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Touch, Thrum, Sweat: toward life as a dog, in a new year– Part 1 of more than 1 (1/4/22)

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

As I manage to get older, I’ve been trying to live more like a dog.

Dogs have it down, the whole living-in-a-body thing. As a human woman, I’ve tended to argue with my body, even battle it, tooth and nail and cellulite. Much to aspire to, dogwise.

Dogs stay tuned to their senses – however many senses there are. Some scientists now include proprioception/ kinesthesia, at least as a distinct human sense, along with a sense of networks and their power, perception of temperature, itching, pain, even a ‘sense of time.’ (Wrote about this a while back, if you’re interested. )

I’m not sure how many of those extras apply to other animals. A raging bout of sarcoptic mange (after rolling around in infected fox fur in the woods) (on the part of my dog, but then also me, possibly sympathetically but I needed prescription skin cream) and then torn knee ligaments (also the dog) make at least itching and pain likely senses for other animals, too.

Anyway, dogs are exquisitely tuned to our classic sense of the senses.

Their noses go right for that salty snot-smear on your sweatshirt, where you wiped your own wintry nose. (Forgot the mini-pack of tissues again.) There you are, human, wearing your precious bodily fluids right on your sleeve – thank you!

Or they go straight for your crotch. Just shove their noses in there and inhale. Most of their human companions shrink back, horrified, even mute, at their dog’s ‘misplaced’ delight.

The leash-tethered humans flounder for words of apology, which you don’t need, at your advanced age.

You get it. You have been trying to live more like a dog for some years now. You so appreciate any dog’s focus on the most you of you, according to their sensory experience. Your bits with hair-growth seem to hold more of the you of you, so you feel, well, well-met, when a dog goes straight for your crotch.

(Not to worry, dear readers. To be clear, my dog-ward efforts don’t mean I’ll just stick my nose in any mammal’s crotch. Not without consent. More on the consent of it all, a bit later.)

Here is the nub of what I mean: While we are often working hard, with roll-on or gel/solid or spray, to suppress our shamefully smelliest regions, dogs are saying to those very wonderfully smelliest regions: Hello, you! Thrilled, here! The dog in me honors the dog in you.

They will know you before you can even say ‘Hello there, you’ in return. They can sense how you already love them at first sight.

Even a new dog (to you) might try to

jump up and hug you around the neck

(like a certain new springer spaniel named Julep, who missed and clocked your cheekbone with her skull, leaving you with a whopping ‘shiner’ the next day)

... and hold on ‘til their hind legs tire out.

I say I love you, human! Dance, oh dance with me on this rocky trail before all the paws need to meet the ground again? Feel my fur against yours! The slow-dancer in me honors the dancer in you.

And, let’s listen to each other’s breathing, and breathe in each other’s breath, while we’re at it. Let’s perk up to any whimpers or blurts, or the sound of a recognized name. We don’t even need music, to dance.

My dog Caddy would watch me dance around the living-room with obvious mystification: what is Mary’s problem? yet she doesn’t seem troubled, does she? but rather very happy, to move her body like that, with that sound happening around her.

Her canine ear responded to a specific palette/palate of music. I bought a few CDs composed just for animal calm – the equivalent of sleep sounds for humans. Languorous and bell- or flute-based, maybe some piano in there, occasional strings. Anyway highly atmospheric, much like they call ‘new age’ sounds, but for animal companions.

Maybe musically stylized raindrops or rolling waves? come to think of it. Anyway, to hear these sounds better, Caddy would find her way toward the CD-player and lay her head down. She had her own aesthetic for sounds as much as for tasty foods, and she didn’t want to miss her good-stuff, regardless of my curious reasons for moving myself around a room like I did. Music, for her, meant listening, not moving.

And although vision is not the keenest sense for a dog, sometimes one wants to pause on your chest and put their paws on your neck or face and gaze into you: miraculous fellow mammal, eyes level on, let’s see our whole breathing smelly selves; let’s hold that for a moment, before it’s over? Often Caddy would sneak in a nostril lick, during this paw-held gaze.

A few years ago, I met someone at a medical conference who, as soon as we started talking, spread his legs wide to meet me at eye-level (he was very tall, and I am average). He listened to me talk from so few inches away, our eyes had to slide from side to side, to see into each of the other’s eyes, in turn.

My first thought? “Good doctoring there,” to find my eye-level.

Then I thought, “Not sure he’s listening to the words I’m saying, or maybe he’s listening more than anyone listens to me. But he’s def hearing me, and he is def with me, in a different way.”

Like a dog sometimes wants to know you, way up close?

I felt confused and distracted at first, then, very tall myself; we were both so tall! Then I felt, the word would be altered, before he shifted the weight and position of his legs and stood tall above me, again.

But I digress.

But also, he may be as close to a dog-living-human as any I’ve met, to-date.

But I digress. I think.

Time now to add that, having been born, and able to see at all? My vision will hold a sensory power that any dog-ward tendencies could never supplant. Beyond looking into another mammal’s eyes from inches away, the human in me understands I will maintain a hunger for colors, textures, shapes that I could never appreciate if I were a true dog.

From my earliest sensory memories on the planet, I never felt full-of or done-with looking at my mother’s backyard sunflowers against a blue-and-white sky, or the fluttering reds and brownish-reds of the cardinal family in the tree outside my bedroom window.

And I couldn’t separate the glorious visuals from the sound of those sunflowers in a summer breeze, or of the red birds in their animated conversation.

Couldn’t separate the variegated yellows and oranges of marigolds along our front walk from their sharp, singular smell. Or not notice the pale, purplish velvet of a clover blossom in our front lawn, as I ran my stubby index finger along its fingerlike flower, possibly already sorry I had plucked it away from its planet.

These yardly wonders turned into paintings with my own fingers in kindergarten. Later, I drank in such visuals in art-history books. And our “Art Lady” monthly appreciation lessons in Oak Park, Illinois, and the spectrum of solid or print fabrics in a sewing store in Maryland, and the literal palette of acrylic smears on a canvas, or grateful, glazed, sculptural materials in a teenaged art class, and wherever I now can manage to find such opportunities, as a dog-woman, at my advanced age.

Not to see, or see any longer, would take a much bigger chunk of my sensory life than it has from many dogs I’ve known

(Telly! seeing and negotiating his known Annapolis world just fine with only one remaining of his beautiful eyes, as his life progressed with love for Teresa; Carol, negotiating a new Raleigh home around furniture and more -- in mere hours! -- as her life progressed with love for Pauline and Dirk; eventually, my Caddy with her cataracts, thus uncertainly uncertain vision, for her small family including Bob and me. She didn’t seem to mind as much as I did, when her guess of a young fawn’s ears in tall grass turned out to be the leaves of a fallen branch. (Psych! Ach. Sorry, sweetheart.) She had to go for it, and she shrugged off the ultimate leaf-branch disappointment of it. ‘Such shit happens; it’s just a twig with leaves -- no one died here!’) No one died here; it's just an eye, or pair of eyes; a dog's lesson not forgotten here.

My maternal grandmother, known as Lois Shropshire, but fully named Alter Lois, after a grandmother whose full name was Alter Ego – not kidding – but from which ancestry she decided to alter into Alta Lois, yet ‘go by’ the Lois of it?

She, a Downs (nee Shropshire) went blind, soon after my mother married my father (a Donovan).

Our dad referred to her status as “hysterical” blindness (so distraught at ‘losing her only daughter,’ his side of my family understood). Years later, I heard her son, my uncle Jim, describe his mother’s loss of vision as a physiological event, based in her retinal-brain. This may have been at her funeral.

She seemed to have some limited degree of vision, in any case, to us. We, her 9 grandchildren, never knew her otherwise.

And our grandmother was never the kind of blind person who wanted to put her hands on your face, or neck or head or shoulders, or ever hug you.

She never hugged us. And she wasn’t the kind of blind person to want to recognize the sound of your voice, distinct from that of your sisters.

The only interactions we had with her? Being asked to ask her what she’d like to drink (“Iced tea, please”) or hearing her, at the dinner table, ask everyone and anyone, “Is my pie gone?”

Otherwise, she sat in a chair, almost motionless, our whole lives.

She had sat down and stayed down, soon after her daughter married. At the time, she still had two sons, 8-year-old Paul and 15-year-old Jim, but she was done. At late-40-something. As one of her curious granddaughters, I later learned that Lois was pregnant in her late-40s, as my mother (her only daughter) prepared to marry.

She was “into maternity clothes” when she miscarried at 5 months, just before my parents’ wedding.

Volunteers from the Society for the Blind arrived at their house to show her how to manage, get around, take care of activities of daily living, parenting, etc. She still had two growing sons at home.

She sent them away.

She was explicitly uninterested in their suggestions.

I mention all this for the stark incongruity between the sensory halves of our grandmother’s life. Although we kids never knew a woman who looked at us, or wanted to touch us, hear about school and such, here’s how our mother described her own: “The most creatively active woman” she’d ever known.

“She was always sewing or embroidering or painting or cooking or gardening – you name it.” My mother mentioned this any time her mother -- or any of those creative pursuits -- was mentioned.

I might have been 11 or 12 years old when I finally said, out loud, “I wish I could have met your mother.”

I meant it. My whole life of hearing about her, in her past? I had missed this woman; I knew I would have loved the grandmother my mother described, from before we were born. I hadn’t meant to stun or shock my mom, like I did.

My mother hadn’t thought of it that way, that her own children had never “met” her mother, although still alive and whose presence had been present in their lives, for iced-tea and pie, at least, yet whose creatively active life was still so real, in her own memories.

But she got it, at eye-level with her 2nd-daughter.

“Oh. I wish you could have, too,” my mom finally said.

Freely dog-ish human-grandmothers? Who might have felt free to put their hands on their grandpups, and know them through other available senses?

But, and yet, and right, and sigh.

Human healthcare-providers in the late 1950s? May not have even recognized the possibility of a maternally 'geriatric' patient’s post-partum depression, then her likely (undiagnosed) diabetic retinopathy? (Possibly from gestational diabetes, at an advanced maternal age?)

Or recognized how this status could persist -- relatively unchanged -- for 30 more years, as parts of her were progressively amputated (while at least one granddaughter heard this news from Poste-Telephone-Telegraphe offices, across an ocean, foot by ankle by shin ... in a strange-sounding connection in a strange private booth).

My heart (as dog or human woman) still aches for and wonders about her. She's many years gone now, my mystifying ancestral Alter Ego, whom we knew as Grandmommy Downs, and whom others knew as Lois.

As a child growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and feeling ignored by or invisible to her, I hadn’t imagined such medical reasons for her not wanting to touch our faces, or hear about school and such. I only – still – wish I could have ‘met’ her, at eye-level, or any other sensory level, however many senses there turn out to be for animals like us, humans.

This life-in-the-body of my great-ape-animal nature has already taken much more time to articulate than any other blog-post to date! I am struggling here, and will need more time to flesh it all out, as an animal trying to live within undeniable flesh.

So thank you, dear readers, for your forbearance, as I try to live and speak from my senses, as a new year around a modest sun in a modest galaxy blooms, and dogs keep asking for belly rubs. Because they're dogs. And they get it, living in a body.

More soon in Part 2 …

and thank you thank you for reading,


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Thank you, Mary! Not only for the remembrance of Caddy - and her beauty shot - but for this exploration of sensory perceptions in humans and dogs and how we homo sapiens can be arrogantly assume our superiority over other animals.

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