An Open Letter to Wanda’s Mother

Dear Wanda’s Mother:

Your daughter was nine weeks old when I met her. Her name was Caramel then, but I quickly decided that was too saccharine (I know, you didn’t choose it), and changed it to Wanda: a name I felt more appropriate for the confident, sociable, and strong young lady that I intended to raise. I hope you approve.

Everything about Wanda was adorable: her floppy ears, her tiny snout, her wiggly body, her wobbly legs that were a bit too long for the dachshund in her, and her calm, grounded presence that belied her chihuahua roots. I had read about chiweenies – that they were prone to barking and nipping, and that they were not good with kids. “[T]hey can be easily irritated by noise and activity,” one website noted, and “[t]hey are… known to not get along with other animals.” Your little girl, however, seemed different: she was quietly inquisitive, delicately sniffing around my living room while the woman from the foster agency and her 10-year-old son watched. She had arrived with another chiweenie friend, Herbie, whom I was also interviewing. Wanda seemed just as happy to play with Herbie as she was to lick the 10-year-old boy’s face. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I quickly fell in love with her. I’m sure you were in love with her too.

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The first night she slept at our house, she didn’t utter a peep for seven straight hours, and only began to stir when her thimble-sized bladder needed to be emptied. In the month that she’s lived with me, she has met many dogs and people, responding with either a demure interest or slight trepidation, quickly followed by playfulness – never with barking. She isn’t fazed when I grind my coffee beans or when other dogs bark, and she can sleep like a champion through whatever loud beats are pumping at my gym. The dog trainer I work with comments frequently on her mild manners, her curiosity, and her quickness to learn. I try not to mistake any of Wanda’s behaviors as my own personal successes, though it is tempting. (As a side-note, I finally understand some parents’ tendencies to brag about their children: They are great, and I raised them, therefore I am also great!) Wanda is her own woman, as I’m sure you know, and though her brain and heart be but little, they are fierce.

I have heard many people say that dogs are reflections of their owners, and to some degree, I believe this is true. Your species is incredibly perceptive of our human energy and stress levels, and if we are not careful, we can certainly imbue them (you) with some of our own neuroses. But sometimes, even the most caring, careful owners can raise yippy, nippy pups, just as sometimes, even the kindest, most patient parents can raise children who rebel, and rebel hard. No matter how much safety and love we offer, there are many things of which we are not in control; this is especially true of the babies we adopt.

 

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In Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score (perhaps you’ve read it?), he references a study that examines rats’ relationships with their mothers, and how these relationships affect development. The conclusion was unsurprising, and the implications clear: “The rat pups that are intensively licked by their mothers are braver and produce lower levels of stress hormones under stress than rats whose mothers are less attentive. They also recover more quickly – an equanimity that lasts throughout their lives” (154). A similar conclusion was reached in another study with rhesus monkeys, and again, in a study with humans: “Monkeys with [deficient serotonin transmitters] that were raised by an adequate mother behaved normally and had no deficit in their serotonin metabolism… humans with [the same deficit] had higher rates of depression than those [without the deficit] but… this was true only if they also had a childhood history of abuse or neglect” (156). In short, attention and affection from a loving parent yield greater equanimity and resilience, regardless of genetic makeup (and regardless of species). I don’t know when Wanda was taken away from you, her first mother, but I can only assume that by the time she was, she had already received adequate licks and copious snuggles. Thank you for that.

When I was in graduate school for adolescence education, we spoke frequently about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and generally agreed that, in order for our students to learn, they first had to feel rested, nourished, safe, and supported. This was easier for those students who received this support from their parents or guardians; it was more difficult, though not impossible, for those who relied on their teachers or school counselors. Since I am not Wanda’s biological mother, I don’t have the advantage of having known her her whole life; I won’t be licking her coat like you did, or picking her up by the scruff of her neck, or even sleeping next to her every night. But I will pet and cuddle her as much as she allows,introduce her to as many loving humans and dogs as I can, and remind her in plain English that I love and appreciate her and how much she is learning. I guess that’s the cool thing about your species: you’re part dog, part human; you can understand both languages if we let you, and if we communicate clearly.

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I will leave you with one final anecdote: Last week, as I was telling my counselor about the stresses of dog-parenthood (I’m sure you know that it’s not always easy!), she showed me a picture of a bumper sticker: “Proud parent of a great kid who is sometimes an asshole and that’s OK!” I laughed and immediately felt soothed. I am doing my best, she reminded me. I am researching and learning about dog development, putting in time and effort and love. Wanda’s successes deserve to be celebrated as her successes, and when she fails, she needs to know that I still love her, so that she can continue to feel safe with me. Safety is essential; love must be unconditional. For Wanda, for you, and for me.

Thank you, Mama Wanda, for providing our little gal with so many licks, and so much affection in her formative weeks. I will do my best to continue helping her feel safe, supported, and well-loved in all the human ways I know how. 

Love from one mama to another,
Abby

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Teaching What We Need, Because We Have To

“Well, I think anyone driven toward a lot of self-reflection is a little crazy,” he said as we left the theater and started to the bar.

I agreed. Then I reflected.

“I mean, I’m driven toward a lot of self-reflection,” I said. I paused, then laughed. “And it does make me feel crazy sometimes.”

“Totally,” he agreed, though I wasn’t exactly sure which part he was agreeing with.

It was a first date, and we had been talking about yoga and yoga teachers. He had observed that many of the teachers he knew had gotten into the profession because of some momentous experience: a specific trauma or significant event in their own lives. Sometimes, he noted, their intense searching for inner peace came across as neurotic. This was a thing I had also noticed, but the fact that he had brought it up made me wonder: Do I appear traumatized? Are my neuroses so palpable that when I say, “I’m a yoga teacher,” people think, “Hmm… I wonder what happened with her…”

And they would be right to wonder, for the answer, of course, is a few things:

When I was 12, I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis; by 14, the diagnosis was upgraded to moderate to severe. For the next two years, back treatments were a central pillar of my life. If I wasn’t wearing a back brace, I was at the chiropractor or doing odd physical exercises. Over these two years, I threw regular tantrums, and spent innumerable hours looking at my body in the mirror, trying to stand in a way that made my shoulders even and my waist symmetrical. Despite the efforts I put into caring for my spine, it did not seem to care for me. And just after my 17th birthday, I yielded to surgery – the thing I had been trying so desperately to avoid – and immobilized my spine for good.  

When I was 16, my father was diagnosed with nausea and vertigo. Two weeks later, this Kraai family Christmas 2001diagnosis was upgraded to an aggressive brain tumor. For the next two weeks, hospital visits were the central pillar of my mom’s and my life. My sister and brother-in-law flew home from California. My aunts and uncles drove and flew in from everywhere else. We sang to him. We rubbed his toes. We cried regularly. Despite the efforts we put into caring for my father, his brain did not care for him. Two weeks after his brain tumor diagnosis, he was dead.

Soon after I got to college, I decided that I was not attractive. By January of my freshman year, this decision had developed into body dysmorphia, and I began exercising twice a day. Under the guise of environmental concerns, I became a vegan, severely limiting my diet. For the next two years, I tried to make myself vomit after eating what I felt was too much. I did not tell my family. I wrote depressing poetry. I cried regularly. Despite all the hours I exercised, despite what I ate or didn’t eat, I could not accept my body for what it was. I did not care for it, and it was no wonder that it did not care for me. 

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Photo by Nam Chantepie

Then, at 23, I began practicing yoga regularly. Throughout each class, my teachers would remind me that yoga was not about the physicality of the pose; it was about how we breathed in the pose. It was not about overcoming our bodies; it was about harmonizing with them. It was not until then that I began to feel at peace with my body. At 25, I had an epiphany: I would become a yoga teacher. So thankful for what I had learned, I needed to share it, to help others find peace with their bodies and selves. And it was not until I started teaching yoga regularly that I began to feel at peace, not just with my body, but with my life. I began, slowly, to accept that I cannot control the world around me (or within me), that the best I can do is treat myself and those around me with love and care.  

Last week in a yoga training, my teacher, Jason Crandell, in his hilariously cynical way, asked our room full of yoga teachers the following: “Can we all agree that we are in this profession because we’re all a little crazy? That we, in a sense, have to teach?” We all yoga is self-acceptancelaughed, perhaps a little too hard, and I was comforted to know that I was not alone.

As I laughed, I thought back to my date. Perhaps he had not meant to be rude or coarse. Perhaps he was simply noticing that people who dedicate their lives to yoga and meditation do so, in part, because they have strong personal connections to the subject. Indeed, it is this intimate knowledge that makes us fierce and impassioned. We know what it’s like to feel pain, and we also know that sooner or later, everyone else will, too. It is not our job to rid others of pain, to help them avoid trauma or stress. It is our job to help them endure, to give them the tools so that they (and we) do not actually become imbalanced. If that makes me crazy, I don’t want to be sane.