The best part of my summer is the time I spend at Glen Highland Farm in New York. We've just returned from a couple of stints there, about nine days with our border collies, Penelope and Odysseus. These dogs have trained my wife and me to be better listeners, and, perhaps, better human beings.
Those of you who are not dog people won't get the balance of this piece, so move on and read something elsewhere. Or read on if you like. What you will learn here is how a man can be grateful to two animals for their love and devotion. Although I am a man of many and often contradictory words, Penny and Ody have taught me simply to give thanks. That took a lot of work on their part.
But first a word about Glen Highland Farm. It is a border collie rescue facility founded ten years ago and operated as a 501(c)(3) by two refugees from the hard-charging world of accomplishment. Each summer, it runs a brief summer camp for adults. A few dozen dog owners camp out on the 175 acres and spend their days with their dogs at sheep herding, agility, tracking and other activities. Speakers come to talk about dogs and their world. After the adults clear out, Glen Highland runs several sessions for inner city kids who are taught the magic of the unconditional love of exceptional dogs.
We've gone to the camp for five years, and I am just now beginning to see how deeply a dog can challenge and even change a human being. Frankly, I am a typical camper: I cry when I leave. There is something comforting about being part of a pack bounded solely by the rhythm of our dogs.
Penny and Ody are intense animals. If you know border collies, you begin to understand what I mean. Our dogs are focused members of this breed. They are demanding, loving, loyal and energetic. They come from the same litter and have for almost six years now been a daily presence in our lives. This summer I have begun to understand that they are more than a presence, they are a gift, one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.
They are different. Ody is almost mirthful, in a vigilant sort of way. We call him the policeman. He seems to delight in running our land and running with us where ever we go, ever vigilant lest one of us get lost. He keeps a firm eye on Penny, his sister, always putting himself between her and any other animal that approaches. When we are not on our land, he even goes so far as to cover any waste she may leave with his own scent. lest anything come to think she is alone in the world. He herds his sister, reminding her always that he is present to protect her. I understand why people believe in guardian angels. Odysseus is an ever-present angel.
But Ody is not really the leader of our pack. Penny is the alpha. She herds my wife and me, watching us throughout the day at whatever we do. When I move, she is present and alert for a command. The moment I sit with hands free, she jumps up to sit next to me. She has learned now to fall asleep sitting on my lap with her head on my shoulder. She is fierce in her loyalty to me: we say she put the "grrr" in girl just as Ody out the joy in boy.
Border collies aren't for everyone, and Ody and Penny aren't for any border collie lover. These dogs have become more than shadows to my wife and to me. They are companions who communicate with facial gestures, body posture, and an occasional barks. Sometimes I think they have souls. Penny is an eternal mother ever present to remind me that whatever sorrow I behold she is there like a ewer, ready to pour infinite love and concern into the ravaged portions of me. This dog is magic, I swear she is. Some part of me responds to her love and is replenished. I say without shame that I grow richer each year she is in my life. Is it too profane to say she restores my soul?
Some folks believe dogs come into your life for a reason, to teach you something you need to learn. That is just beyond the limits of what I can comprehend with ease. My convictions run in the direction of chance, circumstance and chaos: that is the life I have lived from a boy onward. But I swear, sometimes and increasingly often, I sense a deeper pattern emerging: It is always Penny who leads me to follow, and Ody who stands at the perimeter to assure that all are safe.
Call me a fool, but I say you can learn great things from a dog if you learn to listen. Mine beckon me to trust and be freer with the love that is within in me. I can almost hear Penny tell me to let go and embrace the world around me, just as she does, completely and without reserve. I love that dog and always shall.
A lifetime of reading and arguing and thrusting into the night with such a frail light and I come finally to the realization that all I really need to know might be just what Ody and Penny offer. I wonder some days how it came to be that dog is God spelled backwards. I know it sounds silly to those without ears to hear. But I am hearing things I thought weren't possible: it is the sound of a dogs' love, and it is beautiful.
Here's more about Glen Highland, since I could not get the link to work: http://glenhighlandfarm.com/.