My dog is dying. A degenerative disease has completely paralyzed her back legs. It will spread slowly, with apathetic deliberation, and it will take over her entire body. My dog is dying.
I have known this for months, seen the videos of my dad carrying her up and down the stairs, discussed her doctor visits with my mom, and heard them both bemoan how to get her to use the wheels she hates but needs to walk around outside. Witnessing—lifting her up and down from the bed because she can’t jump any more, seeing the way she skids and flops along the floor to play ball, the way she stands at the entrance to the bathroom, wanting to follow me into my room but unable to navigate her way across the tiles—witnessing is not the same as knowing.
I first met Smudge almost thirteen Christmases ago. I went over to my father’s house for Christmas Eve and there she was, scrappy and barking, a tiny little collar around her neck. I loved Smudge before she was mine. My father had been looking at dogs for months, showing me picture after picture. I didn’t think he was really going to do it. Offhand I mentioned I thought corgis were cute and I liked them because the Queen had them. He showed me a picture of one, so tiny and covered in a patchwork of colors. On the website her name was Queenie, I said she looked more like a Smudge, she was just a little smudge. I’ve loved her every second since.
I remember when she was a puppy and wouldn’t sleep next to me, she was rambunctious, she couldn’t stand the confines of bedtime. I remember the first time I took her out for a walk, she was so small, she ran around between my legs and I stepped on her paw. I remember that little yelp of pain, of feeling so guilty, so inept. Funny, all these years later, she cries unless she falls asleep next to me and our days of walking together are gone.
Those days are gone. The phrase is cropping all around me. I can’t seem to dispel it from my mind or from my life.
In The Odyssey, the three main kings of the Greek camp all have a different welcome home. Menelaus, King of Sparta, returns home with Helen, his wife and the face that launched a thousand ships, mistakes are forgiven, and they live out the rest of their years together. Agamemnon returns home to Mycenae and is murdered by Clytemnestra, his wife, and her lover, a long simmering act of retribution for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, at the start of the Trojan War. Odysseus, perhaps the most anxious to return, finds his journey delayed by an extra decade of wanderings, and comes home to a wife and son he hasn’t seen in twenty years. For a time he stays, happy and content, but then he leaves again. The king who was most desperate to avoid joining the war, the most eager to return home, is the one who willingly leaves again.
What do hero’s think about when they come home? When the quest is over? Our lives our defined by our present adventure—adventure, an element whose shape and size is flexible, akin to water, molecules breaking apart and rejoining to take the form of their container. We take the shape of the adventure that holds us. An end to the journey is as necessary to the story as the beginning but not nearly so simple. Adventures we’re so eager to start but don’t know what to do with once we’re finished. What becomes of the residue? Three kings went off to war and three came back. And yet—no world they left behind waited for them. No one returned home to the kingdom he had left. Some adapt, some can’t, and some realize they’ve changed as much as the place has.
Graduation is a return to the world. But how do we return? How do we re enter a world that’s not the same as when we left? I can’t fault my family or my dog or the ever-changing litany of shops on the main street; they’re not the only ones who are different now. Life didn’t wait for us, any of us—it went on, as it always does and always will, and all of a sudden we’re playing catch up to all that got left behind. So how do we do it?
I’ve written a graduation piece once before. A little over two years ago, in fact. Tenuous and utterly unsure of my next step, I wrote about this newfound species of goodbye, this moment of finality from the mass that had composed the past four years of my life. I wrote of journeys and partings and love. I wrote with a certain sadness and a certain joy. Yet beneath these dueling vines there lurked another, less comfortable sensation: fear. I was afraid. A girl who traveled to Bangladesh by herself was afraid of what the world now held: my future. It seemed to come rushing in all at once, a thousand brilliant adventures to begin but I labored over when and where and how and what type of shoe I should be wearing to take the first step. I knew who and what I wanted to be but I saw no means of getting there. The war was done and I’d been victorious. It was time to come home to myself, to fulfill, to take up residence, to occupy the person I knew I was going to be and though I could see the destination, I was afraid to walk out my front door. I was afraid to begin.
So I waited. I waited for the right winds, the right season, the right time of day. I waited. I spent a year waiting. I told myself it was all a necessary preparation: I was working, I was saving money, I was making the smart choice. And perhaps for some it is. But I was in hibernation waiting for the spring of my life to begin. But winters of our own making don’t come to a natural end, they’re nuclear in their length and in their stagnation. I felt the tides of change coming and I didn’t want to be carried by them. Not yet. I wasn’t ready yet. I wasn’t ready to settle into the life I knew was coming, the life of missed Christmases and birthdays, deaths relayed from afar, because holdings hands with someone is not the same as a comforting word over the telephone.
Then it stopped. Something happened. I got into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. I went across the sea, to London, to a master’s degree, to my Shakespeare, and for a year I knew everything I was and was supposed to do. Then I graduated. Again.
Here I am once more, the curtain’s come down, the play’s over, and the dearest company I have ever known must part. What do I do?
When I was younger and I didn’t know or understand something I sat silent, brooding in the back of the classroom, harboring my questions until I could seek out their answer through independent means. I didn’t want the world to know I was lost. If I have learned nothing from getting older it’s that getting lost is about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Because it’s only then we ask for help.
Johnny Cash might have been everywhere man but I’ve been lost everywhere woman. I have been lost at just about every age and every place, from the hellish perditions of middle school to the ambitious but arrested development of my twenties, from the heart of Beijing to the forest on the Polish-Belarus border, I’ve been lost in just about every kind of place. When you’ve gotten lost as many times as I have you find yourself collecting a lot of totems, compasses yet to be unsheathed. I do this even when the course seems steady and straight ahead because the sea, much like life, is want to do as it pleases even to the most sound of navigants. Winds fail, tempests surge, and stars are obfuscated. Paths we saw so clearly marked moments before are swept away in an instant and we must cut our way through the tall grasses of uncertain fate.
There are quotes, essays, songs, conversations I revisit, words I return to when I don’t know what to say or where to go—stones along a path, markings in the trees, guideposts to lend a sense of direction to the directionless.
In the midst of my year of waiting, I read about a woman who was in limbo who just buried her dog. I didn’t know I was going to LAMDA. I didn’t know I was going to travel to eight countries. I didn’t know my dog or my father was going to get sick. I didn’t know anything. But in the midst of my not knowing, her words felt like a tether to hold onto. Natalie and I knew each other in the way I knew a lot of people in college: tangentially, brushing up against one another at random moments; outside of an audition, a smile on the street, a laugh at a party. I always liked Nat. She belongs in the great grand swath of people I wish I’d had a chance to know more. And I sit here on the other side of time, and I feel a tug on our mutual string and I am pulled back to her words: (link to her original publication: http://www.wearecropped.com/issue-004/dear-current-students)
“The event of college graduation — that shining exuberant pinnacle after which I imagined a column of light would take me into the sky towards not an earthly destination, but toward some sense of meaning — loomed through even the darkest clouds.
Now among the patches of grass and the old jungle gym, I only see the small pile of rocks we gathered to mark where my dog is buried. I realize now I have tried to run away from that truth. My dog is dead. He was just a dog. He’s in the ground.
That incandescent column of light never came on June 20, 2014, and it still won’t arrive when I’ve moved to another city, or when I’ve seen the Northern Lights, or when I get my first big paycheck, or have a child. I can’t afford to live, as I did for the 16 years I was in school, suspended in between life events, holding on to the hope that the next one would save me. Nothing will save you, except the meaning you find within yourself. The search for this meaning is more important and rewarding than any job, internship, Snapchat story or relationship you will ever have.”
When I travel I have a particular playlist and, because I am a sucker for nostalgia, one of my most played songs on that list is ‘Just Around the Riverbend’ from Disney’s Pocahontas. The songs reminds me of the thrill of exploration, of the great wide world that lies in waiting: “What I love most about rivers is you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing.” That lyric has always brought a smile to my face. As of I think of it now, I wonder at the pluralism embedded in the meaning of the phrase. It has always resonated to me as a call to adventure. It still does. But for the first time I hear the echo, the dissipating waves of particle vibrations, and I think of the impermanence of sound, of people, of life. Of rivers. The wonder of never stepping into the same river twice, the miraculous and endless possibility of the world. And the poignancy of knowing it goes on without you, that you can return to the same riverbank again and again and it will never quite be the same as when you left it. It’s always a shock to us when home is different, even though it always is.
Things change while we’re away: fathers get sick, moms get new jobs, friends find other friends you don’t know, dogs get old. And me? What happened to me? I visited a forest where a forest had stood for over ten thousand years. I found my grandfather’s ghost on the streets of Budapest and in the stadiums of Helsinki. I visited Elsinore, bellowed on the stage of the Globe, and wept at the grave of the Bard. I saw Auschwitz. I played Iago. I changed too.
In The Second Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling’s follow up to the original, Hathi the Elephant tells the story of Tha and how the jungles of India came to be made:
“And the Lord of the Jungle was Tha, the First of the Elephants. He drew the Jungle out of deep waters with his trunk; and where he made furrows in the ground with his tusks, there the rivers ran; and where he struck with his foot, there rose ponds of good water; and when he blew through his trunk — thus — the trees fell. That was the manner in which the Jungle was made by Tha; and so the tale was told to me.”
The jungle was carved by walking elephants. We can’t construct our world without walking, without journeying. The older I get the more I realize: there are places you’ll never return, people you’ll never see again. Sometimes all we have left is their footprint preserved in cement, traces of all the people, places, and pets that contributed to the construction of ourselves.
I spend a lot of time with my dog. She sleeps with me every night. Sometimes I just lie there and look at her, letting my arm go numb rather than disturb her and risk her moving somewhere more comfortable, moving away from me. I wonder how we bear it? All the loss along the way. I try to imprint the feel of her fur into the memory of my hands. I think that if I just hold her enough, I can preserve her, keep her alive just that much longer. Every year we’ve spent together, we’ve changed. But she’s still my dog and I’m still her person. But that’s love, isn’t it? That which we return back to, both having been shaped and changed, that which still finds a way, some essential wooden bridge, though warped and altered with time, that still connects us.
Life’s going to be hard. But it’s also going to be dazzling. I think of the past year, of all the sources that electrify the mausoleums of my memory, each chamber unique in its luminosity: the monuments of London ignited in the hyperborean January air by arcatures of light beams; the aerial visage of my beloved New York, a harbor of watts and minds and hearts buzzing on for eternity; the power and prowess of theatre lights, great unwieldy contraptions coaxed by sorcerers to alchemize the stage; the meridian composed of eight different sunrises across eight different nations, each alloyed dawn as different as the days and places they rose upon. I think of the people who illuminate our way in the darkness when all other lights go out.
I have spent a year with some of the brightest lights on Earth. Twenty-seven of them to be exact. Each grand and glorious in their difference, save for the same ferocity with which they burn in my heart.
We cannot be there for all moments. But we can be there for some. And that is no small feat. The brief overlapping of life is a tender and delicate thing. Whether for a day, twelve months, or thirteen loyal years, to touch life is profound. To feel light even when it cannot be seen.
When I was young I used to be afraid of the dark. To me the absence of light meant something evil. This year I danced in the darkness with friends and strangers, nothing but body heat and the lines of moving forms to break up the darkness. And it was beautiful. I spend these immediate post graduate weeks at home, sleeping next to my dog, nothing to light up the dark, but the ripples of sounds her little huffs of breath make as she dreams.
When Odysseus returned home from his twenty years abroad, he appeared at the doors of Ithaca, his home, as a stranger. No one recognized him. Except his dog. His dog crawled to him, licked his hand, and died. She held on for twenty years just to know he was home again.
I won’t be here when that moment comes and while these precious weeks at home are a warm and welcome reunion, when I get on the plane back to London, I know that I am going to see my dog, my girl, for the last time.
Life is hard. Wandering is hard. Graduation is hard. Death is hard. Life should be hard. I like that it’s hard. But it’s not impossible. And therein lies the difference of everything we work and strive for. In that grand achievability of the operose yet possible, in that potentially is the meaning.
There’s meaning in my dog, in the twenty seven pillars of lightsI spent a year with, there’s meaning in myself.
Those days are gone. But there are days yet to come. Days you can’t even begin to dream of.
Happy Graduation. Again.
LAMDA MA in Classical Acting 2016