There are currently seven dogs living in our 180 square foot space—our little house. Our dog, Beer, who is ten-years-old, a Chow and Red Heeler mix, who had all of Marcus’s attention until I came along four years ago, is not happy about this. Marcus swiftly turns him upside down and puts puppies along his underbelly until he goes limp and stops growling. The puppies search for teats, tug on his tail, hesitantly pull on his ears, as if hoping for some thrill of a reaction.
One of these puppies has had a hard time walking; during the first few weeks of his little life, I had to feed him with a bottle. Frantically, as I watched him attempt—but fail—to latch onto his mom, as the other four puppies seemed so easily able to do, I’d heat up some kind of milk replacement, poke the nipple tip of the bottle into his tiny mouth and squeeze a couple of drops onto his pink tongue. Eventually, he began latching on—soon, all he needed was a taste of the replacement milk to suddenly awaken and leap out of my arms, and, with eyes still closed at that point, viciously throw himself onto his mother. Still, I panic that perhaps I didn’t feed him correctly those first few days. I’d never taken care of a puppy before, however, and I look at him, flopping this way and that, fall forwards and, a moment later, backwards, and sigh. Wonder how I became a mother of so many so quickly.
On a cold, Tuesday night in November, Marcus received a phone call from Marie, our very generous, animal-minded friend whose farm we live on in Elbert County, Colorado. Marie had become involved in the work of Denver Homeless Out Loud, a group which presses policy-makers to listen to people affected by homeless services and the lack of affordable housing. During DHOL meetings, Marie formed relationships quickly—she is the sort of person who wakes up and says to all who might be able to hear: “I am the Pit Bull of the world! I am the heart of God! I am making a difference in the world today!”—and had received a phone call from a couple, both with mental and physical disabilities, who are currently homeless. Their dog had—a surprise to them—recently given birth, and the “Sweeps”—during which officers urge people who are homeless and are “camped out,” or, perhaps, simply sleeping or sitting in public—had simultaneously become more aggressive. There is no shelter for couples in Denver, and many couples choose to stay outside and stay together. But they knew they could not take care of the puppies as fall turned to winter, as snow became more frequent, as they were more often told to “move along,” or “choose to be arrested,” (a phrase members of law enforcement like to use, which I think helps these potentially well-meaning folks to feel okay about taking a homeless person’s blanket from them).
Alas, Marie—who has been taking in abused and disregarded animals for nearly forty years—responded to their request for help. Already in Denver, Marcus met them that night, picked up the puppies—five days old at the time—in their carrier, as well as the momma dog, and the next morning I was told (at six-thirty in the morning pre-coffee), “One of the puppies is not eating! You have to do something!” This said by a woman to whom Marie has offered housing for a few months now. I squinted—waved her away. With Marie gone on a trip and Marcus busy with school, DHOL and church meetings—with my consuming self-imposed task of applying to graduate school almost complete—I had no good reason to say, ‘No, I cannot help you stay alive, puppies.’
Eventually, about a month later—as I became more and more of a controlling and worrisome puppy-mother—Marcus and I moved the puppies into the tiny house. It would be easier to take care of them this way, I told myself. I continue to walk into Marie’s house bleary-eyed at six in the morning—woken by the tiny, piercing calls of those same puppies just below our loft bed, in the kitchen, blockaded by a wooden fence Marcus built around them—looking for more paper towels with which to clean up the endless waste, and she says, “Good morning, America!” She says, despite my scowl, despite the deepening line between my eyes, “You should write a book on the zen of five puppies.”
So, what is it—I ask myself—that I’ve learned while sharing such a small space with not only Marcus but five puppies and two dogs. Well, that I am not the most graceful when my focus is on the shit—the shit that hides, and hardens, behind our one chair. That when I stumble upon this shit I make strange sounds that Marcus cannot interpret. That I have the ability to roughly handle a puppy if he or she does not listen to me as he falls or steps willingly, joyfully even, into a puddle of his or her own urine. That they happily play in it and then jump on my beloved pillows, tear their buttons off. That even when tiptoeing around our little home my socks do not stay dry. As I reflect on the past couple of months, I think of the morning I woke up with the mom dog clawing at my face at five a.m, needing to go outside. Ah, the joy.
I have tried my best to share this joy with others. I’ve invited Rhiannon and Gabriel—Gabriel was born at the Catholic Worker house two and a half years ago—out to the farm to play with the puppies. Anton and his mother Lucie visited, too. Anton, who is blind, was tickled, again and again, by the puppies biting at his shoes. We listened to an old, fuzzy record, and Anton--thirteen-years-old and with an affinity for jazz--said to his mom and I: "Tap your feet." A puppy wriggled in his lap; he felt the soft edges of its ears. A couple days later I brought a new friend out, an elderly woman, who is currently homeless. This woman loves dogs, and said she “fit right in,” with the puppies crawling up her legs, with our dog, Beer, who is not small, trying to casually sit on her lap, and with the mom-dog leaning onto her side.
Unsurprisingly, I have become attached to the dog with the limp. I sweep the others aside when they try to wrestle him. His head bobbles at me, and I say, “Why are you shaking, Floppy?” Marcus calls him, “Butter,” a name he has been saving up for years. “Are you Butter?” we say to him, his head bobbling. Beer growls as one of the puppies goes for his food.
When I try to consider what has been a struggle—aside from the material constantly pouring from these tiny creatures—it is clear that the not-knowing where they will end up has been most difficult. The mom-dog will soon go back to her parents—who are in and out of a motel room they share with others. Maybe one of the puppies will too, who I’ve named Skunky, with thick, wiry, black hair, interspersed white bristles, who sat on my lap, curled like a pill bug, as I wrote much of this. Housing and caring for these puppies has presented a familiar question to me: How do I sit with pain without trying to fix it?
The homeless woman who I brought to the farm one white day does not want the housing that I tried to find her. She wants to live in a town where her dog is buried. She cries for this dog, her dog. She sleeps in a shelter run by nuns—shares a room with seven other women. Her knuckles are knotted and bulbous; her hands are crunched together. After the farm field trip I buy her snow boots and a jacket. I do research; seven out of the ten senior-housing programs I call say to me, “We have a waitlist. Six months to a year.” A couple say, “Two year waitlist.” When I take her to the one available apartment she shakes her head at the small kitchen. I want to shake her, but she is so small and brittle I’m afraid of what might happen.“I’m sorry to disappoint you, honey,” she says, as we walk out of the building.
And I realize that it is that—right there, which is the hardest for me. To allow discomfort into my space, to be present to it. To just sit in the car with someone who is crying for her dead-dog, whose hands are mangled. To care for homeless-puppies who I will ultimately not keep (well, maybe Floppy—maybe Butter.) To be in the presence of sadness, of longing, and to not either throw myself in front of it or avoid looking at it at all. Sure, there needs to be more affordable housing. Sure, if someone does not have a coat, you buy them one, or you give them yours. But you cannot—I cannot—heal anyone. As I’ve watched the mom-dog love up on her puppies—so instinctively, without question, as I’ve watched her clean their bottoms, as she lay nearly upside down so that they all might be able to nurse, as their small, slippery, seal-bodies either became stocky, or ballooned—she has taught me something about love. About loving. Without guarantee of anything. Any kind of reward. It is so simple for her. And I hope when the puppies are adopted, when the mom-dog goes back to the streets, when I say goodbye to Stumpy who bounces, light as a grasshopper, I hope—I hope I have the strength in me to spend more time with a woman who is sad, who is lonely, who I cannot help, to whom I cannot give purpose—I hope I will be okay.