Since Nio was once a featured voice on this blog, it seems fitting to give him a goodbye post here, even if posts are few and far between these days.
In November 2005, I wrote in a column for the Nashville Scene,
"In spite of all my good intentions, I have rescued another dog. This makes my third—a young Lab/probably Boxer mix. He was born to be a big, gorgeous guy, but now one of his back legs dangles uselessly, and he is so thin you can see every rib. A friend who owns a farm in Smith County found him abandoned after one of her hired hands went AWOL. She said she’d already adopted all the lost/discarded/screwed-up canines her husband will tolerate, and did I know anyone who would take him? As it turns out, yes."
That was Nio's first appearance in print. The vet didn't encourage us to think he would ever really get well, but the sad animal we brought home wound up thriving way beyond expectations. Even after age took its toll, it was hard to see any vestige of that painfully skinny, maimed dog in the robust beast Nio became. His slightly crooked gait was the only clear hint of a painful past. It turned out we were wrong about his parentage, too. He was half Rottweiler, not Boxer, and his gentle, tolerant nature defied all prejudice about "aggressive" Rotties.
I stroked Nio's rich black fur as he died yesterday. Later, I told a friend that he was a dog who deserved to live forever. I wish he could have.
*Putting down a beloved animal is one of the most bittersweet experiences I know. It's hard to depict it without either being maudlin or dodging the powerful feelings involved. I think this little film captures it pretty well.
Back in 2008, I wrote a post about seeing more and more of my mother in myself as I age. It was a happy, loving post, and I was especially pleased with the way it conveyed the complicated bond I feel with my mother. I went back to that old post today, after not revisiting it in quite a while, and I was struck by something in the final paragraph — something I didn't remember was there:
It’s strange to be reminded that characteristics we think of as profoundly our own—even ones as seemingly individual as a facial expression—are built into our DNA; stranger still to think that they can be wired to hide themselves for decades, emerging when the organism hits just the right level of decay. Not that I’m complaining. As genetic time bombs go, a quirky walk beats the hell out of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
That reference to Alzheimer's startled me because my mother is now entering the moderate stage of that disease, or perhaps I should say that she appears to be. There's been no official diagnosis, since she shuns doctors, but her progressive memory loss and other cognitive problems present a textbook picture of someone suffering from Alzheimer's, and her list of risk factors is long.
As sad as it is to think about my mother's fate, there's a lot to be grateful for. Her partner is looking after her, and she still reliably knows all her close family. She's physically well, and best of all, she remains essentially the same happy, sweet person I described in that original post. I brought her some gifts and took her out to lunch on Christmas Eve, and even though I'm not sure she grasped the significance of the holiday, she clearly loved every minute of my visit. Things are likely to change down the road, but right now she takes her characteristic pleasure in living, and every day she hangs onto that will be a gift.
Given the way I blathered on back in 2008 about my potent genetic inheritance, you'd think I'd be pretty freaked out these days over my own prospects. The sentence "I could do a lot worse than to end up like my mother" suggests a whole new set of possibilities now, and some of them are truly terrible. Strangely enough, though, I can't seem to get scared. I'm 54 and life feels too short — death feels too close — to waste time and energy kicking against an unknowable future. It seems foolish even to invest much mental energy preparing for my mother's future, since she, like any of us, might die tomorrow. Still, I do have moments of dreading the day she no longer lights up like a delighted child at the sight of people she loves. I came across these lines from Emily Dickinson last night and couldn't help imagining the sad moment when they might apply to my mother and me:
Now I knew I lost her — Not that she was gone — But Remoteness travelled On her Face and Tongue. Alien, though adjoining As a Foreign Race — Traversed she though pausing Latitudeless Place. Elements Unaltered — Universe the same But Love's transmigration — Somehow this had come
Last week I went book shopping with friends and came upon a copy of W.H. Auden's A Certain World, which is a "commonplace book" — that is, a personal collection of quotations, notes, observations, etc. Auden describes A Certain World as a kind of autobiography, though I can't say I gleaned any sense of him from it that can't be found in his poems. It is a lovely assemblage of stuff, though, and I was especially moved by an excerpt from a Loren Eiseley essay, "The Judgment of the Birds." The essay has been widely circulated, but I'd never encountered it before, and in any case it strikes me as a piece well worth revisiting, especially at this darkest moment of the year.
Here is a portion of the bit Auden quotes, which describes the reaction of songbirds to a raven preying on one of their nestlings:
No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death. And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.
That little passage is beautiful and stirring, but the complete essay is something deeper. It touches the mysteries of consciousness as gracefully as anything I've ever read. You can download it at the link below:
Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.
Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off—
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is—I told men
What I had heard.
I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
'Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.
Talented writer friend Emily Choate, who is also a Chapter 16 colleague, invited me to take part in a short survey about my writing process. For the record, I'm not certain I have anything you could reasonably call a writing process. I write the way mushrooms grow—in sudden, unpredictable surges under gloomy conditions. Still, I am honored to be asked to this party, and it did me good to give these questions some thought. Thanks, Emily! I'll be tagging some other friends shortly, and I'll add the links here when their posts are up. [UPDATE: Nashville writer Claire Gibson shares thoughts about her novel-in-progress here.]
What am I working on?
The main project occupying me at the moment is a novel, one I've been working on sporadically for a long time. I finally finished a draft of it last year, and I have sworn to complete a revision before this year is out. We'll see. In spite of its long gestation, it's a slender thing, a story about a young woman's grief. There are several absent and/or unsatisfactory mothers in it, and considerable drinking.
I've begun a second novel, which calls to me when the first one has tried my patience too much. It's set in 1910 and concerns a lynching. Don't wanna say more—I'm superstitious. I've also been working on a couple of short stories, and I've got a little memoir piece that I hope to spin into something longer.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don't know. Why should it? I mean, I don't have a hook, a theory, or an aesthetic ax to grind. My work is character driven, and if I do my job right my characters are peculiarly and unmistakably themselves. I hope you'd never confuse them with any of your other fictional acquaintances. I'm in sympathy with Frank O'Connor, who said, "I can’t imagine anything better in the world than people. A novel is about people, it’s written for people, and the moment it starts getting so intellectual that it gets beyond the range of people and reduces them to academic formulae, I’m not interested in it any longer."
Why do I write what I do?
First of all, see above. People interest me, so I write about them. I suppose what interests me most about people is the perennial conflict between the individual and the tribe. We all belong to tribes of one kind or another, and most of us have a very complicated relationship with our tribes. Just about everything I've ever written or considered writing has had that relationship as a central concern.
As to why tribes are my obsession, I suspect it has everything to do with growing up in a small Tennessee town and knowing from an early age that it could never really be my home, even though I loved it. I was exiled from my tribe at the moment I realized I had one. Some of that is just down to temperament—all writers feel exiled—but it also had to do with some truly awful things about my particular tribe.
How does my writing process work?
I wish I could give a nice, straightforward answer to this question, but my writing process is haphazard and mostly left to the mercy of mood and circumstance. No doubt that's why it takes me so damn long to get anything done. I usually do the initial work on my fiction late at night, often when I'm half asleep. Then I try to make sense of it when I'm awake. I tend to work in binges, despite my good intentions to be disciplined and daily about it.
The stories that seem to pan out for me are the ones that arrive in reverse. I envision the end, or something close to the end, and I write my way to it. In other words, I know where I'm going, but I don't know why, and I have only a vague idea of how to get there. I like to think all the answers are encoded in that first/last image, but sometimes it winds up being a very difficult code to break.
The more sensible course of beginning at the beginning hardly ever works for me. I have had to say goodbye to more promising first pages than I care to remember.
Enfant écrivant (A Girl Writing), Henriette Browne, c.1860-1880