I speak on a few things I am qualified to evaluate and a few that I am not over at The Financial Diet, one of my favorite sites:
Today is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in the Jewish faith. I’m a middling Jew. I came into it late and adopted what made best sense to me in the context of a spirituality based on a lot of things we have no better name for than witchcraft as I went along. It’s a long-term exploration that lets me go a little deeper each year, learn a little more; faith is, in that way, much like life. And my life and my faith are coalescing, slowly, towards the same goal. Put simply, the goal is love.
I would posit love is the easiest and most fragile feeling, the easiest and most fragile theoretical object we ever hold in our hands. Love is a Rorschach test: what people see when they see it tells you more about them than it does about the thing itself. It’s real and it’s a construct. It’s a word for a lot of things that are not the same thing. And it is, in all of its expanse and breadth and depth, the thing I have chosen as my particular undertaking, and the thing I measure myself against each year on this day. How am I doing, I ask, at love?
I’m doing fine. Better than before. Not nearly as well as I could be. My love is sincere but sometimes scatter-brained. When faced with the challenge of unkindness, my love falters to anger, a significantly easier emotion for me to access and one that served me well, for a long time, as a shield against the painful vulnerability true love requires. Life is not unlike a video game in many ways; conquer one level, feel good for a moment, and the universe will often hand you a new challenge to overcome, one that makes every previous challenge you sweat so hard seem laughably simple. And so in the last few years my capacity for love, my ability to love, has been challenged in new ways, and I have often faltered and often failed, although to my credit, I do get back up and try again, although to my detriment, I don’t always do it with any particular degree of grace.
Sometimes life will hand me back one of those “laughably simple” challenges I longed for when new ones arose, and sometimes I manage to fail at those as well. Those ones hurt; those ones are like being a high school junior and failing one word on a third-grade spelling test. “I just blanked!” I think to myself, but it’s human feelings on the line, and relationships I’ve worked long and hard for, not a school grade, and even the occasional slip and failure won’t do. And yet, in my slips and failures, my friends and family find their capacity for forgiveness, and their forgiveness reminds me to love.
And so, in the liminal space of the days of awe, when we simultaneously look back and consider the future – no neat “Happy New Year!” clean-slates for Jews – I remember the admonition to measure in love. Go with me on this: the admonition, or invitation, is from a musical called Rent. If you were a 90s theater kid nerd you knew all the words. If you ever loved theater or were a nerd you knew all the words. And as a lost, intermittently lonely, nerdy kid, they were the kind of words that saved me: exuberant, meaningful, joyous. With time and a little perspective, that measured word for “enough space to be embarrassed by the process of growing up,” I’ve come to think of it as corny and sweet. But like everything else that holds real meaning – like love – it is many things that are difficult to simplify. It is musical; it is a call to arms for weirdos; it is one of the earliest examples of successful diversity in theater; it is written by a white man; it is written by a Jew. It is written by a young man who died suddenly and without warning at the height of his earliest success, whose last call to arms was a call to love. It is a reminder, both in the creating and the telling of it, that time is limited and precious and that deciding exactly what we will do with it is our most profound daily challenge. And when I look back on this past whirlwind year, and when I look back on however many I have to come, I will try, in fact, however corny, to measure in love. I have very little else to give.
B and I are at Navarre Beach in Florida with his family for a week, taking the closest thing we’ve had to an actual, full-fledged vacation in nearly four years. I did work, but it’s been more relaxing than anything else, more listening to the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the kids running around laughing and eating seafood than looking at my phone. We also went to an alligator farm and we all got to hold a very, very small alligator, which felt surprisingly pleasant. His squirmy and resigned sort of demeanor reminded me, oddly, of our dog.
One of the books I brought with me is Mary Oliver’s “Felicity,” her apparently long-held, secret stash of something nearly like love poems. She’s maybe most famous presently for the line regarding the grasshopper, asking, “What are you going to do / with your one wild and precious life?” but I found another one last summer that I got stuck on, that reminded me of the beach, and those few months when B and I were hurtling towards each other with all the inevitability of gravity, and that echoes now with this summer barely past, that seemed so weirdly endless:
What This Is Not
This is not just surprise and pleasure.
This is not just beauty sometimes
too hot to touch.
This is not a blessing with a beginning
and an end.
This is not just a wild summer.
This is not conditional.
Re-reading it sitting by the water the other day, I flipped to the back cover for the first time; I’d only recently found out anything about Oliver personally and wanted to know more. The author’s bio wasn’t much, but it mentioned that she was from Ohio and – upon the writing of “Felicity” – resides in Florida. That would be an awesome coincidence, if I still believed in those.
BUFFY, Y’ALL. Buffy.
I may have officially peaked.
My neighborhood goes completely nuts in the spring. Windows open, dogs out for long walks, kids playing basketball, and everything blooms all at once. I noticed before we got a dog, but now I spend time outside every day, wandering the neighborhood, and I’m knocked over by how gorgeous it is. Germantown is largely turn-of-the-(20th)century homes, in varying degrees of grandeur – from four stories extending back half a block to one story shotguns lined up shoulder-to-shoulder with a foot or less of space between, and nearly every front yard has a tree or two going wild right now. Along the sidewalks someone has planted what I think is a sort of cherry blossom – the flowers climb the branches the same way – in purple, one every few feet, so they form an archway over the sidewalks. Low stone walls out front of homes are lined with ivy and gardens have daffodils coming up, low bushes are an insane riot of color. It’s beautiful and every time I walk outside it feels genuinely good, like the world is waking up and I’m a part of it.
Inside our home, everything is familiar, and comfortable, and right where I like it. I’m undertaking a massive spring cleaning and – unusually for my all-or-living-in-filth approach to housekeeping – I’m doing it in stages, but the deadline is the end of this month, because we’ll be having a friend stay with us for a little while, and this house is entirely structured around two people, and needs to shift over to accommodate three.
But that’s the thing – it will be wonderful with three, equally wonderful when it goes back to two. Either way the wood floors will gleam and the light will be stunning in the afternoon and my books will be where I can find them and the front porch will be just right for morning coffee. We’ve got the most perfect little home we could ever imagine, for who we are, and where we are, and our lives right now, so we’re staying. We’re signing a year-long extension to the lease and we’re just not going to pack up any of our boxes, still neatly stacked in the basement, and we’re just not going to rent a moving truck, and we’re just not going to have a single thing to concern ourselves with except living where we like and how we prefer. I haven’t lived in one place longer than a year or so since I left my folks’ house at age 18, but we’re at a year and a half here, two in October, and all told we’ll be at least three. I can’t tell you how wonderful not moving is. How wonderful to leave all of your things right where they are and have a house without cardboard boxes around, peace and no chaos, security and stability, the pure pleasure of being able to find what you want or need in the place where you like to put it. So we’re staying here, and I am so very glad. The gift of the one is the absence of the other, so the flip side of staying here is that we are not leaving, and not leaving is its own lengthy rumination on a theme that may just comprise a great deal of the waking moments of whatever constitutes the rest of my very pleasant life.
B and I have been talking about getting a dog since before I moved here, and every now and then, we’ve gotten a sign from the universe that we ought to keep it mind, not the least of which (signs, that is) being that we kept wanting one, and considering it, and talking about it all of the time.
I would look at dogs up for adoption online and wonder which one might be right for us. There were always more older dogs, but sometimes there were puppies, as well. I realized that most people I know up North with a dog got them young, usually from a breeder; down here, about half of my friends went to a shelter. A typically captivating Bitter Southerner article laid this phenomenon out for me. I will quote it here at length, while recommending that you read it, God, read it; read everything they publish.
A little more than half of all dogs brought into animal shelters in the United States are euthanized, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And in a state such as Tennessee, which has the eighth highest percentage of dog owners of any state, you can expect that rate to rise. Because of a lack of leash and spay/neuter laws and less municipal money for animal control and care compared to other regions — coupled with a culture of generally letting people do whatever the hell they please — the stray-pet population in the South is far greater than other parts of the country. And when you add in the fact that seven of the top 10 states in dog ownership are in the Southeast, and the other three fall into some definition of the South, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s latest Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, folks, we’ve got ourselves a big problem.
Southern animal shelters are overrun with dogs that will never be adopted. We have a huge supply that doesn’t come close to meeting the demand. There is neither enough room in our shelters and rescues nor enough Southerners willing to adopt stray dogs. Thousands of perfectly good, healthy dogs are euthanized every year as a result.
When you look at the Northeast, the opposite is true. With large human populations and stricter animal control laws, there is a huge demand for dogs and little supply. State-of-the-art animal shelters sit empty and unused with people coming in every day looking to adopt dogs that just aren’t there. While I could go to any animal shelter around me and get as many dogs as I please, it’s not that easy up North.
We did look at dogs online that needed to be rehomed, and at some very cute puppies, but in the end we were looking for our dog, the one for us, and we knew we’d go to a shelter. Much like dating, there’s little you can tell from a picture. Much more like dating, you also can’t tell much from bringing them home. If you’re smart, you don’t pay for them and sign papers making them legally yours when you bring them home after one date, but how you live is your business, darling, and I do not judge.
So for Christmas B got me a leash and some dog toys, and we talked about it some more, and I realized that we had spiraled; the conversations had started loose and gotten tighter and tighter and we were suddenly getting close to doing the thing very quickly, and then one day we picked a day to go meet some dogs and on that day we went to meet some dogs.
As outlined in detail above, there are plenty of pets down south that need loving homes, but all through January, I was startled by how many dogs there were on the adoption websites. Due to those lax spay and neuter laws (also mentioned above), Kentucky has more Pitbulls than homes for them. They’re the hardest to get adopted by far, and litters of them will appear all at once, looking for a place to land. But in January, there were all kinds of puppies, nearly as many puppies as older dogs, and a lot of different breeds. They’re Christmas dogs – dogs given as gifts and given to a shelter soon after. I am told it is worse after Valentine’s Day.
There’s something unpleasant in that about humans that one can only sit with.
So we looked through the pictures on the packed website and mapped out a meet-n-greet route. There are five or six Humane Society locations within a 20 or 30 minute drive and even more just a little further out, so we narrowed it down to two that had a few dogs we thought looked like they might be ours, some older, some younger. And we saw Eddie. Eddie was an absurdity. He was a fluffy dog that had been abandoned or escaped without a chip, found by students on the local college campus. His hair was so horribly matted they’d had to shave him down to nothing, and the before and after pictures could’ve been two completely different animals. If you’d told me one was a small bear and one was a forlorn and misplaced creature of unidentifiable origin that might arguably be part dog and was certainly part house-elf, I’d have bought that line. We agreed we’d hold off and meet Eddie last if we could take any more after the first two shelters, but Eddie was a lot older – four years old – and he’d been a stray, which can come with a host of challenges we needed some time to decide if we were up to.
The first shelter was just a room full of puppies in oversized crates, stacked on top of each other. They were loved and cared for; it was sad only in the sense that they so desperately wanted attention that I couldn’t take one out to the play area without crying at the sound of the others’ whimpering. We knew we were looking for a small-to-medium sized dog, because B wants a dog you can hold in one hand, and I want a direwolf; neither B’s sensibilities nor the size of our house and yard will accommodate my preference, so we had hard size restrictions. We also decided against a Pit or Pit mix, although that broke my heart; B has many beloved nieces and nephews, and I would never want their parents to feel uncomfortable leaving them with us. Here I will add that many of my friends have Pitbulls and they are endlessly sweet, incredibly loving, and deeply loyal. I do recommend them, sincerely. I had to discount them on bad PR, and because as mixes, they tend to be enormous.
So we met Ginger, who I’d liked the look of online. She was small and copper-colored, and I knew right away we’d call her Penny. She was super sweet and playful, a little nippy like puppies are. I looked at B. He looked at me regretfully.
“I’m just not feeling it.”
I actually laughed with relief. “I’m not either!” I played with her and gave her a treat. “You’re not our dog! But that’s ok! You’re so adorable! You’re going to find the best home!” We put her back.
We met three more sweet dogs and none of them were ours. I had thought the problem would be wanting to take every dog home – and it was, for sure – but since I had a very realistic sense of what we could rationally offer a dog, and so many other people came in to meet them, I wanted very badly not only for us to find the dog that was right for us, but for every dog we met to find the home that was right for them. The small puppies we met were all super social and would love having kids around. B and I like to sit quietly, watch TV, and go on long walks. Couple: likes TV, long walks, naps. Seeking same. We sought onward.
Our next stop was the main campus of the KY Humane Society. I cannot emphasize enough how lovely everyone is, how clean the facilities are, what good care they take of the animals. The front room of this facility had a lot of very fat, contented cats, and the dogs were in a room in the back. There were some more puppies, but none of them seemed like ours. There was a 10 year old Puggle I could feel us both desperately wanting to take home, immediately; it still hurts to think about her. Her name was Ziggy, and we both knew right away we would call her Ziggy Stardust. But taking her home meant certain heartbreak. She needed care, which would cost money: frequent vet appointments, shots. She would be our dog for a short time, and it would be hard to talk ourselves into another after.
There was a sweet dog, Sadie, who was enormous at a mere four months old, who slept like a rock even with people in her pen. She had huge, sad brown eyes. I was pretty sure she was our dog, but I also thought she might be sick; she was listless, even outdoors; she wasn’t interested in sniffing around or chasing a ball, and she acted no differently when we put her back in her pen. I had a hard time leaving her, but she wasn’t B’s dog.
We sat in the car outside, exhausted and overwhelmed. We’d petted and played with half a dozen dogs and met three or four times that many. It seemed like we might not find our dog that day at all. But it was still early, and even though it was a bit of drive we could beat traffic if we left just then, so we decided to go over the bridge to Indiana to meet Eddie.
Kentucky Humane Society partners with Feeders’ Supply stores throughout the area to house dogs that need homes. We’d only been to shelters so far, but this was really just a giant pet store (food, toys, cleaning supplies etc – not a puppy mill) with a space in the back that housed some animals up for adoption. The girl there was every bit as nice as everyone else we’d met and the dogs as well cared for. There were six crates in the back, and five of them were occupied. We met one extremely sweet small dog who shed so prolifically I knew B’s allergies wouldn’t be able to stand it (nor would my vacuum). We also met Rebel Rebel (who I immediately called Dean), and took him into the washroom for a few minutes to play with. He was six months old and a complete puppy in every sense – rowdy, playful, and excited. One of the reasons the shelters were full was that recently a man had been found living in the woods with 31 dogs, and he refused to be taken to a shelter until he knew that all of the dogs would be cared for as well. Rebel had been living in the woods his whole life. He would certainly be a mess and a project to train, but we both liked him, and I wanted to take him home, and I knew if I asked, B would say yes.
Eddie was the last dog we met. He was wearing a tiny, ridiculous sweater the shelter had put on him after they’d had to shave all his fur off, and it did something to both of us, the sight of that tiny helpless creature in his little sweater, his little dignity wrapped around him, nose in the air, eyes huge in his tiny face. He was shaking when I carried him out of the crate. We took him into the washroom. He sniffed around a little bit, then settled between the two of us, still shaking. He was fine with being petted and carried. He didn’t seem interested in toys.
I can only remember a little of the conversation we had when we decided we were taking him home – I thought he’d be more like a roommate than “our dog,” whereas a puppy who’d only really known us would be more of a friend and a pet. We knew he’d been abandoned but had no idea what his life had been like before. Would he like kids? Would he be happy in a house with just two people? Had he ever been trained? Had he been abused?
In the end we went on instinct, probably less for the dog itself and its “rightness” as for our mutual instinct to take care of things that obviously need love but don’t know how to ask for it. We decided to take Eddie home, and then suddenly we were taking a dog home.
B called him “Oscar Winner Eddie Redmayne,” which lent a forlorn nobility to his thin, shaking countenance. I held him while B did all the paperwork – KY Humane Society had fixed him, since he hadn’t been neutered when they found him, plus he was up to date on shots and had been given flea and tick medication. They gave us a little booklet of coupons and I carried the dog around the store while we picked out food, and a small harness for walks, and bowls to eat and drink out of. I had a leash and some toys in my Christmas gifts, and we decided to figure the rest out later. And that’s how we found ourselves in B’s car, six hours after our day began, our new little dog still shaking on my lap, driving home.
Find out more about KY Humane Society here: https://www.kyhumane.org/
Find out more about adopting and rescuing Pitbulls here: http://www.pbrc.net/
Find out more about P.E.T.S. Animal Rescue Road Trips here: http://www.petsllc.net/
A few days after we found our gorgeous, magical home, I got the keys from our landlord and B and I broke in at night like teenagers, guilty and excited, to walk through it again. The bright red door, the high ceilings, the beautiful wood floors, everything took my breath away, left me giddy at my own good fortune. When we had visited, it had been full of bustle and people, with the contractor working and our landlord wheeling and dealing, light and noise everywhere. In the quiet and the dark, all ours, we really saw it for the first time.
It was filthy.