The first time

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Do you remember what it’s like to experience the world for the first time?  As writers and artists, it’s our job to help people to see the world in a different way.  At our best, we throw light on a part of experience that wows someone, gives them a moment of epiphany, encourages them to appreciate the beauty (or sometimes the ugliness) of the world in a way they’ve never experienced it.  We seek ways to describe things as they have never been described before.  We pay attention to the look, feel, taste and sound of things in a way that others don’t.  But as we go about our daily lives, how often do we view the world as though it’s our first time?

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Recently, my one-year-old dog met a horse for the first time.  I can only imagine what he thought as this enormous, strange-looking creature walked towards him.  As they first made contact, they sniffed one another gently, as though there was nothing curious about the situation.  Perhaps my dog thought it was just another kind of canine that he’d never come across before.  Or maybe there was something in the smell of the horse that made him realise this was something else altogether.  How would you describe a horse if it was something you never knew existed before you met one?  Would you explore it, as my dog did, with sight, smell, touch, until you had a concept of the animal in your mind?  How would you then put your experience into words, or describe it on canvas?

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Recently, my dog paddled in the sea for the first time.  He walked reluctantly into the water, lifting his legs awkwardly as he experienced the soft sand beneath his feet and the gentle pull of the tide.  He stood very still, not quite sure what to do now he was in the water and, despite encouragement, he certainly didn’t want to go any deeper.  Water has always been part of his life, but usually contained within a drinking bowl.  I wonder what he made of this water that went on as far as he could see and strangely, tasted nothing like the water he was used to drinking.  What would you do if you walked into the sea for the first time, never knowing it existed before you were in it?  Would you stand still, as my dog did, surveying the scene and exploring it by smell and taste until you could begin to understand what it might be?

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Recently, my dog travelled on a bus for the first time.  He climbed onto this odd-looking vehicle, that perhaps seemed just like a big room loaded with people, and it began to move.  When he climbed off, he was in a completely different place to where he’d begun, despite not walking anywhere.  How would you describe travelling on a bus, a metro, in a car, having never experienced it before?  How would you begin to understand the concept that it’s possible to travel from one place to another with no effort?

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Recently, my dog experienced thunder for the first time.  A huge storm rolled in, with mammoth claps of thunder immediately over the house.  He was unbothered by it, took it in his stride.  But I wonder what he must have been thinking about this enormous noise coming out of nowhere.  What if you didn’t know that thunder existed?  What stories would you invent to account for the phenomenon?  Would you be afraid, transfixed, awed?

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We forget what it’s like to experience things for the first time.  Life goes on and despite the odd chink of beauty, it’s easy to forget how mysterious and wonderful the world is.  To experience the power of a thunderstorm and not know what it is.  To meet a new creature for the first time.  To experience the limitless water of the sea, which is so different to the tamed water that comes out of the tap.  To start in one place and end up in another, without using your feet.  The world must be a baffling, astonishing place for my dog.  And if we want to be truly great at writing, at art, we must hold onto that sense of mystery, that feeling of awe.  Whether we’re describing the world around us, or describing a character in a certain situation, it can only help us to imagine that we’re seeing it for the first time.   To step back and forget that this is something we’ve seen before, done before and attempt to describe it as though it’s something we don’t know or understand.

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Living with a puppy has made me appreciate the world anew and consider how I begin to look at the way I create, literally, with fresh eyes.  How do you make sure you remember the mystery and wonder of the world as though you were seeing it for the first time?

What my dog teaches me

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The world is a different place when you have a dog.  Strangers approach to talk.  People greet you and smile.  Walks are punctuated by stops for conversation and new encounters.  A whole community of fellow dog lovers opens up and welcomes you in.  You are no longer invisible to, or isolated from, your fellow humans.  The presence of the dog draws you together, a reason, or an excuse, for contact.

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Dogs have always guided us.  In mythology, they are liminal creatures, guarding the threshold to the home or the borders to other worlds.  Hecate is accompanied by dogs as she escorts us on our journey from this world to the next.   Dogs represent companionship and loyalty, but they are also the untamed, howling creatures that attend the fearsome wild hunt as it tears across the countryside.

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I’m a different person when I’m with my dog.  Up at dawn, into the still-slumbering world, I’m able to see the town as it’s tinged with sunrise and hear the morning calls of the birds.  I rediscover my neighbourhood, walking streets and open spaces I haven’t frequented for years.  I fully experience the changing of the seasons, as darkness gives way to light, flowers begin to pepper bare grass and barren branches burst into blossom.  My favourite beauty spots are seen anew, through the eyes and nose of my puppy, as he discovers grass, beach, sea for the first time.

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My dog lives fully and in the moment.  When he wakes, he is completely awake and excited to meet the day.  He is curious about every sound, every smell, every view.  He greets places we visit every day with the same enthusiasm as if he’d never been there before.  Everything is a potential toy, whether it’s a ball or an old sock.  My dog is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover.  Every person, and every dog, is a potential friend, including those that I would be tempted to avoid.  He doesn’t know what a grudge is, greeting everyone in the same excited way, even if they’ve ignored or snarled at him before.  Every morning and every time I return home, it’s obvious how happy he is to see me.  And when he finally gives in to sleep, he surrenders to it entirely, twitching and mewling and barking through his dreams.

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When I’m with my dog, I don’t worry about the usual things that concern me.  When I’m with my dog, I don’t dwell or plan, or become anxious.  When I’m with my dog, I’m focused on nothing but him and the environment we’re in, watching him play, or sniff, or discover new things.  Being with my dog is like a walking meditation, when the world becomes clearer and more present.

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Since our dog came to live with us, seven months ago, he’s given me the gift of acceptance.  He dispels the need to be more, do more, have more.  Since he came, I’ve changed almost without noticing.  I’m content simply to be with him, to experience life with him.  He helps me to value simple pleasures.  No matter how tired or pressured I am, I’m forced out of bed, or off the couch and out into the world.  My dog refreshes me, giving me a break from the person I sometimes have to be.  He encourages me to do more than exist every day.

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To live like a dog is to start each day enthusiastically and with curiosity.   To find pleasure and excitement in every simple thing, whether or not you’ve done and seen them before.  To accept and embrace friends and strangers alike, without pre-judgement.  To live with a dog is to walk alongside a creature who can teach you to recognise that life, at its simplest, is about being where you are and cherishing it.