We had two dogs when I was growing up, brothers they were, one called Sammy and Moxie the other, both black and brown and white, some kind of beagle-shepherd-wolf-bird-dog-bear mixes or something magical like that, the latter with longer, scragglier fur for catching burrs and getting caked with mud and all manner of undesirable substances and the former with shorter fur of the sleeker sort for speed and stealth and general petability. I’m from a place far far away where we have dogs like that in abundance, a mythical land of blue mountains and orange moons and green clovers and faeries of assorted shapes and hues and temperaments and it was a great place to be a kid. A kid with dogs, these.
Sammy and Moxie were older than me, but only by a couple years, I think—I never have all my facts straight, as facts are inessential to most stories, which is convenient for me to say as a fact-scattered teller of scattered stories. All the best memories I have of these dogs, even though Sammy was with us till I was probably seven or eight, maybe even nine, aeons in kid time, are from my parents—my parents’ memories, that is, told (and retold) to me, figments of that familial lore that sticks in and amongst a young mind’s stuff, stuck in and on all the first kinds of things done and felt and heard and visualed, things that grow up and in alongside and stay sticking there reaching as far back as senses and imagination can recall, seen by other eyes but remembered as if firsthand seen by firsthand eyes.
Two such memories stand out from all the rest, always have. The first involves a river, the second our little yellow house and the woodpile beside. Together they have a point and that’s my story.
River: My dad throwing sticks into the running water for the pups to fetch. A low, silty bank reaching out into green-brown water swallowing the bank’s almost imperceptible grade one tiny sun-glinted ripple at a time. Heavy green summer trees and thick, scraggly Appalachian underbrush like Moxie’s fur and a breeze pushing even heavier, thicker air, pure air with farm field smells and stenches and fresh flowing river scents. I probably wasn’t born yet and everything was some shade of green or brown or blue or sun and you could hear cicadas in the trees and the birds around and my dad’s laughter and the panting pups and the water the water the water.
And here’s what would happen. Stick in the air, Sammy and Moxie would in unison launch themselves riverward, but Sam would abruptly stop in the shallow muddy shallows or still up on the silty bank and stand there watching to see how his brother would fare as he’d charge heedlessly out into the river like a wild thing and swim like a wild thing to get the stick, grab it in his crazy wild thing mouth, and paddle like a wild thing back to shore, where he (Sammy), seeing it all wasn’t so bad and glad to find the stick suddenly again in such close proximity without his having done much more than take a few dog steps and watch, would then yank it (stick) away from him (wild thing) and run proudly up to my dad (Dad), who’d of course been watching the entire scene unfold, and present the offering to him in that blissfully oblivious and unconcerned way dogs have of enjoying whatever they’re doing, tail wagging and happy eyes, pleased with how good he was at being a dog who stole sticks from his brother after his brother had been wild thing enough to do all the work to fetch them. And they’d do it again.
Woodpile: Sam and Mox running at full dog speed around our little yellow house at the end of a row of little houses, not all yellow, but may as well have been, the last house at the end of a row of like houses on a gravel road between farm fields that sometimes smelled like the ones in Memory One, their grasses blown summery by the same barely breeze and the world warmed by that same somehow always about 2:00 in the afternoon sun, a row of trees beginning where the road ended, indicating, as lone rows of trees are wont to do, a small stream and property line extending out and away from the end of the road where stood our last-in-line house (my first) and into fathomless farm-fielded and hill-rolled spaces I know I never saw. And the old barn, let’s not forget, the one up on the low hill standing iconic across the gravel road and property lines that was the backdrop for what was probably the first thunderstorm show of lightning streaks and cracks I’d ever witnessed and I remember watching it, entranced, soaking it up from our living room window at night and I was truly there for that.
I might’ve been around for the woodpile-house races too, but only as a year or three old, no more, so, able to laugh, perhaps, presumably, but presumably unable to fully appreciate Sammy’s wily genius as he’d jump up on the woodpile and stand there watching his brother run past, around the house, past, around the house, past again, thinking he was in hot pursuit. Then Sambo would jump down into the mix for a lap or two, sometimes in front, sometimes behind, before jumping back up on the woodpile to take a break and watch dumdum keep running. We called this playing chase and I think unanimously agreed that Sammy always no matter what won.
The point: I’m Sammy, I think, standing on the riverbank or up on the woodpile watching the sounds and the furies dash by and plunge into running waters, seeing what happens, what plays out and how, peering with my spyglass, looking through, occasionally jumping in for a lap or two, sometimes in front, sometimes behind, maybe grabbing a stick from the mouth of some more fervent soul and running up to the fervid, ardent souls with whom I tend to associate and showing them what I found so we can speak in hushed tones and immeasured words about how we got here, what’s going on, why it’s like this, who we are, how it came to be that we came to be so beautiful and terrible at the same time, killing each other to separate and coming together to separate from the killers and how we’re all the same till we make ourselves different, whether through violence or reason.
Make ourselves different. Life is not a shouting match, or shouldn’t be, but there is an undeniably large quantity of terrible shit in the world for raised voices, all sounding largely the same, though, no matter the side they’re on. And if anything has ever been forever true, it’s that—the yelling turns to cacophonic babble in an instant and we all babble pretty much the same. It’s like walking upright or having opposable thumbs. Well I’m not opposed to opposable thumbs or bipedalism but I don’t much go for the babble and someone once told me I was a hypocrite, that it was hypocritical to have opinions on the world and not babble about them. I don’t care, I said, thinking if I’m going to babble, I’d like it to be about something I know, or might know, like myself, and that in knowing myself and finding ways to babble about it, I might thereby stand a chance of making a meaningful contribution that sounds less like babble and more like voice.
Someone else once told me facts are important but inessential, knowledge is fluid and to be kept moving with language and memory. That is both beautiful and terrible, I said, thinking the same basic malleability that breathes art and love also breathes lunacy, evil, and terror. Until we make ourselves different—not reactionary, incendiary different, but cleverly, conscience-consciously different, a changing of the terms different, beginning not with bombardments of newsbroadcasted immediacies but with memory, bits and pieces and dots connected, remembering it might not be wise to dive into the river after each and every stick thrown or blindly chase an invisible foe, running forever in circles. Because where’s the sense in that, or the fun?
Fun might be another story, though, depending on the particular narrative at hand, but still it’s part of the same big one felt by all hands and lingering around narratives this and that, of these and those for us and them. Fun more perceiving than hedonistic, that is, the combined sense of levity and horror, of light and grim, juxtaposed and a step removed to universal degrees, situated dislocation, like peering up at edgelines of sturdy buildings against the soft mutabilities of skies, like watching lightning flashes over hill and barn and in life later feeling that lightning inside and knowing the river-flowing incongruence of perceiving the world at a glacial pace when it moves at a people one when I’m not a glacier but a people, a people leaning toward distance and history and poeticisms—because who needs all the stupid extra fact-repeat words in between, the cookie-cutter sames and beens and plain sugar sprinkled fillers. Give me essence and perspective, give me a sense of what’s going on and how to make it touch even if it’s terrible, to touch directly from glacial paces and backset distances, immediate in its apart-ness and felt fully in reflection, spirit animal mirrored and everything in sight, both land and light and everything will be alright.
Sammy was a peaceful dog, patient and serene and silly and sweet, and, in his particular combination of characteristics, different. I aspire to that, especially the different, but I’m just a person, just one, in my one-person world, living in my head and through my heart, apart, sometimes, sometimes not, sometimes patient, silly, sweet, and serene, knowing there’s a world out there and around, a terrible beautiful world and I stand there on the bank and watch the other dogs charge into the water, get the stick, charge back out, charge back in, get the stick, back out, and I do on occasion plunge in myself or jump down from the woodpile and run around the house, because I like (some of) them and sometimes it’s fun to run. Sometimes it’s fun to watch, too, or stand back and wait for the ice to melt in the perpetual warm summer sun, forever clinging to a seemingly unseverable thread of hope for humanity, not just sad and not just optimistic but both at once and fluid as facts, sometimes running, always watching, maybe lucky enough to do that not all alone. What else would I do? Vote? Well, maybe this time I will, maybe I should.
Here we are, were: