What is the responsibility of God? To show you the way? To help you make sense of the world and your place in it? To provide answers, or comfort? To guide you through the landscape of right and wrong? To foster debate, and community? To bestow upon you a venue in which to eat free food on Saturday mornings once they finish the damn service already?
And what of dogs?
When I was a kid I once asked my father what would happen if you took away all the things in the world, one by one. All the trucks and roads and all the people, all the ants and all the land. What, then, if you took away the Earth? Constellations of stars and other planets and outer space things—what if you took all those away, too? You’d be left with just this big black space, I surmised. And then—and I’m editorializing here, because I was just a kid then—what if you take away time and space, or any concept of the two? So too goes the remaining blackness, the emptiness … what then is left? What exists? These thoughts were my first encounter with what I guess we should call spirituality, belief systems, some order of the universe, God.
Now, I’ve never been a shulgoer. I generally dislike it, preferring, if I must, to be part of a Havurah-type atmosphere. I hear a lot of other Jews are shul-averse, too. Once, somewhere in the pews of a Conservative shul in Newton, Massachusetts, when I was nearing bar mitzvah age, I tried really, really hard to pray. I said to myself, Try as hard as you can to feel God, to get to the place everyone around you seems to be enjoying. I told myself to immerse in prayer, in melody, in Hebrew as best I could. I closed my eyes. I swayed back and forth and came into my own energy and, for a second there, I felt a pang of, Oh, my: I had touched this God I’d heard so much about.
It never happened again, at least in that way.
My spirituality exists, and manifests, in random, more “secular” places and ways: I acknowledge the inexplicable; I believe in guardian angels, like my mother, who died far too young; I have real-life moments with dead family and friends—conversations with the long-gone—from overdoses, from cancer, from heart attacks—while waiting for an oil change, while tripping, while looking up at the stars in the sky, while buying gum. Conversations they start.
And what of dogs? What’s their place in the spiritual universe? Consider my dog, Lady, who’s panting under my chair as I write. She, as far as I’m concerned, is as much a personal conduit to God, to an inexplicable depth of being, as I can imagine. Perhaps, even, she is God, or a god. Actually, screw perhaps. She is.
Lady and I have no real business knowing each other. As far as I know she was seized from her home in Alphabet City, twice, because her owner was apparently arrested, twice. When animal services found her she was so scared and so hungry, I later learned, that she had tried to bite through the door; at the pound in Harlem they found wood in her stool.
When I arrived, bent on getting a dog, she was one of about 10 homeless pooches whose names I’d written down on my hand. The popular sentiment out there is that dogs choose you, implying some incredible and unexpected connection between human and dogs, something meant to be that signals to the owner, I just know. This wasn’t the case with Lady—she was simply sweet and ticked better boxes (no major issues, for example) than the other pups—although one solid face lick did seal the deal. I believe our pairing was the work of some other order.
Lady, herself, makes me wonder if she is a higher being, a being with a greater purpose, a being that shows me the way. Maybe it’s because the two of us are driving cross-country, and I’ve had too much time to think on the open road. But I call bunk: If you’ve ever owned a dog—Lady is my first—I hope and imagine that you’ve considered this too.
Lady is my companion; she’s always with me. She brings me joy, she enables reflection. I rest my head on her body in the absence of a pillow. I take care of her—walks to pee, walks to poop, food, water, sleep. It’s a commitment that sometimes feels obvious. At times it feels onerous. At times, still, it feels downright impossible—a sacrifice. And for what?
The reciprocation is immeasurable. Far too often its benefits, the benefits of our relationship, if you will, remain out of sight and out of mind. In a sense, she’s the one who takes care of me. I sometimes transfer my stress unto her, my uneasiness about life, people, work, love, things, ideas. She absorbs it like a sponge and lets it go in her own, mysterious way. She’s a stress-relief mechanism—petting her, that simple act, brings me into a state of awareness, shields me from myself, turns life outward. Over-analysis—of everything—takes a backseat to being, to the simple feeling of fur on hand. I am released.
Lady gets excited about life. She believes in it. Age, aging, can grate on one’s liveliness, one’s hope, one’s belief that living can be simple again, can be plentiful and joyous, not shrouded in cynicism. When I take her off-leash, which I try to do as much as possible, she runs through the woods as though she belongs there, free—to hunt, pee, play, sniff, roll, shit, kick, mine, mine, mine. She becomes a manifestation, a sort of a real-life picture of my inner child—my unconscious, my subconscious, my id, all in one, splayed out in a pant-heavy frolic. She does everything I yearn to do, want to do more of, strive for, work for.
You might call this projection or some fangled interpretation of my psyche vis-à-vis an animal, or, heck, neediness. That’s OK. I ain’t scared of ya: If dogs aren’t some manifestation of the presence of God, of a being with which to connect and deepen your relationship with the world, then I don’t know what is. I believe my relationship with Lady is kismet, and so would that boy who once wondered the meaning of nothingness.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.