Old Dogs

I traded advice with my daughter the other day – we were talking about the brave leap that all creativity requires. It can’t happen if you belabour and pummel yourself. It takes courage and self-forgetfulness. She knows this as well as I do. But there are any number of ways to undermine yourself.

I know that reading poetry first thing in the morning renews me – helps me enter my own writing with fresh energy. Instead of poetry, however, I often drift into the crossword, whose answers I can’t solve without cheating. Or The Globe and Mail, which never makes me glad to be alive. Well, seldom. Sometimes an obituary will perk me up.

This week I read about the cowboy poet Harvey Mawson, dead at 81, whose earliest years were on his great-grandfather’s Saskatchewan ranch. His backyard was “mile upon mile of open prairie – the Brightwater Marsh with its rich bird and plant life, the exquisite sand hills, and the Round Prairie, where a group of Metis had settled in the 1850s.” As a boy his greatest pleasure “was to explore this land on horseback, learning its secrets.”

Ah, to be a cowboy.

On a recent walk to the river in the surging February light, we came upon a man and a dog, the golden retriever wide and happy, the man ready with a friendly hello. Coming behind them at some distance was a smaller dog making slow, steady, dainty progress. She was eighteen years old. Blind and deaf, but happy to be out on a clement day. Her fur was mostly grey and her body was like my mother’s back, curved and shrunken. Nevertheless, she managed to be stately in her dotage. The man said that the younger dog, only seven, had always looked to her to see how to react, and now that she was blind and deaf, he still looked to her.

The same day we brought my mother here for dinner. She paused before the arduous climb of our front steps, looked around, and said with her special alacrity, “The snow is puissant!”

It’s not the first time a French word has surfaced to startling effect in her addled conversation. In the Oxford dictionary there it is: ‘puissant’ meaning ‘mighty, powerful.’

“Chapeau!” I said, and raised my hat to her.

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