I would like, to begin with, to say that though parents, husbands, children, lovers and friends are all very well, they are not dogs. In my day and turn having been each of the above, — except that instead of husbands I was wives, — I know what I am talking about, and am well acquainted with the ups and downs, the daily ups and downs, the sometimes almost hourly ones in the thin-skinned, which seem inevitably to accompany human loves.
Dogs are free from these fluctuations. Once they love, they love steadily, unchangingly, till their last breath.
That is how I like to be loved.
Therefore I will write of dogs.
So begins Elizabeth von Arnim’s delightful memoir All the Dogs of my Life.
I was equally enchanted with Elizabeth when I met her (many many years ago now) in Elizabeth and Her German Garden. On the first page she described listening to the call and response of an owl pair, with the female …beautifully assenting to and completing her lord’s remark, as becomes a properly constructed German she-owl. A few sentences later, wondering what the owls could be talking about and speculating that it might possibly be her, Elizabeth declares that she …shall not let myself be frightened away by the sarcasm of owls.
How could anyone not be charmed?
She was a wonderful find all those years ago and still continues to be so. But these days, no longer newly infatuated, I find myself just a tad critical.
At times, her sentences seem to consist largely of run on commas, and I get feeling a little desperate wondering, in order to sort it all out, where in the world the verb got to. I don’t know if she wrote that way on purpose, or if in acquiring German – she was an English girl who learned German when she married a German Count – English grammar had been re-arranged in her head. I suspect it was on purpose, though, to give her books that just imperceptible foreign flavor. She was very clever and was celebrated in her time for her way with words.
Also, I will admit to being a little weary with her attitude of being mere flotsam in her own life. She never seems to take responsibility for her situations; it’s always a wide-eyed “I don’t know how this happened” or “someone made me do it.” Still, even if I do shake my head, I have to admit, her narration is beguiling.
Back when we first met, I wanted to be her so much that I started writing my own book “Elizabeth and Her New England Garden.” I don’t know if it was my lack of a Pomeranian estate, the dearth of owls or the fact that my German is so imperfect that it has never re-arranged a thing in my head, but my tale never seemed to rise to the sharp-eyed whimsey of the original.
Elizabeth still amuses me enough to want to write about her – but what to say when I can’t wholeheartedly recommend her attitude towards love or life? I mulled that over last night. And just as Elizabeth writes … directly I could talk German I was able to wind my way in and out of the most lengthy and intricate politenesses, and bring out my verb all proper in its place, at the finish, with the best of them. – so, too, I, will bring out my own conclusion, all proper in its place.
The dogs are right.
We humans all need to learn to love steadily, unchangingly, till (the) last breath.
We can begin by remembering that love is a verb, an action that wills the good of the other. It is not a feeling. We don’t even have to like someone to love them. What we do have to do is cut away all our ego-filled words that misdirect our verbs.
We need to put the verb first.