I’d begin to climb the stairs and I’d hear him whimpering. A few more steps, a scratch at the door. By the time I’d open the gate onto the porch, Festie would be barking, but not the alarm bark: he’d be barking the sharp yelps of joy. Though I have been fortunate enough to know many dogs, I have known very few for most of their lives. I was lucky in this case and got to meet Festie when he was a puppy, still being housetrained. He was a challenge, houstraining wise: even though he tried his best, when the people he liked the most walked into the room, he would get excited, run up to them, and completely lose bladder control all over the rug or couch or coffee table or my shoes or anything else in range. It was a response determined by his all-consuming joy at seeing his favorite people, and for a few of favorite people, it lasted beyond his puppyhood. I seemed to be one of his favorite people.
For years it would go like this: I’d climb the stairs and open the gate, walk to the door to the sound of the yelps, but once the door was opened, and he confirmed it was me, he would run and hide under the bed in the next room. I would sit on the couch and visit with my friends. While I drank my beer and talked, Festie would slowly crawl out from under the bed. Then, still in the other room, he’d watch me quietly. Eventually he’d come into the living room, find the furthest corner from me, sit, and make eyes at me. Beautiful, loving, longing eyes, but he would not approach. He was afraid of losing control, so he kept his distance.
Finally, I guess he’d finish giving himself whatever pep talk he needed and he’d slowly walk over. Doing my part by being careful not to excite him too much, I’d hold out my hand and he’d give it a tentative lick. Then, assured of his control, he’d lean on me and get his head scratched. As I talked, Festie would find ways to work himself closer and closer, almost imperceptibly, so that it would not be uncommon for me to note that I’d finished my beer, only to realize I couldn’t get up because this dog had managed to drape himself across my lap and lean his head on my shoulder. He wanted to be close, but he had to get there slowly, because to jump in all at once would be to abandon himself to his excitement, lose control, and get fussed for pissing on the rug.
As we age, we refine our experience of joy. The joy of a newborn is simple, reflexive, all consuming and, representing a trend that haunts us all our lives, short lived. When we grow older, we learn to associate joy with specific events, places or people, and though we become more discerning regarding its cause, we retain the ability to be consumed by that joy. But once we break into adulthood, that discernment tightens; we grow concerned about the implications of our joy. We partition it off into limited reactions for narrow events. Joy and happiness become defined so specifically they get to be nearly unattainable, and as compensation we teach ourselves how to be satisfied with the subtler pleasures of peaceful contentment.
But some people, and some animals, never let go of the child’s all-consuming joy. They never allow that happiness, that love of what causes them so much excitement, to diminish, but they don’t allow it to conquer them either. Instead of forcing their excitement away, they learn to control it, and though it’s intensity never abates, they find ways to release it slowly, with intention, because they know they’ll get whooped if they piss on the rug. Joy doesn’t have to be diminished to be controlled.
That’s what Festie taught me.