My early morning routine has changed little since the beginning of this school year: I'm up at 4:00, greeted by a wriggling, grinning Toby who acts like we've been apart for much longer than a night. He goes out, gets fed, then I put water on for tea. By then the cats are letting me know they just might expire if they have to wait another minute for their food.
Once they've all had their breakfasts, my tea (turmeric ginger green) is ready and I settle into my rocker to journal, read, and meditate. That's where the routine has taken on a new twist. Until earlier this month Toby almost always went back to bed until Walt got up, leaving me a lovely space of quiet time with which to start my day. But because of the long lonely days he faces now with both his humans at work, he considers every minute I'm home to be his.
It's challenging to be prayerful and meditative under the weight of his beseeching eyes. It's hard to write in a journal holding a tug toy in one hand while Toby does his best to pull me out of the rocker. It's almost impossible to follow a thread of an idea in whatever book I'm reading (Brene Brown right now) with the background music of his soft insistent growls for attention.
So we play. Sometimes that's all I get done. Sometimes Toby will wander off after a bit and leave me to my time alone.
As I get ready for work, he's never far away. Usually he ends up sprawled in the hall outside my bathroom while I do hair and makeup. Or he'll lie on the bed halfway between his two humans. When I move from one room to the next, I feel his eyes follow. Frequently I'll turn to leave my closet (originally a very small computer room) only to find the way blocked by 80 pounds of sad-eyed dejected retriever, looking for comfort.
When Toby needs comfort, he'll butt his head into the tops of my legs (or the legs of anyone else who will stand still for what at first seems very weird behavior). He stands that way for as long as I'll allow, often breathing like an asthmatic Darth Vader, pushing against me if I try to pull away. He never ends this stance first. I have to hold his head and push him away, or say "treat" to break the hold.
I love those times with him because he's incredibly sweet then. I can lean over and hug him hard. I can play in his fur and inhale his warm toast scent to my heart's content. The cost of all that loving is dog hair and slobber on the front of my legs. Which is not a problem unless I'm dressed for work.
So I accept his love. Sometimes I change clothes afterwards. Sometimes if he's not too liquid I can brush the hair off and be good to go.
Toby has the power like nothing and no one else to keep me from getting completely lost in the demands of a teacher's life. I make myself leave school close to the actual end of my workday, knowing he's waiting at home. His needs are a priority in our weekend planning.
He simply doesn't accept no when he needs attention. I come home in the afternoon foot-sore, heart-weary, and ready to curl up like a sowbug against stresses that follow me home no matter what I do. And there he is, ball in mouth, tail going gangbusters, ready to romp and run and receive enough love to make up for the empty hours he's just slept his way through.
So we walk, and I'm renewed. Sometimes that's all I have time for before dinner. Sometimes Walt takes a shift and I can get some housework done first.
One of the hardest things about being back at work is enduring the tight box of scheduled days. Every minute counts, and there are not nearly enough minutes to be an effective teacher and continue the very full life I was living before mid-August. Much that I love—most of my writing life, leisurely visits with friends, antiquing with my brother, taking a day to read a book, time to just be—has taken a huge hit.
Toby keeps me connected to what really matters: play, love, the spiritual and physical energy that walking creates for me. When we brought him home almost four years ago, I could not have imagined what a powerful teacher he would become in my life. Or how much my heart would soften and expand in response to his headstrong loyalty, and simple exuberant joy.