There’s a bumper sticker around town: wag more, bark less. This isn’t about that.
I’ve been trying to meditate recently, and like everything I tend to love best in the world, it’s kind of a mishmash of tradition and jerry-rigged everyday. There’s a little can of matches that I try to keep near the piano, and on the piano bench I’ve made room for a candle stuck into a too-large candlestick set aright with dried yellow split peas. After I’ve stolen the pillows from the desk chair and bunched them up on the carpet, I’ll set a kitchen timer set for ten minutes. Oh, did I mention the dogs?
Surprisingly enough, they hadn’t really noticed that this afternoon there was, suddenly, a lap at dog-level. I’ve tried things like this in the past, and every time I’ve been bowled over with affection, which is not exactly the way the manuals describe the ancient spiritual practice. As I understand it, I’m meant to listen to the silence. I’m supposed to, I don’t know, get all empty. It’s supposed to be centering, the still small voice within. I’ve been told to hold my hands, heart and mind open. But the dogs haven’t been informed. They haven’t read the books. And all they know is: look, it’s her. The prodigal kibble-keeper. Who cares that she’s spent all day in the strange-smelling far-away dens of iniquity she left us for this morning? Who can hold it against her that she’s not taken us on a proper walk in hours? Why complain if she’d rather read a book than throw us the plastic pots we so diligently bring her, bumping them again and again against the backs of her knees with such patience it would make a tortoise cry. It’s her, she’s come to us after all, and she’s brought her lap with her. Anything else is lost in the wash of affection, the sheer gratitude of finding me, so improbably, among them.
But not so today. It’s early evening, the dogs already fed and busy on errands of their own. The crickets sing as I light the candle, gather pillows. The crisp sulfur of the match. I’m feeling more than a little self-satisfied, pleased at the glossy magazine image of myself, candle-lit and peaceful. And this is when they start barking.
It starts from a distance, the young one tearing back and forth, back and then she’s gone into the distance where I can hear the sound of her voice carrying over the hills, dulling the choir of crickets. It continues as the old dog, our faithful guard, grumbles into alertness. His bark is a steady warning, punctuated by low meaningful growls. Rrrrr, Rrrrr, BARK. His whole body must vibrate with them. I’m holding fast to the candle’s flame, I’m busy silently counting to ten the way I’ve been told to do. Five, six, seven.
And then he comes inside. I haven’t moved. He runs, or what passes for a run in his geriatric condition, through the back door, and plants himself firmly on the rug in the next room. He lays down – he LAYS DOWN – and continues his alert. The walls, hollow membranes, pulse. I’m wondering how far I can throw a shoe, and if it would make a difference. Or if I would just have to go pick up my shoe.
The whole right side of my face rings with each bark, and I notice that it’s actually a range of sound, starting low, and sinking lower, before lifting into a crescendo that rises, concluding in an articulate staccato beat. It’s that last that vibrates the tympanic walls, that threatens nerve damage to the right side of my face. And suddenly, between my silent counting and the dog’s un-rhythmic barks, I want to laugh out loud. In what other conditions would I have the opportunity to listen to this old dog’s bark? Buddy’s dying. I didn’t mention that; I hadn’t thought of it. He’s dying. He’s nearly fourteen years old, and his body is thick with cancer. Yet he’s barking, a glorious shout of a sound, awe-full as Gabriel’s trumpet call. Be not afraid, his bark reminds me, and I hold on to the candle’s flame in my mind, while I let my ears take in everything they can.