By Anne Jones
I wash my apple with soap before eating it, sometimes twice. I scrub the outside of a cantaloupe because the knife might pick up salmonella and carry it through to the meat of the fruit. I Clorox the counters every day, maintain a hierarchy of kitchen sponges based on what they’ve touched, wear latex gloves for chicken prep, and can’t eat my cereal if the bright sun is shining on my nearly-frozen rice milk. You get the picture.
But when I get in bed at night, all bets are off. It’s there, under warm sheets and a cotton blanket, that I savor the rotten breath, breath so putrid it brings to mind the sewery stench of every filthy gas station bathroom along I-95 between South of the Border and Daytona Beach, mixed with old clams. I don’t care. Bring it on. Bring on the muddy feet and the crusty scents, the wet sneeze and the loud burp, the dirt specks and the occasional flea. Bring on my two squatty, lumpy, short-legged, goofball, adoring black and tan dogs. I could practically make out with them.
To me, every single thing about them, and most all dogs, is utterly, viscerally and purely appealing, every lovely, furry inch of them, especially that whisker-sprouting bump that sits mid-chin. It’s not just their most popular, clichéd traits that get me, the unconditional love and the earnest devotion in their eyes: we all know all about that. It’s also that dogs are such huge slobs; they’re rude.They like disgusting things. That makes me love them all the more; I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s connected to their being 100% in the here-and-now, so guileless and joyful about it. Life-grabbers. Maybe it’s because they seem to know what’s important and true in this life, oblivious to the masks and trappings of civility. My god, have you ever just sat and stared at the back of a dog’s head– the slope of their domes, the fall of their ears, and the thick curve of their smooth necks? It’s heart-rending. Because what are they thinking about? I don’t care that it’s probably just a sausage or a nap. Of course it is. They’d be the first to tell you so. And yet it might not be a sausage or a nap; it might be longing, or figuring out how to do the next right thing.
I was on a walk with Jeffro, my John Belushi-ish dog with the head of a Rottweiler and the body of a corgi, with stubby legs and leathery elbows and big star paws, and Flagger, my 50-lb, long and sleek and self-important, clownishly over-sized and officious dachshund. Flagger’s always been the boss of Jeffro because he was here first, so when Flagger stopped to eat grass, Jeffro sat down to study him, and then began to eat the grass too, as if Flagger was a genius who had come up with a brilliant idea. I swear at that moment I would have given him a kidney.
And that’s how I know it’s pure love – there is no understanding of it, no sudden epiphany about the true meaning of it to be had, in my book. There’s only recognition, and mystery. It’s just there, here, and everywhere. I don’t know jack about it. I don’t know how to hold onto it or let it go, fall into it or out of it, stop it or start it. I don’t know if it’s patient, or kind, or a rose, or if it hurts, or is a many splendored thing, or dares not speak its name, or even if it will keep us together. Walker Percy said, “there is no cheaper word.”
I do know that the moments of real love in a real lifetime aren’t necessarily the big ones, the births and deaths and special moments and red-letter days. Instead they happen all the time, in a heartbreaking instant, and they have something to do with people being most lovable when they are most flawed, maybe like dogs at their rudest. It’s why people seem appealing to me when they’re not thinking things through, when they’re in the midst of plunging into life as it presents itself, grabbers-of-life, dog-like. Not careless, these life-grabbers, just open to seizing beauty and mystery wherever they can. It’s also somehow loosely, cosmically, related to what Ethan Canin described so perfectly in his story “Emperor of the Air” when his narrator explains: “…certain moments have always been peculiarly moving for me…Standing out of the way on a fall evening, as couples and families converge on the concert hall from the radiating footpaths, has always filled me with a longing, though I don’t know for what…the spectacle of a thousand human beings organizing themselves into a single room to hear the quartets of Beethoven is as moving to me as birth or death.”
We all know it’s loving and noble to make sacrifices for your children, take care of a sick parent, do good works for those closest to you. But the real mystery of love’s meaning is the seeming inevitability of it in the face of our broken human nature, the longing illuminated by the brief, infinite moments that grab your heart and make it impossible to ever let go.
Take Flagger. I picked him out of 100’s of photos of rescued dogs, not because he was the cutest or prettiest to me, he wasn’t; but because I loved him at first glance, as if I’d known him forever. I couldn’t look for a cuter one because I felt he was in some way already ours. I didn’t have a choice. Take my father. Why is it that one night driving home I sobbed for him, all because when I left his house he had fallen deep asleep in his chair with a huge, unwieldy National Geographic map spread out before him? Why are my mother’s tennis shoes –sturdy little blue Keds with an open heel that makes them look like teddy-bear shoes – so sad? Why did a glimpse of the squinty, confused face my husband made when the sun hit his eyes for an instant at the dog park make me love him to the core and feel unshakably connected to him, even though he’d abandoned our 30-year marriage just two weeks prior in a slow, determined march of blind miscommunication?
And why do the lone, ethereal guitar notes and heart-wrenching voice of Bill Kirchen (my all-time musical hero and a first-rate life-grabber) on his cover of Dylan’s It Takes Alot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry sound like all the sadness and joy in the world, all the grief and love and happiness of a life, nailed down to a few pure sounds? And why do those sounds both paralyze me with the piercing melancholy of perseverance and make me want to wrap my arms around the entire planet in comfort and joy? Because after all, aren’t all the good songs about loneliness, as Lewis Nordan asks in Music of the Swamp,“and the defeat of loneliness, and the heartbreak if it could not be defeated, as probably it never could?”
And then there’s this: why did Chuck Berry’s brush with the law for being on the wrong side of a peeping-tom hole make me love him all the more? Why did I feel happier than I had in weeks when the older black lady at Starbuck’s called me Boo? All tiny, significant, moments that make life and love too messy and full to understand, except to know somehow that it’s worth it.
Because it’s not to understand. None of it makes sense. I think it has to do with flaws, vulnerability, and inter-connectedness. And I think thinking about it in those terms is the closest I’ll ever come to understanding its true meaning, which is not very. And I think I agree with Jonathan Franzen who comes as close to explaining it as anyone with this: “Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.” And so by embracing, dog-like, every little chance we get at love and longing and joy, we are embracing our humanity. And it’s enough.