Often lately I find myself dwelling with one of my most favorite poems: A Note, by Wislawa Szymborska.
As I’m walking with Happy-dog, more slowly than I’d ever imagined it was possible to walk without toppling over (though, in actual fact, Happy often does topple over), I’ll practice the first few lines of the poem:
Life is the only way
to get covered in leaves,
catch your breath on the sand,
rise on wings;
to be a dog,
or stroke its warm fur;
to tell pain
from everything it’s not…
I’ve been wrestling with what comes next in my writing about “old presidents,” which isn’t about old presidents at all, but about the third wish I might ask of my very old, socialist, Muslim fairy god-person the next time I see them.
I can feel it in my mitochondria that there’s much more to explore around the question of whether a person can be “too old” to serve in a particular role, that maybe – probably – that’s not even a very good or helpful question to ask, that there might be better questions to ask that open up more space and help us think more critically about what it even means to say “too old,” or “too” whatever. And we might want to ask why we tend to ask such limiting questions when we could instead be asking other more expansive questions.
I’ve proliferated a bunch of juicy questions. But the narrative around the juicy questions I’m still trying to surface; it feels unruly and lacking in lucidity. The space in my mind where I’ve been working my way through the complexities of this topic is a little dark box. I keep trying to make the space inside the box larger and brighter, but instead I keep running into and ricocheting off the box’s boundaries, only to find myself cornered or in a dizzy heap.
So, yesterday I decided to send out a little S.O.S. to one of my comrades, who also happens to be quite different from me in many ways, as it is almost always helpful to think together with others especially when I’m in a state of confusion. In a brief email I told them about the little dark box I am stuck in and asked if they might help me make the box larger and brighter. Maybe could they even bust me out of the box?
They responded to my plea with the news that they are a total mess because their dear dog had died that very day. They promised to get back to me soon.
The end of the poem reminds me:
…and to keep on not knowing something important.
This is Happy’s time of the year, spring, when his wanderlust intensifies.
I remember vividly past springtime catastrophes. He’d hurl himself through half-open windows or remove boards from the backyard fence in order to free himself so he could roam the neighborhood. I’d get a call from my old friend Fred, usually when I’d be on my way to a class or a meeting (or, worse, once when I was on my way to collect my mother from the hospital!): “Awwww, that damn dog of yours is wading down there in the stream! Do you want me to try to get him?”
I could also regale you with tales of Happy’s run-ins with various skunks passing through the neighborhood whom he’d manage to corner in our backyard. The timing was always bad, not that there’s ever a good time to get skunked. Or how about the many squirrels he’d give chase to, forcing them to scramble up the fence, playfully barking and dancing below them?
Spring is still Happy’s time of year, but now his wanderlust takes him only as far as to the end of the block or out to the back stoop. As Simeon remarked, “When the weather is sunny, he surely likes to lay out there and smell the day.”
Three weeks ago, he could still take a slow amble through part of the park. Now, he doesn’t even have the stamina most days to even enter the park. Traveling the few short blocks to and from the entrance to the park takes a lot of time and energy, but he loves his walks. He lives for his walks.
He no longer chases squirrels. In fact, he doesn’t even notice when a squirrel walks right in front of him. I’m hoping he’ll also not notice a skunk, should one traipse through the backyard on a warm spring night.
He sleeps a lot, even more now as he recovers from his most recent health crisis. At first, I didn’t think that anything new or remarkable was happening, I thought he was having another one of his strange transient episodes of wobbliness. But his wobbliness intensified into swaying and whirling. His unfocused eyes spun like tops. He stopped eating. Simeon took him straightaway to the doctor, who diagnosed him with “old dog disease,” a disorder of the vestibular system of unknown etiology.
At least once a day I press my forehead to his forehead. When I give him his morning pill, I kiss his nose afterwards.
Sometimes, he’ll give my ankle a careful kiss in return.
Life is the only way