Not too long ago I invited two friends over for dinner. My husband was out of town, so it was just my friends, my daughter and me enjoying a girls' night meal together. Afterwards, my friends and I took a stroll around the neighborhood. We had walked several blocks when we saw a lanky teenage girl prance out of some bushes, where she had been hiding.
With a few short jumps, she turned to face us — arms held close against her chest, elbows folded, wrists and hands cupped downward, as if to suggest a puppy begging for food. She panted loudly, with exaggeration, wet tongue lolling from her mouth. She did not seem in any distress; rather, my first impression was that she was pretending to be a dog.
As we walked past, she barked at us. It was a Woof! Woof! high-spirited, slightly squeaky bark, perhaps something you'd hear from a good-natured sheltie mix. My friends continued onward without a word, but I turned to bark in reply: Woooof! I gave her my best impression of a friendly Lab. I caught the downward glances of my friends and sensed their embarrassment, but something nudged me to let Dog-Girl know I had heard her call. Woooof! I barked again, and watched her scamper back to her hiding spot amidst the bushes.
As we came to the end of the block I noticed that one of my friends was visibly shaken. To me it was an amusing interchange, though now I realized the scenario was a bit bizarre. The more I thought, the more I worried. Perhaps the girl had a psychological disorder; if so, had I made things worse by pretending to be a dog? Would her parents or caregivers think I was being cruel or rude or condescending by what I did? Was it 'right' to engage her, especially with dog-talk? What should one do when meeting a girl like that?
A girl like what? I wondered. How amazing that our minds can distort our feelings in such warped ways! I initially felt good about Dog-Girl, happy to respond to her call. Clearly, she was a lovely, spirited human being.
Of course, she might also have honorary membership in the dog tribe. Or maybe this was simply a game — in which case, it was harmless (and polite) to bark back. Then again, perhaps Spirit of Dog was a teacher, speaking through her, showing her one way to relate to these strange beings called humans. Many forms of what we label 'mental illness' are outward expressions of disconnection, of inner confusion regarding how to interact with others. Maybe Dog was simply stepping in for a bark — a friendly lesson in guidance — through a game, no less! How typically fun-loving of Dog!
When we got home, we told my daughter what happened and she asked us to go again, this time with her, so she could meet Dog-Girl. I was interested too. What was the lesson here? On the surface, it was just a girl acting like a dog; but beneath the surface all kinds of emotions were stirred. As we walked, my friend began to talk about her fears and projections: she wasn't sure what Dog-Girl was going to do; maybe she was dangerous; maybe it was better not to be involved.
This time as we came around the corner, Dog-Girl was watching us. Did her brief immersion in dog world grant her senses a temporary endowment of superb canine observational abilities? It was possible, for Dog-Girl's eyes were alert, her body tensed and springy, her nose twitching wildly, sniffing out some general uncertainty as we approached.
Suddenly, she dashed out of her look-out spot in the bushes and ran across the gravel driveway, darting low and fast into the grassy yard on the other side of the drive. Shaded beneath the thick shadows of a tree, she hunkered down, circling like a dog, grabbing something with her hand-paw. I knew my friend imagined this was a rock or clod of dirt and now we were really asking for trouble — her projected fears were broadcast loud and clear. Well, this is how it often goes, I thought; when something out of the ordinary occurs, we come face to face with our own doubts and apprehensions.
"It's okay," I said, stopping in the road. Although I didn't know for a fact it was okay, I sensed deep down it was fine and, more than that, it was important to give Dog-Girl — and ourselves — a chance. "It's all okay."
And indeed it was. For in a moment we would see that it was not a rock or clump of dirt that Dog-Girl snatched up from the ground at all. She placed the mysterious object in her mouth sideways, clamping down upon it as she scampered over to our small group. Arms and hands again poised as a playful, friendly pup, she approached and stood in front of me. And then we saw: a small, delicate, flowering clover held lightly between Dog-Girl's lips.
"Thank you," I said, reaching out to accept this most thoughtful gift. I held the flower up for all to see. "Thank you," I said again. Dog-Girl panted appreciatively and bounced back to her yard. Mission accomplished.
What are we to make of such situations? Magical meetings come to us in the oddest ways at the strangest times. For those who work with animal totems or guides, the unexpected appearance of an animal often indicates a teaching or abbreviated power lesson. Another way to think of this is as a spiritual invitation. To what we might not at first be sure. But an invitation nonetheless and, thus, our choice to accept or deny. Is Dog present to teach us about companionship and friendliness? To emphasize the deeper aspects of loyalty or healing emotional wounds? Or simply, to open our hearts? In many ways our response to the nature of the invitation reveals more about ourselves than we might imagine. Are we suspicious, fearful, curious, oblivious?
The 13th-century mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi understood this well. In his poem, "The Guest House," he entreats us to accept the invitations that come our way. "Treat each guest honorably," Rumi advises and encourages. "Meet them at the door laughing." (And I imagine this merry welcome of a greeting may sometimes take the form of a good-natured bark.) But most important of all, "Be grateful for whoever comes, because each guest has been sent as a guide from beyond."
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