I lined them up against the wall, and every night, from beneath the covers, I plucked the one at the head of the line to tuck under my arm. I was an equal opportunity employer, rotating the line lest they felt neglected, unloved, passed over. There was shaney, pick-me-up, Fluffy, elmo, lambie-pie, Sarah, Susan, and Bethany. I truly believed that their stuffed hearts carried the ability to feel and be loved just as all of my non-stuffed animal friends did. Disregard the fact that Fluffy was a huge white bear that caused me to wake up with heat stroke when I endured sleeping with him in the Arizona summers, or that Sarah, Susan and Bethany were cabbage patch dolls whose hard plastic heads had a tendency to whack me in the eye as I rolled over. I was willing to be inconvenienced, preferring my discomfort to the possible pain I might cause them if they were relegated to a shelf. This was taking “Velveteen Rabbit” a tad too far, no?
Recently, I realized I'm still that little girl trying to love without bounds and avoid causing pain, and the childish projection is alive and well. We have a new houseguest in apartment #D. Before she arrived, I heard many instructions about walking, feeding, and brushing, because this particular guest is sadly lacking in personal hygiene skills. I have to admit, it wasn’t sounding all that appealing. Of course I wanted the sweet moments, the boundless excitement when I walked in the door, the company, someone to cuddle with and love me unconditionally. I just wasn’t so convinced I wanted all of the rest: the responsibility, the schlepping down the stairs and to the grassy patch, the early waking, the hair everywhere, and the toys strewn around the floor.
Even knowing that change is inevitable, I get tied up in routine and rigidity, imposing structure to create the illusion of safety. I start to feel panicked if the laundry isn’t done on its designated day or the floors haven’t been swept before bed. I cringe at the last English muffin if there isn’t an unopened package on the shelf above. I awaken to coffee while praying and checking email, slowly gathering my parts and untangling my neurosis from the sheets before I emerge from my room. Routine, pattern, schedule, rigid, obsessive-compulsive, anal…all very applicable.
Houseguests threaten that very safety, and so I was nervous. However, I hate to have to think of myself as lazy or unwilling to shoulder responsibility, so rather than voice my concerns, I swallowed them, hoping that it would either be a seamless transition or so disastrous that I would have a valid excuse for living alone. Last Wednesday, Gracie Joy moved in. As her multiple belongings sat in corners of the living room, I tried to remember to breathe. There was hair getting on the floor, on the couch, on my jeans! There was dirt she was tracking in, not only on the wood floors, but also on the couch pillows! There was stuff in un-appointed places and I was shocked to discover my neatly ordered life would have to split open to make space for her. So we shifted and cleared away. It was a trial run, a ‘we’ll wait and see how it goes’ kind of visit. I was torn between wanting to make it permanent from the start and wanting to bail on the whole operation. But sometimes the ‘ought-to’s’ in life can serve you well. I smiled over my fears because I was supposed to. I vowed to stretch, to shift, and to compromise my rigidity because it ‘would be good for me.’ I stood at the starting line waiting for the hand-off of the baton as we waved good-bye to my mom.
A week later, she’s still here, transitioning from houseguest to roommate. Her toys are still tossed around the living room, towels cover the couches, and she has figured out how to stretch herself out to take up more couch space than I thought possible. She leaves dirt and blonde hair wherever she steps and dribbles water around the kitchen. She snores as she sleeps by my bed and barks at the numerous fire engines that scream past the window. Plus, there’s the enticing job of following behind her with a little blue bag when we trek downstairs. My routine is disintegrating, my cleanliness standards precariously dropping. There are remnants of the old order, certain patterns that survived, but there is also a new schedule filled with potty breaks and nighttime brushing, carrot treats and puppy licks.
This is the gift. The very intrusion I was afraid of, the schedule I tried to protect, the routine that ‘kept me safe’ – Gracie Joy is a needed intrusion, a healing, enriching shift containing joy even in the responsibility. This is better. With tunnel lenses, she had sounded like a chore, like the neighbor’s dogs that are smelly and dirty, fine to look at from afar but not something I want close by. However, Gracie joy is mine. Her doggy smell is sweetly familiar and the nightly brushing becomes meditative, a time for bonding in pj’s and puppy breath. The walks around the neighborhood introduce me to new friends: Shayna (black lab) and Brennan (human), Sadie (unfriendly bulldog) and Sarah (odd homeopathic yogi), all living steps away.
The point is that the responsibilities and tasks and mess are all real, but they are worth the joy. They seem small and trivial in the face of the comfort and company she offers. It’s the dog owner cliché, the insistence on incomparable pleasure, but it’s true. It was one of those things I didn’t know to miss. I didn’t know how calming it is to just sit and play with her ears. I didn’t know what an instant high the image of her entire body wagging would offer. I didn’t remember the comfort of lying beside a sleeping puppy as she burrows her face in my armpit. And yes, I do my best to sweep away the hair every night, vacuum the couch, and dust the tables. We sacrificed the rugs after a blatant peeing accident, and the small blue bags I carry on walks still produce a grimace. The toys on the floor? Not having completely abandoned the little girl I used to be, I’ve named them. We have Lucille the giraffe and Albert the gray dog/elephant/bear. I have managed to refrain from projecting human emotions onto them, but I can’t say the same for Gracie.
Things haven’t changed that much from my childhood bed. I contort myself into the available corner of the couch, hearing my mom’s instructions to ‘Remember that you’re the boss’ in my head. But she look so comfortable…I’ll just watch TV on the floor…tomorrow I’ll move her. And I whisper promises of ‘being right back, I promise’ as I edge out the door, racing to complete the errand so I don’t have to leave her alone for longer than an hour or two. The guilt can be overwhelming as I attempt to love her as much as she loves me, protect her from loneliness or sadness, and make her happy. And I just realized I am now trying to people-please my dog. Ok, so there’s still definitely some therapy work to be done…
But it’s her eyes. She looks at me mournfully and I melt, putting off the bank and the laundry so that I don’t have to lock her in the kitchen with treats as tricks to snare her.
Note to self: You are the boss! You are a human and she is a dog! You have a life outside of being a dog owner.
Right, right…we’ll definitely get to all of that tomorrow. But for now, I'm going to curl up, dirt and all, on the toweled couch next to my puppy and enjoy the company of my new roommate. Yes, Change is inevitable. Change is hard. Change shakes up the routine and the order. Change in apartment D delivered laughter amidst sickness, soft fur on dusted edges, love to offset the loneliness, and a widening of my heart, making space for messy waggling tails.