On the Corona Island with a Dog

In a draft of my memoir Soul Mate Dog: Becoming Fluent in the Language of Dog, I write: “At the risk of being ridiculed, if I were banished to a deserted island for the duration of my life, and could only choose one being to accompany me, I would pick Brady.” Although I knew that a human would surely outlive Brady, I wrote that my ideal companion was my beloved German Shepherd. In the era of extended corona quarantines, these words resonate with me more than ever. The isolation feels a lot like being on an island away from all of our humans. But when we can’t hug, when we have to stay at a six-foot distance from one another—wondering if it will be good enough, or if we will succumb to the virus anyway—we still have the right to touch our animal companions close-up without masks.

Dogs across the United States have benefited from the virus insofar as animal shelters report a surge in adoptions and fostering. New York City shelters are receiving ten times the usual number of applications to adopt and foster, partially because the city that never sleeps has become the city that never goes out. That’s every dog’s dream: unlimited time with their humans. The increase in adoptions also reflects the human capacity for compassion in an era when rent and food are challenging to cover, let alone dog food and veterinary bills. People have discovered what I have: dogs make good soul mates. 

Dogs’ affection is unconditional, and it is reciprocated. When Brady jumped onto the bed to nest with me, his velvety cream and cinnamon ruff tickling my cheeks, an unmatchable warmth spread through me. I stroked the black and tan fur on the top of his head while he licked my cheeks in return. “Have I told you today that I love you?” I would ask him softly, knowing that I had. 

In my memoir, I write that I had never loved anyone before like I loved Brady. And I proved it. I recount the harrowing story of how we went to the brink of death while he was in an extended doggy lockdown at the emergency hospital in 2013. “I will go to the moon to save you if I have to,” I kept telling him as he battled Leptospirosis—a spirochetal bacteria oddly similar to the Lyme disease I fought. The days multiplied in his unanticipated confinement at the hospital with no end date in sight. Losing him was my greatest fear, in an era where discrimination, climate change, economic and political volatility plagued the earth. 

As I contemplate why I was so afraid of losing him, and why I had never loved anyone like I loved him, I wonder why I picked Brady to be my one companion on that hypothetical island that is no longer a fantasy in 2020. Before I submit the memoir to yet another round of literary agents, I must answer this question: Brady was unquestionably my soul mate dog, but why was my soul mate a dog? I realize that something in him touched me that humans don’t. 

When I was a child, I had parents that frequently told me they loved me, and I knew they meant it. But they were the happiest when I showed signs of being a child prodigy as a saxophonist. I had a loyal husband, albeit one that spoke to me sometimes in harsh tones reminiscent of his Soviet origins. Brady did not expect me to be a super star. Thank goodness, because I’m not. Brady didn’t growl at me in Russian upon occasion. Good, because I would have hidden in the closet. What Brady did have was limitless reservoirs of attention, love, respect, compassion, and kindness at his disposal. He generated this reservoir because he radiated love. I didn’t have to do anything, be anything, achieve anything to receive his love. He gave it to me freely. 

In turn, I got to know him, much like kindred spirits take the time to learn one another’s traits, capacities, and personalities. I learned that he was a lot more than what scientists and Western philosophers said he was. And I never took out my own character flaws on him; he brought out the most admirable traits in me. That’s the story I tell in Soul Mate Dog, a story that shows why I gave Brady everything I had from my love, time, and money. 

Today, I am sheltering in place with a one-year old Swiss white shepherd named Genji who has been a light-filled member of my family since he was ten weeks old; I would take him to my Corona island, too. His name means “shining prince,” and Genji does shine light on all who encounter him. Every morning we have a reunion ritual that involves him licking my face with abandon while I kiss his nose, and we throw distance to the wind. I catch my husband whispering nonsensical endearments to him. I watch my baby crawl over Genji and pull his teeth and ears, and I marvel that he doesn’t flinch; rather he treats her with as much patience as my husband and I do. When I see them sharing bones and Montessori wooden toys, I think he is like the Buddha in a puppy’s body because he is so gentle, so compassionate. When we swim in the ocean, I see that he didn’t get the memo on social distancing because he swims up to every child in the ocean to play, and he runs down the beach to greet every dog and human walking by. I watch Genji race through the water at low tide experiencing a freedom that no human can know right now.

I’m elated for Genji to have broken out of doggie lockdown. I’ll live vicariously through him right now since scientists claim that dogs cannot transmit the virus to humans, so while I can’t hug, he can offer affection to all. “I’m sorry; he is friendly!” I offer to beach walkers when he bounds up to them with a wagging tail and a smile. “We love it! He’s beautiful,” they reply.

Genji and I make ideal Corona island mates because we commune without arguing, without grumpiness, without residue from childhood wounds creeping into adult interactions. When we run together to watch the sun rise, we have an understanding about pacing and rhythm. We radiate nothing but love for one another. As I did with Brady, I communicate with Genji through what I call the language of Dog in Soul Mate Dog, which relies on animal communication techniques that I explain at length in my memoir.

Dogs merit being our companions on deserted islands—especially on the metaphorical ones we are all on right now with no end in sight. So, to all the dogs and humans out there: snuggle up and celebrate your interspecies love; find comfort in one another in the era of Corona vicissitudes. 


For Those that Feel Imprisoned By the Travel Bans

         I was born clutching a globe as I exited my mother’s womb. I yearned to cross borders as soon as I learned they existed. When I studied the history of my globe, I dreamed of tracing ancient Persian culture without the Ayatollah’s dogmatism, and strolling the literary streets of St. Petersburg without an iron curtain in the way. I was skeptical of American exceptionalism by the time I reached my teens, so I left home to see what my globe could teach me, eventually landing in both Iran and Russia. When people asked where I was from, I said enigmatically: “I’m a citizen of the world,” tucking my tell-tale blue passport inside a book of French poems. I lived as if I were the subject of Baudelaire’s poem “The Stranger,” for when they tried confining me to one country, I said, “I’m an anti-nationalist.” I moved across the globe as if its entirety was my homeland from Kyoto to Ushuaia until mid-2019.

We all have our pre-COVID 19 narratives. Mine involved a baby in an altruistic gestational carrier’s womb. When I was living in Geneva, Switzerland last year—where surrogacy is illegal—I prepared to nest in the United States with my newborn. Little did I know that the term nesting would transform into less comforting verbs like quarantining and locking down, but I tried to appease my wanderlust first, since nesting did not come instinctually.

To bid Europe what I thought was a temporary farewell, I ran through the Italian Alps on a solo hiking trip in the sublime Dolomites. I bade adieu to my adopted family in Southwest France before a final farewell in Paris, where I had lived for several years in my youth. I lunched with old friends in restaurants where waiters poured fennel froth on my roasted sea bass, and sprinkled it with lavender. In the library of the Ritz, looking upon Proust’s portrait, I finished the last draft of a memoir I was writing about my recovery from Lyme in Siberia. Finally, I returned to the United States never leaving our nest, months before Corona erased our cherished quotidian lives.

By late February, after many months of bonding with my tiny family member, I choreographed short flights from the nest. The blank pages of my day timer filled with writing conferences in Geneva, a birthday dinner in Gramercy Park, and a series of weddings in Europe that would take me to Ireland, Italy, and beyond until the last days of 2020. But by the end of my first adventure—a module for teaching advanced meditation that I attended at Kripalu Center for Yoga in Stockbridge, Massachusetts—I was catapulted into a new world on March 15th that robbed me of the globe I had clutched since birth. 

 “But I have been in lockdown for months already,” I cried out to friends over Zoom. By May, all weddings were cancelled, and my novel writing retreat went two-dimensional; my fellow writers squeezed into tiny boxes on my laptop screen. There was no exit in sight. 

By late June, when Europe closed its borders to the United States indefinitely, I realized that my pre-lockdown of 2019 had become a meta-lockdown, that I would be imprisoned in the one country where I did not want to be. The one country where the virus had gone viral. Where people protested the wearing of masks when they should have been joining the great protest against racial injustice. Where people licked toilets in ignorant defiance only to contract the virus that claimed victims on an increasingly arbitrary basis. Where the purported leader proclaimed that the United States had the best testing system in the world, but that more testing produced more cases. “American Exceptionalism Exposed,” I whispered to my old globe, nostalgic for its three-dimensionality. 

When the virus ran as rampantly in the United States as California wildfires do in August, with 60,000 daily cases becoming normative, I realized I could still travel through the world of poetry. I turned to Baudelaire. Reciting the lines of “The Swan” in French with my eyes closed, I sought refuge. “Paris changes, but my melancholy hasn’t moved…My cherished memories are heavier than stones…I think of whoever has lost that which can never be found.” Although Baudelaire was writing about missing old Parisian landmarks as the city gentrified, his mourning that produced a Freudian melancholia mirrored the state of my heart. I had lost my New York, my Paris, my Europe. I had a useless passport, as if during quarantine, the United States had lost its privileges. I became an unhuggable two-dimensional frame on my laptop to commiserate with friends, family, and fellow writers. I lay awake worrying what would happen: to the children and teachers if they were forced to attend school in precarious conditions, to all those that had lost their livelihoods and homes, to the families that lost their beloved to COVID-19, and to those being killed for the color of their skin. I futilely yearned to be elsewhere. But they couldn’t take my Baudelaire away.

Caged as I feel, the elusive voyage lives in the imagination. Thanks to the words of my old friends like Baudelaire, Akhmatova, and Hafiz, and thanks to the words I am clumsily writing today, in the midst of a maelstrom. Collectively grounded, there are gifts for us to receive in spite of the incertitude. I hear the muse clearly when it speaks to me now; it helped me micro-edit an entire novel during the initial months of quarantine. I hear the poetic silence in a sky without jets, a sky that has cleared as we reduce our carbon footprints, and I hear whispers of hope. I imagine a future where we weave parts of our pre-COVID selves into our new identities shaped by resilience, fortitude, and a sense of global accountability that we carry on our travels.