Monday, March 17, 2014

Old age doesn't change dog's personality, just his behavior

Chester in 2011
This post is dedicated to my beloved Sheltie of fifteen and a half years, Chester. While Chester is still in good health, old age has brought many trials including stiff joints, loss of hearing, and weak eyesight, all of which eclipse much of his vibrant personality. These days he mostly sleeps, finding his joy in food, petting, and an occasional stroll in the sun.

It's tempting to ignore him, to consign him to the bedroom and spend my time with Daisy, the young upstart terrier cross who's been aspiring to replace him since she arrived (without our permission) two years ago.  For old time's sake, I do my best to care for Chester, but some days it's not very rewarding. I miss the bright dog he used to be -- the dog who always knew what I was saying, who followed me everywhere, who came immediately whenever I called, and who never needed a leash except on the road. Nowadays it's no use talking to him, and he can't go anyplace with me unless I carry him or walk at a turtle's pace (and there had better be a treat handy). He walks into fences and gets stuck in snowbanks, where he cries until I rescue him. It's endearing -- sometimes. But not when I'm running late or it's ten below zero and I have to don a coat and boots to go get him.

Chester dreaming of food! (2013)
While cleaning my room the other day, I ran across a letter I wrote to Chester's breeder on his first birthday, describing his keen intelligence, energy, and fun-loving personality. Traits I had almost forgotten he possessed. Traits he likely still possesses, though no one could tell by his behavior nowadays. Here are some excerpts: 

"I have certainly enjoyed having Chester from the first day until now, and he seems to equally enjoy it here. He is very cute, very smart and faithful, very amusing, and only occasionally somewhat disgusting. I trained him to heel, come, sit, down, and stay, and he knew it all, except the heel, by six months... When he is greeting you, he whines and yips and runs in circles wagging his tail wildly and slapping you with is tongue! If I tell him to sit, he lies down and rolls on his back, whining, licking, and kicking. Of course the tail is wagging at the same time.

"When Chester eats, it must be done with all haste. We laugh at how he vacuums up or "inhales" his food. We had to put obstacles in his dish to slow him down to more than thirty seconds per meal.
Still as cute as ever! (2013)

"Chester loves to do new things. I took him swinging on the rope a few days ago. Do you think he was scared? No, he looked up to where it was tied in the tree, trying to figure out why it creaked. When we got off, he wanted to go for another swing. He ran and jumped for the knot, then tried to hang on with his mouth so he could ride. 

"Chester loves to ride in the wheelbarrow. The other day he sat on three legs, draping the fourth across the load while we went down the driveway. He has also discovered the squirrel and enjoys chasing him and trying to jump up the tree. You know, the typical dog on his hind legs looking intently up the tree. He loves all living things, even grasshoppers. 

"Fetching a ball is one of his favorite games. He will play until he's exhausted, then throw the ball at me again. He also plays Frisbee, though it's too big for him to catch it in midair. He likes this game
Chester (L) in 2011, exhausted after a fetch game with Toby
very much and works hard dragging the big Frisbee back. 

"Chester is a very talkative dog. If his bed has a lump in it, he will groan long and loud. He also groans plenty if he has an itch, if someone holds him too long, or if he is tired."

The letter is going in his scrapbook so I can remember him after he's gone. But meanwhile, I'm glad to be reminded of the wonderful personality that's trapped inside Chester's old body. A personality that doesn't deserve to be ignored just because he can't hear or keep up on a walk. It's up to me to find ways to make him happy.

Looking young in 2011
I believe this same principle can be applied to the elderly people in our lives. They too were young and active and full of dreams, before their body grew feeble and eclipsed that personality. Thanks to Chester, from now on I will be more careful not to judge old dogs or elderly people only by what I can see. It's comforting to eulogize a pet or a loved one after they're gone, but why not remember and appreciate who they are while they're still with you?

Chester doing what he does best -- sleeping!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Adventures with TESSA at the county jails

Thanks to the women’s jail chaplain, my book Tessa: From Fear to Faith has been circulating among the women in the Eau Claire and Chippewa County jails in the last month or so. The chaplain, Margi, asked them to critique the book. “You have lived this sort of stuff,” she said. “Why don’t you go through this book and see if you can find a place where the author messed up; where the story isn’t quite accurate.” The reports came back that they couldn’t find anything amiss; the whole book was “right on the money.” Margi told me the women love the books and have been passing them around from one cell block to another.

On February 6th, Margi invited me to the Chippewa County Jail to talk with the women. All of them had the same question: “How did you write this story?” They sensed I was not Tessa; that I did not come from an abusive and dysfunctional family; yet somehow I had written about their world and their lives with the accuracy and emotion of someone who had been there. So, I got to give my testimony to a very wonderful group of ladies. The women were really open to us. They smiled and laughed and the more they relaxed, the more I relaxed. After a while, we started having a regular back-and-forth conversation around the table. They told me if I kept coming to jails, I would meet many people and hear many stories which I could turn into another book. I explained that I wouldn’t want people to think I was coming just to harvest stories.

“You’ve got to stop worrying so much what people think of you,” they responded. “You learn that real fast in jail.”

“I hope I don’t have to come here to learn it," I joked.

“No, no, don't come in here. It's not good in here,” they told me.

What was really neat is I felt like I was on their level and they were on mine. It wasn't just me giving them advice; they were giving me advice too.

After we closed our meeting with prayer, one of the women went over to this computerized machine and started tapping buttons on the screen. I asked what it was, and they said it was for ordering food and stuff. "Go see for yourself," they urged me. "We don't bite!" I walked over there and it really looked complicated. Like something I would have trouble figuring out. I said, "Man, you gotta be smart to be in here!"

"No, you gotta be dumb to be in here!" they shot back. After that the guard came and we had to leave. But I really did enjoy my visit. I feel like I made a couple of new friends. The chaplain was pleased how it went, and on the afternoon of March 2, she took me into the Eau Claire County Jail to meet the ladies there.

Compared to Chippewa, the Eau Claire County Jail is huge! You could get lost in the waiting room, not to mention the hallways going this way and that. I was thankful to have Margi with me; she knew where she was going. Very soon we had gotten through the security and were up on the second floor, where we met with eleven women around a long table. They also wanted to know how I had written the book, so once again, I had the opportunity to share what God has done in my life.

One of the women especially identified with me when I talked about the time in my life when I was a born-again Christian, yet was still unable to break free from the bondage of sin. I wish I could have given her a hug, because she reminds me so much of myself. I know the frustration of being stuck and unable to change; I was stuck for six and a half years. Margi and I encouraged her to keep seeking God, for He promises that if we seek for Him with all our heart, we will find Him.

At the end of an hour, the first group of women left and the second group came. This time, there were only two. Both had read the book. One of them told me, “This IS my life,” all the way down to the meth.

I pray for all my readers, whether in jail or free, that they will not only identify with the characters and the story, but also with the solution – faith in Christ – and with the examples of how faith must be worked into a person’s life to bring about real change. Some of the women in jail are Christians, but they are stuck, not knowing how to change. Yes, of course there is freedom in Christ, but how is that worked out practically in a person’s life? I wrote into the book some of how God has led me into freedom, but each person’s path will be a little different. Only God can reveal the key to freedom for each of us. And for that, we must seek Him.

“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened.” – The words of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” – Jeremiah 29:13

I am excited and humbled by the opportunities God has given me. Sometimes, like Moses, I want to argue with God. “I am so unqualified; send someone else!” But it’s not about me. It never was about me. I’m learning that when I lay aside my own wisdom and let God lead, there is no limit to the places we can go. I don’t have to be qualified or good enough; I just need to follow Him.