I’d always been a big baby where emotions were concerned. All out. Big reaction. Always a fight or flee endorphin rush. If you live perennially on the edge of total dismissal you have a hair trigger. The dog, the dog—who knew—was imparting delicacy to my inner life. I saw it after a few weeks of being together. The emotional rain was gentler. A man, a rather disheveled and clattering old man, someone the locals seemed to know, for we were in the Ithaca Diner, and he was going from table to table chattering with breakfasters, not asking for money, but essentially playing the role of the Id, sassing people, perhaps in ways they required, who could say, but there he was, pressing into each person’s space, piercing the psyches of strangers with his needle. He called a cop “Porky” and an elderly woman “Grandma” as he lurched steadily toward me. “Oh Doggy!” he said. “Doggy doggy doggy!”
Then he said, “What kind of fucking person are you?”
I tried my best Robert deNiro impression: “Are you talking to ME?”
He was not amused.
“A prisoner!” he shouted, for the whole diner was his stage. “This dog’s a prisoner!”
For a moment I felt the rising heat of embarrassment and rejection. Then, as he repeated my dog was a slave, I softened. In a moment of probable combat I stepped far back inside myself, not because I had to, but how to say it? Corky was unruffled. She actually nuzzled my leg. The nuzzle went up my torso, passed through my neck, went straight for the amygdala.
I smiled then. I said, “You’re right. And I’m a prisoner too.”
I don’t know if it was my smile, or my agreement that did the trick, but he backed up, turned, and walked out the door. Strangers applauded.
I’d beaten a lifetime of bad habits. I hadn’t fallen into panic, or rage, or felt a demand to flee.
I sat at the counter, tucked Corky safely out of the way of walking customers, and ordered some eggs. I daydreamed over coffee.
When I was eleven years old I fell onto a pricker bush. It’s hard to say how I did it, but I was impaled on hundreds of thorns. My sister who was six at the time, and my cousin Jim who was maybe nine, fell to the ground laughing as if they might die. I begged them for help which of course only made them laugh all the harder. I remember tears welling in my eyes and their insensible joy. I also knew in that moment they were right to laugh—that I was the older kid, was a bit bossy, disability be damned. I was the one who told my sister and cousin what to do. Now I was getting mine. My just deserts. In the end I tore myself from the monster shrub and stormed into the house. I sulked while they continued laughing outside.
Perhaps I thought, there in the diner, I could live henceforth in a new and more flexible way.
“Is it as simple as this?” I thought. “One simply decides to breathe differently.”
I saw, in a way, it was that simple.
Saw also how a dog can be your teacher. And while eating wheat toast I thought of the Buddha’s words from the Dhammapada:
Live in Joy, In love,
Even among those who hate.
Live in joy, In health,
Even among the afflicted.
Live in joy, In peace,
Even among the troubled.
Look within. Be still.
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the sweet joy of living in the way.