A Difficult Circle to Draw: Those of you who know me know that I am a dog lover. The last time I wrote a canine-connected post here was in February, when I delivered the sad news of the loss of our beloved Belle. I genuinely appreciate the outpouring of heartfelt condolences and support the post initiated. It was a very healing process, indeed.
We still sorely miss our Belle. The loss lingers, hitting us in unexpected ways. Today’s post is about dealing with the opposite—with the circle of life starting over again. And yet, as you’ll see, there are surprising similarities between the two extremes. If we are Facebook friends, you undoubtedly know that we have a new puppy in our lives. The steady stream of photos there are sort of my version of Rafiki holding up Simba for the appraisal of the realm.
FourLeaf’s Surfer Girl, a.k.a. Gidget, arrived in our home at seven weeks of age in mid-May. She’s fourteen weeks old to the day as of the writing of this post. And she’s mostly adorable (I’ve heard people joke that puppies are cute so that we don’t kill them – I am once again reminded how bitingly funny that joke is). And quite often she’s even fun to have around. And so, in spite of life’s occasional trials and sorrows, the circle continues.
Consumed by Chaos: Gidget has now lived exactly half her life with us, and in some ways it feels like half a lifetime to me, too. It’s embarrassing to admit, but the chaos of having a puppy has more or less consumed my life these past seven weeks. The bursts of unbridled energy combined with a mouthful of needle teeth and no concept of manners can be utterly exhausting. Thank God puppies sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day. Any more hours of that level of vitality would make raising one nigh unbearable. I’d forgotten what a relief it is to close a kennel door (as I did just before starting this post).
All of this gives me a renewed sense of appreciation for those of you who have kids and jobs outside of the house, let alone a pet (or pets), and still manage to get some writing done. I can see that it’s going to take much more focus from me, and rapid improvement from our new family member, for me to get my current rewrite done anytime soon.
Lessons at the Near End of the Leash: Sometimes I feel a bit of resentment for having to deal with such a turbulent presence in our house, in the stead of my dear lost writing partner. And I suffer occasional pangs of guilt over my increasing affection for Gidget (it’s not logical, but it feels like a betrayal to Belle). And yet I think having had so much of my attention and effort tied up in caring for and training our new family member has had its benefits. It’s a diversion from loss and grief over her predecessor. The overall experience has been a healing one. And, when I pay heed to the being at the near end of the leash, it’s been enlightening and growth inducing as well.
So, without further ado (and before she wakes up, and I’m back at it), I give you Gidget’s Puppy Lessons for Writers:
*“Aww, isn’t that cute?” Sure, a puppy seems to be as cute as a cartoon character, or a stuffed animal. At least from the outside looking in. I’m always shocked when a parent blithely encourages a very small and unsteady child to approach and touch an animal that can’t possibly be relied upon to behave; one that is also teething and has a mouthful of fishhooks. I know—they’re just playing, right? I’d remind you how rough retriever pups’ play is by showing you the scars on my hands and arms. It’s nothing that won’t heal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.
It’s very similar to when outsiders hear that you are a writer, isn’t it? You can almost hear it in their voices: “Aww, isn’t that cute?” They think we’re cartoon characters, scribbling down our little stories—livin’ the dream. They can’t know about the angst the blank page can induce, or the fortitude it takes to overcome writerly dread and hit the send button—to feel the sting of even a playfully tough critique. When someone’s stroking me about how great the writer’s life must be, it’s almost enough to make me want to unexpectedly bite. “What? I was just playing,” I’d say. “It’ll heal.”
Gidget’s Lesson: Although it takes time and maturity, we can inhibit our antisocial impulses, and learn to appreciate that those who pay attention to us mostly mean well. We know that no one really likes a rough patting on the head, but those who pat are oblivious. So just take it in the spirit in which it’s intended, and move on.
*Renewed Sense of Wonder: When was the last time you really appreciated the dew on every blade of grass, or marveled at the grace of a dragonfly? How about the splendor of the sun reflecting on the lake, or the rhythm of waves lapping on the shore? What about the feel of sun-warmed sand on your belly? How evocative is the echoing honking of a passing flock of geese in the gray of dawn? I must admit, it had been a while since I was up that early, let alone stopped and watched geese flying over. But I got chills in watching my puppy’s wide-eyed appraisal.
To a puppy everything is new. Every person is a marvel, there to be met and known. Every other animal is a magnificent wonder. Every new dog is a potential best friend.
Gidget’s Lesson: Seeing the world through a puppy’s eyes is a real gift. Life’s fascinating details can become peripheral to our attention if we don’t take note. And isn’t the best writing born of noticing?
*There Is No Finish Line: I keep wondering when this puppy thing will be over. When do those needle teeth fall out again? How long before we can rely on her to come when we call? When will she just chill out with us while we read or watch TV? When will she become my writing partner, and hang out in my office with me during the day (without demanding three-quarters of my attention)?
It’s pretty easy to remember the latter halves of Belle’s and Maggie’s lives, when they were ideal companions. It’s convenient to forget the years of training and the frustrating days along the way. For the first three years of Belle’s life, if she found a dead fish on the beach, the only thing on her mind was whether to roll on it or eat it (depending on the state of rot, I suppose). Paying heed to my bellowing was not even on her radar. And yet, at some point, we could easily call her off of a dead fish. It took time, patience, and a lot of soapy baths to get there. Even then, heaven knows she was no angel. Heaven also knows that her selective hearing loss was not due to her advancing age so much as to her lifelong bouts of stubbornness.
Gidget’s Lesson: This lesson is more of a reminder. Raising a canine companion is about the evolution of a relationship. The bonding and the improved reliability are gradual. It takes daily dedication and practice. And there are going to be setbacks. When reversals happen, all that can be done is to begin again. (I think the similarity to the evolution of the writing life is evident without further explanation, don’t you?)
“Dogs and people aren’t normal mammals. Most mammals play a lot when they’re young and then gradually become more sedate… There are few other animals, besides dogs and humans, who also show high levels of play as adults…Overall, the young of any species are much quicker to welcome change than their elders… From a broad perspective, adult humans are amazingly flexible compared to the adults of other species. Our love of play goes hand in hand with that flexibility, and it’s one of the defining characteristics of our bond with our dogs.” ~Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. (from The Other End of the Leash)
Some days I think I’m getting too old for this puppy thing. On a recent trying day I even told my wife that I thought this was the last time. “The next one’s going to be an adult rescue,” I vowed. But on the good days, I’m not so sure. And history indicates I have a short memory for these types of vows. Perhaps Gidget is just the ticket to shaking this staid writer back to flexibility—both physically and mentally. A reminder to stay playful, about my work and my life, might be just what I need right now.
I’ve noticed that, through happenstance during play, Gidget is learning and growing. By being interested in a toy bumper, and chasing it, she’s learned both to swim and retrieve—both important aspects of the serious work of her lineage. Labs were originally bred to haul nets in the frigid Atlantic, after all. Through play, she’s gaining the skills and the aptitude for work. And it’ll be work she’ll enjoy for the rest of her life.
Gidget sees every waking hour as a chance to play. Perhaps I should take that approach to my own work. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing to stay a pup.
Paying Homage to Predecessors: I said at the onset that there were surprising similarities to this post and the one I wrote after Belle’s passing. The lessons I note that Belle taught me are about patience, finding the joy in chaos, showing up every day, and that a job well-done was reward in and of itself. I’ll be damned if those aren’t lessons needed for raising a puppy. I also once wrote that because of Maggie before her, Belle had a specially blessed life. Now it’s Belle’s turn to pass along the blessing.
Not a day goes by that I am not grateful to Belle for the lessons she taught me—lessons so keenly needed now. And she’s there for me when I lose my patience, too—reminding me that I can do this. Belle reminds me that if I could survive her puppyhood, I can deal with just about anything the world dishes up. I close my eyes, then look skyward and take a deep breath, and I realize this puppy will be worth it.
So I will end this post as I ended that last one, by publicly restating: “Thank you, Miss. For everything—for all the lessons, all the stories, all the laughs and tears. I promise you, they will not go to waste. I will never forget.” It’s important to remind myself, because I’m still learning, still growing. It’s important because, after all, in many respects I’m really still just a pup.
How about you? Are just still “just a pup”? Give me your puppy stories. Do they apply to your writing journey?