When we listen to everyone but the donkey

Field geologist and college professor Margaret Winslow tried to do all the right things after answering a for-sale ad for a donkey. She read the books and the magazines and found a donkey trainer. It took years of near-fruitless efforts and a couple of horrific experiences before Winslow figured out how to listen to Caleb, the large white donkey — and herself.

smart-ass-bordered_09211139The journey she describes in Smart Ass: How a Donkey Challenged Me to Accept His True Nature & Rediscover My Own (New World Library, 2018) is both engaging and frustrating. Overall, it underscores what I know about presence and connection with animals. However, there are a few points at which I wondered what on earth the author was thinking.

This is where I admit up front that while I work with equines as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner, I’m not a rider or owner. My only donkey experience is with two at Summit Equestrian Center: Rosie (former resident), a mini donkey who is probably part border collie; and Diego, a quiet soul who came from southern Arizona by way of the Bureau of Land Management.

I appreciate Winslow’s love, humor, and persistence and can identify with so many of her ups and downs. We don’t know what we don’t know about the particularities of donkey training or whatever else. Animals are our teachers, but like the best teachers, they’re learning too.

Winslow’s near-constant frustration at work is often weighing on her as she arrives at Caleb’s barn and begins grooming him. He feels it and mirrors it, though it takes a while for her to understand this. I, too, have to consistently practice being fully present with whatever animal I’m working with in the moment. This is especially true with horses and donkeys.

Early in the book, Winslow asks herself: “When had I become such a conciliatory, conflict-averse wimp of a college professor who shrank from controversy?” Sadly, the behavior she tolerates from Caleb’s trainers is the best example.

The husband and wife, with their adult daughter, are the only donkey trainers within a day’s drive. They may legitimately know their stuff, and glimmers of insight and kindheartedness surface. But when they drink on the job and ridicule clients, it’s hard to imagine a better choice couldn’t have been made. Winslow just keeps going back for more.

She does eventually board Caleb closer to home, where working with the stable owner yields slightly better results. Lessons with a specialized trainer fail when the trainer beats Caleb. To her credit, Winslow grabs the stick away and yells at the trainer to stop.

The donkey trainers come back into play when, after a horrible injury, Winslow is ready to have them sell him. Or to board him there permanently — even though she believes the daughter capable of shooting Caleb in anger or having him put down without telling her.

At this point, Caleb could have been shuttled from one ill-prepared owner to another or consigned to a kill pen. The story could have ended with Winslow investing tons of money, time, and energy only to miss an authentic connection with Caleb.

Fortunately, Caleb’s truth-to-power influence sneaks up on Winslow during a tiresome faculty meeting. She surprises herself by speaking up for the students and the love of learning, even though she recognizes the consequences may be negative.

Then, in the donkey trainer’s ring, she looks the perpetually angry daughter in the eye and says, “No.”

That day, Winslow and Caleb ride not into the sunset but into a new understanding. The human realizes the power of her heretofore negative expectations of the donkey’s behavior, and the donkey recognizes that the human trusts him and has his back.

Here Winslow wisely relates the story of Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), who spoke to her owner. It wasn’t just because the donkey was being mistreated by him, but because she could see and hear the angel and he could not.

It’s worth our time and effort to listen to the donkey. We might learn something about ourselves, too.

Seeking St. Francis

St. Francis - USF Goldstine Center

Sufi Ahmad’s sculpture of St. Francis of Assisi stands outside the University of Saint Francis Performing Arts Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

At one time, all I knew about St. Francis of Assisi was that he was the patron saint of animals. Though not Catholic and therefore unschooled in the saints, I thought that was pretty cool. Only later, when my partner and I took our cat and dog to an animal blessing at the University of Saint Francis, did I begin to learn more about this Italian friar who talked to birds and used phrases such as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”

Catholic and Protestant communities alike — including my alma mater, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary — observe his feast day, Oct. 4, with pet blessings and other services honoring the natural world.

Francis died in 1226, so there’s been ample time for legend and interpretation to rise and fall. Proving the authenticity of his quotes and prayers is not my purpose here (though, as a journalist, I can’t help wishing someone had done so back then). Yet his story is timeless.

Born into wealth, he partied hard and aspired to knighthood. Gradually, a place in his heart known only to him and his creator led Francis to live like a pauper and turn his focus to serving God. Though a religious order seemed a wee bit too similar to military life for his comfort, he would go on to found the Franciscan monastic order.

Statues (such as the one above) and other artworks most often portray Francis in the company of birds, and it is said that they came and listened to him preach. In one story, he told them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you… you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests.

The birds probably already knew that, but who among us couldn’t use a reminder? They apparently stayed perfectly still as he walked among them. I’m sure there were times, especially among his animal friends, when Francis didn’t speak a word.

Preach the gospel. When necessary, use words. (Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)

In my animal Reiki and animal communication practice and with my own animal companions, I often seek the aid of St. Francis. Not in place of God, but as a member of God’s team. Francis of Assisi loved and respected animals when he walked the earth and, in spirit, is in an even better position to look out for them now. I mean, he’s probably the patron saint of animals and the environment for a reason. 

We need all the help we can get on (not to mention for) earth. The good news is that being better stewards of the earth, the animals, and ourselves is within our grasp.

If God can work through me, He can work through anyone. (Attributed to St. Francis of Assisi)

(Information drawn, in part, from Catholic Online and Biography Online.)

The music we carry

pitbull Image by Mirko Kaminski from Pixabay dog-3857972_1920

Music can engage and soothe animals, including those in shelters. (Image by Mirko Kaminski from Pixabay)

When my father-in-law was at St. Anne’s Home here in Fort Wayne, I noticed how the birds in the lobby aviary responded to music coming from the dining room. Sometimes they seemed unaffected and kept flitting around and chattering.

During a selection of piano oldies, though, they perched quietly, cocking their heads now and then. The human audience, whether transported to another time and place or enjoying the present moment, seemed equally content.

Since then, I’ve seen videos and heard accounts of grieving whales soothed by violins, a sanctuary elephant next to a piano while a man played “Ave Maria,” and shelter dogs chilling to live cello music. Like the care center birds, the animals were responding not only to the music, but to those making it and the others hearing it.

Science has demonstrated the effects of music on the brain, and music therapy is part of many human health and wellness settings. But I don’t think the benefits end with the last note of the song. There is something about music that keeps healing even in the silence, even amid the noise in the world. It might even replace the noise in our heads.

And how many of us have had songs stuck in our heads? More on that in a moment.

A few months ago, I dug Chant, the popular 1994 album by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo, out of the CD cabinet and loaded it into my iTunes. Gregorian chant is prayer sung in Latin, generally without accompaniment. Its development is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great during medieval times, but there is some scholarly uncertainty about that. Regardless, to listen to it is to step into the eternal. You don’t have to understand a word of Latin to know that each chant is about God’s presence in any circumstance.

I began to include the chants in my personal meditation and in my work as an animal communicator and animal Reiki practitioner. Sometimes I have the music playing softly from my stereo or the phone in my pocket when I need to focus, or refocus.

My teacher, Kathleen Prasad, says chanting unites breath with sound in a way that calms and heals. Where fear and sadness constrict, chanting expands. “The more expansive you become, the more easily you can feel emotions without being knocked over by them,” she says in her Animal Reiki Source blog. Animals will feel this expansiveness, she continues, and want to share your strong, balanced space. I am finding this to be true.

2019 07.26 Mildred in sun

Mildred and I shared Reiki and a bit of Gregorian chant. (Photo by Nancy Crowe)

On my rounds at Summit Equestrian Center recently, I sat down in the shade, pulled up iTunes on my phone, and clicked on one of the chants — I believe it was Kyrie Fons Bonitatis (Lord, fountain of mercy). Mildred, a goat who has seen a lot of living, had been lounging on the grass nearby — but now her head swiveled around, ears alert. It wasn’t her “What is that infernal noise?” look (I know that one). Mildred recognized what she was hearing. She listened with me as we shared Reiki, and soon she closed her eyes and lifted her face to the sun.

I wondered if, in her storied life, she ever spent time in the pasture of a Benedictine monastery. Or, on this day, did she simply tune into a sound and energy connecting her to her creator? The particulars didn’t seem to matter much to Mildred. All I got from her was that she liked hearing it again and it made an already beautiful day — moment, really — even better.

Even though I wasn’t doing the chanting myself, allowing that expansiveness to move from God through the monks through me and Mildred was truly a gift.

I can’t carry a tune in a bucket or any other receptacle. So when I don’t have the actual music playing, I try to carry the energy of the music with me. You could say I keep it “stuck” in my head and heart to share with the animals, however it may benefit them the most.

Think about this … and feel free to share:

  • If you leave a radio on for your animal friends when you leave the house, what music do you choose?
  • If you sing or play an instrument, how do they respond?
  • How does having a song (or chant, or other music) stuck in your head make you feel and respond to others?