I flip the switch and the green light comes on the small space heater. The unit is just powerful enough to warm the 5 x 8 space. The idea is to get it going, go do something else, and in fifteen minutes or so the temperature is just right. There’s a light drizzle this morning, abnormally raw and chilly for the first part of April, even for Chicago. It’s the kind of cold and damp that seeps below the skin. Earlier this morning, just after sunrise, I was warm, resting in bed reading the last pages of the 2nd of four books of essays by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer who received acclaim for his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle. I finish the book and walk the thirty yards from the back door of the house to my shed, a little writing space I built for myself a year ago. I nailed barn wood to the walls, tiled the floor, painted. It’s a modest place with electricity and light, windows, desk, and a perfect place for some of my books, the ones I cherish the most. I place Winter on the shelf next to the first book in the series, Autumn.
Standing at the shed’s door, I see Sam on the other side of the entrance to the main house. Her nose against the glass, her breath fogging up the window enough that I could write her name with my finger. She knows a walk is coming, I told her so before coming to the shed. Whenever I put shoes on and reach for my coat, Sam stands at attention, anticipating travel, and if there is to be a walk, I always let her know. You’re going, I tell her. Sam’s look of longing cannot be ignored, for there is an ache in her eyes. I, too, look forward to the walk, light rain or not, I am already craving to return afterward. Sometimes the need to write—to sit and think through a project, a moment, an observation, a story—is palpable, and to enter the shed and get to work is the only thing that will satisfy. But first, duty waits. Sam is pining to be hooked to her leash.
Sam and I take the sidewalk south and make the turn at the first intersection. Across the street, I see a dog in a window, its face up against the glass of a large bay window looking out over the lawn of a corner lot. Like Sam at the door window, this dog is observing our every move. Actually, it is most interested in Sam. The dog watches as Sam sniffs at the wood chips left by a crew that had recently taken down a parkway tree. Its eyes follow as Sam examines the trunk of a still-standing tree. And the dog watches Sam lift her nose into the wind, as she catches the scent of something interesting. Sam does not see the dog in the window, or pays no never mind, but I do. I see. I see its tan and white face, its dark eyes. And I see the longing. Not envy or jealousy. No, I think it’s certainly longing. The dog wants something more than it currently has—it wants to be outside, to be with Sam, to smell spring, to receive a pat on the head from the man walking the neighborhood.
Sam and I head east and the dog’s eyes follow until it can no longer see us and we can no longer see it.
What is longing? The romantic poets have always associated it with love. But I think it’s more than that. I stop at the corner and pull Sam close. I ask her to sit and she does. On my phone I search Google. Poems about longing. There is Shelley, Keats, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and a poet I am not familiar with: Michael Ondaatje. He’s from Sri-Lanka and Canada, the Wikipedia page tells me. I read that he has won the Booker Prize, and now I am mildly embarrassed that I don’t know of him. In another link there is a quote from his novel The Cat’s Table.
“We all have an old knot in the heart we wish to untie.”
“That’s it!” I say. Sam tilts her head and snaps her attention toward me. “It’s okay, girl. Just looking up something.” Sam’s eyes stay on me as if waiting for an explanation for my exclamation. I’m not sure I can. Longing is such a complicated emotion. But Ondaatje’s quote is one of the best I’ve read on the subject. It captures the soft desire of wanting something that is missing, out of reach, impossible to define. Ondaatje suggests the “knot” is “old”—but maybe not. Maybe the knot is just simply longing itself. We all have longing knotted in our hearts, maybe from birth, a part of the human condition, and we are forever trying to understand how to untangle it.
Maybe dogs are trying to do the same thing.
Sam and I pass the first parallel street and continue east to the next one then head north. The rain remains light; sometimes it stops completely, so we are in no rush. And with that in mind, I slow down even more, I allow Sam to sniff everything she wants, anything that interests her—clumps of early spring grass, a discarded small plastic bag from a convenience store, a small limb that had fallen from a tree to the parkway. I remember a veterinarian telling me once that when we walk our dogs, we frequently have different purposes. We are walking for fitness, or for fresh air, and we tend to walk quicker and with purpose. The dog is different. It wants to familiarize or reacquaint itself with the surroundings. In the natural order of things, a dog’s preferred walk is a meandering stroll. And to come along, the walker has to slow down and consider what the dog wants, not what the walker wants.
“I don’t want you longing for anything, Sam,” I say with a smile as she sniffs, and sniffs, and sniffs at a cluster of brown wet leaves left over from autumn. There is clearly something quite exciting there. I have to summon my patience. But I wait. It’s okay.
We move slowly northward with frequent stop for snorts of curiosity. Then, at the turn, a dog—a tan Labrador mix—is seen standing in a driveway. It sees us and with its unwavering eyes, walks slowly to the end of the driveway. The dog is not tethered, but there is clearly an electric fence at work, keeping the animal from advancing past the sidewalk. It stands still, moving only its head as it eyes us walking closer. There is no bark, no whimper or growl. Like the dog in the window, it quietly watches. It is longing. Longing.
Sam sees the dog, but she’s disinterested. There’s no pull to move closer, only a few moments of curiosity before Sam shifts her focus to a small group of robins hopping across a lawn.
“You don’t see him over there?” I ask Sam. “That dog watching us?”
Sam looks at me momentarily and returns to the birds.
“I’ll take that as a no,” I say.
We rarely see those around us who are longing for something beyond their daily existence. Dogs don’t either, apparently. It’s all lost in the fog, in the misty rain, in our diverted attention.
On the southward walk home, just around the corner from where landscapers had freshened the mulch in the front lawn of a newly renovated ranch home, Sam suddenly becomes playful. With her teeth, she grabs a small stick that had fallen from a parkway tree, and teases me with it. I reach for it; she pulls away. I reach again and she snaps back. Sam spins and falls on her back, rubbing her body against the ground, gnawing on the stick. She’s happy. She’s outside, she has a toy, and she’s with her best friend.
What else could anybody ever want?