Down in the country, summer has passed its dazzling zenith — if only just.
Amid the farms and bluffs of southeastern Minnesota, where I’ve long been fortunate enough to squander occasional summer afternoons, the days on one recent late-July weekend still seemed lazy and lingering — but not quite so endless as they had felt only weeks before.
A few of the blazing perennial blossoms had begun to fade and wither. The sea of corn buffeted by the breeze all across the rolling hills — some of it immensely tall now — had lost its deepest jungle green and commenced the turn from growth to ripening.
It might just be me, of course, imposing this patina and pathos on an impassive landscape. I often am what people call “too serious.” And lately I have an excuse.
My closest companion, best buddy and spiritual adviser has died. He was a 12-year-old collie mix, a courageous and mischievous goofball named Lucky who taught me the kind of things only the four-legged angels who visit our world can teach.
I recognize the shameless self-indulgence involved in bothering readers with my grief over a lost pet. There’s nothing very special, much less newsworthy, about the experience. But maybe that’s the point.
Life delivers more fearful and devastating blows than the loss of a beloved animal, but many have shared (or will share) this startlingly bone-deep pain and lonesomeness. By confessing it, maybe I can hope in some small way to help us all comfort one another.
My fellow hobby farmer, Cindy, found Lucky as a stray puppy down in the country 12 years ago this summer. I theatrically proclaimed him “a gift to us” and lobbied against her reservations to turn the rescue into an adoption. It worked, and before long it became perfectly clear that Lucky loved Cindy best.
For eight playful, uproarious years, Lucky chased balls and Frisbees and swam after sticks thrown in the lake, romped with canine buddies, embarked on occasional unauthorized neighborhood “rounds,” and delighted in games of keep-away and tug-of-war, especially just before bedtime. Then, four years ago, he went suddenly blind.
Life was sadly diminished after that, but Lucky soldiered on. And we, truth be told, followed his lead. He suffered many stumbles, was bruised by many obstacles, but he found his way to the joys that could still be reached, rather as he found his way up and down stairs — lifting a paw into the air and sticking it out into the darkness, feeling for the next step.
William James, the great early-20th-century philosopher and psychologist, once wrote an essay about what he called our “vital secrets” — the often hidden feelings that make lives worth living by “giving to foolishness a place ahead of power.”
James lamented that modern people “are trained to seek the choice, the rare, the exquisite, and to overlook the common … the peculiar sources of joy connected with our simpler functions.”
“To be imprisoned or shipwrecked,” he added, “would permanently show the good of life to many an overeducated pessimist.”
We pass half-conscious, James wrote, through lives “replete with too much luxury, or tired and careworn about personal affairs.” We rarely recognize “the indisputable fact that this world never did anywhere or at any time contain more of essential divinity, or of eternal meaning, than is embodied in the fields of vision over which (our) eyes so carelessly pass.
“There is life; and there, a step away, is death. There is the only kind of beauty there ever was.”
Every dog, not just Lucky, has a genius for giving foolishness a place ahead of power. That’s why befriending them is so enlightening for overeducated pessimists, and somewhat less taxing than prison or shipwreck.
Lucky had a quirk that taught me something else.
He hated going to the vet — really hated it. From puppyhood, even every routine check-up was a trauma. We got through them, and of course he always forgave me for what to him seemed bizarre lapses into sadism on my part.
So here was a creature experiencing something that seemed to him purely horrible — and without any possible purpose that he could conceive.
And yet, I knew, from a slightly different perspective, that these waking nightmares befell him entirely for his own good — and only because he was loved.
I’ve long liked to think of that as a metaphor for our own dark days. Maybe, from a slightly different perspective, there is a kindly purpose for things that aren’t easy to understand.
That thought, anyway, helps me to follow Lucky’s example, sticking a foot out into the darkness in hopes of finding the next step.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.