We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.
—Jack Gilbert, from “A Brief for the Defense”
- I have more to say about animals and my life and memory and heart and fear and joy than even I can understand.
- All limits on what I have to say feel impossible, like trying to hold my breath longer than 2 minutes.
- When my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Savvy, who I inherited when my mother died, jumps into my lap, I know she is not thinking about inequality in Ferguson, Missouri or earthquakes in California or Ebola in Africa or the petty pebble-in-the-shoe feeling of rent coming due and possibly not quite enough money to pay it. She is what I want to be: completely in the moment, happy to be on my lap, focused on her body and the warmth of my leg and the simple comfort of touching someone she loves. Settling down, she snuffles in and out a long breath, and jiggles her chin a little, finding just the right position.
- Yes, I think animals remind us of vital steps towards enlightenment. Yes, I envy my own dogs, and the dogs and cats and horses who belong to people I know, people who are excellent, nurturing caretakers of their pets.
- I worry about animals too. Mostly stray dogs and cats, other pets without homes, or with negligent or abusive owners. These animals are pets because humans domesticated them. Their genes make them predisposed to be happy when getting cared for—and loved—by humans. The “friendly gene” that we cultivated in wolves to get dogs doesn’t just work one way.
- I was a young teenager when I stopped believing in an all-powerful and all-knowing and all-benevolent God, because I could not make sense of a deity being all those things and still allowing the suffering of innocents—animals and children. Adult humans, yes, I could get my head around the idea that we are always in some way culpable, that our experiences may be part of some infinitely complex plan.
- As Jack Gilbert says in the poem from which my epigraph is taken, we are obligated to also feel joy, to experience delight, even when we know horror is happening in the world. When my going-senile cocker spaniel rolls on his back and pushes against my hands with his back paws—something he has done for the 14 years I have owned him—I am delighted. When I indulge in dessert my delight can be mixed with guilt—perhaps I wasted money on this food, or shouldn’t eat it so I can be healthier, or perhaps I even think of those people who do not have enough to eat and feel ashamed for my indulgence. But with animals, I feel both delighted and good.
- Kissing a horse on the nose—on the soft, soft skin just above the nostril—means you get to smell what heaven smells like.
- I admire those people who train their animals well—people with agility dogs, or riders who can get their horses to bow on command. But I am just as happy simply being with animals. Going for walks with them. Grooming them. Talking to them. Offering a handful of the better grass outside the pasture. Plunking down bowls full of good dog food on the kitchen floor as close to 5:30pm as possible, because if I cannot control my own life or solve the problems of the world, at least I can make life safe and predictable and full of pleasure for these simple creatures.
10. Let me tell you a story. One there was a child/animal who was hurt. She was bleeding in the snow. She was howling with loneliness. She did not understand why she hurt. She did not know how to take care of herself. She came to a large wooden door and bumped her head against it. She scratched it. The door opened. A giant stood in front of her. She was frightened. But it was warm inside. There was a bowl of milk. There was salve for her wounds, and soft voices, and a safe place to lie down. She sighed. Outside the wind raged and grew until it found those who had hurt her and cut them to tiny pieces, and then it subsided, and the world was a better place.
11. When I think of animals and what I wish would happen to those who hurt them, I suspect I am even farther from enlightenment than I feared.
12. But then I remember Jack Gilbert. I remember my mother, who once threw rocks at my brother because he had thrown rocks at a dog. I remember my dog Mick, a red golden retriever, who would get so excited at a guest’s arrival that he had to carry something in his mouth, even if it was the guest’s own eyeglasses, snatched deftly from his face and eventually returned unharmed, if a bit soggy. I remember to be stubborn. And I get up from where I’m typing at my computer, and open the treat jar on the counter, and give a dog treat to two happy, grateful spaniels, and I accept their gladness and my own.