I walk with a friend along the left edge of America. We’re wandering a wedge of sand bordered to the west by the Pacific Ocean, and to the north by the town of Yachats, Oregon. We’re separated from the town by a little river that flattens across the beach, and then surrenders to the pull of waves. We talk about the unique habitat created by the confluence of freshwater and saltwater, and the specialized ecosystem thriving there.
He and I are recovering fundamentalists. Our conversation turns to the allure of legalism – the delicious illusion that life’s choices can be neatly parsed into two simple categories: right and wrong. And we wonder together how we might distinguish between legitimate personal convictions on one hand, and brittle dogmatism on the other.
Into the middle of our ruminations bounds a shaggy Shepherd-Lab mix, black with white-tipped ears, feet, and tail. In his teeth he grips the charred nub of someone’s marshmallow stick, plucked from the cold remains of a beach fire. His expectant eyes and wagging tail leave no doubt about his wish. My friend obliges and tosses the spindly fetch-toy. With undiluted delight the dog retrieves the stick and deposits it at my feet. I fling it Frisbee-style, then scrub off the saliva with a handful of sand. This time, instead of bringing it to us, he swerves south toward the wave-muted sound of his name.
In a few minutes he’s back, along with two dachshunds and two humans. The dachshunds appear sophisticated and reserved, and slightly embarrassed by their large companion’s exuberance. The humans look like seasoned veterans of the counterculture, perhaps teachers or writers or potters. They smile toward the mongrel and apologize for his attenuated cognitive faculties. The woman says, “He has a very limited view of the world.” “Yes,” the man adds, “he sees all things in terms of stick-no-stick.”
We laugh with them, and I note the parallel to binary code. My friend says, “Right! It’s all about zeroes and ones…”
We walk silently for a while. I’m not satisfied with our assessment of the dog’s fetching obsession. Could it be that he isn’t really stuck in a recursive loop of dimwittedness? But rather that he’s endlessly compelled to give up the stick in order to feel the joy of having it again? Maybe he’s intuited the balance of possession and generosity, paired together in a spirit of playfulness.
I glance toward my soul. Sadly, it has the look of a haughty dachshund. Embarrassed by possession, afraid of generosity, distracted from the play at hand… I lift my eyes to the beauty of the beachscape and pray for the wisdom of stick-no-stick.