Yves Rees: Honour Your Joy
I was harried on my way to the writers’ festival. Harried and flustered, sweating after a dash for the train through the muggy, overcast September that felt at once La Niña apocalyptic and classic Melbourne grey. I was harried because, for the first time in my adult life, I had a dog, and I was fast discovering a basic fact of pet ownership: dogs are hard work.
Unlike my cats, who dream the day away with scant regard for my existence, this new puppy required near-constant attention and care. Walks, play, toileting, training, meals three times a day. To enable my attendance at this literary extravaganza, to permit myself a Life of the Mind, I had to plan puppy sitters, schedule stimulating walks, assemble enticing puzzles, urge pre-emptive defecation.
It was, to be frank, all rather tedious, veritably bothersome.
On the train into the city, I indulged in a tasty morsel of resentment. Perhaps the dog would prove a burden; perhaps it would stymie my creative ambition.
Then, free and unfettered at last, I sat in a hushed auditorium. I sat there, catching the words writers threw into the dark, and I found I couldn’t stop thinking about my manic fluffball of a pup.
We must decentre the human, Aileen Moreton-Robinson told us. As we seek a more sustainable future, we must recognise that “humans are worth no more or less than any other living thing”. Her words took me back to that morning, when I spent 40 minutes inching around the block as the pup mapped every centimetre with her formidable nostrils, and I had glimpsed, for a scant moment, just how limited and partial is our human understanding of the world.
Mohsin Hamid remarked that the internet inscribes a 0-1 binary culture, a mentality of us-and-them, that occludes the messy in-between where our shared humanity lives. That insight reminded me of last week, when I flinched from a young white tradie, all stubble and muscle, my instinctive antagonist, only for him to shower my pup in soft kisses and then wish me a wonderful day.
Hannah Kent and Omar Sakr talked about loneliness and skin hunger and touch, and I recalled that these last months with the pup were the first time in years I’ve shared my pillow with another heartbeat. And I realised these were the happiest months I’ve had in years and that maybe, just maybe, these facts were related.
“Writers don’t even know when they’re working,” said Helen Garner, quoting Nadine Gordimer. They need time to walk around and look at things, she explained. They need time to “lie on the bed and just read…or just lie on the bed.” And I considered my new practice of strolling the dog park, a daily routine that felt scandalously idle and without purpose. It wasn’t work; it wasn’t socialising; it wasn’t even proper exercise. I was just staring vacantly at trees while the pup nosed the grass. But Garner, our antipo-Didion, made me regard it anew. Was this dog-mandated ambling a necessary luxury, a time for my overstimulated brain to wander, my version of just lying on the bed?
Art, after all, is the practice of making “your unknown known”, Robert Dessaix insisted in his closing address, quoting Georgia O’Keeffe. There would doubtless be no space for that alchemy without the occasional reprieve from emails and doomscrolling, Word docs and zooms, podcasts and Peloton. If my unknowns came even the slightest bit knowable, it would likely be thanks to the dewy canine exuberance of All Nations Park.
When I came home from the festival, the dog peed on the carpet in excitement, jumped atop the snoozing cat, then ate a leaf from the monstera and stole my sock.
“You’ve taught me so much,” I whispered into her fur. “I’m sorry I ever doubted your worth. Sarah Winman said we must honour our joy and I honour you.”
Before I could continue, she squirmed from my embrace and started chewing a copy of my newly published book. Within seconds, the pristine cover fell victim to her sharpened incisors.
And that was the final lesson: less ambition for myself, less regard for the hungry ghost of ego, more ambition for the world.
Zelda the pup said it one way; novelist Jennifer Down said it another. “Our individual ambitions can be modest; our collective ambition, however, should be boundless.”