Let ter From a Dog Named Calvin
received by arwulf arwulf
Calvin was a Golden Retriever who worked with emotionally troubled children in an elementary school about half an hour’s drive from Ann Arbor, Michigan. After discussing his life and work with Suzanne, the woman who raised him and eventually brought him to work with her, I made myself receptive to his own interpretation of this remarkable story. Calvin left his body in January of 2002. His spirit continues to teach and inspire all who will listen.
Dear Arwulf: Thank you for taking the time to listen to our story, and thanks very much for sharing it with the people. I realize you aren’t much of a Dog person. Your allegiance is with Cats. It’s true that Dogs have a way of frightening or even harming Cats a lot of the time, but let me assure you (and your Cats) that there are in fact benevolent Dogs in your world. Those unhappy, belligerent Canines you have met are like that on account of the shoddy treatment they’ve received from Humans who style themselves ‘owners’ of ‘pets.’ How anyone can ‘own’ another being is still a mystery to me. Much of the worst abuse suffered by those kids I worked with happened because their parents believed that they ‘owned’ their children. As for the word ‘pet,’ I understand it as a verb describing gentle strokes of hands on fur. To pet is to bless. May this letter pet all who read it.
The Dog tribe is old: nearly as ancient as Egypt’s Anubis. I am certain that Cats are older still. I was born out of a mother Dog and raised by a mother Human, along with her Human children. These people talked to me, told me what was in their hearts. I learned to listen carefully, offering my responses in that wordless vibrational manner we animals specialize in. Humans seem to be constantly struggling to maintain their equilibrium. I became adept at offering my Canine condolences when things got tough for them. Suzanne’s children grew slowly—much more gradually than puppies do. Eventually they became young adults and moved out of the house altogether. It was then that I focused on what Suzanne brought home in her own heart after working all day with unhappy and troubled children, in a class known as ‘Special Education.’
I should explain that the kids she tries to help are mostly between six and ten years old. They’re in her class because they cannot function in a regular classroom. It’s not that they’re unintelligent. Heavens, no. These kids are disruptive because of what’s been happening to them at home. Or else they are unusual in some way and other kids go after them at school. Human children can be incredibly cruel towards each other. This doesn’t just happen out of nowhere; the System sets them up for it. And if you look into their eyes you can see how much refined cane sugar they’ve been fed since birth. Some of them are kept subdued on psychotropic drugs, their behavior modified most horribly. Imagine a nine-year-old girl looking up at you and saying ‘I can’t function so good today, my medication is too strong.’ Some brave adults are so afraid of the stricken children, they snow them under with chemicals to keep them in line. Meanwhile the kids’ parents, half the time, are tangled up in addictions and violence. It’s a horror show. Pre-pubescents on Prozac or the ever-popular Ritalin. What’s going on here?
Your true love Lindsay showed you Diane di Prima’s poetry. You recall in Diane’s Book Pieces of a Song the place where she observed that the war that matters is the war against the imagination and that all other wars are subsumed in it. the ultimate famine is the starvation of the imagination. Di Prima is singing about my work with Suzanne and those little kids. the war of the worlds hangs here, right now, in the balance quoth Lady Diane. it is a war for this world, to keep it a vale of soul-making.
The souls of those children—and all of our souls—are here to accomplish a lot of hard work. I told Suzanne and I tell your people here and now that our souls know the truth. We are here to listen to our souls and to tell the truth. From where I see it, what forces the children into states of turmoil and anxiety is a general atmosphere of deceit and denial. Adults are often trapped inside of their own refusal to think or speak truthfully and clearly; while this is injurious to grownups it exerts a deadly influence on the little ones. When you look into their faces you cannot locate that fabled innocence, not at all. These children are carrying enormous quantities of adult worry, wearing a 40-year-old’s enigmas on their heads and round their hearts. It’s not meant to be this way.
I hope I’m conveying some measure of what Suzanne’s heart said to me each night when she got home from work. My reaction, ultimately, was to gather up the leash between my Golden Retriever jaws and insist that she take me with her to the school. Suzanne wasn’t sure about me right away. She’d seen me get exuberantly over-friendly when folks would come to our house, and probably thought I’d be a wild card in a space already full of beings with insufficient self-control. Then one day a woman observed: ‘maybe you’re keeping Calvin from his work.’ So we gave it a go. And it took me about an hour and a half to figure out the boundaries and coordinate my actions so that I could act as an intermediary between the teacher and her students.
Suzanne grew up on a farm. Her father was a veterinarian, and they adopted various Animals that other Humans didn’t want to care for. In a sense she was training herself for our eventual collaboration in the effort to alleviate suffering, which is the greatest Work of all. Suzanne is sweet, Scottish and powerful. I love Suzanne. We still talk things over just all of the time. We have conferences with the spirits of Horses who have also left their bodies. Death doesn’t need to end the Work. In this case, it seems to have intensified our progress, and Suzanne has been transformed as a Teacher.
By the way, isn’t it ironic that my name is Calvin?! Suzanne’s children named me for a cartoon character. They also dubbed one of her Cats Hobbes, after the same comic strip. What’s ironic is the semantic associative mock-invocation of Calvinism, named for John Calvin (1509-1564). Ever pinched between the hot tweezers of John Calvin and Martin Luther, the western world grapples with a whole lot of uptight, narrow-minded patriarchal nonsense which insists that we must strive at all costs to deny the interconnectedness of all things. They demonize Beasts, and would consider the Dog-as-Healer to be Evil incarnadine, which is really goofy isn’t it. If you want a good glimpse of Calvinism at large, visit Grand Rapids Michigan. Or Monroe, with its statue of George Armstrong Custer! I am proud to have brought a different connotation to the name Calvin. Honest to goodness.
Let’s get back to the main issue, which is Love and Compassion. Part of how we animals communicate is by Mimesis. We reflect the vibrational consensus of all participating individuals. I showed back, mirrored back the exact truth, as I felt it in my heart, of everyone’s experience in that group of beings. It was necessary for me to translate violence into something more logical. Because with violence we are already existing in a labyrinth covered with mirrors, so why reflect it back in an endless repetition structure? What I mimed in response to violence was: Fear. Whenever a child became violent it made frightening impressions in the air around them. I was never fearful for my own well-being, but I did worry about the kids. When one of them kicked over a desk it made a terrible sound. I felt inside of my own heart the Fear appearing in the hearts of the other children. I responded by clambering onto the nearest lap—adult or juvenile—and acting out the unmistakable message that ‘This is scary! This is scary! Pay attention!"’
Dear sweet frightened pups in human form! What did they do to these children to make them so horribly confused? And why can’t any of you tell the truth and live with it? See how this translates to action: one child tried to cut his own throat after he caught himself telling a truth! Mother of all sentient beings, what kind of a convoluted communication is that?! Why are the little boys driven mad with denial of their own beauty, their own grace, their vulnerability, the sensitivity we’re all given at birth? Those boys wouldn’t even admit that they were afraid of anything. I poo-pooed that idea right away. That’s just silly. Everybody’s afraid of violence. Violence is scary. It’s okay to be frightened by violence. You’d think the children would have known that because they’re hyper-vigilant about violence. They’ve had to be that way in order to survive. I saw their confusion upon them as masks glued to their faces, or as miasma in the air around their heads, like flies round food in the summer. And I took myself to them and tried to show them that this is not really the planet of Confusion. Humans have made it to seem that way, but on a primal level this is a very sensible, reasonable world. It doesn’t have to be Dog-Eat-Dog. That’s not it, man. Not at all. I tried to convey this to the little ones.
And they confided in me. Each child told me secrets, their own confidential stories. Things that nobody else knew about, and I’m not going to violate that confidentiality here. They trusted in me! Never could they have gotten that close with an adult Human Being. I communicated with their souls, you see. I, the Golden Retriever, could get to places which were inaccessible to others. The great abyss of incommunicado which yawned between the child and the rest of the world was thusly bridged. I saw Suzanne becoming much more observant than she’d ever previously been. She recognized the bridge-building which was my work, and she did her part by providing the language, in her soft voice with the rural dialect, in Human words. I communicated heart to heart with the kids, showing them love and respect even in their worst moments of confusion and despair. I was there for them. If they were upset I’d most likely come running.
For me it was easy. I liked to lie on my side while they petted me, or laid themselves down beside me and watched the world doing its grand, slow turns. Our classroom was a safe place, and I helped them to feel safe there, where their ideas and creative expressions were honored and respected. It’s safe to have feelings there, as long as they express themselves in a safe way. Because aggression is simply not the way to solve anything. Love is the Universal Solvent. Everyone in that school found that they could communicate much better while they laid their hands upon my fur. We all learned that fine art of tactile communion.
And they emulated me. If Mime was a part of my technique, there surely was a healthy Mimesis in their using me as a role model. To this day they ask of themselves and each other: what would Calvin do? Did Calvin like boys better than girls? Did Calvin treat brown-skinned children differently from the pale ones? No! Of course not. So if Calvin wouldn’t, why would you? It took a Dog to teach them Ethics. And I taught them, including Suzanne, that there is no scarcity of Love in this world. There is enough Love for everybody. One Dog proved that. I’m not bragging—I’m looking back at what I did while I was in the body of a Golden Retriever, that’s all. I remember what the vibe was like when a kid had left the ‘Special Ed’ classroom and had tried to fit in with the ‘regular’ kids, then something had gone wrong and the child was returning to that ‘Other’ classroom, with all kinds of shame and frustration in the air. Even Suzanne would find herself thinking ‘Oh no. Looks like this one blew it again.’ But as for me, I’d be standing there wagging my tail ready to welcome the kid back into the safe space. It didn’t matter to me if they had screwed up. That’s part of being alive: screwing up sometimes. Show me somebody—anybody—who never screws up. And this was my lesson in Acceptance.
Part of what helped me to work in this way was my animal sense of Present Time. I never worried about what had happened two and a half years before, or what was going to happen next year. I made the very most out of each moment. I think you Humans have a saying: Be Here Now. Right? That’s what I’m talking about. You people need to pay attention to what’s going on right in front of you, and in the rest of the world, right now, today. We live in a state of Grace when we maintain that kind of vision. I had a very fulfilling life as a Dog who helped Human children to heal. For this I am grateful. I died in a very peaceful manner. I’d done it many times before. I’ve been around for a long, long time. The universe is abundant in Love and Compassion. That is the substance of my legacy.
Calvin’s Staff Photo
from the School Yearbook
Signed Elements ©