On Monday morning, Labor Day, I walked with the dogs in Fiske Pond, Wendell. I’d last been there in July, but rocks, dam and bridge were underwater due to the local floods. This time the day was gorgeous. I managed to cross the dam (thanks to beavers) and walked up to the crest overlooking the lake, Aussie hanging back.
Suddenly, I heard a big splash, followed by another. I called her name, no reply. Walked here and there, trying to get a good view from behind the dense trees, and after a while I caught sight of a dark head above water, paddling quickly. Beaver, I wondered? And then, at a long distance, a tiny red band shone under the sun, and I exclaimed: “Aussie!”
Aussie, almost 6 years old, always loved the water but never swam. On a hot day she liked to stand in a pool, creek, or river, water up to her belly, a blissful look on her face. Over the five years I’ve lived with her, she saw ducks, seagulls, even herons, but would never let go of the solid ground under her paws to go after them.
Aussie—a swimmer? My Aussie? It was as if she’d become another dog. And not just any swimmer, but one paddling hard after a row of ducks, making her way to the very middle of the lake, her head low over the water. The ducks made circles, trying to shake her off, but she wouldn’t be deterred.
Suddenly, I got nervous. Was she going to make it? What would happen if she overestimated her strength? If she suddenly got tired and sank like a stone? I started clambering down to the water edge, getting tangled in brambles and the vines of old trees.
It took me 10 minutes to get down, calling her name. She finally turned around and swam back, but then splashed right back into the water and paddled out again to the very middle. The ducks were in no danger, they just dived down if she got close. It didn’t dissuade her. On and on she swam, chasing one duck, then another, while together they made circles in the big lagoon.
I stopped worrying; she knew what to do. After a quarter of an hour, she made her way to shore. It took me the same time to climb back up the embankment. At some point I got completely stuck, encircled by thick sharp branches that wouldn’t open up. Scratched up and mosquito-bitten, I found a happily soaked Aussie, eyes glittering with joyful awareness.
“Is this your first time?” I asked her. I was talking to a dog I’d never seen before. She had swum so freely out there, while I encountered nothing but obstructions.
She had no interest in treats as reward for coming when I called. Instead, she seemed in love with herself, as if saying: I know who I am, don’t need anything more. Don’t need acknowledgment, don’t need approval or reward. You’re excited and happy for me, but I don’t need any of that because I know who I am.
I thought of her Aussie-big-game-hunter bark as she chases deer, as if saying: I know this, I know this, it’s me! There was so much confidence and joy there.
There are those who express things, and those who don’t. Instead, the latter want treats. They want approbation and fame, but if you express something thoroughly, you don’t need any of that.
What prevents us from giving full expression in this way? People talk of needing a safe space. My dear friend, Roshi Ken Byalin, who founded Integration Charter Schools in Staten Island, New York, talks of encouraging kids to enter a brave space, not a safe space. Just like Aussie who entered the water with a big splash, spontaneous, unafraid. Though why she waited for 5 years I don’t know.
Maybe that’s the question: Why do we wait? What’s the right moment? No one can trace that, except for a great novelist, maybe.
A good novelist will present the karma: she’s half German Shepherd, maybe she didn’t find water near Houston, where she came from, maybe she finally was relaxed and confident enough to take risks, etc. All the causes and conditions.
But a really great novelist will know there are magical moments which will not fit into a linear landscape, no matter how beautifully and meticulously described. They won’t arise out of identifiable histories or stories. Someone will just jump into the water and swim.