Back in the days when I was first learning about letting go, I got to know a certain dog at the beach. He was a golden retriever, and he seemed to belong more to the beach itself than to any one person. The lower half of him was perpetually dripping from his adventures in the sea, and no matter his mischief — no matter whose sandwich leftovers he sniffed at, or which elderly ladies he shook himself dry on, the wet-dog spray sparkling in the sun — I never heard an owner's voice call him back.
He was generally a good dog, though, and it was hard not to like him. Even my mom, who has never been a dog person and enjoys her beach serene and dog-less, took a liking to the thing. Indeed, it was my mom, a spiritual being at heart, who named the nameless dog "the won't let go dog."
The thing the dog wouldn't let go of was a tennis ball, of course. He carried the ball always — he'd had it so long now it was gray-green and moldy, the color of seaweed — and he kept it almost hidden, way up towards the back of his big-toothed, grinning mouth. It was forever amusing to see the random dog-lover attempt to coax (and then, failing calmer methods, wrestle) the ball from his mouth. It never worked: the dog's jaw was as strong as a vise. Of course, just as the guy was giving up and turning to walk away, the retriever would give a little friendly bark, and let the ball drop gently to the sand. The man, smiling and thinking to himself, So, that's your game, would turn and bend to pick up the ball, at which point the dog would snatch it up in his teeth, and the whole dance would begin again. My mom and I would sit there watching it all and laughing.
I partook in these dances myself, but I had studied and practiced and finally mastered the art of getting the ball from the dog that wouldn't let it go. The first thing you had to realize was that there was nothing in the whole wide world that this dog wanted more than to let go of the ball so that then you could throw it to him. He was a retriever. The urge to chase down that ball was in his bones — every atom of him quivered with it. At the same time, the dog was petrified of releasing the thing. Perhaps there had been trauma in his puppy years, teenagers who had taken his ball but, instead of throwing it to him, had kept it for themselves, or maliciously tossed it over an un-leapable fence. The plain fact was, for whatever reason, as much as he wanted to give you the ball so that you could throw it to him, as much as that was his greatest and only want, it was his greatest and only fear.
And so you had to be patient with the dog, allow him to work through his neuroses. But the biggest trick was simply this: somehow, you had to convince the dog you wanted the ball less than he did.
From a distance, crouched there nose to nose, motionless, the sea behind us, we must have looked like we were communicating, having some secret, silent conversation. But the fact is, each of us were only talking to ourselves. I was telling myself, Do not think about the ball, let go of your want for the ball, want it not and the dog will let you have it, do not reach for it, be desireless, indifferent, avert your eyes, gaze out to sea... And the dog was thinking, Maybe I should give this guy the ball, but wait, no, he might take it, but wait, if I let him have it, HE'LL THROW IT TO ME! But wait, no, if he takes it away, I might lose it forever, but wait, he doesn't even seem to really want it, so maybe I can trust him, but wait, no... And all this time he was rolling the ball around his mouth and dropping it to the sand and snatching it up just as quickly, letting it go and then pulling it right back up into those teeth, gnawing at it, letting it go, and as time went by and I sat there patiently waiting, the dog would release the thing a little longer each time, let it roll a little closer to me, until, finally, in a lightning-like sweep of my hand, I would snatch the ball from beneath the dog's twitching nose and leap up and he would leap up too and I would throw the ball in a long, graceful arc down the length of the beach, and the dog, free at last from his dilemma, would bound happily through the sand after his ball and chain.