Penelope in Charge


I’m still taken away by the first weeks of a heavy teaching load this semester, so I thought I’d take a moment, then, to honor the day – Penelope‘s 14th birtday, on February 14th, Valentine’s Day.

If you don’t know Penelope, more’s the loss, but here’s a chance to get aquainted. I wrote about about her once before, almost three years ago, when Julia and I were on the road traveling the country. In honor of Penelope’s birthday, a rerun. From October 2009. It can’t all be about politics and the fate of the world, you know.


Penelope came with a house. We were renting from a friend and part of the deal was that if the friend rented to us, we had to take her dog. We already had Homer, a big lug of a part-Shepherd mutt, smart because obediently eager to please, but otherwise a very dopey beta. I didn’t really want Penelope. I’d convinced Julia to agree to a second dog – having two, I knew from experience, triples the reward – but I’ve preferred to raise them from puppyhood, and Penelope was already two. I was like a prospective parent wanting to produce his biologically own rather than adopt. But Julia wanted Penelope. We had, in fact, known her as a puppy. I agreed.


We changed Penelope’s name from the original because Homer needed his faithful companion, and as it turned out, his mother, his boss. They fell in love the moment they met, instantly play-fighting with each other as they still do nine years later, and as they do with no other dog.

You never know the extent of a creature’s capacity for love until you experience it. I include the human. It was true that Penelope was moody, as had been her former owner. She is inclined toward dark, enclosed, womb-like spaces. Once, in those early months, I lost her for hours before discovering her habit of retreating to the crawl space beneath the house. Otherwise, however, she did what dogs do among their humans. There was no reason to believe that she was not already ours. But one evening while Julia and I sat on the sofa watching television, Penelope did an extraordinary thing. In an act of exuberance as yet unseen, she suddenly leapt onto an arm of the sofa, then jumped onto the top of the backrest behind our heads, and proceeded to attack our heads. She licked us frantically all over our tops, moving in rapid fashion from Julia to me and back again, licking hair and flesh, and when we turned our heads up to her to see and grasp what was happening, lathered our faces with her tongue as if the precious supply of us might run out.Bound for Mobile

That was the day. Until then she had allowed us to care for her. What choice had she? But as of that night, she told us, she was fond of having us around. Homer loves the one he’s with who strokes him. If we hadn’t fixed him, he’d star in HBO’s canine Californication. But Penelope’s love is true, and it is for us.

Homer and Penelope are city dogs. Unlike other dogs we’ve had, before this past year these two had seen none of the country. This year, though, Homer and Penelope sniffed America and found it pungent and varied, worth a lifetime to nose around in. The fifty states, they now know, are states of aromatic intoxication.

We already knew that Penelope had a bent to hunt down critters. She’d ferret out mice from deep in the backyard vine. She’d leave at the backdoor for us to find a baby possum or two who hadn’t played their names well enough. Several months ago, though – that late along in our life with Pee (or PenelePerson, the names go on) – on the banks of the Mississippi, I was talking with a fellow traveler, and offered up my usual speculations on Penelope’s muttigree, including Akita. Oh, no, said the Missourian, who knew her dogs better than I, She’s Shiba Inu. Not all, but mostly. Check it out online.

And so I did. And so she is. The Shiba Inu is a Japanese dog, a smaller cousin of the Akita. It is one of the oldest breeds, genetically traceable to the third century BCE. Shiba’s are extremely smart and talkative – and they were bred to hunt small animals out of brush and shrubs. They have a driving attraction toward prey. This is Penelope.

Though Penelope is eleven and a half now, this year has made her three again. When we walk her in woodland, up hills, across gullies and dry creeks, passing over leaf, branch and all the detritus of forest floor, she is a wound spring unsprung. Slowing down at home, on the road now she is reborn. Nose to the ground, turning in an instant, heading this direction, heading that, picking up a scent, catching a new one, on a mission, always on a track to something, she is unstoppable. She runs deep into the woods after athe-nature-of-thingssquirrel, a rabbit, out of site, reappears, as I continue on my walk, somewhere along the way, finding the path back to me, but still seeking, running and seeking, her face alight with the pure pleasure of her being. Her being, in this moment, is to pursue, and that takes her to the next moment, after which there is nothing, only the now and the next, which is now again.

How to be in the now – I tried to write about it in “A Stone in Water.” In that poem, however, I considered the moment as stillness, as stasis, followed by the next unmoving moment. It was Zeno’s arrow, arrested in flight. Dog lovers know the Zen of Dog is different, maybe better. So tells us Mark Doty, in “Golden Retrievals.”


Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s — oh
joy — actually scared. Sniff the wind, then 
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you can never bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
– tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.


And so we press on through the trees, beside a lake, in direction of a meadow, Penelope ahead in flight, bounding, with her, all care away. Along the line of our march there is no regret, no aspiration beyond the apogee of the sun, no ambition thwarted but that of never to stop. When, some year not far off, she is gone from us – if not literally, then in bone and tissue, she will have left in stride, at every instant in the now and hunting the next, living, in the fullness and pleasure of what she was meant to be, the now of the next, in pursuit and in progress, aloft and alive.

Photography by Julia Dean

English 103 Syllabus

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