Z is for Zen

Dogs are my Zen

Kari and Dogs

The other day I filled out some paperwork for massage therapy. It asked me what I do to relax, and I should have written Walk my dogs. Walking shelter dogs has the same effect (although I’d prefer that Mia and Leo believe they’re the only dogs with this effect on me).

See my sweatshirt in the above photo? It says Dog is my Zen. I saw it across the room at Dog Is Good‘s booth at the SoCal Pet Expo and thought, If I ever needed another gray hoodie, this is the one.


My doggies bring me so much peace and joy every single day. I love coming home to their sweet faces and waking up to them each morning.

There’s ample scientific proof that dogs (and cats, too, I guess) are good for you:

Playing with or petting an animal can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol.

From WebMD:

Along with treatment, pets can help some people with mild to moderate depression feel better. … “Taking care of a pet can help give you a sense of your own value and importance,” Cook says. It will remind you that you are capable – that you can do more than you might think.

My favorite evidence, from HelpGuide:

Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with dogs, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time.

Need I say more?

We did it! Thanks for joining me on my All Positive A to Z Challenge. I used all positive language in my posts in honor of my book, Bark and Lunge, about how positive training helped my reactive dog Isis. At least I hope I did. Have a look at all 26 posts to see if I slipped up anywhere, and let me know!


Also, please join me for the Thursday Barks and Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog.

Heart Like a Dog

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Taking Wonder with a twist of Danger

During a recent martial arts class, Rob asked his students whether they saw the world as a dangerous place with moments of wonder, or a wondrous place with moments of danger.

Definitely a wondrous place, I thought. Then I considered my writing and realized that to move the action forward in my novel, I need more moments of danger. Nobody wants to read a book about a happy well-adjusted young woman in a great relationship who loves her dogs. That’s why I didn’t have a memoir until Isis died. Pain equals conflict equals drama.

A few days later, I made one of my fictional doggie characters viciously bite someone.

I didn’t stay in the dangerous world long. Last weekend, I participated in Stephanie Renee Dos Santos’ Saraswati writing and yoga workshop.


Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science… depicted as a beautiful woman to embody the concept of knowledge as supremely alluring… Saraswati is the goddess of learning, and not a god; the feminine aspect signifies creativity. … Saraswati is known as a guardian deity in Buddhism who upholds the teachings of Gautama Buddha by offering protection and assistance to practitioners

I’ve dabbled in yoga for many years, but never connected it to my writing practice before. We met on the labyrinth at Fairhaven Park, a perfect setting for outdoor yoga. After an hour of poses targeting our hips, back, neck and shoulders, opening ourselves to creativity and culminating in Tibetan meditation, we sat down to write.

Stephanie guided us through writing prompts focusing our attention on the natural world. The yoga gave my writing an awareness of my physical surroundings that I sometimes neglect. We returned to our mats for a few more vinyasas before a final writing exercise to bring it all together. I was quite surprised to find that the stream-of-consciousness observations from the earlier prompts fit perfectly into my novel, and I wrote a short scene that I didn’t even know my story needed.

After that infusion of wonder and beauty, I went to a dark place. Literally. I pulled Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places off my shelf. I tried to start it a few months ago, but wasn’t in mood for dark that day. I read the first line (I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ), and thought “Not today.” Can’t remember what I read instead, but since then I’ve read some Chuck Palahniuk, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I Am Forbiddenthe latter being this month’s book club selection.

Without any sense that this book could help me with my novel, Dark Places looked good to me on Monday. I don’t write violent psychological thrillers, but I sure do enjoy reading them. Once again, my inner reader knew what I needed even when my conscious mind didn’t. The main character in Dark Places is a damaged young woman with a violent past. She is angry and stunted, rather like my main character in Fight Like a Lady.

You find inspiration where you least expect it.

The Japanese art of folding patterned paper

A few years ago, a work associate I knew only slightly was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was given a few months to live, but survived almost a year. During that time, I followed a Caring Bridge blog documenting his illness, treatment and family life.

One of the ways his loved ones coped was to fold origami cranes. Thousands of them. Their goal was to fold a symbolic 1,000 cranes, but they exceeded that number. At his memorial service, they handed out the extras.

I thought this was a beautiful idea and decided to learn how to fold cranes. For Christmas, I received a book on origami and a couple of packs of patterned paper. Last week, I opened them for the first time.

Cranes are not difficult to fold, but unless you have someone to show you in person, I recommend following along with a book, starting with the more basic shapes until you master the preliminary fold and the petal fold.

Here is my offering for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Pattern:

Problem solved

One of my recurring anxiety dreams involves needing to pack up an entire apartment, but I’m running out of time and space in my luggage.

Last night, I was in dream Chicago and was going to miss my flight, and the person traveling with me with hadn’t even started packing!

Then the dream took a twist. I called the airline and changed my ticket for the next day. And I realized I could fly home to Los Angeles with all the luggage I could carry, then DRIVE back to Chicago to get the rest of the stuff.

This has never happened. I solved my anxiety dream. Guess I have nothing left to worry about in real life.

Buddhist monkeys

Today we decided to walk up to the “nice place to meditate.” I knew this was going to be physically challenging for me, but what else did we have to do?

A few minutes in, I was all, “It’s hot, I can’t, I’ll wait here.” It wasn’t particularly scenic at that point, just hot and dusty. The road was so steep and rocky, it was hard to imagine any other method of getting up there, but two women with horses passed us on the way down. Rob asked where they got them and they said, “luckily they’re ours.” We should have asked to rent them.

After we got to a prettier area with trees, Rob stopped to take a picture. I trudged on, looking at my feet and decided this could be like a walking meditation. One foot in front of the other. I could do that for an hour. That way, I wasn’t looking up at the steep hill that went on forever, because then, even if I thought, oh, I just need to make it up to that tree, I could tell there was more steepness beyond.

Staring at my feet, I could concern myself with one step at a time. Living in the present moment. Very Zen. Except I also was mentally composing what I would write about it later.

My focus on my feet was distracted by a large monkey sitting very close to the path. We took several dozen pictures of him picking at his knee. He didn’t seem to mind us, until Rob reached out “to shake his hand” (?), and the monkey bared his teeth, struck an aggressive pose and galloped away.

We reached a fork and asked a red-robed monk which way to go. (Yeah, monks just happen to be standing around whenever you need one.) He pointed and we noticed several monkeys putting on an acrobatic show on the monk’s front lawn. Then, for no reason at all, they moved in for the attack, rushing toward me, teeth bared and all.

“They’re coming after me!” I cried, fearing that if I ran, they’d chase, so I stomped and growled and barked at them. Which sort of discouraged them, but not entirely. The monk gestured that we should throw rocks at them.

Seriously? Is that what monks do? Not that the monkeys even noticed the monk.

I picked up a few rocks, but by then the monkeys were no longer interested in us.

Rejuvenated, or energized by the fight or flight instinct, we moved up a narrow rocky trail, side-stepping monkey shit.

The nice place to meditate wound up being the Tushita meditation center, which I suspected and have now verified, was the same place where Matt and Kelly spent 10 days silently meditating. Except when Matt was escaping to eat real food. (Hi, Matt and Kelly!)

It felt a little like trespassing, but we went through the gate and sat down at some tables overlooking the treetops. Pine needles fell on my head, and I worried that the few people passing by were staring at us wondering who we were, but it was the most peaceful and quiet moment we’ve experienced in a long time.

It had been a few hours since my breakfast banana pancake (it was actually a pancake; I was expecting a crepe). And like my cousin, I got hungry, so we left.

Ahh, Dharamsala

Brilliant decision to stay here two nights, instead of going overnight back to Delhi tonight. Not least because our laundry won’t be done til tomorrow. Feels good to just relax. To not have to be up for anything, which has been the case only a couple of other times, both in Bombay, I think, and there I did feel a little pressure to get out to see the sights.

Dharamsala reminds us a bit of Kathmandu. We’re seeing more backpackers here than anywhere else, and that’s sort of a relief, not to stand out so much. This time, all the crafts along the narrow streets are Tibetan, not Nepalese, and the streets are steeper.

I was actually surprised when a little boy asked us for money as soon as we stepped outside yesterday afternoon, and then again 15 minutes later when we came out of the money changer. It’s like I forgot I was in India. Still, even though motorcycles and auto rickshaws honk and nearly run us over every few minutes, at least we aren’t being stopped every third second by a driver insisting that we want them to take us somewhere.

Certain vantage points of the hilltops could almost be Benedict Canyon, but then you spot a string of prayer flags, or a snow-peaked mountain peeking out between the green mounds.

Yesterday, we just wandered. We noticed hippie yoga types trudging down a steep hill beyond the shops. We asked a woman who said there is a nice place to mediate waaay up there. Rob asked how far. “Not tonight,” she advised. “Very steep.”

We got Tibetan massages, very professional. The masseurs, who escaped from Tibet about 5 years ago, did not ask us to help them move to America (as my Nepalese masseuse did), nor was I groped as before.

There is a temple across from our guesthouse. We spun the prayer wheels before bed last night, and I noticed how hard they were to spin from a standstill. This morning during breakfast, I listened to bell-ringing and watched as actual Tibetans and red-robed monks (male and female) spun the wheels, using the wooden handles at the base. So that’s how it’s done. Also spinning the wheels were the aforementioned hippie backpackers, some with enormous stuff sacks on their backs.

The only sight we feel compelled to see is of course, the Dalai Lama’s residence. Apparently he’s back from Seattle, so it will be all the more thrilling to look at the exterior of the building, knowing he might be inside. I haven’t seen any signs with arrows pointing to “Dalai Lama’s house, 1 km,” but surely someone can tell us.

From hell on earth to the top of the world

Delhi was hotter than a son of a bitch. We arrived early in the morning, went through the bizarre experience that is booking an overnight train ticket to Dharamsala (or in that general direction) and left our luggage for the day at the hotel where we plan to stay when we return to Delhi from Dharamsala.

Then what? It was too hot, and we were too tired. We’d reached the point in the trip when navigating India’s world just seemed too hard. Lying on the couch with the dog seemed awfully appealing.

But refusing to crack (OK, I’ll admit I started to cry in a Kentucky Fried Chicken at the air-conditioned mall. We went there to get a bottle of water. I didn’t come to India to smell chicken!), we hailed an autorickshaw to take us to a fancy hotel in the center of town where we could just sit in a bar. Naturally, the driver had a better idea and suggested the revolving restaurant Parikrama.

Let me tell you, this revolving restaurant saved the day. It had signs pointing out to the sights out in the distance, and I spent two hours looking stuff up in my book and squinting out the window to figure out what stuff was. Rob drank 3 beers, Coronas (imported), which wound up costing $20, I had two sodas, palak paneer (spinach with cubes of Indian cheese) and lychees with ice cream. And a bottle of water, totaling $16. We were pretty surprised when the bill came. Rob hadn’t checked out the price of the beer, and says he should have suspected something when the waiters kept showing him the beer bottles as though they contained fine vintage wine. Still, it was fun and I got to feel like I saw some of Delhi.

When we got back to our waiting rickshaw driver (they never just want to take your money and leave), he told us about a lovely shopping emporium…

Rob: No.
Driver: But it’s a lovely emporium. They have many nice things.
Rob: No.
Driver: Why not?
Rob: Absolutely not. If you mention it again, we will get out right here.
Driver: (silence)

Heading for the hills

We paid more to be in a sleeper car with two-bunk stacks ‘sted of 3, but we were put on the side, so we were parallel to the “aisle.” There was a family of 8 in the “compartment” across from us. We had drapes, which we didn’t have before, but altogether, I was less comfortable than I had been on the previous overnight trains.

An online forum had a suggestion of training to Chakki Bank, going 3 km to the Pathankot station and taking a scenic narrow-gauge train 3 hours to Dharamsala. The cabbie who nabbed us as soon as we got off the train at 5 am really wanted to take us all the way to Dharamsala for 700 rs, which actually didn’t seem like much, but I had my heart set on this scenic train ride. The cabbie AND the guy at the “enquiry” counter at Pathankot discouraged this method to get to Dharamsala, but I held firm.

We got tickets for a 7:10 train (35 Rs total vs. 700), and waited for it on this huge platform that was practically deserted compared to the other India stations we’ve been to. Several dozen saddhus (those yellow-robed dudes) were scattered on the pavement and a couple of grungy looking girls and old women approached us for money. We were unmoved, as we had seen the most pathetic beggar last night, and if we didn’t give him money, we’re too hard-hearted to give to the destitute.

This was at New Delhi station. He had all his limbs, but one shin was bloodied, the other was bandaged and he scooted around on his butt. He had a bloody bandage around his head practically covering his eyes. But he could see well enough to get close to us. First time on this trip I have been disturbed/horrified/frightened. I really didn’t want him to touch me.

Rob, being Rob, spoke to him a few minutes before the guy scooted away. That was a few minutes too long as far as I was concerned, but they don’t tend to leave any sooner if you completely ignore them. At the Varanasi station (I think it was), kids actually poked me.

Anywho…we took this little train, the Kangra Valley Railway. It was pretty breezy and nice out, it being 7 am and all. At a stop about 20 minutes later, tons of people piled on and it ceased being comfortable. The view was wonderful. We saw fields of wheat and people harvesting them, and people carrying big jars or bundles on their heads, and little colorful temples in the middle of nowhere and cliffs and rocks and valleys. Also, cows, dogs and saris, but they’re everywhere.

It was very entertaining for about 3 hours. It was even fun that it was so crowded because there were some girls singing in our compartment. And dudes hanging off the side of the train. I eventually took my camera out, thinking I was missing all these fantastic shots…but really couldn’t get very many good ones.

Unfortunately, the train ride was not 3 hours but 5, which we hadn’t realized…so it got a bit unpleasant and sweltering.

FINALLY we got to our destination, Kangra, as this train didn’t actually go to Dharamsala. Getting off the train in a podunk village, I doubted my abilities as a travel agent for the first time. Maybe I should have listened to that cab driver in Chakki Bank.

We walked along a long, very not-touristy path, astonished that several minutes went by without someone offering to take us to Dharamsala.

We got to some auto rickshaws, and I was almost afraid to ask how to get to Dharamsala, because what if I had steered us completely out of the way? But the rickshaw driver referred us to a cab driver, who for 500 rs careened up the mountain the Upper Dharamsala (aka Mcleod Ganj). We talked him down from 600. We’re getting better. There was a whole crowd of them, insisting that it be 600. So I found another driver, and as soon as I started talking to him, one of the original dudes told Rob he’d do it for 500.

In Mcleod Ganj, we got a room for a third of what we’ve been paying, which, get this…has a computer in it. In the room. I’m on it now. A little slow for my comfort, but it’s enabling me to practice Zenlike patience.

There are mountains outside our window and it looks like we’re on top of the world. Now that we’ve showered and changed clothes for the first time since Bombay (35 hours, if you were wondering), maybe we’ll actually get out and look around in a while. Or else we’ll spend the next two days reading in our room and writing emails.