Tuesday, May 26, 2015

One Dog, Or Two?

When Wolfie expired quietly next to his water bowl last month, I asked the vet to wait before taking his body away.  I wanted Bisou to see him one last time.  I thought she might want to say goodbye, or get a sense of closure or whatever it is a dog needs when her life's companion dies.  But she didn't pay any more attention to that long, still body than if it had been a pile of laundry.  Instead, all her focus was on the vet, whom she loves and who said, seeing my surprise, "I've seen this kind of reaction before.  Dogs are really good at perceiving the difference between 'alive' and 'dead.'  To her, Wolfie is no longer here."

In the following days, I watched Bisou carefully for signs of mourning, but there was nothing obvious.  Then I went away for an overnight trip, leaving her with my husband, who fed her and threw balls for her and was around most of the time.  When I walked in the house on my return, she became hysterical.  She barked and yelped and moaned.  She ran around in frantic circles and barked some more, and couldn't seem to stop.  I finally had to throw balls for her to drain some of that energy and bring her back down to earth.  My husband said, "Maybe she thought that the vet had taken you away like he did Wolfie...."

Wolfie was so much bigger than she that they didn't play together, unless you count as play Bisou's jumping up into his face to get him to yodel and open his mouth wide so she could stick her head inside.  But the two of them would casually check on each other during the day, and sleep close together at night.  I am sure that he was a steadying, reassuring presence in her life, as he was in mine.

Now people are asking if I plan to get another dog.  One friend says, "You should always have at least two dogs.  That way, when one of them dies, you're not left dogless." Another asks, "If dogs kept humans as pets, wouldn't you appreciate having another person in the house?" 

They are right, of course.  But...

Although I have almost always had two dogs (for a while I had three, but that was way too many), there is much to be said for the one-dog life.  It's so much easier, especially if the dog is a reasonable, portable size.  These days, when I go on errands, I often invite Bisou along.  And if I have time after I've done my shopping, I let her out of the car and we go for a walk.  There is just one collar, one leash to deal with.  One "heeling" behavior to correct.  One poop bag.  True, in my two- dog days I sometimes left one at home, but oh, the guilt on my part, and the uncomprehending sorrow of the dog I left behind!  Of course I would tell him over and over that it would be his turn next time, but he didn't know that, he was just a dog, and all he knew was that a terrible injustice was being perpetrated.

A single dog not only means less guilt, but less hair on the furniture, less poop to pick up, fewer nails to clip, fewer vet bills and visits.  And it also means, for me, a more intense relationship with the dog.  As with human marriage, there is something to be said for person/dog monogamy.  Our capacity for love may be infinite, but our time, energy and attention are sadly limited, and it's so much easier when you don't have to worry that you're giving too much to one dog and depriving the other (yes, there goes the guilt issue again).

True, with a single dog there is the danger of neurotic over-involvement on the part of the human.  Sometimes I worry that I've started down that road already.  I find myself wishing that Bisou were half her size so I could take her on airplanes, to restaurants, stores, everywhere.  Will I end up, twenty years from now, mumbling endearments to a Chihuahua in my purse?

I think I can stay vigilant enough to prevent my  relationship with Bisou from degenerating into neurosis.  As for her, as long as her nose keeps her attuned to that universe of smells into which I cannot follow, and as long as her love affair with the entire human race continues, she is in no danger of becoming pathologically attached to me.

Still, it would be nice to be able to leave her for a couple of hours without worrying that her little heart is breaking.  Should I get her a cat?

(To be continued.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Like A Tree Shedding Leaves

Soon the time will come when I can no longer play the recorder.  Well, maybe not soon, but the time will surely come, if I keep on living.  And it seems unfair and sad that, having finally found a way to enjoy playing music, away from the tensions and compulsions of my early experience with the violin, I have only another ten or at most fifteen years in which to do it.  

I went to a memorial the other day for a woman who had lived a life brimming with gardening,  dancing, and art.  She had excelled at all these things, but one by one she had had to give them up--first the gardening, then the dancing, then the art.  By the time I met her she could barely hold a conversation.  She kept shaking her head, apologizing, wanting me to know that she knew what was happening to her.   

How the old apologize!  For a while, in college, I played violin/piano sonatas with an old colleague of my father's.  After a lifetime spent in some exalted music circles, he was losing his grip.  He would forget our appointments, couldn't remember which piece we were playing, lost his place over and over.  And he apologized, and lamented, and insisted on telling me that he knew what was happening to him.  All his pride was focused on his awareness of his decline, on the one thing in the core of his being that was not affected by dementia, not diminished by his inability to find his place on the score or to remember what he had said two minutes ago.  He may have been losing his mind, but he clung fiercely to the awareness that he was losing it—and that was both his torment, and his only consolation.

On my therapy dog visits with Bisou, I watch the various ways in which my fellow Wake Robin residents deal with the myriad losses that age brings, and I feel an urgent need to build a large reserve of humility to see me through the coming years.  I had better make peace with the idea that I am not my writing, or my music, or my hair, or my ability to walk the dog or use the bathroom by myself.  Like a tree shedding leaves in the fall, I will probably live to see each of these abilities leave me, one by one.  How, I wonder, to find a way to do this well, to submit with grace, and to say, with deep acceptance:  yes, this is who I am now?

Friday, May 1, 2015

3,672 Stitches

Three years and 3,672 stitches later, the needlepoint pillow I started from an Ehrman kit is finally finished.  I didn't actually count the stitches.  I just multiplied the number of stitches per inch (12) by the size of the design (18"x17").  Math is so useful sometimes.

When I told a friend--an exceptionally creative woman who is always elbow-deep in some project she has just invented--what I was working on, she opened her eyes wide.  "You are working from a kit?" she said, appalled.  "But that's just like painting by numbers!"

Well, yes, it is--except slower.  And that is precisely why I do it.

After hours of squeezing words out of my brain and onto the screen, or notes out of my mouth and into my recorder, nothing restores my soul like threading a needle with bright-red wool and filling in a poppy petal.  When you do needlepoint from a kit, the goal is to reproduce exactly the design stamped on the canvas.  In a way, it's not unlike playing music composed by someone else, except that the player has a lot more room for interpretation.  With needlepoint, you color outside the lines at your own risk.

When I sit at my embroidery frame, it doesn't take me long to enter into a semi-hypnotic state, lulled by the "thwack"of the needle piercing the canvas and the "swish" of the wool pulling through.  It's a rhythmic activity, not unlike walking, and like walking it frees my mind to saunter at leisure, and even to wander off its usual well-worn paths.  Sometimes, between one row of stitches and the next, an idea comes to me, seemingly out of nowhere, or the solution to a problem appears as I anchor the end of a length of wool.  But the main virtue of needlepoint, as I suspect is true of most varieties of handiwork, is that it is almost impossible to remain tense while doing it.

As petals, leaves, and stems begin to emerge I take pleasure in their colors and shapes, and feel grateful to the artist who created them, just as I send thanks to Georg Philipp Telemann for taking the trouble to write, back in the troubled 1700s, the lovely duo recorder sonatas that I am struggling to learn.  There is so much beauty in this world, and I give thanks to the artists, musicians and writers who make it their own and then offer it for me to delight in.
A while ago, I briefly considered making my own needlepoint designs, but this would negate all the therapeutic effects of needlepoint.  With every stitch I would anxiously question my choice of colors, the curve of a leaf, the shape of the negative space.  It would be like endlessly rereading my own writing, word by dispiriting word.

No, for me, the virtue of needlepoint lies in its very absence of creativity, an absence which, happily but unpredictably, sometimes triggers my own.