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Swimming with Dogs

These excerpts come from the essay, "Swimming With Dogs," which I premiered at the Greektown Reading Series in February. Enjoy!

Swimming with Dogs

 “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” ~Boris Pasternak

I am a strong swimmer and I love the water, but I don’t believe this has ever helped me in any significant way. Yet I was determined that my dog would be a good swimmer, too. We could cool off in the stream together, swim in ponds and lakes. It would be great. Except, Elle was a herder, part Border Collie, and did not share my enthusiasm for the water.  She waded. She stretched out in the shallow bed of the stream and let the water rush past her. Once in a while she’d take a few steps out beyond her reach, dog paddle for a few strokes and come back to shore, wild with excitement. She’d run in circles as fast as she could, overjoyed with her success. But she wasn’t one to paddle out into the lake to fetch a ball; she didn’t swim in wide arcs and figure eights like some dogs do. She was not a yellow lab.

Is it possible to teach a love of water? I persisted. On really hot days, I’d lead Elle to the middle of the Gunpowder River and we’d walk a mile through the water—never mind that my shoes filled with pebbles, or the drag of water made it difficult to walk; never mind that Elle trotted on the shore as much as possible. There were places in the stream where we’d wade ankle deep and pick our way across rocks. And there were other, deeper places that required a different kind of navigation. I’d take a deep breath, roll my shorts up high, and wade into the pools; Elle would pause, look for a different route, then reluctantly dip one paw into the water, then the next, until she paddled her way to the other side.

It’s what we all have to do from time to time: wade through deep water whether or not we want to swim.


One hot weekend, I packed my dog, my tent and my bathing suit into the car, and drove to Assateague Island, home of the wild ponies.  My plan: to camp on the beach. ...

I don’t know why I thought Elle might like the ocean more than the streams at home. Did I expect her to transform into a water dog? She did not. She became anxious. There were too many people on the beach for her to herd and each new wave startled her. Plus there was a whole universe of new smells and critters to sniff out. She was fascinated by the sand crabs that bore quick holes in the sand after each wave. That was exciting. She was also drawn to the rabbits and rodents that rustled under the scrubby foliage on the dunes. She ran toward them, straining her neck against the leash. She was strong, a little tank, her center of gravity low to the ground, and she pulled me along on her chase. Who could blame her? The island was a new place to mark, territorially speaking, with miles and miles of beach to claim. ...

In the evening, I strolled along the beach where groups of families and friends gathered around campfires. The fires, like small flares in the night, were comforting landmarks as I walked along the dark shoreline. I let Elle off her leash and we wandered further and further away from our campsite. I had a magnificent view of the stars, the Milky Way, constellations with names I don’t know. I hardly ever get to see the sky with such uninterrupted clarity, so I was in wonder of it all: Not just the canopy of stars but the sound of the waves swashing onto the beach and the tickle of sand crabs scurrying underfoot.

I’m always struck by the enormity of the ocean, the power and strength of the water and its ability to soothe and to destroy. The ocean is life, all rhythms and tides. It reminds me of how small I really am—and also, that I’m a part of a greater whole.

Sri H.W.L. Poonja, the Hindu Guru known affectionately as Papaji, said in one of his spontaneous spoken songs:

“I am the ocean and all forms seen

are my waves dancing on me,” this is knowledge.

When waves rise the ocean loses nothing

and when waves fall the ocean gains nothing.

I am ocean, I am water, I am wave;

There are no differences, no disturbances, no one to be disturbed...”

That idea gave me comfort. On my good days and my bad days, I am water and wave. I stood still on the beach and tried to feel the gift of it, the vast silence and peace. Elle sniffed the sand at my feet, pawing at the mystery of whatever it was she smelled, smitten with her own discovery.  We were fixed that way for several minutes, content in our wonder.

Then, in my state of reverie, I reached down to pet Elle and realized that, while I’d been gazing into the heavens in awe of life, my dog had been spellbound by a pile of horse manure.

Appreciation is all a matter of perspective.


Later, I hunkered down in my two-person pup tent eating nuts and crackers and drinking warm water because I didn’t bring much else. Elle was restless. She  wouldn’t eat her kibble and trampled my sleeping bag trying to get comfortable. I guess I thought my dog would be a natural camper, given that she is an animal. What dog wouldn’t want to spend the night outdoors in a tent with her human companion? Mine, apparently. She sat guard at my feet, tense and alert, her eyes fixed on the screen flap and what was beyond.

Occasionally she grunted or woofed at noises that came from a few campsites nearby. I could hear the campers laughing and playing cards. I could discern snatches of conversation, mothers telling their children to change into their pajamas, and I could make out the sssshhh-sssshhh sound of mosquito repellant being sprayed. Elle might’ve heard those same things or heard something else, entirely. Eventually the voices diminished and the night grew quiet. I adjusted the mat under my sleeping bag and I fell asleep.

Sometime in the middle Elle started barking and woke me up. She was adamant, trying to tell my something. I sat up quickly and tried to shush her. It was dark outside but I looked through my tent flap and saw, in the moonlight, that we were surrounded by wild horses. Three large horses grazed silently within feet of us.

I put my arm around Elle and calmed her down until her barks became small gruffs, and we watched the horses for several minutes as they chomped on dune grasses and moved silently in the night. It was magical and dreamlike and I almost missed it. I would’ve slept right through it, except my dog knew that even horse shit holds beauty and mysteries which might otherwise be overlooked.


Dog Days of Summer, August 2010

Lee and I decided to duplicate our vacation from last year stay in the same cabin on Lake Otsego just outside of Cooperstown, NY. The cabin is rustic, built in the 1920's and nothing about it is up-to-date except the septic system! The cabin is comfortable with pictures of someone else's grandparents on the mantel, a rotary phone with a long yellow twisted cord (what fun to dial one again!), a thirty year old electric can opener, a collection of dull knives and mismatched glasses, and musty books from sixty years ago outlining card playing rules and Boy Scouting essentials. just right. One of the fields he's been trying to capture has been hayed since he started the canvas. What a reminder that the picture we have of life literally changes from day to day!

As I write this I'm bundled up in blankets, my feet propped up, while I sit on the screened-in porch overlooking Lake Otsego. Byrdie's head is on my lap.  It's a gray day, but the water is calmer than it's been for the last three days after torrential rains and gale force winds. The waves were really pounding the dock that is, at this point, submerged in at least six inches of water. We've been cabin bound for a few days, playing lots of rounds of Rummy 500 and sleeping with a wool blanket at night. Today, on the way into town, Lee and I spotted at least four trees that turned red overnight. They were fully green when we got here.

(Right now, I'm watching an adult woman dressed in long pants and an orange pancho and two little girls in bathing suits. The girls are brave and squealing as they wade into the water. But I can hear them shivering from here!)

Besides the unexpected cooler temps, this vacation has also surprised me with another sprained ankle. I have a matching set now. This time I stepped off the porch--that's all--and for whatever reason, my left ankle crumbled under me. That happened two days into a fourteen day vacation, so I've spend most of my time with my feet propped up. (I sprained my right ankle back in June and it has been slow to heal.)

That means Lee is on full-time dog-walking duty until further notice. Before I sprained my second ankle, we'd taken a lovely hike together with the dogs and discovered another great vacation surprise, a beautiful large field of goldenrod and purple thistle and other wild flowers. They glowed and swayed in the sun. Someone had mowed a path through the field so we followed it down to a stream. At one point I stopped to soak in the view and all around me was the steady hum of bees, hundreds of them busy at work pollinating the flowers.  Glad I got to see it.

Other than that, it has been a strange vacation of immobility for me. We're usually very active with running and swimming and exploring. This year I'm reading a lot, writing a lot, meditating a lot, eating a lot.  I like to travel because it takes me out of my normal rhythms and can give me perspective on my life. But I'm not sure what I've been learning this time, except that I can visit the same place twice and have two totally different experiences. The place doesn't make the experience good or bad, but my attitude sure does. That's not a new revelation. I guess I just need to learn it again.

Lee is currently reading a book a friend lent us, Travels, by Michael Crichton. It's a memoir of his life both in medical school (he wrote best selling novels while in Harvard Medical School) and his other travel adventures around the world.  He's an interesting man, though a little obsessive and neurotic. Like the rest of us. Near the end of the book he writes about the direct experience that travel provides, and how he sought it out to increase his self-awareness. He writes:

            "My own sense is that the acquisition of self-knowledge has been made more difficult by the modern world. More and more human beings live in vast urban environments, surrounded by other human beings and the creations of human beings. The natural world, the traditional source of self-awareness, is increasingly absent.

            "Furthermore, within the last century we have come to live increasingly in a compelling world defined by electronic media. These media have evolved a pace that is utterly alien to our true natures. It is bewildering to live in a world of ten-second spots, each one urging us to buy something, to do something, or to think something. Human beings in the past were not so assaulted.

            "And I think that this constant assault has made us pliable in a certain unhealthy way. Cut off from direct experience, cut off from our own feelings and sometimes our own sensations, we are only too ready to adopt a viewpoint or perspective that is handed to us, and is not our own."  

He wrote that in 1988 before the internet, cell phones, texting, Facebook or Twitter--before the world could know about a version of your life in seconds. I am amazed at the pace of life now and how I can barely keep up even when I can walk.

So maybe it's not so bad to have two sprained ankles and be cooped up in a cabin where there is no internet, the TV is kept off, and the lake is wide open and wild. We've been watching the storms blow across the water. I've been trying to listen to the weather, to the water, to the message of aching ankles and the discomfort of not having packed enough warm clothes. Max and Byrdie, of course, are undeterred. Byrdie is a dog of tireless joy who wags her tail often. She greets everything with the same presence and joy. I can learn a lot from her!