Dear Benny: On Persistence & Our Capacity to Live

Janice Lee



In the book I am writing, there is a scene that describes a group of pigeons committing suicide. That is, the pigeons, distressed at having their home demolished, have become depressed, and have learned how to jump in front of oncoming cars most efficiently to kill themselves or to simply stop eating and fall to the ground, the piles of pigeons a constant reminder of the efficacy of death, the ephemerality of life.

In my book, which deals with many things including the apocalypse as a state of anticipation, memory, the difference between ontology and perception, empathy, I realized that most of all, the book was some way to process both the directly given and silently inherited traumas we receive in our lives and the ways in which we can learn from animals urgently and slowly, how to press on, how to know, how to stand still in the intolerable weather and to appreciate the tears and to stand in the bathtub, cold and wet and heavy, because the trust is stronger than the general condition of life and because the curvature of intimacy ignites a willingness to sit still. The novel started with a series of images that I could not get out of my head: namely, a girl washing blood off her hands and a cat. But the images refused to coalesce into a narrative and as I was still dealing with the aftermath of my mother’s death, an abusive relationship, and my changing relationship to language, the words would not organize themselves, not yet. Then when I was visiting Brenda Iijima in New York, her cat, Mr. Bungie, jumpstarted my novel by talking to me in my dreams, and then, after my return to Los Angeles, arriving at my front door in a dream covered in blood. In that dream, I answered the door and there was Mr. Bungie. He entered the house, and I managed to snatch him and bring him to the bathroom sink, where I washed off the blood and then washed the blood off my hands.

Recently I have been thinking about the birds lined up in neat increments and the persistence of animals in the cold and the wisdom of cats and all the reasons to love rather than to give in to despair and the circling hawks and my dogs and all the dogs and the price of longing and desire, and I am worried about the cat that has stopped coming by at night and I am worried about my dog Benny who turned 13 years old this year and I am looking for the birds in the sky but sometimes they are not there and I am thinking about all the different ways of “knowing,” and I’m so grateful for the wisdom and generosity of animals and for all the different ways of knowing that they can bring into our lives and what we can know only by attempting to be as generous as they are with us, and I can’t stop crying and I can’t forget the ways in which the intimacy we have with animals is the capacity to live and the ways in which we can communicate with each other is not only the failure of language and the gap between us is the reason for desire and the desire is to exist and to exist together.

Isn’t every story one of intimacy, then distance, then intimacy then distance again? Remember that your ghosts and your memories are not only your past but also your future, and that in the end, what we have is each other, already ghosts, already holding each other, already so far apart.

What is the benefit of rationality or irrationality when an emotion does not equate with distance and distance does not equate with the amount of love that exists or doesn’t exist between two creatures?

I can’t articulate the distance between myself and my dog, nor the utter closeness. This distance between us as displaced as the particles of sky that make up the sky and today, over here, the sky is no longer blue and it is windy and through my window, while listening to “Something On Your Mind” by Karen Dalton, the leaves and branches are waving in the wind and because the window is closed and because the music is playing I can not hear the swaying but I can see it, and that, too, is a sort of untraversable distance.

I have learned more about the complacency and communication required in relationships from my dogs than I have from people. I have learned more about the possibility for magic and irrationality of survival from the feral cats, than I have from television. And I have learned more about the arbitrariness of time and the grief of the sky that carries us forward from the birds of this city than I have from any book.

We are talking about feelings, aren’t we? The wavering distance between creatures. Shall I indulge in the details? A person meets another person. They decide they love each other. This is not simultaneous or immediate. Neither is it equivalent. Neither is it so different from digging a hole. Because in love one sees clearly, and one doesn’t see at all.When you reenact the moments, do you see a clear and cohesive timeline? Do they move from the space of a void to a space of fullness? Is that how this is supposed to work? Because if you want to ask, how is love embodied, felt in the body of a person and in the body of a space, and in the body of time, and if you want to ask, how might someone be in front of you, living, often, there, the precursor and prohibition of freedom. One asks, “What is the state of a world that runs from friends?” But for animals, it isn’t so complex. Complexity isn’t a virtue. When Benny feels joy, he is joyful. When he feels alone, he is alone. When he feels hunger, he is hungry. These are not such simple equations when we have language and when we see time as moving constantly forward, the burden of progress.

We humans insist on the fact that time is linear. But animals know that it is also cyclical and simultaneous and for those of us who have quietly suffered trauma and abuse, subtle and quiet and gradual and pounding, we understand that time is both complex and immediate and delayed and deferred and ever-present, and in the fibers of our flesh we remember pain but not always joy, and grief becomes ordinary and we move on, we keep moving on, because that is how we have been trained to survive. Why survival? Here are all the bruises and the bodies shoved back and forth, without blinking, because in the blinking I have already forgotten, and what I do remember I can own, and memory is not always honest and words are not always true, but listen, it is the capacity for intimacy that matters.

There are so many questions. How is it that animals help us realize our capacity to live? Why do we sometimes so easily dismiss encounters with animals and yet others will weigh on our consciences for days? Why do we insist on holding onto our dead pets, collecting their hair, preserving them via taxidermy? How do we communicate so well with animals sometimes when we can hardly speak to other humans? Do we know how much the animals give us without asking for anything in return? Do my dogs love me differently than I love them? How is it that we see so differently? How is it that we exist together?

I might admit here that the future I currently fear most is the future without Benny. How might I prescribe language to a wordless relationship, communicate the unique co-dependency a human shares with a dog, share with someone else the noticing that becomes part of intimacy, yet also communicate that part of what constantly haunts the distance between myself and my pet is also the history of my own ghosts, my own struggle with depression, my own question of why go on at all?

Dear Benny, I want to admit that what I fear most is your death, I don’t know how I will survive it, but I don’t want to put the burden of my future grief onto you now because I know you will just absorb it and you will just try and take the sadness and lay your head on my stomach and the look you will give me, that look of, “It’s okay, Mama,” will only break my heart again. I want to admit that I fear your death will devastate me even more than the death of my mother, which I am still reliving, now, as I write this, but that also the devastation I feel daily is part of all this, you, me, our lives in the morning when you wake me up every morning by jumping under the covers or onto my chest.

Dear Benny, sometimes when you are sitting in my lap I hold my breath because the faith I had in the fidelity of your expectations had to do with the faith I had in the fidelity of my own expectations, and I need to believe that there is still another space I am living towards, and I know that you recognize my fear even before I am aware it exists and you seem to ask me, “Mama, what are you waiting for?” And I don’t know how to answer that question.

Dear Benny, the words so often fail because the distance between words is so different than the distance between bodies, and though I live for the language, I live for your silence even more. Your gestures and your paws and the quick movements of your ears and the darting of your eyes, the point is that emotions are unnameable but still important and that without words you understand me better than any human I know, precisely because they are unnameable, precisely because they are felt, precisely because you exist.

Dear Benny, the point is, I’m not in love now but I was and I used to be, and the mistakes I made have got to be turned into something other than rage or guilt and I have to believe that there is a towards ahead of me, but you know that it is this present that is equally important and that in the silent moments I can outlive the expectation of living and what you give to me I will never be able to repay and you do not ask me to. You do not ask me to.

Dear Benny, I don’t yet know how to write about a trauma that is not mine, yet invisibly and with utmost uncertainty, I have inherited its wounds and I keep trying to write about it anyway. My fear is that you have inherited this from me, and that my wounds have become your wounds and the wisdom you turn back at me is also a repercussion of my own pain and the pain you have created in yourself in your generosity as a dog, lying next to me, the intimacy as all that is needed in order to persist.

Dear Benny, it is you, most of all, who has taught me to persist.