Sometimes, I’m not sure I’ll ever have all of the constraints in place to live the disciplined, focused life I desire. Just two nights ago, my husband and I (ok, it was me) decided to watch just one more episode of Downton Abbey from the three-season boxed set I got for Christmas, which meant we were up much too late to get the sleep we needed. Shouldn’t it have been obvious that starting an hour-long TV show 30 minutes before bedtime wasn’t a good idea?

Other times, I know I am overthinking it all, and eventually, the limits I need will come naturally.

How do I know? Just look at Tilly, our 3-year-old black Labrador Retriever.

When Tilly first came to live with me at six weeks old, I had a small fenced-in yard where she could go outside and do her business. Inside the house, Tilly was constrained by her crate while I was away, by the doors to my bedroom at night, and by the extent of the house when I was home and awake.

Outside of the crate and the bedroom and the house and the fence, though, Tilly would take off running. I never really gave her the opportunity to go far. But the pull on the leash and the gleam in her eye told me that one day, when she finally got the chance, she’d be gone.

At our house in the country, where we now live with my husband and stepsons on an acre lot across from a corn field, Tilly doesn’t have a fenced-in yard to constrain her. So, we use a vinyl-coated steel cable with a metal bolt snap to keep Tilly from darting around the neighborhood. We know where she would go without it; last summer, she occasionally would sneak past us at the door and run over to visit the dogs across the driveway. She always comes back, but still.

During the recent Polar Vortex, Tilly’s cable was nearly buried, and the stainless steel clasp was frozen shut. That didn’t stop Tilly from needing to do her business, though. So at the risk of having to chase her down in the middle of a blizzard, we let her go outside unhindered.

At first, we watched her closely, quickly calling her back to the house with the promise of a treat as soon as she relieved herself. But eventually, we understood that Tilly “off the cable” did nothing that Tilly “on the cable” couldn’t do. She had lived within her limits long enough that they had become second nature.

When the snow melts and the metal thaws and Tilly whines at the back door again, as usual, we will still use the cable. The heavy snow meant there were very few cars or squirrels or neighborhood dogs to distract her in the last couple of days like they normally do.

But seeing my girl happily constrained by nothing more than her habits of the past 12 months has given me hope.

That, and the fact that we have only one episode of Downton Abbey left in our boxed set.


My word for 2014 is “limit.” Join me here for occasional posts about how I’m living that out.