You’ve met Oscar before. He’s that cute little guy sitting there with me in my current Gravatar.
Here–just in case I change it again at some point and you read this long after I’ve written it.
He’s a sweet, gentle, quiet boy, and I guess he didn’t have the greatest of beginnings, because when I got him as a rescue six years ago, he had some pretty severe anxiety issues. He hasn’t ever really lost them, but being loved by people and socialised by Shemp helped a lot to make him internally relaxed and a little more “opened up.” Quirky for sure, but he’s my dog, so that’s probably a foregone conclusion, and basically he’s a good dog.
On the other hand, although there are people he likes, and other dogs he’s been friends with, in another sense he’s only ever deeply bonded with me and Shemp. We were pretty worried about how he was going to adjust (or not) to Shemp’s passing, but although he was clearly quite depressed for a while afterwards, with a few minor episodes he really behaved very well. Thing is, he doesn’t do well with changes in routine to begin with, and his canine support who enabled him to navigate them is no longer around.
Normally, Oscar doesn’t snuggle, but you can see how much he loves Shemp by how relaxed he is here.
When I stopped bringing him to work at my former church, Shemp was still around and he adjusted just fine. And by the time Shemp was gone, I had transitioned to my internship and he was used to me leaving at roughly the same time every morning and coming home at the same time every evening. Then we all (including Oscar) went on vacation, and then I worked as a short-term nanny to the small son of one of my Starbucks friends, on a similar schedule.
But last weekend, I went away for four days, for my first Spiritual Direction training retreat. Although he was clearly happy to see me when I returned, Oscar seemed his normal self, but the problem is, this week has been a continuation of “different.” My Paul’s workload has ballooned, and I am suddenly fully unemployed, waiting for my next internship to begin, and trying to find part-time work for income at the same time. (Or working on getting ready to launch my Nonprofit–which is legitimately in process.) This means that I’m home at weird hours, and because Paul is working late a lot, our usual evening routine (frequently involving a ride on the boat) hasn’t been happening either.
All of a sudden yesterday it was as if Oscar had mental break, and he has been incapable of letting me out of his sight. He follows me to the bathroom and lies down outside it against the door. He follows me up the stairs, where he isn’t allowed. He leans against my legs when I’m doing my hair or make-up in the morning. (Today I pointed the running hairdryer at him to see what he would do and he just sat there. He hates loud noises.) He gloms onto my hip when I’m sitting on the couch. It’s weird, and annoying, and a little concerning, because although it’s clear a metaphorical (metaphysical?) switch flipped inside him, I’m not sure how to flip it back.
This week, usually there’s not even this much separation between us.
Paul made the valid point that Shemp went away and never came back, and I just went away for a significant stretch, and so Oscar’s probably fearful that all his pack are deserting him. Honestly, I was just crying about Shemp again the other day myself, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Oscar’s still sustaining some significant grief himself. Our dramatic change in household routine has, I suspect, cemented that idea of potential loss of or abandonment by me in his little nervous doggie skull. So I’m giving him lots of hugs while still maintaining the house rules with him, but so far he does not seem convinced that all is well, and I’m not sure how to help him besides, frankly, to pray for him. Do you have any ideas?
They say death comes in threes, and my Paul and I have each lost an elderly family member in recent days, but neither of us would have predicted the third death would be our beloved dog, Shemp. His death managed to be somehow both sudden and prolonged, unexpected and agonizing, and I hope neither of us ever have to live through a week like last week again. We–and Oscar and Rosie–are trying to find a new normal. It’s only been a few days but still, normal is not coming easily. Sleep has been scarce, tears have been plentiful. Rather than dwell on that, however, I’d like to share the post my Paul wrote about the amazing dog who helped welcome Oscar and me into the Cottage when my Paul and I first met, and who barreled into our hearts forever.
Yesterday we said goodbye to our best friend and favorite stooge. Shemp was an exceptional dog, and a friend to all.
On the hiking trail Shemp was SuperDog from planet Krypton, with a red cape and an S on his chest, blasting through trees and brush, jumping stone walls, diving down hills, then wallowing in every mud puddle to cool down. He’d run back every so often to see what was taking us so long, or he’d stop at the forks in the trail and wait for us to catch up. Once he saw our direction he’d bolt off again, with a look over his shoulder that said “HA! I KNEW YOU WERE GOING THIS WAY!!”
Shemp was Eddie Haskell with a healthy dose of Beetlejuice, and no one got away without him sticking his nose in an inappropriate place. He was a rescue, and I traveled to get him. It was a long ride, and when we got home I rushed to the bathroom. I must not have shut the door, because as I was standing at the toilet answering nature’s call, I heard the sound of water pouring in stereo. I turned to see Shemp squatting behind me, because “this must be the place to go, right?” When he’d visit his cousins Zonka the Rottweiler and Frankie the bulldog/spaniel mix, they’d play until they were tired. He’d then gather every one of their bones and chew toys into a pile in the middle of the yard, and lie on them for a nap. Once on the trail I saw him up ahead rolling in something. Rolling was never good. I rushed up there to see him on his back, doing the Limbo inside the rib cage of a dead deer. I yelled at him to get out of there, and he came over with his head down and a sheepish look to tell me that I was looking lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver.
To Shemp everyone new, human, canine, or feline, was an old and dear friend that he just hadn’t met yet. He was the Mayor at the Independence Day parade, shaking hands and kissing babies. His attitude was “You have to love me, I’m ME!” Rosie the cat would let him lick the side of her head, and he was adored by his CockaPoo brother, Oscar. At the dog park he was Joe Cool, and he would gently greet all of the little dogs, then wade into the wrestling game with the big dogs and kick butt.
Shemp was Belushi in the Animal House scene where Bluto tries to cheer up Flounder after they wreck the Lincoln.
He didn’t just lean against you, he burrowed into you. His nicknames were “Hammer”, “Meat”, and Uncle John’s favorite, “Stinky Pete.” He was 80 lbs of muscle, a four legged bad breathed barrel chested beer keg who dreamed he was a lap dog. He single-mindedly pursued his ultimate goal of a never ending belly rub.
“If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” said Will Rogers, and Samuel Clemens reckoned that “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Dogs are some of God’s finest creations, full of fun and mischief and unconditional love. It seems impossible to me that our dogs aren’t waiting for us in the next life. When the day comes and I open my eyes in that world, I expect to see Shemp, his tail furiously doing its trademarked helicopter wag, probably to the point where his ass is lifting off the ground. Until then I will sorely and grievously miss him, and I will love him forever.
Here’s an even longer paper from last spring–a class on C.S. Lewis. I meant to post this yesterday, and forgot, but that’s okay, because this post contains memories, w‘s, family stories, and theology, and since it’s super-long, but I haven’t been posting much lately, you can just count it as all the rest of the posts for this month. You’re welcome.
Animals and the Theme of Creation in the Writings of C.S. Lewis
Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of HS 772 The Ancient Future Lewis
By Jennifer A. G. Layte
When I was a child we had a black cocker spaniel named Chocolate Chip. He was sweet and stupid, and maybe we were, too, because although we loved him dearly, we didn’t do it very well. Lots of accidental but horrific things happened to Chippy, some of which we couldn’t have prevented, but some of which we probably could. As it was, he didn’t live long. I wonder if he might have lived longer if my family had had a better theology of animals at the time. It wasn’t that we didn’t care—we just didn’t know. C.S. Lewis might have been able to give us some pointers, had we been paying attention to that sort of thing when we read The Chronicles of Narnia.
“And God saw everything that he had made,” said the writer of Genesis, “and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, ESV). Contrary to prevailing contemporary views that value is completely subjective, a value judgment was placed on creation as soon as it was brought into being, by the very One who made it. God’s speaking the cosmos into existence and declaring truth about it packed creation with meaning—derived from Him. When C. S. Lewis, a philosopher, a writer, and most of all a Christian, wrote worlds into being himself, he was “simply rearranging things that God has already made,” elements that had their own inherent meaning, communicated into them by God’s word. Lewis’ perspective about objective meaning and hierarchy within creation was informed by centuries of earlier Christians’ perspectives. This view gave him the freeing humility to fill his own works with meaning by exploring these inherent meanings by assertion or negation. One of the most powerful ways he disclosed the nature of creation in general, and humanity’s relationship to its Creator in particular, was through his written treatment of animals.
The Noble Beast
Lewis’ view of our relationship to animals is well-nigh sacramental, according to Armstrong’s definition: “Sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world.” Like Francis of Assisi before, him, C.S. Lewis saw the significance of animals in creation as yet one more vehicle through which to “[experience], and [act] extravagantly upon, an overwhelming passion for the person of Jesus.”
In Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength, Mr. Bultitude the bear and the animals at Belbury are probably the most “realistic” animals in all of Lewis’ fiction. Mr. Bultitude’s described impressions and experiences are decidedly fuzzy, only human insofar as Lewis has to employ words to communicate them to us at all. Nevertheless, the animals in the story gain a sort of nobility beyond that of the pitied abused (at Belbury) or even the beloved pet. “Mr. Bultitude is the last of the Seven Bears of Logres and the hero of the novel, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis,” proclaims Mr. Bultitude’s Facebook page (only 18 likes), accessed on May 21, 2014. “Mr. Bultitude enjoys eating honey and saving the world.” Such an assertion may be an overstatement, but in Lewis’ tales, even a bearlike bear does indeed have heroic qualities.
The previous two books in The Cosmic Trilogy, of which That Hideous Strength makes the third, contain other sorts of animals—extraterrestrial ones. Perelandra, the book at the center, shows an idyllic, unfallen world in peril, with animals in relationship to the “humans” of Venus (Perelandra) the way Lewis imagines humans and animals related in Paradise:
“The beasts raced forward to greet her . . . She turned as they approached her and welcomed them, and once again the picture was half like many earthly scenes but in its total effect unlike them all. It was not really like a woman making much of a horse, nor yet a child playing with a puppy. There was in her face an authority, in her caresses a condescension, which by taking seriously the inferiority of her adorers made them somehow less inferior . . . “
On Mars (Malacandra) in the very first book of the Trilogy, “dumb animals” exist, but are overshadowed by other animal-like beings which are anything but mute or senseless. For that planet, Lewis imagines hnau, non-human beings who seem to be on the same tier of the hierarchy as humanity. Malacandra has three sorts of hnau, the hrossa, the seroni, and the pfiffiltriggi. Each type is distinct from the other, but each is rational and is able to interact across species and with the supernatural eldila who also more or less inhabit the planet. It is still difficult to imagine these hnau as being other than animals, however. Lewis seems to have anticipated that when he describes the hero Ransom’s impressions:
“It was only many days later that Ransom discovered how to deal with these sudden losses of confidence. They arose when the rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man. Then it became abominable . . . But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have . . . and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason.”
While it is the Talking Animals of Narnia who are the most renowned examples of what Lewis is describing above, this paragraph from Out of the Silent Planet is, in fact, what really sums up Lewis’ approach to animal life in creation. Lewis does not intend even his most anthropomorphized beasts to be seen as human. However, it is telling that their significance is always relative to human beings. Lewis’ consistent insistence in almost all his writings is that the Incarnation—the entry of the Creator into His own creation as a human being—is “the central miracle asserted by Christians.” Therefore, although humans are not at the top of the hierarchy of creation as understood by the medievals and possibly by Lewis himself, they are uniquely honored in the created order. “Since our Beloved became a man,” says the Green Lady on Perelandra, “how should Reason in any world take on another form?” In other words, since the Word took on earthly, human flesh (John 1:14), He would not take on other. Thus Lewisian animals, in a lower rung of the hierarchy, are ennobled by their closeness or likeness to human beings. Conversely, however, the more Lewis’ human characters take on baser “animal instincts,” the less noble they become.
The Beastly Human
George MacDonald, one of Lewis’ ideological mentors, whose writings famously helped propel Lewis toward the Christian faith, once wrote a story about Curdie, a boy who was given the gift of being able to tell the nature of a person by holding or shaking a person’s hand.
“’Have you ever heard what some philosophers say—that men were all animals once?’” asks the princess in the story, who enabled Curdie’s new gift.
“’It is of no consequence. But there is another thing that is of the greatest consequence—this: that all men, if they do not take care, go down the hill to the animals’ country; that many men are actually, all their lives, going to be beasts. People knew it once, but it is long since they forgot it.’”
Later in the story, Curdie discovers this almost empirically, every time he has contact with another human being’s hand. He is able to feel, at the touch of the hand, whether that person really possesses a a paw, a hoof, or a claw. If the person is a sincere human being, like his mother, for example, he feels a true human hand “just like that of the princess.” It is difficult, after once encountering it, not to see this line of thinking at work in Lewis’ writing as well.
The most famous example in any of Lewis’ fiction of a person degenerating into a beast is, of course, when Eustace Scrubb, the odious cousin of the more heroic Pevensie siblings in the Narnia Chronicles, becomes a dragon. He has been progressively alienating himself from his cousins and the other people on the journey of which he finds himself unwittingly (and unwillingly) a part. After wandering off and taking a nap in a cave, he discovers,
“He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself . . . But the moment he thought this he realised that he . . . wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realized that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him.”
Fortunately for Eustace, there is still hope. He still has some vestiges of true human sensibility, and when he meets the lion Aslan, the Lord—and Redeemer (contrary to the statement in Perelandra about the Beloved not needing to take on other flesh)—of Narnia, Aslan “undragons” him. After that, Eustace, having been personally redeemed, becomes a much better human being indeed.
Eustace, however, is not the only character in the Narnia chronicles who is transformed into an animal, and not all of the characters who descend the created hierarchy are brought back. The haughty Prince Rabadash of Calormen, in The Horse and His Boy, is turned by Aslan into a donkey before a large crowd. His restoration is possible but conditional, and only conditionally permanent.
Another notable—and even less hopeful—example of this descent is seen in the story of Ginger the Cat. In The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, we first meet Ginger, as a Talking Animal. Talking Animals are really the chief inhabitants of Narnia. (If we were mixing Lewisian constructs across books, we could say that although, after Aslan, humans are always the true rulers of Narnia, Talking Animals are the chief hnau.) Ginger, however, does not appreciate his place even in an exalted animal hierarchy.
Ginger is clever, and arrogant and smug about it. Ginger thinks that because he is aware that the creature posing as Aslan in a stable is false that therefore Aslan and all supernatural beings are fables, and so when he encounters the demon god Tash in the stable, his status as a Talking Animal is downgraded in the shock.
‘“Look, look!’ said the voice of the Bear. ‘It can’t talk. It has forgotten how to talk! It has gone back to being a dumb beast. Look at its face.’
“Everyone saw that it was true. And then the greatest terror of all fell upon those Narnians. For every one of them had been taught—when it was only a chick or a puppy or a cub—how Aslan at the beginning of the world had turned the beasts of Narnia into Talking Beasts and warned them that if they weren’t good they might one day be turned back again and be like the poor witless animals one meets in other countries. ‘And now it is coming upon us,’ they moaned.”
Neither Lewis nor MacDonald appear to see a necessity of arguing for or against the idea that humans evolved from animals. It is interesting to note, however, that the evolutionary theory can actually augment their belief that when people either abdicate or overstep their place in the created order, they become less human, which both men seem to see as a reversion, and not simply a deterioration.
As a final example of Lewis’ understanding of the devolution of humans who reject God and His appointed role for them, we should take note of the self-appointed scientists, sociologists, and other diabolical “men of learning” at Belbury, the Hell-in-the-making of That Hideous Strength. It does not take long for the reader to realize that each one of the men and women of Belbury are already significantly subhuman when we meet them. Each one retains some characteristic of humanity which is totally out of balance and has become a caricature in the absence or corruption of any other human qualities. Among all the characters in any of Lewis’ books (save perhaps Weston, in Perelandra), these have most obviously attempted to usurp God’s role as sovereign over all creation. Not least among their sins is a menagerie of animals they have collected for vivisection. In Lewis’ fiction, the truly rebellious characters always exhibit a lack of respect for others and for the rest of creation, particularly the animal kingdom. The pinnacle—or nadir—of this conception is seen here.
None of these evil people in That Hideous Strength turn into literal brute animals as they might have if they were transported to Narnia. They are, however, overcome by the animals they have abused. It is in this context that Mr. Bultitude becomes unwittingly heroic, as part of the animal mass which ultimately finishes off Belbury. He is not, however, the animal that leads the charge or wreaks the most havoc. In fact, first of all, the human inmates of Belbury who think they have so much control, lose the ability to speak intelligibly, just like Ginger the Cat. It is only after this that the animals are let lose among them—by a man who has not lost his paradisical ability to communicate with them:
“Suddenly, the confusion of cries ran all together into one thin long-drawn noise of terror . . . Something had darted very quickly across the floor between the two long tables and disappeared under one of them. Those who had seen it clearly could not tell the others: they could only point and scream meaningless syllables. But Mark had recognized it. It was a tiger.”
The tiger is not the only animal that has its way with the humans at Belbury. More and more of the escaping menagerie descend on the nightmarish banquet, culminating in the arrival of an elephant, which tramples humans under its feet. This seems a not-so-coincidental reversal of that poem in praise to God and in wonder of humanity, Psalm 8, where King David says of man,
“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field . . . “ (Psalm 8:5-7).
This scene of the confounding of words (the vehicle of meaning since God created the cosmos) and the uprising of the animals is the most logical conclusion and effective illustration of Lewis’ views regarding the rejection of created meaning and order, and regarding humanity within that meaning and order. Conversely, his closing scenes in that same book, where the animals are reunited “each according to its kind” (Genesis 1:25), and where the humans are, too—almost like Adam and Eve in the Garden, but a restored Garden—is the logical conclusion and illustration of the fulfillment of the meaning God spoke into creation at the beginning of time.
Unleashed—The Theology of Animals in Life and Ministry
At the very least, the preceding observations provide an interesting study for the Christian animal lover. Lewis’ belief in “man’s lost prerogative to ennoble beasts” is clear after only a brief survey of his writings. At a minimum—or perhaps it is the maximum—this study has provided me with devotional material such that, even as I have been writing about the role of animals in God’s creation (and Lewis’ writing), the underlying thought in my head is a wondering, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). I suspect that was at least part of Lewis’ intention whenever animals entered his art.
However, this study also has implications beyond my devotional edification, for ministry in general and for the specific ministry in which I am personally involved. Vigilance is necessary to keep any sort of teaching or focus on animals in the church from turning into a twisted idolatry or sentimentality. Yet I believe some kind of teaching about creation in general, with a more specific focus on humans and animals and their relation to each other within that creation, could be an important corrective both to that sentimentality and directionless outrage that comes from animal rescue videos, and to the disregard for animal life as unimportant which can still be found in some pockets of society (deplorably, sometimes both in scientific and Evangelical communities). A truer appreciation within a Christian ministry context of the created role of animals may also help to diminish both animal abuse and the abuse of people. Contemporary wisdom states that harming an animal is frequently the first step on the trajectory toward harming a human. Not only does this seem plausible to me, but if Belbury is any indication, Lewis’ would agree.
Some churches have special services in which they bless the animals. I have never been to such an event, and I suspect its value differs from church to church. However, the fact that I have worked in churches at all corners of the theological grid and never have encountered such a service in person is only one indication that maybe the church at large today needs a stronger theology of animals. We would do well to inquire of Christians of past eras as Lewis did—perhaps of Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce, or even C.S. Lewis himself.
My own experience with animals, combined with this study of their role in Lewis’ writings, confirms my view that animals can be a vital part of ministry here and now. In 2009, I completed a regimen of radiation therapy for breast cancer, and was soon afterward also promoted to a full-time position at the church where I still work. The change in employment status enabled me to cease shift work at Starbucks, and so as something of a reward for all of these positive developments, as well as possibly a little penance for the ill-fated Chippy of my childhood, I adopted a timid little black cockapoo from a pet rescue organization. Because I was single at the time and still worked long hours, I sought and obtained permission from the church to bring him with me to work each day.
Not only did Oscar and I benefit each other, but he has become a source of pleasure and joy to the people who come into the church during the week, and to the children and youth with whom I work. He is still timid, but he is and always has been gentle with children, and has served to bring many a child more timid than himself into community with the rest of the youth group, camp, or Sunday school.
He also provides me with excellent object lessons, since I lack children of my own to use as illustrations. Yesterday a young woman I mentor was asking me about the Good Shepherd passage in John 10. She didn’t understand it. But she knows Oscar.
“Oscar,” I said, “is, as you know, really a one-person dog. He is absolutely, one hundred percent at all times in tune with where I am and what I am doing. He could appear to be passed out on the couch, but if I rustle a piece of paper, he perks his head up immediately to see if I’m going somewhere and if he can come, too.” I could have reminded her that at our summer camp, if I left the premises for half an hour and returned into the middle of a bustle of teens and said something, he would perk up his ears and come running. But I didn’t need to. She understood me and could fill in other illustrative details because she knows Oscar.
“Oscar knows my voice,” I said. “That’s the kind of thing Jesus the Good Shepherd wants from His sheep.” The young woman understood that, too.
I think Oscar’s relationship with me really is a picture of what Jesus wants of us humans. I think that kind of relationship between humans and animals is what Lewis thought was so important, precisely because it was meant to be a kind of mirror of our relationship with God. Like a reflection, a restored relationship with God engenders an improved relationship with His creation. Conversely, I think Lewis might have surmised that a genuinely restored relationship with creation had the potential to re-open a relationship with God, too.
Armstrong, Chris R. “Getting Earthy—Creation’s Glory and Sacredness.” Unpublished chapter, 2014.
Armstrong, Chris R. “Getting Passionate—Heart Religion.” Unpublished chapter, 2014.
Barkman, Adam. C.S. Lewis & Philosophy as a Way of Life. Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009.
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia, sig. ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
Lewis, C.S. The Cosmic Trilogy. comp. ed. London: The Bodley Head Ltd and Pan Books Ltd, 1989.
Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image, Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Lewis, C.S. Miracles, HarperCollins ed., New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
MacDonald, George. The Complete Works of George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess And Curdie, Lilith, Phantastes, Parables, Far Above Rubies and More (73 Books With Active Table of Contents). Kindle Edition, undated.
 Chris R. Armstrong, “Getting Earthy—Creation’s Glory and Sacredness” (unpublished chapter, 2014), 2.
 Adam Barkman, C.S. Lewis & Philosophy as a Way of Life (Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009), 513.
 George MacDonald, The Complete Works of George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess And Curdie, Lilith, Phantastes, Parables, Far Above Rubies and More (73 Books With Active Table of Contents), Kindle Edition, undated. loc. 239822-239827.
Since we’re all about series posts around here these days, here’s another set.
It’s a rainy Independence Day here in this corner of the USA, and we had a small cookout with my parents last night, so here at the Cottage, there isn’t much to distinguish today from a Saturday. This morning before the rain started, I spent a little time, as I do every Saturday, trying to create order out of the chaos inside the house, and Paul spent some time as he does pretty much every day, trying to create order from the chaos outside.
Every year, there are lots of projects, and lots of pests, and lots of plants that do really well, while lots of other plants don’t do so well. This year, though, it seems like there’s just more of all those things. More, and also . . . bigger? Our first year of marriage, we had some sort of blight on some of the vegetables, and leaf-cutter ants and chipmunks. Last year we had the ants and the chipmunks, but also these crows that got the biggest kick out of stabbing the tomatoes with their beaks, flinging them across the yard, and leaving them there. Oh, and the ducks. The neighbours have ducks. The ducks liked to come up from the pond into the yard, waddling and quacking and snapping the heads off the marigolds which we planted because they’re pretty but also to keep other pests out of the garden.
This year, along with all those other jokers, plus some medium-sized brown perching bird which may or may not be some sort of thrush and which may or may not be an asset, the rabbit that hung around all last year has actually been engaging in the garden raids (which for some reason it refrained from last year), such that we have no broccoli–even though we did, for a minute–and all the kale outside of containers has also completely disappeared. That rabbit likes his cruciferous vegetables, apparently.
He appears to like pallet fences less.
None of the animals seem to feel overly threatened by either Shemp or Oscar, although they might by Shemp if he were given freer run of the yard. On the other hand, the dogs seem to think that these are more of their own pet-siblings, who just happen to live outdoors. Maybe they outdoor animals think that, too. We should probably start naming them.
The bear is also back, but we stopped putting seeds in the bird feeder at the beginning of last season (which, by the way, still felt like the middle of the season before), so I, at least, haven’t seen her. Instead, the latest and most dramatic garden invasion has come from Mama Turtle.
My Paul’s pet garden project this summer has been experiments with the hugelkultur, an idea he’s been researching at Mother Earth News and Youtube.
Layers of composting goodness
Apparently Mama Turtle thinks this is a good experiment.
She, on the other hand, was not exactly a variable he was planning on.
My Paul didn’t really think there was room for both healthy squashes and a nest of snapping turtle eggs, so after three days of finding her digging up the plants at the same time every morning, and his scooping her out with a pitchfork, he got serious.
Phase 1 of “Serious.”
After that, I saw Mama Turtle down the street–at rather an impressive distance, really–in a neighbour’s yard, but she was sure to be disappointed. They don’t have a hugelkultur. In her absence, a smaller, prettier painted turtle showed up, but she missed the, er, slat of opportunity, I guess.
If you thought I had abandoned all Jenn stories completely the last few months, you obviously haven’t yet “liked” the That’s a Jenn Story Facebook page. Some of you are cleverly in the know already, but in the event you haven’t been to that page yet, and just so that you don’t feel you missed out on too much (because that would indeed be a shame!), I shall here post the highlights.
Actually, I’ve been sort of quiet there recently, too, to be honest. But it’s still much easier to write a sentence or two than set up a whole blog post, and Jenn stories do keep happening.
Over the winter I tried my hand at creating some memes.
Some were parodies of memes you might recognise . . . kind of . . .
The Most Important Woman in the World
I also made some original Oscars.
They’re always about food. All two of them. Somehow neither one has gone viral yet.
My Paul and I have also started this game we call #Overheard, where we pretend we’re going to post something that we further pretend we overheard, but which really one or the other of us says that sounds bizarre, and even more bizarre totally out of context.
“Mi driftwood es su driftwood.” #overheard
We keep waiting for someone to chime in with their own, or to figure out that we haven’t actually #overheard these things, but . . . now you know.
I’ve been thinking and writing and dreaming an awful lot about C.S. Lewis lately, on account of a class I was taking.
There has also been a strange new foray into fitness, and some beginnings of a new kind of Bible study. But those are other stories for another time. In the meantime, I’d be delighted for you to jump on over there and see what else has been happening. You are very welcome both here and there. Because mi Jenn story es su Jenn story. Or something like that.
Tomorrow is T-TAC (Third Time’s a Charmer)’s first birthday. I didn’t forget the birthday, but somehow (maybe because because I’ve given both TWCN and Smiley-Guy my most favourite kid-things for Christmases and birthdays for the last five years already) I forgot that it might behoove us to get him a present–until my Paul said, “What are we getting him?” and I realised that I had no idea, but I knew we hadn’t given him any books yet–which is quite unlike me.
This question instigated a flurry of emails between us and TheBro and Sister-in-Lu, and at one point Dr Seuss’ Green Eggs and Hamcame up in the discussion. (Paul brought it up, but it happens to be a particularly a propos book for me.) The BroFam already has that book, but my Paul decided to make an MP3 recording of himself reading it, so that maybe sometimes the kids could listen to him reading it to them even though we’re geographically so far away from each other. (There is a history of this kind of activity in my family, which I will describe some Memory Monday or other.) He emailed the MP3 to TheBro, and to Sister-in-Lu, and to me.
I was eating my lunch in my office at work, with Oscar staring longingly at me while I did so, when the MP3 arrived, and because it was lunchtime, I played it.
About at the point where Sam-I-Am is asking the unnamed irritated protagonist if he would like green eggs and ham in a box or with a fox, Shemp, at home in the background of the recording, shook himself and his collar jingled. Oscar sat right up.
I don’t know how one dog can tell another dog’s collar jingle, but I guess it’s possible, because Oscar, shy guy that he is, was definitely more engaged than, say, when RevCD brings her dog into the office. It seemed like identifying Shemp helped him realise the voice he was hearing was my Paul’s, as well. So Oscar continued head up, ears cocked, for the rest of the story until just before the denouement, when Shemp shook himself again. At that, Oscar leapt off the office couch and began trotting back and forth, back and forth between the door and the desk, whimpering and whining. Then he lay by the armchairs and stared wistfully into the middle distance, as if he could make Shemp materialise by so doing.
Wistful and confused. (For more funny pet stories, “like” the That’s a Jenn Story facebook page!)
My Paul and I had a two-minute emergency Skype session so Oscar could see him and Shemp on the computer, but all that did was make both dogs run to their respective doors in hopes that the other one would run through it. It took about another hour for Oscar to jump back up on the couch and curl up as he normally does.
They say most dogs have the equivalent IQ of a human toddler. T-TAC’s not even a toddler yet, and he doesn’t really know Uncle Paul or Auntie Jenn that well yet, but I’m pretty sure he has a better chance of figuring the recorded story out than Oscar ever would.
Oscar has a visceral need to spend all his time lying on the couch next to my hip, and Shemp can’t seem to manage without his bed, and on Saturdays, I clean house. Sometimes I sing hymns while washing dishes, but I don’t think I’ve ever found myself doing so while vacuuming, so I guess, unlike my grandmother, Saturdays (at least Saturday mornings) are not my favourite either.
But spending Saturday mornings cleaning is not really optional. Oscar has such unusually thick cocker spaniel/poodle fur that the vet comments on it every year when he goes in for his annual check-up–but he doesn’t shed much, and on the rare occasions that he does, his hair comes out in clumps which I can pick up with my fingers and throw away. Shemp, on the other hand, has nice, reasonable, short fur–which sheds like crazy, all year long. If I had the time and temperament for it, I really should vacuum in here every single day–maybe twice, he sheds so badly. Rosie the Cat sheds, too, but not as profusely. When I work out in the living room during the week and do any variety of jump-squats, my feet kick up little walls of fur behind them, which are also pick-up-able, but simultaneously get further dug into the carpet. You’ll probably never find me cleaning every day, but Saturday cleaning is pretty unavoidable.
My cleaning house means that I am obviously not sitting on the couch, much to Oscar’s consternation. It also means I am washing Shemp’s bedding, to his. While Shemp’s bedding is in the washing machine, I clean the bathroom, and Shemp wanders by every ten minutes or so, as if to ask, “Is it ready yet? Can I have my bed back, yet?” He has no idea what to do with himself. Oscar huddles up against a pillow on the couch.
Oscar is afraid of most things, except for the vacuum cleaner. Shemp is afraid of almost nothing, except for the vacuum cleaner. When I begin vacuuming, Shemp runs away and I let him outside. Oscar seems to think he needs to be afraid of the vacuum cleaner because Shemp is, but he’ll run right in between the nozzle and the body of the vacuum to get away from it, because he isn’t afraid of it, really. Also, he’d much rather be indoors than out, unless we’re going for a hike.
Sometimes on Saturday afternoons, when I’m all done with the cleaning, we do go for a hike. My Paul and I will let the dogs into the truck and we’ll drive off somewhere that the dogs can get out and have a run. But today it was so cold, the dogs were getting leg-cramps when they went outside, so my Paul and I went snowshoeing by ourselves across the pond, around the little island in the middle, and back again. Fortunately by that time, Shemp’s bed was washed and dried, and Oscar still had his couch. They were quite good today, really. But I think now that Shemp’s bed has returned to its rightful place, and I’ve returned to my rightful place on the couch next to Oscar, they’re much happier. They’re both okay with Saturdays once the cleaning is over. So am I.
“German spiced wine served hot after a snowshoe around the pond” – my Paul
But if I were still attending school in the time when homework was actually done on paper, he undoubtedly would have.
It’s the cute ones you have to watch . . .
You may remember that last autumn we were having trouble with Oscar frequently peeing on the carpet. Then he got much better. Then this autumn he started eating paper. He used occasionally to sneak used Kleenex out of the bathroom wastebasket. Then he graduated to junk mail we might have left lying around. Then he chowed down on two of my Paul’s checkbooks. He has also been known to ingest bubble wrappers. When they were packed up with presents to mail to Dear Paulina. That evening I yelled at him pretty loudly and he didn’t get to sit with us on the couch. Cleaning up after him in the yard can be pretty . . . weird, honestly.
The day before The BroFam left for their home far, far away, TWCN (The World’s Cutest Niece) drew me two pictures. I stuck them in my backpack to bring to work and hang up on my office wall. Only I didn’t think about closing the backpack. This was pretty stupid, since that’s how Oscar had gotten Dear Paulina’s parcel two weeks before. I don’t know where I went, but when I came back, one of the pictures had teethmarks in the corner, and the picture I liked the best was gone. Without-a-trace gone. Not even a teeny tiny little paper crumb. I would have yelled at him then, too, but there wasn’t really much evidence left to point at and for a while I tried to convince myself I had somehow lost the picture. But that was a month ago and it hasn’t turned up.
I wrote to Sister-in-Lu and told her what had happened, and asked if maybe TWCN would be willing to draw me something else.
So she did. (She drew one on each side of the paper, the good little environmentalist):
These might be bees, but I think they’re butterflies
I like how she knows there needs to be sun AND darkness for a rainbow. And hey–Roy G Biv!
TWCN and Auntie Jenn
This last one’s my favourite. First of all, the drawing of Oscar is pretty impressive–she even managed his beard. According to Sister-in-Lu, TWCN was trying to sound out, “I’m sorry to hear Oscar ate the pictures.” I’m not sure where that is in there, but . . . she’s in kindergarten. I know–I do know–that one day she’ll become just as obnoxious a spelling-termagant as I am. And not even a paper-eating dog can change that.
If you don’t have an extra room to put the stuff from the room you’re painting . . . you get this.
Have you ever painted your house? No? Me neither. But almost.
It’s really not like I haven’t painted stuff before, though. I started volunteering at Habitat for Humanity projects when I was in high school, and once in college I spent a Spring Break in Florida painting a mission headquarters. Seriously. (I also took that trip on $25 or something like that. Even though it was the 90’s, I have no idea how.) I also once painted my bedroom in London. But evidently none of those things are the same thing as painting the majority of my own on my own time.
The Cottage is not large–thus the designation cottage. And, like I said, I’ve painted before. So when I was on holiday last week, I thought I had a perfect schedule for getting the entire downstairs painted, leaving me time for a week of genuine vacation later in the summer. My schedule was going to look like this:
Monday – Wash walls and ceilings
Tuesday – Paint ceilings
Wednesday – Paint trim
Thursday – Paint everything else
This would have me all done just in time for Cousin Elizabeth’s arrival on Thursday evening. I thought I had this whole situation well in hand.
Are you laughing yet?
Monday and Tuesday went approximately as planned. I don’t think I thought either the washing or the ceilings were going to take as long as they did, but I was still done by 4 pm both days, and after the ceilings got done, my Paul and Alicia and I went out for fish ‘n’ chips, so I happily thought I was right on track.
And then Wednesday happened. When I blithely posted about painting that morning, I had no idea that if I began working on trim immediately after that, I was only going to be wrapping it up 12 hours later. I guess putting all the furniture in the middle of the room and drop-cloth-ing everything took some time, but why in all the earth does it take so insanely long to paint small strips of wood at the bottom of each wall, and around the doors and windows? I mean, how does this make sense, when the walls themselves are so much bigger?
Shemp and Oscar – displaced amongst the furniture
The dogs were remarkably good. I let them outside frequently, but thunderstorms were threatening all week, so they couldn’t be out all the time. By supper time that night, however, I was at my wits end, and so were the animals.
Even the fish were concerned.
I had already painted the bathroom area trim, which took longer than I’d hoped, but went without incident. Just before supper I began painting the living room/kitchen trim–a sort of putty grey. It turned out this paint was fairly drippy–and also wasn’t completely covering anything, meaning that I had to go back and paint everything twice. By the time I discovered this, I was already exhausted and ready to quit, but Cousin Elizabeth was coming and I just couldn’t stop yet. Rosie the cat came downstairs to see what was going on, and, when she discovered she couldn’t sit in any of her usual window posts, began mewing pitifully. Shemp began whining. Oscar looked anxious. The small rectangular pad on my trim painting tool flew off for the 18th time. I started to cry.
That didn’t help either, though, so eventually I put the pad back on and just forged on ahead. At 10.30 that night, the trim was done, and I went to bed. The next day, I got the living room walls done (except for the one that curves around into the kitchen and has the fridge and stove against it), unburied Alicia’s bed (on which Elizabeth was going to be sleeping), and my Paul got home just in time to help me throw all the furniture back against the walls, just as she walked in the door.
Alicia’s bed . . . not her fault . . .
My Paul cooked, which was lovely (and usual) of him, and you might never have known I had just been painting, if you hadn’t known I had been painting.
You should see those shorts after THIS week. But that’s another . . . Jenn story.
On Saturday I had to pick up all the dog leavings in the yard (appropriately, considering that last dream). There was a lot to clean up and I went through quite a few of those plastic disposable grocery-shopping bags.
These guys? Are prolific.
While recovering from the admittedly brief PTSD associated with this task, I started thinking about plastic disposable grocery-shopping bags. In London we simply called them carrier bags. Occasionally I still forget which terms are the British ones and which are the American ones when I’m talking, and sometimes I just like the British terms better. Carrier bag is much more efficient to say (even if it is a little redundant and not overly descriptive) than plastic disposable grocery-shopping bags. What do we actually call those things over here, anyway?
Yeah. Anyway. All this thinking about . . . those receptacles . . . made me remember London and this social norm I discovered there which I soon dubbed:
The Carrier Bag Game
(Don’t worry. This is not a blog game, although you can try this at home . . . maybe.)
Maybe people don’t play this in London anymore; I don’t know if you now have to bring your own carrier bags every time you shop or else buy new ones (I know that’s what they do in Ireland, which is where my parents lived more recently than I lived in the UK). But in the late 1990’s such environmentally responsible practices had not yet been established there, as they still have not, for the most part, here. This meant that every time you went to the shops and actually purchased something, you came home with more carrier bags. Soon you were stuffing carrier bags into carrier bags, and then they were overflowing into other carrier bags and every hook in your Cupboard Under the Stairs (assuming you didn’t have Harry Potter living under there) supported at least three carrier bags full of carrier bags.
It was a lot of carrier bags.
So, in an attempt to off-load some of your carrier bags without being entirely environmentally terroristic and just throwing them away, you would carry everything everywhere in carrier bags . . . and hopefully drop them off at someone else’s house. If you were invited to a home for dinner, you would offer to bring something. Even if your hosts said you didn’t need to bring anything, you would still bring something–cake or a bottle of wine or minced pies (I just threw that into the list because I really liked those tiny little store-bought minced pies you can get over there)–just so you could put it in a carrier bag. If you could get away with bringing more than one thing and put each thing into its own carrier bag–well done, you! Then you got to your destination and handed your host or hostess a veritable bouquet of carrier bags full of goodies which, ideally, you originally took home all in one carrier bag.
My flatmate Beth and I got really good at the carrier bag game, but we suffered severe setbacks about once every six weeks when we hosted our English class parties. We worked with refugees, for some churches which ran ESL classes, and every so often we would invite everybody–students, teachers, parishioners, random passers-by who stopped in for the conversation–over to our house for a relaxed informal gathering. Everyone brought food from their own country to share, and we would sit around and talk and play games and laugh and . . . it was always a good time. (Even the time our alcoholic neighbour . . . maybe I’ll write about that next week.)
But there was a problem. The problem was that, although no one ever verbally acknowledged it, everybody in East London played the carrier bag game. And everybody coming to our house for these parties was bringing something. And everybody was frequently quite a lot of people. For six weeks Beth and I would systematically and successfully whittle down our supply of carrier bags to one carrier bag full of carrier bags . . . and then the party. We never won.
What creative ways do you find to use up your carrier bags? Londoners–do you recognise this game? Do people still play it?
In tacit–and capitalistic–admission of the universal carrier bag problem, you can also buy bags to carry your carrier bags.