There is a place just outside the centre of Dublin called Phoenix Park. It’s one of many parks in the city – Dublin is littered with green spaces – but Phoenix Park is special. It sprawls over 1,750 acres, encompassing enormous, sweeping lawns and wilder wooded areas. Dublin Zoo lies within its stone walls, as does the home of the president of Ireland and the home of the American Ambassador. I don’t visit it as often as I should, or even as often as I’d like, but whenever Lia comes for a visit I take her up there for a romp through the trees.
You can let yourself get lost in the park if you stray from the main road that cuts straight through its centre. I prefer to do just that, disappearing down narrow dusty paths carved into the ground by the hooves of the park’s resident herd of deer. You can cut through thickets of trees that have been growing for hundreds of years, only to come upon a hidden clearing, or a twinkling pond or an unexpectedly beautiful view.
You can imagine how excited Lia gets to have that large a playground. She grabs a nice big piece of broken branch and disappears into the long grass, tail waving like a flag, delighted with herself. Her simple, focused joy is contagious. Dogs don’t waste their time with the future or the past, they exist completely in the present. If she is happy, then everything is a delight. Sometimes she just sits and sniffs the air, her eyes half closed in perfect contentment. For her, there are few things more satisfying than snapping a particularly crunchy stick in two, or feeling her ears flap back in the wind. I love to watch her at her most cheerful; she picks her paws up into a trot and almost bounces along, head and tail held high, as proud as its possible for a black labrador to be.
She doesn’t waste time on doubt or second-guessing herself. With a confidence I wish I had, she goes for whatever she decides she wants with great enthusiasm; enthusiasm that I very often do not share. If she sees a pond, she jumps right in and goes for a swim, looking like nothing so much as an astonishingly large otter. If she finds something dead, she rolls in it with the glee of a small child smearing finger paint on the walls.
When she turns at my inevitable wail of dismay, she cocks her head as if to say, ‘What? You better not make a big human deal out of this…‘ and I sigh, and roll my shoulders back, and look at the sky. I remind myself that although washing her is an ordeal, I can’t get mad when her eagerness for doing everything that she thinks must be done – stick crunching, breeze sniffing, pond swimming… even dead-thing rolling – makes me smile.
It’s difficult to stay stuck in your head when you have an animal nearby. When I’m low, it’s often thanks to the pulverising power of overthinking; I stress about past actions and future worries and I tie myself into knots, punishing myself for things that might not even have happened. I worry about things that might never come to pass, and lick wounds that should have long since healed. I can’t seem to keep both feet in the right here, right now. I feel dragged by a current of doubt and catastrophic thinking.
I think this is one of the reasons I am so crazy about animals. Spending time with them for me feels like the closest thing to meditation I can manage. In their company, I find myself able to stop and just enjoy things, without critically examining what and how and why. It’s possible to listen to the wind rush through the leaves above your head, and feel just as strong as the old oak trees around you. It’s possible to push against the long grass as you wade through it, and feel a deep relaxation straight down to your bones. It’s possible to sit, and feel the breeze on your skin, and just feel gratitude for being right here, right now.
Some things really are that simple.