OUR DOG, ROXIE, THE EXISTENTIALIST
The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (4/25/08)
Our dog, Roxie, the existentialist, is neither a theoretician nor an historian. She doesn’t deal with first principles or precedents, instead she lives in the moment. As I scratch her ruff, run my hands through the soft hair around her neck, and cradle her head, her pink nose glows with a moist luminescence, twitching in the breeze. As she and I luxuriate in the moment, we talk “of many things: of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings.” She's our therapy dog.
She has a few bad memories, the Dalmatian that attacked her after we adopted her and before that the car that struck her, depriving her of a front leg. Now and then, she whimpers in her dreams, but also in those same dreams she runs through the fields on all four legs. Other than that, her world is now which is also one of the blessings of gardening, gardeners being existentialists, too.
A dog’s low forehead is a dead giveaway. They don’t have much of a cerebral cortex. A consequence of our massive cerebral cortices is that we worry. We stew about our yesterdays and fret about our tomorrows. We worry so much that we forget to enjoy the now as in walking by a bouquet of roses without stopping to smell them.
As with Roxie, gardening is therapeutic. It brings us back to the present away from our indignations, worries, and ideologies. Getting down and dirty is not only good for the body, but the soul as well.
While Roxie isn’t a powerhouse cognitively, she has a lot more emotional intelligence than most cognitive powerhouses I know. She senses people up fast, sniffs out fraud, and listens for tone rather than content, knowing the real message is in how it's said not in what's said.
Physiologically, we return to sanity by activating our neurons digging in the dirt, and with that we increase our serotonin which brings us a feeling of well-being and a shot for the immune system. Not bad for a little work with a spade.
It all starts with dirt, like sticking a spade in it and turning it. Then it goes on to something else, to the pleasure of physical sensations, like taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight. It's downright impossible to walk by a Galina tomato vine, a Siberian, dripping with golden cherry tomatoes without popping a few in the mouth. Once the molars squish that orb and juice squirts onto every taste bud in the mouth, the saliva begins to flow, carrying with it a tingling taste of acidity along the sides of the tongue and a soothing touch of sweetness on the tip, then one has had an existential moment.
Those existential moments are also therapeutic moments when feeling with our senses, we are drawn out of our caves dark with regret and indignation. There's always something keeping us back in our dismal recesses where we survive as victims in the shadows of life. The sensory delights and physical pleasures of gardening in the sunlight beckon us out of and beyond those eclipsed Platonic caves, affording us the possibility of becoming prevailers over the past and pilgrims with a future rather than prisoners trapped in our shadowed malaise.
To smell a rose is to release anxiety. To bite into a fresh tomato is to relish the immediate. To spade the earth is to activate neurons and increase serotonin. And there's something else. It's in caring for something or someone else besides ourselves. Far better than the illusions of self-image and self-esteem, the key to a life lived at the full is in focusing on something outside ourselves. Our sense of ourselves and our dignity rests in the value of that to which we give ourselves.
Gardeners leave the world better for their presence, at least those gardeners who don’t blanket their gardens with pesticides. As an avocation, gardening enriches the world. Luxuriating in the moment, gardeners do well by doing good, believing as did Albert Camus that deep in our wintered spirits, there is within us “an invincible summer.”
Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2008