Owen is teaching me a lot. It is, of course, in his job description. A person doesn’t take on the responsibility of a puppy without also accepting the unavoidable stretching, even breaking of one’s parameters. I knew this when, on Halloween afternoon, I arrived at home to find him sitting under the carport with an expression on his face that could be read as either, “Where have you been? I’ve been so worried,” or “Where have you been? I can’t believe you kept me waiting.”
What I didn’t know was that the elements of the Owen curriculum would be so very different from those of my previous two dogs, the regal and loyal Ginny and the grateful and placid Lily. He is teaching me, for example, to look for launching pads.
Owen is, as it turns out, a jumper. He never takes the steps, using them instead as the springboard from which he throws himself into a replication of Mary Lou Retton mid-vault and sailing over them a good 4 feet to land with grace that would move even the Russian judge to award him a 10. He turns butterfly chasing into ballet, leaping into the air in tours-de-jete to rival Baryshnikov’s and his favorite parts of the dirt road are the places where the woods on either side are high enough that he can hurl himself over the edge to land somewhere close to my feet.
Sometimes he rolls, sometimes he face-plants, but always he gets back up and leaps again. He is teaching me that the ground is always going to be there. Always. He is teaching me that I will never jump and be lost forever in oblivion, but that however far the fall, there will always be something upon which I can, however awkwardly, regain my footing.
He is also teaching me something about the joy of struggle.
He loves toys — all toys — but he especially loves the long knotted rope that I throw and he retrieves, that I throw again and he retrieves again, that I throw again and again and again and he retrieves again and again and again. Until, that is, the moment when he decides that tug-o’-war would be more fun than fetch. The moment when he clamps his teeth down onto the knot and refuses to release it. The moment when I realize that I’m trying and not succeeding in getting the toy out of his mouth. The moment when I start wondering why I don’t just let go.
Because — let’s be honest — that is always the first thought. When the effort becomes struggle, the work becomes combat, the attempt becomes conflict, it is always the easiest, quickest, simplest thing to do. Let go. Walk away. Give up.
My niece Kate works for a nonprofit foundation that recently received a large grant, a grant big enough to do a lot of good for its constituency. She shared with me a part of the letter notifying them of the award and encouraging them in what is not going to be an easy endeavor. “Remember,” the letter read, “you were made for this struggle."
I read it through twice, three times, as tears sprang to my eyes. Could that be true? If it is — and there was something in me that said it was — then letting go, walking away and giving up couldn’t be the only options when the battle engages, when fatigue sets in, when life gets harder than I ever imagined it could.
I think about me and Owen in the front yard, on either end of the rope toy. Me grimacing and yanking and sighing with frustration. Him growling and jerking and drooling with joy. With every pull, he is trying to take me to a place of playfulness and engagement, trying to get me to see that this, too, is a game. Just a different one. With different rules. And different expectations. If I let go, both games are over. If I hold on, I may yet have fun.
If I hold on, I may find that I am stronger than I ever thought I could be. If I stay, I may find that the view changes with the season. And if I don’t give up, I may find that not only was I made for this struggle, but that this struggle was made for me.