Walking the Dog Is the Only Time I Feel Sane

This morning I walked the dog. I didn’t sleep much last night (who’s sleeping?) and at 2 a.m. was on the couch texting with a friend about earthquakes and World War II and our sudden mutual alienation from our regular lives that seem, in retrospect, almost silly in their prettiness, but then 8 a.m. rolled around and the dog needed to go out. And now, having walked her, I understand a little bit better the reason for dogs. At least three times a day, our dog requires that we behave (ostensibly for her good, but really for our own) in ways that are normal, familiar, reasonable, and sane.

Our dog, a rescue, came to us from Texas in an 18-wheeler tricked out as a kennel on the weekend of Hurricane Sandy — the last moment in recent history that New Yorkers felt so united in vulnerability. As the storm clouds gathered on the Sunday before the storm, our new dog disembarked in a parking lot in North Jersey, skinny, not yet a year old, and shivering with fear as a man handed us the business end of a red leash. “Thank you for saving this dog’s life,” he said, and for some reason I wept. I’m not sentimental about animals, or hadn’t thought I was, anyway. She is part hound, part shepherd — “with eyebrows,” my husband likes to say, by which he means light-brown markings above her eyes that make her look extra intelligent, which she is. The storm hit exactly 24 hours after we brought her home; tree branches whipped at our windows and crashed into the street. In the midst of it all, my husband took her out to pee and the cops stopped him and ordered him indoors. But what are you supposed to do in a disaster with a dog?, we wondered at the time. She had to go out, so we took her.

The dog seems to understand that we saved her life, and her posture toward us is one of unqualified gratitude. She’s eager to please; she likes to hang out; she’s good with whatever, pretty much, as long as she gets her two squares a day and the chance to go outside. Like me, though, she prefers to do things on a strict and predictable schedule, so this morning after not having slept much, after having awoken and spoken with my husband first about the loss of our savings and then about the necessity of remaining productive and forward looking and maintaining our good humor, after drinking some stale coffee because we’re suddenly worried about squandering food, I put on my dog-walking clothes and went outside.

And it was like a miracle, like a doorway to “before.” For an hour, everything felt exactly the same. Exactly. The dog needed to go out. It was my turn to take her out. I took her at 8 a.m., the time I usually take her, and we walked together down our beautiful block, the front yards lit with gas lamps and planted with trees just beginning to flower, a block I am grateful for even when reasons to be grateful are more abundant than they are now. We went to the park where we usually go and bumped into the same people we usually see. The handsome real-estate broker gave the dog a treat, as he always does, and then he did the thing where he shows her the two empty palms of his hands and says “No more!” and the dog lopes away. (It’s a game they play. She has to ask. He has to say no.) I saw my friend Helen, who twinkles even when the news is dire. I looked for my friend Joy; she has two dogs. I wondered whether the man in the orange jacket was Nick; it just was a man wearing a jacket like Nick’s, but even that comforted me. I knew I’d see Nick and Theresa in the park soon enough, and we’d talk about the stuff that people talk about: our kids, what we’re reading and watching, how much we hate the president. Six feet apart is pretty normal with dog people, who are always half paying attention to the conversation and to their dogs, or wandering off mid-sentence in search of their dog or the shit the dog just took somewhere in a distant patch of grass. Dog-park intimacy is already conditional. We know not to expect too much.

The feeling of normalcy the dog walk gave me was so intense it was like a fantasy of an old routine. While in the park, I could pretend that what was happening in my apartment — the rearranging of furniture to make more work spaces, the teenager sleeping in on a weekday, the cooler of vegetables out on the fire escape — wasn’t happening. The dog took her shit, and I picked it up with one of the plastic bags I usually keep in my pocket, and I dumped the whole mess in a garbage can and noted that the can was empty, meaning that the garbage service in the park was functioning, and also noticed that workers in trucks were doing maintenance on the baseball fields and shrubs were being pruned. Other people out with their dogs said hi, and smiled, and it all felt very busy and regular, like the park on any other day, just that I was a little more awakened to what was beautiful about it.

It’s hard to remember that we ever resisted getting a dog, but we did. About three days before we got her, when the truck ride from Texas was already booked and the spaying paid for, my husband came up to me in the kitchen and said, “I don’t think we’re ready for a dog,” and I said something like, “It’s too late for that, buster,” although privately I worried the same. We were well into our adulthood when we arranged to adopt her, already parents and co-signatories on a hefty mortgage, but we were also people who liked our freedoms, even if they were, at that point in our lives, mostly imaginary. We liked to think we could go out on a whim and hear music or to parties or take last-minute trips when airfares dropped, though we rarely did. (That whole mind-set is obliterated now, the luxury of knowing you could attend a party or a movie and choosing not to, the desire to be invited stronger than the desire to actually go. How rarefied that selectivity seems now, when friends are texting me links that advertise such “activities” as a virtual dance party with Debbie Allen and in my distress I consider them carefully as a plausible option.)

Somehow the constraints that came with the dog stabilized us, and with that stability came something like happiness. Even before the current pandemic, when our lives together as a family were stressed and time-constrained by too many things — work, school, jiujitsu, spin, yoga, doctor appointments, play rehearsal — the dog gave the whole business of being a family a kind of superstructure, a framework upon which everything else hung. Her existence in our lives clarified our priorities in the simplest way: If we don’t walk her, we will have dog shit in our apartment, which none of us wants. And so, we all divided up the dog chores with little conflict. I walked her in the morning for an hour. Our daughter walked her after school. And my husband walked her before bed. And if one of us could not perform our function, the superstructure wobbled. Neighbors or dog walkers had to be called in, or plans had to be altered or canceled. Ours is an extremely good dog, as I mentioned, so it was important to us that we hold up our end.

Now it seems she’s doing more than her part. Order is what we need now, with our endless days and more endless nights, with our denial and our yearning and the knowledge that what we’ve already lost is incalculable and that we can’t even begin to quantify it. In a superficial way, the dog represents a stupid chore that simply needs to be done, that can’t be deferred out of anxiety or overwhelm. But in doing the chore, I get so much — sunlight and daylight and springtime and also the recognition of my own loneliness and fear in the faces of my neighbors. We are not built to live on Zoom.

Our dog gets this; she loves her people. And she has anxiety, mostly about whether the people she loves are together, in one place and within her herding radius. So she doesn’t like it when the doorbell rings, or when strangers come over because she likes to be clear about who’s in her pack. Even when one of us walks into the apartment she barks and barks, mixing her happy, waggy greeting with alarm. She hates it when one of us brings a suitcase out from under the bed, because it makes her wonder whether she’ll be coming with or left behind (the latter scenario her worst nightmare). But what’s beautiful about her — what’s beautiful about all pets — is that her anxiety is almost entirely present tense. She can’t imagine what I was imagining in the middle of the night. She’s content to be in isolation, as long as the isolation includes us.