Saturday, December 29, 2007

New Year's Revolutions

To be a dog.

That was Tony's recommendation to me on the phone tonight; I can't claim it as my own. But it represents the highest wisdom, the most ached-for attainment. Tony (who should know, he who is faced with the greatest of consuming fears every minute of his days, and he who lives with two exemplars, each in their own divergent ways, of open-flowered dogness) offered this possibility to me as I recounted the past few hours to him: a twilight walk with Nelly through my favorite woods, a gift to myself, during which I felt inexplicably happy, full of hope. I found myself smiling. I allowed myself, knowing that to do so--even if only to the dark-stained tree trunks rising all around me--would be to intensify the effect, as well as the cause; smiling begets happiness, even as happiness begets smiles. They release intoxicating brain chemicals every bit as tastily fizzy as the first sip of prosecco (pop). I thought: This is OK. And Life is OK. People were right when they told me, no, promised me, I was going to be OK. So I smiled at the people I passed on the trail: we are simple, we humans; we can be bought for a facial expression. It changes everything, maybe the molecules in the air. People like you, when you like them first. The dogs greeted each other, exchanged their business cards, then disengaged to go see what was next in this interestingly scented universe.

Be a dog.

Then, an hour later, I'm on the phone with Tony, and the tears push up and over the dam, spilling in a crystal arc of never-ending liquidity. "What's the matter with me, Tony? Just a little bit ago, I was happy. I didn't know why, but I felt like I had gotten somewhere, and it was good, and now here I am, like something you'd need a lot of paper towels to get up off the floor." In his hard-won sagacity, he tells me I'm on a roller coaster now--oh, this I know!--and this is simply what life will be like for a while. But we're all on a roller coaster. From birth, which is the moment you get strapped in by the attendant. That's why "roller coaster" is the Number One Cliche. "You've got to turn yourself into a dog," he goes on. "Then you can be there, in the happiness, and not think about what's behind or ahead." "What's ahead" seems, at this moment, to consist largely of tears.

I was reading Time magazine, which is not something I recommend, even if you are in the fifth grade, which is where its reading level is aimed. The cover story was the obligatory gee-whiz look at the evolution of morality in humans. (When Time does a "think" piece, watch out: your world is about to be rocked!) I would prefer to always place "morality" in quotes: I think it's another of those fictive rationales built to retroactively paper over something a) we don't want to countenance (like, for instance, the idea that everything we do is biologically based, so we cannot possibly be separate from the rest of biological creation); or b) something we wish were true, but is simply not supported by observable reality. Hey, that's OK. Make a construct! Works every time!

Terry Eagleton, one of my early intellectual crushes, points up a) above nicely (see why I liked him?) in Harper's recently when he writes, "The structure of biography is biology. For all its tribute to the individual spirit, it is our animal life that underpins it."

The article on morality was written in the same infuriating, self-cancelling style that has become the New York Times's stock in trade: "fair," "balanced" journalism apparently means you say one thing, then in the next sentence you find something to contradict it. No matter if it's patently idiotic.

But I digress, as usual. Boy do I. (But dogs digress, don't they? Isn't that rather the form of their lives, one long digression composed of digressions?)

At least the magazine calls it by its proper name: it is "vanity" to think we are unique among animals. Then it goes on to say, "What does, or ought to [my italics, to show I don't comprehend this one whit], separate us then is our highly developed state of morality." But why do we NEED to be separated? Why do we insist on it, like a child hugging to its chest the blocks it doesn't want to share? Could it be . . . vanity??

Do we behave in so-called moral ways because we revere the notion of right, or because doing right works for us? This would be B. F. Skinner's view, I guess, and Jean Donaldson's, too, if we can extrapolate the motivations of our own behavior from that of dogs. (And here my cri de coeur is "Extrapolate away!") Be a dog.

If this is true, then, morality is really a cover story for selfishness. (Or what Time calls, in a bit of poetry that clearly escaped a sleepy editor's delete key, "a mercantile business" called reciprocal altruism.)

I make a vow that in the new year I will think more about this; I will arrive at theories, conclusions, revolutionary new ways of seeing humanity, earth-altering understandings of our condition. Then I will go on dog walks. I will shake off my self-absorption, if only for an hour or two a day, then do some clicker training with my dog. And I'll write here about a more proper subject than this incessant whining about my personal heartache. It will be a relief for all of us.

There are more resolutions to come.

Nelly ate her lapin tartare on the lawn for lunch today. This is one way in which I will not be a dog. While she undoubtedly found it the most civilized thing to do--the height of her civilization, that is--I found myself in a strange state of mind as I wrapped a plastic shopping bag around my arm and then felt the interesting weight of a recently live being's refrigerated innards in my hand. It was a transporting experience. Where exactly did it take me?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Holly and the Ivy

I received my Christmas present early this year, and it's all I really want. Oh, well, all right. That's not true. I do have a small list that I have conveyed to the powers at the North Pole, a few items relating to fame, fortune, and the like, but I doubt that Santa is going to get Javier Bardem wrapped and under my tree in time. I'll just take yesterday's gift.

The snow has a nice hard crust on it, so it fools your foot every darn time. "I can walk," you think; "No, you don't," says the snow. After a moment's hesitation on the surface, crunch, down it goes, so that every step is twice the expenditure of energy as usual. But that's for a normal-sized person (as well as for the poor deer, whose sharp hooves cut through the crust, too, so you see them these days taking paths of least resistance on the plowed roads; alas, this is not the time of year they want to be expending their hard-earned calories on commuting). For Nelly, at twenty pounds, the foot of snow merely makes her taller than she is used to being. And that means she can now reach the point on the fence where the gauge is big enough for her to squirm through, or where a sag at the top permits her to go up and over. Please recall that her probable father is a dog named Houdini, whom no fence can contain. Where is the fence-scaling gene in the canine's makeup, I wonder?

In the morning when we go out to wait for the school bus, Nelly comes too, but stays inside the fence, noodling around, sniffing the tracks of whatever visited our yard the night before. It's her version of reading the morning edition. My son and I sit on the bench (at least we do when there aren't five-foot-high banks of snow pushed against it) and read together. It's a lovely time. It wasn't a lovely time yesterday when I watched Nelly scrambling over the fence and running to our neighbor's. They are my dear friends. Plus they have chickens, whom Nelly is very interested in meeting on a far more intimate level. I'm standing there helplessly watching this, both because I can't leave my eight-year-old to stay by the road alone so I can traipse all over the neighborhood trying to catch a Nelly-who-won't-be-caught, and also because it would be, as I just mentioned, bootless to try. It always is.

When she was finished there (no fresh chicken breakfast, thank goodness), she came trotting down the road toward us. Then, she had a thought. She stopped, considered something. Then gave me The Look. Her friend Willy gives The Look, too, at the end of a walk when he's trying to decide if he's going to give his human mother a heart attack as he turns to trot down the road to explore several miles of backyards. Nelly's look said, "I don't think so. I'm not through, just yet." Whereupon she crossed the road, and bounded up onto the wooded hill opposite. Then she found the carefully planted excuse of several squirrels to follow, and did so, finally disappearing out of view up and over, far away.

She is a white dog. Smaller than the snow piles that line the roadway. No one would see her before they were on top of her.

Everyone told me the holidays this year were going to be hard for me. I did not know what they meant until they were nearly on top of me. The analogue is that when I was pregnant, everyone said, "Your life is going to change in ways you could never dream." Yeah, yeah. What did they think, I was an idiot? I'm smart enough to figure that out on my own, thank you.

I wasn't. The truth of the prediction hit only when I had taken that baby home. My life was to change in ways that blew my little unsuspecting, yes, idiotic, mind. And so it is now. The holidays are hard. I keep getting thrown into the past like litter against a storm fence when a semi blows by at 80. Just putting the ornaments on the tree--the ornaments that represent a collective past, and the promise that they will always be in the box in the attic for the future collective Christmas--brought down a sadness that was so crushing I wanted to do anything to avoid feeling it. I recall depressions of the past, how psychic pain can feel so much worse than physical pain that I understand (though don't get me wrong, I am not contemplating it) the urge to wash it away with the spilling of one's own blood. The holidays are hard. They make you remember. They make you wish for what you cannot have.

After the bus came, I reluctantly turned away. I could not see Nelly; she had obviously gone far down the road, up on the hill that skirts it. I left the gate open a foot, and told myself to give myself up to a higher power: the one called luck. Because that was what was needed to bring Nelly back safely across the road when she decided to return home, luck that she would choose a moment when no car was barreling at ridiculous speed, as they often do around here, around these blind curves. I had to give up the sense that I could prevent anything, that I could change fate if fate was to visit this day. I was not entirely successful in letting go, however, because I was writing a little narrative in which the woman who has just lost nearly everything then loses the little dog who is much of her comfort in a time of mourning. And right before the holidays, too. I admit to being morbid and hysterical. Yes, indeedy.

But still I walked back to the house. I made myself: an act of leaving. I was going to go in and shut the door, go about my business, try to tamp down the hope that I would soon hear Nelly's sharp bark asking to come back in, saying, I'm done out there for now.

I approached the porch steps. Something came toward me from the back of the house. Nelly stood and stared. I stared back. How did she get here, appearing from the opposite direction she had disappeared? How did she get back into the yard, when the only way to do so from the road is to come through the same gate I had just come from?

It was a Christmas miracle. The only explanation is that there can be no explanation. That I have to let that desire go, too. The holidays are going to be hard. This gift was easy.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nearer, My Dog, to Thee

When did I realize that I love Nelly so much? That I have the kind of dog others call "so sweet" and then I get a bit oozy inside?

It happened slowly, that's why I can't afix a date. Real love grows at about the same rate as a rubber tree. Try watching one to see. But new leaves do appear. The trunk gets slowly bigger. Or, to switch metaphors, since one is not enough to cover this topic, you build up to 60 mph, you don't start there. I wish I knew the mechanism by which this occurs. It has something to do with time, and important experiences shared. In the case of Nelly and me, or indeed anyone else I've ever loved, "important" experiences are designated by the amount of danger they contain. This can be physical, or it can be emotional; danger is danger, and sets your heart to racing all the same. And oh lordy, we've been through some times together! I had initially thought I'd be writing here primarily about Nelly's close calls, maybe rating them on a scale of, say, one to five mortar shells. By now, mysteriously, I am suffused with love for her, especially when I look at her from some distance, which gives the ideal view. Then I see her.

Those cumulative hours I have waited in the cold, the dark, the wet slowly seeping into my boots, the briers scratching my face as I try for a shot at getting her tail at least; those minutes ticking by, piling up, are the blocks that build love. Finally they accrete into a mountain, and you are there, standing elevated above the world, risen to a breathtaking view, by love.

There is the thing we call "love at first sight," and believe me, I am not immune to its especial charge. Gunpowder, it's packed with. The eyes start the spark, then boom. Anyone who would like to deny we are merely a vessel for the wash of chemicals released by various glands, triggered by currents in the brain, has never caught the eye of someone at a party or on the subway and felt things running through the body that are among the most extraordinary feelings we can feel. I don't have words for them, sorry. They are way beyond words. Somehow, "chemistry at first sight" doesn't do it. But you know the zinging, the pinging, the dear hope, the rocketing possibilities, that all spring into being in this shattered second.

The particular breed bias I have--I've got border collies on the brain, you have your "type," be it goldens or pugs--is a form of this. It works with human breeds, too. To my final day, I will feel a jolt when I spy a curly-haired Jewish poet-philosopher type, because he will remind me of someone long ago: a love at first sight that grew into the real thing. They don't get better than that.

Maybe breed bias is a sort of manufactured love at first sight. I see a BC, and am brought back to the memory, physically imprinted on my being, of the love I bore for Mercy-the-mostly-border-collie. By the time she was ten years old, it encompassed the world. I have a friend who lost her son at sixteen. I don't have words for this, either. But she described the love of a mother for her child as a great engine, which stirs into life on the day of birth. Each subsequent day, it gathers power. The pistons are fired faster and faster; the steam builds. Hotter, faster, hotter, faster. Every day, that love chugs and chugs and chugs. Finally the clatter, the great breathing muscle of power, is going so hard you wonder the machine doesn't explode. That's love.

Nelly has become a piece of me. I need her, want her, to be near. I don't sleep as well if she is not pressing her small warm weight against my body. Without her, something is missing, and I feel it even if I don't name it. She still goes on heartstoppingly extended walkabout--she's a canid, after all, and has some 100-proof brain chemicals (the ones that say "rabbit in vicinity!") even stronger than those that make hearts grow fonder. But she too, increasingly, wants to be with me. She eventually, eventually, comes back. And when we are together the earth starts its revolutions again. I don't know if I would die without the love of a dog. I only know I don't want to live without it.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Place You Love Is Gone

When I lie in my bed, all I need do to enter the past is turn my head. In an instant I pass through years. Through the window I catch a slice of a great red barn, silver metal roof, that has been standing a hundred years or more. It is itself made from parts of other, older barns, so its history encompasses others' histories; in this respect it is like me. It is only steps from the house, but I think of how far it is on a dark and cold winter night, one perhaps deep in drifting snow and sharp wind. I have read that people had to string ropes from their homes to their barns so that farmers wouldn't be lost forever between them in the swallowing snow when they went of a dark morning to tend the livestock.

It takes only a small sleight of mind to imagine this lonely scene out my window, so unreconstructed is the view out back of the house. This is one of the many gifts this place has given up: the ability to live in the midst of a past so easily called up it is almost here.

Looking at this scenery, devoid of much human mark except for rail fencing, depending how you allow your eyes to frame it, inspires inexcusable bouts of corniness. I will try to suppress them. But it almost hurts to be here now, now I know I must leave.

We got this place through the misfortunes of the family who preceded us in it. I have felt the weight of this sometimes. Our luck. Their loss.

When I looked about, I saw dreams to come. The old shed by the mulberry tree, where in the late spring we would wade out in the tall grass and fill buckets with warm berries, and eat half of them before we could even make it back up onto the porch. The shed would become a playhouse for our son, a place of his own.

The barn, I wasn't sure if it would become home again to horses and goats, or if its new reclamation should make it a temple to creativity: we could show our friends' paintings, have readings, host children's plays, and barn dances of course. It was already a temple anyway, a temple of space, rising up to the heights of the great roof, making you rise with it.

The gardens were struggling, and every spring I would add one or two perennials, every fall a handful of bulbs. Someday, I imagined, they would look just like those English cottage gardens, laying down swaths of color, packed in and blurring like an Impressionist canvas.

Most of all, this place has been a Disneyland for dogs: due to its exceptional topography, once we fenced and gated the road side, the back could be left open--no dog was going to leave home via a swamp. And so it has been Nelly's playground, and also the foxes', the deer's, the coyotes'. We were all here together, and what a privilege it's been.

We are pack animals, too. Nelly's excitement on seeing Willy and Dixie, or Nora and Malcolm, or Juni and Izzy, boils over like pasta water on a hot stove (did I mention she's a screamer?). She needs her mates, her community. And I need mine. I found it on this road. Bonnie, Pam, Jeanette: dear friends, dear friends. We have the keys to one another's houses. We give each other as emergency contacts. We share our produce, sometimes our eggs. We lend our ears and our shoulders. "Could you please take my dog for a walk today?" "Can you come over for a minute; I need to talk." "I'm going to the store, can I pick up something for you?" This is the ideal village, the one they always talk about being lost. I found it.

And because of the same misfortune that now has befallen us, someone else will have the luck to find this place, its beauty that was like nutrition to me. My loss, their luck. Perhaps it will be a weight on them, sometimes.

Change is inevitable, so they say. I know this; I accept this. Right now, I embrace it, in moments--it's like knowing your birthday is on the horizon: Oh, damn. Another year, resting on my shoulders, as your years do on you (I sometimes remember to remind myself that all of us currently on the planet are aging at exactly the same rate; it makes me feel a little better about hanging out with the occasional fashion model friend). Still, hey--presents, cake, a party! But let me invite you in to the particularities of this change. In the future, I will also fill you in on the unexpected gifts of what is unseen, but waiting.

I'll leave my flowers; someone else will watch them bloom. I'll leave my fountain, the sound of which made me feel cool in the summer. I'll leave this dogs' paradise. I'll leave my pack, and I can't imagine finding one again as tight, as perfect. I'll leave behind the unfulfilled dreams, the tumbledown outbuildings; the treehouse whose site was selected but remains a pencil drawing in the brain. My head, at any rate, comes up with plans at a rate that the most dedicated construction crew could not keep up with even if I'd kept them on retainer and housed them in the barn (which they'd have had to have repaired first).

On Halloween, I had a bonfire party out by the barn, a big fire blazing in the fire circle. We ate chili and cornbread; we talked, as fires tend to make us do. I had titled it a Burn the Past bonfire; this sounded brave to me, the announcement of a ritual when a ritual seemed so desperately required. Everyone was encouraged to throw into the flames something that reminded them of something that was over. I had my contributions. I went through the motions, as rituals are comprised of motions. But it felt hollow. It felt like whistling in the dark. I wanted it to be true, that I could forget as soon as the mementos were ash, but I couldn't. I didn't let anyone know, however. At the end, someone remarked that maybe they would host the same party next year. I spoke up brightly, "Or maybe I'll do it again here!" They were silent. I had forgotten I would no longer be here. They looked at me as you would a person with terminal illness who insists on talking about the future.

My son had painted a picture of the phoenix that is to rise from these flames. The phoenix, I trust, is me and him together. The phoenix will be the new house into which we will move soon; I imagine it to resemble the wish house I have carried in my mind's eye for twenty-five years now. I know the dangers of having dreams that are too specific, too much like a shopping list. I cannot picture the person who I hope one day will allow me to trust, and to love, again. If I do, I may walk past him when he, unrecognizable, appears.

I know we can find a place that will be good and happy for both of us, and for Nelly. I daren't hope we could find one whose landscapes, framed by every window, would make me feel so goddamn lucky. I daren't hope we could find a pack as fine as we have belonged to here. But maybe. And other flowers. In summer.