Learn to Like (VII)

#7 Learn to like the song of birds, the companionship of dogs.

At the risk of continuing to paint an exceedingly unattractively misanthropic and cranky picture of myself, I must confess that this picture is a lie. I don’t actually like our dog this much. She’s a divorce-guilt dog, and a capitulation to my animal-adoring daughter, who asked literally every day for 5 years if she could pleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaase have a dog. To the dog (hopefully not to the daughter!) I’m like the wire mommy in those awful monkey experiments–I provide food, water, and occasional walks, but very little sincere affection or cuddliness.

Nonetheless, I think I have gone some ways towards achieving what Bennion’s 7th commandment aims at: I have, at least, learned to like home and visiting teaching.

In The Little Prince, St. Exupery’s hero meets a fox, who wants to be tamed by the boy. When the little prince asks how this taming is to be done, the fox replies:

‘You have to be very patient,’ replied the fox. ‘First, you will sit down a short distance away from me, like that, in the grass. I shall watch you out of the corner of my eye and you will say nothing; words are the source of misunderstandings. But each day you may sit a little closer to me.’

The next day the little prince came back.
‘It would have been better to come back at the same time of the day,’said the fox. ‘For instance, if you come at four in the afternoon, when three o’clock strikes I shall begin to feel happy. The closer our time approaches, the happier I shall feel. By four o’clock I shall already be getting agitated and worried; I shall be discovering that happiness has its price! But if you show up at any old time, I’ll never know when to start dressing my hearth for you… We all need rituals.’

Once upon a time, I liked to complain about how artificial visiting teaching is. I argued that it couldn’t be “real” friendship because it is assigned and ritualized, not based on mutual interests or authentic fellow-feeling. The thing dogs and visiting teaching want to show us is that we’re not so very complicated after all, that a monthly visit, even on the last day of the month, will eventually tame us–we will learn first to expect the visit, then to depend on it, then to enjoy and finally look forward to it in a way that makes its pleasure and comfort permanent in our lives. We are creatures, happier if we acknowledge our needs and desires as frankly as dogs do, and blessed if we learn to be content with the mere presence of another breathing, sensate being to save us from the sense of being alone in the universe.

I can happily say that I do, really, without much effort, love the song of birds, which teaches the humbling lesson of our creatureliness even more profoundly. To hear a bird sing, to really listen, is to confront the truth that the earth is full of beauty that, for all our large-brainedness, we cannot begin to understand or imitate. Try as we may, we cannot learn either the words or the tune of birds’ calling to each other, cannot be initiated into their mystery.

To like the company of dogs and the song of birds is to accept that we are embodied as animals, as fleshy, hairy, breathing beasts that need food and water and mates. We may as well learn to like dogs, because they are ours and we are theirs, all strangers in a world none of us understand, but all strangers together–mourning and celebrating our exile and our belonging, howling and singing by turns.

Comments

  1. Marvelous, Kristine!

  2. Very cool.

    You know, you may just have got the wrong dog. Most dogs are awesome, and yours looksvery nice, but there are certain dogs that simply radiate waves of love like tsunamis from an undersea earthquake. My dog, for example.

  3. “I must confess that this picture is a lie.” Ha! Loved this.

  4. Sorry but in almost every instance, a last day of the month visit is an effort by the visitor to “check a box.” I would like to think of visiting teaching in the way you have described it, but cannot.

  5. I love the way you came to enjoy visiting teaching. I have always loved going to visit teach, especially when I am in a new ward, and don’t know many people. However, I didn’t really gain a testimony of visiting teaching until the first time I was assigned a “letter route” that was filled with inactive sisters who had requested only to be contacted by mail. At first I started sending a copy of the VT message and a short note, but nothing else. I didn’t really think of them as people, just as an obligatory letter. One day I met one of my VT sisters, completely by accident. Her son was enrolled at the alternative high school where I worked, and was there for a conference. Since my last name was very unusual, she recognized it from the letters I was sending her. She stopped by my desk and told me that she really didn’t like getting the lessons from the Ensign, since her in-laws always made sure they had a subscription, but that it was nice to get a card in the mail that wasn’t bills.

    So, I started sending her cards, minus the VT message, that were longer, more about my life, and about things I had found while studying the scriptures. As I became better at trying to connect with her, by praying before I wrote my card to her each month, I also started doing the same thing for the other five ladies on my route. After a few months, I also sent a self address, stamped envelope that they could use to send me back a card, note, or suggestions on how I could be most useful. (I had always included my address and phone number, but sending them an envelope that was all ready to go seemed like it might remove a barrier.) Only two of the sisters ever sent me anything back. One asked me to stop sending the VT message, but said that she liked hearing about me and my children. Her grandchildren lived far away, and her son and daughter-in-law did not call or write very often. The other note simply said thank you for writing to her, and that she looked forward to my notes.

    Out of the last 10 years, I have had a letter route, sometimes in addition to a regular route, for more than half of the time. I have gone from seeing it as checking off a box, sending a generic VT message with little more than a signature, to enjoing writing letters and cards to sisters who may not feel that anyone cares about them. I think that if I had simply sent the kinds of letters I started with, I never would have been able to deepen my testimony of visiting teaching. I was adding it up, and I think that I have had at least 75 sisters who have been on my mail routes, and it may be closer to 100 if you add in all the people whose mail came back because they were no longer living at the address we had for them. I usually only had them for a month, so I didn’t really get the chance to try to serve them. Of those 75ish, about 20 have sent letters back at one time or another, when I sent them self addressed, stamped envelopes. I try to send them at least every third month, so that they know I really would like to hear back from them if they are willing to have that contact.

    Most of the time I don’t send the VT message, but instead just try to share an experience I have had during the previous month that has been important or faith inspiring. Oftentimes I am inspired to simply send a card that has no focus on religion, but instead tells about a beautiful hike I went on, or the funny things my kids are doing. Most of the time I have no idea if those cards mean anything to the person I send them to, and that is okay. Certainly I do visiting teaching because it is an assignment, but I also do it because I know how much it means to me to receive a letter in the mail, and I want to at least offer that level of friendship to anyone, whether they are active or inactive, LDS or not. It has become a way for me to express my love, and to find quiet moments to myself. It eventually even helped me overcome my loathing of “scrapbooking” long enough to learn some of those same techniques to make cards.

    So, I guess I am much like the dogs, happy to know that there is a routine that I can follow, whether the person I am trotting after acknowledges me or not. Even if those I send letters to don’t anticipate my cards, I anticipate the blessings of peace that come to my life every time I sit down to write a card to one of Heavenly Father’s daughters.

    As someone who is allergic to cats and dogs, I have always kind of been, off the hook about animals, until my allergist mentioned that a Saint Bernard might be okay, since apparently they are generally easier for those who are allergic. Since my husband was sitting next to me, and he really wants a dog, the allergist specifically tested me, and said that it shouldn’t bother my asthma to have one, as long as it was outside and could run a lot, and it got bathed at least once a week. Our yard isn’t currently set up for a dog, and since out lease only has another year and we will then probably be buying a house, I got myself a little space, but not for too long. I guess I will see if I can come to love havinga dog around as much as I enjoy visiting teaching.

  6. Ardis E. Parshall says:

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be tamed by visiting teaching, either the giving or receiving, but Julia persuades me that it isn’t impossible — wonderful account, Julia.

    And I especially like the paragraph about birdsong, Kristine. I do like listening to birds. You give me a reason to listen beyond, “Gee, that’s pretty.” Not that that’s a bad start.

  7. Mark Brown says:

    Bless you, Julia.

  8. Thanks Ardis. I don’t know that visiting teaching is right for everyone, all the time.

    I know that my mom has asked several times to not have visiting teachers come when she has been in super busy callings. She also asked to be able to visit teach women who were part of the organization she had the calling in. I have no idea how common that is, but I know that at least two of the times the RS President went along with the request. The time I know of, that an RS president wasn’t willing to do that, my mom told her that she couldn’t do both her calling and VT route. I was a teenager, so I am not sure if my mom was still given a route or not, but while she was Primary president, I don’t think she did any VT, even if she was assigned to.

  9. Well, now I feel really guilty about not taking this last day of the month to do my visiting teaching. That is my flippant way of saying, “This was a lovely meditation, Kristine. Thank you for writing it.”

    I had the same visiting teacher for years. She didn’t manage to visit my home every month, but she was very good about staying in contact. Recently she asked to be released from VT because she had a lot going on in her life and felt bad about not getting her visits done. Personally, I was satisfied with the phone calls and Facebook messages–I knew why she wasn’t visiting, and I appreciated knowing that she still thought of me. At first I was sad that she wasn’t going to be my VT anymore, but then I realized that VT had made us friends and now it was probably my turn to minister to her (without needing an assignment). It’s a good thing.

  10. Exactly what I needed this morning, K. Thank you.

  11. charlene says:

    “Like!”

    Meaning, I like this post. And I really like all of your posts. I even used one in a RS lesson last week.

    Meaning, I’ve been like you in so many ways described in this post. I got the divorce-guilt dog because my daughter not only begged during that vulnerable time, but because she shared weekly during her class share-and-tell, that she STILL didn’t have a dog.

    Meaning, I’ve learned to like home and visiting teaching, as a recipient. My teachers have become wonderful friends and blessings in my life, though I’m still not convinced that I’m other than a bother and interruption in others’ lives.

    Meaning, I like the song of birds. I listen carefully for them wherever I am, especially after reading “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. I even love them when they wake me pre-dawn every summer day.

    Meaning, I’m definitely like the wire mommy to the dogs in my life. I’ll give sincere pats and scratches behind the ears, as long as they stay at arm’s length. I’ve warned my little people that when I get old and they think I’m lonely, do NOT get me a dog. MCQ, it doesn’t depend on the dog, some people are just not dog people. I my case, they’re just too needy.

    Meaning, to like the company of dogs and the song of birds is to acknowledge the God-spirit in all creation.

    Meaning, that I like that you can elicit wonderful responses like Julia’s.

    Meaning, I like what I learn here in this community.

  12. Kristine says:

    Thanks, Charlene. I think we should get our daughters together. Or maybe not–they might take over the world :)

  13. Posted a long reply but had issues, short reply- thanks for this. I’ve enjoyed this series but enjoyed this one particularly. Never been a fan of visiting teaching and loved this perspective. (I quite enjoyed The Little Prince reference.). This puts vting in a fresh light and gives me renewed faith in a program that has bothered me.

  14. mormonandsuicidal says:

    Ooh, ignore the redundancy of “enjoy(ed)”. Next time I’ll read my comment BEFORE posting.

  15. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    “Hope is that thing with feathers.” Thank you, Kris, for your lovely meditation on Lowell Bennion’s praise of simplicity. As his biographer, I am committed to keeping his name alive. His brand of Mormon Christianity should be taught in he schools–or in our church!

  16. Kristine says:

    Mary, I agree–I think it would resonate more deeply, especially with young people, than much of our current curriculum.

  17. I have still not learned to like visiting teaching, though I do enjoy my ward sisters. As for dogs, I love the relationship between my son and our dog. I have lost two rooms to the dog odor (seriously–carpets will need to be replaced; carpet cleaning is inadequate), but when I see our dog curled up to my son, or see my son walking the dog, I forgive the bad smell. I love the dog because my son loves her. I love the two of them together.

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