A life lesson from a dog

October 23, 2015 § 2 Comments

Every morning, after I drink my one to ten cups of coffee, I take Scout for a walk.

Scout is a border collie, a good-looking dog, if I do say so myself, with a half-white, half-black face rather like the phantom of the opera’s, the cutest wagging tail, and the brightest eyes that literally will melt your heart if you let them.

I hesitate to call him my dog because he was technically a Christmas present from my parents to my younger brother who then passed him along to my mom when he went to college who then passed him along to my grandmother who I happen to live with.

Still, Scout follows me around the house when I’m at home and has recently taken to sleeping in my room, something he used to reserve only for my mom and grandmother, who are both willing to hand feed him from a spoon, so even if he isn’t my dog, I seem to have inadvertently become his human.

I usually find walking Scout in the mornings a bit of an ordeal.

This isn’t because I have to get out of bed early to exercise. I am one of those strange breed of people who love both mornings and exercise.

No, it is because Scout finds everything along our way THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD and absolutely has to stop to inspect it.

We are barely out of the front door when Scout must stop to snuffle through the bush that borders the neighbor’s property. Then, we cross the street and he must do his business on a utility pole. And then, it’s a few more steps before a patch of ordinary grass must be thoroughly sniffed.

I always know when Scout will stop because he always inspects the same things every time: the patch of green ivy, the especially-gnarly-and-strangely-maroon-colored rock, the particularly large trunk of a live oak tree, and the pile of cut branches that’s been there forever and is probably infested with snakes.

What he’s looking for, I never know.

What I do know is this: no matter how many times he’s looked at that bush or that street sign or that concrete curb, it is still fascinating, it is still a marvel of existence, it still commands his full attention as though it were THE MOST INTERESTING THING IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.

Sometimes, waiting for Scout provides opportunities for thinking.

Last weekend, while Scout tangled his leash in a particularly prickly bush, I thought about one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard, and her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an enigmatic account of her experience living in a cabin on the edge of a creek in the Appalachians.

In it, Dillard says that when she was a child in Pittsburgh she used to hide pennies in the sidewalk around her neighborhood, then draw chalk arrows pointing toward the hidden pennies for passersby to find. As a child, she thought any pedestrian would be delighted to find free money lying about, but as an adult, she wonders how many people actually cared about finding a penny, let alone bothered to pick one up.

“It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny,” writes Dillard. “But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.”

I think about this passage as I untangle Scout from that bush.

I think about how Dillard seems to be saying that the way we look at the world changes the way we experience it.

If you look for hundred-dollar bills on the sidewalk, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you look for pennies, before long, you’ll have a jingling collection.

In the same way, if you look for miracles or adventure or unusual occurrences on an ordinary street in a suburb of Dallas, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you look for dew-dropped blades of grass or red-breasted cardinals or patches of multi-colored pansies, you’ll find yourself filled with delight at the splendor and mystery of the created world.

I am, of course, no good at this. While Scout races out of the front door straight for that neighbor’s bush, my response is something like, for heaven’s sake, Scout, we’ve seen this bush a milliton times, will you come on!

But then I pause and remember Dillard’s words and think, no, wait, look around, don’t expect something different, don’t expect anything at all. Instead, look at that bush and that tree and that patch of lawn and you’ll find the sparkling copper pennies that will make you rich.

Or, at least in Scout’s case, you’ll find some delightfully sniffable blades of grass.


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