Tonight when the big orange dog jumped up on the leather couch he couldn’t settle. He’s a lanky dog, so sometimes he can’t quite maneuver himself into a comfortable position. The problem is this: after he turns south and shakes, and then turns north and rubs his head on the back cushion, and then twitches his back paw and turns south again, thinking perhaps he’ll lay his head on the arm rest instead of in my lap, his fur has gone all static electric wild, and he’s totally freaked out. You can practically see the sparks shooting and his synapses shorting, and you just can’t figure out how to help him. (And if you are thinking that at this point a rational person would instead be thinking about how to get the big hairy dog off the couch, I get it. But that’s not the house I live in.)
Tonight as his fur splays out in an electric halo, I hear myself tell him, “Just give up and lay down.”
Just give up and lay down. They are the kind of words that hang around in the air after you say them, determined to mean more than you intended. You keep humming them like the first three notes of a song you used to know, until your neurons get their act together and you remember that once on a very bad day, a very good priest said, “Don’t be strong.”
Seriously? I like strong. Strong is easy. Strong is cry later in your car. Strong is keep showing up on time. Strong is put the dishes in the dishwasher, prep for class, get the laundry done. Strong is “Good, thanks, and you?” or “I’m ok. Really.”
Strong is when your voice doesn’t catch when you find yourself reading out loud this line, spoken by the irritating mother in The Sound and the Fury, who, having lost her son Quentin to suicide, realizes her granddaughter Quentin is missing and says, “Where’s the note? When Quentin did it he left a note.” Strong is reading straight on through to the next sentence, without your students seeing that your heart is now on the outside of your body, all static electric wild.
I like strong.
Sometimes, though, words are spells. When the priest said “Don’t be strong,” I stopped being strong. I cried outside under the cottonwoods. I cried in the classroom. I cried in the church and in the cemetery and in the morning and on Thursdays and when birds startled out of trees. I cried when Orion appeared on the horizon and when the cranes flew in. I wasn’t strong.
In 1994 I tumbled over a horse’s head and shattered my wrist. A great surgeon pinned my bones to a plate and stitched me back together. I remember walking through O’Hare Airport before it was fully healed; all I wanted to do was to protect it, to hold it close to me like a little broken bird. But I was strong, and I had somewhere I was supposed to be, so I had gotten on the plane. I remember how all the people around me looked like weapons; I clenched my body against them, the way morning glories fold their petals as the light wanes.
It doesn’t work like that when you’re not being strong. You don’t have any petals to close. You walk through the world without any skin, as though you’d just had your chest cranked open for heart surgery and the surgeon has forgotten to sew you back up.
When you’re not being strong, everything hurts. Things that happened decades ago when you were being strong sense your weakness and rush back to hurt you all over again. Things that haven’t even happened, like when the kind looking man at church tells you he’s come here to kill Satan today, hurt you as much as if he had actually taken a gun out of the little gun-sized pouch on his back and begun killing the people you love. When you’re not being strong you learn to call these sorts of moments trauma.
When you’re not being strong, you don’t just relinquish the job of protecting yourself from the world; you also relinquish the job of protecting the world from itself, which you hadn’t even known you’d been trying to do. You see this in the shape of your shoulders. Months later, when you have forgiven yourself for all the pain in the world, you actually choose to keep your chest cranked open and decide not to step back into your skin. You see pale green top the trees and marvel at how well the world has spun on without your constant attention.
My words don’t have the same incantatory power over the dog. He jumps off the couch, heads outside to bark and sniff for a while, and finally comes back in. This time he lands the sweet spot on his first try. As I write, his head is in my lap and I’m bending my arm at a funny angle to type around an ear. Every now and then he nudges my laptop, as if to push it away and nuzzle closer. “Give up,” I think he’s trying to tell me. “Lay down.”
(Oh, and one more thing in case it’s been a long time since you’ve read The Sound and the Fury. The second Quentin didn’t commit suicide. She escaped out the window and shinnied down Caddy’s plum tree. Life came and called her, and she ran.)