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January 24, 2015

Breaking Free of Fences & Chains.

Aisling doggie1

Most mornings, I take my dog, Esperanza, for a walk around the neighborhood.

When we are out walking I am infinitely thankful that we live in Nicaragua, where there are no leash laws or pooper scooper regulations. Although this may be appalling to some folks, think about it—I wouldn’t want to walk around with a chain around my neck (and also, in a tropical climate, the process of decomposition is quite accelerated).

Esperanza is not exactly a rescue dog, because technically, she rescued herself.

She appeared in my yard one day about six months ago, emaciated, lousy with mange and with a hideous wound around her neck, where she had obviously struggled to get free from something that was tied too tight around her neck. My kids couldn’t even stand to look at her for several weeks, but I gradually cured her wounds, got rid of the mange and added ten pounds to her sleek, black body.

Dogs are loyal and appreciative animals, so Esperanza is embarrassingly grateful.

Because of this, she walks around the neighborhood with me and rarely strays more than a few steps away—unless she sees a cat.

Most of the other dogs in our neighborhood, however, are chained up or trapped behind fences.

They do not dig seeing the two of us wandering around free and wild in the streets, on our six legs.

Every prisoner dog that we pass by starts leaping, barking, snarling, growling and peeling gums back in protest. Dogs are territorial and we are a menace, because their territory has been reduced to a few square meters.

The occasional free dog that we run into on the street just wanders over for a quick sniff greeting and keeps on. But the prisoner dogs are anxious and aggressive, distrustful of anything that threatens their small piece of world.

And, so are we.

It occurred to me one morning that we humans, smart as we think we are, walking around straight and tall, are just as chained up and fenced in as those dogs.

We make our chains by linking together our fears. We build fences by stacking our insecurities as high as they will reach. And then, we protect and defend, because we are afraid of losing all of the sacred and ridiculous things that we have worked to acquire in this life—people, possessions, ideas, opinions and safety.

I lived for many years, shackled to my fears and hiding behind my insecurities, I know how difficult it can be to break them to pieces and step into real life, which is raw, crude, chaotic and free as a dragonfly.

The truth is, while we are chained and fenced by our singular existence, there isn’t much we can do for the rest of the world, and the world needs us. As Dr. King so eloquently put it, we can’t really live or contribute to the greater good until we break free of our individual concerns.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.

~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (from a speech in Montgomery, Alabama on August 11, 1957)

There is much to do, every day, to offset the waves of hatred, discrimination and violence that are dividing us constantly.

This idea had been rattling around in my head for a couple of weeks and before I actually sat down to start writing, I decided to take some photos of the prisoner dogs, to help bring the words to life if they ever made it into print.

Esperanza and I went out at 6 a.m. one day and by the third house, we already had an irate dog bouncing against a chain link fence. I tried to be discreet as possible so the trick was to measure the light, get the shutter speed and aperture set before even approaching the first dog and then in one quick move, bam-bam-bam. I wasn’t really sure why people would mind having their dogs photographed, but it was in the back of my mind.

On our walk, we photographed four of five dogs and nobody seemed to notice or care.

We were just about half a block from home, when I saw a scruffy spaniel behind a white, metal gate. She was not barking, but wagging her stump of a tail, though her eyes were heavy with sadness. Just as I was crouching for angle to take her picture.

“Sir, what are you doing?” it was a man’s voice, coming from behind me.

I stood up and turned around to see a neighbor standing on his porch, behind some impossibly intricate steel bars. I had just greeted him a minute before, and got a bit of a grunt in response.

“I’m taking a picture of the dog” I responded. No need to get fancy.

“You can’t do that, it’s private property.”

His tone was decidedly aggressive, but he did not move from the confines of his porch.

“Well, I live right on the corner, I’m just taking a picture of the dog.”

“I’m asking you not to take that picture, that’s private property,” I could hear his agitation rising.

We exchanged a couple more words and instead of giving into the temptation of bantering a bit longer, I got up and left. He was confrontational and there was no sense to engaging in conflict over a picture of a dog. I smiled and said, “I live in that yellow house on the corner, if you need anything. Have a great day,” making sure to erase any hint of sarcasm from my voice.

These are the moments in which we put everything into practice—-tolerance, respect, compassion.

I came to me during this exchange—he was probably a man in chains, hiding behind a very ornate and secure fence.

I took a few mental notes on his physical appearance, his house, his big truck parked out front and I realized that I was probably a threat to his piece of world, just by doing something unusual and incomprehensible. After all, who the hell walks around with a camera and a silly grin at six in the morning, taking pictures of dogs?

In his defense, he might have been concerned that I was casing his neighbor’s house, but since I live half a block away, it would not be a wise move on my behalf. He had obviously worked hard to buy his house and his big truck—I have a deep appreciation for hard work.

Granted, I am formulating an opinion (I hope it is not a judgment) based on a few words and a quick visual survey, but I will go with my instincts on this one.

Our fears and insecurities can limit us from truly appreciating life.

I lived in chains for several years, but finally found the courage to break free, just like Esperanza. I know that during that time I was not the person, the parent, the friend, son, brother that I have become today.

There is no easy way to achieve freedom.

We sit down, look deep inside without blinking, take out our tools, hammer, chisel, conviction, resilience, confidence and we go to work.

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Author: Peter Schaller

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: courtesy of the author

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