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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

And if you have ever had a moral pointed at you,
you know it is not a completely pleasant feeling.
You are grateful for being improved, and you hope
you will do better next time,
but you do not want to think about it very much just now.
--Edward Eager, Half Magic

Sometimes the learning curve isn't much of a curve; it's a gentle incline, or it looks strangely like the pattern on a tic-tac-toe board. And sometimes it rockets so fast your head is five miles above your body, which wanly waves, "hey, wait up!" from a distance so great you can't really see it down there.

It may seem as though life, or events, has done this to you, but part of what you may learn with such velocity is that you always do it to yourself.

That is all I might say for now about my experiences this week. I hope to reunite my head with my body soon, whenever I can get a winch and tackle that long.

A similar situation may be encountered if you happen to get a border collie in your life. Last evening, at the end of a rail trail walk--Nelly on leash since the turn-around point, because not even I am immune to successive achingly hard lessons--there was an older (oh, OK: older than me) woman who was walking from the other direction. I could tell, even from far away, that her white and brown dog had that border collie look: flag of a tail, springy step. The woman, too, could see that we were related by the blood of our dogs. And perhaps something else. We had each put up our dogs in our respective cars when she approached. I could tell instantly that this woman, out alone for a walk with her companion at 7:30 on a Saturday night as I was, was lonely. We people think we don't show what we are, so long as we concentrate to make a smile. But the heart beats in a transparent chest.

So we trade origin stories--hers came from the prison system in Zanesville, Ohio, a place I know well (Ohio, not the prison system), and I tell her about Nelly's parents from West Virginia. Naturally, we both found our dogs on the internet, that which brings together and puts asunder in equal measure, if you know what I mean.

She left me with the bumper sticker sentiment she had recently read on a car at the grocery store parking lot: "I got a border collie--what was I thinking?"

Either something, or nothing. Either you were lured into such foolish acts unawares, as I had been. Or you knew you were doing something self-destructive and you didn't stop, because there are times when self-destruction is exactly what you want: the more of it you taste, the more of it you crave, like an amount of ice cream you recognize as disgusting but the sicker you feel, the sicker you want to feel. (The human mind is a very strange thing.) If you loved a border collie once, then you will have to love one again. It seems a minor problem that they are generally smarter than you. It is not a minor problem. It is a rather large one. But don't worry: you will learn nothing from it.

Because we don't learn unless we want to learn, or unless we have been kicked so forcefully we are helpless not to.

From Nelly's point of view, I punish her several times a day. I forget myself, say "Good dog!" and reach to scratch behind her ears. As if it's a good thing. In her language, of course, I have just threatened her with bodily harm. As soon as I see her duck her head from my reach, I feel Homer Simpson-ish: Doh! I have very nicely made a poisoned cue out of "good dog." And I wish I had a coin for every person who believes their rescued dog had to have been abused by being hit by humans' hands in a previous life--Look: he always flinches when patted on the head!

When Nelly was on the elimination diet for her nonexistent allergies, I had to force her mouth open and shove a pill down her throat a couple of times a day; I was not allowed to give her anything but her kibble, so the Way of the Cheese was forbidden to us. I had to drag her from where she cowered in her crate--oh, she saw the evil in my eye at bath time--and put her under running water and neem oil shampoo. You don't know pathetic unless you've seen a wet 20-pound border collie mix with pink stick legs looking at you with pleading eyes: Will you stop torturing me now? Please?

Then she is back once more at my feet wherever I sit. She is adhering to her necessary schedule, which dictates that by 10:30 p.m. I go upstairs to provide sufficient bolstering on the bed. She looks into my eyes and licks my nostril as if I had never caused her such distress. Over and over. She lets go.

So this may be what I am meant to learn. I have no misconception that Nelly is truly forgiving me, or even that it is in the canine cosmology to do so. And I'm not even sure that I am doing the same to her after an episode of bolting in which I hear her yipping off into the distance after some creature she means to catch, and I have to go pick up my child in five minutes, and it now means wading through a sea of poison ivy and then a swamp to find her, but only after a half hour of cursing and catastrophizing. By the next day I see her smiling at the door, and I take her for another walk.

All I know is that this functions as forgiveness. And that behavior is everything. This is what I will remember in my new life to come, the one that has apparently just begun. Together, Nelly and I walk with Blake: "Mutual forgiveness of each vice, / Such are the Gates of Paradise." You, too, can visit paradise. So far as I am aware, it is located somewhere in my house.