It’s the apex of winter here. Winds blow across the snowy, barren pastures and I don’t see another human being or animal outside.
Today was supposed to be warmer than the past (or the next) few days, so I took both dogs out and forgot to put on a hat. Bad mistake. I let them out in the farmland overlooking the Connecticut River, figuring on walking on the roads. The winds were blowing and I looked with concern at Henry, who had his small red vest on. When Henry doesn’t want to go any farther, he sits on his butt in the middle of the street and won’t budge. I expected him to do that any minute; in fact, I wanted him to do that, wanted to sit on my own butt and not move except to return to the car and go home.
Instead, the dogs ran onto the snowy open pastures, sniffed the ground, and went crazy from the smells. Aussie hopped up and down like a kangaroo, rushing in one direction, then another, making big wide circles on the snow that echoed the small circles her tail made. Henry ran after her, sniffing the ground eagerly, pausing to scratch at the ice, and I realized: There is so much life under that carpet of snow! Life that is invisible to my eyes, unheard by my ears, unsniffed by my nostrils, but they know. They know.
If you were to ask me what it is I’ve learned from all the dogs I’ve had over the years, I’d say: There is so much life outside my senses, outside my brilliant mind, even outside my fertile imagination. These animals, considered inferior to us, know it, sense it, and respond exuberantly.
At times they look up at me, a puzzled expression on their faces, as if to say: Aren’t you excited? Aren’t you thrilled?
This intelligent human is a party pooper, someone who can’t see what’s right under her feet, who thinks the landscape pictured above is a wasteland, devoid of life.
“Hi mom,” I greet my mother on our daily phone calls.
“Where are you?”
Like clockwork, she says: “So when are you coming over?”
“I’m here in Massachusetts, mom. Across two oceans.”
She hesitates only an instant: “Okay, so when you have time, come by, I’m waiting for you.”
Trying to keep her on the phone a little while longer, I’ve started making things up:
“Mom, we built a snowman today. Remember how we did that when we were kids?”
Yesterday: “Aussie has a gentleman caller, mom, a German Shepherd that comes to pick her up every morning and take her out to play.”
Two days ago: “The ponds and rivers here are frozen over and people are skating, and some are fishing on the river. Did the Danube freeze over when you were a kid?”
Three days ago: “A gigantic bird landed right by the front door this morning, mom. It pecked on the door trying to come in.”
Anything to keep her on the phone for more than a minute.
She gives a brief laugh, says yes or no, repeats: “So come by when you have a chance,” and hangs up.
Yes, she has dementia, but at times I think I have dementia as well, that we all do by virtue of being human. We hold on to some narrow sliver of experience we call life and can’t go beyond it to the wonders of dog dates and albatrosses trying to crash a party.
When I first started reading Buddhist sutras, I was turned off by the description of multitudes of Buddha universes with goddesses and demons, the heavens raining exquisite nectar and flowers, with huge crystal palaces or enormous thrones made of gold and precious stones. Metaphors, I would groan inwardly. I hate metaphors.
I’m not sure of that anymore. Who’s to say what exists or not? At times Aussie comes to a dead stop, staring into the distance that shows nothing for half a mile but the frozen steppes of New England, nostrils quivering nonstop. Animals somewhere, I think to myself; it’s the sensible answer. She stands and stands, sniffing voraciously, eyes wide open gazing through a window that suddenly opened to her alone.
Me? I watch her, and sometimes feel foolish.