I told the teachers at the Writing Marathon launch at our 2017 PLWP Writing Retreat that I would be writing about my dog today—my storied “PTSD Dog,” Fae, a rescue– but I that I felt weird about that. As a scholar committed to place-conscious writing and teaching, I always want to write about the place itself. I tend to embrace the chance to tune my writer’s ears into broadcasts from the genius loci—the spirit of place–wherever we are. To come with my own agenda to the marathon seemed heretical, or at least a bit rude. On this marathon, however, I realized that a writing marathon can reveal connections whether a writer starts with a topic or not, connections that would otherwise never be made, certainly not sitting alone at a quiet table or even in my room at this wonderful retreat.
9:45 a.m. Chapel of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Missouri
Writing here in this chapel, the spirits of this place have led me right to the heart of what I want to write about Fae, and really about all dogs everywhere. The inscription above the chapel doors says, “Hic Amor Aeternus Habitat” (Eternal Love Lives Here). But, this statement could just as easily be inscribed on a dog tag. As dog people know, eternal love lives in a dog’s heart in a way it lives nowhere else.
It occurs to me that Fae could easily be a member of the canine chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. With her pure black coat and white chest blaze, she is already wearing the doggie version of a nun’s habit. More important, she is filled with the doggie version of Perpetual Adoration, which—as dog people also know—is one of the very best kinds.
Fae is a perpetually adoring dog, but she does not always show it. Her dog-brain chemistry is sometimes hijacked by past traumas that short-circuit her instinct for eternal love. When I first adopted her, after the first few times of dog-sitting, my neighbor’s husband told me something sad. He said, “That dog was beat by a man.” Apparently his wife, had no trouble coming into my house and taking care of her, but when Steve had come over with AJ on a few late nights, Fae had either cowered in a corner or growled at him.
I hated to ruin his theory, but the truth is that she growled at me sometimes, too, especially when she was going through her difficult “false pregnancy” phase. I learned from our vet that this is a hormonal condition in which female dogs behave just like they have just given birth even when they haven’t. In Fae’s case she nested and even lactated, going so far as to treat her dog toys as puppies. She would gather them into her dog bed and pretend to nurse them, becoming extremely upset if I tried to approach her during these times.
There were days, especially in my first 6 months with her, when I wondered if I had gotten myself into more than I could handle. I had adopted her from the Puppies for Parole Program through our local shelter. She was the dog no one wanted. A 70 lb. black lab who didn’t get along with other dogs, she had sat in her cold, concrete kennel for three months and was getting to the end of her ticking clock when one of the volunteers saw potential in her. She got Fae into the program where prisoners work to train unwanted dogs to help make them become more adoptable. Her handlers worked very hard with her, and they all made great progress, but by the time I was allowed to adopt her, I don’t think anyone realized that she still had a ways to go. When I got her home, I noticed that all of the fur around her neck had been worn off, and I wondered if she had lived most of her life at the end of a chain. Her front teeth were all ground down to nothing, too, even though she was only 5 years old.
At the shelter, they had told me Fae was an “owner surrender” who had been treated for heartworms, possibly the (expensive) reason her people gave her up. Years ago, I had learned about “black dog syndrome”—the phenomenon that accounts for the low adoption rates for black dogs in shelters vs. lighter-colored dogs. So, when I finally decided to adopt a new dog after the loss of my dear old lab mix, Echo, who had been with me for 12 years, I resolved to adopt a black dog, and I watched for one while I volunteered at the shelter. When the program coordinator told me about Fae, and then I met her in the prison parking lot, I knew she was perfect.
Except that she wasn’t. In addition to the bizarre false pregnancy symptoms, walks were always potential disasters, even though she loved them. We did what we could to avoid all of her triggers by “off-roading it” through the park rather than walking on sidewalks, but random encounters were inevitable—with loud trucks, kids on skateboards, and especially other dogs. Several times she literally dragged me to the ground. On those days, it was all I could do to get us both home and to collapse on the couch in tears.
I was determined to stick with her, though. And she, it turns out, was determined to stick with me. Almost three years into our time together now, she is calmer, more disciplined on walks, much less prone to freak-outs. Sometimes she still has “flashbacks” as I like to call them. But for the most she part spends her days snoozing on the cool flagstones in front of the fireplace or in one of her cozy beds. When I come home, and especially after being gone for a few days, her perpetual adoration explodes in a heartbreaking display of whining joy. She leans her whole lab weight of gratitude into me, tail thwacking, as if eternal love could be transmitted straight though leaning alone, which–if you are a dog– it can.
10:35 a.m. Grotto at the Monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration
I’ve had some pretty amazing things happen on marathons, so I can’t say that I am entirely surprised by this, but…. when I was in the middle of reading the above marathon writing to my group today, standing together just outside the monastery, I suddenly had an instinct to look up. And there, standing right beside Ruth, like a 4th member of our writing group, was a dog.
“Oh my God,” I said, startling my group.
Then, they saw her, too: a low-riding Blue Heeler mix of some kind, white with black spots and sweet brown eyes almost exactly the same as Fae’s. She let us pet her, and let me try to take pictures of her. Then she flopped on her back to rub her fur against the new-mown grass and turn her tummy to the sun.
I went back to finish my reading to my group, and when I was done, the dog had gone.
If I hadn’t taken photos, I might doubt that this Dog Spirit visitation had happened at all. But it did. My marathon group will back me up on this. I can’t explain it. I can only lean the whole weight of my writer gratitude into the moment, pen bobbing, as if eternal love could be conveyed through words alone, which–if you are a writer–it can.