Monday, September 23, 2013


Adopting a puppy frightened me far more than buying a house. The house intimidated me plenty, and for good reasons (legal forms! mortgage! washing machines!). Still, bringing a 7-pound puppy into that house scared me in ways home-buying never did. 

I've always identified primarily as a "cat person," but for years I said that when I had a house I would consider adopting a dog. When I mentioned this to my friend Sara,  she took it upon herself to become my canine match-maker, sending me links to local animal shelters during study breaks from her honors thesis. One of those links included pictures of a new litter of hound pups.

A very wee houndling.
 These big eyes won my affection immediately, and on a rainy spring afternoon, Sara and I drove to the Prichard Animal Shelter and filled out the adoption forms. When I picked the wee beast up a few days later, I was both thrilled and terrified. What business do I have caring for a living creature? I thought. I barely remember to feed myself three times a day. Other worries were more selfish. What if she chews my things? What if I can never leave town for a weekend? What if she digs up my vegetable garden?

All these worries about one tiny dog came from an old and ugly truth: above almost anything else, I treasure the freedom to do-as-I-wish-when-I-wish.

I have spent much of my life trying to govern and limit this love, to delight in surrendering my own will for God and neighbor. Apparently, something within me still resists that surrender. 

For the first few weeks I had my pup at home, I didn't feel much better. I don't love her enough, I would think as I drove home at lunch to let her out. She doesn't obey, I would grumble as I wrested another sock from her tiny fangs. I feel so guilty, I would tell my friends, still hearing her terrified bay and howl as I locked her inside the house.

Slowly, however, my fears subsided. When the semester turned to summer, I had more time to spend with her. I walked with her, combed fleas off of her, tested toys and treats to see what she liked. My language changed, and she became "houndling," "pupwise," "hobbit-hound," and a dozen other silly names.

I gave up more freedom and more time for her sake. And for all that I gave, my love increased. 

For those of you with spouses, or children, or other sacred bonds, this paradox might not surprise you. Even I have learned it before: with every letter that I write or prayer I say, for every act of service or shared hour, I come to love a person better.

What made the puppy different, however, is that I was obligated to care for her. I brought her home; she was my responsibility, and this made our relationship monumental in my quiet little life.  One of the strange things about being a single adult is that there are very few living beings who ever demand anything of you. That's not to say I don't have a desire or duty to provide for the needs of others; rather, it means that on a typical day, I receive far more requests in my professional capacity (Dr. Bear, can you help me with this journal?) than in any personal, vulnerable or taxing sense. This dog, on the other hand, asks for everything. Relentlessly and without shame she demands  that I rise earlier, walk longer, play more often. And strange to say, the more she asks, the more I want to give. 

Sometimes I worry that I have woven my life so tightly that there is little room for others to find a lasting home with me. Friends never ask as much I could give, and so I color my days and ways according to my own designs. Some days I even wonder, fearfully, "How could I ever marry? How could I make room for children in this happy, tidy life?"

But then I remember that once, I was brave enough to set aside Spare Oom, consecrating my house and days to making a home for others. And even as I remember, I receive a friendly nip from my little hound. I named her "Cora," deriving it from "cor," the Latin word for "heart." She is neither my child nor my hobby; she is my dog, my companion, my heart-hound, reminding me that more often than not, we must commit to something, to someone, before we can even begin to love.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

imaginary autumns and loving where you live

 Entering adulthood profoundly disrupted my sense of time.  When I moved to Texas to begin grad school, the steady rhythm of spring, summer, autumn, winter--which I had enjoyed as a child in Indiana and as a student in Tennessee--gave way to a relentless cycle of summer, summer, spring, and more summer. That first fall, I was grieving in nearly every area of my life--personal, academic, spiritual--and the feeling that I was being denied a "proper autumn" was too much to bear. All through September, I sulked. I scoured the Internet for pictures of brilliant oak and maple foliage. I pretended the ridiculous air conditioning on campus was natural autumn air. Nor was I alone in my longing. Other northerners would sit with me in the break room, speaking wistfully of jackets and gloves.  Even the Texans would join in, lamenting their state's lack of a leaf-glorious fall.
  By October, these imagined autumns were beginning to taste gluttonous. The visions of leaf-covered paths had become a little too sweet, like cider boiled down to syrup. Even more troubling, the only place in Waco, Texas where I could find visible signs of the autumn I imagined were Walmart and Starbucks. They capitalized on autumnal sentimentality, offering plastic maple-leaf wreaths and artificial pumpkin drinks at a profit.
   At first, I told myself that I was entitled to these autumn trappings for nostalgia's sake, if nothing else. "If Texas won't provide me with real foliage," I pouted, "I will buy my own and hang it on the door." But then, for some blessed reason, I put the wreath back and left the store.  
   For the rest of that first Texas fall, I tried to keep my eyes open for autumn--not the brilliant, tempestuous signs of my childhood, but some native sign of the year's slow turn.  Soon, I had begun to notice so many beautiful things. In Texas, autumn didn't mean fierce winds and woolen hats: it meant opening the windows after a summer indoors; morning glories on the banks of the Brazos; and the return of the songbirds. It meant waiting for the day when the pecans fell, and you could gather rich nuts by the bag-full on nearly every street-corner, or along the Pecan Bottoms at Cameron Park. It meant planting winter gardens with swiss chard, collards, carrots, and cabbage; going to the Sorghum Festival; watching rain fall for the first time since spring.
     Learning to watch for autumn as it came--rather than as I pined for it to come--was probably the wisest thing I could have done in that first homesick year. It taught me to love the place where I lived, rather than lamenting the places I had left behind.

Autumn in Alabama

     I am still learning what autumn means here, in Alabama, on the edge of many waters. Last year it meant hurricane parties and open windows, wool berets and sandals, home-brewed iced chai, Shakespeare on campus and Farmers' Markets downtown, Japanese persimmons, front-porch talks, and satsuma oranges. Already the mornings grow cool, purple mums bloom instead of azaleas. As in Texas, it's time for winter gardens: bring the peppers in and plant the greens.
    Imagined seasons and distant ideals have their place--a deep, inspiring, good place--but for travelers who  feel far from home, there is so much grace is opening our eyes to the season we find ourselves in. Maybe the day calls for a silk shirt instead of a wool sweater. Maybe your yard is full of crepe-myrtle blossoms instead of orange oak leaves. Maybe so. For my part, while I will always treasure the northern autumns of my childhood, I hope that today I will have the courage to choose silk and crepe myrtles over air conditioning and plastic wreaths.