Monday Melancholy Is On The Dole

 Monday – it always brings a flavour of melancholy as it peeps through the bedroom curtains.  Today’s Monday emptied an entire dessert spoon of gloom into my morning coffee.

I had to get up earlier than usual – never a great start to the day.  Trudy got up too, wondering if breakfast was going to be extra early.  After some tense anticipation she grumbled and slumped into her day-bed in the lounge.  How I envied her, lying curled up in all that fur just waiting for breakfast to be served.   

An engineer from the Housing Association was supposed to be coming to fix my shower which is slowly detaching itself from the bathroom wall.  So while it was still dark outside and the birds were feebly trying out their vocal chords, I was polishing taps and shower fixings, and almost got to the point of cleaning the floor.  But procrastination filed away that noble idea before it had time to flourish. 

I was told the engineer would arrive  “AM”.  According to the Tenancy Handbook, that can be any time between 7am and 1pm.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited even more until AM turned to PM.  No engineer!   When I phoned to ask what was afoot, I was given no explanation, just an apology and a re-scheduled appointment for tomorrow morning.  The waste of an entire morning and the likelihood of a repeat performance tomorrow fuelled my Monday melancholy into despair. 

But today is one of those cold days with an icy sun baring its bald head in the sky.  So I decided to take Trudy to the park to give her a free run and to give me a blast of cold January air.  Even before I had reached the metal gate at the park entrance my spirits had risen in line with the sun.  The sharp breeze was flushing out my lungs and giving them new life.  I gulped like a goldfish to take in as much air as possible. 

Standing still in the open field which spans the bottom of the park, I felt invigorated.   Monday melancholy was insignificant here.  She began to lose her power and before long I could no longer sense her shadow.  Trudy was tucking into an earthy molehill, her back-end was vertical and her collar-bells were clinking rather than ringing.  When I whistled her she was reluctant to come, but eventually the prospect of a titbit was more alluring than a mound of earth and she bounced towards me with her ears flapping.

Within seconds she was off again, investigating some new scents which she had not noticed before.  If only I could learn from my Labrador and live for the moment.  No anxieties about the long-term future, no regrets about the past, just the here and now.  Something about Aylestone Park in Hereford always brings me back to the here and now.  There’s a magic in this park that stills Time, calms the spirit and frees the soul.

Minutes later Trudy came brushing by in the hope of another titbit.  I ruffled her fur, it was damp and smelt of winter grass.  Her wagging tail thumped against my legs and I counted the beats – one, two, three, four.  It was like a slow drum-roll at the start of a dance.  While we stood there together the ice on the sun began to thaw and I felt a warm glow drizzling over my shoulders.  I realised that I was truly happy.

When Trudy and I ventured home we were both transformed.  Trudy was tired and slow, and could only manage a very slight wag with the tip of her tail.  I was at peace and ready to start my Monday afresh, even though it was half past two in the afternoon.

As I write this, Monday has ebbed into the early hours of Tuesday.  Trudy is stretched out on her bed lost in Labrador dreams.  Before I start to slide into my own dream-world,  I thank God that I am alive.   

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A Basket of Toy Amputees

All dogs have their favourite toys, but unfortunately these toys are the ones whose lives are destined to be short and painful.  They must endure being tugged, chewed,  disemboweled and ultimately decapitated or mortally wounded.   Some manage to escape into the depths of the dog’s bed or under the fridge, but even these are eventually sniffed out to meet their fate.  It is never play time for a dog’s toy. 

When I trained with Trudy, my Guide dog Instructor warned of the dangers of giving dogs soft toys because their inner stuffing can potentially choke a dog.   Likewise if a squeaker from a toy becomes lodged in your dog’s throat it can be fatal.

I took note of my Instructor’s advice and endeavoured not to buy Trudy any soft or squeaky toys.  But Trudy is a seasoned thief, and it wasn’t long before I caught her stealing my own cuddly toys from the bedroom.  (Yes, I do love teddy bears, and frogs, and beanies..!).    My old favourites began to lose the shine on their fur and to develop a slightly bedraggled, manky appearance.  Occasionally I would discover one of them lying dead in another room.   In the end I decided that I would buy Trudy a couple of soft toys to play with under supervision.

Three and a half years later I have some gruesome scenes imprinted on my memory.  Last Summer for example I bought a large dog-shaped doorstop. One morning I was shocked to discover that Trudy had blinded the dog and totally defaced its snout.   I have had to remove it from my lounge because it is too disturbing.  Its empty eyes and ripped snout speak of dastardly deeds.  Was Trudy ensuring that the doorstop dog would never take her place as my Guide dog?!  Suffice to say that the motives of Labradors are not always clear-cut.

In addition to the eye-gauging incident there have been numerous spontaneous massacres resulting in limbs and heads strewn all over the floor.   Wads of stuffing have appeared in the most unlikely places.  Eyes, ears and tails are frequently left abandoned in the hallway.  Many toys have ended their sad lives in the bin.   But there are some characters which have been consigned to the Sick Room, AKA “The Invalid Box”.  These are the all-time favourites which have treasured memories embedded in their remaining body parts, and which I am unable to throw away.  The Invalid Box is a very macabre collection indeed.  Several of Trudy’s “Invalids” are in fact headless, and many are just a torso.   

Trudy’s Invalid Box is now bursting at the seams.  With this in mind I have reached a momentous decision.  I have decided to undertake a mammoth project to repair those Invalids which have enough body mass to tolerate a needle and thread.  I am hoping that Trudy’s excitement at being reunited with some of her loved-ones will overcome her critical eye – for the truth is I cannot sew to save my life.   In fact, I cannot even thread a needle.  But with the help of the RNIB shop (from which I’ve  purchased an automatic needle-threader), Amazon and Google,  I have high hopes.

Some of the torsos may find themselves attached to different limbs from before, and some may even end up with more limbs than they started with.  But Trudy (fingers crossed!) will be gobsmacked to see the return of such legends as Myrtle the Turtle  (the prize she won  at the Guide dog of the Year Awards 2011).  Myrtle unfortunately suffered multiple organ failure in the early Autumn.

If the Invalid Project is a success, I may progress to sewing up holes in my own skirts and darning my Trudyfied socks.  The days of asking friends to mend things for me could soon be a thing of the past.  That would really boost my confidence.  Who knows what lies ahead in the sewing sphere of 2012?  Watch this crafty space! 

 http://www.ne.nfb.org/node/576

  

Standing Still

Standing still.  Stopping.  Preserving your energy.  Feeling at peace.  Feeling fear.  Paralysed.  Deep in thought.  Stuck.  Lost.  Exhausted.  Inhaling freedom.  Taking stock.  Musing.  Listening.  Planning.   Having a break.  Hiding.  Waiting.  Dying.  Observing.  Falling in love.  Smiling.  In pain.  Breathing.  Arresting.  Inspired.  Confused.  Reflecting,  Enraptured.  Stunned.  Intoxicated.  Numb.  At a loss.  Wondering.  Sniffing.  Holding.  Being held.  Reaching safety.  Panicking.  Eating.  Wounded.  Grounded.  Crying.  Standing still.

Standing still is life and death.  It sharpens our senses and calms our minds.  It intensifies our emotions and shuts down our defenses.  It is survival and capture.  It is both passive and active.   Standing still marks the beginning and the end.  It involves feeling and thinking.  It is when we take control but also when we give up.  Standing still has a kaleidoscope of meanings.

Today I stood still and waited for a dog’s teeth to bite into my skin.  It had iron legs and its breath was baking hot.  I covered my head and stood still while it pranced around me growling and snapping.  Its doorstop paws imprinted themselves on my chest.  I was gripped by fear.  Time stood still with me, but it was not my ally.  I waited for the first stab of pain.  I could hear my heart thumping in my ears and I smelt death.  

But the dog did not bite me.  In the end it scampered away, and I felt the comforting presence of Trudy by my side.  My gentle Labrador brushed away my terror.  I inhaled the biscuit-scent of her fur and sighed with relief.  Slowly my panic subsided and I lowered my hand to stroke Trudy’s silk-purse ears.  As I stood still she licked my fingers and the familiar roll of her tongue dispelled my remaining anxieties.

After a moment Trudy moved away to investigate something new.  Although she was nearby and I could hear the jingling of her collar-bells, I was conscious of my vulnerability. Motionless,  I listened for danger, and jumped as a group of people walked by calling their dog.  I prepared myself for attack, but nothing happened.  They greeted me warmly, so I smiled.  We briefly exchanged doggy-talk which made me chuckle.  Then Trudy came bounding back to me when she spied me retrieving a tit-bit from my pocket.                  

Minutes later I was alone again but this time I felt at peace.  The strong breeze rushed through me refreshing my lungs and making me feel glad to be alive.  Standing still I reflected upon my transformation.  I seemed to have travelled along the spectrum of thoughts and emotions.  Each of my senses had been stretched to the limit.

It could have turned out very differently.  I cannot say whether my fear was justified but I know my head was clanging with danger claxons.  In Life’s great scheme this was a minor event, yet it has made me even more conscious of my desperate fight for survival.  Standing still has enabled me to consider just who I am and where I am heading.  It has reminded me that I am human.  I cannot control my fate, yet I can control my actions.

I Love Aylestone Park

There is a park in Hereford which is four minutes walk away from my flat.  This park comprises two large fields/meadows, a canal, an orchard and a gravel path which snakes its way round in an irregular loop.  The trees are fairly sparse so it always feels breezy, and on a day like today there is a good chance that hat-wearers would go home hatless.  Over the past few months I have become indebted to this open space known as Aylestone Park.  As I feel the wind seize my hair by its roots and flutter against my face I can’t help feeling moved, for I am in no doubt that I am in the presence of something beyond words.   This presence stirs, and seems to manifest itself in the tumbling wind.  When I stand still in Aylestone Park I feel bonded to nature, I feel humbled by the elements, I feel mortal, I feel free.
Simply by rooting myself to the ground I am reassured.   The earth still breathes and moves beneath me but my feet are still.  My mishmash of worries becomes lighter, and my restless spirit starts to calm.   Hope revives herself within me.  I love this park because it has not been unduly tampered with.  There are no landscaped flowerbeds and no ornamental ponds guarded by stone goddesses.  Humans have their rightful place, as does the long grass, and the scuttling mammals.  Dogs bound everywhere, sniffing out the mole hills and splashing in the canal.  Some people find Aylestone Park “boring” because it is themeless and its only “facility” is a large car park.  But to me this park is freedom itself.  Just planting myself in the lower field and allowing the wind to absorb me breaks open the ties which bind my spirit.  I feel so fortunate to have such freedom.
Trudy my Guide dog adores this park.  It gives her freedom too, as here is where she sheds her harness and tears around being a Labrador.  This time of year she goes scrumping in the orchard and I’m often showered with leaves as her snout sends them flying into the air.  All I can hear is the rustling of twigs and leaves as Trudy pursues the myriad scents which arouse her snout.  She befriends two or three pet dogs every time we visit, and eagerly joins in their games.  If I take her to the canal she throws herself into the brown-blue water and doggy-paddles back to me snorting like a pig.  The snorting is even louder if she’s carrying something in her mouth, and little jets of water spurt out of her nostrils.  Sometimes a regular group of dog-walkers whom I’ve nicknamed “the Labrador Convention” arrives at the canal and Trudy mingles with the black, yellow and chocolate Labradors teasing and chasing them.  She steals their frisbees and dives in after their treats.  She is in Labrador paradise.  When it’s time to go Trudy pretends not to hear the whistle and I have to use all my cunning and skill to lure her back to me.  Even with her smelly water-logged fur I am relieved when she comes lolloping back.

We amble back home through the tall stems of prickly grass, Trudy is usually munching weeds or thrusting her snout into the hedgerows.  Before I put her back on harness we often stand for a few more minutes savouring our freedom.  I turn my face towards the wind and feel it tussle my hair.  I inhale its freshness and allow all my anxieties to melt into the air.  They disperse like paper petals.  Trudy has a final nose-dive and then drums her tail against my legs ready for the four-minute stroll home.  I never leave the park with an ounce of stress or fear lingering.  This magical place renews and invigorates me.  It makes life seem even more precious, and I arrive home eager to make the most of everything I have.

Guide Dogs Week 2011

It’s Guide Dogs Week 2011 (1st – 9th October).  This has got to be one of my most active weeks this year!  My volunteering for Guide dogs has taken on a slightly manic aspect.  I find myself skipping breakfast and flying towards the bus stop with a grumbling Trudy who, like me, is not wired up to deal with early morning starts.  As we sit panting on the bus Trudy’s noises of discontent gain her the sympathy of our fellow passengers.  I smile haplessly and hope we won’t miss the stop, which is a frequent occurrence.

Luckily this week has been good so far as regards buses.  No memorable food crimes have been committed by the hoovering hound, and nothing untoward has happened.

It’s a difficult time for fundraising.  Spare cash is almost non-existent, so standing in a supermarket or Town centre with a collecting bucket is not as profitable as it was this time last year.  Charities are all competing with each other for scraps from the master’s table.  Some will inevitably not survive this barren period.  But this does not make fundraising any less rewarding.  For one thing, I am extremely fortunate having Trudy to help me.

When we are doing street collections we are not allowed to shake our buckets or ask people to donate money, so it can be quite disheartening watching a stream of people pass by seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are there.  Trudy however, does not have to abide by any such rules.  She locks onto the eye of a passer-by and draws that person towards me, begging him or her to donate to the cause.  She rolls onto her back and folds her limbs in half just asking for her tummy to be tickled.  Many people cannot walk by a prostrate Labrador who appears to be in the grip of sublime rapture.  When Trudy does her fundraising roll (as I’ve dubbed it this week) my bucket sings with coins!  Of course I explain to people that I have never trained Trudy to do this, but it is a fantastic fundraiser!  Trudy laps up the compliments like a cabaret artist.

So although the totals are down, the rewards have not diminished.  Bucket collections have always been characterised by fits and starts.  Just as my legs start to go numb and my back aches to distraction I become immersed in conversation with a friendly person, and the coins clink into the bucket which is extremely invigorating.  From somewhere, a new wave of energy emerges and I can finish my two-hour stint.  (As I’m with Trudy, I’m only allowed to do two hours at a time – which is just as well, as Trudy’s head would become bald from all the patting and stroking).

As charities are being hit hard at the moment, it’s even more important to keep up a high public profile.  It means working harder, but getting noticed increases your chances of raising funds.  This is one of the many reasons I love being a Speaker for Guide dogs.  Word of mouth is a very powerful fundraiser.  I think it helps people to relate to Guide dogs the charity if they can see an actual Guide dog and listen to the personal experience of a Guide dog owner.  Trudy loves being the centre of attention and as she’s such a vocal dog she usually makes the audience laugh at some point, which helps me no end!

For instance when I tell people that it costs approximately £49,000 to train and maintain each working Guide dog – Trudy often agrees with an expressive groan, as if to say “Because I’m worth it”.  I’m so lucky to have such an ally.  Trudy makes my talks real, and interrupts me which keeps them “live”.  I never lose sight of the fact that if it wasn’t for Trudy, I would never have become a volunteer and a whole chunk of life would have been missed.

My quest is to raise funds for more Muttleys to be trained as Guide dogs, and as the charity receives no government funding I think I’m in for an awful lot of bucket collecting….

http://www.justgiving.com/Claire-Rush0

Defeat of the Gremlins: Just ask that Guide dog!

Guide dogs are adept at warding off gremlins, as I know from first-hand experience.  The gremlin who inhabits my flat is often at his most peevish in the early hours of the morning.  Trudy, whose criminal alias is The Hereford Hoover, is instantly awake the minute he pokes my eye to wake me up.  She bounces out of her wicker basket which is adjacent to my bed, grabs one of my slippers and whacks the gremlin out of my day.  It always works.

Even on the most drab and melancholy Monday mornings I can’t help chuckling at the gusto of my Guide dog.  I usually attempt to get back to sleep, but the wagging rudder thumps incessantly to remind me that I owe her one for chasing away the gremlin.  Once my arm is out of bed rolling up her Labrador ears into long tubes, sleep loses its appeal.  So at the point when Trudy’s warm, wet tongue slides over my hand I invariably get up.  Trudy is all fur and tail.  She wraps her paws round my feet, sprinting off as I grope around for the slipper which is nearly always still in her mouth.  I daren’t invoke the gremlin by checking the time – but it’s usually around 6 am by this point.  I’m still half-dazed, only just aware of a hot-breathing hound baiting me with my own slipper.  She pretends to lose interest, but each time I draw near she hares off again with her stolen booty.  After much hiding and seeking, pleading and grumbling, I finally reclaim my slipper – damp and crumpled after its encounter with a Labrador.

Fighting gremlins probably isn’t in Trudy’s job description, yet she is an expert.  She seems to sense when the insidious creature is lurking round the corner ready to ruin a morning or afternoon.   Up goes her tail, beating rapidly to ward off the malevolent spirit.  The climax of the ritual involves a complicated war-dance with Trudy wielding one of her toys above her head.   Her current favourite is a massive pink turtle called Myrtle.  Trudy won Myrtle at the Guide dog of the Year Awards and Myrtle is thankfully still intact with all her limbs attached.  Whenever the gremlin is about to steal my smile, Trudy grabs Myrtle and flies towards me snorting and panting.  Even if I’m not up for a tug of war game, Trudy charging towards me with Myrtle  hanging out of her mouth is guaranteed to make me laugh   Laughter is toxic to gremlins so my unwanted guest vanishes instantly.  One of Myrtle’s bonus features is that her tummy makes rude noises when it’s held in a certain way.  This feature has proved invaluable  in the war against gremlins.

You may be wondering about these gremlins.  I suspect there are many types and breeds skulking about in worldwide dwellings.  But the character who sneaks around in my flat is particularly destructive.  He tips over milk bottles, pokes me when I’m about to nod off in a chair, and sets off the smoke alarm when I’m really really hungry and just want a piece of toast….!  He pervades my mind and needles under my skin if he’s not dealt with in time.  Trudy will not tolerate him.  If he slips a morsel of despair into my lunch box she will take it out and replace it with a chewed sock.  I wouldn’t say it tastes much better, but it’s the thought that counts.  Chewed socks, stolen receipts, the entire contents of my bag – they are all brought in dribs and drabs to cheer me up.  One of the things I love about Labradors is that they never arrive on the scene empty-handed.  Even though Trudy’s presents are usually recycled socks, scraps of paper or stolen items from my laundry basket they are still presents from her to me.  The generosity of Labradors is unbeatable, and gremlins scarper at the sight of it.

Gremlins are intent on bringing gloom into your day, but Guide dogs are gremlin grabbers!  I really came to understand this when I was separated from Trudy at the start of my radiotherapy treatment.  After only two days without her I became aware that the nefarious gremlin inhabiting my flat had gathered a formidable army.  I was utterly defeated and could not function.  I did not even have any inclination to fight.  I knew that I needed Trudy back, so back home she came.  The moment she bounded through the door the gremlin legion lay down its arms and marched away.  They have not returned en masse since.

I think that most dogs are capable of being gremlin chasers, but as I’ve never lived with a pet dog I can’t be sure.  This got me thinking about stereotypes.  The Guide dog stereotype is a noble, obedient,, long-suffering dog with almost no will of its own.  As a Guide dog Trudy is exemplary, but thankfully she does not match the stereotype.  She can be noble – even supercilious at times when she spies a misbehaving pet dog who should know better (according to the Laws of Hound).  She can be obedient too when I really need her to be.  But she is so stubborn there are times when a battle of wills  determines the outcome of certain situations.  We have stand-offs, sit-downs and strikes in the oddest and most inappropriate places.    If Trudy had to wear a school tie she’d turn it inside out with the ends askew.  I’d almost certainly catch her smoking behind the bike shed with a can of lager in her free paw.  Yet she’d pass her exams and probably get into Oxford.  She’s that kind of “told you so” dog.

It makes me smile when I explain to audiences about the matching process of Guide dogs.  So much time and effort is put into matching the right dog with the right owner.  How did Worcester Guide dogs know I’m stubborn, love food and prefer to do my own thing?!  It concerns me that it might be obvious!  Being matched with a Guide dog is a bit like registering with a dating agency.  They pool your common denominators and mix up the rest, so at some point during your partnership you and your dog become one being.  I think this is what makes Guide dogs experts at chasing away gremlins.  Trudy knows before I do when something is amiss.  This means that the lone gremlin who wakes me up in the early hours does not stand a chance.  In fact I think Trudy is quite capable of chasing him away for good, but then I’d have a homeless gremlin on my conscience.

So next time you spy a Guide dog with a wagging tail and a glint of mischief in its eye, think of the gremlins it has probably chased away that day.  If your smile lasts for at least four seconds any gremlins you know may take a hike at the same time…..

Paws for a Snack

I'm so hungry!

All Guide dogs are noble when they need to be, but I think the best Guide dogs possess that “lovable rogue” quality which brings out the funny side of life.

My Guide dog Trudy has those Labrador eyes which melt the most hardened hearts, and she knows precisely who will fall for her “please rescue me, I’m starving” act.  The Postie has got used to her head appearing round the door with an empty food bowl hanging from her mouth.  But people who aren’t used to Trudy never cease to tell me that they think “she might be hungry”.  The empty bowl with its well-chewed edges is the picture of neglect when it’s dropped at the feet of a stranger.  She looks up at the unsuspecting newbie with sorrowful eyes, which I’m positive she has learned to enlarge just to increase the pathos.

The starved Labrador act comes into its own when we’re out and about.    When we’re walking through a busy street I always have to be ready for the sudden lurch of the harness – it invariably means she’s spied a discarded sandwich crust, or a lone chip.  As I know her tactics I can usually grab her back before she’s reached the edible item, but she still occasionally manages to outwit me.

Sometimes she’ll lunge for something dramatically, but when I prize it from her mouth I find it’s nothing more than an apple stalk or a dried piece of orange peel, or a till receipt.  I can almost hear the “Ha ha, fooled you” snigger as I pretend the incident never occurred (I have to maintain my own street cred…).

In the early days of our partnership Trudy committed some worthy food crimes.  One late evening I was walking down the hill towards Hereford Town centre and Trudy suddenly appeared to be limping.  I was alarmed, and stopped her to check her paws in case she’d trodden on some glass or chewing gum. I was unable to find anything, so gave her the command to continue.  As she did so I noted that she was definitely walking peculiarly, and became quite concerned.  After stopping her again and checking her more thoroughly, I discovered a dirty great doughnut hanging out of her chops.  She’d procured it without even stopping so I hadn’t noticed the crime take place.  And she was so determined to hide her stolen booty that she was trying to eat the doughnut on the hop before she got rumbled.  Unfortunately for Trudy, walking in harness whilst munching a doughnut requires considerable practise, so she didn’t get away with that one.

At home Trudy is a seasoned thief.  Her bed is a hoard of socks, gloves, shoe laces and other items which may come in handy later.  Stealing underwear from my laundry basket and presenting them as “gifts” to visitors is one of her favourite antics.  I’ve had to buy a Trudy-proof laundry basket to protect my dignity…  (Trudy is a canine expert on the topic of “how to embarrass the parents”).

She has only thieved from a shop once.  This particular crime occurred in a local pet supplies shop, in which ironically I was purchasing some rawhide chews.  Just as I was paying for the multipack of pressed rawhide, I was aware of a rapid crunching sound in my left ear.  Torn between ignoring it and facing the inevitable, I reluctantly plunged for the latter.  I reached down to Trudy’s muzzle, and felt the thin end of a gluten-free chew disappearing into her mouth.  She looked up at me with such imploring “I couldn’t help it” eyes that the shopkeeper actually offered her another one!  “They’re only 43p” he said, chuckling at the notion of a shoplifting Guide dog.  That’s Labrador psychology for you.

Trudy is untrustworthy whenever there is unsupervised food.  (The 5 mince pies left unwittingly too near met a grisly end last Christmas).  But despite the fact that she has earned the nickname of “The Hoover”, I have never felt unsafe when I’m out with her.  She has never once led me over a kerb into the road, or put me in any danger.    I am 100% certain that Trudy’s professional role as a Guide dog overcomes the scallywag Labrador when my safety is in question.    Trudy is a synonym for mischief, but the fact is I know I can trust her with my life.

Although there have been times when Trudy’s antics have caused me to cringe with embarrassment, there is nothing about her that I would ever wish to change.