|Jul/Aug 2016 Nonfiction|
Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady
"In the wide, empty, shadowbrooded street he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost." —William Faulkner, Light in August
"For I am a Rain Dog too." —Tom Waits
Sometimes I can't sleep wondering what's happened to all the stray dogs.
When I was a boy in Bessemer, Alabama, back in the '60s, stray dogs passed through our neighborhood all the time. I'm not talking about the neighborhood dogs like Checker or Butch or Spot, or even Mrs. Guy's red Irish Setter mix who used to hump every kid in sight. These dogs I would let into the house, just as much for the thrill of an odd dog wandering through my mother's kitchen as for the shrill cries of "Who let Butch Terry in here!" coming from either my mother or grandmother. I don't think they truly minded, but it can be unsettling to see a stray wanderer headed toward your painting easel or potted hibiscus tree.
No, I'm talking now about the obvious shepherd mixes, the short-haired hound dogs who ambled and sidled along the sidewalks and in the middle of the streets, looking like they had nowhere to go, nowhere to be. Come from nowhere, neither. Sometimes I'd see one of these dogs trotting down the sidewalk like he was running an errand to the store. She'd take the sharp corner at the block's end and keep on trucking like her business was that important. Just where does a dog think she needs to be in such a hurry? I'd think about following these strays, but I wasn't allowed off our block without permission.
I suppose it's a good thing we have evolved to the extent that there are so few strays around anymore. The soft-hearted liberal in me believes this is a measure of how well we all keep our dogs now: how we tag 'em, chip 'em, collar 'em, spay and neuter. I for one want to know where my Carolina Wild Dog is at all times, and when we take him to Camp Bow Wow, his home away from home, we often monitor his day by watching from our office or laptop as he cavorts with the locals in Area Three or Five. We've thought of installing a home camera, too, though our friend Owen tells us that when we're away, all our dog does is sleep, usually on our bed.
But then, I don't mind watching our dog sleep. It's a peaceful, easy feeling.
I also know there are darker reasons for the dearth of strays. In Greenville, my current home, there are two animal shelters: the Humane Society is where we found our stray dog Max. I celebrate the day we brought him home, even though I wasn't the one who wanted him initially. Rather, it was my wife, who now owns her first dog. Even had we not brought Max into our lives, he would have been okay in the relative sense of that word, for the Humane Society in Greenville is a "no-kill" facility.
Unlike the Greenville Animal Shelter, which I've visited only when our beloved cat Morgan went missing for a couple of days back in 2011 (he came back on his own, a victim of a crazy neighbor's two-night cat-napping). I send money to this shelter regularly to "sponsor" a cat or dog, and I'm led to believe my sponsorship ensures the animal's life. I don't have hard proof of that, but at least my donation allows me the chance of sleeping well.
On the occasion that I did visit the shelter, though, I learned where all the strays are. The unwanted, neglected, sick, and abused ones.
And there are so many.
I know I can't help these creatures. I also know that seeing them makes me reconsider the word "stray." Homeless, unwanted, untethered, and unmoored. No place to go, no direction home.
My mother used to refer to our old shepherd-collie mix, Donald, as a "rogue." Donald strayed through the Virginia mines in the hills above our neighborhood, and after a two- or three-day excursion, he'd return home full of cockleburs, his feet caked in red clay. She'd bathe him in our bathtub, where later that night my brother and I would also get clean, and soon Donald would appear shiny and new again. I'd look at his eyes, so happy and loving. What I couldn't see in those eyes, though I know he adored me, his boy-master, was a tincture of discontent. He just had to be roaming. Four years into our love, he roamed away for good, our Donald.
After a week, we realized he wasn't coming back, and we forgave him all his transgressions: his chewing up neighbors' welcome mats, garden hoses; his busting through the chicken-wired fences we foolishly thought would hold him. We even forgave him the dead pig he dragged into our yard one fall morning, dropping it in the glistening dew of our almost dormant Zoysia grass. Did he kill the pig, and if so, how? Why? Where did he get it, since we were city dwellers, though the neighborhoods to our east had other stray animals—roosters, chickens—so I guess they had pigs, too. One less pig, in Donald's eyes.
It was hard for me to understand, as a boy of nine, why my dog felt the need to stray from a home that fed and sheltered him from any storm. My grandmother thought it was a literal storm that did Donald in.
"Don't you remember that night it thundered so bad? A lightning bolt struck Mrs. McConnell's oak tree and split it right in two. I think something happened to Donald that night."
She might have been right, but with dogs that liked to stray, it might be seen as a blessing and a relief that we never know their end or what happens in their world to come.
Ever since Donald, though, I've thought about the strays in my world, all those wanderers, mainly because I've rarely rambled far from home myself, and when I have done so, it's been with a decided push. Sometimes an internal push like the time I forced myself as a college junior to drop out for a semester and move to DC. Or the time as a husband and father of two daughters, I decided to take my first writing workshop, a two-week sojourn in Prague. I wish I could say that all of these days released the unfocused me, let me be free enough to roam as I wanted. I can say that in part as I learned to traverse the streets of these two capitals by myself, only folded pocket maps to help. I waited on no one and had few companions as I turned my own corners, sometimes offering quarters to men who owned them, sometimes forgetting the way back to my other quarters. While I learned to rely on myself, I also learned this: Each and every day, I counted how many I had left before I could go home.
Recently, as I dreamed of the garage/studio I wanted to build for my writing retreat, my wife reminded me I wouldn't have used it much: "You would have gotten too lonely. You couldn't stand to be away from the girls and me for long."
I'm no rain dog. I don't want to stray too far from my base. For like a rain dog—a dog who's caught out in a storm and if he doesn't die, finds that the scent of all he knew has been washed away in the cleansing rain—I'm wary of losing what I know, losing what's familiar.
It's only on the inside of me that I've strayed from the paths of my upbringing: the ones of appearance, belief—the "breeding labels"—my southern time and place have tried to prescribe. What peace I've been trying to find and reconcile, beyond or perhaps within my understanding, remains out there, however, still unscented.
When my Jewish father married my Christian mother, they compromised about things I'll never know. They agreed to be married by a rabbi, to have the ceremony at my mother's house. Neither converted to the other's religion, yet Mom won the battle over which religious faith would nurture her children.
The battle she didn't win was with my name.
"Just as soon as you were born," my mother says, "that woman (my father's mother), came into my room shouting 'Little George is here, little George is here!' She didn't give anyone a chance to contradict her. She was dancing up and down the room, and all I could do was lie there and listen."
What my mother doesn't say is that she nearly died delivering me. My head kept banging against her pelvic wall, and for a while, the doctor thought he'd lose both of us. My mother explained this to me calmly, some 45 years after the fact. It's not the near-death experience but the naming she's still incensed about, though my grandmother has been dead for 20 years.
It's the name "George," the name she had no control over. In the Jewish tradition, the first-born male child must be named after his paternal grandfather if that man is dead. So I became George Barr as my grandfather, a supposedly sweet man I never knew who liked to pour ketchup on all meat, was named.
"But I insisted that your middle name be "Terry," my maiden name, and that you would be called Terry!"
That's what happened. I am George Terry Barr, and at any school, church, or civic function, I am formally called Terry. Except that my father, curiously absent from the official naming process, started calling me "Buddy."
Buddy. I never thought about it much, this name that isn't really a proper name, or much of any kind of name at all. It's kind of a Southern thing, and I can hear Faulkner characters or James Dickey characters using it for anyone they don't know but perhaps don't mind seeing.
I also remember the first time I heard someone use it outside of the personal context. Strolling around my college campus one fall day with my friend Lynne some 40 years ago, an archetypal hound dog mix ambled into our path seeking food or affection, or maybe just a kind word about the beautiful day.
"Hey, buddy," Lynne said as she reached out to pat him. His tongue lolled around as she stroked his gold-brown neck, and then as if that was all he came for, that old dog kept moving on down some line we'd never know.
I thought then, "She called him Buddy," and from then on, dogs I'd see, strays or ones walking next to their masters, became "Buddy's" for me.
I call my dog "Buddy" now, too, even though his name is Max. I also call my cat Buddy even though his name is Morgan. Both were strays who found themselves cornered in the Humane Society and my daughter's high school parking lot, respectively.
When I call "Here, Buddy" to either of them, both of their ears perk up, and I guess they don't wonder at all about the name they're hearing or the one they're not. For mainly, I think, they're glad just to be called.
Still, it's hard to settle on an identity, a belief system, when you can't even settle on a name, when your names mean so many things to so many people, and when those people likely think they know the true you.
For as it's turned out, depending on who you are and when you knew me, I am Buddy when I return to my ancestral home, Terry when I'm in the home of myself, my wife, and my children, but never George except when addressed by telemarketers or by the nurse at my doctor's office who can't seem to remember I'm Terry even though her name is also Terry.
For a long time I hated my grandmother for naming me George. I wasn't raised Jewish, so I didn't even get the benefit of a Bar Mitzvah or all those presents at Chanukah. The only George I knew who wasn't an old man comedian/musician (Gobel, Burns, Gershwin) was George Harrison, the least popular Beatle. Maybe I wasn't the only one who hated her, though.
Her oldest son, my father's brother Richard, abandoned his mother after he became middle-aged. He moved several states away, hardly ever called, even more rarely visited. He became a wild boar hunter, a cabinet-maker.
A Baptist minister.
A stray dog evangelical who found a home we never knew about until his funeral, when sitting there in that Baptist church in Columbia, we heard he was an "appreciated, respected minister of the gospel." A Baptist minister who always called me Buddy.
After he left us that first time, I'd think about him and his son, my first cousin Ricky. I saw Ricky at Richard's funeral, but we didn't speak. Dad said later it was because Ricky thought Dad was after his inheritance, though my uncle had so little to leave: a parcel of sandy property, a few boar heads, his guns. Although maybe there was more somewhere, something hidden, something lying forgotten and astray.
During his service and for a long time after I thought, Is this the only occasion in which my parents and I have sat together in a house of worship?
Though my mother often accompanied Dad to Temple, he never accompanied her to church. Though my brother and I were christened and later confirmed as Methodists, neither of us set foot in a temple until I did when I was fifteen. To this day, my brother has never seen the insides of a temple or attended any outside Jewish ceremony, either.
Strangely or not, Dad didn't go to Temple every week or even most weeks, and when he did, he only went on Friday nights. As a kid, I couldn't tell when my parents dressed up for those evenings if they were going to Temple or to the movies. For all I know, they went to the movies after temple. What I did know was that our normal wasn't everyone else's.
Mom took us to Sunday school each week and attended her own adult class. Except for Christmas and Easter, however, we never stayed for the big morning service. We'd go home where Mom would finish Sunday lunch, the biggest, most expensive, and most laborious meal of her week, serving us either roast beef (usually rump, but occasionally rib or chuck, depending upon, I suppose, what was left in the budget). Rarely, but enough for me to remember, we'd have a leg of lamb. Other people went out for Sunday lunch, the Methodists famously starting their service at 10:50 so as to get out ten minutes ahead of the Baptists who never deviated from an 11:00 start. This meant the Methodists got the best and earliest seats at the local restaurant, while the Baptists fumed in line, and while our non-traditional family ate at home.
While my friends went to Methodist youth group suppers on Sunday evenings, my family traveled to nearby Mountain Brook to fulfill that promise of having a delicatessen supper with Dad's mother and sister. We never strayed from this path, though the path itself strayed from the one traveled by virtually everyone else I knew.
Strays or not, I think my parents believed in the God of their respective fathers and mothers, though they never talked much about what they believed. My mother once remarked that she thought the Christian faith was warmer than the Jewish faith: "When you have a personal God, you can't help but have a loving relationship. That's a big difference. I think many Jews are too cold."
But she was no orthodox believer. Once, beset by teenage talk about who was or wasn't going to hell, I asked her what she believed: "No, I don't believe a loving God would send anyone to such a place like hell. So, no, I don't think there is a hell."
When I was wrestling with my own beliefs once—something I did and still do more often than I typically acknowledge—Dad said to me, "I think we all believe in the same God, don't you?"
I did, and I didn't. Did, in the sense that I don't think any God sits around considering all these religious divisions, or if so, probably just shakes its head and says something like, "Lord, what fools these mortals be." So in that sense of God, we are all the same.
Yet, I have never really bought, certainly haven't internalized, a fatherly God: a white-bearded, stern-faced, slightly balding white figure of a man—the best we seem to imagine—who judges the quick and the dead, sinners and their sins. I don't believe in original sin anyway. We are what we are, have always been what we've always been. Good, Bad, Beautiful, Ugly.
I've been asked and have wondered if I am a traditional atheist or a conformed agnostic. I really don't know.
A wise man recently told me, "Jesus just happened to be a fine example of a Cosmic Consciousness. The Kingdom of Heaven is that which we perceive as all around us if we have a self. I believe having a Self allows us to have a completely different perspective of the reality around us."
I may not be much, but I do have a Self. He just slips away on occasion, refuses to come when I call. Refuses to follow anyone else's lead.
I used to have long, flowing hair. Once, I played Jesus in a musical staged by our local Baptist church, which recruited me and my best friend Jimbo away from the Methodists for three performances only. The musical was called "Celebrate Life," and in it, I became virtually crucified. The singing was fun; so was pretending to feel Pilate's lash. So was seeing that girl in the chorus who caught my eye and smiled at me, the one who believed that I believed.
I know Jesus didn't fully understand what he was and maybe even doubted he was anything other than a man who saw the world differently from those around him. He was uncommon for his time, or any other time.
I don't think I am so uncommon, though I also don't know anyone quite like me. Uncommon or not, the Bible has never interested me, has actually left me rather queasy as it recounts cruel deaths and tortures over and over. I remember taking a Bible as Lit course in high school, but all I learned was that the "Song of Solomon" was sexy, or at least that's what my teacher said.
What I think I'm saying is that while my parents strayed from their traditions, established new ones, it's not so much that I have wandered farther astray; it's more that I've covered ground perpendicular to theirs and at right angles to theirs. Sometimes we've even found ourselves outside, side by side.
I married outside my faith, too. I would have had to, since by the time I married, I wouldn't have known which faith I was rebelling from, which one I had crossed over or, in the quality of my waking sleepwalking, had stepped away from. My wife is from Iran, a born and bred Persian. Except her mother's family was Jewish, and they originally came from Macedonia. Nominally Muslim, they were actually anti-religious, and my mother-in-law, whatever her true background is, is still anti-religious, or at least anti-Muslim. I'm sure many other Iranian/Macedonian refugees are, too.
Despite these revelations, my wife still claims a Persian identity, and why not? "There's nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so," especially if we're strays.
Today, I donate frozen turkeys to the local food bank for Thanksgiving. I tithe to the ACLU and ASPCA. I have taken in that old stray dog as I would want and believe I have been taken in myself. The irony has never been lost on me that whatever I am, I have lived and worked at a church-related college for the past 29 years, one that when I first started, insisted all faculty be members of some Christian church. They have had me as a lapsed, though still enrolled, Christian, and as a Jew.
Yesterday, as I was thinking about Tom Waits and Faulkner, driving through the rain in the upper part of my state, I heard a new song on my Outlaw Country station: "Old Stray Dogs and Jesus":
I've never felt so lonely, I've never felt so blue.
My world keeps getting smaller, it's down to the chosen few.
Well I have not lost everything, but I sure have lost a lot.
This old stray dog and Jesus are all the friends I've got.
I don't know about Jesus, but I have the dog and so much more: family, friends, and my students. Those lines got me thinking, however, about the place I teach, a place where, it seems, people are consciously straying away from now, looking for more stable homes. Our Christian-Only policy has changed. For a while, you had to be a member of "some Faith community," but now, you just have to support the mission of the college.
Even a stray dog knows its mission.
I don't know what the people of my institution think of their fold now, the one that has included me for the last three decades. I bet most of the old ones never thought I'd stay, and for the first five years, neither did I. I don't know whether my presence has added anything or diminished anything, either.
What I do know is that here I am, as I always have been and always will be: my parents' son, straying beyond the prescribed norms, world without end, unleashed, uncollared, no longer snarling, and no longer mad.
But not exactly tame.