Such was a moment today, when Grandma's house at Christmas appeared suddenly in the air I walked into. I had set out for a post - ice storm hike on a favorite rail trail. I now faced a sparkly tunnel, an archway of ice-bedecked trees glittering darkly all the way to the vanishing point. That is when it was there, the baroque fairyland of sweets that made such an open-mouthed amazement of my grandmother's at the holiday. (This was the Greek grandmother, of course, not the Presbyterian one. The former believed life was just an excuse for elaborate presentations that perfumed the house with honey and nuts, oregano and garlic, butter and more butter. The latter believed food was a necessary nuisance, and if the succotash burned, it could still fulfill its purpose.) In particular, I remembered a pile of sugared grapes, refracting light into my astonished eyes. I did not even want to eat them. I wanted to stare at them, simply trying to understand how such things could exist. They looked permanent and fragile, at once.
Nelly was resolutely in the present. She ran ahead to greet the only other walker this day: a little brindle dog that appeared to be a cross between a Basenji and a small pit bull. Or something. (Ever notice how everyone who has a shelter dog doesn't have a mash-up of twelve or sixteen different breeds; their dog is an example of some extremely rare purebred, which of course it looks just like. Sort of.) The man on the other end of the leash called out, "What is your dog?" That meant he actually did have an extremely rare purebred.
"Crazy!" I replied.
"Mine is barkless."
"Ha-ho," I couldn't help but laugh. "Mine has enough bark for forty-three dogs. I wish I could give yours some of hers."
He just smiled. A little. Then he started briskly for the parking lot, explaining as he went that his dog really couldn't stand the cold, being originally from a subtropical country.
Nelly is from her own country. She can deal with just about anything--the cold; large dogs; small prey; cross-country skiers; bones as big as her head. She just can't deal with her own emotions. They are too big for her little soul, and they cause her to erupt in screams, piercing barks, screeching whines, and (when she greets someone she loves) a special concerto of cries that is indescribable. Except to say: it hurts.
People flinch; her voice has an edge that could take the five o'clock shadow right off your face. And I don't know how to stop it. Me, the amateur student of behavior. Me, the person who is supposed to be writing a book about the virtues of positive-reinforcement training.
Actually, Nelly is rock-hard proof of one of the basic principles I hope to illuminate: that behavior that is self-reinforcing--hey, it worked! The door opened; the boogie man went away; the food appeared; that made me feel better to get that out!--becomes entrenched. There is now effectively nothing I can do about it, unless I stopped everything else (tending to my child, working for a living) and devoted all my time to retraining her. After all the years I allowed her to train herself.
So she puts me in a peculiar situation: hating something she does, while loving all of her.
Because I do. I can't tell you why. Maybe because she's here. Maybe because she looks to me. And I have come to look to her. Just the old dance.
She, like anyone we chance to fall in love with, over time has shown herself to be one of a kind. This contains a lesson for me, and it is also has its weight, one as heavy as a cross to bear. I love her, which means I accept her. In the way I too would wish to be accepted: for all that I am. My flaws, you see, rather scream too, even if silently. After all these years, someone would also have a hell of a time retraining me.
We walked as far as we were able, each step in the iced-over and heavy snow requiring the effort of three in normal conditions. The vagaries of the day had to be accepted as well. Then we too turned, back through the sugary tunnel of time. Toward home, the place where we can be as we are. Nelly slept all the way, quiet, and quietly loved.
What soul is without flaws?
--Arthur Rimbaud, "Happiness"