It’s going to take me a while not to be afraid, I told my husband. Ever since Christmas Day in Bangkok, when a dog that belonged to a friend but that I did not know bit me, I’d felt on edge around dogs. The dog’s name was Luna. She took a chunk out of my left pinkie finger, completely unprovoked. I hadn’t even known she was standing close enough to bite me.
But hours after I made this prediction, at a New Year’s Eve party a couple days after our return from Bangkok, another friend’s dog, named Arusha, licked my right hand devotedly for several minutes straight, as if it were a lollipop, and I felt no fear at all. It was the mulled cider. Some of the sweet, sticky juice had dribbled onto my fingers, to Arusha’s delight. And I forgot to be afraid.
Though I love animals and have a reputation for being a cat whisperer, I’ve been bitten before. The first biting dog belonged to a friend too—most dogs that bite people do. I wrote about this experience in a novel I hope to publish, so I’ll just say the bite involved more than my pinkie, and that the dog belonged to the family of my childhood best friend, who died during a rift in our friendship.
I called home from Bangkok on the day after Christmas, which was Christmas Day in the U.S. and Canada, where my brother lives.
Did you cry? my nephew Cielo asked when I told everyone about the bite.
No, I said, but I wanted to.
Actually, I had cried briefly after we returned to our Bangkok hotel. I’d held it together at Luna’s house, not wanting to make her owners feel worse, not wanting to be seen as overreacting. But being bitten again, even on my pinkie, dredged up the pain of the first time a dog took a piece out of me.
That bite turned out to be great fodder for a scene in a novel. And the writer in me knew before the bleeding from the second bite stopped that I’d write about it too. How could I not? I know my life by writing about it, from it, through it. Most people who aren’t veterinarians or groomers don’t have multiple stories of being bitten. It may be a dubious distinction, but it’s a distinction nonetheless. A curiosity.
But actually, I want to resist the temptation to make myself into a person who gets bitten. I’m all for stories, but some stories are best balled up and tossed in the trash. I want to tell stories that expand rather than limit who I am and who we all are and life’s possibility. I’m more interested in forgetting to be afraid than I am in holding on to fear.
Many people are relieved that 2016 is finally over. The year was particularly rich in pain and loss. Bright lights in the arts made abrupt exits, and darkness ascended on the political stage. But. While 2016 contained a dog bite and various calamities, it isn’t contained in calamity. These past few days, I’ve been counting the year’s blessings. A cancer remission (my husband’s). A month-long writing retreat, a second novel begun. Cherished friendships, new and old. A long-dreamt-of trip to Thailand finally realized.
On this first day of 2017, I recommend you do the same. Your blessings will be unique to your life. Only you can count them, which is a much more useful practice than making resolutions or rules for self-improvement. Unlike losing ten pounds or learning to play the mandolin, gratitude offers instant gratification. In summoning gratitude, you give rise to gratitude. One hand may be stiff, scabbed-over, and trembling, but the other is palm up to the soft, reassuring tongue of love. Without the bite, could I treasure the lick so much?