Ben the collie is a bolter. When he was growing up, he bolted incessantly. He could escape from any nook or cranny. He would disappear over the hills, and farmers would ring, angry and worried for their sheep. Eventually his owners kept him in a room with one window six feet up. He got out of that, too. Afterwards, they kept him chained. When Pam took him, at two years old, they were going to have him shot. You cannot have a runaway dog in sheep country in the north of Scotland.
Ben began to bolt because he was a creature of inquiring mind, keen nose, and vast lupine energy. What else is a dog to do when the hills are calling? But it is hard to discern the moment when Ben stopped running towards, and began to run away. Was it the first time he was locked in a room, or the twentieth; was it when they put him on a chain, or when the neighbourhood dogs, sensing a trapped animal, pinned him on it; was it when his owners stopped reprimanding him for his forays, and started reprimanding him for his character? Somewhere along the line, Ben became a ‘bad dog’. After that, one can imagine, there was nothing left to lose.
When Ben moved to Edinburgh with Pam, he continued to bolt. Sometimes he disappeared for hours at night. You cannot chase a dog in the dark through a city of gardens and stairwells and woods and alleys and vertiginous steps, so Pam left the front window open and went to sleep. He always came back.
And then he stopped bolting at night. He stopped bolting almost entirely. There was just one thing.
I have spent an hour walking up and down in the woods of the Hermitage of Braid, whistling. I have picked up the tennis ball abandoned at first whiff of a grey-furred tail. I have listened for the chatter of irate squirrels in a tree at the foot of which my beloved canine friend will be sitting, open-mouthed, staring upwards, riveted, transported by a thrill I can only imagine. I have sat on the tree-stump for half an hour, waiting, growing cold, being steadily eaten by ants. I have looked in vain for the dart of black and white in the trees, and I have both sent and answered the iMessage call for more troops. Sometimes, recovering Ben the bolter is a two-woman job.
At first it wracked the nerves. In dog land, there is nothing more awful than losing someone else’s dog. I feared the worst: cars, barbed wire, a dog’s dizzyingly infinite capacity to roam, thieves who would see only a handsome purebred face (good luck to them, really. He’d be gone again in the blink of an eye). Whenever the Olympian dash happened, my stomach dropped and something icy gripped my heart. By God, a border collie can run fast when it is running towards a rapid-dashing critter. It was small consolation that Ben the bolter, the bad dog who spent his young years on a chain, had finally learned to run away for sheer joy.
But he always comes back. And in his coming back, there is tremendous delight. As he crests the hill, as he courses the path towards me, as he kicks up leaves and splashes beneath his perfect paws, there is beatific pleasure on his smiling dog-face. Who knows why it’s this whistle that he responds to, rather than the last, but there is, it seems, a moment when the draw of the people who love him is greater than the pull of the elusive wild. It turns out that all the while – up crag and round tree, behind boulder and down-valley – he knew where we were, and how to get back. And there’s only one way to describe the speed with which he returns: Ben the bolter bolts towards us as if we’re the best squirrels he’s ever seen.
What are we to make of this canine ‘tail’? It is not, after all, only dogs that run away. We are all escape artists, in our own way, and in our own time. We absent ourselves into distraction, desire, fantasy, work, and play. And some of this is joyful, without doubt. We find a thrill in being alive, in playing with possibility, in chasing what can’t be caught. We too run for the hills, and the adventures of the city under darkness, and the teeth-grinding frenzy of primeval triumph, and the life-affirming luxury of a roll in the mud. (It takes all sorts.)
Other parts of our running away may be shrouded in shame. We do it in secret and tell no-one, not even ourselves. We judge it before we truly understand it; like many have done before us, and even to us, we forsake deeper self-knowledge in favour of denial or self-blame. Perhaps part of understanding our own stories is to come to see how as living beings, even our most misguided boltings will be in some way towards life, and health. Of course we run from the locked room and the chain. Of course we run from the forces that tell us we are bad. Running away is not the problem. The problem is when we don’t know what we’re running from, or why, and how we might create a life that’s worth running back to.
Because isn’t that what we want, in the end? Not to live an abstemious life, without desire or joy, in which to fence ourselves like an errant dog; but a life with a centre, a gravitational pull of steady delight, from which we can run and play with occasional wild abandon – always knowing where the heart is, where we will return, and why we want to. It takes time and intention to figure this out. We will run away over and over again in our lives, while we do; and each time, we have another chance to figure out a little more. If you’re up for it, run with your eyes wide open, and leave the front window ajar. You’ll come home when you’re ready.
To subscribe to the MindLetter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mindfulness lunchtime drop-ins run 1.10 to 1.50pm, Tuesdays online, and Fridays at the Chaplaincy Centre in Bristo Square. Free, no sign-up required, and open to all.
Photography: Kitty Wheater; Sam Sills