What is virtue?

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering


While walking with my son this week, out of nowhere a shape descends upon us…

A dog. Not just any dog…

A pit bull.

Wriggling all over for joy, jumping up as if he knows us.

Begging to be petted and to play.

Glossy back coat, merry eyes, laughing face (yes really). Still a puppy, soft-mouthing our hands in greeting. Same as my older son’s pit, Henry, does.

“He is beautiful,” I say to my son. “He must belong to somebody.”

“I wish he was mine,” says my boy. Never mind that he already owns one of the mightiest breeds of all time: a dachshund.

The dog follows us home. We put him in our backyard until we can locate his owner. He doesn’t like being left alone. He cries when we are out of sight. He rejoices on our return. When we sit on on the deck chairs, he lies at our feet; when we rise, he rises to stand by, ready and willing to do whatever it is we are getting ready to do.

We learn from asking around the neighborhood that he’s roamed the streets before and that people shoo him away. Uninvited dogs, especially pits, are not especially welcome. I begin to think about harm that could befall him, aside from the danger of being in the street: What might a startled, frightened, or angry person do to him?

He raises his head as if he hears my thoughts. He looks at me with a wistful expression.

We find his owners. We send him home.

The next morning, he’s back. Curled up on our front porch mat.

Poor sweet boy. He shouldn’t be allowed to roam…or maybe he’s just an escape artist.

And I realize how powerless I am to do anything except hope for his safety and enjoy him whenever he should visit. He’s not mine and he’s disappeared again. I find myself missing him, looking for him.

He’s on my mind as Spiritual Journey Thursday rolls around; he seems, somehow, to be connected to the question, “What is virtue?” The four cardinal virtues of classical philosophy and Christian theology are Prudence (wisdom), Justice (righteousness) Fortitude (strength; overcoming fear), and Temperance (restraint; self-control). We usually think of virtue as people demonstrating goodness or excellence of character (the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31), or as the beneficial quality of a thing: patience is a virtue.

I cannot help thinking that this pit embodies virtue, too. He’s a good dog. He is loving. He is eager to share his affection and exuberant joy with whomever he encounters…he’s perceptive, willing to to serve, and, I suspect, highly trainable even if somewhat uncontainable at present. Above all, he’s one of God’s creatures.

Which reminds me that within the angelic hierarchy of Judeo-Christian tradition is a class of angels known as Virtues. They are connected to motion and order of the cosmos, dispensers of grace, exceptional courage, unshakeable faith, and miracles. They are balance-bringers; in a world so unbalanced of late, the angelic Virtues must have their hands full. As I write, I imagine them roaming the streets, unseen, fervently seeking ways they can impart divine strength.

I am not sure of connections between the Virtues and the mass adoption of dogs during the COVID pandemic…just musing over shapes that heavenly comfort, courage, and sustained strength might take.

Most of all I think about the desire to serve, to do good versus harm in a spirit of fear and distrust.

Perhaps…perhaps virtue arises where it is welcomed, and when it does, it opens our eyes to the virtue of others.

*******

with thanks to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Linda Mitchell for hosting on this first Thursday in August. As it turns out, “virtue” is supposed to be theme for September. Today the group is focusing on “respect.” I caught this after I wrote the post, alas, which leaves me with a choice: write another one and save this for September or let this one fly, regardless. I’m choosing to post now. It is, after all, written from a place of respect for the cosmically happy adventurer we’ve taken to calling “Harold.”

Moose! by Dennis!

Dear Readers…as with children, what you do for one, you must do for the other, so…on the heels of yesterday’s airing of a grievance by Henry, another guest “pawthor” today

Not to be outdone by that Henry! Here’s me and my Moose!

I LOVE LOVE LOVE my beyootiful Moose!

Won’t turn him loose! Try! Try! You can’t get my Moose, Moose, MOOSE!

I Moose Moose Moose….until I’m out of juice…

Zzzzzzzzzz…taking a snoose. With amoosing dreams.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

About the Pawthor: Dennis the Dachshund is sixteen months old.
He belongs to my musician son and is named for Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Airing of a grievance (Henry writes)

Dear Readers, who stumble across this bit of unfortunate correspondence, please note that Henry, aka HRH, is an occasional contributor to my blog — a guest “pawthor,” if you will. He even has his own category on Lit Bits and Pieces. For an essential bit of perspective on what you’re about to encounter, my oldest son belongs to Henry. That is all I can really say in this regard, as Henry would not be dissuaded from airing his grievance … alas… who am I to deny anyone a forum? My humble apologies. – The Management

My Dear Him:

It is with immense forbearance that I have not addressed this issue before now, but the time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of this thing…

You and I have lived inseparably lo, these last five years, beginning with the day you came to redeem Me from a life behind bars (my having landed there through no fault of My own). I shall not go into the haunting particulars of that time, other than to say your appearing was, essentially, the day My life began in earnest.

You have proved yourself, for all intents and purposes, a good and loyal servant to Me, and I would be remiss to leave this unacknowledged. In fact, you remained constant to Me even when you took in the Her and the Little Her with those two lowly mongrel creatures of theirs in tow. I was never consulted on this matter, nor was My authorization sought, a serious violation of and in itself; but due to your theretofore slavish attentions to Me, I deigned out of the generosity of My heart to permit the Hers and their, ahem, dogs. Where We were two, We became, overnight, without the slightest bit of advance notice, six.

However.

Where I have been most accommodating of these arrangements on your behalf, as this menagerie of collected pets seemed to please you, and because I want nothing more than your happiness, second only to My own happiness, parameters have been crossed one too many times. Boundaries have been infringed upon. We have clearly reached The Point of No Return. Accordingly, I have no choice but to lodge a formal complaint in writing (which, as you know, is no small feat, considering that I must type one painstaking letter at a time with the tips of My forenails, which are curved to a ponderous and complicated degree at present due to your failure to perform My pedicure on a regular schedule).

In short: I have tolerated the mongrels and have endeavored to act kindly toward them, even to engage them. I have been gracious and accepting of both Hers, especially when there is a scent of Food or those fond delights called “Treats” on their persons. I have not appreciated the close proximity that the Hers insist on having to you, prompting Me, on occasion, as you will recall, to break up said proximity by wedging Myself between them and you as a reminder that you are, first and foremost, My Him. Let the record duly reflect.

Then, this evening, this very evening, as I tried yet again to fit the whole of Myself into your, might I say, rather pitiably undersized lap, only to be told “You know you cannot fit,” causing Me to retreat to the opposite end of the settee to nurse my wounded feelings…just to watch, right before My very eyes, as the Little Her climbed in exactly where I was told I could not fit. She is, in fact, larger than I, just slightly more vertical, yet you carefully encircle Her in your arms whereas I am left to My lone and lapless Self.

And she sits there, still. The pair of you looking terribly content.

I am hereby officially airing My grievance of this utter injustice and demand that corrective action be taken at once. If the matter is not rectified to My liking… well, I wouldn’t stoop to something destructive in regard to, say, the furniture or carpet, as I have too much wherewithal for that sort of protest; no, I will just continue to stare at this egregious display until you remember to Whom you belong. Which you have so obviously forgotten.

You have been notified.

I am waiting…

Signed, sealed, and delivered this day by HRH (Henry Rollins Haley)

Absolute affrontery. I command you to remove the Little Her from your lap AT ONCE.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

Henry politely suggests renaming this Challenge to The Tournament of Champions,
Wordsmiths of the World, Master Crafters of the Writing Guild, Order of the Padfoot. He seems quite Sirius.
He also believes it would be a kind gesture to rename the site and recommends
Too Writing Creatures.
He fears the number is misleading.

Kiss

I taught him how.

When I was about fourteen.

He was so enthusiastic.

Of course, I had to lean over a bit.

It was hard for him to jump that high, with those short little legs.

“Kiss?” I would say.

And he would try. He’d jump for all he was worth, with joy.

He was my first dog. I named him Onyx. Onnie for short.
He and his brother Bagel (named for Barry Manilow’s dog) were born across the street from my childhood home.
Daddy said we could NOT have any of those puppies.

We got them anyway.
Onyx startled me the first time he jumped high enough to “kiss” me.
Then he learned the command. It was his favorite way of greeting.
It is his word.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approachOn Day 11, I am writing around a word beginning with letter k.

Picture of empathy

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the hallmark of every exceptional teacher to understand and share the feelings of students, remembering what it’s like to be in their shoes, being able to discern factors of student life beyond “school.” For any adult, empathy is remembering what it is like to be a child. In good times and bad. For the writer, empathy is invaluable to character development … and for taking a walk in the shoes of anything and everything, real or unreal, alive or not. Empathy is more than taking on the guise of another; it is the ability to be the other in a given situation. It is a transformative force, one of humanity’s greatest facets, vital to our coexistence.

But not solely a human attribute.

Since his cardiac arrest and heart surgeries last year my husband has battled a new thing. His blood pressure is typically high and it’s been a challenge for his doctors to get his prescription cocktail just right. His pressure is currently well-managed, to the point of being a little low; occasionally when he rises from a sitting position he becomes light-headed. This is something for which I have much empathy, my own blood pressure being characteristically low. It’s called orthostatic or postural hypotension. Once, as a teenager, I got up from the living room floor where I was sprawled in front of the television to answer a knock on the front door—thankfully the neighbor caught me as my knees buckled and the tingling world went solid gray.

So the other evening when my husband got up from his chair just to grab the kitchen counter, muttering, “I’m dizzy,” I knew exactly what it was like.

“Sit down! Now!” I told him.

He did. He leaned over in the floor and rested his head on his arms.

That’s when Dennis, our 6-month-old dachshund, rushed over, considered the situation, and promptly keeled over in the floor beside my husband.

“That,” I laughed, “is about the most empathetic thing I’ve ever seen.”

And once his light-headedness was past I made my husband restage it so I could take pictures.

Poor sweet hilarious Dennis.

I can’t say for sure how much he understood, but he certainly shared the experience of another. Took a bit of the suffering on. Kind of like If you’re going through this, then I am, too.

If only our species could be as consistently perceptive, responsive, and willing.

Puppy therapy

Seems like a couple of weeks into stay-at-home orders and physical separation is an ideal time for some puppy therapy.

So I brought you a tiny puppy to hold awhile. In your heart, anyway, if not in your hands.

You’ll want to know the story, I suspect …

Last December, my son and I went to pick up his new puppy.

We wanted a mini dachshund, as we had one for sixteen years, from the time my boy was four until he was almost twenty-one. Dachshunds love to snuggle. They’re full of affection and whimsy. And mischief … and stubbornness … but their devotion outweighs all else.

When we got to the breeders, as paperwork was being completed, I noticed a movement under some blankets in one of the kennels.

“Oh, something’s in there!” I remarked. “It looked empty except for the blankets.”

“Yes,” said the breeder-lady. “A mother and her baby. She only had one, born yesterday.”

And then the lady did the unthinkable.

She reached under the blankets, scooped the newborn out, and placed it in my hands.

I could hardly breathe.

Tiny. So fragile. So beautifully formed, utterly perfect in every way. The sheen of its gorgeous coat, solid chocolate. Teeny little ears. Nails so miniscule they could barely be seen … awe isn’t adequate for the suspended moment of wonder at this bit of life in my hands.

The puppy’s mother, a long-haired red dapple, hovered at my feet, her big brown eyes fixed on me as I held her baby.

“Here, ” I said to my son, “hold it for just a second and we’ll give it back to its mother. She’s anxious.”

I placed the puppy in my son’s hands and took took a picture with my phone. With a fingertip, I stroked its satiny head, just once.

“It’s so beautiful,” whispered my son. Very carefully, he slid the tiny creature back into the breeder-lady’s hands and she deftly returned it to its blanketed kennel.

The mother darted in. She went right to work on her baby, licking away all of our human smell from its fur.

I don’t know why I wanted to cry just then.

Maybe it was the mother’s impeccable care of her one baby. We’d worried her, made extra work for her. The puppy squirmed against its bath but quickly settled back to blissful neonate-sleep.

Perhaps it was the fragility of new life that twisted my heart, its precariousness and preciousness, the struggle of being alive and helpless and dependent. Or the convicting knowledge that the human touch is not always a kind or good thing. Or maybe the pang was simply because life is beautiful and because I love dogs.

“Okay, you’re set,” smiled the breeder-lady, handing us the paperwork. “He’s all yours.”

No, of course not the tiny day-old chocolate puppy. That was just a gift of the moment. The breeders hadn’t yet determined if it was a boy or a girl. I did fantasize about returning in two months to get it, however, and what I’d name it … right now, as I write this post while watching Citizen Kane, I am considering “Rosebud” …

No.

I just felt you might need a moment with the tiniest puppy I ever held.

THIS is what we went for, and what we carried home:

Our Dennis.

He’s like a furry worry stone … while holding him and rubbing him (he now rolls over for belly rubs, his favorite) it’s impossible to feel sad or worried or anything but peace and gladness to be alive.

So I give him to you for a minute, to hold with your eyes. And maybe with your heart. He’ll steal it—trust me.

Just a little puppy therapy for your day.

Good-bye, mighty Nik

Nikolaus, 2004. Age 2. 

Dear Nikolaus,

I write to celebrate you and your long, long life.

To thank you for the joy you brought and the love you gave for so many years.

To ask your forgiveness.

When you first came to our family, we were elated.

April 2002. Age 3 months.

You see, we’d been looking for a little dog because we had a little boy who wanted one so badly. Big dogs frightened him.

But you were perfect.

April 2002. Nikolaus age 3 months. Cadillac Man age 4.

And so you grew up together.

You weren’t always easy, but you were always, always loved. Despite the countless accidents in the house and that time you snuck a chicken strip off of little Cadillac Man’s plate and ran for all you were worth with your booty. Not to mention how you figured out a way to climb on top of the furniture to get the boys’ Valentine and Easter chocolate. And ate it all, leaving only the wrappers behind. More than once. How did you do it and not get sick?

We began to think, all things considered, that you might be immortal. After all, you outlasted legions of other pets. The boys began to joke about you plotting the demise of every other dog, for they came and went throughout the years, but you remained. No one questioned your alpha status. Not even the dogs seven times your size, when you took their rawhides and their pillows for your own. They just sat, blinking in respectful disbelief, at your Napoleonic powers.

There’s so much to say, for we shared so much together. I am thankful for my special place in your little heart. How, when you were young and strong, you’d jump up on the couch to curl up beside me or to crawl in my lap. For the hours I spent working on the computer and you were snuggled behind me, between my back and the chair. I loved you and your deep, abiding warmth, always near, just being. Just together.

How the boys loved you. How they laughed as we tried to teach you to roll over, to sit and beg, the two tricks you’d pull off multiple times in succession just to get one treat.

How much comfort you gave them when they were hurting, from boyhood to manhood. They held you in their arms, but you, well—you were holding their hearts all along.

January 2017. Cadillac Man, age 19, celebrating Nik’s 15th birthday with a car ride.

Time is no friend, is it, old sweet Nik. Not when it takes your youth so that you can’t jump anymore but have to be picked up and carried. Not when it turns your face and paws so white. Not when it takes your sight, your hearing, even your ability to understand exactly where you are and what’s going on.

Here’s what I marvel over: That you tried to run through the grass like always, even when you couldn’t see. That you could still find me in bathroom getting ready for work each morning. That you never forgot where your treats were, or that you should get one after coming in from outside, even when it had to be broken into small pieces for you to chew. I knew you could only find them by smell; that’s why I put your broken-up treats on the kitchen rug, so you wouldn’t push them all across the floor trying to get them into your mouth.

I marvel over your ever-voracious appetite, how you ran for your bowl every morning, even if we had to guide you just a bit.

And I worried when you started losing weight.

May 2018. Age 16. 

The vet said your blood work was amazing for a dog of your age; never saw the like. Said your heart was strong. Said things like cancer can make a dog lose weight despite plenty of food, and it wouldn’t show in the blood. Gave you the pain medicine which made you sleep but also tore your bowels up so that we couldn’t give it to you anymore.

And still you rallied, although every day you got thinner and thinner.

Cadillac Man watched you staggering and falling in the yard.

Mom, he looks like a skeleton. He’s just going in circles. 

Mom, it may be time.

Mom, I just got on the scales with him. He’s under seven pounds.

Three weeks before, you were about nine pounds.

When you were a young dog, you were nearly twenty pounds.

On Saturday, when I gave you your last bath, I could see every vertebra on your back, could feel every knob on your tiny tail. For the first time in your life, you sat in the bathwater, too weak to stand.

When we wrapped you in your “Happiness is a Dachshund” blanket to take you to another vet, I didn’t know it was going to be good-bye.

I didn’t.

I thought maybe another medication would help. Or another suggestion. You’d made it so far, so well, until then. The regular vet said your heart was strong, so . . .

The new vet said:

I can’t fix the blindness.

I can’t fix the deafness.

I can’t fix the severe cognitive impairment.

You can run tests to see why he’s losing the weight, but it would only be for academic purposes. Just to know. He’s a very old, weak dog.

Cadillac Man looked at me, holding you in his arms:

Mom, there’s hardly anything left of him.

How to let you go like this, when you’d been so utterly trusting and loving your entire life?

You looked at me with your tired, cloudy eyes, and I wasn’t sure what you were seeing. Maybe me. Maybe not.

I couldn’t know how much pain you felt; you never complained. You just kept going, for it’s all you knew to do.

I loved you. I struggled then, I struggle now with the decision, but I believe the boy—the man—who loved you best knew what was best.

And so we stroked your sweet head when you breathed your last—one tiny sigh, of contentment, of resignation, of release—utterly, utterly peaceful.

And I take comfort where I can find it. When I read about euthanizing suffering pets, when I talk to others who’ve been there, I don’t question the logic. Of course no one wants to watch their beloved endure prolonged suffering. When I think of your ravaged little body, I know you couldn’t bear much more. Your determination, your will, was astounding. That’s where I struggle. That’s why I write. It’s a matter of the spirit, see.

I write to celebrate our long run together. Sixteen years.

I write to thank you for your unconditional love, and to tell you that mine is just as unconditional. I love you still, even now that you’re gone.

I write to thank you for the joy you brought to two young boys for so long. You’re indelibly written on their hearts, as long as they live.

I write to say I’m sorry. For all the times I lost my patience, for the times I could have made more time, for being part of that last, anguishing decision. But if you were going to go, I was going to be there with you, all the way.

And I ask your forgiveness, because the weight is so hard to carry. But old age and sickness are hard to carry, too, aren’t they.

For something so little, you are so mighty, Nik.

I imagine you always will be.

Why I DON’T write

img_3902-2

I think this picture says it all . . .

I took it while trying to write a blog post.

This is Henry.

He belongs to my older son. Who’s back home for a while.

Hmmm . . . thinking of all those pets I foisted on my dad . . . is this poetic justice?

I type a few words, then stare, unseeing, trying to capture the elusive idea, drawing vague images out of the shadows, turning words and phrases around and around for the right rhythm, my mind miles away. I am not even in the world at the moment . . .

A nudging at my lap. The worming of a furred head between me and the laptop.

I am pulled back from wherever I was.

From my lap, two brown eyes look up at me, unblinking.

The images recede, the lovely phrases fall apart in chunks, the idea skitters away.

“What, Henry, WHAT?”

Wagging of tail, perking of ears.

He runs to the back door. Does a dog-dance to go outside. I call it his reindeer dance, because that’s what he looks like, back feet stationary and the front part of his body springing upward, repeatedly.

He’s out there for forty-eight seconds before he’s barking to come in.

He needs his treat.

Okay.

I settle back at the laptop. What was I thinking about—? Oh yeah . . . 

I type, oh, five or six words.

A nudging at my lap.

I ignore it.

A warm head worming its way between me and the laptop.

I am NOT looking at him. I am WRITING.

He finally withdraws his head. Good. He’s giving up. He’s going to to the living room to get on the couch, thank heaven.

But no.

A soft whine.

I don’t look. I reach over, pat his head. Tail thumps. I am going to finish this post . . .

A low grumble.

Then a louder, longer, much more rumbly one.

“Henry. STOP.”

I make the mistake of looking . . . and take the picture to prove why I don’t write.

He needs to be loved right now. That’s all he wants, to be petted and to snuggle. For me to give him my undivided attention.

It’s my own fault. I’ve spoiled him. I cave, but it gladdens my heart. His fur, especially the white patch at this throat, is silky-soft; he arches and rubs against my hand as if he were a cat.  He exudes comfort and luxuriant well-being. Henry could be a therapy dog; it’s impossible to be sad, angry, or troubled in any way when he’s leaning against me or lying with his head on my feet or even while he’s devising clever ways to get petted. He craves being touched, responds to it with absolute bliss, wriggling, writhing. The words I say to him most often are Sweet boy. Sweet sweet boy. 

He intrudes on my writing. He’d say my my writing intrudes on him.

One day I’m going to put Henry in a story. It’s a really important role; I’ve got it figured out.

I guess I’ll have to teach him to write it, because he’s certainly not going to let me do it.