by Mara A. Cohen Marks
My home is an oasis of beauty and order, but as much as I enjoy it, I spend most of my time in my head. Which sometimes feels like a dangerous neighborhood.
That’s why I’ve started meditating. It’s a remodel for my internal landscape.
I’m carving out time each day to just sit quietly. No multitasking, no worrying about the future or rehashing things that happened in the past. Just paying close attention to what’s happening right now, moment by moment.
And in this moment, I’m perched in a lovely half-lotus atop my brand-new meditation cushion. Although my eyes are closed, I know the cushion complements my bedroom’s decor. Its curry color looks quite handsome against the wheat-colored background of my antique wool rug from China. This pleases me. What’s more, although my eyes are closed, I know the brand-new standard poodle napping beside me atop my antique wool rug from China will not shed. This also pleases me.
In point of fact, the poodle’s eight years old, so it’s only brand-new to me. My daughter was the main reason there’s a poodle in my bedroom. She’s wanted a dog for the longest time. “Oh Mommy, see that fluffy dog? Isn’t it cute? Please, can I have a dog? Someday? Or at least a fish?” But every time my daughter said, “dog,” I envisioned slobber on my silk upholstery, scratches on my glossy black floors, and fleas in my Egyptian cotton sheets. I felt like a failure as a mother, more concerned with maintaining the museum-like atmosphere of my home than with my daughter’s happiness.
I wasn’t entirely sold on getting a dog, but my interest was piqued when I heard about an eight-year-old standard poodle that needed a home—a retired show dog who’d given birth to several litters of champion poodles. Such a dog would be obedient and even-tempered. As far as dogs go, this one sounded ideal.
But adopting a champion standard poodle is an entirely different prospect than say, bringing home a fish. Prior to welcoming such a creature into my home, I wanted to feel confident I’d be able to welcome her into my heart. My husband and didn’t tell our daughter what we were up to the day we went to meet the poodle. I stroked the poodle’s curly black fur and enjoyed its surprising softness. I held the poodle’s long, elegant muzzle in my hand and admired her regal face. I imagined how comforting I’d feel at night, knowing the poodle was there in my room, asleep on the antique Chinese rug. The poodle and I gazed into one another’s eyes, and I decided that yes, I could open my heart to such a creature.
I imagined my daughter’s excitement to finally have a pet. She’d have her pet, and I wouldn’t have to contend with an untrained puppy.
Come to think of it, my mind is like an untrained puppy. Notice how my attention just wandered off—replaying events of the recent past that explain why there’s a poodle beside me right now? And the thing I need to remember right now is that I’m breathing. I’m perched atop my meditation cushion, paying attention to nothing but my breathing. I’m paying attention to my breathing as I sit atop curry-colored meditation cushion that complements my bedroom decor beside the poodle napping on my antique wool rug from China.
The poodle sure sleeps a lot. I hope she isn’t sick or anything. That growth by her rectum doesn’t look so good. It’s probably nothing. Her veterinary records indicated it wasn’t anything to worry about.
The next day, a veterinarian recommends surgery to remove the growth beside the poodle’s rectum. But his floors are dirty, so I decide to get a second opinion. The veterinarian at a well-regarded animal hospital where the floors are immaculate explains the poodle suffers from an enlarged perianal gland at imminent risk of rupturing. I present the poodle’s health records, which indicate the perianal gland in question had been surgically removed two years earlier, but the veterinarian at the well-regarded animal hospital with immaculate floors is unimpressed. “They probably didn’t get all the cells,” he shrugs.
The poodle undergoes surgery later that week. It costs approximately what a reputable poodle breeder charges for a healthy puppy, but afterward she’s given a clean bill of health. Back home, the poodle spends most of the next two days sleeping. She dozes on the antique Chinese rug while I read instructions for a walking meditation by Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet,” he writes. “… every step makes a flower bloom under our feet.”
That night I awake to the sound of the poodle barking. Undoubtedly she’s attempting to alert me to an intruder. Glancing at my husband’s unoccupied pillow, I surmise that poodle has mistaken whatever action movie my husband is watching downstairs for an intruder. “It’s okay,” I whisper groggily. But the poodle keeps barking. “It’s okay,” I say again as I stagger out of bed. I head toward the bathroom where my robe hangs from the hook on the back of the door. I tiptoe over creaky hardwood floors until I feel the antique Chinese rug under my feet. “Shhh,” fearing the barks will wake my daughter. “It’s just Daddy watching TV—”
My voice trails off as my right foot slips on something cold. Recovering my balance, the ball of my left foot comes down on something squishy. “Oh-no. No, no,” I chant. My stomach tightens as whatever I’ve just stepped in oozes between my toes. Hobbling on my heels, I traverse the remaining distance over the antique Chinese rug to the bathroom, punctuating each step with my desperate mantra: “Oh-no, oh-no, oh-no.”
I reach the bathroom and flip on the light. Time stands still while I struggle to comprehend what my eyes are seeing. My feet are covered in brown sludge. Turning to face my bedroom, it is as if an army of Buddhist monks have conducted a walking meditation there, tracking enough dung across the antique Chinese rug to fertilize an entire meadow of flowers.
I conduct a triage operation on my feet and bathroom tile and return quickly to the bedroom to assess the situation. The situation is not good. The poodle, its vision obstructed by a lampshade-shaped surgical collar, paces the antique Chinese rug. Coppery marsh-like paddies are spaced irregularly over the wheat-colored wool. Several paddies bear smeary imprints of feet—some human, some canine, some both human and canine. “No, no, don’t move!” I plead. “Stay!” I correct myself. I lift the poodle, careful to avoid her sutures, and carry her to the stairs.
“Help!” I call my husband’s name in a loud stage whisper so as not to alarm our daughter, then louder: “Help! Help me!” I stagger down the stairs toward the landing. In all the excitement, I’ve forgotten my robe, and as my husband and I reunite before the giant window overlooking the street, I have only the poodle to cover my nakedness. Exposing myself in the light of the moon and the glow of the street light, I bark, “You take the poodle! I’ll handle the poop!”
Back in the bedroom, I flush what’s flushable and scrub whatever’s left over with Nature’s Miracle, a scented product meant to prevent repeat offenses. Why? Why? Why? asks my puppy-mind running in circles. Stop, I command. The poodle just had surgery, and her bowels are just now waking up. The poodle was barking. The barking was probably the poodle’s attempt to warn me she’d had a mishap. The poodle probably feels terrible about this entire episode. I’m surprised by my equanimity, and I credit my meditation practice.
Sure enough, the harrows of the night recede in the dawn of the new day. I lie in my bed, my attention focused on my breathing. Nothing to do right now but breathe. Outside my windows, the morning sun kisses the top of the eucalyptus tree, and I watch the branches sway gently in the breeze. When I’m ready, I rise and inspect the antique Chinese rug. The wool feels coarse where I’d been scrubbing, but the color seems fine. This rug is very old, I tell myself. Probably it has been through worse. As for the poodle, the veterinarian has given her a clean bill of health, and with luck, she’ll see my daughter through her high school years.
Wearing her surgical lampshade collar, the poodle snoozes beside me while I settle into half-lotus on my meditation cushion. I close my eyes and feel my lungs expand and contract. I feel the cool rush of air through the tip of my nostrils as I inhale. The smell of Nature’s Miracle is very strong. It reminds me of Tang. Did the astronauts really like that stuff? I feel my shoulders relax as I exhale. I inhale again. Do I smell poop? I peek at the poodle to reassure myself she’s still sleeping.
After dinner the next night, I’m cleaning kitchen when I hear the click-click of the poodle’s claws climbing the stairs. Isn’t that sweet, I smile to myself. The poodle is tired and has decided to retire to the antique Chinese rug. Fifteen minutes later, I head upstairs toward my bathroom, intending to floss my teeth. When I reach the landing, I look up, and the poodle’s eyes lock on mine. Her face, framed by the lampshade collar, wears a mournful expression. “What did you do?” I say accusingly. I tell myself not to jump to conclusions, but my heart pounds with dread. I race up the remaining steps and down the hall to my bedroom.
I arrive at the doorway and flip on the light. I’m dismayed to discover that the poodle hadn’t gone upstairs in innocence. Instead, she’d returned to the scene of last night’s crime with the express purpose of repeating her offense. Anger, denial and betrayal compete for dominance as I take in the tableau—smeary turds deposited at random intervals across my antique Chinese wool rug.
I cry out for my husband who rushes from the den. “Bad dog!” he scolds. The poodle cowers and attempts to run away, but she’s no match for my husband. I think he’s been watching another action movie. He scoops up the poodle and deposits her in our kitchen. Where she will pass another night.
My sleep is fitful, and the sky is the faintest violet when I feel a set of eyes staring at me. The poodle has managed to push open the kitchen door and now has her front paws on the edge of my mattress, two inches from my face. “Off,” I growl.
A few hours later I head to Petco where I purchase a crate for the poodle to sleep in at night. The crate is beige and brown plastic and clashes with my decor. I put the crate in my kitchen. Beige and brown and hulking, it looks like a VW bus. I look at it parked there, and l feel sad as I drink my morning coffee. I look at it parked there, and I feel sad as I sit down to dinner. I move the crate to a corner of my bedroom, near my closet, off the antique Chinese rug. With my eyes closed and my back turned on the crate, I sit on my meditation cushion, and I feel sad. Very, very sad.
“Hello, Monarch Rugs,” says the voice on the other end of the phone.
I tell the voice the size of my rugs and give my address. I tell the voice about the antique Chinese rug and the fact that it is wool. “Wool is highly absorbent,” observes the voice.
“Think you guys can get rid of whatever the poodle is smelling so she doesn’t keep doing it?”
“We don’t guarantee against red wine or pets.”
“Okay, I understand you don’t want to give me a guarantee. But do you think you can get rid of whatever it is the poodle’s smelling?”
“We don’t guarantee against red wine or pets.”
I perch atop my meditation cushion on my bedroom’s naked hardwood floors. The room seems austere and uninviting. I close my eyes, and try to follow my breath. Instead, I follow the click-click of the poodle’s claws as she wanders around the room. I hear her walk behind me, toward my side of the bed. I make my eyes slits, and see the poodle is sniffing my pillow. I close my eyes, and I hear the poodle click-click back to the floor beside me and lie down. I hear the poodle sigh, and I know for now my bedroom is safe. After a time, the poodle stirs, and I follow the sound of her click-click walk to the French doors overlooking my backyard. There she stops. I imagine her crouching in preparation to poop. Opening my eyes, I see the poodle standing alert, ears cocked, facing the backyard. She is the very picture of focused attention.
The full gravity of my situation begins to sink in as the next days and weeks unfold. One morning, I’m unloading the dishwasher while I drink my morning coffee. Turning around, I realize the poodle has wandered off. I discover her standing on the vintage Japanese rug in my dining room, and on the ground beside is a pair of fresh, brown turds. Several days later, the poodle savages a meticulously woven Navajo rug. And twice the poodle lays siege against a humble mass-produced doormat hecho en Mexico. The poodle embraces multiculturalism and does not discriminate.
But I do not blame the poodle. Instead, I greet each doo-doo boo-boo as a fresh opportunity to judge my shortcomings. It’s my own fault for failing to anticipate that even a former champion show poodle would need to be taught where it’s acceptable to “go.” It’s my own fault for not realizing that even a mother who’d raised several litters of champion show poodles would need instruction as to how to navigate her new home and to recognize which door leads outside. It’s my own fault for not watching her every moment. I have to be more vigilant.
This awareness of my failings doesn’t prevent me from feeling irritated and bitter. The poodle anticipates my every movement, and she accompanies me everywhere. Sometimes she’s so close she causes me to trip. I tell myself I should be generous and offer the poodle some affection, some token of reassurance that she’s welcome in her adoptive home. Sometimes I pet the poodle, but inside my heart feels closed and stingy. Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to kick her.
Things were better before the dog. Things were better when my antique rugs were safe. Things were better before I had to pay such careful attention to the comings and goings and bodily needs of the poodle, before the poodle transformed the oasis of my home into a prison.
At night I toss and turn, analyzing each new mishap. In the light of day, the situation appears equally bleak. I sit on my meditation cushion, I close my eyes, and all I can picture is the poodle and her pooping. The poodle’s life expectancy is another four to seven years. I envision that time stretched out ahead, one long trail of excrement leading throughout my once-beautiful home.
“I’m sure the poodle can learn where she’s supposed to poop, but I’m not sure I’m the one to teach her.” I’ve interrupted my husband’s action movie to tell him this. It’s the middle of the night, and I’m exhausted. Sleepless nights have become a regular thing.
My husband pauses his movie. “Look,” he says, struggling to sound patient and reasonable. “Training a dog just takes time. And until then, we just have to watch her, that’s all.”
“We?” I say, my voice rising. “What do you mean ‘we?’ I’m the one who’s stuck here all day! I can’t watch her every second!”
“We should just put all the rugs in storage,” he proposes.
“Turning the house upside down? That’s the whole reason we went with an eight-year-old dog!” Struggling to regain my composure, I express the thoughts I’ve been afraid to admit. “Listen, I know we just paid for this big surgery. B-b-but it’s just not working out!” My eyes turn to faucets and the words tumble off my tongue before I can stop them. “I mean, it’s all I do—keeping an eye on her to see if she needs to poop and waiting for her to poop and cleaning up her poop and never knowing if maybe she’s going to poop!”
“Oh my God, you’re obsessed! I don’t want to talk about the dog and her poop!”
But there’s little else I can talk about. There’s little else I think about. My daughter sees I’m coming unhinged. “Mommy, it’s okay. I understand if we can’t keep the poodle.” I don’t want to disappoint this little buddha. I think of the effort I’ve already invested and the sickening possibility it’s all been wasted. I decide I’m not ready to concede defeat.
I spend hours in the yard, watching the poodle for some signal, some indication she is ready to poop. “Go poo-poo,” I say brightly. “Go poop!” I command. But the poodle seems more interested in eating the herbs we’ve planted in the garden. Tiring of my vigil, I bring the poodle inside. Wearily, I ask my husband to please keep an eye on the poodle so I can meditate before dinner.
Twenty minutes later and feeling quite refreshed, I decide to prepare my family a nice dinner. But there’s been an exciting football game on television, and my husband’s gone off to watch it in the den, leaving the dog locked in the kitchen. When I encounter her there, the poodle greets me enthusiastically. Unlike me, the poodle does not worry about the future, and she doesn’t regret the past. The poodle lives only in the present moment, and she’s forgotten about the three small turds she’s deposited on the kitchen floor while I’ve been upstairs meditating.
But I’ve been meditating and am the picture of calm as I clean up the poop. Sure, I’m disappointed to have missed a teachable moment while I was off meditating. But because I’ve been meditating, I have the clarity of mind to recognize there’s no point reprimanding the poodle for an offense that occurred during some indeterminate past moment I hadn’t been present to witness. Anyway, no rugs were damaged because the poodle pooped on hardwood floors. I have the insight to recognize this as progress. Because I’ve been meditating.
I feel my heart pumping from the morning’s brisk walk as I bow low behind the poodle. “Good girl!” I enthuse in an octave higher than my normal voice. “Good poo-poo!” I make this pronouncement with genuine pleasure. That’s because for the past several weeks I’ve subjected the poodle’s bowel movements to mindful attention—charting their time and location. The wisdom born from this daily practice enables me to recognize the small sack of shit dangling from my right hand as a precious gift. The poodle has given me a gift of freedom, good for the next five hours. During that time, I’m free from worry about the dog, and I’m free from worry about my rugs.
I’m also free to enjoy to the poodle. So later when I settle onto my curry-colored meditation cushion that complements my bedroom decor, the poodle will stand before me. She will stare at me with soft brown eyes, demanding my focused attention. I’ll cup her chin in one hand and stroke the back of her neck with the other. “You’re a goo-ood gir-rel,” I’ll whisper. When I drop my hands to my lap and close my eyes, the poodle will nudge my arm with her wet nose, and I will pretend to ignore her until I hear her lie down on the antique Chinese rug. When I hear her sigh, it will be my signal to focus my attention on my breathing. And to ponder the environmental impact of those plastic bags of poop.
Mara Cohen Marks’s stories have appeared in Alimentum, The Hairpin, Jewrotica, Medium, Mothers Always Write and Pentimento. Her essays and op-eds have been featured by New America Media, Los Angeles Daily News, LA Business Journal, La Opinion, and rarefied scholarly journals including Urban Affairs Review, Sociological Perspectives, and Political Research Quarterly. She holds a doctorate in political science, an invaluable degree for her current position in the field of uncompensated domestic labor. She lives with her family in Los Angeles. The poodle is doing just fine.