Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sharing My Life With Atticus & Will On Social Media

Atticus Maxwell Finch and William Lloyd Garrison, unabashedly themselves.

As a reader and a writer I do my best to avoid clichés.  I like original thought and choose the authors I favor for the way they make their words dance across the page.  As a writer, when I’m at my best, the words flow in an original pattern. When I’m not, I write, rewrite, and then rewrite again. As a last resort, there’s the delete key. I’d rather put nothing out there, than something that is tired and uninspired.  

My life is much the same way. I believe it’s important that we embrace whatever it is that makes us shine as individuals.  That’s one of the reasons I spend time with the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Einstein, and others who embraced the song of each soul. 

We all have a song, our very own, and by celebrating it we become part of the greater symphony that lends itself to the glory of life and focuses on what is possible, instead of the mundane. 

This same philosophy is at the heart of my relationship with both Atticus and Will. I choose to see each of them for who they are as individuals and avoid the cover-all, mindless clichés of breeds . . . or even of species.  To me, Atticus is simply Atticus.  Will is simply Will.  Just as my human friends are not classified by being straight or gay, married or single, Irish or African.  I don’t like blanket statements.  They ignore the tiny bits of miracles that make us all unique and potentially exceptional. 

When I see someone refer to Atticus or Will with one of these clichéd terms, it really is foreign to me. For in each of them I see a thriving individual with strengths, weaknesses, peculiarities, peccadilloes, and personalities as fragrant and special as the ones that make up all of us.

I reject most blanket statements about dogs, just as I do about people.  If ever there was a title that reflects my philosophy of what makes all of us, human and non-human animals, special it is Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  How fitting a title.  It’s no wonder that those I’m closest with and mean the most to me, all have their own songs. 

And this to me is the most interesting challenge of sharing small portions of our lives on social media.  I protect my own individuality and the right of those I care about to be individuals.  In contrast, much of social media can be clichés.    

We have a quiet life in Jackson. It’s simple and devoid of much the kind of drama one finds in supposed reality TV.  When I see it coming, I quickly walk the other way.  I weed our lives as carefully as a garden.  In spite of this, life is not boring.

The other night I surprised a friend of mine when I told her, “Since moving to the mountains, I keep more to myself than ever, and yet I’m never lonely.” 

And it’s true.  I find the stunning beauty of life all around us: in these grand mountains, in our tiny yard, on our comfortable couch.  I believe it’s because I choose to see the extraordinary where in the past I often saw little more than the common.

Three of us live together in our home. We are as different as could be.  Just this morning Will woke up, looked at me, and defecated on the floor as if it was the most natural thing in life. He then trundled around the other side of the bed and let loose a stream of piss.  Atticus stood looking down on him from atop the bed in stunned amazement, as he often does when Will acts this way. Meanwhile, Will made his way into the kitchen looking for breakfast as if nothing happened.  I laughed aloud at the comedy of Will, and Atticus’s observations of Will.  Atti then turned his raised eyebrow towards my laughter. 

Oh, believe me, I didn’t always laugh when Will showed up and shit and pissed on the floor and then thought nothing of it. No remorse. No need for penance. For twelve years I’ve lived with Atticus and can’t remember the last time he did such a thing.  Although once during chemo, he did lose control of his bowels in the middle of the night but came to wake me up to take me to the accident and show me.  But when it comes to Will, what am I to do?  It happens at his age. 

I’ve scheduled regular visits outside for Will so that it rarely happens any more. But after a long night inside, these things sometimes happen.  The comedy lies in Will’s cavalier attitude about it, and Atticus’s equally stunned response. 

Of course when we go outside I carry Will in my arms and he collapses comfortably into them. Atticus trots down the stairs. Once outside Atticus moves easily, Will mechanically.  When we come back in to eat, Atticus dispatches his food quickly.  Will eats a bit, leaves it for a while, and comes back to it when he is ready. Breakfast can last for hours his way.  With treats it’s just the opposite. Will, if I’m not careful, will nip my fingers in his hurry to wolf down the morsel, while Atticus ever so gently takes hold of it and looks me in the eye while doing it. 

One of them sleeps most of the day. The other feels out of sorts if we don’t climb at least two mountains a week.  One sleeps with covers on, the other doesn’t.  One likes to snuggle down, the other is impatient and uncomfortable doing that. 

Atticus came to me at eight weeks of age and other than the imprint of his soul, he was a tabula rasa – a blank slate.  He has been carefully nurtured his entire life. Will arrived twenty-two months ago at fifteen wearing the results of years of neglect and abuse.  In the nearly two years he’s been with us, I feel as though I’ve been an archaeologist as we’ve uncovered his true life and let him shine for what he is – a mixture of nature and now of nurture.  Like Atticus and me, Will is a product of his what he was born with married with his experiences.

I understand that Will and Atticus are dogs and I am human.  We have different biological needs.  I pay attention to those, but the rest is not so different. The way I see it, we mostly want the same things out of life.  We want to be happy, healthy, safe, loved, and respected.  We want the right to be who we are and to make individual choices.  In a human world, although it’s not always easy, I do the best I can with it and it works for us. 

It’s a work in progress for us.  Life always is.  I’ve learned a lot from Atticus, and from Will, but each of them have learned a lot from me as well.  It’s a dance in four part harmony. There’s Will, there’s Atticus, there’s me, and there’s what the world throws at us.  This is the journey I protect and respect.

And this is why social media can be a struggle for me at times.  I have a hard time relating to those who use clichés to describe dogs or breeds or who say, “My Tilly is just like Atticus.”  Such thoughts are foreign to me.  Not only that, they wring out the best parts of life and leave behind the parched and the dry.  I would prefer to think that Tilly is just like Tilly, and no one else and that she has someone in her life that recognizes that about her. In contrast to this, I enjoy when people post about a dog in their lives but don't mention the breed.  Instead they mention the dog's name.  I automatically feel a kinship with someone who doesn't attempt to sum up a dog by his or her breed.

At the other extreme, I find myself uncomfortable with the clichés of those who deify dogs.  You know the old tired terms. I'm owned by my dog. Dog is God spelled backwards. Who rescued who?  I do believe dogs are miraculous, as are all animals, but that includes humans.  We're not so bad ourselves.  Sure we have our shortcomings, but every species does.  I prefer to see the relationship I have with Atticus and the one I have with Will as a two way street.  I'm partial to Carl Jung's philosophy, "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed."

When it comes to our lives on our little corner of the Universe, I like the way things are. Atticus is Atticus, Will is Will, and Tom is Tom. We are each unique, each special, each both strong and vulnerable, and each of us is filled with the stuff that stars are made of. 

Life is more than the same old same old.  It has to be, if it’s worth living. It should be fresh, renewing, exciting, and filled with . . . well, life! At least that’s the way I see it, and that’s one of the songs of myself.

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
     origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
     millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
     look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
     spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
     from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

                              ~ Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself


Unknown said...

Your post today is exactly what I needed.
Some heartfelt thoughts to consider and you made me laugh out loud.
I am thankful for your words thru "social media"
While a lot of it can be abuse, you have created whether you realize it or not, a group of what is now some 50K facebook followers for no other reason than that you inspire people. I consider your blog essential reading in my life.
Felt you should know that.
Makes me think differently, appreciate what I have and more than anything else - compassion in life.
Keep it up, not for my sake but your ever growing ranks of followers.
Yes, onward

Cynthia said...

I agree with a lot of what Ed C wrote. This blog and your Facebook page feels like a safe haven of kindness and original thought. It's appointment reading for me!

Anonymous said...

Oh my! I'm laughing out loud reading about Will's start to his morning today! You are very kind to take it in stride Tom. I can picture Atticus's judicial look.

Anonymous said...

Tom, whether or not you intend it, I like the way you tweak the dog obsessed by insisting that Atti and Will have a right to be themselves. These are important boundaries to keep in a social media world that does it's best to make you what best suits them.

Your friend Cal from Newburyport

Carter W Rae said...

You do have the gift of making one think and analyze the dynamics of it all .. Some days as Will did in the morning that is the only "comment" available :-) I absolutely understand the fact that Atticus looks on with a raised eyebrow is also consistent with his usual dignified attitude ... very enjoyable as always Tom .. your crew is such a joy to share.. With your wish to be private we out here are grateful for you choosing to continue to give us these 'Atticus" moments that are uplifting for us all in this turbulent sea around us Onward by all means from us Carter & Stacy all the very best to you three ♥♥♥♥

Anonymous said...

I understand why people draw comparisons; it is the shared traits that allow us to talk to each other meaningfully. But I agree it is the unique and individual traits that make talk and life interesting and worthwhile. We are lazy and all too often see and live stereotypes. That is why I enjoy your blogs so much; they challenge us to do better.


mlaiuppa said...

I love e. e. cummings.

we are so both and oneful.
night cannot be so sky.
sky cannot be so sunful.
i am through you so i.

I think allowing my Ramses to be Ramses makes me a better me.

Unknown said...

I loved what you wrote today.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to reading about your adventures with Atticus and Will. I have the book, but have not read it yet. I look forward to that experience! Best wishes to you, Atticus and Will.

Anonymous said...

Your comments never cease to leave me smiling and feeling an inner peace, contentment and appreciation for the simpler life. I am truly grateful that you continue to share your lives with so many of us. It is a tremendous gift. Thank you, Tom!

Sandy said...

I have read a memoir and two newspapers today, yet nothing has moved me as much as your blog. Your spiritually, tolerance, and respect for the uniqueness of each individual's integrity is so rare. Even though we may never meet, I am glad your book and posts make it possible for you to communicate your ideas to a very appreciative reader.

Diana Mortz said...

Thank you Tom, Atticus, & Will.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the post, so enjoy what you share <3
Enjoy the weekend
Blessings all

Unknown said...

Thank you again Tom for all the special moments you share with us. I never miss a blog post and look forward to each one. Onward by all means! Hugs to Atticus and Will!

Barb and Riley said...

18 months ago I put my Riley in the car and moved from the east coast to the southwest for a job. The mountains are so different here. I'm sure to some they are spectacular. To me they are devoid of experience. I miss the northeast. I understand your oneness with nature and I miss it. I hike the Sonoran desert and it gives me little comfort, nothing like my home state of Mass.
Somewhere around 8 months in Riley started peeing on the floor in a spare room. He doesn't seem ashamed. He doesn't avoid the room when I'm home. I've tried putting him on a schedule that worked quite well at home but doesn't here. There is no physical reason for this per my vet.
I guess it's just Riley being Riley. Maybe he doesn't feel calm here just as I don't.
So I lay down layers of blankets in that room that I launder frequently and I have the rug shampooed regularly. My friends think I'm crazy and want me to call a behaviorist. I don't know why. He's the same goofy dog when I'm home that he always was. Just for some reason he needs to pee in this foreign house in this foreign land.
He's being Riley.
We'll see if it changes when we move back this fall.
Riley is 9 and is a great dog. He has his reasons.
I don't want people to think this happens regularly. Just on occasion.
I like thinking of my dog as an individual being. I don't compare him to other dogs, for good or bad. Since I first got him at about one year of age he has always been his own little being, very independent.
Thank you for making me feel "normal".

Btw I'm new to your page and blog. Looking forward to reading your book.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. truly make me think every day.

Georgia said...

Tom, thank you for sharing your life with us, for the book, your blog, the FB page. Your kind and loving words of the life you three live is so peaceful to those of us who read them. Thank you.

Tim M. said...

Tom I have only been following your Facebook page for a couple of months and just found your blog today. I have a lot of catching up to do. You have a true gift for such insightful writing about life, and dogs. Thank you so bring peace into my hectic life.