Becoming Ortiz

Be awake is what the Buddha said. Be present, be conscious. But present to what? The monotony? And, if so, how is that helpful?
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Every morning I walk Ortiz. Or, as passersby enjoy pointing out, he walks me. Through the neighborhood we go, past the house with the beautiful garden, across the street and past the ladder factory. Down the slope and into the park, where a pathway runs along the river. Next the picnic tables and the geese, then after that it's the squirrel tree, the bridge, the barber shop for doggie treats, and finally back past the gardens towards home again. All in all, we walk for an hour, sometimes more. We take the next 23 hours to rest up.

And then we do exactly the same thing again.

Let me note, Ortiz doesn't live with me. He's my goddog. He lives across the street. I'm recovering from a head injury and Ortiz' people have a newborn, so over the winter we began walking together. Let me also note, I'm a sucker for this little guy. Part beagle and part rat terrier, he has me wrapped so snugly around his sweet I-know-how-to-point-at-squirrels paw it's a wonder I can breathe. I share this as a means of explanation for why I'm not in charge of our route. If Ortiz wants to go somewhere, we go, within reason. Thus far, however, he only wants to go to exactly the same places.

At first this was a great comfort to me. Due to my injury, walking can be a challenge and the repetition allowed me to feel safe and competent. But after two or three weeks, it grew almost mind numbingly, well, repetitive. I would sink into bed each night and become mildly unglued recalling the swift back and forth of Ortiz' strong legs and the upward wiggle of his bottom as he led me, yet again, toward the patch of woods where the large skeletal fish head lay like a talisman against which he must rub his own head. Or I would shoot awake in the morning, panicked at the notion of once more crawling behind him through the caves of dangling vines and arched trees, tenderly untwining his leash from the massive burdock while he rooted out groundhog holes. I cannot do it, I would hear myself announce. It's unbearable. It's a form of torture. But, as noted, I'm a sucker so off we would go -- down the two blocks, past the pretty gardens...

At street corners or bends in the road, I would whisper into Ortiz' pert ear that the world was vast and we could go any direction he wanted. He always wanted the same direction. He frolicked from bush to tall patch of grass to tree to riverbed, delighting in the fragrant aftermath of the frolicking dog before us. He tugged on his leash. He pranced after wildlife. He, too, relieved himself, keeping the cycle of communal pleasure alive. And I began to realize that what was appearing to me as the same thing day in and day out was utterly new for him.

I've studied Tibetan Buddhism for many years and began wracking my brain for treasured words of wisdom that pertain to the monotony of life. We all face it. Every morning we must do our version of shower, eat breakfast, wash the dishes, brush our teeth. Every evening we must wash our face, brush our teeth again, slip into pajamas. In between we work or go to school, et cetera. Ortiz' walks were simply a hyper-realized version of this universal predicament. Be here now, leapt to mind, though that was spoken by Ram Dass, not the Buddha. Be awake is what the Buddha said. Be present, be conscious. But present to what? The monotony? And, if so, how is that helpful?

My friend Emily has a slightly different take on these walks. Life is a drag, she says. We're all looking for ways to make it better. Then some dog pisses on your favorite patch of grass and there's a new scent and that's exciting! We laugh at this. But I can't help thinking that there's as much truth in Ortiz' delight in the scent of fresh dog pee as there is in the most profound teachings of any religion. Keep your expectations low, she goes on to say, which at first makes me cringe, but it's simply the setup to her directive: Delight in the simple.

That's when it hit me. Ortiz isn't taking a walk, he is the walk. He isn't lost in his thoughts, trying to remember pithy Buddhist guidance. He is pithy Buddhist guidance. If I could truly follow his lead, then our walks wouldn't be mind-numbing repetition after all, but instead meditations on being present. Emily and the Buddha were really saying the same thing: Be Ortiz!

Now it's autumn and every morning I continue to collect Ortiz. Down the street we go, past the house with the beautiful garden, past the ladder factory to the park. It's still the same route.

But now I'm aware of the pressure of my footsteps against the sidewalk, the bright smell of the freshly turned ladders, the sluggish metal thud of the walk button. While I can't claim to have left my thoughts behind, I do notice it's increasingly harder to gnaw away at them. I try to puzzle out a problem from work or relive my frustration with a friend, but instead I notice how a particular flower I admired earlier that week has wilted or that the river, which yesterday ran high and quick, has slowed. Then I hear the squabbling ducks and, turning towards them, notice the drawing a child has chalked onto the pathway.

And by then that frustration is gone. Another may arise, but there's a whole sky to be examined and some squirrels to chase. And in those moments, and many others, I'm grateful that Ortiz has pulled me along with him, step by repetitive step. Slowly, slowly, each day he's teaching me how to be the walk too.

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