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I'm Nobody: I thought belonging required you to be Somebody--until a chance conversation about a special dog taught me to witness someone's love as one Nobody beside another.
I first met Rona Maynard here on Beyond. It was early days, and Rona left the loveliest, most thoughtful comments which, of course, I appreciated. I reached out to thank her; we began chatting and soon discovered a mutual deep (deep!) love of dogs! In fact, Rona has a book coming out on April 18th, Starter Dog, all about her ongoing love affair with a torn-eared rescue mutt named Casey. After leaving her high-powered job, Rona fell into a what-next funk. Her husband talked her into adopting Casey and soon enough they were exploring downtown Toronto—and getting to know the world (and for Rona, herself) anew.
Walking my neighbor’s wonderfully wild dog, Ortiz, ushered me back into the world after some difficult post-head injury years so I understood the potent healing magic of dog adventures. I asked Rona to write about some of her experiences with Casey for Beyond. Whilst Casey doesn’t make a direct appearance in this gorgeous essay, his spirit is there, lovingly supporting not only Rona but her Important friend.
For over a decade, Rona served as editor-in-chief of Chatelaine, Canada’s premiere magazine for women. In 2008, she published her memoir My Mother’s Daughter about her relationship with her loving, ambitious, and often overpowering mother. Alice Munro (!) called it “wonderfully honest and enthralling.” Rona has also written about her struggles with depression and her advocacy won her a National Champion of Mental Health Award from the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband and, of course, Casey.
Next week: Wise words on consent, women and wanting, and the vulnerability of the final year of college from Daisy Alpert Florin author of the obsessively good My Last Innocent Year.
“I’ve seated you beside Kenneth,” said our hostess, as if this was good news. Kenneth and I used to move among the same Formerly Important People, gliding past each other in evening wear. He would give me the vaguest of nods, then set his course for the keepers of Importance, men whose decisions made the op-ed and business pages.
I edited a women’s magazine then, which gave me access to the ballroom at the Four Seasons but not to the upper echelons of Importance. Women flocked to me, slipping through the press of sequins and satin lapels with the instinctive skill of those who have been practicing smallness all their lives. “I love your column,” they would say of the page where I shared stories that could have been theirs—the gay kid I dated in high school because no one else would ask me out, the flannel nightgown of my mother’s that I wore for comfort after she died. Matters that would not interest Kenneth and his kind. Their elbows jutted; their voices boomed. I couldn’t imagine any them asking the questions that needled me: “How did I get here? Do I belong?”
I used to go through the motions of working a room with a glass in one hand and a stained napkin in the other, which any minute I would have to extend for a balsamic-drizzled shake. In 10 years of galas, I never did get the hang of stashing my napkin on the fly. I could have swanned around night after night at fashion shows, awards dinners, fundraisers of all descriptions. Once I dined with the Queen (and 700 others deemed Important). But I preferred quiet dinners at home with my husband.
Belonging never came easily to me. In my first memories of school, I’m alone at the edge of the playground, spinning a story in my head while other kids play tag. They call me “stuck up,” not knowing I’m too shy to join their games. I envy the girls who are asked to every birthday party—and in high school have a date to every dance. I long for soulmates to move to my town and join my class; none appear. My mother assures me, “You will find your place of rest.” I retort, “You’re just saying that because you’re my mother.”
As a grownup I discovered how small a place of rest could be. My husband and son, a few close friends who shared my affection for Six Feet Under and Emily Dickinson. I didn’t need or want a bevy of admirers. My own company never wearied me; I couldn’t say as much for other people’s. It’s not that I felt superior, rather that I struggled to get past small talk to the primal thrum of real connection. I could make it happen in my column. “I feel like you’re my friend,” wrote a stranger who would never call in search of consolation or advice. Intimacy without obligation: the introvert’s dream arrangement. “The soul selects her own society,” Dickinson had written, as if from inside my head.
In the gala years, I sometimes missed my old vantage point on the periphery of things, where anyone who approached me took an interest in who I was, and not what I could do for their book, their client, their daughter who was acing English and deserved a summer job in line with her interests. My title eclipsed the real me, yet leaving it behind stripped me naked. I thought of Dickinson again: “I’m nobody! Who are you?”
Somebodies amused the poet. She compared them to frogs, incessantly telling their name “to an admiring bog.” Nobodies have all the fun, united by the secret of their otherness. But Emily Dickinson never had to sit beside Kenneth at the end of a table for 10. From a place near the middle of the table, I could slip in and out of conversations like a rabbit navigating a thicket. The rabbit hops, freezes, vanishes at the scent of a dog. Next to Kenneth, I could not disappear.
What on earth would we talk about? It had better not be the future of a Canadian political party whose backrooms he still frequented, although he no longer ran anything. Kenneth, unlike me, could still lay claim to being Somebody. My most important meeting of the day was a walk with my dog, Casey, through our downtown neighborhood.
The men who stopped to scratch his butt had spent the night in a shelter or on a park bench. They were men I didn’t notice until I walked a dog. If they had ever worked a room, it was many misfortunes ago. But they could make Casey twirl with joy, slapping their legs with his tail. They asked his name so they could bellow or croon it. Human names rarely came up. We humans were nobodies bonded by a dog. When the men said, “Thank you, sweetheart,” I felt touched by sweetness. I’d take one of those men over Kenneth any day.
Kenneth pulled out my chair. I noted the set of his jaw, the faint chill in his eyes. He resembled a white marble centurion, maybe even Caesar himself, but beside me instead of on a pedestal. In their time Roman sculptures were not white but lavishly painted and gilded. We only think we know them. I couldn’t claim to know Kenneth, but as a woman of my time I had been trained to make an effort. My teacher was Seventeen magazine, circa 1964. “Ask him about himself,” advised my guide to the mysteries of talking with boys. It never crossed my mind that a boy should ask about me. The privileges of manhood, as I understood them, included conversational care from women.
In my former life I sat at many long tables, putting men at ease. I recall a middle manager who stared dolefully at his salad until I tried to divert him with a quip about the two wine glasses at each place. Had he noticed wine glasses are like golf clubs, a size and shape for every purpose? It wasn’t funny but for him it was a lifeline. The middle manager took enormous pride in his golf clubs. He proceeded to expound on each one while I nodded and longed for release. Why should men get all the social nurturing? Couldn’t I have used my share?
I was done catering to men who happened to be my seatmate. With Kenneth, I would not smile and nod. This time I would steer the conversation to my favorite topic: Casey. Kenneth had a dog; it was the one thing I knew about his private self. The dog did not care about social status, nor did my Casey, a rescue mutt with a torn right ear, scars on all four legs, and no discernible talents except catching banana chunks in mid-air.
Whatever I told Kenneth about Casey, it must have included the men who scratched his butt. They had loved dogs of their own, back when they had homes. I probably mentioned that too. As Kenneth leaned close to listen, I saw his face soften. There was a pause like that moment in a concert hall when the audience waits as one for the adagio.
He told me about his dog of dogs, the formative companion some people call “the heart dog.” Many years and dogs had gone by since the golden retriever last offered his throat to Kenneth’s hand, yet when he spoke of this dog it was if they were still saying goodbye. The story he told of their parting was about a lot more than one dog. It was about the moment when a young man knew what love was asking of him, and how he found it in himself to make the sacrifice. His words seemed to come from a great depth, as if he felt the weight of each one and was considering its place in the narrative. Two words in particular—“love” and “please.” He did not say “alone,” yet I felt his aloneness. I sensed he had not told the story in ages, maybe ever. He might have written it, though. And then put it aside, thinking no one would care. If I still commissioned stories, I might have had designs on his, a jewel I could polish and position just so. As Nobody, I left all that behind. I could be the one he needed when a memory unmoored him and left him Nobody too. I accepted what he offered, the gift of witnessing his love. He didn’t wipe his tears. I didn’t look away.
Up and down the table people laughed and debated. Wine splashed on the tablecloth. Our end of the table had the stillness of a chapel where all are welcome who enter the door. We had it to ourselves, bonded by two dogs—mine nowhere close, his long gone. I wanted to be nowhere in the world but where I was, with a man who had revealed his innermost self to me. “What a beautiful story,” I said. “Thank you for sharing it.” There was more I could have said, but amazement had just about silenced me.
If you enjoyed this essay, please share your thoughts in the comments below. Perhaps you, too, have or had a heart dog. I’d love to hear about them!
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