I walked this puppy today.  His name is Reaper, so called not only because he looks otherworldly, but because his owner, a youngish, otherwise-healthy guy, went into cardiac arrest a month before the puppy was to come home with him.  I’d met the puppy and the client on Monday, but not until today had I seen him outside, in natural light.  His eyes were positively haunting, as are many Weimaraners’, but they were almost uncannily piercing, light and ethereal.  His entire puppy body, his color and light, reminded me of a time about 15 years ago when I went by myself to Pensacola Beach on a fairly warm but cloudy, foggy day.  Pensacola Beach (at least the parts of it that haven’t been raped by commercialism) is beautiful in itself, with its sugar-soft white sands and its blue-green waters.  But on this particular day the beach felt like the threshhold between this world and some other, mysterious and haunting and beautiful.  As I sat on the sand and watched the grey-green water and sky, I remember thinking to myself, “Keep the image of this moment in your memory, and come back to it when you need peace and rest.”  And, it seems, I have.  I love those “thin places,” as the Celts call them, where you have a sense of being almost able to touch the world(s) beyond our own.  My sister had a similar experience on a trip once, and wrote a beautiful poem about it.

But something in this haunting little puppy brought me back to my fascination with the space between heaven and earth, those borderlands that both entice and frighten us.  Transcendent moments like these also, however, fill me with longing and with a not-always-comforting reminder of my own mortality, my own contingency.  Julia Kristeva, a 20th-century French feminist-theorist, calls this the abject:  those sights or experiences of death that remind us of what we need constantly to forget in order to live.  She calls it  “the ambivalent, the border where exact limits between same and other, subject and object, and even beyond these, between inside and outside, and disappearing—hence an Object of fear and fascination.”  For example, we experience the abject when we are startled by the sickening sight of a dead body or some sort of human excrement or body part that thrusts the implacability of death (and the promise of our own some day) into our faces.  (Hence the ever-present human fascination with horror movies, vampires, zombies.) 

I took AE for a check-up with her otolaryngologist on Monday, and as we were waiting for the doctor in the examination room, AE noticed the anatomical diagrams in the posters on the wall.  One in particular showed a frontal view of a man’s face, where parts of the skin were left off so that one could see the location and structures of the sinuses.  AE pointed to it and told me, “Him have paint on his face.”  To her, the diagram was not two- or three-dimensional, including both the surface of the skin (to make the face recognizable as face) and what lies beneath, our sinus cavities and nasal passages; to a 2-year-old it was simply a man with face paint on.  But I found myself feeling vaguely sick at the sight of it, as well as others around the room, featuring, for example, a woman looking askance, with a “normal” face but her ear and neck naked down to the muscle and cartilage.  I realized that such anatomical drawings always make me uneasy; I’d prefer one or the other– either a drawing of a body, its surface only, or an anatomical diagram of veins, muscles, organs, bones.  But those drawings that feature half-living, half-dissected/cadaverous bodies are exactly, to me, what Kristeva calls the abject.

All that is to say that there was something about this little puppy named Reaper, who, with his piercing, intelligent eyes seemed to inhabit both dog-world and human-world; and who with his grey-green coloring seemed a visitor from the world beyond, the meeting of sea and sky, that made me realize once again how fragile my sense of self (its permanence, its transcendence) really is.  If I didn’t believe in God or in heaven as that resting place of  (as my friend Susan calls it, from a book she once read) “the heart’s deepest longing,”  I think I’d feel pretty terrified and hopeless in moments like these.  Instead, I rest my heart in the knowledge that this world is not the only one I’ll ever know, and give thanks for those moments when the border between the two worlds seems comfortingly thin, the presence–and promise–of God always near.   When death comes for me, I imagine he’ll look like a grey-haired, green-eyed puppy.