Because I’ve been working on a fantasy trilogy, I haven’t written many posts recently. But if you scroll down my blog page, you’ll see a clear shift in my focus over the past year. Before the 2016 election I wrote mostly about my life as a writer, with the occasional essay about something deeply personal. And then came November 8th. Since then my mind has been occupied more than I would like by the mishegoss in Washington. But sometimes I have to look away. Sometimes I have to focus on something else. So that’s what I’m doing now.
About a year ago I started volunteering as a dog walker at the Oregon Humane Society. It’s the oldest animal shelter on the west coast, with a beautiful facility and an amazing adoption rate. At OHS no animal is euthanized to make space for others. In fact, we take animals from other shelters that don’t have room. We have a behavior department and a medical facility on site where veterinary students do a shelter medicine rotation. There’s almost always a line at the door well before we open—often because people want to get first dibs on the kittens and puppies. Sometimes people just wander through the kennels to look at dogs, people who have recently lost pets or who just want to say hi to the puppies. At any given time you’re likely to find a volunteer or Animal Care Technician sitting in a kennel with a dog.
Over the past year I have fallen in love with several dogs—there were Harvey and Jupiter, long-term residents who finally went home around Christmas last year. Then there was Kobe, a pit bull with a skin condition, and Buddy, a black lab who lost a leg because of a tumor. And of course, sweet little Fox, a Chihuahua who loved belly rubs, cuddling, and cheese. If Ralphie would have been cool with having a little brother, Fox would be curled in my lap right now.I loved that little dude. He spent more than a month at OHS, so I signed up to be his Pet Pal and worked with him on basic commands in between belly rubs.By the time a family came to take him home, he had learned sit and stay (more or less). Luckily I was at the shelter that day, so I got to tell the family what a sweet little dog he is. And I got to say goodbye. I think about him every day and hope that he is happy. He’s an easy-going sort of guy, so he probably is.
Now I’m spending extra time with a labrador mix named Jackson Brown.Jackson and I have a bit of a history. The second time I walked him, he accidentally bit me. I can’t stress that enough: he didn’t mean to get me. He was just trying to bite his leash and my finger got in the way. Because the bite drew blood, I had to report it and then JB went into BQ (bite quarantine). I felt wretched. If I had moved him past the other dog’s kennel faster or more effectively, he wouldn’t have gotten over-excited and then redirected his focus on the leash. But Jackson got plenty of attention from the staff during his quarantine, and now he’s back on the floor, playing with his buddy Margaret every day and his other Pet Pals several times a week. Jackson will play fetch with his toy pigs forever if you let him. Luckily he loves food, so I can bribe him when it’s time to get them away from him and take him back to his kennel. Every day I check the OHS website to see if Jackson has gone home. One of these days, the right family for Jackson will find him.
In the midst of our POTUS inspired insanity, OHS is an oasis of calm. Yes, there are dogs barking, and kittens playing, and staff members delivering food, and people milling about in the lobby. Every day we deal with animals who may have been abused, who are terrified, who need extra help in one way or another. Sometimes the cacophony in the kennels is deafening. And sometimes the smells are overwhelming (puppies poop a lot, but they’re PUPPIES!).But when I’m working with a dog, the rest of the world fades away. I don’t think about the insanity and the tweets and the fear. I think about the dog, about how to help him learn more so that he can go home, how to make sure to keep her safe because she has a vision problem, how to manage dogs who don’t like each other. I think about my little man Fox’s cuteness and about Jackson Brown’s exuberance. I also think about how to get Jackson to surrender his pigs and let me put on his gentle leader. And I make mistakes that I have to learn from right away. It’s also time away from my writing, time where my mind can work on some narrative problem without my knowing what it’s doing. It’s time spent doing something that has meaning to me. That gives me a little light and makes me feel like I’m doing something right.
And puppies make everything better.