Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dog Paddling

Dogs swim without words, churning their paws in the water, paddling toward us in an effort to communicate, to link their lives with ours.

Some dogs leap fearlessly into the water. Retrievers, for whom swimming is second-nature, hold their heads high above the water-line and fix their eyes on some point in the distance that only they can see.

Others dogs shy away from the water. They may dance at the edge of the waves and lick the curling froth, tails wagging, but then they'll scamper away before their paws get wet.

Rarely are canines self-conscious about their bodies in the same way that humans worry about extra pounds or a bulging waist-line.

Exuberant and brimming with joy, dogs dash through the surf after frisbees or plastic bones with an energy and playfulness that few humans can match.

Watching dogs play in or near the water is one of life's delights. It's like watching pure joy in motion, arabesques of movement, arcs of water swirling in air.

If you don’t happen to have a dog at the moment, the surest way to fill your life with dog-joy is by reading stories about people and their dogs. (Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting soaked when the dog emerges from the water and shakes herself dry at your feet.)

There are heart-wrenching, soul-stopping classics like Sounder by William Armstrong, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson, and The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford.

Then there's Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and Because of Wynn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, and A Dog’s Life: The Autobiography of a Stray by Ann Martin.

And Sable by Karen Hesse, The Come-Back Dog by Jane Resh Thomas, and, of course, White Fang and Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Recently, I came across The Canine Connection, another remarkable book involving our mysterious relationship with dogs. It's a deeply thoughtful, well-crafted collection of short stories by Betsy Hearne, the author of Seven Brave Women, Listening for Leroy, and Wishes, Kisses and Pigs.

In a dozen stories, Hearne captures the beauty and profound mystery of our relationship with dogs, writing about dogs and humans in ways that reveal just how tightly we are intertwined with each other, two different species emotionally and physically bound together as if an invisible dog had wrapped its leash around our legs.

The ending of "Room 313" is a perfect example of Hearne’s artistry, her ability to weave together a dog's spirit and a human's heart, showing us a character in a hospital room after she’s returned with her service dog, Snowy, only to find the boy who she visited the day before gone and to learn from a nurse that he had died after her last visit:
A kind of white space opens up in front of Anne. Wherever she turns there is nothing but air, and yet she can hardly breathe. How is it possible to be so chesty and so breathless? Her lungs feel full of earth instead of air. It’s her head that’s full of air, air heaped on air, white space swirling around and around. Maybe she will faint. She has never fainted before. Anne feels Snowy lean against her and feels herself leaning back against him, thankful suddenly for the anchor of both their solid bodies.
And in "Bones," as an aging Newfoundland approaches the end of his life, the boy (who the dog saved from the sea years earlier) remembers nearly drowning and the moments of despair before the dog came to his rescue:
Salt-choked, he lunged with all his might, scrabbling at the slick rocks, felt them sharp against his arm, around his arm--teeth, he was being pulled by teeth. For an instant he saw himself towed away in the grip of sharks’ teeth, in payment for all those he’d taken from the sea. Then a wall rose between him and the open ocean, something sodden and strong swam beside him, not a shark. He clung to it, churning his other arm as hard as he could, pushing forward, gaining way. Water pulled slowly lower at his body from neck to chest to hips to thighs to knees to ankles and he was free, throwing himself forward on the sand in a shaken, aching heap with a giant black dog sluicing off sheets of water beside him.
Hearne writes in an afterward: “If there is a theme to the collection, it is one that I did not recognize till afterwards--that animals and young humans share a heart-wrenching vulnerability which makes them empathetic metaphors for one another.”

And she shares this insight into the process of writing the stories: “These bits and pieces of personal experience become part of the puzzle that fits together with purely imagined chunks of character, plot, setting, and image for a complete story. Once I have the emotional core, the story seems to write itself, with details appearing unexpected on the page as I write. This creative process requires steady practice and great faith in subconscious connection.”

Steady practice and great faith are habits that dogs teach us daily.

But there’s a much deeper link between dogs and humans. It’s that subconscious connection... that mysterious way that dogs seem to find us... and how we find them.

It's a process that in many ways resembles the subconscious connection that a writer makes with his or her material.

One day we’re standing in a stream, or at the edge of the surf, and, suddenly, from a distance away, we hear barking and splashing, and before we know it we’re engulfed in a playful hug with a dog who we’ve never seen before... and who enters our life...and changes us in ways that we never dreamed possible.

That’s how our stories surprise us, too... sneaking up on us, coming out of nowhere, and inviting us to step into a shallow pool or a deep pond that we’d never even known was there. Suddenly, we find ourselves swimming where we hadn't known there was water.

Writing, each of us does our own version of the dog-paddle.

We churn the water with our pens, always in search of words.

And we try to communicate something of the mystery of our lives to whoever we may happen to find standing at the edge of the water, waiting for us to emerge.

For more information about Betsy Hearne and her work, take a look at her website: http://people.lis.uiuc.edu/~hearne/index.html

1 comment:

Jude said...

Since Wordswimmer has come into existance, every Sunday morning is like a mini-Christmas. I get up and go downstairs, excited to find out what Santa Bruce has left for me in the computer. This week, a puppy! Or, more precisely, a whole pack of dogs! I would like to add WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS to the list of must-read dog books. Merry Christmas everyone!