This afternoon I was stretching in the bedroom of a friends’ house where I’m pet-sitting for the weekend. While the older dog Sadie napped nearby, it took only a few minutes for the younger beagle, Belle, to figure out that I was on the floor.
Belle has spent much of her time since I arrived yesterday watching me. She figured out immediately that I’m a grazer, likely to be eating food at any given moment, so I don’t blame her for watching my every move. When I sat on the floor, to Belle that meant I was available to pet her. My parents’ 2-year-old terrier, Roscoe, thinks it’s time to wrestle and nips at my ankles and wrists when I’m on his level (roughly knee-high). Any attempt at a calm Yoga session in the morning turns into puppy playtime. In my parents’ home, set at the edge of a swath of state-owned forest, furnished with my dad’s custom-built woodwork, I’m happy to indulge Roscoe. He’s always been available for puppy play, but I know that someday soon, he will be a jaded adolescent dog, content to lay in a corner. So I always play.
The house I’m in this weekend reminds me of my parents’ in lovely ways. It has the warm tones of wood throughout and an indoor-outdoor space that the dogs traverse all day. It has the unmistakable permanent feeling of family, of being a place where people have chosen to settle down while children and pets, like Belle and Sadie, grow older.
Whenever I’m around other people’s pets, I’m impressed by how easily the animals adapt to me (and in this case, my boyfriend). I don’t know how they decide we won’t harm them, though I assume it’s something to do with how we smell. (It’s comforting to know that I don’t smell angry or cruel). But beyond that, I’m sure we keep a different rhythm compared to their human owners. Shouldn’t they act more confused? But Belle, Roscoe, and their kind don’t require much beyond food at the right times, time every day spent outside, and companionship.
They don’t really demand it though. They wait, observe, and remind with a look or whine if food or water is forgotten. When it’s delivered, they react with rapture. “Appreciate” is an understatement for dogs’ enthusiasm for the basic necessities. When you fill their food dish, take them for a walk, or scratch their bellies, they simply love you. I feel embarrassed at how much dogs seem to love me for doing the most basic of caregiving tasks. A part of my brain says, “Is that all it takes to make another creature happy? What does anyone need a PhD for?” But it’s in their nature to love that way, and thank goodness. Dogs have helped many humans, otherwise at the edge of their sanity, remain attached to the daily gift of existence and of habit. I’m sure of it.
In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks describes the ideal learning experience as a series of excursions into a novel place, back to a safe and secure base. For dogs, it may be a source of sustenance and kindness; for babies, that base is a comforting, stable parent. Brooks says that adults have the same need to explore and return, explore and return. Habit and break from habit.
I’ve spent my adulthood at universities, away from my parents’ home. It would be a euphemism to describe the past few years as a “learning experience.” In a decision that felt more like an earthquake, I decided not to pursue a tenure-track position in academia, got divorced, and began dealing with a series of health mysteries that, while not terminal, still take up huge amounts of my time and energy. I have spent the last year learning to rest. Often I have imagined myself in my parents’ peaceful wooded home, taking a break from all the questions and worries swirling around in my head about all these changes.
I have also realized that the same questions and worries will be there waiting whenever I return to my working life, as a professional. If I stayed at my parents’ long enough, they would arise. They are there because I’m a human being, who has a brain and a body and the things that a brain and a body produce: thoughts, feelings, worries, questions. What I’m working on now is a new set of habits, and I’m not embarrassed to say they’re habits that Belle and Roscoe, who are dogs, exhibit as part of their nature.
Observe. Be available. Appreciate. Love.