“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Part II: Day 58: The Literary Dog Gets a Gig

Zoe in front of the Athenaeum Hotel, Chautauqua, with her male human
For the first time in known history, Zoe has been granted entry to the Chautauqua Writers Festival.  She has a room that she shares with her two human attendants in the Victorian hotel, the Athenaeum, on the first floor, across the hall from a student in her person's workshop--a young woman who, like her instructor, sees metaphors everywhere, even in the parking lot, and is writing an essay about a wasp that terrified Darwin because it laid its eggs inside a spider's abdomen and the creature was churned inside out.

When things that belong on the inside are outside it gets scary: ulcers, skin ruptures that look intestinal, parasites, alien embryos, intense emotions--like the kind that a memoirist relives, never exorcising them completely, through writing.  

At the picnic before the reading a clump of admirers have gathered on the grass to love up this dog.  They praise her beauty, her sweet ways, her proffered paws, her polite begging technique, her lean-in hugs.  After her person gives the dog bites of pulled pork and chicken, the nonfiction festival director takes care of dessert.  The lovely tattooed poet who is writing about her relationship with Rilke gets teary-eyed talking about her writing mentors, including this festival director--how they not only nurtured her muse, but how they also found her and her small children a place to live and gave her the will to live when she was in the lowest place ever.  Zoe's person's eyes fill too, and Zoe notes that this is a place where people really share things, essential things, life-affirming things, and not just pulled pork and pie.  The tattooed poet has lived with cats but is drawn to Zoe, she says, because she can see something special about her, something soulful and wise in her eyes that transcends speciesdom.
Zoe with Diana Hume George and Traci Morell

Erica Sklar and Zoe are in love
One of the student interns, a talented nonfiction writer, has veterinary science training.  Zoe's person took to her at once, and Zoe adores her so quickly, so instantly, that it's hard for anyone else to get her attention.  The two submit to a photo shoot, but would rather just commune without all the fuss.

Zoe has a lump on her neck that is seeping.  It was the size of a golf ball before the road trip began, but it's shrinking.  Her people keep patting it down with disinfectant, but then it bleeds.  Even though an oozing growth isn't easy on the eyes, the writers pet her anyway, complimenting her on her lustrous black coat, shiny after being groomed, although one poet at the barbeque suggests that it might be a good idea for her person to wash her hands before she goes to the podium because there's blood on it, which is probably also metaphorical, but not in a good way.  Because Zoe looks so good it's hard to believe that something deadly is growing inside her.  These lumps are the internal made external, even if they aren't harmful--her local vet doesn't think so, but really doesn't know--so they are the focus of her human attendants' administrations.  It comforts them to help make something shrink when other things are so beyond reach.

At the podium, before her person reads, she tries to explain to the audience how Zoe came into her life, how this dog's cancer has changed the way she thinks about time, and how she expected to fall in love with her dog but not like this-- so deeply, completely, helplessly.  She says something about how when humans adopt dogs they risk their hearts because they know they are devoting themselves to a creature with a lifespan that is normally much shorter than theirs, and when that lifespan is limited even more by a disease . . .  Around the room, a few people, she will find out later, are thinking about their own pets and trying not to cry.

Zoe is seated in the back row of this crowd with her male person.  The two humans have wondered how Zoe will comport herself at this event.  This dog is fabulous at parties and weddings.  If people are speaking, delivering toasts, reciting vows, promising to love each other in sickness and in health, feeding each other cake, opening champagne, dancing to bad Eighties music, she is the perfect guest.  Retirement dinners are okay too.  She likes listening to embarrassing tidbits about the retiree's thorough e-mails, idiosyncratic office attire, and generous deeds at the copy machine.  But if it starts to feel too much like a classroom to her, she whines. 

Case in point: her person took her to the final day presentations at the Adirondack Semester in December and at first she thought it was a party and did what she does: quietly made the rounds, leaning into the people who clearly needed to snuggle.  But when the talks went on for just a tad too long, or the blue sky beaming into the window lit up the spot where she stood, she decided it was time to play in the snow.  Her sighs went stereo.  They could be heard in every corner.  She was like the kid with ADD who taps her foot and sighs extravagantly when her person delivers a lecture.  "Gee, I'm sorry.  Was I boring you?" said person is always tempted to say.

Zoe's person tells the assembled that it could go either way depending on what Zoe thinks is going on here: party or school.  This is, of course, a great challenge for a writer at a reading.  Well, it's both, one wants to say, if the purpose of literature really is, as Horace once told us, to delight and instruct: plaire et instruire.  Can you say the same thing about a blog?  Can a blog be held to the same standards?  We don't know.  This is the first time Zoe's person has read something that hasn't been published, let alone shared the posts from this corner in the oral tradition.  It's a little scary.  Like wearing something that belongs inside, outside.  Underwear, say.  Or maybe a nightshirt, like the one with down dog paw prints that her friend Rebecca gave her one year for her birthday.

When she hears her name, Zoe whines audibly.  All human heads turn to look at her again. What has she decided?  Does she want to stick around?

She does.

It doesn't hurt that all the people smell a little like pulled pork.

Although Zoe's person rehearsed and timed her reading, and was able to get through five posts in her allotted 20 minutes when she practiced in her room, when all is said and done, and done and said, and heads have turned to admire the dog in question again, and again, the writer in this corner only has time for three posts: Under Wild Apple Trees, Bark and Soul, and Which Way Do we Go? She wanted to end with Pink Twilight Sky, but hey, the clock has ticked.  There is never enough time. 

Zoe listens respectfully to the whole thing, never making another sound, and for a mad instant her person wonders if the two of them might be able to take this show on the road.  Maybe they could stop at other dog-loving literary venues.  Maybe other dogs could come too.

Then it's over, and the amazing, dog-loving Puerto Rican-American poet, Martin Espada, is coming to the podium.  He will rock and sway, sing and chant, performing poems about immigration, and childhood, and his childhood muses, and the staff at Windows on the World, many of them undocumented workers, who lost their lives in September 11th, and no one will be the same afterwards.  It's going to be one of the best poetry readings this dog's person has ever attended.  Just before he goes on he'll tell Zoe's person that he lost his dog to cancer last year, and he and his wife still haven't gotten over it. 

And Zoe will miss every minute of it. Someone will leave the room and Zoe will tug at the lead to follow.  She's had her fifteen minutes of fame and now it's time to stalk the other Chautauqau dogs out for evening strolls along the lakefront, rest beside the fountain, and lap up a drink at the Victorian hotel.

She's been inside among warm bodies for too long, and the outside beckons.

Kerry Grant, Natalia Singer, Zoe, Kristine Newman, and Ruby at Chautauqua, photo by Diana Hume George

P.S.  The dog's person would like to thank the kind and generous Sherra Babcock and Kristine Newman and Diana Hume George at the Chautauqua Writers Festival for opening all these doors to Zoe and making her feel so much at home.  Kristine even brought her dog over for a play date and swim to tire Zoe out before the reading, and gave her a toy.  These dog-lovers are beautiful humans and Zoe and her person are grateful to have them in the pack.

Chautauqua is supposed to be about the life of the mind, but for this dog, it's the life of the body.  And in particular, the head scratch . . .


  1. what a beautiful post. I re-read all the posts you read there, and the one you did not: what a nice selection. I want to believe, naively perhaps, that the oozing spots on her are releasing toxins. I can't really go down that path, it makes me teary, so i will stay on the path of "Lucky Dog." What a varied, rich, loving world she is living in, and so gently understood.

  2. ..so gently understood by you, that is.

  3. Thank you so much for these kind words, Sara and Mira Bee. xxxn