Learning Forgiveness

Richard and Molly with Isis on a hike.

Some years back, I wrote an newspaper column titled “Learning Forgiveness” about our Great Dane, Isis.

Isis was rescued from a puppy mill by Animal Control officers one January day ten years ago. She was emaciated, weighing less than 70 pounds and had borne at least one litter of dead puppies. Her body was dotted with sores; the skin on one side hung in rotting tatters.

No one who saw her then expected Isis to survive. She did–and then some. Six months later when we adopted her, she had gained 20 pounds and her burned side had healed.

She put on another 40 pounds in her first three months with us, and her snazzy black and white coat regained its glossy shine. When Isis pranced along with her huge black ears up and her long, white-tipped tail gently waving, as I wrote, she looked every inch the Goddess she was named for–on one side.

Isis’ burned side

Her other side records a nightmare life, a story etched in misshapen ribs and slick burn scars that crosshatch her flank from muzzle to tail, giving a tragic-comic droop to one eye and leaving one shoulder shrunken.

Still, Isis was simply happy: to be in the world, to take walks and eat three meals a day, to snooze on her cozy bed. Her friendly good nature was so obvious that her beauty, not the scars she would carry for life, was the first thing people noticed when they met her (along with her giant size). In that, I saw a lesson:

Isis in our kitchen garden. (She loved to browse the yellow pear tomatoes, nibbling them right off the vine. Funny dog!)

The two sides of Isis’ body stand as a permanent record of the duality of human nature: we are equally capable of unusual cruelty and extraordinary kindness, of great hatred and lasting love.

Isis’ gracious behavior toward all she meets makes it clear which path she has chosen. No matter the circumstances, her example says, our response is what shapes who we are.

Isis taught me true forgiveness. She might be (and often was) stubborn, she might be playful, but she was never aggressive. She loved everyone, drawing on a body of loving-kindness that was apparently as immense as her physical body.

In this year of learning to live as Woman Alone, I have thought of Isis often. Partly because I am lonely, having lost Richard, the love of my life, last November, and have thought seriously about adopting another Great Dane. (They’re easier to train than people.)

Partly because my most difficult and most urgent lesson this year has been forgiveness.

Not forgiving someone else–though this year’s succession of tragedies has asked that of us all. Forgiving me. For failing over and over again (I am nothing if not consistent) to find a sustainable, healthy pace for my life. Whether it’s writing or road trips, gardening or carpentry, managing the household accounts, getting my dad moved to Washington or throwing a luminaria party, I cannot seem to learn that I cannot just push through and do everything–today.

Forgiving myself for being surprised when I find myself on the couch alternately flushed and aching all over, and shivering and aching all over.

As if I didn’t know better. I have lived with a chronic illness my entire life. I know from extensive and bitter experience that there are unyielding limits to my energy; I know that the consequences of exceeding those limits begin with the nasty flulike symptoms and get much worse if I don’t pay heed.

And still I don’t.

Which is why while I have been on the couch this last evening of 2012, flushed and aching deep in my bones, I have been struggling to not be angry at myself. To forgive myself for pushing too hard. Again.

Isis with a doggy grin and a much younger Richard and me by the Arkansas River.

When Isis’ face floats into my mind smiling her immense doggy grin, it occurs to me that I missed part of the lesson: For, the first part of forgiveness, means “to renounce.” Renounce involves letting go: of the anger, of the tension, of the expectations, of whatever keeps us stuck in that unending do-loop, unable to change. Just letting go.

Which for me, may mean summoning up a grin, and learning to laugh at myself when I forget that I can’t actually do everything. Today. By myself.

That’s the lesson I’ll practice in 2013: Letting go. Lightening my load. Learning when to laugh at myself.

May your New Year be full of laughter and the light of true forgiveness. We can all use both.