Of Artists and Thunderstorms and Dogs That Whine in the Night

There is a price you pay for being the best-loved. The little dog’s hot breath sears my ear; her panting turns into ululation. There is no sleeping now. We’ve got ourselves a thunderstorm and a dog in full panic mode.

I flail out of bed, wondering how Mark can think I’m even a tiny bit fooled by his pretense at sleeping, and stomp downstairs. No longer have I the slightest doubt where the expression “dogged my heels” comes from. The little dog’s head stays one scant inch from my ankle as we wander into the kitchen. I put the tea kettle on; she’s with me. I get my tea mug–the one with the Carolina pine and the crescent moon– out, unwrap the tea bag, pince out a spoon, and grab a saucer. The dog moves when I do, panting.

There are worse things than being up in a quiet house, panting dog quaking at my feet. At the dining room table, I set up my IPad in its clever little keyboard stand. I check my email, clean out an inbox, read some linked articles. I sit facing the bay window; the other window is to my right. Lightening flares and both windows brighten. The dog moans, and thunder follows.

It’s quiet, and in the quiet, I begin to pick out sounds, kind of like picking out threads when embroidery goes wrong. The refrigerator soughs. I realize a train’s horn is wailing mournfully in the distance. The air conditioning considers, then shudders, and shuts down.

The rain begins abruptly, pelting and pummeling.

It’s a pretty noisy brand of quiet, now I think of it.

I’m reading Nancy Horan’s new book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, about the romance between Robert Louis Stevenson, a Scot, and the American Fanny Osbourne. She flees a whoring husband; he strides away from a sickly childhood. They collide in France and fall in love after a fitful start. She has children; she has a husband back in the States; he’s impoverished. She is ten years older. Life-tides separate them.

And then Stevenson plunges after her.

They’re artists, and I think about that, how artists just go after the thing that they need, without doubting or contemplating. They just–thank you, Nike, — do it.

Sigh. My soul, although it salutes the ethereal, is rooted in the practical. I think of the adjunct faculty member who sat in front of my desk and called me a bureaucrat, adding thoughtfully, after a pause that took entirely too long, “No offense.”

I hustled him out of my office–although he was more than willing to stay and argue his point–and spent the next two days arguing with him in my head. “Sure I have to insist that you do your paperwork, Bucko,” I silently told him, “because without the paperwork, there’s no money. And without the money, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, you don’t teach. And without the faculty, the students don’t grow. And it’s all about the students and what doors we can open, isn’t it? And if that makes me a bureaucrat, well, then, Buddy, so be it.”

I finish, silently and singly, with a majestic flourish, making a point so devastating none can argue with it. And the words circle the brain drain and flush, never to be uttered. Not that they’d have made an impact or changed a mind anyway.

Bureaucrat? Bourgeoisie? Middle manager? Ah well. For years I wanted to want to be an artist, but the truth is, I love the whole process of getting a thing done, of planning and collaborating and implementing and seeing a project through to its fruition. And then making the participants do an evaluation survey, and collating the data and sharing it.

I would not, as Stevenson does, throw everything into the one last chance–all my money, all my emotion, all my relationships and opportunities. I would keep a little something aside, have a bit just in case the endeavor flopped, belly up and dripping, despite the grand passion.

That’s not such a bad thing, I’ve come to see, and it’s good that I feel that way, because it is who I am, cautious and restrained, but admiring of grand gestures. And it’s fun to read about the poets and the painters, the wordsmiths and the musicians whose whole lives are wrapped up in the pure pursuit of artistic ideal. I can appreciate their work, and I can stand astounded at the prices they paid for their amazing achievements. But I will always have an extra loaf of bread in the freezer and enough toilet paper stockpiled to last out a Buffalo-style blizzard.

My mind has wandered far from the book, from Stevenson climbing onto a steamer to go to California and rescue Fanny. It’s wandered far from the annoying dog and the noisy storm. I realize that the rain has stopped, the thunder ceased. The dog, snoring by my left foot, has relaxed into a gassy torpor. The room’s a little blue; my tea is gone, and it’s time to sleep, for real.

The dog will follow me upstairs where she’ll circle her bed and sigh and fling herself back to sleep. I’ll crawl under the covers and answer Mark’s “Hmmm? Whuh? Everything Okay?” with a mighty and persecuted ‘Hmmph!” The house will settle into that after-storm hush, and I’ll drift out to sleep, regretting the late night tea, but too lazy to get up and do anything about it. The thunderstorm, like a grand passion, is mighty and awe-inspiring to witness. But the best part is the cool and calm of the aftermath, the sense of refuge and safety, as sleep comes to claim me.

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