I have written a dog book. What a strange sentence!
Why is this strange? Well for one thing, I owe my life to successive guide dogs who, each and every one, was brilliant and mysterious. As I began the book I imagined with all due humility that writing about guide dogs might be beyond me.
Yes, I’ve written a dog book. I had to grow in order to manage it.
The book, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster next April is called Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey with an Exceptional Labrador
Why did I have to grow?
Because like many memoirists I’m pretty good talking about myself but weak when it comes to understanding others. And then, well, what do you do when “the other” is a dog?
What do you do when your teacher is a dog?
First: admit your teacher is a dog.
Next: recognize dogs don’t think like us. They’re loving and instinctive, patient but sweetly detached from our cloying egos.
My first guide dog Corky, a yellow Lab smiled a lot. She smiled whenever strangers approached, even the vaguely medieval ones who had superstition on their minds.
From the book:
The two of us were unconditionally stirring to strangers. Sometimes we were approached by doe eyed holy roller types—people who’d grown up watching Jerry Lewis telethons, who’d absorbed a thousand sermons about the blind, who need the grace of God—wanting to touch us, pray for us, or at the very least, tell us how uplifting we were. Riding a bus from Ithaca to Geneva, and feeling good, Corky tucked under the seat, a woman seated across from us said: “You and your dog just gave me some Jesus!” I was crippled Tim, a vision of Christ’s mercy.
These benedictions occurred so often I started worrying about it. When would it occur? On a bus in Ithaca a woman said loudly: “Can I pray for you?” I couldn’t help myself and replied: “Yes, Madam, you may pray for me, but only if together, you and I, raise our prayers for all the good people on this bus who have trouble brewing inside, their cancers aborning even as we speak, whose children have gone astray through substance abuse, people who even now feel lost in a sea of troubles, let us pray, all together for our universal salvation.” I clutched her arm with feverish intensity. The bus pulled to a routine stop and she jumped out the door. Passengers applauded. “Don’t take it personally,” a woman said to me then. I smiled. But how else to take it?
I asked Edward, an Episcopal priest who I met in a coffee shop what he thought of the public Jesus complex as I’d come to call it. We sat on a park bench drinking coffee out of paper cups, Corky chewing on a bone at our feet.
“Many Christians don’t like the body,” he said. “That’s how they understand the crucifixion. They think the body is the throw away part of Christ. And of course that’s entirely wrong: the body of Jesus is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: the living temple of God and of the new humanity.
“In effect,” he said, “every body is the body of Jesus. Which means each body, broken or not is a true body, imbued with spirit, and not a sign of want. There’s a beauty to the diversity in the body of Christ.”
“So why do I meet so many predatory prayer slingers who want to mumble over me?” I asked.
“The insecure ye will always have with ye…” Edward said.
When she first entered my life I knew Corky would help me in traffic but I had no idea she’d teach me to be kind in an open and ironic way. By this I mean she gave me distance from whatever it is we mean by the self. With a service dog by my side 24-7 I learned to drift above the two of us in disembodied fancies—I could look down on whatever scene we found ourselves in and often, because of this altered state I would become larger than my habitual persona.
From the book:
I walked into a mega-computer store on Sixth Avenue. I wanted to purchase a laptop pc. As we pushed through the door a security guard put his hand on my chest. “You no come in, no dog,” he said.
I pressed forward and the guard stepped back. “Stop! Stop!” he shouted and waved his arms. Customers stared.
My civil rights and the security guard’s dignity were equally delicate. I didn’t know where the guard came from, but his accent sounded East African. How could he possibly know anything about guide dogs? The store’s managers hadn’t given him information. All he knew was “no dogs allowed” and there I was with a big assed dog. As we stood in the doorway I figured it would be my job to foster dignity for both of us. They hadn’t taught me this at Guiding Eyes; they’d given me a booklet with access laws—a useful thing–I had the right to go anywhere the public went—but no one had mentioned emotional intelligence or how to engage in public mediation.
I made Corky sit. “Listen,” I said, softly, “get the manager. This will be okay.” “This is a special dog for the blind.” I wanted to turn our misunderstanding into something respectful.
The manager was one of those guys you see all the time in big city stores: sadder than his customers, red faced and put upon. He had a scoured toughness. He approached and began shouting at the guard. “Its a seeing-eye dog for god’s sake!” “Let him in!” “Sorry, sorry!”
My fight or flee rush was subsiding—I wanted all three of us to experience kindness.
I was in a Manhattan electronics store and dignity was in peril. It would have been easy to say “fuck it” and look out for myself alone. I’d gotten into the store. I was angry. I could have pitched a fit. But I didn’t feel like doing that. The guard’s name was Ekwueme. My name was Stephen. The manager’s name was Phil. “Listen,” I said, “dogs for the blind are not common, you don’t see them every day. This is Corky. She’s very smart.” I let my voice become soft. Ekwueme and Phil both petted Corky. A customer approached, said: “I’ve raised puppies for the guide dog school! Best dogs in the world!” Phil seemed suddenly pleased, as if he too was philanthropic, or could be some day. Ekwueme admitted he loved dogs.
Outside with a computer under my arm I reckoned life with Corky was more complex than just a story of freedom. Ekwueme and Phil would become legion in my travels but I didn’t know it yet. What I did know was reflected in a quote I’d always liked from Martin Luther King: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
I sensed that having a service dog meant something more than honoring my own rights.
“Take the first step in faith,” said Dr. King. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
When you travel all the time with a dog you are changed by the experience. I became more patient, deliberative, not perfect, but slower to burn, better able to think without the baggage of my former life, the one without the dog, the life when I was without a curious and engaging intelligence beside me always.
From the book:
In a diner on lower Broadway, a man, disheveled and clattering, someone the locals seemed to know, wandered from table to table interrupting breakfasters, pressing into each person’s space, piercing the brains of strangers. 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 wasn’t 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 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 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.