The solace of no solace

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This one is hard.

I heard the poet David Whyte say recently that a good elegy is a conversation between grief and celebration.

And, so. Here we are. It’s 12 days since we lost our soul companion and guardian, our 10-year-old giant of a dog, Charlie.

I’ve written about him here before, a big Collie Shepherd mix with a coat like marshes in winter: faded brown, tinges of red and beige. He had ludicrously white legs, as though he had put on bleached knee highs. He wasn’t cuddly. He did not lick. If you tried to snuggle him while he lay, he would get up, irritated, shaking himself off.  His preference was to lean his whole body in to you, or to wait, just off to the side, working the perimeter. He was steady and constant and heartbreakingly gentle.

But really, how do you write about your own breath? How do you write about the tragedy of loud silence? We talk instead about what he would have wanted: To go to the pond.

To see Charlie walk in his woods was to see a being utterly alive in himself. He would tilt his head at the word “pond,” pick up pace, bounce like a deer.

He could fly in praise of love and the arrival of someone he was happy to see, a whirling blur, impossibly fast, leaping and sailing in circles around the cars. His whole body cried: Yes! Yes! Here we are! Let us move! And off he took, sometimes crashingly.

IMG_0266.JPGGrief does funny things. It seems to slice through what is unimportant, gracelessly. It clarifies. It becomes obvious who can sit with you in the sadness, and who squirms in the face of it, or tries to fix it. It reminds you of times when you may have squirmed or tried to fix someone else’s grief, and softens you. It has a raw and merciless physicality – like a rope burn or an ache or a stone. And when that physicality dims – normalcy washing up on the shore of your days – that has its own grief, because it carries you further away from the time your loved one was here. A living body.

When we got Charlie from a shelter up the coast, he had been abandoned twice already. He was wild, skittish. 6 months old, with big feet and a body that would soon double in size, he would whine and jump and throw himself. His movement was careening, without regard for objects or people (or their bad knees) that might be in the way.

But we stuck together, and in that permission, he came home to himself. Grew into the gentle watching giant he was. Animals can do the same for us; their touch and constancy melting us into who we were to begin with. Until we are irrevocably marked by love.

In the end, as the cancer grew, his body diminished. But not his light. Charlie is buried out beneath the apple tree on the edge of the field, and the world seems to echo with him, in grief and celebration.

And oh, how we miss him.

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Dropping the can’ts, a love letter to a dog.

If you have ever skinned your knee or torn your ACL or woken up with a crick in your neck – that is, if you are human – you know pain. But something funny happens on the way to our brains. Instead of punctuation, pain can begin to feel like a sentence: something we will always have, a nagging reminder of ways we can’t.

I see this in my clients (as well as myself and everyone I know) – how body discomfort narrows the horizon of possibility, and spins us into an irrefutable list of broken: We’re injured, out of shape, pushing 40 (30, 70), we don’t move this or that particular way, our bank account is low. For very good reasons, we feel circumscribed by what we see as the limitations of our bodies.

And then, I take my dog for a walk in the woods, and the whole lie is revealed.

More accurately, I take him on a little cross country ski expedition on the trails behind the dump in our small town and watch him transform into a fluid, joyful form.

Charlie is not a small dog. Or a young dog. He is a long-nosed, constantly shedding, 90 pound, Shepherd Collie mix. Nearly a decade into his life, his muzzle is graying, and when he lumbers across the yard, you can almost hear his joints creaking. Like most of us, he has spent the last few months curled up in a ball by the wood stove, waiting for spring.noname

But once in the woods, there is no lumbering. Charlie careens like a puppy.  He is a streaking blur of movement and limbs. We encounter two other skiers, each with their own off leash dogs. One exclaims, “He’s so big but…so playful!”

We marvel at him together.

He has a beautiful disregard for his size, his age, for mortality or limitation. He is himself – skimming along – a wordless, embodied creature.

… but not a linear one. At night, Charlie circles a million times before he comes to a flop in a big, graceless exhale. He isn’t consistent either – barking wildly at the plastic bag that has blown across the lawn, but oblivious to the scratch scratch scratching of the mouse that wakes me in the night the one time I would like him to bark, to make some kind of exhortation and startle this vermin away and he… sleeps on.

When my daughter was 3 we ended up in the emergency room to treat her small, dislocated elbow. It was an excruciating experience, not being able to take away the pain she felt. But the doctor performed a quick osteopathic maneuver and – within minutes – she was laughing and playing with toys in the waiting room. Over it. The doctor said to me, “Children and animals aren’t stupid like grown ups. They hurt when they hurt and then they don’t when they don’t. None of this trying to be better business, none of this worrying or pretending.”

I remember this as I watch Charlie fly through the woods. There is something in that unpredictable, take-it-as-it comes careen that is a revelation. Given the chance to be outside, to be moving, to be with his people – the dog almost visibly hums with the joy of it all. True, the other 98% of the time he’s laid out on his side by the fire, showing age in the way he moves. But he seems to say something else: Yes, I am achey and older, but also resilient. Perhaps this is the trick to health: to drop so fully into the present that the can’t stories fall away.

Now if I could just get him to scare off that mouse.