Star-crossed Love

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I had to stop at a store yesterday to return something, a task I detest, but which you might think was among my very favorite activities, given how often I find myself doing it.

The clerk and I started chatting, and one thing leading to another, I mentioned my two dogs in the car. “What kind of dogs?” she asked. I gave my standard answer: Pete, an Indiana Spotted Dog (Pete is a rescue from a kill shelter in Indiana, and of indeterminate breed, but with a speckled coat that looks like granite), and Moses, a German Shepherd.

Her attention was instantly riveted by the words “German Shepherd.”

“I had a German Shepherd,” she said. “But I had to put him down.” I felt a wave of sympathy. The shortness of dogs’ lives is a looming loss for those of us who love them, and the thought of it can shatter me if I linger on it.

She knew what I have learned: that there is something different about German Shepherd Dogs, no matter what other kinds of dogs you have had or how much you have loved them. I told her what the vet told me when Moses was a tiny puppy: “Nothing and no one on earth will ever love you as much as a German Shepherd will.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and mine did, too. She told me how true that was, and how smart her dog had been, and what a clever jailbreak artist he was. She told me that even when his hip dysplasia had made it impossible for him to walk she had cared for him until his pain became too much.

She seemed so sad. When I suggested that somewhere in the world there was a dog who desperately needed someone like her to love him she shook her head. No. She could never endure that loss again. It was too much.

The store was busy, and people were waiting for her attention, but I wished I could have taken her out for a cup of coffee, and brought her over to meet Moses and Pete, waiting patiently, if a bit odoriferously, in the car.

I have writing to do, and I have to go to Washington for work tomorrow, and I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done before I leave the house at 5:30 in the morning.

But Moses and Pete and I are going for a ramble. Life is all about priorities.

Last Day North of the Tension Line

January sunset

Today is my last day on Washington Island. The ferry leaves tomorrow at 8 am and we’ll be on it.

Normally I like to walk the deck and chat with the crew, but the dogs are with me, and there’s something about the ferry ride that scares them. So we sit together in the car, and I talk and sing to them. They like that, and they usually sing along. Pete, who is undoubtedly the coward in the family, is mostly unbothered by the motion, but that is enough for Moses. When we hit the ice fields the noise frightens them both and they tremble. It seems to get worse each trip.

Last night I walked home from a dinner party in the dark with the wind screaming from the lake. Its noise and power were awesome–in the old fashioned sense of the word. The dogs leapt with joy to see me, and we went out again to hear the wind and look at the moon and the clouds. They ran ahead of me through the snow, sniffing at deer tracks. The wild remoteness of the Island is oddly comforting to me, and I feel safer here than anywhere else on earth, even when the wind leaps and howls as if it would tear us off the ground and spin us into space.

I like to say I live in exile from Washington Island, and most people think it’s a joke. But leaving this place tears at me, and even though I will be happy to be home again, a part of myself will be missing.

North of the Tension Line’s Publicity Machine

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When people talk to me about North of the Tension Line,, they often mention Rocco, the thoughtful and easy-going German Shepherd who lives with Elisabeth.

When people see Moses-shown above-they assume that Rocco is Moses. But, in fact, the reverse is true: Moses is Rocco. I began writing about Rocco long before Moses came into my life. Opportunism, however, is a new author’s responsibility, and this permits me to bring Moses along to book events.

Children climb on him, people want their pictures taken with him, and, inevitably, when people hesitantly reach out to touch this Big Scary Dog, he rolls over so they can rub his tummy. A dog is a public relations boon.

And also excellent company for the road.

What’s Under My Desk

What's under my desk

There are all kinds of interesting ways for authors to communicate with their readers and with one another, and on one site authors are asked to post photos of where they write and compose a little essay about it. Don’t tell my publicist, but I haven’t done that yet. Still, I couldn’t help feeling as if I should post this edition, not of where I write, but  of what’s under where I write.

At the moment we are in the midst of  post-construction landscaping, and maybe the sound of the bulldozer is scary. For whatever reason, Moses, who is always nearby anyway, is unusually close. I am writing with his head on my feet, and his ears pressed up against my knees. It’s kind of nice, actually.

 

Love and Grief

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My husband likes to say that Moses is a tuning fork. He is our German Shepherd who loves by pure concentration. His every focus is on those he loves, and he trembles when he senses our stress. The night I left to go to my mother in her last crisis, he fought to be with me where he could not come, even as Charlie lovingly urged him to stay at home.  In his distress, gentle Moses put his teeth on Charlie for trying to stop him from getting in my car. It was a protest, not an attack. But my leaving Moses behind was a betrayal to us both.

As a comfort and a way of drawing out my stillborn sorrow, I have been re-reading Madeline L’Engle’s adolescent novels which are explorations of faith and mortality. They will provoke my grief eventually, if not immediately. My own faith, so relatively new and untested, is approximately the same as the novel series’ teenager as she encounters death for the first time: in a friend’s father, in a friend’s illness,  then in her grandfather. At the same time in the story, a dolphin’s baby dies, and the teenage protagonist writes a poem. Maybe it isn’t great poetry, but I like it because it expresses the value of life and love regardless of the boundaries of species. In it the angels weep because every life matters even in the span of the universe.

I am in a place where I am gathering all the love I can find. And the love of Moses, who sleeps now at my feet, is a treasure as deep as any I can claim.

The devotion of dogs is not new. Homer acknowledges the love of Argos, the dog of Odysseus, who, waiting twenty years for the return of his master, is neglected, flea-ridden, and sleeping on a pile of dung. And yet, when Argos at last sees his master–even though no human creature recognizes him–Argos wags his tail in greeting to the one he has always loved, and dies. Odysseus, who has endured the battle of Troy, Sirens, Circe, the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the deaths of all his companions, and the wrath of Poseidon, nevertheless weeps for the love of his old dog.

Moses is a dog. And his deep love for me is as real and palpable as any other love I know. He grieves when I grieve, and he is filled with joy when I am. What is love, if not this? And what greater comfort in grief than this deep devotion?

His soul reaches out to me and, gratefully, I answer.

 

 

The Most Beautiful Day in the World

One of my favorite writers, the melancholy anthropologist Loren Eiseley, wrote an essay called “The Most Perfect Day in the World”. In it, he describes a day when, utterly impoverished and riding freight trains across the country, he and a friend stopped in a small town on a sunny day, pooled their resources to buy a case of grape soda, and lay on the grass in the shade of a big tree all day, drinking soda and watching the clouds. This notion of perfection would not suit everyone, but it strikes me as a fine expression of the pure enjoyment of living: when time stops and you can live in this one moment, freed from fear and worry.

Today I am home from the office, ostensibly to proof my manuscript. But I have not done much work.  It is a delightfully cool, breezy June morning, the first time that sunshine has combined with the full fresh bloom of early summer. The dogs and I lolled on the grass before attacking the long list of procrastination–I mean errands–on my list. I walked in the garden where the irises are an edible deep purple, the pink roses are in bud, and the peonies are tight balls waiting to burst. I rambled out to the garage to find the loppers to prune the dead branches from the climbing rose on the arbor, and wrestled them to the ground without too many thorn pricks.  It is impossible to breathe in the air on day like this without experiencing a deep sense of wonder and gratitude. This is how I would like to spend my mornings forever.

But the day’s beauty makes a hard contrast to the suffering happening in this moment in other parts of the world, of the people who are terrified, in pain, in fear of horrible deaths, in an agony of despair for their futures. Marcus Aurelius counsels the practice of these contrasts as a method of valuing each moment of life and of inuring the soul against too much dependence on the vagaries of fortune. I read his teachings, and I have tried to absorb them. And I believe that we must all do what we can to make what we touch better, and to broaden our reach to others. But I think that modern angst is the result of our knowing too much about the suffering we cannot control. We are bombarded by war and poverty and natural disasters in every corner of the world, by the sufferings of people and the sufferings of animals. There is no doubt that we are meant to endure the suffering around us. But the suffering of the whole world is not a burden a human being can bear.

And so, Pete, and Moses and I will go out into the orchard and play ball in the sunshine, grateful for our blessings. But I will also offer my prayers for the souls in the dark, knowing that I am helpless to give them any relief. For us, it is the most beautiful day in the world. And that is how it has to be.

 

A Word About Pete

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People who have been reading my blog (both of them) have asked me about Pete. How is he? Has he adjusted to life with his enormous brother?
And so, lest anyone think that a youthful, high-energy German Shepherd has completely stolen the show, a word about our smaller, auxiliary dog.

Pete is now officially the old man of the family. His white face and love of the couch are in contrast to his youthful self, when he leapt and ran like the coursing hound whose blood is somewhere in his veins. He loved to run, and when he soared over a low-lying bush to give chase to some trespassing creature, he looked exactly like the side of a bus.

He rarely shows this side of himself now, unless there are squirrels involved. He eyes the antics of Moses and his puppy friend with an air of skepticism, occasionally joining in the chase, but only briefly. He is more likely to bark and chase them down, rolling them onto their backs as he shows his teeth, just to show who’s boss. Remarkably, Moses, who outweighs him nearly two to one, rolls over timidly, submitting to Authority.

Pete is a snuggler. When he sleeps with us in the bed, I will frequently wake up to find his face lying delicately against my cheek. He is difficult to budge in the mornings, preferring the warmth of blankets to a brisk excursion in snow and cold. If you are busy and not paying him proper attention, he will nudge your hand with his nose insisting that you pet him, even if your hand has a cup of hot coffee or some good bourbon in a hand-blown glass.

There aren’t many photos of Pete, but this is because he has a horror of cameras. We don’t know much about Pete’s early life, because he came to us at 10 months old, or so. We know it wasn’t entirely happy, and we also know that it involved something bad with cameras. When a camera comes out, Pete slinks away or hides under the table. In the photos we do manage to take, Pete’s expression conveys the idea that he’s in a hostage situation. IPhones seem to have made a difference, but haven’t completely eliminated the problem. I think maybe it’s the high-pitched hum of digital flashes. My husband believes that someone posted an unflattering picture of Pete on Facebook.

In this unusually cold winter, both dogs have been getting less exercise than they should. Our daily walks in the woods after work have been curtailed by sub-zero temperatures and early darkness. I love these walks as much as they do, but the dogs are able to run easily in the deep snow of the woods, while I can only trudge along in big boots. Pete, on the trails, becomes his old self, and Moses sprints behind with his own equine grace, but he is less nimble and with a higher center of gravity.

The other day, they both started at the chuffing snorts of deer nearby, and in a split second they took off to give chase, Pete in the lead, and Moses leaping behind. They were gone for nearly five minutes, and I ignored it, knowing the deer were safe, that the dogs would be doubly tired when they returned. After a reasonable period of time, and before they made it to the next county, I whistled for them, and I heard them charging back long before I could see them.

This is our routine, and in it Pete returns to his younger days, while Moses simply blows off steam. The dogs bounce back to the car, panting, snow-covered, and happy, and then, in my own tribute to lost youth, we go up the road a bit to practice bootleg turns in the snowy parking lot of the golf course.

You have to make your own fun in the winter.
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Big Scary Dog: A Moses update

We started out here
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and here

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and ended up here

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and here

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Moses is nothing like a golden retriever. He is gentle, yes, and he is loving, yes. But he is not a teddy bear. He is highly sensitive and always alert, like a finely-tuned machine. He loves, not by cuddling–although he loves to have his tummy rubbed, and he gives big kisses–but by watching. His focus is forever on you and with you, and he will wait, and watch, and shepherd faithfully, and with his whole being. The vet told me recently than no one on earth will ever love you the way a German Shepherd does.

I think she was right.

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Moses Leads his People out of the Wilderness- Part 3

I wrote this series of essays two years ago, and I publish them here at the request of a friend who just lost her big dog. My sympathies, Anna. He was such a good, sweet boy.

Pete and Baby MosesDogs grieve. I had heard it and understood it, but I’d never seen it before. We stood in the kitchen talking about Reggie, and hearing the name, Pete’s ears perked. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Reggie’s gone”, and had the uncanny sensation that his face had changed. What did he understand? He had been moping; not eating. He ran outside briefly when necessary and ran right back in. No dawdling in the sun, no sniffling where squirrels had been. He didn’t bark when we came home, there was just silence when we opened the door. Pete wasn’t in the mood for cheerful greetings, preferring to hide upstairs.

We realized very quickly that none of us could bear the empty silence of the house with Pete hiding and refusing to eat, and us feeling our own mortality too much. You get tired of crying, and you can’t dwell on death. Another dog was inevitable. We knew, at least, that much.

Since I was a little girl, I have wanted a German Shepherd. I admire them for their bravery and intelligence, their dignity and loyalty. And I think they are beautiful. But the time had never been right to have a dog who would demand so much training and so much attention. With the passing of Reggie I realized that this was my last chance. In the span of another dog’s life I would probably be too old to have such a powerful dog. And maybe as much as anything, I couldn’t bear having another Golden.
I knew from long correspondence the right person to call who specialized in gentle German Shepherds, but the wait would be long. Probably 6-12 months. We sent an e-mail to add our names to the list.

So life-changing things hang upon the large things and the small. And sometimes on the misfortune of others. We all live within some margin of error. At home we joke about how houses and cars always seem to sense that there’s a little extra in the bank, timing their infirmities or demise with the moment when you have something special planned, just as you’re about to get ahead. And when you’ve been saving to buy the German Shepherd puppy you’ve been waiting for since last year, that’s probably about the right time for your furnace to die. And sure enough. Within half an hour of applying we got an e-mail back. “I’ve just had a cancellation. Would you like to pick him up this weekend?” Somewhere in the universe someone named Nick has a shiny new boiler for his furnace. But he will wait for another year to get a puppy.

On the other hand, there is Fate. What made us write then, that night? It was too soon; we weren’t ready yet. There aren’t many weekends in which we have no obligations, but we had nothing planned. And then there was poor Nick and his furnace.

We got up at 5 that Saturday morning and drove the twelve hour round trip to an Iowa farm on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, leaving Pete at home with a friend. It was so remote the GPS didn’t recognize the place. We arrived around noon. Even knowing what I knew about the disposition of these dogs I was a little nervous about getting out of the car while an extremely large German Shepherd with an enormous head barked at us. But when we met, he gently nudged my hand and then leaned against each of us separately like a big cat. We knew who he was. We had seen his picture on the breeder’s website standing shoulder to shoulder with a pony. This was our puppy’s uncle. We met the family: Dad, Mom, Grandma, another uncle, a full brother from another litter, and, of course, the puppies.

His official name is Moses, Prince of Egypt. We call him Moses Mooch. He is mostly black, with red legs and paws, and the beginnings of red markings around his face and inside of his ears. He wasn’t the biggest puppy in the litter, but he had the longest legs. When we brought him home he had two floppy ears, like all German Shepherd puppies. This morning he woke up with one standing straight up, the other still flopping at the tip. He looks like a small puppy rabbit.

Moses bounces in with joy. His mother, his father, and his uncles are gentle giants, so calm and sweet that they make a Golden look like Cujo. He is too young to know about big losses, and he seems delighted to have a new house with a soft blanket and no littermates to eat his dinner. He is curious about sounds. He’s not too keen on sleeping alone, but he is getting the hang of it when he has to. He likes singing: both his own and others’. He chews hair and the tassels on blankets. He chases ice cubes around the kitchen floor, and has learned to sit when he comes in the house. He’s trying really hard not to bite fingers when he plays, although I dreamt the other night that we had a pet crocodile. He has an endearing way of climbing into your lap to snuggle. He has a special affection for the big yellow blanket that probably still smells like Reggie, and from the first moment in the car he curled up in it and went to sleep.

He’s a smart puppy. Today he showed admirable, almost supernatural restraint in resisting the temptation to bite Pete’s tail as it hit him repeatedly in the face. You could see his eyes sparkling at the prospect. Pete snarls, though he is just barely tolerant, like a teenager rolling his eyes. But little by little, Moses creeps up on him. Sometimes with a paw on Pete’s paw, sometimes copying what Pete is doing, sometimes waiting until Pete is asleep to snuggle up against his back, and sometimes with an insistent puppy bark and a play bow. This morning as we walked, Moses was leaping alongside, trying to bite Pete’s floppy ears. We tell Pete that now is the time to make friends, before Moses changes his mind.

The house feels different. There is a puppy bed in the kitchen and toys on the floor, and half a dozen kinds of large breed puppy food samples in the pantry. We hurry home after work. Charlie has notions of the correct number of toys for dogs, but I just buy new ones when I see something he could handle. Moses can’t carry most of the ones you see around; they’re too big and heavy for puppy teeth.

The juxtaposition of life and death is everywhere always, but it slips in and out of our awareness, sometimes in the background, and sometimes in the front. Moses was comforted on his first nights sleeping on the yellow blanket where Reggie closed his eyes for the last time. The puppy trips along behind me to the bird feeder, and I see Reggie’s paw prints in the mud. On our visit to the vet for Moses’s shots the tech gently placed a small package on the counter, and while the staff passed around the puppy, I took Reggie out to the car for his last ride home.

Tonight we all sat on the couch together, and we had to counsel Pete to take note of the dangers of co-sleeping; Moses just barely escaped Pete’s indifferent sprawl by climbing onto my lap. Pete seems less than grateful for his new brother, occasionally snarling, and sometimes snapping at the puppy. But even so, I think Moses will win out with Pete in the end, even before he gets too big. He’s kind of difficult to resist in a force of nature kind of way.

The puppy is sleeping on the rug by my feet. He sleeps hard, indifferent to the sounds of the squirrels chuckling, the geese on the water and the cranes squawking. He has had a run and eaten as much as he can hold, dancing in excitement while he waited for his bowl. He looks so innocent lying there, probably growing as I watch. I think he’s bigger since yesterday, but that’s a good thing. He has big boots to fill. And judging from the size of his paws, they might actually fit.