Last week I gave a sermon entitled, How Can I Be Joyful When Everything is Awful? In it, I highlighted a book of essays by Ross Gay entitled The Book of Delights. He made a simple, even obvious practice of noticing things to be delighted in, and writing a mini essay every day about something that delighted him. I’ll post the sermon here, or somewhere, later. But I’ve been dipping into this practice myself, in place of my Gratitude practice (3 things I’m grateful for each day). Gratitude implies reciprocal obligation, but Delight requires nothing but presence, and for that reason I love it. So I thought I would also make a practice of sharing some of my delight here, so that you can find yours too.
Most people don’t like spiders. They fascinate me. I think jumping spiders are adorable (and I once adopted one), and orb weavers are queens. Last month I noticed a web in my bushes that looked like an upside-down, 2-layer parachute. I posted it on Facebook and a naturalist friend of mine told me it was the web of a Bowl-and-Doily Spider. They catch prey in the “bowl” and lie in wait in the “doily” underneath. Damn, that’s cool! Anything that builds things is cool, even if I do a crazy dance after smacking into them while hiking.
This morning, I went for my simple half-mile walk around the block with Bandit, after skipping several days. It’s been hard to get up (allergies? grief?). There were spiderwebs everywhere in the wild places along the road, gem-studded with sparkling dew snagging rainbows from the slanting rains of the early morning sun. I am struck by how often my delights are contained in this 12-minute morning walk, and how much I struggle to do it, despite that.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound of fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go lie Dow where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come to the peace of the wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry
On Saturday I went alone for a paddle on the Falling Water River, whose stillness seems complete and belies its name. I was in no hurry. I had no one to keep up with, no particular destination or goal, other than presence. The water was so slow-moving as to almost seem stagnant, its surface covered in the fluffy pollen of some tree, which pollen was also dancing in the air, lending the scene a dreamy quality.
Being on a kayak and unhurried, you are somehow at once connected to earth, water, and sky, the denizens of all three within your notice. As I paddled, deliberately seeking out the pretty little painted turtles stunning themselves on the exposed branches of half-submurged trees, a leviathan paddled past me beneath the surface, its ridged shell recalling ancient things, its slow movements making me hold my paddle to watch him for a long moment. Further on, a monstrous carp that seemed half the length of my boat curved among the sun-shadowed river weeds below me.
If I’m honest, I spent far too much time trying to photograph the stately blue herons whose fishing I was disrupting, and not enough time just admiring them. Again and again, they would watch me as I pulled up my paddle and drifted slowly by,
trying not to bother them, but also trying to photograph their pterodactyl-like takeoff as they winged upriver ahead of me. The kingfishers skittered their in-flight songs as the drifted from tree to tree, and families of geese watched me warily, concerned parents herding their fuzzy children away from the neon orange intruder.
The Falling Water is a suburban sort of river, not at all wide where I put in, lined with manicured, sloping lawns on either side. It was a Saturday, so there was no illusion that I was really alone with nature, with almost-unnoticed background music of traffic and lawn mowers. And yet, I actually saw no human as I paddled practically through their back yards. This is one of the things I love best about rivers and streams. The edges of the water were not as impeccably manicured as the lawns were, trees allowed to grow as they will, dipping roots in the nourishing muddy silt, arching branches delicately reflected in the placid water. Were I to wander on foot through these close-clipped greenways to get a better look at a bird, someone would surely call the police, but the river belongs to everyone, and no one, and only itself.
It belongs to that whitetail doe who paused and lifted her dripping muzzle to regard me, before turning a flashing tail and bounding up an embankment. It belongs to the flurry of swallowtails flitting across the narrow waterway, gracing mud puddles with gossamer yellow wings like flowers born one moment, to vanish the next. It belongs to the half-ounce titmouse who, when I was once again on land, darted past me on swift wings to go about her business of bug-hunting for a brood that was well hidden in the knot of a tree right next to the pier, peering around the rough bark to see if I was still interested in her activities. It belongs to the leviathan turtle and the indignant heron. Their scatter at my approach reminds me: even if I owned one of these houses and paddled here every day (wouldn’t that be a meditation practice!), I would still be a guest and must always be respectful and polite.
Spoiler alert: there aren’t any. Love has no limits.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved y our beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
— W.B. Yeats
Rascal is not my dog. When my son Brandon was four, he saved up his money and bought a puppy. “Get a shih tzu,” my mom said. “I love collies,” I said. We opened up the newspaper and found shih tzu/sheltie mix puppies for sale. That felt like destiny calling. We got the pup.
That was almost 19 years ago. He has always been Brandon’s dog, a dude’s dog. I’m the one who messes with him, trimming nails, brushing (he requires a lot of brushing, but I have let it go except for what is necessary for his health), cleaning up his messes. Brandon loved him, snuggled with him, trained him, adored him.
And then went to college. When he was six months old we bought another pup to ease his separation anxiety, his half brother, and it wouldn’t have been fair to Rascal to go with Brandon and spend a lot of time alone. So he stayed home with me, wriggling with joy when His Boy came to visit him, covering him with kisses. If I get a kiss I count it a rare treasure.
Still, he is an old soul, and he had a lot to teach me. I think he still does. That’s a story for a longer blog post probably, the one I will sob over when he leaves us. It’s not time for that now.
Right now it’s time to cherish every moment he is still in joy. He still loves that golden hour, lying in the yard. He wags for snow. He wags for His Boy. He wags for Christmas presents. He wags.
He has had degenerative hip disease since he was two years old, so I am astonished that he is still plugging along. His brother Dink left us late in 2017. We lost bladder control last year, and he can’t hear too well or read the newspaper anymore. I have to pick him up to take him outside, and snatch him up when he’s done peeing to make sure he doesn’t fall over in it while he’s trying to walk when he’s done. He needs diapers. He gets diaper rash. His appetite isn’t the best and most of the time I have to fight with him to get pills down him. But the vet is astonished that his bloodwork looks so good for a geezer his age, and, well, he still wags.
He was always a Rascal. If he wasn’t tied, he’d run away, daring someone to catch him. Unbelievably, he still tries to run away. If I put him outside and don’t put him on a leash — this crotchety old man who sleeps with his face practically in his water dish so that he doesn’t have to get up and walk to it if he gets thirsty in the middle of the night — he will “run” away, by which I mean he hobbles 2 feet, looks around to see if I am watching, and if he is lucky, he makes it to the edge of the neighbor’s yard, feeling supremely pleased with himself for outfoxing me. If I’m not careful he will make it to the garden and get stuck.
He loves Christmas. He finds his present (he always knows because it’s the soft one that’s not in a box), and he pokes it with his nose excitedly while Bran helps him open it. Bran sleeps over on Christmas Eve. We had to wake him up this year, but he was still excited about his present, which was a bed and not a dog toy for the first time ever. The last three Christmases I thought would be his last with us, and he keeps surprising me.
He’s a lot of work. Loving an old geezer is a lot of work. I fight with the pills, I change his diaper, I carry him outside, I have to watch because often the only indication that he needs to go is that he tries to get up and move. I try not to diaper him all the time because he gets rashes, so he has accidents in the house sometimes, not getting up too fast, and we head to the bathtub to clean him up, one hand under his belly because he has a hard time standing for very long. I have to hand feed him sometimes when he is being picky. One of the hardest things about this past very difficult year was when I had surgery and couldn’t take care of him the way he needed me to, couldn’t pick him up.
But as long as he is still wagging, I do not mind. I find so much joy in his enjoyment. He likes his new bed. He loves the big glass door, lying on his bed looking outside, hanging out with Russ, and especially when The Boy comes. He does not love nail trims or brushing or me fidgeting with him. I do not doubt that he will let me know when the joy is gone and it’s time to let him go, when he has one last lesson for me. But we are not there yet.
So I want to tell you this: when love is a lot of work, that’s when you should hold on to it most dearly and with the most joy, but with a gentle grip, because it is fragile, and because when it is time to let go, you should not hold any more. That is the paradox and challenge of love. Can you cherish without clutching, do the work without resentment, be present without demanding?