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Tag Archives: Anne Lamott

Reading Dog Books

 

When I first got Cricket, as an eight week old puppy, I wanted to do everything right. I found books on how to choose a puppy, train a puppy, and groom a puppy, but it was all too generic. None of it addressed who Cricket actually was: the way she seemed to love the taste of the bitter apple spray I was supposed to put on the furniture to discourage chewing; the way she couldn’t calm down after even the smallest excitement; the way she stuffed herself between book cases for comfort.

"You can't see me, Mommy!"

“You can’t see me, Mommy!”

"Of course I can fit!"

“Of course I can fit!”

"I will never take a bath again. Period."

“I will never take a bath again. Period.”

I needed to hear about actual dogs, and real people who were imperfect like me, but trying.

I found a book by Jon Katz called, “A Good Dog: the story of Orson who changed my life.” He’d adopted a Border Collie, from a breeder who’d had trouble finding the dog a home, and when he picked the dog up from the airport he found out why.

jon katz

What I loved about the book was that he was willing to admit how hard the lessons were to learn. He didn’t portray himself as a white washed ideal. He was a person who made mistakes, and tried hard, and came up against failure again and again. I’m a big fan of people who are willing to admit failure, and not always put on a happy face, because that’s what allows me, as a reader, to relax and not feel so judged for my own failures.

Pam Houston writes fiction that she says is about 82% autobiographical. She wrote a novel called “Sight hound” about an Irish Wolfhound with cancer. I actually can’t remember what else the book was about because her portrayal of the dog was so rich that I tuned out the rest. This was a dog who was loved. And I felt like she was giving me permission to love my dogs that much too.

pam houston and dog

Pam Houston and her Irish Wolfhound’s Butt

I specifically read James Herriot’s collection of dog stories as a way to warm up for writing this blog two years ago. He was a country vet, and his writing style was so friendly and filled with humor and compassion, that he made me feel comfortable. I felt like he was painlessly teaching me bits and pieces about how to take care of animals, and treat them with respect, and he tossed in a few bits of insight about people too. I’ve been reading more of his work recently, and now I know more about a cow’s insides than I ever wanted to know.

James Herriot and a dog with something more interesting to look at.

James Herriot and a dog with something more interesting to look at.

Mark Doty’s memoir “Dog Years,” is a new favorite of mine. I’d read a couple of his poems, under duress, during graduate school, and while I could admire his skill, I was not tempted to read more. But I came across a picture of him with his dogs online and I thought, he can’t be that bad, and I decided to take a look at the memoir.

Mark Doty's dogs

Mark Doty’s dogs

I was afraid he would be pretentious, or his language would be heavy and convoluted, but he is a memoirist who speaks with a clear, articulate, and deeply empathetic voice. He illuminates grief. He has compassion for himself, for his dogs, and for me, by extension.

Anne Lamott says that “having a good dog is the closest some of us are ever going to come to knowing the direct love of a mother, or God.”

Anne Lamott as puppy pillow

Anne Lamott as puppy pillow

I wouldn’t want to tell someone to just read one or another of Anne Lamott’s memoirs. Read all of them. Go on line and read all of her one-off essays. Read her shopping lists if you can get your hands on them, because they’re probably hysterical.

I’m always looking for more dog books, just like I obsessively read all of the dog blogs I can find. Any and all recommendations are welcome.

Turtle Slow

This is Mom's thread painting of me.

This is Mom’s thread painting of me.

I am like a turtle; I move very slowly through life. At my current pace, I may be able to meet the expected life goals of a young adult by the time I’m sixty.

Grumpy turtle (not my picture)

Grumpy turtle (not my picture)

Butterfly, my Lhasa Apso, is stubbornly slow too. We go slowly because we do each task comprehensively. It takes me weeks to write each post for this blog because I go through so many drafts, trying to capture exactly what I mean to say. Butterfly is the same way about eating. She likes to sit down, or even lay down, in front of her bowl so that she can savor each kibble individually. Her sister, Cricket, is more of a speed eater; she’s always in a rush, to pee, to poop, to run, and to greet; everything has to be fast.

Speedy Cricket!

Speedy Cricket!

Butterfly, the fluffy turtle

Butterfly, the fluffy turtle

Back in the Fall I bought Butterfly a set of steps up to my bed and proceeded to try to teach her how to use them. Cricket can jump on and off the bed herself, but Butterfly’s legs are too short. For myself, and for Butterfly, I believe in Anne Lamott’s method, from bird by bird: the best way to manage an overwhelming task is to break it down into a thousand small pieces, and take each one, one at a time, without looking so far ahead that you become overwhelmed.

I worked with Butterfly every day, one step at a time. I put her paws on the first step and gave her a treat. I led her up to the second step and gave her two treats. Day after day, I did everything I could think of, but I couldn’t find a way to break the task down small enough to make it manageable for her. Even when she could finally climb up all three steps, to reach her treats, she still thought going back down to the floor was impossible. But then she got thirsty in the middle of the night. This may have been the onset of the diabetes, without my realizing it, but at the time, I assumed it was about the unreasonable heat in the apartment complex at night. All of a sudden, Butterfly could walk down the steps and run straight to the water bowl.

Up! Up! Up!

Up! Up! Up!

"I made it!"

“I made it!”

"Please don't make me go back down."

“Please don’t make me go back down.”

"What's the big deal?"

“What’s the big deal?”

My therapist has a theory about this. She says that when you’re not ready to do something, it’s like climbing up a mountain, but when you are ready, it becomes easy. I don’t know that I’ve ever reached the easy stage, but I do know that after years and years of effort, for no obvious reason, sometimes things just start to click.

"It's so easy!" (not my picture)

“It’s so easy!” (not my picture)

I assumed that Butterfly would come right back after her miraculous escape to the water bowl, and climb up the stairs to the bed. But she didn’t come back. And I felt rejected. Here I’d worked so hard to give her the freedom to come and go, and she chose to just go.

I’ve heard that if you love someone you’re supposed to let them go, and if they were meant to be with you, they will return. Sayings like that make me want to hit people.

A few nights later, after a number of these heartbreaking episodes, I woke up at three o’clock in the morning to a scratching and tapping sound. Butterfly was scratching at the bottom step, as if it were an escalator that needed to be turned on, and she was looking for the switch. I got up and put her front paws on the steps, and she galloped up onto the bed, curled up by her pillow and went to sleep.

I worry, a lot, that my slow pace in life will mean that I’ll never move forward as much as I need to in the time allotted, but watching Butterfly makes me think that how we use our time should fit us, rather than fit some preset convention. I would never look at her and think she should be more like Cricket. She is Butterfly and that’s a wonderful thing to be.

I’d like to think that the same is true for me. I am a turtle. Is a turtle, by definition, a failed something else?