Smokey is a dog. A really happy, healthy dog. He is the latest vagabond canine sent by the gods to my little sister’s house in Flagstaff, Arizona.
The gods do that a lot with my sister. I don’t understand the specifics of her karmic path in this lifetime; I simply accept that her path includes homeless dogs walking off the Hopi Indian reservation and into her back yard.
Into her life. Her family’s life.
Greeting Smokey were Star and Comet, vaguely referred to as “shepherd mixes.” Then there’s Blue, the old man. Sort of a sci-fi dog. Meaning, I give up. I have no idea what flavors of dog combined to give the world Blue. Every time I see him, I spontaneously think of Stephen King novels.
It is from this very geography I acquired Kelly the Wonder Dog. Echoes of Aussie shepherd. Maybe border collie. The greatest dog I ever knew. The smartest. The dog I didn’t want. Didn’t have time for. No thank you. Until I met her. Kelly walked over and selected me. She guarded my path for 15 years – a companion, a familiar, a friend.
We buried her last Christmas, most likely illegally, on the reservation from which she had emerged as a spirit from another world. And yes, typing that sentence makes me cry.
Mutts and mixes. Bitches and bastards. Hobos and tramps. Literally. My little sister opens her heart to all of them. She throws her arms around the whole cockeyed menagerie.
I’ll never own a pure bred dog again. Ever. As I sit on my sister’s porch, enjoying the Ponderosa pines, not to mention reveling in my second mimosa, I’ve never been more certain that the pursuit of perfection and purity is, well, silly on its best days. On the worst days, it’s a genetic disaster. The cruel and consequential hubris of Victor Frankenstein.
Bone and joint disorders, eye diseases, heart diseases, diabetes, seizures, skin diseases, digestive disorders, kidney and liver problems, cancer – the last few hundred years of dog breeding has led us to consequences recalling Mary Shelly’s gothic novel. Purebred dogs are more often becoming genetically unstable. Mutts and mixes are healthier. Happier. Less temperamental. They live longer. Ask any veterinarian. They’ll tell you.
Might be the second mimosa, but my analogy radar is blinking.
My extended family is a zoo, pure and simple. As a boy, ours was always the house where the neighborhood kids would congregate. More than once did a troubled youth live with us for a while. As we grew older, college roommates and assorted friends were regularly included in holidays or other family gatherings. A revolving door of relationships. Ethnic groups. Orientations. Variable and usually sketchy marital histories. Children acquired not by blood, but because they were included in the person you were dating.
We laugh hard. We play hard. We work hard. And, yes, we occasionally have to snap and snarl to review the rules of respect in the hierarchy of the pack.
If you have an ounce of good manners, if you know how to get up and get your own beer out of the ‘fridge, if you know when and how to howl at the moon, if you like howling at the moon, my family will welcome you. No matter who you are. No matter what combination of character and character flaws you possess.
It’s the attribute of my family I most admire. We don’t do the purebred thing. Or the high-maintenance thing. Not with our pets. Not with our own lives. And not with our social circles.
I come home to find an email from a friend. She includes a poem, by Jodi Hill:
I wish for you an imperfect life
And all the wonder that living can bring –
the wealth that comes from knowing loss,
the tears that find their way to laughter,
the joy that grows after the rain,
and the love, felt deepest,
by those who have been
carved by pain.
I hope that you can value this imperfection,
hold on to it,
so that it gives you such comfort
that you will dare embrace the beauty
of all the imperfect lives that surround you.
and then you will be perfectly free
to step to the beat
of your own imperfect heart.
and you will have truly lived.
I read the poem, and once again I really ‘get’ why Jesus preferred the company of sinners, slobs, sluts, geeks, doofwads, reprobates, misfits, and deaf/dumb/blind/lame folks.
See, that describes all my friends. All my family. And it most certainly describes me.
Imperfection is so … peaceful.
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)