"And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name": Mister Wilson Is A Good Dog

There’s a new dog in the Ortberg-Lavery household this week by the name of Wilson – Mr. Wilson, as I have been calling him, is actually a bastardization given to him by Nicole’s eldest child Amelia – who’s staying with us as a guest for the next week and a half. As you might imagine, I’ve been almost frantic over the prospect of getting to ruffle his ears and speak to him, and it’s been simultaneously thrilling and painful to have an animal in the house again. A few times in the night I woke up to the sounds of Mr. Wilson snoring, and the sound was so like Murphy’s snores that my heart leapt within me to think somehow the laws of magic and attraction and confusion had summoned him back into bed with us. He is in many ways so like Murphy – same teacup head, same stout gravity, same feathered ribbons of fur along his paws, same smartly-saluting wing of tail, same habits when eating peanut butter from a spoon – that the ways in which he is not like him come as a surprise. Mr. Wilson is in rude good health where Murphy was a shivering collection of broken-down parts, a rag and a bone and a hank of hair. Mr. Wilson is not offended by being picked up and carried. Mr. Wilson smells good, and has tidy white teeth. His back feet splay differently when he sits, his ears flop over in an unlike arrangement to Murphy’s milkmaid hairstyle, he wanders throughout the house and settles down in unfamiliar locations and shapes.

I find myself anxious that Grace should see the ways in which I am desperate to be tender with a dog. I have always found it a little worrying when someone claims to prefer animals to people, and listening to someone else’s Dog Voice can become wearying and inane within minutes. But part of the dog-hunger I have suffered from over the last month is soothed by Mr. Wilson. One of the best things about a dog is that one can spend the whole day, if one wishes, narrating what one is doing in the kindest, most cheerful voice, that would (rightly) irritate and baffle a human being if used on them. I speak to Mr. Wilson as if he had to have everything explained to him in the minutest detail (which he absolutely doesn’t) and encouraged as if he were shy of committing even the smallest physical action (which is again untrue). Here we go, Mr. Wilson, let’s go up those stairs and visit the roof. There’s a step, Mr. Wilson! Up we go, and there’s another one. You’re thirsty, aren’t you, boy? Let’s have a little water, here we go, have some water from this bowl right here. Which then becomes not just water but some good water, as in: Let’s have some good water! Let’s have a good little drink of some good water, isn’t that good. And so on, endlessly throughout the day, as if I were a character from Dickens named Mr. Jollyeffort. Mr. Wilson and I are both perfectly aware that all of this is for my benefit, not for his, but it doesn’t bother him in the least to be the recipient of my manic positivity.

A dog provides one with an excellent opportunity to live out the words of the prophet Isaiah: Do not call what is evil good, nor good evil (Is. 5:20). The Bible is full of the pleasures of accuracy-in-naming – not quite “I calls ‘em like I see ‘em,” neither so idiosyncratic nor so defensive, but in taking correct measure of and full responsibility for things. The pleasures of the person Eve-and-Adam, who was both a community and a worker, came in cataloging, in identifying, in recognizing, in naming, in affirming – God’s work among God’s creatures.

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:26-28)

There are several accounts of how Persons came to be in the book of Genesis, and unsurprisingly this one is my favorite. God begins by speaking to himself, by making a delightful announcement and establishing the number of gifts he plans on giving someone else, then lists all the things he has already made in a pleasurable recitation (We had a good day today, Mr. Wilson, what did we do? We went on three nice long walks, and you saw all those other dogs, and they liked you and your good red paws, and you had a lovely supper, and you ran down the corridor, and you smelled all manner of flowers down by the water, and now you’re nestled cozy up in bed). Persons are unlike Creatures, in this account of creation, and yet they are recognizable and known to one another, and bear different kinds of responsibility to one another. Persons have been given the task of creating more joys and pleasures in an already-pleasurable world, of exploring, of establishing meaningful authority, of establishing care, of identifying life and offering it the rights and privileges that are all life’s due; one might spend a great deal of time examining the word subdue but I don’t especially care to. One might summarize this portion of Genesis as: There are many good ways to relate to animals and to life; Persons have been tasked by a creative principle to explore them all.

I don’t remember who first claimed that the voice one uses to talk to animals is the voice one would like to use to speak to oneself; it sounds vaguely plausible in the way that most of my horoscopes do, but also a bit too neat to provide the whole story. But Mr. Wilson’s visit has made it clear to me that my desire for cheerful narration as I perform the tasks necessary to self-replication (cleaning, eating, stretching, drinking, walking, doing the washing-up, ignoring my mail, etc) is immense, and it requires a dog to work – if I say those things to myself I feel ridiculous and infantilized, and if I say it to another human being, I’d likely (and rightly) be begged to knock it off. But a dog’s capacity to absorb repetition is equally immense, and in this way persons and dogs are uniquely suited to one another. There is no end to Mr. Wilson’s ability to receive acts of affection and reassurance throughout the day, and a dog delights in establishing comfort and meeting its physical needs in ways I often forget, avoid, attempt to draw out, or manipulate in myself.

Mr. Wilson is so like Murphy in his calm, grave regarding air, and yet he is not my dog, who died even though I love him. They inhabit life in the same manner, but it is not the same life. In college we had to study the various theories of the atonement as a graduation requirement, the crucifixion, alternately, as a ransom-offering, a substitution, an act of showing-off, of making-up-for, as a cosmic demonstration of power or love or both, as an example, as a substitution. The idea of substitution falls in some ways flat for me. The problem of death is such a specific one, and no amount of life-in-general or intensity of life-in-another can make up for the life that is lost. Mr. Wilson is the greatest dog in the world, and as like to Murphy as a living dog could be, and yet when I woke in the middle of the night and thought it was my little dog lying at my feet, there was only one little dog in all the world that could have answered. No other dog would do, and my exact dog will not enter the world again. No life ever repeats, although we may repeat acts of life throughout the day, either towards ourselves or towards our creatures. We had a good day today, Mr. Wilson and I.