“Look Aussie, the library is holding Paws to Read sessions, when you read books to dogs. In the first session you can read a book to Rio and the next you can read a book to J-Lo.”
“They look like Goldens to me, rich, coddled, and purebred. Discrimination!”
“Aussie, I didn’t know you loved books so much. What book would you like me to read to you?”
“How to Kill Your Own Food.”
“Running Away from Home: A Primer for Growing Up.”
It’s over 70 degrees Fahrenheit today. The skies are blue, the sun yellow, the birds cheerful. Yesterday I posted about how Aussie has an internal GPS always showing her where I am even as she pursues other animals or saunters far from me. I’m developing a different GPS in my mind, the kind that reminds me that no matter what I’m doing, what suffering I witness personally and what I read or hear from others, still there’s joy.
That hasn’t come naturally to me. I was one of the serious ones in my family, too aware of the Holocaust we came from and the improbability of my being alive. And since I was alive, I reasoned, I had to dedicate my life to helping others. That was my lifelong rationale for living.
“Wherever we’re from, we have the storms that we know,” said Krista Tippett in a recent interview of the Louisiana-based climate activist, Colette Pinchon Battle. But storms are not just a call for protection and vigilance, they’re also reminders of the blessing of survival, of being alive.
Bernie used to be my source of fun and merriment. He founded the Order of Disorder and loved to clown. When he was in the rehabilitation hospital after his big stroke, I always found therapists and nurses in his room. They liked hanging out there because, even with aphasia that limited his talking, he could still share humor and fun. They were accustomed to other patients, with strokes nowhere near as disabling as Bernie’s, who were angry and depressed.
In particular, I remember a college professor who’d gone in for bypass surgery and had a mild stroke in the middle of the procedure. His body didn’t suffer, he was fully mobile, but his speech was a bit slurred though the therapists were sure he would overcome that and have a full recovery. He’d come into Bernie’s room saying: “I hear you’re a Zen master, so what do you think of this?” And he’d ramble angrily about the doctors, the nurses, and his much younger wife who stood at his side quietly, even as Bernie tried to follow what he was saying from where he lay in bed, barely able to talk himself, unable at that time to walk or do anything for himself.
Later, when he came home, even when he fell on the floor and I’d hover over him fearfully, asking what happened, he’d say slowly: “The-floor-wanted-to-have-a-conversation. Just-a-small-one.”
While he smiled and grunted a lot, he himself didn’t fully laugh often. But there were several times when, either around the table or in bed, he’d say something and start laughing, then look at me. I’d start laughing, too, then laugh harder, and then he’d surrender to a long, drawn-out, high-pitched belly laugh that went on and on. It was as if we’d both egg each other on to see who could laugh harder and deeper. Lately I’ve been remembering those times quite a lot.
When he left this world, it was as if fun and laughter left with him. I realized that I had to be responsible for my own joy now. It’s what happens when a partner goes. You realize that, like in football, he played a particular position. If you want the game to go on, you have to cover that position yourself now, or at least find others around you to do this.
In my own life, the birds have taken over the position of giving me joy. The horses in a neighboring farm, who neigh and run over across the meadow when I appear with apples, have taken over Bernie’s “joy” position. There’s Henry, who litters my bedroom with Pinky the Elephant, the green frog, and half a dozen turtles that are wet and smelly from his saliva. He hears the meditation alarm going off in my room in the morning and stands by the door, scraping at it and whining. “Aren’t you done yet? Aren’t you done yet?” And when I open the door, he rushes forward: “Time to PLAYYYYYYYY!”
I met Jimena some 10 days ago to give out some food cards and help for a family that couldn’t afford rent, and came into a rehearsal for a quinceanera, a party celebrating a young girl’s 15th birthday. The girl brought her friends, boys and girls, and they rehearsed the dances they were going to do in the April party. Her father operated the music and Jimena and I stood to the side watching girls and boys dancing in couples, stepping on each other’s feet, and generally having a blast. The girl celebrating the quinceanera took charge, organizing and cajoling them, saying: “Be serious, this is important!”
Serious? I don’t know. Important to dance? Definitely.