My Furry Teacher

When we found my teacher, we almost left her behind.  This was in Central City New Orleans, before gentrification back in 2002, where the best offering we could find for her was a dusty can of Vienna sausages from the corner store.  My guru was a wild creature then, a dog who wouldn’t eat from a hand, but slowly crept up on each bit of maroon meat we set on the sidewalk.  However, her red coat was smooth, without mange, and she had no scars; she hadn’t been wild for long. 

“That somebody’s dog,” a passerby remarked. 

“There’s no collar,” I said.  Regardless, the way the dog jerked back from us suggested that she’d had a home, and a good reason to leave it.  I had just been telling my friend Linda how I was ready for a dog, having finished mourning a giant Maine Coon cat named Stubb, and then Linda spotted this street hound.  However, several cans of sausages and over an hour later, we’d gotten closer but still couldn’t touch her.  Dark was descending into the empty lots and the nearby projects, marking the time for us two white ladies to leave. We’d gone there for an alternative book festival at the Zeitgeist, an alternative arts space and the only reason for us to be in Central City.  

Walking to the car, Linda suggested that we go back and try one final time.  We circled back to Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard where the dog remained, sniffing the pavement for more sausage.  Bravely, Linda scooped the dog up, and with a small yelp, the dog had a new home.  Trapped in the car, the dog warmed up more quickly, allowing me to feed her from my hand. 

Linda and I had met in a graduate program for fiction writing, so the next task at hand was naming the dog.  My first impulse was to name her Lucky, but was promptly scolded.  “That’s a kindergartener’s name!” said Linda.  And we, of course, were writers. 

“Why not Haley?,” Linda said.  “Or—“eyes twinkling, “Oretha?” 

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Feeling no need to commemorate the grubby street which produced the dog, I continued musing. Soon the proper literary reference revealed itself: Maggie, Girl of the Streets, the Stephen Crane novel that had furnished American letters with the “hooker with the heart of gold” archetype.  “Maggie” had the added charm of being a nickname for Magnolia, the southern tree that bewitched northerners like me with its white blossoms, each as large as an outstretched hand, that bloom when May’s tropical humidity descends.  Magnolia, the giver of unexpected gifts during an oppressive time.

  Tuckered out from exploring

  Tuckered out from exploring

Being a writer, spelling mattered to me, and after observing the creature poking her puppy snout into my sofa cushions, under the bed, behind the toilet, and then disappearing into the closet so only the tips of her floppy ears remained, I decided on Maggy.  The unexpected y, in adding a third leg to her name, made it somehow sillier. 

The onlooker was right in that Maggy had been someone’s dog.  She came housetrained, blessedly.  I’d never had my own dog and had enough to learn without that messy task.  The vet confirmed that the dog was in good shape, with only a few fleas and some easily-treatable worms as souvenirs from the street, and was about 10 months old.  I found it hard to believe that she wouldn’t grow out of her adorable puppy face, eyes marked as with liner, but she never did. 

I had also been right in assessing that Maggy had been smart to leave her first home.  She was tentative with strangers, especially men, who caused her to cower behind me.  No doubt she had some pit bull as part of her mix, and it seemed likely that her first owner wasn’t invested in being kind to dogs.  We’d thought she would be a docile dog like Boudreaux, the mutt Linda rescued from the swampy shore of Lake Martin. 

Maggy proved us wrong.  As she learned that I would scratch her belly and stroke her ears instead of whipping or burning her, she relaxed and grew bold.  Her pit-bull nature made her fiercely loyal to me, a woman living alone, and enough pit-bull showed that dog-fearing strangers kept their distance when she walked.  “Nice dog,” the brothers would say as they stepped aside. 

Trying on a wolf identity

Trying on a wolf identity

As to whatever other breeds were in the mix, your guess is as good as mine.  Maggy had a labrador’s love of the water and of the chase; she had a husky’s brush tail and spots under the tongue; she had a Rhodesian ridgeback’s coloring.  I focused on the latter, even though Maggy had neither the ridgeback’s height or telltale ridge.  She was simply a “New Orleans red dog,” but I still imagined her ancestors hunting lions on the African savannah.  

Instead, Maggy hunted squirrels in City Park under the towering live oaks and iconic Spanish moss.  I let her off-leash to enjoy that vast playground, and she chased every one of those squirrels in that park.  My dog friends told me that I needed to create a “psychological leash” which included training Maggy to come when I called.  Unfortunately, I was completely uncompelling, compared to a treed squirrel.  Maggy ignored my calls.  I had to stop acting a human and become the Alpha Dog.  When Maggy became fixated on a tree, whining and scratching the live-oak bark in hopes of scrambling up after a squirrel, I bellowed a low “Noooooo” and I ran towards her.  At the tree, I pushed her to the ground, pinned her down, and continued growling “Nooo”. 

It was good therapy.  I suffered from depression, despite the counseling and the medicine and the support group for people dealing with sexual trauma.  At age 28, I felt as if I should have had my life together, but instead of writing creatively, I was an office drone who got wasted on the weekends.  Learning to be Alpha had its rewards beyond training Maggy to come when called. 

In my efforts to heal myself, I dabbled at yoga and meditation but struggled to establish any sort of regular practice.  I was learning Ashtanga yoga and could practice it at home, but its intensity – over an hour of pushups, jump-throughs and contortions – overwhelmed me.  I lacked the drive to practice daily, even though the practice itself was supposed to give me drive. 

Enter Maggy, who had more drive than any critter or human in the City that Care Forgot.  Every morning she leapt onto my bed and nosed through the covers until she found my face.  She licked me with her rough tongue until I surrendered to her dog-food breath.  At least she wasn’t one of those ambitious northern dogs who awake at dawn—not even dogs get up early in New Orleans—but by the time my feet touched the floor, Maggy was hopping and racing about, delirious with the twin urges to pee and to investigate the day’s adventure.  The practice of yoga may have been optional, but the practice of walking was not.  That goofball dog was thrilled by every walk we took around my block in Mid-City.  Head held high, tail curving up to the sky, Maggy strained at her halter, ready for the cavalcade of smells the world lay at her feet.  As she pulled me along, she stopped every few minutes to snuffle over some mysterious scent or tantalizing bit of trash, giving me a moment to observe the blooming flowers of my neighborhood, and the ancient trees, and wave at my neighbors.  She forced me to consider that perhaps the world outside was just as good as hiding in bed. 

My yoga practice grew more consistent.  I became stronger and more flexible, which helped with wrangling a 45-pound dog intent on smelling every spot on God’s green earth.  Maggy was likely part bulldog, or bull-dozer.  At any rate, she was indestructible.  I realized this the day she got out of my sight and was hit by a car going 35 mph.  Yelping and limping, Maggy freaked me out, and I drove her straight to the vet.  I paid $200 for an X-ray to tell me that she was a little bruised. The next day, Maggy gamboled about as if nothing had happened.

Besides being the enforcer of daily walking practice, Maggy also served as my unwitting meditation partner.  I took some classes at a local meditation center that taught the Buddhist practice of metta meditation.  The Pali word for lovingkindness, metta practice aims to develop loving feeling for oneself and others.  To begin, I was instructed to recall a being from whom one feels unconditional love.  Before I could consider any of the humans in my life, Maggy popped into my mind.  Wordless, daily companionship, inspiration and laughter, all the face licking and tail wagging.  Not to mention her velvety ears and the soft moan she made when I pet her belly.  Humans domesticated dogs because we needed to learn what love means.  I suppose dog-love has its conditions: would Maggy still love me if I ran out of dog food?  For my metta practice, I decided that she would.  Even if I ran dry, Maggy would have foraged for us both. 

Unconditional love, at your service!

Unconditional love, at your service!

Would Maggy have meant as much to me had I lived closer to my family, a thousand miles away, or if I’d had a partner, or more friends?  The first holiday we spent together, just the two of us, might provide a clue.  For Easter, I had no social engagements, so I took Maggy camping on Alabama coast.  When introduced to the ocean, Maggy ran at the waves, biting the small crests that came to shore.  She began a game of snap-and-chase, zig-zagging along the sand as she became friends with the tide.  She stopped to barf up seawater and then went back at it again. 

On Easter morning, I hid colored eggs in the dunes around our tent.  Sniffing out boiled eggs in sand was easy for my street hound, yet what came next exemplified Easter for me, if Easter is truly about the miraculous.  The impossible made as real and tangible as an empty tomb.  That dog, fingerless as any, with zero opposable thumbs, peeled her eggs as daintily as a debutante.  Snuggling down into the sand, she trapped the egg between her front paws, used her teeth to prise bits of dyed eggshell off the egg, spit them away, and continue until the egg was clean and ready to eat.  To this day, this remains one of the most amazing feats I’ve ever seen, rivaled only by her repeat performance with fallen nuts from a pecan tree.  As she peeled egg after egg that Easter morning, I hugged myself in my pajamas as I laughed and rolled in the sand.

Imagine an Easter egg in place of the stick.

Imagine an Easter egg in place of the stick.

We weren’t single girls for long.  A little more than a year into our time together, I met Bobby Baron, who had a male Catahoula hound named Pyro right around Maggy’s age. Even though Bobby and I met in a bar, we used our dogs as an excuse for our first real date, walking them in City Park.  A Southern gentleman from Cajun country, Bobby held both leashes. 

Maggy generally ignored other dogs.  When she and I had gone to the dog park, she would bring the tennis ball for me to throw, time and time again, completely ignoring the other dogs playing together.  But she and Pyro became buddies, and so did their owners.  Before long, all four of us were living in Bobby’s house, where he put in a doggy door so the dogs could let themselves out into our oak-shaded courtyard.  I learned that owning two dogs was easier than one, despite the extra dog hair.  We didn’t have to walk them so regularly—giving me more time for yoga—because Maggy and Pyro entertained each other, tussling and chasing endlessly. 

And digging.  And digging, and digging. 

And digging.  And digging, and digging. 

The dogs made a funny pair.  Pyro was larger, but incredibly skittish.  Maggy, never.  To illustrate: one day when I was unloading groceries in our kitchen with the dogs milling about, an empty brown bag fell to the floor.  Startled, Pyro jumped back from the offending object.  Maggy dove at it and stuck her head inside.  Bobby and I couldn’t help speaking for the duo in cartoonish voices.  Maggy’s was fast and squeaky, a chipmunk with a foul mouth.  Pyro’s, slow and deep, was a mentally-impaired version of Bullwinkle.  His tagline: “Gosh, do you think it’s safe?”  And Maggy’s response: “Fuck it, let’s eat it!” 

This is how people without children deal with holidays. 

This is how people without children deal with holidays. 

We took both dogs swimming in the bayou, camping in the Mississippi woods, and socializing at the Baron family gatherings in Lafayette.  Our first Thanksgiving together, I made Maggy and I matching scarves and we wore them for a family picture.  Bob turned it into our Christmas card with a frame made by scanning my grandmother’s sweater. 

As my relationship with Bobby progressed, we both showed our difficult sides.  He also suffered from depression, but whereas he tended to withdraw by going online for hours, I found myself lashing out angrily and then retreating.  At these times, you would never know that I practiced yoga.  Even though I could twist my body into amazing contortions, I still got sucked into the tumult of my emotions.  Instead of finding solace in meditation, I would find Maggy and curl up with her furry body, sobbing as I stroked her coat.  Maggy never judged me for being a shitty girlfriend.  She just lay back and let me love her without complications. 

That summer, I felt bad enough to try sobriety.  Oddly, I felt calmer and better.  About a month in, however, a storm headed for Florida turned towards New Orleans.  Bobby and I ignored the news at first, but when Mayor Nagin called a mandatory evacuation, we started packing.  We evacuated with the dogs, our three chickens, and my carless friend Julie and her cat.  The dogs and chickens rode with Bobby, and the cat and Julie came with me; all nine of us headed to Lafayette to meet more humans and animals and wait out the storm. 

It would be a long wait.  After a week in Lafayette, Bob, the dogs, and I drove up to Illinois to stay on my family’s farm.  (His mother was kind enough to tend to our chickens.)  Although we humans suffered immensely, our city dogs loved Katrina.  When we let the dogs loose on my parents’ rolling pastureland, Pyro asked in his dopey voice, he asked, “am I in heaven?”

“Hey, come taste this!” Maggy said, her snout stuck in a cow pie. 

In dog heaven

In dog heaven

As Pyro discovered a hidden talent for herding cattle and Maggy ravaged my dad’s burn pile, Bobby and I spent our days scanning the internet to guess whether or not our home was flooded.  Our Mid-City house was located in a flood zone, but the structure was elevated high enough that it might not have taken water.  Of course, there was no way of knowing if we’d been looted. 

The dogs and I wanted to stay away forever, but after six weeks, Bobby dragged us back home.  We returned to find that although Katrina devastated our city, my sobriety, and eventually, my relationship with Bobby, it left our house intact, and our belongings, safe.  

Because Katrina also took my job, I spent my days getting stoned and wrangling dogs.  Our fencing was down, so I walked the dogs twice a day and got quite familiar with the giant trash piles created by people gutting houses.  Again, the dogs embraced the new reality.  “Oh mama!” Maggy chirped, doing her best to suck up every mysterious bone and fetid wrapper in her path.  Everyone except the trash men were getting back to work, and the piles grew as high as the buildings they came from, and then higher.  More than ever before, we lived in a dirty city full of treasures that fit between the lips, and so much of it I pulled out of Maggy’s mouth.    

Both Maggy and I were deep into our addictions.  Even after Bob got the fence back up, Maggy wormed through the weak spots in the damaged slats to return to the trash bonanza.  And me, I was a depressed, addled mess – like everyone else in town – except for one bright spot:  yoga.  The only useful thing I did with my time, my practice inspired me to share yoga with others. Like Maggy, I would make the best of the situation.  Since no yoga studios were open, I began to teach yoga to my friends, a move that eventually inspired me to get trained and make yoga my career. 

Ready to parade

Ready to parade

Meanwhile, Carnival rolled that year, as inevitable as spring itself.  On the morning of Barkus, the Mardi Gras dog-walking parade that spoofed the huge Bacchus parade, I collected trash on my morning walk with Maggy, glued it onto two black contractor bags, and cut head holes at the ends. Voila - we had costumes!  As we paraded, Maggy happily sniffed the multilayered aroma of the French Quarter streets, and I waved back at the people smiling at my costume.  Some even came up to thank me and shake my hand.  God knows the trash vexed everyone, except the dogs. 

Finally the trash eaters get the representation they deserve.

Finally the trash eaters get the representation they deserve.

Maggy’s foraging became legendary.  At the end of the year, we moved out of Bobby’s house, giving me lots of opportunities to cry into Maggy’s fur, and we ended up at a place called the Compound.  Its six houses had a shared yard, but it lacked fencing, so during our yard time, I tried to keep an eye on my dog as she sniffed the grassy earth of her new home.  At the Compound, Maggy developed a new talent – determining exactly how long she could stay in my line of sight before I let my guard down and got absorbed doing something else, usually talking to one of my neighbors.  Then, she vanished.  

“That red dog gone again?”  Within a few weeks, all the porch-sitters from my house to the gas station knew us.  “She up at the Ideal.” 

And she was, almost always.  Three blocks away, the Ideal gas station served greasy fried-chicken in paper boats, and its denizens littered the parking lot with chicken bones.  Sometimes they just fed them directly to my dog.  One day as I walked up, I witnessed a guy tossing Maggy a chewed drumstick.  “Shit – she’s here!”  Maggy squeaked as she cracked that bone apart in record time, gobbling half of it down before I could wrestle the slimy remainder from her mouth.  But I couldn’t get that mad at the drumstick guy.  I knew Maggy was irresistible.   

Dog owners in the suburbs tend to believe that dogs can’t eat chicken bones, but Maggy smashed that myth.  My Cajun landlord called the Ideal Maggy’s “buffet,” pronouncing it “BOO-fay.”  The dog could digest anything short of rat poison.     

At the Compound, Maggy and I lived in “The Dungeon,” the ground floor of a house with a section of uninhabitable, unfinished rooms that occasionally flooded.  They were connected by a dim hallway that led to an industrial kitchen on one end, and our living area on the other.  In the mornings when we left our living area, Maggy sprinted down the hallway.  At first, I thought she was moved by her usual joie de vivre, but when I kept finding her in the kitchen, crouching and clawing under a low metal shelf, only her red rump and wagging tail visible, I had to admit that we had rats.  Instead of putting out poison, I put my food in jars and hoped that the terrier in  Maggy would keep the rats away. 

Why did I stay?  After Katrina, affordable rent was impossible to find.  The first place we moved after Bobby’s house was burglarized within a week.  We needed a new spot, quick, and after suffering heartbreak and a burglary, being surrounded by a new community of friendly neighbors outweighed a few rats.

Plus, we had such verdant gardens!

Plus, we had such verdant gardens!

I came to love my neighbors, who formed a sort of family for us.  I started teaching yoga at the Compound’s community center.  Maggy and I walked regularly with the Compound’s other dog-owner, Lauren and her pup Rose, tossing hundreds of balls to them.  We spent a lot of time in that yard, and yes, Maggy ran off more frequently.  One day, I could not find her.  She wasn’t at the Ideal, and I couldn’t find her, even when I expanded my search radius by driving.  I had to be somewhere else, so I reluctantly propped the kitchen door open with a brick and decided that Maggy could let herself in.  She did.  When I got home late that evening, she was in the kitchen.  Her whole body wiggled upon seeing me, realizing that she could now get out and get back home.  Since it worked once, I started leaving the door ajar more often, allowing both of us semi-feral girls to stay out late. 

The day came when I arrived home to find the hallway dotted with piles of watery shit and splotches of blood.  Horrified, I found Maggy limply lying on the floor.  Lifting her tail and finding the source of the blood, I got her into the car.  We had to drive to the emergency vet, because as any parent or pet owner can already intuit, this happened on the weekend.

“Probably rat poison,” the vet reported.  He was heavy-set, with a dark mustache. “Is there any at your house?”   

“No, no,” I replied, hoping to appear like a responsible pet owner. 

“Had she gotten loose?” 

My stomach tightened.  It didn’t seem like a good moment to explain our bohemian lifestyle to this man who worked weekends because of negligent parents like me.  “Maybe.” 

He was watching me closely.  “How?  Can she escape your yard?  Is there a hole in the fence?” 

“Sometimes she gets out,”  I mumbled down at the floor. 

“Well, you’re lucky this dog is alive,” the vet said.  “Fix your fence.” 

For a time, I kept Maggy on a tighter leash, and then it came time to leave the Dungeon.  Walking Maggy reminded me daily that there was always something more interesting farther down the road.  First we moved to a nicer house in the neighborhood, and then I decided to realize my dream of going to India to study yoga.  By this point, I was finally off anti-depressants and ready for a spiritual adventure. 

I returned Maggy to my parents’ doggy heaven so she could roam the pasture during my six-month absence.  When I returned and decided to move to Vermont, my parents agreed to keep Maggy until I got settled.  But by the time I was ready for Maggy to join me, she’d lived with them for over a year and my father had fallen in love.  “She’s our dog now,” he told me.

I could have insisted on taking her back, but I knew that Maggy had a better life with them.  My parents were better parents than me, and they gave her bits of leftover meat.  (I don't think Maggy ever really forgave me for becoming a vegetarian.)  Besides, I had learned too well from my teacher – I also wanted to have the ability to roam free.  So I left her at the farm, where she kept my elderly parents on their toes, providing Dad with the intellectual stimulation of how he could keep his burn pile safe from her probing teeth, and maintaining her wandering ways.  She was only one in my parents’ care who got escorted home in a police car.  Over the past seven years, Maggy and my parents grew old together, delighting in the simple pleasures of dozing and eating treats. 

Down on the farm

Down on the farm

Even indestructible Maggy had to slow down sometime, and as time passed, she even stopped chasing tennis balls.  The muzzle of her puppy face grew white.  On one of my more recent visits home, she didn’t hop up to greet me, but stay still on her dog bed.  Yet I knew she remembered who I was, because when I got down to pet her, she gave off that soft moan she saved for me. 

This past Christmas, Dad began to talk about “putting her down,” but she still had the energy to wander into the kitchen any time someone had food out, and when she sensed she was about to get fed, she even jumped and pranced about, nails clicking on the floor.  She’d only had a few accidents in the house, and those could have been attributed to the fact that she’d stopped barking and couldn’t convey her need to relieve herself.  Dad and I decided to reevaluate in February, when I would be back in the area for training session for my budding career as a Thai Yoga massage therapist.    

Was Maggy repaying me for abandoning her?  Or did she know that I couldn’t stand witnessing her euthanasia?  Most likely, she just couldn’t wait.  Because after I arrived in Illinois in February, only an hour before the training began, I got the call.  My mom reported that Maggy couldn’t get up off her bed.  Her legs were too weak to stand.  She’d stopped eating and drinking water the night before because she knew she couldn’t relieve herself.  It was time. 

Of course I wanted to go to her.  But I was over an hour away, without a car, and obligated to do a training which wouldn’t be offered again for months.  I’d already done the extensive preliminary work of studying and taking notes on 12 hours of online videos, and had received grant money for the training, but only if I showed up.  “It’s not worth giving up the $700,” my mom – always the practical one – said. 

So I am ashamed to say that was not with Maggy at the vet, at least not physically.  As I’ve gotten deeper into my yoga practice, I’ve learned that our presence expands beyond our bodies, that we can connect with others without being there.  On Saturday, February 10, 2018, I appeared to be sitting in a room listening how to palpate various muscles, but in reality, Maggy and I were together in a circle of light.  Later Mom told me that Maggy had been calm at the vet’s office, so I believe she felt me, too. 

In India, I’d gone to hear the Dalai Lama teach at his temple up in the mountains.  Much of the open-air temple was surrounded by swinging monkeys and chattering squirrels.  My Buddhist monk friend Tsering told me that simply being in the Dalai Lama’s presence would elevate these animals for their next life, perhaps giving them what the Buddhists call a “perfect human rebirth.”  (Even if we humans get frustrated by our humanity, the Buddhists see our minds as the vehicles to help us attain enlightenment.) 

Now, as I grieve my furry love, my happy little teacher, I ponder her rebirth.  The morning Maggy died, I had a vision of a whale.  A side view, like a drawing on an old  mariner’s map, with one open eye and a huge, toothy mouth.  Placid and vaguely smiling.  Certainly this life would be heavenly for Maggy, swimming all day with an open mouth, living in a constant state of feeding. 

The accomplishment of yoga is not performing contortions, or suspending the breath indefinitely, or even stopping the endless chatter of the mind.  These practices are a means to an end.  And the end comes when one’s heart has opened so wide that its warmth spreads to all beings everywhere, opened so fully that one cannot comprehend barriers between any souls anywhere, living or dead. 

And so it comforts me to think of Maggy being reborn as a human.  My gut seizes up with both grief and joy at the idea that another person has awakened one morning to realize her new infant is blessed with Maggy’s tremendous soul.  Yes, I feel the sour pang of loss.  I also feel the stunning, incredible awe at how life goes on, how the gifts given to us continue giving beyond us.  How the narrow little world of what we think we want can expand out to someone else who needs love so badly it makes her mouth taste sharp.  How one life can move to another, allowing that need for love to be filled by curling up with a tiny little soul who used to be covered by a body of fur.  

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