I remember almost all of them. Not all by name, but by other things—one pair of remarkably upright terrier ears, the way an enormous Great Dane tiptoed so timidly to her kennel door as I approached, the gentle bulldog who needed the folds of his face cleaned with a warm washcloth to ward off infection.
For all the years we lived in Minnesota, I volunteered once a week walking dogs at our local Animal Humane Society. Every Wednesday afternoon, I’d race out the door, inevitably late from whatever meeting had run over time. On the way I’d often wish I didn’t have to go, hadn’t made the commitment—so that I could push through just one more work project. But those feelings always fell away the moment I opened the shelter door.
Animal shelters aren’t easy places to be. They are often incredibly loud–the barking of dogs echoing off concrete walls. There’s the pungent smells of frightened animals and their waste coupled with harsh cleaners. And the palpable desperation of animals longing for safety as people pass their kennel bars. It was jarring to me at first, too. But before very long, it became a place where I was transformed from an overstretched nonprofit worker always running in 12 directions at once, to calm and grounded in a way I’d rarely experienced.
Somehow, in the shelter, none of the complexities of my life elsewhere haunted me. I felt a sense of peace and rest, even as I hurried around from kennel to kennel. I held only one thing in my mind: making the shelter more comfortable, and less scary, for each animal I handled. To get to the dog that had been cooped up the longest into the fresh air, with grass under their feet.
In the shelter, I lost my anxiety, fear, and ego—the constant companions that never fail to drain me. I didn’t care what work was left on my desk at the end of the day, or how much my house needed to be cleaned.I found energy, renewal, and fortitude–so that I could turn around and give it back to the dogs.
It was being able to connect to each of those dogs–and the ability to give them just a little comfort during a terrifying time–that gave me a sense of belonging. And for most of us—human, canine, or otherwise—there’s nothing more grounding and transformative than that.
What experiences with nature or another living being have transformed you? We invite you to share your stories with us at our next Full Moon Conversation or add them to our map of tranformative experiences here.