“Religion i s a smile on a dog.” So says the sage Edie Brickell in her masterpiece, “What I Am”. I was a teenager when the song came out, and I’d yet to love a dog, so the line meant nothing to me. But 23 years and one very good boy later, I think of it most everyday.
My dogboy and I found each other on February 1, 2003. It was the same day that the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in the sky and rained down on Texas, where I lived. I was taking a pottery class at the art school at Laguna Gloria (a beautiful little museum at the back of a city park in Austin) and I was struggling with the wheel. I was determine d to make something more than a lopsided amorphous vessel, and spent hours outside of class in the studio, trying to coax a bowl from a blob of clay. So, there I was, a la Demi Moore in Ghost, bent over that damnable lump that refused to become centered. And in he galloped. A ragged looking, filthy, bony dog. He came straight to my wheel with an air of “Oh! Here you are!” and commenced to drinking the muddy slush in the wheel’s basin. In spite of a bone-deep conviction that he and I were meant to be together, I made a good faith effort to find his owner. He had a collar that was so tight it seemed obvious he’d grown a lot since it was put on him, and no tags. I posted signs and searched the lost dog listings, all the while falling hard for that scrawny dog. After a week or so, it became apparent that he was mine, and that I was his.
I named him Django Reinhardt, after the brilliant jazz guitar player whose joyous music strikes the same sweet spot in my heart that my dog’s smile strikes. And yes, he does smile.
There’s a scene in the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being that devastates me. The Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche characters have what can, at best, be called a troubled marriage. They’ve survived a revolution and his constant philandering, always with their dog Anna Karenina beside them. When Anna develops terminal cancer, they know that the humane thing to do is end her suffering. The couple are crying and saying goodbye to her, when the wife tells the husband, “it’s not that I love her more than I love you, but I love her better than I love you.” That’s it, exactly. My love for Django is the best part of me, and I know that it makes me a better person. And isn’t that what religion is supposed to do?
Billy Collins gets it, this dog as guru thing. Here’s one of my favorite poems:
The way the dog trots out the front door
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.
Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers ?
Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
~ Billy Collins
Or, put another way, religion is a smile on a dog.