Tales From The Dog House: “In The Bleak Midwinter”
I wake, in a penetrating dark, to slobbering kisses from carefree Scot, the Greenport Labrador who’s staying at The Dog House this month while his family’s in Scotland. He’s an import from that green Jerusalem, that pleasant land. He’s an enthusiastic lover and morning, no matter how early, means breakfast can’t be far off.
He dearly loves his food, but I’ve sworn not to spoil him — he’s sleek and shiny black, with a long legged shy grace that takes my breath away. I never tire of watching him, flanks leaping in my backyard in Greenport, scooping up now shriveled tennis balls in his wake where, in last, much-missed summer, lilacs at the dooryard bloomed. If the stars hold my faith sacred and don’t cross me, they will bloom next year. I hope to see their blessed burst again.
In the next few weeks, Scot is bunking in with Ingrid, a Labradoodle whose Greenport mom, traveling somewhere north of Moscow, reports thick, unyielding ice which makes moving about almost impossible. Except for the occasional spat at the toy chest (filled with the gnarled playthings of my long lost beloved pups, now heavenward) they are already great friends. If only human friendships were so fast, so immediate.
Ingrid has a touch of hip dysplasia, so she moves slowly, with a plaintive air. She’s obviously missing her family. It’s poignant and I, but mostly Scot, encourage her to soldier on, jolly her. She’s smaller than Scottie and her coal black hair is curlier, not the tight curls of a lambkin’s coat but wispy, half curls that end in a question mark. Now and again I massage her hindquarters which brings her some relief. I only wish someone would massage mine!
It’s still dark, but a trickle of light means dawn will be soon. Before Scot’s wet kisses woke me, I was dreaming, holding a candle, admiring Turner’s use of light, spellbound, floating skyward, above a harbor. When I woke I realized I had been dreaming of the Frick, my second home when I lived in the City, a refuge from the deafening whirl and bottomless chasm, the surrounding urban storm, which frightened and did not relent.
I must have borrowed the candle that St. Anne’s daughter holds in The Education of the Virgin, a De La Tour which hangs in the same gallery as the Turners. In my dream I confused it with a wolf’s notion of all the better to see you with. Years later I disappointedly discovered that most of this “painter to the King,” this baker’s son’s chiaroscuro scenes, were lit by the selfsame candlelight which dissipated and made commonplace the dramatic effect of the first De La Tour I saw, illustrated in a book of my grandmother’s. She taught me to read so hers were the first books I loved, the first to open the world to me. There is and never will again be frigates like hers to sail on in my heart’s imagination.
Given Scot’s never fail appetite, I separate the pups at feeding time. He gobbles. She hesitates, takes dainty bites. Paces. Finally returns to her bowl. For Scot, there’s nothing like the present moment, all the world concentrated in his laser beam desire. He is so of the moment, so there, so enviable in his focus. If only he could teach me his lessons. To be indisputably in the now, tongue lolling, happy to be where I am, who I am and as I am, not as I could, would or should be.
To try and achieve his state I’ve become interested in Nicheren Buddhism. One of its significant attributes is its easily accessible practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo — the fundamental law of life, the practice, the essential law and its manifestations, the simultaneity of cause and effect, the truth expressed through the sound of one’s own voice. Chanting is said to transform our fate, helping us break through deadlocks and convert our suffering into happiness. The jury’s still out on the suffering part, but I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime, read Auden, who had a thing or two to say on that subject.
The best thing about the holidays are the carols — Lo How a Rose, The Holly and the Ivy, and my favorite, In the Bleak Midwinter, a carol based on a poem by Christiana Rossetti, written in response to a request for a Christmas poem from Scribner’s Monthly. It was published posthumously in 1904 in Rossetti’s Poetic Works, and later set to music by Gustav Holst (check out The Priests’ version on You Tube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPIFKZGlKeU).
“In the bleak mid-winter, frosty winds made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow. In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.
Heaven cannot hold Him nor Earth sustain, Heaven and Earth shall flee away when he comes to reign;
In the bleak mid-winter a stable place sufficed, The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him whom cherubim worship night and day, a breastful of milk and a manger full of hay;
Enough for him whom angels fall down before, the ox and ass and camel which adore.
What can I give Him poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part, yet what I can I give him, give my heart.”
In the bleak midwinter, not two arms around me, but eight paws rock me in my cradle.