where I live, mostly because my parents attended it while they lived in this city during the summer. At my father’s death, I committed to the church by transferring membership, regular giving, and yes, joining the choir and (some) committees. My level of participation waxes and wanes with life’s other demands, but I attend regularly. I especially value how worship joins me to my parents in the communion of saints. I also need (and sometimes even welcome) the experience of being in a community with people I like, and some I don’t.
But I needed more. Meditation and yoga anchor my spiritual experiences in a particular time—the class period, the time meditating. Church membership locates my spiritual experiences in a particular space—that community in that building. I needed to expand beyond those times and places.
And that’s where counting dogs comes in. Dogs sleeping in their driveways, trotting at the end of a leash, sniffing at the world from a car window. From morning to night, I keep a running tally of the number of dogs I see.
Because I work at home most days, I count fewer than five, often none. But on days I run errands, I see at least five, sometimes eight. On the occasional special day—driving through the city on a mellow evening—I’ll see a dog-a-palooza, a dog-stravaganza: 50 dogs or more.
My adult nephew, who is autistic and lives with my brother and sister-in-law, invented dog-counting. His enthusiasms infuse their family life, so on one visit with my brother, I participated in their daily dog count. It was so enjoyable I brought it home.
Counting dogs has changed my relationship to my world. Before, I could walk through our country neighborhood every day lost in thought. While driving to town, I usually zoned out or mentally reviewed my to-do list.
When I started counting dogs, I began noticing our neighborhood. Now I know where to look for the golden retrievers, and I remember the breezy early-May afternoon I saw them bounding up the hill, their coats waving in unison with the spring-green grass. I know that three dogs—white, brown, and black—live at the house where the speed limit changes.
Seeing the dogs’ smiling faces would bring enough joy on its own. But counting dogs also reminds me it’s possible to see beauty and eternity anywhere and everywhere. So even when the three dogs’ driveway is empty, I look for beauty: kids playing tag on the school playground, the touch of salmon on the clouds in late afternoon. I see these things because counting dogs reminds me to look.
That’s why counting dogs is part of my spiritual practice. There are times and places that I can’t find silence or join a group spiritual activity. But I can always look—for beauty, for generosity of spirit, for joy. And that’s something I think my parents would understand.
Marion Agnew is an editor and writer of fiction and creative nonfiction who was born in Oklahoma and now lives in Canada. More information about her is available at www.marionagnew.ca.
image – Dog Lying in snow by Franz Marc