The Value of Ritual

Do you have a morning ritual?

If you look at the Wikipedia entry on ritual, one might wonder why I’d ask the question.  Ritual is described as inflexible, where one is governed by rules, and the term is sometimes used by psychologists in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior that is seen as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorders.

That’s not my experience with ritual.  Writing in Forbes, the author Alexandra Douwes encourages millennials to establish a morning ritual.  Her reasoning is aligned with mine.

“Establishing a morning ritual, preferably one that does not involve a screen, can set the tone for your entire day.

Whether your morning ritual takes place at home or in the office, it’s important to ease into your day, and do it on your own terms. Before you let external factors such as screaming children, urgent emails, and smartphone notifications send you into a state of anxiety, start the day by focusing on the things you can control. A consistent morning ritual will put you in a proactive versus reactive state from the get-go: instead of feeling like you’re playing catch-up, you’re composed and ready to tackle whatever obstacles come your way.”

I was reminded of the importance of ritual—regular, habitual, thoughtful action—while having breakfast with a long-time friend and colleague who now serves as the Master of Emmanuel College in Cambridge.  Fiona joined me for our meal and mentioned that she’d just returned from her two-hour walk, a long-held ritual that she honored every morning, even after enduring a trans-Atlantic flight.  We spoke of how this part of her day helped clear her mind and focus on what’s really important now and in the future.

For many years, my morning ritual involved a partner: Lilly, our Sussex Spaniel.  There was never a question that we were going out for a long morning walk around 5:30, rain or shine. But I soon came to see it not as a chore, but as a daily ritual when I was free to let my mind roam. To think of the day ahead. To begin to stretch my limbs and awaken my bones.  To put me in a proactive rather than reactive state of mind.  After talking with Fiona and being reminded that I didn’t need Lilly to continue that wonderful part of my daily ritual, I’ve added it back into my life.

Lilly at Blessing of the Animals

My long-time partner in morning ritual

Rituals vary, and they should be personal.  Some people read in the quiet of the morning before stirring out of bed. Yoga practice is a key part of many morning rituals. Others play piano before facing the world. Douwes has five tips in her article for how to make a ritual that works and that sticks, and she suggests that a vacation period or a weekend may be a good time to try and begin a new ritual.  As we approach the July 4th holiday here in the U.S., consider whether something small—reading, a walk, taking the time to grind your beans and make a great cup of coffee—could help you begin the day in a proactive state.

Have a good week and enjoy the holiday.

More to come…


Saying Goodbye to Lilly

Lilly is our 13-year-old Sussex Spaniel.  We’re spending this weekend saying goodbye to her.

On Friday we took her to the vet for a “Quality of Life” visit, and the news was what we’d feared for some time.  The slow-growing tumor is getting bigger, she has fluid that has swollen her belly, her breathing is labored, and she’s lost most of her appetite.  We had seen that Lilly could no longer navigate our stairs without help and that her hearing and eyesight had both deteriorated over the past few months.  She has some medicine to help her with the fluid and keep her out of pain, but…

It is time.  It isn’t easy.

Candice and I had promised Andrew and Claire a dog when they were old enough to help care for one and when we had a proper house (having lived in an apartment for our first two years in Washington).  When that time arrived more than nine years ago, Claire (who drove this process) did a lot of internet research and use to come to the dinner table with printouts about different breeds that “were good with children.”  But we’d never considered a Sussex Spaniel until we attended a dog show in Maryland right before Thanksgiving and fell in love with Lilly.

As a four-year-old show dog she was at the end of her “career”, and since she didn’t show an inclination to breed, her owner was willing to find Lilly a family.  We brought her home and have loved every day Lilly’s been a part of us.  This weekend, we’re all saying goodbye to her in our own ways.

As you can imagine, we’ve told Lilly stories, many of which revolve around Lilly and Candice.  Sussex Spaniels attach themselves to one member of the family, and since Candice was home most of the time when Lilly first arrived, she was the lucky one.  Lilly will play with the rest of us, but she absolutely adores my wife.  That’s why the opening shot shows Lilly with her favorite person on earth doing what they both love – snuggling.

It is also appropriate that the shot is on a boat dock.  One of the funniest Lilly stories involves the time Candice was in a canoe off of that dock.  We didn’t think Lilly would try to join her, but before we knew it she had jumped off the dock – and missed the canoe!  Candice, who was wearing her all-time favorite pair of sunglasses, jumped in the river  after her.  She rescued Lilly, but her glasses went to swim with the fishes.  For years, whenever the topic of Candice buying another pair of sunglasses came up, the story of jumping in the river with Lilly was inevitably mentioned.

Lilly loves getting her belly rubbed, and so I’ve included a shot of her below in her favorite pose – waiting for someone to come along and indulge her.  In fact, that’s generally how she begins each day as she wanders over to where Candice is doing her morning yoga stretches and positions herself to get a rub down.  We’ve all spent time on the floor next to Lilly this weekend, trying to help her feel both comfortable and loved.

We’re remembering Lilly’s “Sussex smile” and the little jumps she takes when she’s out for a walk.  Lilly has a great spirit – she’s faithful, loving, forgiving, gracious, trusting – and I think that’s something we’ll all miss.  She was a regular at the Cathedral’s blessing of the animals, so you’ll see Dean Lloyd and Lilly in one of the photos.  In the blog post above about the blessing of the animals, I also quoted from a great article on old dogs which describes Lilly these days.

Old dogs are vulnerable.  They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust.  They are without artifice.  They are funny in new and unexpected ways.  But, above all, they seem at peace.

But Lilly wasn’t always old, and she wasn’t always peaceful with everyone who came to the house…especially our cleaning ladies.  I don’t know if it was the vacuum cleaner (which she always hated) or the fact that she felt that Candice was threatened when they were here, but she would bark incessantly when the house was being cleaned.  One time she went beyond barking and nipped the ankle of our wonderful cleaning lady.  Candice ran upstairs to wake up Andrew (it was summer) to have him translate in Spanish with our cleaning lady who was too distraught to speak in English.  He was successful in convincing her not to quit on the spot.  When Andrew and Candice tell the story now, they break up laughing at the absurdity of the scene.  Afterwards,  Lilly was banished to the garage or a locked up room every other Wednesday.

Claire loved to teach Lilly tricks, one of her favorite being to lie down in a doorway with Lilly’s biscuit on the other side so she would have to hurdle Claire to reach her prize.  As our family photographer, Claire has taken countless pictures of Lilly through the years.  Today she took an entire roll on her black and white camera.  She said, “my teacher doesn’t like it when people just take pictures of their dog, but he’ll just have to get over it.”  I wouldn’t want to be in the dark room when Claire goes to develop that roll.  We’ve all had our share of tears this weekend.

I know we’ll all miss the rhythm of having Lilly in our lives.  Andrew feeds her every single day.  Claire is in charge of combing her hair.  Candice takes her to the groomer and the vet, but most important she is responsible for just being there for Lilly.  I know a dog is not a human, and I know there are people who scoff at families who become too attached to their canine companions.  They say, “It’s just a dog.”  But I don’t feel that way.  Sure, I won’t have to get up at 5:30 every morning to take her out for a walk, and I won’t have to make sure she gets out around 10 p.m. each evening to do her business.  But dammit, I’ll really miss her.

As I titled that earlier post, Lilly has been blessed…and so have we.

Goodbye old girl.

More to come…


Lilly is Our Best in Show Every Day

Lilly at the River HouseWe all jumped for joy this morning when we opened the Washington Post and saw that Stump, a 10-year-old Sussex Spaniel, won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden last evening.  That’s because we have a 12-year-old Sussex Spaniel, Lilly, who we consider our Best in Show every day of the year.

Lilly came to us after life as a show dog, having won all the competitions her breeder thought possible.  The weekend before Thanksgiving in 2000 we went to a dog show to begin to get an idea of what type of breed we may want.  Like President Obama, I had been promising Andrew and Claire that we’d get a dog once we found a permanent home in Washington.  As seven-year-olds, they were searching the Internet nightly for information, and Claire would often bring printouts with pictures and information about a certain breed’s “kid friendly virtues” to the dinner table.

Sussex Spaniels were not on our radar screen, but as we stepped into the main building at the show we saw a group of dogs we didn’t recognize getting ready for their moment in the sun.  After asking, we found out they were Sussex Spaniels, and all four of us were hooked from the beginning.  Candice, David, and Lilly On our way to our car, we saw a woman putting two dogs into the back of her Volvo wagon and we walked over to talk.  It turns out she raised Sussex Spaniels, and one of the dogs she was loading up was Lilly, who had just competed in her last show.  To cut to the chase, we exchanged phone numbers, did our homework, and returned the next day and brought Lilly home with us.  It has been a wonderful eight years with Lilly at the heart of everything we do.

Lilly is friendly with us all, but she is devoted to Candice, which is a trait for these dogs.  They latch onto one family member and never leave their side.  Since Candice was the one around all the time when she first arrived, Candice was the chosen one.  Lilly will play nice with me because she knows I take her out in the morning, and Andrew and Claire both have their dog responsibilities that Lilly relies on.  But when Candice is out of the house, Lilly can usually be found by the back door (or more likely asleep on the couch near the back door), waiting for Candice’s return.

LillyStump is a repeat winner at Westminster, so we know what will happen next.  I’ll be walking Lilly the next few weeks, and we’ll get stopped almost every day by someone asking, “Is that a Sussex Spaniel?”  We’ll say yes, Lilly will lick their hand (if offered nicely), and we’ll have made a new friend.  It is a good thing we had Lilly scheduled for a trip to the Groomery today – she’ll need to look good for her turn on the green carpet.

Congratulations Stump, from Sussex Spaniel owners everywhere.  You’re best in show at MSG, but in our house you’d lose to Lilly.

More to come…


Lilly is blessed…and so are we

Yesterday, on a beautiful fall afternoon perfect for the Feast Day of St. Francis, our Sussex Spaniel Lilly took a trip down to the Washington National Cathedral for the blessing of the animals.  Dean Sam Lloyd gave Lilly her annual blessing in front of the beautiful Gothic cathedral.  Since I was traveling, Claire reports that Lilly took it all in stride.  Of course, as an older dog Lilly sleeps a lot these days and takes just about everything in stride.

The custom of blessing pets is conducted in remembrance of St. Francis’ love of animals.  It is great fun to join together with other owners of all manner of pets.  (I’ve even seen goldfish blessed in past years…not sure they felt the drops of holy water.)

Shortly after posting this picture, Andrew told me there was a great Gene Weingarten article in today’s Washington Post Magazine called Something About Harry:  Old dogs…are the best dogsI read it and knew immediately I had to update this post to link to the article.  Because Weingarten (a writer Andrew enjoys) gets it right.

But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce.  Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy and lumpy.  But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence.  Old dogs are vulnerable.  They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust.  They are without artifice.  They are funny in new and unexpected ways.  But, above all, they seem at peace.

If you love dogs, do yourself a favor and read the article.

More to come…