My spark dog

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. 

Read Regeneration

PPS: Dog

PPPS: For more on spark birds, listen to this beautiful This American Life podcast.

113 dogs

There’s been a little hole in the apartment since Elliephant died. A little buzzing from the silence. Ears straining to hear the pat pat pat of her walking around. 

We don’t want another cat yet. But we’ve been trying to fill the silence. So we’re babysitting a devil cat who, years ago, peed on my things, peed on my friend’s passport, and rubbed his shit on my white dress while I was wearing it. 

Now he’s older and wiser. He rests his big stomach on my arms in the morning, telling me to stop and watch the sunrise. His wet nose finds its way under my thumbs. His meow crackles when he wants love, and he is worthy of it. He was always worthy of it. 

We’ve signed up to be cat foster parents. It could be months before we get ‘matched.’ In the meantime, I’m on the list-serv. This week I learned there are currently 113 dogs at the animal shelter. According to their statistics, ten percent will be euthanized. The rest will suffer in their own way. 

I can’t take in 113 dogs. I can’t take in one dog. I can take a cat or two. But what about the others? 

Do you remember the Sarah McLaughlin ads about animals? The sad music, the ‘what about the animals’? I remember. I am pro-animal, but I remember laughing. The sappiness. The blatant heartstring tug. And the queasy feeling. How manipulative it felt. Step one: Make someone sad. Step two: Profit!

But really, what about the animals? 

I bought a ring with Ellie’s face on it. I want to be reminded of her for awhile. But it’s not comfortable. The rose gold chin digs into my skin. Which I don’t mind. Every time I put on gloves, the flick of pain reminds me. Eventually I’ll get used to it. Or I’ll take it off. 

For a year and a half I’ve been volunteering with Latin American immigrants to write deportation waivers. I channel their trauma then send off the affidavits and never learn how the cases go and it’s better not knowing, because I don’t want to quit. 

There is a string of suffering that connects the world. From my cat’s death to the shelter animals to migrants… and by the way, climate change. 

I write affidavits to make some lawyer somewhere sad enough for mercy. A single email about 113 dogs was enough to set me off in a spiral. When I read it, I laid on the couch with my hand on my forehead and stared at the ceiling and complained to Seth about all the world’s suffering. 

On the other hand: I was on a couch. I was safe and healthy and happy. I had a Seth to talk me out of it. With the right glasses, the world can seem pretty great. How amazing is it that we get the opportunity to care for others? I think it’s humanity’s greatest invention. The will to care for life beyond your immediate family. On a scale of zero to effective in alleviating suffering, Sarah McLaughin’s TV ad falls pretty low on the scale. So does adopting one or 113 dogs. But if a story can break through my own comfortable existence to make me cry for a dog I don’t know, what else can a story do? 

I have a story I tell of my own life. Step one: ease my own suffering. Step two: help others. Step one takes a lot of work. Adopting 113 dogs and spiraling into couch sadness will not do. I don’t want to quit step two. 


PS: I’ve a new set of poems published in a local lit mag called Movable Type. These two poems are disconnected from each other. But the entire theme of this issue is “Connection,” so maybe they actually are connected. Just know that they are about two entirely different settings and characters. One is called “Fight before a Flight,” the other is “The Last to Leave.” Read them here.

They say don’t go to the beach in winter

But we tried to prove them wrong. And we spent about an hour on the beach before we froze. 

We tried to play pickleball. The wind grabbed the ball with icy hands and threw it into the sea. The waves brought it back. We put away the pickleball. 

Inside we lit up a gas fireplace. You flick a switch, wait a minute, and flames appear from translucent green rocks behind a glass wall. If you sit really close, you can feel something. 

The first thing I do when I wake up is put an ice cube on my eyes. I rub it over the lids, below the brow, over the cheek bones. It makes my face wake up. Then comes the coffee. It makes my mouth wake up. Then, the words. 

My day job is to keep the planet from warming up. “Make Winter Cold Again.” Friday was the coldest DC day in three years. 

We went to the beach in winter for a birthday. Seth’s thirtieth. The Big One. The nice thing about him having a birthday during the worst time of year is being forced to Go Out and Do Things, when all you want to do is sit by the windows and mourn your lost cat. We got her ashes back two weeks after we gave her away in a cardboard box. It was only supposed to take one week. I called every day after and they told me she was still in “processing.” 

We gave up on the beach and went inside. There was a pool with a basketball hoop. Pool basketball is like regular basketball but super slow motion. And there’s no dribbling. You hold that little ball with all your might. And you run through the water like you’d run on the moon. Long, elegant leaps. You float between each one. 

I got Ellie back in cherry wooden box inside a brown paper bag. Also in the bag was a poem about finding her one day ‘beyond the rainbow’ or something stupid like that. 

She’s cuddled me through all my heartbreaks, every single one, except this. And through the milestones too. Becoming a real human adult. Now I’m thirty-one and Seth is thirty, trying to catch up. I spent all day cooking a big birthday meal, stressing over the bread that didn’t get stale enough to crumb, the missing cheese grater, the cake that crumbled when it came out of the pan, and the fact that no matter how hard I worked on this meal, he’d be just as happy with a DiGiorno. That I chose this. 

We went to the beach but spent hours inside. Talking, talking, and talking about life. Then we went back outside and couldn’t talk any more. The wind pushed the sand sideways and waves crashed over our voices. Our cheeks stiffened with cold. It rained, then it stopped raining. The sun poked a hole in the clouds. We thought we were prepared for the cold. We weren’t. But we chose this. 



The Lifecycle of Snowmicron

In DC, every snowstorm has a name. “Snowzilla.” “Snowpocalypse.” “Snowmageddon.” When it snows in DC, the world stops. The government stops. The buses stop. My breath stops. The anticipation has long been blown out of our systems. We’ve lost all sense of expectation. It doesn’t snow: suddenly, snow is.

Suddenly, eight inches of winter coats every parked car, with windshield wipers sticking up like whiskers.

Suddenly, hundreds of people are in the park, trying unsuccessfully to turn fluff into men.

Suddenly, dogs in booties flail their legs as they find one another and the ball that disappeared.

Suddenly, I’m leaning over a ledge, tossing snowballs onto a frozen pool, watching a few of them crack it open and a few of them obliterate, letting strangers join me in this new game, a new way to ‘break the ice’.

Suddenly, I’m stomping on storm drains, letting thin icy layers crash into trickles.

And suddenly, I’m eleven years old, in the Wisconsin forest behind my friend’s house, in snow boots that don’t fear brooks and streams, frozen over but running underneath, waiting to be crunched. I’m finding a walking stick that’s good enough for a wizard — no, a bigger stick, over there. There are no trails except the ones we make by trampling saplings and snow. It’s after a hockey game where she scored two goals and I celebrated each time I touched the puck, and although our legs are tired, they need to keep going.

I’m back in DC, treading carefully over frozen streets. My feet relearn how to find stable ground, a bit of mud, anything that can catch a rubber sole.

Then I’m pulled back several years, running alongside a river, on a path covered in snow hiding the thick layer of ice beneath it, and my foot slips, and my chin catches the ground and splits. The snow turns red. The cut is deep. I’m nowhere, walking four dripping miles to the emergency room to be stitched.

It’s sunny in DC, snow stacked on rooftops, and a wind blows, and the snow flutters sideways like crystals.

Then I’m feeling the flush excitement of high school trips to the mountain, with frozen-peanut-butter-jelly stomachs, rigid snowboarding boots that shuck your shin forward, spraining my wrist and my elbow, falling on my ass, giving up on getting up, just lying there on the soft ground, watching snow flutter off trees as snowboarders scrape by beside me.

My life was once bookended by snow. Five months of the year — the beginning and the end — were wrapped in white. Now snow is rare, and getting rarer. But each time it’s transportive. My memories are encased in ice.

I’m grappling with the fact that I might live a very long time, which is almost as scary as dying, because to do with all these hours? “Snowmicron” made the world temporarily stop, which gave us the gift of time, which, when you’re not careful, can be terrifying. I love empty mornings (open, potential-filled) but hate empty nights (tired, bleak). Sometimes it’s good to confront this emptiness and see what you can fill it with.

So I’m trying to remember things about my past. What parts of my youth I want to bring back. For a long time, I’ve put them away. When I moved to New York for college, I left my cello at home, along with my then-favorite cat, my Jewish faith, my stereo system. I’m trying to feel out the cycle of my life. What it meant to be a child who made no life decisions. What decisions I can make now. Sometimes I fail to remember; sometimes the memories come unbidden and it’s my job to grab and study them.

Memories aren’t truly preserved. They’re never accurate. They’re recreated each time. They melt and refreeze and melt and refreeze and are forgotten and remembered and forgotten once more. But the feeling — sometimes there’s a feeling, like the water molecules that fill the shape of whatever glass holds them — the feeling stays true. It feels so strong, and you don’t know what it is, but it has something to do with the first time you crack a pond with your boot, or lie on the couch feeling dizzy.

I’d like to discover something new, or something old and true. For now I’ll go outside and lie down in the snow.


Publication alert: My first poem has been published in a lovely local newsletter called 730DC. (If you live in DC, you should subscribe.) The poem is about libraries. Click here to read: Apology to the DC Public Library System.