This week I learned that every birder has a “spark bird.” A spark bird is the bird that sparked their birdy passion. The bird that opened their eyes to birds. It’s the hawk you see carrying a dead squirrel, or the family of sandhill cranes that lets you peacefully pass them by, or the owl that gives you a piercing gaze when you cross the street at night. It’s the bird that makes you understand humans are ants stuck to the ground in a world owned by ancient beings controlling the sky: birds.
I’ve always been a “cat person,” but on the other hand, I’ve long struggled with my sense of self, so am I any “kind of person” at all? I feel so easily moldable. This used to scare me, but more recently, I’ve found it interesting, and that it might not be due to an empty self but a selfness that’s more like a prism, able to reflect and refract whatever it takes in. Unlike Shrek’s onion, there’s no single core once you peel back all the layers; rather it’s more like a pond or a lake, that creates a double sky when still, and ripples when you throw things in, but is filled with life and movement beneath the surface. Or it’s like Schrödinger’s cat, who only becomes fully alive (or fully dead) when someone gazes upon it. Or maybe it’s none of this, and no one will ever be able to describe what a mind is except the mind itself.
Anyway, I might be a “dog person” now.
We’ve been trying foster a cat for a month and a half. Turns out, so are hundreds of other DCites. There’s a multi-month wait period. At the same time, there are more than a hundred dogs who need homes. I’ve been thinking about this. All of the sad dogs in cages. And I’ve been looking at all the dogs on the streets wondering, could I handle it?
Two Fridays ago, a spark dog made our decision. Seth and I were walking with two friends and this cute dumpy dog ignored them, made a beeline for Seth, and put her forelegs on his knees, forcing him to sit down and pet her. She wore a harness that said Adopt me! She loved Seth and I loved her. She didn’t bark once. She was a foster dog. Her name was Lenora.
The next day, I changed my foster preferences to allow for smallish dogs. The day after that, we were matched. Her name’s Agora.
Agora is a six-month-old pitbull pup. We picked her up on Monday, Valentine’s Day.
She was a stray, completely un-housetrained. She thinks she’s a cat because she loves sitting in laps and jumping from couch to couch. And she hates walking. I think of her life before us on the streets, walking and running all day to keep warm and find food. Now, she has a warm apartment and food inside, so why would she ever want to walk again? Does she have a doggy sense of self that’s changed now that she has a lap, a dog bed, and a stuffed lamb?
And what about us? Our days are different. I put a lot of thought into the structure of my days, but it’s all upended. Now, rather than wake up and blearily walk to the living room to write, I wake up, let Agora out of her crate, put on her leash, and sprint to the elevator so she can relieve her weak puppy bladder outside. Rather than go on long, wide-ranging, thoughtful walks, I take her outside and beg her not to sit down in the middle of a street crossing, and fall over her with congratulations when she poos. When Seth and I are both out of the house, I worry if she will feel abandoned without us.
On Wednesday night, after a busy day of dog-ing, working, and writing, I accompanied a friend — and her dog — to the airport, to see them off on an international move. Dogs make everything twenty times harder. They require massive crates that require massive vehicles, and the wrong sized cab showed up. Dog visas are almost as difficult to obtain as immigrant visas. And once you get to the airport there are five extra hoops to jump through. It was hectic. But at the same time, there was a dog, drawing everyone’s attention. And I get it. When everything is crowded and confusing, all you need to do is look into a dog’s eyes to calm.
The airport was an hour’s drive away, and afterwards, sitting in the back of an Uber, I felt my mind quiet for the first time since Agora. It was nighttime and the moon was almost full. The road was smooth and curved through trees too dark to make out. The chaos of a puppy, the chaos of everything, all fell away as the highway sloped riverward.
We’ve already found a great adoptive parent for Agora and have a few backups in case this one doesn’t work out. That’s the goal: to find her a home. In the meantime, the shock to our routine has provided a good jolt to our sense of self. When she’s gone, the apartment will feel quiet. But rather than the quiet that preceded her — the emptiness, the lack — it will be a relief. A welcoming, a coming home, a reminder to focus inward.
At least until our next foster dog.
PS: New publication alert! This is a story about regenerative agriculture… from the perspective of the bacteria involved. It was a lot of fun to research and write and I hope it’s as fun to read. It’s called “Regeneration” and was published in a cool new online speculative publication called After the Storm.
PPPS: For more on spark birds, listen to this beautiful This American Life podcast.