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How a dog taught me to embrace unexpected spiritual practices in this year of COVID-19

By Erin J. Walter
Special to the American-Statesman
Erin Walter found a surprise in this pandemic, a love of a dog named Spur.

My kids longed for a dog for years, coming to my husband and me with puppy dog eyes every few months. I bought them dog souvenirs on vacations and let our daughter get a paw print shaved into her hair. We were adamant that a real dog would be too much. We were never home. Ministry kept me busy. I was notoriously not a dog person.

What a difference a pandemic makes.

Suddenly we were always home — the kids in virtual school, Patrick doing tech work, me leading church services over Zoom. By August, we had taught the kids to ride bikes, watched a new garden grow and wilt, and popped holes in not one but two in-demand, inflatable baby pools. We were tired and tense, isolated and in need of some joy.

Because I like God’s sense of humor, I started pushing for a dog.

Two years ago, in this column, I wrote about finding your natural spiritual practice — an intentional habit to “connect with what is highest and deepest to us.” I advised readers to add “reflection to a hobby you already enjoy.” “Don’t force it,” I said. And I meant it.

In a pandemic, many of us are cut off from the practices that come naturally to us — group dance or meditation, in-person worship, singing with the choir or a rock band, hugs.

The world had changed. Was I willing to change, too, to connect with the divine, my spirit, and my family in new ways? After months of grief, I thought I might be.

I recalled my neighbors’ smiles as they walked their dogs every day. after a couple weeks of waiting for Austin Pets Alive to match us with a foster dog that met my picky, first-dog specifications, I turned to my husband over lunch. “Should we just Dog ‘N’ Dash?”

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“Go for it,” he said.

“Kids!” I called. “Shoes on! We’re gonna Dog ‘n’ Dash.”

I wish I had recorded their squeals. That was some serious joy.

APA's Dog ‘N’ Dash program matches people with foster dogs, sight unseen, so more animals can be cared for outside of the limited shelter environment. When we arrived, I simply texted our arrival, like H-E-B Curbside.

A volunteer wrote back, “We are bringing you a dog named Spur.” That was it. I took a breath and prayed for a dog I could handle. Out came a Husky with Ziggy Stardust eyes, one brown and one white-blue.

We were warned he was shy around people after at least a month roaming the streets of Atascosa County (a mental image that still brings tears to my eyes), but Spur nuzzled my 8-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter gently.

We brought him home just in time for the pet blessing service at Wildflower Church, and I cried watching the photos over Zoom, new pets, old pets and pets that had died in the past year —God’s creatures great and small. I knew we had a “foster fail” on our hands, and Spur had his “forever home.”

Dog walks have become my new spiritual practice, when I pray over text with friends, sing song ideas into my phone, call loved ones to check in, or simply drag the kids away from screens. Many days I see the sunrise with Spur and think of the Psalms: “Weeping may stay for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

I’m not alone in finding surprise spiritual practices during the pandemic. When I asked friends, what coping mechanisms they’ve developed to get through 2020, and now 2021, they responded with everything from deeper Bible study to exercising religiously to feeding the hungry to learning Hungarian.

“I subscribed to a knit club, learning to knit my way through long Zoom webinars,” said Sonja Miller, outreach and faith director for the Texas Freedom Network, whose advocacy work could not pause for a pandemic. “I will soon have a beautiful new afghan as a result.”

As we mark a long year of pandemic life, I grieve deeply the more than 2 million lives lost to COVID worldwide — an absolutely staggering number that includes my beloved Aunt Suzi, a definite dog person — and I also give thanks for unexpected blessings. For slowing down and getting to know our neighbors (and their pets). For friend’s handmade blankets and children’s joyful squeals. For dogs that remind us that people can change, and that life is better with more fresh air and unconditional love.

The Rev. Erin J. Walter is a Unitarian Unitarian minister affiliated with Wildflower Church in South Austin and a member of Austin bands Parker Woodland and Butch County. Doing Good Together is provided by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, interfaithtexas.org.