In the fading evening light, I hunted for poop. In the distance, looking like an annoyed maitre d’, the poodle, Buttercup, stood next to a blooming bush of hydrangea. He expected me to throw him a stick, scratch him on the butt, or at least offer him a treat. Instead, I stepped around the grass with a red snow shovel and hunted down the hors d’oeuvres he had left. Buttercup got distracted by a bug and went bounding into the side yard.
This is what dogs do. At core, they are furry machines that convert treats into turds. While that process is going on, they nestle on your feet or nudge you for a scratch, but sometime in the evening and again, in the mid-morning, they assume the position in the yard. Many dogs look to the high grass for their deposits, if they have some small strip of wilderness at their beck and call. Other dogs, raised without the benefit of scrub oak, beach grass, and rosa rugosa, have to rely on someone else with a plastic bag following along behind. One of the first things I learned about dogs involved the grab, bag, and twist of poop collecting. Not coincidentally, the same techniques arose in my practice with babies. In order to become a dues-paying adult, you need to clean up poop that isn’t yours. And you need to do it without too much wincing.
Buttercup looked around the hedge to see if I had cleaned his table off yet. He regarded me with a patient and bemused self-assurance of the professional. Meanwhile, I found two other older and desiccated samples of his work. He watched me lift and throw, then he trotted off to the front of the house.
He wasn’t my poodle. A friend had asked me to care for him while he and his family went off island and I was more than glad to do a favor. Favors, including the removal of poop, both give and take. On one hand, you have to give. You have to get off the couch, turn the game off, and toddle down the street. Whatever personal goals or achievement you had set for yourself on the La-Z-Boy have to be set aside for a few minutes. On the other hand, you need to take. Someone deposits their trust in you, even if it is only for poop removal and dog walking. We are tied to each other with small favors and each knot draws us closer. To not be trusted with the shovel is to be left bereft and alone.
Buttercup came back around and nosed me on the leg. My work, apparently, was not progressing enough for him. I had other duties besides removing his artwork from the last few weeks. On my list, I still had belly scratching and some sort of chasing instead of lolly-gagging about with the spade. At that very moment, a rabbit burst from tiger lilies and went hopping towards the laurel trees. Clearly, someone wanted to play with Buttercup and he flashed away to his new friend.
In a way, Buttercup had a point. I didn’t need to keep poking about in the thickening light. I could let nature continue to take her course, but nature has a way of getting caught on your instep and then getting smeared on the carpet. Besides, we have been getting in the way of nature’s dirty business since we moved into caves and dug outhouses. Civilization exists to put nature out the door, beyond the window, and at the end of a pipe.
I didn’t owe the extra clean-up to my friend, precisely. I hadn’t promised to rid the yard of all its poop, just as I also hadn’t promised to clean all his dishes, change the oil, or fill his beer cooler. However, this seemed as if it was a job that needed doing. Somehow, along the way, someone had blundered and left the turds to petrify. But just because they had been left in the grass by Buttercup (and someone else) didn’t mean they had to stay there. It wasn’t my job, but it was.
Because it is our job to mend the world. Not fix, not create, not re-engineer, just mend. We wear this world out every day with small rips and tears; we leave little turds about the lawn. All of us mean the best, but something happens in between finishing dinner and cleaning the dishes, something happens in between putting the kids to bed and folding their clothes, something happens after they call you with the test results and before the schedule you for a follow-up. The small chores of civilization get pushed aside and sent to the bottom of the “To Do” list. We all carry a heavy burden every day, and some valuable and necessary things don’t make it into the sack on some mornings. Poops stay where they fell because you really can’t carry another thing.
Mending the world doesn’t mean curing cancer, ending racism, and finding ice floes for the polar bears. It means adjusting the burden you carry so you can help with someone else’s. You mend the world by giving a kid a ride home, by mowing the neighbor’s lawn, by tossing the old dog poop into the woods. If you can lessen the burden on your neighbor, perhaps he can lessen the burden on you. And nobody had to shampoo a carpet.
In the dark, Buttercup approached and ran circles around me. Finished with what I could do, I set the shovel next to the house, and led the relieved and exercised poodle back inside. With a practiced air, he sat just beyond the refrigerator and waited for a piece of salami. I found two small slices and set them on the green linoleum, three feet from his front paws. He stared and waited for the magic word. Often I drop a sermon on him at this moment; I ask him to consider Providence and our responsibility to each other on this island. I was one sentence in, when he peered up between his white curls. “Okay.” I said. “You’re Okay.” And the salami disappeared for a moment until it reappeared again tomorrow.