“You ask of my Companions. Hills – sir – and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself." Emily Dickinson
You can’t spell poet without the word pet. This is the terrible first line I’ve been trying to avoid all morning, apparently to no avail. Somehow, amidst all the big ideas that I keep hoping to talk about here in my wee week at the BAP blog, the very small idea of pets keeps biting my ankles and begging to be taken out. (Perhaps this is because my dog is doing that very same thing at the moment.)
Let me begin by saying that up until last month, I never knew Emily Dickinson had a dog and for some reason that seemingly innocuous bit of information changed me. We have this idea of her, Ms. Dickinson, sitting alone in a small room rearranging words and stowing them away in the pocket of her stark white dress, while the much less common image is of a woman walking far out into the wild meadows of Amherst with her large dog, Carlo, bounding happily next to her. What changed me when I learned this? My first thought was, “Oh, she wasn’t alone at all!” It gave me a palpable thrill.
As writers, we often spend many seemingly selfish hours in one place living inside the mind trying to shut out outside stimulation. This can sometimes wreak havoc on our social lives, our relationships, even, at times, our humanity. However, as a much-needed antidote to that required solitude, many of us have turned to one of the universe’s most generous offerings…animals. They work, and this is no small feat, to return us to the real world again and again, showing us our own animal-selves, softening our cruel self-judgments, bringing us outside of our own egos, and unraveling the day into something more tangible and take-able.
I think of my dear friend Jennifer L. Knox, whose lovely first bird, Ichi the Killer, flew the coup of the living this weekend, and how instrumental he was to her life as a writer, how much joy such a small-winged thing offered her in the hours she worked hard to finish her new novel. It’s difficult to show just how much gratitude we have to the animals in our lives, our muses, and necessary distractions. I tell you, my dog makes me get up and go outside and walk among the living, even when I desperately don’t want to. As Emily Dickinson’s dog must have. “Interact with the living!” they say. "Play with me! Play with life!" And we, being their servants, do as we are told, and so we suffer less, and live a little more.
Check out this site here with all these lovely writers and their furry foils. As Billy Collin's tells his students (I'm paraphrasing), "Put a dog in your poems, it'll be a bright break from your own self absorbtion."
And so, in honor of Ichi the Killer, ("'Hope' is the thing with feathers - that perches in the soul") and to all our pets past and present, this post is only to show a small kernel of gratitude for how our animals, who may not always make us better writers, at least try to make us better animals alive in the world.