How raising a puppy changed my life

This week my husband and I are celebrating the one-year anniversary of the day we got our beloved pug, Gus. That day, January 4, 2015, will be forever etched in my memory as the day I learned what it felt like to fall in love at first sight.

That’s me, meeting Gus for the first time. He was so tiny!
One year ago my husband and I were sitting in our car in a gas station parking lot in Merrillville, Ind., feeling a bit uncomfortable and anxious as we waited to meet our breeder. The brutal January wind whipped at our windows as I shifted in my seat. “What kind of car did she say she had again?” I asked him for what was surely the ten millionth time. As he answered, the very van we’d been searching for finally pulled into the parking lot and we looked at each other with wide-eyed excitement.

Then there I was, standing alongside our breeder’s gold minivan with a powder blue fleece blanket in my arms when all of the sudden a tiny, fluffy, fawn-colored pug puppy was thrust into my arms, a life that would change my life—our lives—completely. He was eight weeks old.

Look, I know everyone says, “A baby changes everything,” and as we are also expecting a baby, I know that is so true and I will probably have much more to say about that in the weeks ahead—I can’t wait, honestly, to know more about that. But I also believe the same could be said about getting a pet, especially your first dog who also happens to a puppy and is completely new to the world and needs constant attention, love and training (especially of the potty variety). Extra bonus points if you decide to get a puppy in the middle of a Chicago winter. Oh, memories!

OK, confession time: I grew up with a cat.

Phew! Glad that’s out of the way.

When I was younger I did not get dogs, nor did I want anything to do with them. (I also did not get cats, as the cat I grew up with only had eyes for my mother.) In my mid-twenties, something changed and I became quite enamored with the idea of getting a dog. My husband and I dreamed of getting a city dog that wouldn’t mind our tiny apartment; other requirements included being good around kids, laid back, fun-loving and, of course, super adorable. We developed a minor obsession with #pugsofinstagram, and after researching the breed further, we decided this was the dog for us.

Our journey to get Gus, which I playfully dubbed #pugwatch2015 (not a real hashtag), involved multiple visits to the allergist as well as multiple failed attempts to adopt a pug in need. I was overjoyed when we discovered a reputable, loving breeder through a friend at the gym, and even happier when we learned we’d been approved to adopt one of her puppies.

That January day we took Gus home was exhilarating and joyous and terrifying all at once. It was a day we had prepared for, reading Pugs for Dummies, Click for Joy and Don’t Shoot the Dog (Err… I only half-read that first book but my husband read all three),  assembling the crate and buying all the things–food and puppy shampoo and toys and a nail trimmer we’d never end up using. We’d even readied ourselves by rearranging our lives for Gus, with my husband taking some time off from his busy travel schedule for a short puppy paternity leave. (This month, as we finish getting ready for baby, I’m feeling an odd sense of déjà vu.)

Of course nothing could prepare us for how much love and frustration (and heartache!) puppy brought into our lives.

So what, specifically, changed?

My home life

When I think back to life before Gus, I have a hard time remembering my old routines and habits. While I did workout most mornings before work, I didn’t have much of a post-work routine. What I did in the evenings varied, whether it was working late or meeting up with friends or heading to book club or catching an evening yoga class. An extrovert at heart, I did whatever I could to avoid spending time on my own when my husband was traveling, which was most weeks.

Enter Gus. Mornings with puppy always included a bathroom break (or two) outside  and a meal, and it was the same in the evenings, punctuated by plenty of playtime. Luckily there were two of us at home to manage our puppy’s routine, which helped a lot. Although I continued to keep up with my regular commitments, the number of spontaneous outings in my life tapered off significantly.

I didn’t mind, actually, because I was in love with our new little puppy, and our new life together. Spending time with my two boys brought me so much joy–it was often the highlight of my day. Rather than scroll through my phone, habitually checking the news or my newsfeed, I poured my time, energy and attention into bonding with Gus. My puppy gave me a new appreciation for what it means to be present in the moment, something I craved for my life but really needed to work on. I knew I had issues with being present, I knew I was a little addicted to my phone.

Gus taught me to be present by teaching me to play again. His energy and enthusiasm was and continues to be boundless.

What is it about growing up that sucks away our desire to just play for the sake of playing? What happens to us along our journeys that downplays the important of play for humans? It’s as though we reach a certain age and at that age we are taught to be embarrassed by play, by indulging in silliness. 

Dogs seem to have it all figured out. They know play is essential to life and will go to great lengths to engage their owners to do so (at least ours does!). Gus certainly knows he needs play to survive and thrive–he’s actually a play bully, often pushing his toys into us or barking when he knows he needs a good session.

With Gus, home life is anything but lonely. When I am home with Gus I get to practice being present, I get to rediscover the joy of play.

My relationship

My husband didn’t spend much time at home before we had our puppy. The nature of his work is such that he could be asked to take a regional trip within a day’s notice, and he’d often be gone for the majority of the month. 

This was hard on me, as my love language is quality time. Even though we kept in touch while he was away, there have been times when I didn’t get enough quality time with him to fill my tank. Raising a puppy changed all that.

My husband stopped traveling for a couple months and became the primary puppy parent. (This was super helpful speeding up the potty training process and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it.) To my delight, he was usually home to greet me in the morning and greet me in the evening when I came home. So was Gus. For the first couple days, it seemed surreal, too good to be true. As I became accustomed to our togetherness the heartache I’d felt for so long when my husband was gone began to heal.

In those early days, I once came home to discover my husband had put together a spreadsheet of puppy’s potty schedule, documenting Gus’s day, hour by hour.

Leave it to an engineer on vacation to do something like this.

It sounds absurd, but it was actually super helpful. I loved it and loved the ways we were working together to raise Gus, sharing responsibilities and troubleshooting any problems that arose.

I remember the first time we gave Gus a bath. We kept checking Pugs for Dummies to see if we were “following all the steps correctly” while Gus looked on and waited for us humans to figure out what we were doing. It was a little clumsy but we got through it, congratulating ourselves as we patted him dry with a towel.

I remember the day Gus graduated from puppy school. We were both so proud of Gus, and the hours we’d spent training him to sit, lay down, walk away, and come when he’s called, really seemed to have paid off.

Raising Gus brought us even closer together than we already were. Not only did that special period in our life when we first got Gus give us hours of time together, it also forced us to communicate about milestones the puppy reached on a regular basis. In the process, we divvied up domestic dog duties and even developed our own silly nicknames and language for talking about the dog and it just worked.

My understanding of unconditional love

The third and final way raising a puppy shaped my life was the way it taught me about unconditional love.

In Sunday School we learned Jesus loves you no matter what and that is unconditional love, but I still grew up a people pleaser at heart and never fully digested the message. What I know now: Real love isn’t something you need to earn. And Gus helped with that. 

Through a leadership course and therapy that winter, I was just starting to notice how I acted to seek approval from others. Nowhere was this more clear than at work, which happened to be going pretty terribly when we got Gus.

I often would come home troubled by ______(fill in the blank with a ridiculous story here)_____, and troubled by Chicago traffic. I was under a lot of stress.

But nothing quite compares to coming home and being greeted by a dog who is just so excited to see you he can’t stop wiggling, wagging his tail or licking you. Gus was truly a therapy dog for me then and continues to be one for me now. (Oh, and those daily struggles? They’ve dissipated.)

If there’s ever a time when I’m feeling down, however, it’s as if Gus has a sixth sense and will stop whatever he’s doing to show me some love. 

Because of Gus I know I don’t have to earn love. I’m still working through patterns of people-pleasing that don’t serve me. But Gus, who loves me because I am me not because of anything I’ve done, has helped me see the transformative power of unconditional love. It is good and pure and true–a gift to be treasured.

Conclusion: Puppies – not for everyone.

I could tell you a plethora of other ways Gus has changed my life–our lives–for the better. We get outside more; he helped us meet new neighbors; he helped me not take life for granted.

Look, puppies aren’t for everyone, but if you’re considering adopting, know you are about to be gifted with a huge privilege and undertaking that cannot to be taken lightly. It is time-consuming and life-altering. Yet everything you invest in your dog, you will get back x1000.

I am a better person because of it. I feel so lucky to have the privilege to care for a dog. 

How about you? Do you have a special pet you’ll never forget, one that changed your life for the better? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. 




Why I don’t set New Year’s resolutions

. . . and what I’m doing instead in 2017.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want the next year–2017–to look like for me. Have you been too? Maybe you’ve made a resolution to lose weight or to save or make more money or to get involved in local politics or to start making it to work on time. How many times have you said this to yourself, “This year will be the year I finally … (fill in the blank with your just-out-of-reach goal here)”?

For most of my adult life, I was the queen of resolutions. In late December, as New Year’s Eve approached, I’d write in my journal all the hopes and dreams I had for the year ahead, all the ways I’d improve myself–bad habits I’d break (stop procrastinating), good habits I’d pick up (flossing), goals I’d accomplish (run a half marathon). I’d copy my list of resolutions neatly in the back of my planner, excited and eager and hopeful for a fresh year, a blank slate, a new story to write.

As each new year went on, though, inevitably I couldn’t live up to all dreams I had for myself. When I’d turn to the back of my planner and check in on my progress I’d feel good about what I was pursuing (training for that race – check!) and guilty about the habits I just couldn’t seem to shake (still procrastinating, ugh) or make (still not flossing, whoops). Because some of the visions I had for my life were just that–visions too aspirational or unattainable–I ended up putting myself through a lot of unnecessary, internal angst by focusing on my unmet resolutions rather than what I had accomplished with a little determination and focus.

Once I resolved to eat nothing but beans, vegetables and proteins for the entire year (I know, strange). Something I read had convinced me that this diet would be the solution to the body image issues that plagued me because with it I would finally lose the weight I desired and keep it off too. I wasn’t perfect, but I actually kept up with this weird diet for several months until I realized how unhappy I’d become and how unrealistic it was for someone like me to eliminate several food groups from my diet (I am a moderator, not an abstainer; for more on this idea, see this post).

Part of my problem was that the resolutions I set were just too idealistic. To “never eat gluten again” or “always be early to meetings” just isn’t realistic because life is never all or nothing, life just happens. Grandmother’s extra-special 80th birthday cake, a business lunch that runs late–happens and often bends or breaks a resolution. Unfortunately my all-or-nothing approach to resolutions made it hard for me to jump back on the horse when I faltered, leading way to self-loathing.

The other issue?  I had so many different resolutions going at once, I couldn’t keep them all straight. Though I had good intentions, I couldn’t see that I was actually setting myself up to fail by dividing my attention, rather than honing in on a few attainable resolutions. Maybe you already know this for yourself–I obviously didn’t–but eventually I realized New Year’s resolutions were doing me more harm than good.

I know I’m not alone in my resolution angst. This study found that 81 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. So why do we make them, year after year, even though it’s unlikely we follow through? I think the answer has something to do with this generation’s zeitgeist of self-improvement, coupled with the many messages we receive from media and marketers who capitalize on our deepest desires to become “better” than before.

My philosophy today: I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

I suppose I could just be more practical and focused, lowering the bar a bit when it comes to resolutions. Do I still have habits I want to break or form? You bet. Goals that I want to accomplish? Sure. But I no longer use the New Year as my starting line for improving my life in those ways.

Instead I use the start of a New Year as an occasion to set one theme or focus I can pursue year-round. It’s an idea inspired by one of my favorite authors, Gretchen Rubin, who has written quite a bit about choosing a one-word or phrase theme for the New Year.

Your word or phrase can be just about anything–its purpose is to be a guiding beacon as you approach a new year of life. In the past, I’ve chosen “presence” (2016), “love” (2015) and “peace” (2014). When I look back on the past three years, I can see a marked change in the way I approached my life and ways my word helped me transform on a conscious and subconscious level. Gone is the creeping remorse of unmet resolutions of years past.

In 2015, I made a life shift toward a different career track. My company was restructuring our department and my dream job had opened up. So had a few management opportunities within my existing team. Both paths seemed intriguing and out of reach, but I knew I had to take a chance or risk the regret of not knowing what might have been. I applied for my dream job–a lateral move for sure–an incredible chance to do what I love every day. For work. It seemed a bit, well, unreal.

Fast forward a few weeks, and they offered me the dream job, the job I never thought I’d have. I was overjoyed and relieved and exhilarated. Due to a variety of factors, the next year in that position would be more challenging than I’d ever anticipated. When occasional moments of doubt or envy set in, I needed only remind myself of the love that inspired my career decision and those feelings dissipated.

Having a theme or focus for the New Year has been uplifting beyond measure, it’s like having a handy compass whenever you need direction or motivation or feel as if you’ve lost your way.

For my focus in 2017, I’ve chosen the word “courage.” In the past, I’ve often allowed my fears to hold me back from being my most authentic self or pursuing big dreams. This year I want to break up with fear and cultivate courage.

I want to be brave enough to create, to tell my unique stories and share others that need telling. I want to disagree, to disappoint, to say “no,” to say “yes,” to live out my faith and values in ways that might be counter-cultural.

I want to be courageous in the ways I love and care for my family and friends, showing up for them, being open and vulnerable and true. I want to be brave enough to speak up for what I believe or what I need, even when it’s unpopular or unsettling.

I want to be brave enough to live and love imperfectly in a world obsessed with picture perfect people. I know there are times that I’ll fail and give in to fear, but I’m using this space, this post to make a public promise to myself that I’ll keep pushing and trying to be courageous, and be gentle with myself when I’m not.

Being courageous means working to silence the tiny voice inside my head that says, “You are not enough,” and replace it with a message of love, a message that says, “You are enough.” I draw strength from my belief that God made me, and everyone else in the world, in God’s image.

I am enough, and my stories matter. You are enough, and your stories matter too.

I choose to be courageous in 2017. What do you choose? 

Do you have a one-word or phrase focus for 2017? Share it in comments section below. I’d love to hear from you! 


Lessons from 30

Today I turn 31. This particular age feels simultaneously foreign and familiar, like a too big, too old-fashioned coat you once bought and thought you’d never wear that now mysteriously fits so you reluctantly just wear it.

birthday cake with candles brazee

My husband and I have birthdays a week apart, so he is 31 too. I wrote in his card that 30 had been a rollercoaster year marked by a surprising flux of highs and lows. “I’d never felt so much like an adult until I turned 30,” I’d remarked more than once this year. He agreed.

Several of my friends have described 2016 as a bit of a disaster, and with all that’s happened in the world, I’ve been tempted to say the same. Yet in all that disappoints or disturbs, my faith challenges me to seek out God’s silver lining, as there is so much to be grateful for in this life. This world, it’s both stunningly beautiful and broken, perhaps best characterized by the word “bittersweet.” I discovered this description from one of my favorite authors, Shauna Niequist, who offers this advice about life’s ups and downs: “When life is sweet, say thank you and celebrate. And when life is bitter, say thank you and grow.”

In the spirit of gratitude, here are a few things I’m thankful I learned at 30, three lessons I want to share with you.

On life and death

We’ve all been told life is a fragile, ephemeral gift. But at 30, that really sunk in for me. It started when my husband’s cousin died unexpectedly.

I remember the night my husband came home from the hospital, red-eyed and downtrodden. (Plagued with morning sickness, I’d regrettably stayed home.) He had looked up to his cousin TG so much, and it devastated him to see a man he knew to be so full of energy and love and kindness on life support. TG passed away that night.

The loss of TG shook us to the core. It was so sudden and shocking and it just seemed so unfair that someone as big-hearted as TG could die so soon, at the age of 45. TG’s funeral was an incredible testimony to his life and spirit. He was, in a word, unforgettable.

Just as the funeral was coming to a close I saw a text from our pet-sitter, who asked me to call her immediately. Already weepy, I stepped away from the funeral to make the call. I broke into hysterical crying as she broke the news: Gus, our puppy, had been hit by a car, she said. A freak accident when he slipped out of his collar.

As we raced to the Vet ER in a panic, I feared we’d mourn two losses that night. Helplessly I watched the minutes tick away on my Google maps app as we got closer and closer to our final destination. When we finally arrived, seeing Gus in the ER was both a relief and terror. Hooked up to oxygen in an unfamiliar place, he looked so helpless and afraid.

He was just a puppy. This just wasn’t fair.

The veterinarian had said Gus would be OK if he made it through the night. So afraid we’d get a call from the vet, I could barely sleep that night. Doubtful and angry, turning to prayer felt like an impossible task. So I sent out an SOS to my women’s group and to others, asking them to hold our family in prayer.

When the first text came in, “I’m praying for Gus, Erin,” my heart softened and I felt a wave of relief. One by one the messages came in, and I began to hope, and I even attempted my own feeble prayer, “God, if you are out there, please let my puppy live.”

To our surprise, Gus made it through the night and the next day, and the day after that. It was truly a miracle. I was beyond grateful that Gus survived.

The lesson in all this? Ever since that day, I’ve practiced resisting the ease that comes in taking life for granted. Each day is a new opportunity to tell someone you love them, to find beauty in the highs, the lows, the ordinary moments.

On trying (and failing) and trying again

This year I was rejected from a small handful of career opportunities I really wanted. To be clear, these weren’t all job applications–I actually love my current job–but they were certainly new challenges that I thought I might be a fit for. Well, I wasn’t. #fail

It’s hard not to take rejection personally, especially when you’re a creative. As a writer, so much of my work IS personal, so hearing “We think you’re really talented, but you’re just not a good fit for us” can be pretty hard to swallow.

I’m also a self-described “recovering perfectionist” who has spent nearly 30 years people-pleasing, so I know I take things harder than others might. I’m working on that.

The thing I’ve learned about failure, though, is that even when it really hurts, it’s actually a really good thing.

I still remember the first time I practice taught part of a yoga class at the start of my teacher-training journey in fall 2015.

Um, I was awful. I couldn’t remember the sequence, my voice was too quiet and I had no presence whatsoever. It was pretty uncomfortable for everyone. #fail

And, you know what? It was also awesome. It was so incredibly freeing to fail. It gave me such a rush–I wanted to do it again, to try again, and maybe get a little better but probably only do an adequate job at best the next chance I had to teach. So I did.

By January 2016, after more rounds of practice teaching than I can count and hours upon hours of learning and practicing yoga at my studio, I was certified and on my way to teaching power yoga with confidence, grace and good humor towards my shortcomings.

Throughout teacher training, my instructors never once framed trying and making mistakes as failure. They were encouraging to each and every student who was brave enough to put herself or himself out there, and provided direct, gentle feedback to promote an atmosphere of growth. The experience pushed me to let go of my deep-seated fear of failure in ways I never dreamed possible.

What I know now (and I can’t believe it took me this long): Getting rejected or failing at something is key to growth. And rather than let rejection slow me down or scare me away from pursuing my dreams, I will keep trying, and failing, and trying again at 31.

On putting down roots

Earlier this year my husband and I made the decision to buy a house. With a baby on the way, we knew it was time for us to put down roots. So we started talking about and dreaming about house-hunting. After eight years in Chicago, we weren’t convinced that this city was the place we wanted to raise our family.

Sure there were great things about the city, but we’d grown tired of the crime, the high taxes and the soul-crushing commute times. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I did not mention the soul-crushing weather! We’d read that Illinois was (and continues to be) a state with a very high rate of residential departures for warmer, fairer states.  Was buying a home even a good investment here?

Uncertain about the city, we resurrected our dream of moving west and settled on checking out Denver again this July. I’d always loved the area but hadn’t been back in a while. It seemed to have all the things we were looking for that we couldn’t find in Chicago–better weather, the great outdoors, a slower pace of living–to name a few. After returning from that trip, once again enamored with the city, we made a pro/con list and pitted Denver against Chicago. Guess which city won?

It was Denver, by a longshot. We were moving. So we started putting things in motion in Denver, looking into realtors and remote work policies and how the move might impact our family. We were on the way to making the leap.

Near the end of the process, the week before we’d fly to Denver to look at homes, I started feeling a little doubtful. Moving to Denver wasn’t convenient but it seemed like the right decision, it seemed like we would finally be pursuing our dreams of living somewhere new. And, it won by a landslide in the pro/con faceoff!

I talked about this with a dear friend who was dreading the prospect my moving. “I can’t really talk about this with you because I’m biased, but, I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” she said. “I don’t want to influence your choice though. . .”

After that conversation I went home and practiced an exercise that podcaster Jess Lively describes as “writing to your intuition.” I answered the question: Why do I have this inner conflict? As I started typing, I was startled by what I found.

It seemed that even though moving away seemed like a logical choice on paper, it didn’t jive with my values. We couldn’t just move away from my entire network of friends–and of course family–when we were having our first child. I am a person who thrives on relationships. Even though we’d seen so many of our friends move away from the city in the years we lived here, we still had new and old friends we loved who were a big part of our lives. It seemed completely foolish to abandon the incredible network and church we had here, especially given the ways we’d need to lean on them–and of course my family, for support in the year ahead.

That night, laying next to my husband in bed, I told him I wanted to stay in Chicago. He said he did too. As soon as we talked, I felt calmer and more at ease. We knew the decision was right. We just had to rework our plans a bit. And even though it was stressful, in the end we found the perfect place to live in Chicago. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

What I learned: Listen to your heart, not your head. Big decisions take time–and even when you think you have your mind made up, you may have a change of heart. And that’s okay.

Onward and upward

There were, of course, several other lessons I learned at 30, more than could be detailed in an already-long blog post. What will 31 have in store, I wonder.

For one, a baby–as long as I have a safe delivery, I pray–and the ups and downs of motherhood. And another, more stories. For a long time I’ve wanted to start a blog. And finally, at 31, it feels like I have more to say, more to explore, and I need a space to do it. It is my hope that I can use this tiny corner of the internet as a virtual “room of my own”(inspired by Virginia Woolf) to write and to share more moments with you.

I’m sure there will be times when it’s hard to for me to post consistently, and others when the writing muse will strike, as it has for me now. Either way, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I look forward to connecting with you.