Aussie nuzzled against my leg this heavy, humid afternoon, surprising me. She’s not the most affectionate dog on the planet. I was in the middle of something—am always in the middle of something, even when it’s the beginning or the end of something, it always feels like I’m still in the middle.
I put out a hand to pet the nape of her wet, black neck while still staring at the computer screen, she pushed her head deeper into my leg, and finally I looked down. There she was, head bent, searching for attention, which is the epitome of love. And there I was, staring at a computer screen, which I’d been doing for hours that day.
What are you thinking, a voice asked inside. What are you doing? Carrying on as if there’s nothing else in life but emails, punching words out on the screen, looking at updated headlines every few hours—when somebody‘s asking for attention! Somebody’s asking for love!
I turned to her completely, bent down a little, and stroked her entire back, played with the tips of her ears which she loves, and murmured again and again what a pretty girl she is.
Another voice tried to interrupt: Focus! Don’t let your attention wander! You just got a good idea for one of the couples in the novel you’re trying to write, it’ll disappear in seconds because your memory isn’t good anymore, and then where will you be?
I’ll be here, I replied silently. I‘ll be with Aussie.
Annie Lamott asked the question: How alive am I willing to be?
I want to write, I want to walk, feel, read, exercise, and eat a good meal. I want to attend the Stone Soup Café’s annual harvest dinner tomorrow at the Greenfield Commons or else finally watch the film Lakota Nation vs. United States. I know what I want to do, what the schedule calls for, how to prepare for this or that—but how alive am I willing to be?
In the middle of last week’s retreat someone called me over and pointed to a flower bush, I can’t remember what kind. But what we saw was the endless pulsing activity among flowers, bumble bees, hummingbirds, and a larger bird I couldn’t recognize, buzzing, humming, drinking, pollinating, not full of life, in life.
It’s easy to take time out to see green and red hummingbirds or to stroke Aussie. What about being alive in the middle of sadness, loss, pain, loneliness? In the middle of fear?
Before getting dressed in the mornings, I usually sit on the bed and do several bends to the floor to stretch out my hips and hamstrings. Henry, the small Chihuahua mix, finding a captive audience, brings his ball and puts it in my lap to throw.
This morning, as I bent down, I noticed he wasn’t getting up on his hind legs with the ball in his mouth to put in my lap. I looked down and there he was, seated on the rug, the yellow ball on the floor, his ears up and turned towards the open door, his eyes following.
I heard it, too. Lori, in the other room, was talking on the phone, discussing work with someone, and irritation had crept into her voice. I couldn’t hear precisely what she said, but there was no mistaking the tone of annoyance and the very small, but noticeable, rise in volume.
Henry looked at the door, listening, eyes wide open, anxious. The OCD Chihuahua who can’t stop bringing me toys to play with just sat there, listening to the voice in the other room. Nothing else mattered.
“It’s okay, Henry,” I told him, “she’s not annoyed with you.” He didn’t turn from the door.
When Bernie was ill, I didn’t always want to hear or see it. Not that he talked about it much; he never complained. But there were signs of illness everywhere: a cane, a wheelchair in the trunk of the car, a hospital stand that swung towards you holding tissues, a medical alarm, a pee bottle. An arm and leg that got thinner and thinner from losing muscle.
Much better to smile encouragingly, do extra loads of laundry, say it’s no big deal if he drops something. But it is a big deal. It’s nothing, and it’s a big deal. And my words to the effect of Don’t worry about it, meant to reassure him, were perhaps more for me than for him: Don’t look, don’t listen, put those things behind you. Keep on going.
How alive am I willing to be?