Guest post from Elizabeth Stauder. Liz lives in Central Oregon, but even as a young adult, she knows that her home is the world. She has just returned from living for eight months in Guatemala. During the time she was gone, her beloved friend Penny, a beautiful Golden Retriever, who had come into Liz’s life as a puppy on her 10th birthday, died at the age of 13.
Lessons from Penny: Thoughts on Home
Tonight I am home alone, in the home of my childhood, in the empty moments after a scattered family has come and gone. It is a loneliness not quite the same as before, though with many of the same elements. Bending to retrieve an escaped cashew on the floor in the kitchen is, for me, a foreign feeling, as there is no longer even the dog to happily chew the crumbs of our slippery hands as they land in her humble terrain. It is like a half-home, the ghost of a home or a potential home, or the space between the two. It seems we live in a world where “home” is a particularly difficult concept.
For my dog, it was an easy concept. I am still blown away at the simplicity of her happiness. I don’t want to be one of those people making a sentimental story out of their late pet; that is not the point. And my dog is certainly not unique in this respect, but she, more than anyone I have met, had a happiness defined by simplicity, and not at all in a narrow sense. She didn’t pretend she wasn’t absolutely heartbroken when we left her alone (we know this because on occasion one of us would be in the bathroom or bedroom when the rest of the family left for an excursion, hearing her whimpering as the door shut behind them, believing herself alone). She didn’t hide the fact that she was absolutely overjoyed to see us upon our return, even from a short trip to the store (an excitement that led to urination in the early days before she knew how to control her bladder). She never shied from affection nor asking for it; neither was she shy about rolling over if she wasn’t in the mood (a rare occurrence).
Her love was straightforward. She trusted us enough to sit quietly in a sling we made once to carry her out of the Blitzen Canyon after she’d ruined all of her toes skinning them on the hot rocks. To keep up with us she’d walked, then elbowed, then crawled along without complaint until absolutely incapable, lying curled at river’s edge. It was that moment—that key moment—that demonstrates the potential for beauty in vulnerability. Her glossy eye looking ahead at the water, then up at us, was like an offering. She invited us to love, to be a community that could develop the tools to mend, and to open our eyes beyond our own selves.
In Guatemala I lived in a one room house shared by my new friend Rosalia, her mother, and her niece. The single door was always open and other members of the extended family, especially Rosalia’s eldest aunt, Francisca, who was deaf and spoke only Kaqchikel and cooked most of their meals, would come in periodically at almost all hours. Rosalia’s mother, Maria, was afraid of the dark. She would ask me to make a trip into the night to turn off the outside faucet if she’d left it on by accident, or to venture into the aluminum kitchen for dry milk for Flor, if she wouldn’t stop crying. Once she had to pee at midnight and asked me to wait in the door as she squatted in the gold light just outside the house and ran back inside clutching the large t-shirt she slept in, laughing like a small girl. With them I never told my deepest stories; it made more sense to hear theirs and show that I heard them with small antidotes from my experience that seemed appropriate and that made our connection stronger. Sometimes I missed privacy, and would relish the Friday afternoons when Maria was still at work, Flor with her mother and Rosalia had taken the boat to Panajachel to study for the weekend. One Friday it rained hard and I danced wildly around the one-room house with my ipod, then decided to wash my hair in the runoff of the front yard’s small roof. Even then I was interrupted by Francisca’s deep throat-scratching laughter and looked up to see her wrinkly old, rotten-toothed face in its usual jovial expression as she pointed and gestured at my idea for a natural shower. I wasn’t even bothered. In fact, I was compelled to laugh as well, hearty and real, as I often did with Francisca. This was the basis of our communication, wordless, and everything funny.
I got used to having to look for privacy…to carve out my own private time, which wasn’t too hard in that beautiful place on the lake, but in the states I’ve found the opposite to be true. I have to make time with people. The times in between calendar dates are the age-old hours spent with my own interesting self, who I do really like but who, no matter how hard she grows and expands, and gains insights, and loves herself, returns again to a place of loneliness. Especially in a house that for thirteen years always contained that sweet quiet being of life, whose ability to remain happy here, unlike me and then each of my brothers, still remains a mystery to me. She never needed to leave this town in the dust, to see Washington, Colorado, North Carolina, Central America (though she did display extreme enthusiasm whenever we invited her for a walk). She didn’t tire of her rice and duck flavored kibbles or of quenching her thirst with water, the purest of elements. She didn’t need to mull over the idea “what is family” or “what is home” and deal with existential and ideological crises surrounding her identity and relations to others and place in the world. She simply was.
There was a humility to my Guatemalan family too, despite the fact that they were the ones teaching me everything—how to make tortillas, how to wash my hair in the sink (with avocadoes), how to say “good” and “pain” and “thank you” in a language beyond my second language, which became the background music of my Guatemalan life: utz, asht, matiox. Despite my absolute ignorance (there was much laughter and Mayan chatter at times that I am sure involved the entertaining fact of my presence as a silly white gringa), they would ask me simple questions without embarrassment. The simple fact of my status as “foreigner” meant I knew things that were “out in the world,” that I was supposedly more “modern” (though they all had cell phones and email addresses, and watched Mexican soap operas), and thus knew more what medication would save Maria’s son from his feverish attack (somehow her intuitive massage cured it like magic) or how to fix a light fixture (luckily I brought along a Guatemalan friend one weekend who did). From people who knew nothing about me, I heard stories that people here in the states would never admit until months or years after meeting a person, and then only if you were their best friend or therapist. Some of them are lumped together in my memory now, until I see this trail of abandoned and abused women and girls and barefooted children assisting their mothers selling scarves or walking miles to the next town to clean the summer homes of gringos on vacation, and men lying unconscious on the steep streets in dawn, and men working hard building walls up from ground tilted at 45 degree angles, but mostly women…my time there flooded with the energy of women, scrubbing clothes back and forth in the flat bed of the pila, babies and toddlers hanging in back-sacks and off hips, the squeaky clapping sound of tortillas being slapped between palms, Maria and Rosalia on Maria’s bed tickling Flor’s two year-old feet and laughing with an innocence impossible to fake. Even at night, outside the house, it was hard to feel alone—the lights across the lake coming on at dusk in a smattering of stars whose homes I knew were well-occupied, not the square bachelor-flats of New York or Los Angeles, and the singing of the churches in town, no matter how bad it was, would continue to carry up the walls of the valley like a drone, until the sleeping hours.
The more I think about it the more it makes sense for human beings to live in communities. It seems obvious, but it’s a big statement from someone who has always cherished her individuality and valued the strength that comes with an ability to be happy alone and undistracted. The thing is, despite working hard and possibly even succeeding at loving myself well, I continue to feel loneliness as an endless cycle in my life, despite all supposed “leaps and gains,” growths which I see now aren’t about becoming “better,” but simply seeing more. The wiser and older you get doesn’t mean you learn to “rise above” human feelings. In fact, I would argue it’s quite the opposite. Coming home from Guatemala I felt I’d slipped into a new skin that was being fashioned for me slowly in my absence. It was a wonderful, fresh feeling, of looking out at my familiar surroundings with a humility that was perhaps invisible to all but the most observant of intimates. The humility involves a simple dumbfounded love of being with people I care about, cherishing their wisdom more than I ever had. I am sick of mulling over all of my life inquiries and decisions as a single piece of grass in a field of flowers. And a natural consequence of this is that I, like Penny, am wont to give in a bit to my loneliness.
Something about loneliness makes perfect sense naturally. The realization doesn’t make it any easier to deal with it, but at least it keeps us from reprimanding ourselves for feeling it. Loneliness is a fact for a very large percent of North American people, in a uniquely cultural way as well as a human way. It seems to me that in this country, it’s like we’re all running. We run and we run, and then somewhere along the line we long to return. But when we return there’s an emptiness, because everyone’s running. Even those who are still at home are running, who still occupy the same physical space. I am reminded of the line in Garden State that defines home as “a group of people who all miss the same imaginary place.” There is a sadness to this kind of loneliness that is expansive and profound, for me. I don’t know if we’ve forgotten how to make homes, or if it never really existed here, or if we are meant to go through these processes before we can really appreciate and creatively apply our newly acquired “wisdom” about loneliness and what it means to be “unhomed” to a new “home,” we invent for ourselves…but, something tells me it’s overkill making every individual start again from square one. There is something essential to lineage, not necessarily in the same bloodline (though often) that has been lost or forgotten…something about being connected with a mythical past and an imaginative and organic future, a future ripe with possibility and creativity because of its healthy solid base, a base of community that knows how to hold each other in every sense of the word. I’ve come to see this is quite possibly one of the major keys to moving beyond our adolescent self-centered stage as a country. I agree with the image of America as a spoiled teenager with a wad of cash in a brand new convertible, but I think we should look also at its other half, which is the emo kid cutting himself and taking a thousand glamorous pictures of his sad, beautiful, young eyes in their dark makeup.
As my brothers and I moved away from home to follow our “young, adventurous hearts” out into the world (always in the direction of outward), Penny suddenly lost almost the whole of what for her was “home.” The older of my brothers was halfway across the country on his much-needed vision quest into his soul apart from all of us, I was down south lost in the stories of a foreign people such that I almost forgot who I even was, and my youngest brother, finally consummating his impulse to get out on his own adventure (a task that as the last child was particularly necessary, and that had been calling to him long before it called us in a way we will never understand), moved across the country, so far away his toes touched water at the other grand ocean in which our mighty continent resides. His departure, despite the fact of its impermanence in his mind, was, for Penny, definitive. It was the end of our “home” here because it was the end of our holding a space together, sleeping in the same house as our chests heaved, containing all our wild young dreams, the cool fog in winter of our breath and bare feet gliding over wood panels in summers, waking together to chatter and breakfast and various daily routines that would all in a few hours lead back to the same four walls and several pairs of arms (we hugged each other regularly). For Penny, this very real kind of living, the daily touches and sounds and smells and general aura of people in the house, was home. And she lived for home and for her straightforward love, and without us there to touch and nuzzle (she never learned to talk on the phone, despite our various attempts), there was no one left to love. The absence of these things equaled the absence of meaning and without them there was no reason to go on eating her rice and duck flavored dog kibble and drinking water, the purest of elements. There was no reason to battle her long-suffered arthritis in the morning and stand on her four feet; all the rooms were empty of their former occupants…Though I am sure she slept with my father, I imagine her wandering in humble confusion in an attempt to find her favorite spot in the house at night, which was usually the hallway, where she could feel her body was at the exact center of every other breathing body in the house as they slept. This image of her is a fitting one—my brother recently described her as the “glue” of our family, and she certainly was the one element we all had absolutely in common, in the sense that we loved her back with the same straightforward and dumbfounded love, without question and without argument. She taught us how to do this.
Penny’s death was, I believe, not a matter of chance. Penny’s being was about loving and about creating “home,” and without us, her home’s inhabitants, there was simply no reason to go on living. What’s the point of all of those simply wonderful things—food, water (the purest of elements), walks up and down the block or along the creek, or even standing when standing meant pain in the joints, if not suffered through or shared with those one loves, or at least a very real certainty of their return? And she was right to sense that our absence was definitive, that, despite the fact we might return as we often did on trips, this was a new kind of absence. We were growing into what the world calls “adults,” attempting to recreate “home” in various other corners of the world, and in the process, doing some of the necessary forgetting and shedding of the past, which, though unintentional on our part, left her standing in a sort of timeless memory, a page in a photo album whose images have frozen in a chapter marked “childhood,” and there we were bounding about in the chapters ahead, passing onto pages and into worlds to which she was uninvited.
As she aged she continued to grow wise. I don’t like when people compare dogs or animals to little kids that never grow up. There certainly is that innocence to them, but there is also a knowing and an aging that all living things go through, and the remarkable thing is that Penny, even as an old dog, was not embarrassed to admit her fear of lightning storms (she’d run up the forbidden stairs to my mother’s bedside), nor to butt her head between our legs during group hugs, unabashedly declaring “I am here too and I want a freakin’ hug, thanks.” She was purely transparent. None of us were here when she died, but the stories from my parents and those who were here confirm that her last moments were ones of wise knowing that never lost their lovely simplicity. She’d stopped eating and walking, and spent her last day in the backyard watching squirrels climb up and down the trees. All day she held her head up in a way that was described as “dignified,” as if she had decided this would be her last day on earth and, knowing she had done her work well, could simply enjoy the small scramblings of the squirrels in their young, skittish and playful little lives. I can imagine the same contentedly humble face she wore as we carried her out of the canyon with her four bloody paws, body swaying as it rested in the makeshift nest, eyes ahead on the trail, not with any particular emotion of fear or excitement, but merely seeing things as they passed by in their candid forms, and watching each one of us with that same straightforward love which was like being thanked a thousand times over, because she didn’t need to say it, and we’d never think twice about giving her whatever she needed. And I’m wondering now why we can’t love each other more like that—straightforwardly and without argument—and why we can’t work harder to make “home” and not keep running from it, and why I, having just begun my adventures, felt the need to come back to a house empty of my brothers and empty of the animal who in many ways taught me to appreciate the simple fact of “home” as a place where people move through life side by side, despite their differences.
The good news is that Penny was right: she did do her work well. And all of us, compelled to return from our far-off corners of self-discovery, sitting together with both of my divorced parents under the pines at Tumalo Creek to say goodbye to her, felt that the “glue” she was remained, that between our essences in their new ink (metaphorical and literal, as the youngest of us donned his new tattoo), remained a bond of straightforward love, one that stretched and molded to changes, that remembered how to simply be a “home” at the end of any journey, small or large. A love that doesn’t require even “knowing” a person in his or her every detail (though it would enthusiastically sit down to hear of all of the things that have stirred him or her to life), but that rather takes a solid look and says, “hello you,” seeing through any change the beauty, and loving it.
Guest post from Elizabeth