Writing about your family can be a catharsis. When your family includes dogs with sets of personality quirks and problems, you may, like author Jane Vandenburgh, begin to wonder how your own search for self influences your canine companions.
Even when we give a relationship our all, bear children together, and trod similar paths, humans grow apart, change perspectives, and develop new needs and wants. For Vandenburgh, leaving behind her beloved children with their father and moving from her home state of California with a new husband creates a mind-boggling set of new parameters. Her dogs both help and hinder her ongoing searches for meaning in her life.
Washington D.C. is a magical place. Power and money swirl around newcomers, creating an air of entitlement and importance. Children and dogs alike are trained, groomed, and schooled by the "in" veterinarians, professional trainers, and kennels. Vanderburg wants what is best for her pedigreed springer spaniel, Whistler.
The author's relationship with Whistler evolves as they try to settle in to an east coast lifestyle. Whistler begins to understand human language, although the concept of people-time is forever beyond him, as it is beyond all dogs. Vandenburgh says, "My dog witnesses the past and the present folded seamlessly together into Dog Time, which might best be imagined as these moments that are pleated together in place to form a physical Present, unfolding before him like a transparent accordion."
Now and again, Vandenburgh experiences the Wrong Dog Dream. Briefly, it's an odd, inexplicable dream where she goes to retrieve her dog from a veterinarian or kennel, and they bring out a dog that might be similar to her pet, but is actually the wrong dog. Sometimes she sees this as a metaphor for her life and wonders: is she living the wrong life? In the wrong place?
Without risking spoilers, I will say that Jane and Jack (her second husband) return to California and settle into a new life with a new dog, muttley Wayne Thiebaud. Each step of their new life with old rhythms creates home for them, until Thiebaud tangles with a neighbor's greyhound. Who knows what the undercurrents are between any two dogs? Why did this elderly greyhound aggravate their otherwise friendly and personable mutt?
As they search to find answers to that awkward, and dangerous (to Thiebaud's future) dilemma, the deeper story shows it is really all about trust. The growing trust between Jack and Jane is challenged by their "yours, mine (kids) and ours (dogs)" situations, as they learn to share the tremulous, difficult times as well as the joyous trouble-free ones. They also learn to trust their relationship with Thiebaud, to be there as pack-members, for guidance and appreciation of his "doggyness."
And so it is for all relationships: waves of friendship, misunderstandings, love without boundaries and mutual admiration, growing and learning. "Dogs don't fall in love. Instead they love as we all might hope to: consistently, day in and day out, week after week, loving steadily year after year, dogs being so naturally so much better at the practice of joy than you and I can ever hope to be."
Jane Vandenburgh is the acclaimed author of two novels, Failure to Zigzag and The Physics of Sunset, the nonfiction book, Architecture of the Novel: A Writer's Handbook, and two memoirs: The Wrong Dog Dream and The Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century. She lives in Point Richmond, California. Visit her website.
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