Doggednessby Robin Sierra
Published in Science of Mind, 1999
My first glimpse of the volcano was from out at sea, orange glowing against the black night sky, the shore of the ocean on fire. The following day I went to where Kilauea met the ocean. Fire spilled into water, together hissing and churning while white clouds of steam boiled into the air.
Kilauea is a volcano on the island of Hawaii that has been steadily erupting for the past thirteen years. The lava moves so slowly that I was able to stand right at its leading edge, as close as the intense heat would allow. This creeping pace is deceptive. Nothing stands in its way, not stop signs, not trees, not whole towns. During one siege when the lava was threatening to destroy homes, the U.S. Army tried to divert it, with dubious success, by dropping 600 pound bombs in its path. Diversion is the best they can do. Nothing stops the lava from reaching its destination.
I was impressed. I wanted to be like that, unstoppable.
This memory came to me last year while I was in the midst of an exciting yet disturbing upheaval. After being a painter for twenty-five years, I had changed my course. I began writing, a task that called for a linear way of thinking which was much more difficult for me than the spatial, nonverbal approach that painting required. I was unpracticed at this newer mode, but instead of taking that into account, I let a harping voice in my head bully me into believing that this transition was just too hard and I should give up. I wanted to crawl back into the womb-like familiarity of my art.
The family couch in the house where I grew up had cushions that were squashed flat by the weight of my father’s despair. After twenty years of being an accountant, he was craving change, and was not only terrified of making that change, but could not imagine an alternative to sitting day after day tallying numbers. Instead, he lay down for days that turned into years. There were times when I would peer into his darkened bedroom, afraid that he might not even be breathing. Once, in my desperation, I went into that room, grabbed his arm and tried to pull him out of bed.
In addition to leaving a lasting indentation on the couch, his experience left a big dent in my psyche. Through his depression, I learned that when life gets difficult, the preferred response is to lie down and give up. It has been a lifetime’s work for me to break that spell. And here at a crossroads, at the critical point of leaving the familiarity of my painting for the unknown terrain of writing, I too wanted to quit.
One day in the midst of this struggle, a little white dog showed up at my back door, nestled under the mesquite tree, and lay there all day. She was scraggly, with sores on her nose, cactus spines in her fur and ribs like xylophones protruding through her dull and worn coat. After weeks of these daily visits, I couldn’t bear seeing her out in the 110 degree Sonoran desert heat, so I let her inside.
That afternoon, I happened to be reading about Kilauea. According to Hawaiian legend, there is a goddess, Pele, who resides in the volcano, and who appears to mortals in one of three forms: a beautiful young chiefess, an elderly woman, or a little white dog!
I did some investigating in the neighborhood, and found out that the dog’s name was “Snowy”. She was never allowed in the house, slept on the concrete patio, and usually escaped from her yard within minutes after everyone in the family took off for work and school. Since my partner and I both work at home, Snowy apparently preferred staying at our house, where she would have some company. And although her owners went to great lengths to restrain her, Snowy continued her visits, undaunted.
She tunneled out under their fence, so they chained her to a tree. But after yowling all night, she broke her leather collar and sprang free. One day, when I took her back to her home, I let her in the gate and watched as she lept up and scaled the seven foot slatted wood fence. She was poised on the narrow ledge like a tightrope walker, looking for a place to jump down where she wouldn’t land on the ubiquitous and spiny prickly pear.
They brought home another dog, thinking that companionship might be the key to keeping her home. Snowy wanted no part of this intruder, and continued her breakouts. Then they tied an empty plastic gallon milk bottle to her collar, which was intended to keep her from crawling under the fence. One day, I came home from a walk and heard a strange sound. I had accidentally left the front door ajar, and Snowy was clattering around my house, milk bottle trailing behind her, and banging against the clay tile floor. The neighbor’s final attempt to confine her was a harness, a contraption of half a dozen black nylon straps and buckles that looked like some medieval torture device and was designed to restrict her movement, to keep her from jumping. But this wraith-like Houdini did it again, appearing in our living room, straps flying, tail wagging. I was impressed.We eventually worked out an agreement with the neighbors. When the youngest son would leave for school in the morning, he would drop Snowy off at our house and then pick her up in the evening. But after a month of that, I couldn’t bear to send her back there again. Finally, I asked if I could have her.
Snowy now lives with us. We feed her millet and hamburger, vitamins and flax seed oil. She is loved and fawned over day and night, given daily walks in the wilderness, and has full reign of the house with at least eight soft places to sleep. She has gained weight and instead of being scraggly and anxious, she is content and beautiful.
The day I took snowy back to her own yard, once behind the gate, she became frantic, and in that desperation she lept over the fence. Desperation is part of creativity. It is so difficult for us to change, to break out of old patterns that sometimes desperation is an ally. We get to a point where we can no longer tolerate our condition, and instead of giving up, we leap, and as The Sufi mystic Kabir said “The intensity of the longing does all the work.” Snowy longed to be free and I too long to be free of the fear that keeps me from following my creative spirit.
It has become clear to me why this dog is in my life. Like the volcano, she is the essence of determination, and by her example she has shown me that I can also conjure up a fierce tenacity when I have my heart set on something, even when it seems insurmountable. My father, in fact, reminded me that as a child, I was similarly dogged, “like a bulldog” that wouldn’t let go until I got what I wanted.
Not that I don’t encounter resistance. I find that regardless of how much progress I made the previous day, I face a fence that seems to have been resurrected overnight by some malevolent elves. A fence constructed of “I can’t do it, I’m not good enough, give up, lie down.” But I often think of Snowy and how she would still be stuck in that backyard if not for her persistence. And in my own desperation to break free, I pull myself up to my writing desk and leap over, one word at a time.
Our Beloved Snowy
died on May 2, 1999
“She came and for a little while
was like a dream of spring,
And then, as morning clouds that vanish traceless,
she was gone.”
We will miss her and love her forever.