How Never to Write about Your Animals



Graphics by Kate Vrijmoet

Elatia Harris

It is 2 a.m., and I am in my reading chair, building a list of modifiers that people set on writing about their animals had better shun. Here are a few.

sweet little
sweet angelic little
sweet angelic furry little
sweet tiny furry little angelic
so tiny
sweet furry little angelic [noun] that is so tiny

This is the stuff, and its wretched tenderness actually finds a more just expression, an expression more fevered still, in devotional painting. Hence, the dog retablos, based on my own animals. It’s not possible to be more dog-besotted than I am — and still have anything else going on, that is. I’m hoping to establish my bona fides that way with pictures, and to get somewhere else with words. Everybody feeling safer now?

The Dream

Describe a dream, lose a reader, Harold Robbins used to say. But this one’s different.

The morning of the dream, Lina, my poodle puppy, weighed in at 19.2 lbs. What if Lina got as big as a pony? In the early days of a global financial crisis we cannot fathom, I have taken on a moon-colored puppy that eats and eats. And I have had the dream I know is dreamt the length and breadth of my family-oriented neighborhood, where visible disturbances of prosperity are so very few. I dream I am asleep, and Lina enters my bedroom prowling for food. She takes fluid strides on her hind legs, her eyes avid, sweeping the room. She’s taller than a man, and spectrally thin under bright scant fur, as thin as the zoo bear that survived the siege of Sarajevo for 200 days, too weak to eat the apple a soldier finally brought her. My baby — rising up in her need, and enormous. And she cannot be sustained.

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Okay, so I am in my reading chair. It is 2 a.m., and I am fending off the dream. Facing me, Lina sits in my lap on her haunches and hooks her forepaws over my shoulders, her long head level with mine and so close that I see two of her. But for my nightshirt, of the thinnest Indian cotton, we are fur to fur the length of our abdomens. Better not to write about the tongue-showing that goes on, except to say we’re both doing it. The veridical Lina, who still has a puppy tummy, erases anxieties as surely as if she licked them away. She gives off that deeply comforting poodle smell — of violets and civet, salt flats and fresh kelp, sun on white linen. She is my creature, my teething thriving creature, whose love bites are puncture wounds, who’s in a great, great mood. And we have a long way to go.


The animal of my childhood, Babe Ruth, an English bulldog, left me ill-prepared for living without dogs, ill-prepared also for dogs that came later.

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Babe Ruth was so smart that we were convinced he was another life form, showing up among us as a phenomenal though not a nuomenal dog. That was the beginning of how he got to be a religion, but many religions have begun when enough people are persuaded of something along those lines. One and only one example of what I mean: if there were a noise outside the window that Babe Ruth wanted to investigate, he would not race to press his paws upon the sill and peep out, but drag a chair by its leg to the window and sit high enough to see far. It was as brilliant as if one of us had thought to climb a ladder for a real look at the terrain, and get the advantage of surprise over anyone approaching. This, and other of his calculations, gave us the idea he must be discontented to be a dog — art, poetry and song flowing from that premise.

More than anything, his appearance – not his demeanor but his markings – suggested a knowing, glittering dismay. He had eyeliner like a pharaoh that made him look angry and lustful, consumed with thoughts of what was not to be. He broke my heart with his otherness and his longing to be included. In “The Birthday of the Infanta,” a story by Oscar Wilde set inside a Velasquez painting, as it were, a dwarf in the thick of festivities with the cruel royal children catches sight of itself, for the very first time, in a distant mirror – and understands. Babe Ruth’s life seemed one long moment like that. Could it be made back up to him in hyperdulia?

He met most dogs, in any case, with an almost episcopal disregard – though that might have been a feint we encouraged. I was confounded whenever he did a frankly doggy thing, a thing that could have no other than a natural explanation. There was a vast dead bush, yellow and dry, bordering a badly tended property not far from us. Every passing dog urinated at its roots, and it grabbed Babe Ruth like music one must follow to the source. Here were signals from the world that was most real to him, after all, that made him pant and swing his head and sniff deeply from behind closed eyes. So that was the life for him, then – to be a dog among other dogs? Or just to shake with joy at their traces.

Good Mother

Decades after Babe Ruth died, I was at last ready for another dog. Up until then, I didn’t want another dog – I wanted the one I’d had. In California, where I went away to school, I saw brown hills in winter, Babe Ruth’s tawny flanks in their lion-colored undulations. The margins of my college notebooks were filled with drawings of his pushed-in nose, rose-shaped ears, paw prints like mandalas and dark-rimmed eyes – when he had been dead for some time. In those days, the IRA was setting off bombs, a number of the terrorists girls my age. One, who died from her own bomb, had been scribbling notes on the Virgin in her journal, minutes before. Of course, I remember thinking, when I read that.

I got married, and that elbowed Babe Ruth – but not entirely. It was a marriage in which there was much, much talk of getting dogs, and for years I was young enough not to know how portentous it was that such a decision admitted of chattering delay. When I did get my next dog, it needed only my decision, and I felt poised to be its good mother. It would be a dog, and not a cult figure.

That happened and it didn’t – if only because the condition of being just a dog is pretty unachievable by most dogs. Certainly, Lucy never achieved it.

I Never Want to do Anything Very Bad

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Lucy, a dark gray miniature poodle, was a rescue animal, so we met cute – just how cute will not be aired here. The first thing I did was to enroll her in a training course – I was going to have a happy dog that fit in and responded well to leadership. I was not going to have another canine situation ethicist.

When we showed up for the first class, I saw we were coming in from behind, however. At almost 9 months – very young for a rescue animal — Lucy was 12 to 15 weeks older than the eldest puppies in the class. Unlike her, the others were straining at their leashes in a passion to obey. Lucy was standoffish and down-focused. About halfway through the session, during obedience maneuvers designed to give both dog and owner a rousing taste of success, Lucy lay down sideways, squeezed her eyes shut, and mentally left the room. I’d heard of women in labor, dissociated from the horrific pain involved, who, with the gallant air of a guest who has fractionally overstayed, would whisper to the nearest nurse I’m outta here, swinging their feet to the floor to rise and go. The trainer said Lucy was doing something like that, and let me know what it meant about her short past.

A few unproductive sessions later, Lucy was assessed as a dog with low potential for high obedience. On account of issues. Oh, I got it.

Within a year, though, she had yielded to persuasion — you could not really call it training. She would come when called, but she never learned games like Fetch, never knew what to do with a toy. An air of tight composure would come over her at the suggestion she retrieve an item that neither of us wanted, or beguile her hours with something bright and knobby made of hard rubber. She was, almost until the end, fastidious about going to the bathroom out of doors. I have never known another dog brilliant enough to pee on a grade — by instinct, nothing to do with me, for I couldn't have thought it up to make her do it. And she could leap like Nureyev, hurtling off the ground, stretching into a frozen arc mid-air, landing noiselessly and slow. During the time I was discovering all this about Lucy, the then teen-aged Natalie Portman gave an interview to Vanity Fair. The interviewer observed her parents were not terribly strict with her, and Portman assented. To paraphrase her: It's true my parents don't discipline me much, but it's also true I never want to do anything very bad. Exactly.

Other Ways of Knowing

While resisting obedience is not a hallmark of a happy dog, Lucy did become a happy dog while remaining too deep for obedience. Or, is that me? She lived for 17 and a half years, and sad dogs make faster exits. Besides, I have other ways of knowing these things.

I have always worked mainly alone and mainly at home, so I had more time with Lucy than I have ever had with any other being. Fine with me if it stays that way — the deep, nurturing restfulness of such an alliance over such a long time cannot be rivaled, no matter what. I have gotten lost in her hair, and in the contemplation of her paws: each paw was a cathedral, or else a padded star. I know what was knowable about her, if not what there was to know, which will always be a mystery — one that is language-free.

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She spoke to me in dreams however — and this, I suppose, is how never to write about your animals. Two years before she died, I dreamed of her telling me what would happen after that. Heaven, she gave me to understand, was but a field of dogs. And in death they were huge, so large they filled the skies, but they were invisible because they were clear. It was something a perfectly crazy mother might tell a child, and it made me feel a lot better — until I woke up.

You don't replace your dog when it dies, but you do know if you are a person who is better off with or without a dog. I know where I fit in. And I'm pretty far gone on Lina, too — already. She has enormous white finely boned paws that look like Virginia Woolf's hands. Her gait is ungainly — think Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, clomping offstage after playing a little Brahms. She's in obedience school at Zen Dog, and it's going quite well, although the trainer says I have to get rid of the lilt in my voice when I command her. Dogs take that for a pleading tone, and ignore you or even start to enjoy thwarting you. Oh, yes. But what to do? I'm Southern, and I can't just come on like Hillary Clinton, booming with fatigue and will.

Is Lina as deep as Lucy? That's unfair — no one is as deep as Lucy. And few are as present as Babe Ruth.

Lucy died last summer in the oxygen cage at the hospital. She was doing beautifully in there, but couldn't be weaned from it. They did a panel of tests and X-rays, and even at her age, nothing so very much was wrong — she just couldn't breathe. I was not sorry to have the decision taken from me. For a long time, having made up my mind that she would not die of a painful disease, I had been wondering if I would know the right moment to intervene. I could never quite see her as an elderly dog, longing to live no more; when I looked at her, I saw all the dogs she'd ever been. This could have been dangerous to her, but finally was not. Everyone at the hospital said how wonderful she looked, that — except for that she could not breathe! — they would never have guessed how old she was or how tired.

They had handed me back her collar and lead at intake — “We lose these things, ” they said. The last time I saw her alive, she was wearing a scarlet grosgrain collar they'd given her, bright against her charcoal coat, and it tagged her for a special world where she would not tarry long. She hadn't eaten for a couple of days, but they'd put her on diuretics, and she licked her lips with thirst. I was happy there was anything she wanted. From a shallow water bowl, she drank and drank. It was so stark: water is life. It will always matter to me that she didn't have to die thirsty.

Maybe Lina and I will carry on into the far future — until 2030 is in sight if not in hand. She has a box full of toys and she knows how to play with them. It is 2 a.m. From several rooms away, I hear one hit the floor with a defiant Mozartean squeak.


Thanks to the artist Kate Vrijmoet for leaving her painting studio to Photoshop my dogs. Please visit her site and blog.