The Dog Journal That Became a Diary of the Sky

November 25, 2020 § 13 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

Our new puppy has upended my careful writing schedule. No more early morning writing, no time to myself first thing to revise. For the first time in years, my internal marching orders at dawn don’t lead me to the Italian Moka on the stove filled with espresso powder, and then my laptop. No, my first task each morning is to let Caramel out into our yard, then feed her before returning to the yard, where we spend an hour or so playing.

Freedom of movement – and the freedom to write, in my case – are restricted. My partner and I have blocked off certain rooms of the house and confined ourselves to the kitchen, as we sit vigil with the dog, weathering once again the doldrums of infancy. Instead of our son’s infancy, it’s the puppy’s infancy (if that makes sense). A life of disrupted sleep, limited outings, confined spaces – and scant writing.

Even with the pandemic restrictions still largely in place, it’s been a trying time since we picked Caramel out of the litter. I spend much of my day throwing the frisbee or coaxing her to do something other than chew everything we own.

This not only upends my writing day – it threatens to undermine the life-changing habit I’ve scrupulously cultivated since getting serious about writing eight years ago.

Or does it?

I have found that mornings spent with the sky, enveloped in the suspended air – when the day is still in the birthing stage – are transcendent.

The sky is always there, isn’t it? There above me now, like every moment that’s come before. But forced to spend hours under its shifting gaze, I feel as though I am only now noticing that it’s a chameleon, a compass, an all-weather friend. You could hang it in a museum, so compelling is its composition.

As I age, I’ve come to crave the outdoors. Yet one morning last month, when I looked up at the blue cathedral roof above me, I felt as though I were seeing it for the first time.

As night turns to day, the sky is a paint swatch, slowly progressing through shade variations. Yesterday as I stepped outside with the dog, the sky was initially grey, ominous, uninviting. The only respite was the twinkle of the moon cres​​cent above. Ten minutes later, a bit of pink shading on the clouds in the east emerged. And in the western part of my sky, the sun reflected on ordinary windows became something extraordinary. Straight above me, steely grey parted to reveal soft blue sky while the windows remained ablaze, like a Turner painting.

Although I keep a computer diary, I also buy physical journals so there’s always a spot for my thoughts even when I am away from my computer. I am currently filling a novel-sized journal whose navy blue cover is decorated with stars. Since tending to the dog, I’ve stashed the journal by the back door to record her early months. I can sometimes write while I pace the yard with her, taking a page from the poet Mary Oliver who wrote as she wandered the woods near her home.

So I began my so-called dog journal by noting Caramel became fussy if I read the newspaper. She was afraid of the cars passing the front yard. She loved eating my hibiscus plant. And she’d quickly captured our attention.

But something happened as summer mutated into fall. At 6 a.m., my first instinct as I headed out into the yard was to look skyward.

The dog journal became a diary of the sky.

This morning, the sky as my day began was leaden, and a lattice work of patchy clouds moved over its surface. Moments later, the clouds turned puffy, their edges lined ever so lightly with pink. The pink of the sun, beginning its ascent: Breathtaking. After a few minutes, the pink faded and the sky journal became the office window journal as the sun set ablaze the glass on a building downtown.

As we’ve left the summer behind, the minutes of daylight have changed while the dog’s wakeup routine remains the same. One morning last week, I rose early enough to see a single star twinkling above my house. Another day, I woke up after a fitful night of sleep and found the sky was almost electric blue while the air seemed to quiver.

Perhaps what I’m afforded when I rise with the dog is unfiltered morning. When I wake up to write, I glimpse the morning at a distance through the windows, my focus elsewhere. Out in the yard with the dog, by contrast, I am one with the air and the temperature. I may not be writing, but I am nurturing the seedling in the brain that gives rise to writing. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”

I shouldn’t be surprised to find it all so fascinating. As a journalist, I’ve learned almost any topic sparkles when you can examine it further. Even banking! And I have long followed Mary Oliver’s other bit of wisdom: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Still, I had spent years enshrining the hours between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. as my time, writing as long as possible — typically, until my son stirred. A fine, productive habit.

But last year, when I set my annual goals, I wrote, “Live more, write less.”

Writing this piece, I cheated a bit, jotting down thoughts in the starry journal as I stood in the middle of the yard (Mary Oliver would approve). Living and writing. Because living spurs writing. Right now, it’s about the kingdom of the sky. When my life takes me in a different direction, the living will spur a new kind of writing.

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. She has won a short-term fellowship at the New York Public Library where she will study Holocaust literature by Italian women writers.

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