Sunday, September 18, 2011

Animal Love

I knew we would have to confront the no-pets problem. I just wasn’t expecting to stare it in the face my first jet-lagged morning in China. But there I was peering down at my daughter in the earliest hours of dawn on a narrow street in Nanjing as she bowed and reached with gentle voice and hands for that quivering ball of fur: sweet puppy. Yes, he’s soooo dear, I tell her. And he likes you, doesn’t he, he really wants to make friends with you…and what a sweet friend he is. But no, honey, I think he has a home already. Look at his round little belly — someone’s been feeding him, and he looks so clean doesn’t he? OK, lovey, it’s time to say goodbye, let’s leave him to chew now, let’s leave him to rest now…let’s love him, let’s bless him, and let’s leave him to be…

It is hard to fathom, when a puppy is licking your hand with its warm and rough tongue, that any hand other than your own should be feeding it. It is easy to imagine that you are the center of the universe when a dog looks in your eyes and directs every wag and wiggle to you, alone. I knew my words to my daughter were of little comfort, but they had to be said. The puppy and my daughter were about to stake their claims on one another, but this is a piece of their futures they have little control over.

FF and Sandy back in Rutledge, PA
And so it was, on my first morning in China, that I was forced to confront the most painful part of our relocation: the parting from our pets. My sweet girls are currently without our puppies and kitties. Our pets have remained behind without us—one pup has her new home with the daughter of her first “owner”, down the street from our old home in Rutledge, PA; the other is at home with our dear friends, Helen and Joel and Isa and Felix, in the neighboring borough of Swarthmore. Our cats are happily ensconced in my sister’s home in Denver, where I regularly see them on Skype, looking regal and rooted on her plush couch as she updates me on their latest antics.

Smokey and Cirrus on the porch in Rutledge
 It helps to invoke the “our” word when forced to contend with this separation and parting. The “our” part of “our puppies,” I remind myself, has always been larger than the immediate circle of our nuclear family, and their home larger than the old Victorian and fenced yard in which they romped when they were most exclusively “ours.” All of them came to us with previous lives. Both cats were street kittens in Beijing, and both of them found their way independently to our stoop, their former travails a mystery. “It’s good luck for a cat to come to your home,” said our Chinese ayi. And so it was, twice over.

Our golden retriever, Sandy, was five when she joined us a year after her first human mom lost her battle to cancer. Our youngest canine, our shepherd mix, Bodhi, was found by my colleague and some students—days old and eyes still shut—separated from his litter on the streets of Chongqing (see my previous blog from May 2009). I helped to hand raise him the first month of his life, and after failing to find an acceptable permanent placement for him in China, my husband and I tenaciously navigated the logistics of bringing him home to us in the U.S. But the rescue of “our puppy” would not have been possible without the Chinese vet who fostered him until he was big enough to travel, the Chinese students who mediated his care in our absence, and most importantly, the generous contributions of my friend and colleague, Paula, and her compassionate brother who financed “our puppy’s” journey home.

Bodhi, after stepping out of his travel carrier, home at last.

Even before our move to China, the “our” in “our pets” was huge. That “our” has expanded as they’ve settled in their new homes, compelling me to consider that the universe of an animal’s love may have several, and shifting, centers.
Bodhi and Jazz in Rutledge

Our animals’ love for humans has found a new home, but what of my little family’s love for animals? Our pets were more to us than companions in hearth and home; they were a daily invitation for us to move beyond our sometimes petty and sometimes serious concerns, and remember that love and connection were always just a heart’s turn and a hand’s reach away. Bodhi, short for Bodhisattva, was named with our awareness that animals are supreme teachers of compassion. Sure, our pets were a fair amount of work, and sometimes in their love and in their giving they demanded a great deal. Please, please take me for another walk! Oh, come on, do you need to work, I want to play with you! No, I will not stop barking, my job is to protect you and there is a scary world beyond that fence. Purrrrr…your lap is mine and only mine and I don’t care if I’m getting my fur all over your skirt…by the way, I pee-ed on the basement floor because you all left town for too many days. And here’s another dead bunny, look, I brought it just for you, excuse the mess, but you prefer them decapitated, don’t you?

Yes, they demanded a lot, but in this they also helped awaken our own compassion, a task made easier as they softened our hearts with their continual streaming of unconditional love.

And their absence leaves a gap; it's an amputation of sorts. Lately I’ve been observing the ways in which we have been seeking to nurture this special kind of love.

The girls have been setting mice traps: not the kind to ward off rodents, but the kind to attract them as pets. They act as if it is all make-believe, but I know there is an element of seriousness to this. I did, after all, catch them sneaking real cheese to lure their furry friends, and after I warned them against this, I caught them trying to scent their newly constructed origami cheese cubes by rubbing these with their dinner napkins. I have not seen a single mouse since we’ve arrived in Nanjing, but we may have mice yet.

Fei Fei and her old friend, Savannah, have a history together of making mouse houses. Once back in PA I found an apologetic note to the imagined tenants of these fanciful castles:

Dear Mice friends, I wish you could come play with me. Won’t you come play with me? But if you do MY CATS WILL KILL YOU. What should we do??? Love, your friend, Fei Fei.

The cats are gone, and for now, the mouse houses are not enough to pacify my girls. And there are, after all, strict regulations about having pets in our apartment. So the girls have become sneaky about this — we can’t bring an animal into our home, but what if one were to come to us?

The absence of our pets brings the animal kingdom at large into sharper focus. In a Skype session with my sister-in-law I learn that her mother’s small bird, a companion of 20 years, has died. Petless in Nanjing, I feel doubly bereaved as I’m reminded that my late brother once made a home, and found a mate, for a lost finch. Though we think of birds as belonging in the wild, sometimes they are happily at home in a human nest. The girls and I see birds everyday. On our morning commute to school, before the curve of a road lined with sycamores, we pass bamboo cages of songbirds, brought out to air by the doting elderly men who adore them. They hang them on tree branches and on fences, letting them fill their small lungs with the morning air, as these grandpas talk to them in confidential tones. We greet the birds daily, marveling at their small and expressive eyes and faces. Their beautiful cages present us with a dilemma: look how much these little creatures are cherished, but Momma don’t they want to be free? We imagine they yearn to spread their wings and take flight; yet we know how loyal and loving they would be if one such bird were to be our own.
Beyond our fish bowl apartment there are flocks of birds, and these too have captivated our imaginations. Look momma, they’re back, the girls call to me as I write. We get out the field glasses that survived our summer travels and try to catch them closer, in flight. Their wings flash white, then black then white and their flight is like a dance, rising and falling between buildings. Sometimes there will be two flocks and they appear to be choreographed in tandem, separating into two formations and then rejoining, or perhaps engaged in a kind of team tag. ZZ laughs heartily at their cunning maneuvers, while FF and I continue to muse: are they domesticated or wild? Could they be rock doves or pigeons housed in lofts, or do they nest in the eaves of those towering buildings? Are they currently migrating or will they remain with us all winter?

Here, in Nanjing, there are birds that fly free, and canine life goes on in Rutledge. I receive an email from my neighbor, Moira, conjuring up our former home. It contains a photo taken of Sandy, who made an appearance with her new family at the annual borough yard sale. Sandy apparently sought out Moira’s sons, Alex and Sam, amongst the neighbors turned peddlers, and characteristically wedged her head between Sam’s knees in greeting. She looks more gray than I remember, but isn’t that how memory works? Beyond her, in the corner of the photo, I can see the distant walls of our mustard-yellow house and the porch where I sat with my pets. Last week there was an email from our realtor concerning our renters: would we permit them to get a dog? Jazz and I practically leapt for joy: our house will once again be graced with a snout and tail. What’s wrong with a few more scratches in our well-trod hardwood floors? In an email to the realtor we convey that we’ll accept their offer of an increased security deposit, but decline an offer for an increase in rent: “In our house, pets stay free.”

So it is that animals remain, regenerating love, in those spaces we’ve vacated of our former lives. We’re still yearning to learn their place in our present, as we continue to construct our lives. I had always imagined animals would be central in my world, but I don’t know what that means in the here and now.

Separated from our girls by miles, Bodhi currently has a boy to love him. Sweet and good Felix, loving Felix, who had, for his last birthday a party at a small nature center, a party that included pony rides and horses. The corral and stables were alive with animal life: in addition to the seven or eight horses and ponies, there were two or three barn cats, several yippy and exuberant dogs, and a huge tortoise that lazed in the sun. Joel, who is Felix’s father, must have noticed my bliss, because he observed, “You’d be right at home here, wouldn’t you C? I could see you in a place like this, you with all of your animals.” There it was, an alternative life, laid bare in the brilliant autumn sun.

That was before this alternative life emerged, and once again, the sun now waning, I’ve caught myself staring out our windows, captivated, my heart riding every dip and rise of those mysterious flocks of birds. They seem to appear whenever I conjure them. I look for them between the buildings, I wait and I watch and then suddenly they appear. It doesn’t matter whether they are domesticated or wild, or to whom they belong. These soaring birds are more than a heart’s turn or a hand’s reach away, but my girls and I turn to them nonetheless, as we seek a place for this special love, this animal love, to nest.


  1. Plum,
    Today I performed for Julius' third grade class, Skyla, Ed, and a handful of Science Academy "strays." I have laryngitis, and was thinking of the time you lost your voice during our visit to Beijing. It was a struggle to sing and speak (I had about 1/3 of a voice), but what I lacked in volume I made up for in movement expression. It's so cool to "hear you" talk about flocks and their deft maneuvers. We reanimate passenger pigeons, so named for their continuous passing overhead. Swooping and roosting, only to catch their breath, then taking off again. I can only imagine the fanciful flights your windows frame. I came home exhausted and without any prompting Julius "fetched" me a cup of tea and bread with honey. It is so true that we collectively take care of and receive love from humans and animals alike. I want to be more Sandy-fied, to wedge myself into places that offer me warmth and affection. Like Bodhi, to defend against that which threatens me or those around me. Like Smokey and Cirrus, acting on instinct, communicating clearly, asking for more. Like ZZ and FF, inviting and laughing with joy. And like you and Jazz, declaring free love! xoxo Ro

  2. Ro, I thought of you and your beautiful passenger pigeon choreography, and how we saw you animate these lost birds on the roof of the Science Academy. Watching our own flocks here, it feels the passenger pigeon lives on! I love your thinking of these animals as teachers, inspiring our better selves. Thank you.

  3. I can't even imagine having to give up my beloved pets. Our girls have become a part of our family. I know it must be so difficult to have to leave them behind and move so far away. I hope it gives you some comfort to know that I see Sandy each and every day and she is as happy and sweet as always. She loves her little boy, she greets me (and my pups) through the fence each day and soaks up as many hugs and pets as I can give her. She's such a lovely dog. I'm glad she got to spend a few years with your family. :)