The Feast of the Friendly Beasts is just around the corner, October the fourth.
Saint Francis I am not.
One of my favorite hymns may not be familiar to you. I am sure you will recognize the tune but not the sacrilegious text – written by none other than Eric Idle of Monty Python. It goes something like this:
“All things dull and ugly
All creatures short and squat
All things rude and nasty
The Lord God made the lot”
And it gets better …
“Each little snake that poisons
Each little wasp that stings
He made their brutish venom
He made their horrid wings”
Monty Python takes a sweet and childlike hymn and rips it’s heart out. Not very godly, huh?
This was not always my favorite version. Back in the 70’s I was entranced by “All Creatures Great and Small”– not from the hymn but the BBC series of the same name. Based on the quaint stories by the country vet, James Herriot, each episode featured the good doctor birthing a calf, setting a broken stallion’s leg, inoculating sheep, or chasing down chickens. Idyllic and bucolic, this pastoral little BBC program boasted some pretty green grass — grass much greener than the stuff that grew in my backyard.
When I was a child, my mom firmly believed that animals belonged outside. At my house there were no such things as “house pets”. We did have a dog, a Dalmatian named Molly, but she lived in the backyard. Not particularly well trained, she bit one of the neighbor kids. My dad in canine parlance pronounced her a “bitch” and off Molly went to live at “the farm upstate.”
Then at about the age of seven, I came home with a stray cat. I was mesmerized by its green eyes, but even more so I marveled at its miraculous ability to always land on it’s feet. I named it “Twinkle Toes”. With my mom’s red nail polish, I painted my new cat’s name on a cardboard box and lined it with dish towels. My mom called Animal Rescue and the dog catcher came and took my cat away.
I vaguely remember a gold fish or two after that floating at the top of their bowl. Followed of course by a quick prayer and a flush of the toilet.
But then I saw All Creatures Great and Small, a virtual revelation to this teenager. Inspired, I worked two part time jobs. The first was one disastrous week at a veterinary office. Wearing scrubs and rubber gloves I cleaned and hosed down kennels. It was cacophonous with cats crying and dogs barking. It was odiferous and challenging to my olfactory glands. One sunny, summer morning I arrived at work to find my co-workers stuffing a dead dog into a large, empty dog food bag. All Things Bright and Beautiful it was not so I quit on the spot. I lasted all of seven days.
But I wasn’t ready just yet to let go of my dream of working with all creatures both small and great.
Then one Christmas vacation, I took a job at a pet shop in Arlington. And for a while it was blissful – feeding the fish, taking care of birds, playing with puppies. But it did not last too long. On Christmas Eve, a customer came in to pick up the two little white zebra finches he had chosen as gifts for his daughter. I helped him pick out a cage, choose the bird toys, and recommended the best birdseed. Then I carefully reached my hand into the cage to retrieve each tiny bird and place it in a cardboard carrier box – to ferry the feathered creatures safely home. But as I pulled my hand from the cage, the tiny little bird wriggled free. It wriggled free and flew straight into the store’s front window — straight into the monkey cage of a monkey named Franics (yes, Francis!). Francis caught the little bird and popped it into its mouth. That’s right. Francis ate the finch — on Christmas Eve. All ThingBright and Beautiful it was not and I was fired on the spot.
So twenty years on, I swore that as a parent things would be different. And so my kids did have aquariums and gold fish bowls. Growing up they had three cats — Lucy, Katrina and Rotten Tommy. Rotten Tommy was a much beloved smoky gray cat that loved my son, Zach. Rotten Tommy followed Zach everywhere just like a puppy would. He slept on his bed and brought him little gifts like dead mice and captured crickets. Zach loved him so much that when Rotten Tommy went to his greater glory, Zach asked our rector at Immanuel on the Hill to add him to the Sunday prayers. And add the cat he did — to the prayers for the departed – as Mr. R. Thomas.
And then there was Bailey…. Bailey was supposedly my baby boy’s, Jacob’s dog. So eager to have a dog of his own, Jacob at the age of 10 signed up for an after school 4-H Class on pet care. He learned how important it was to walk them, feed them, brush them, play with them, and teach them tricks. Who could refuse such a deserving ten year old a dog? It took a while to settle on what size and what kind but we eventually found Bailey. Half Collie, half Golden, he was happily already housebroken. Bailey was blessed with a sweet temperament, barely ever barked and he was profoundly stupid. Yes, stupid, I say with affection. Bailey barely knew his own name. Part Collie he was no shepherd. Part Golden he was no retriever. And for the last nine years Bailey, Jacob’s dog, became Joani’s dog. Joani’s therapy dog, so to speak.
Jacob recently moved to North Carolina and now lives in a house with a big back yard. At first I begged Jacob to take Bailey with him. Bailey would be happier there of course. But then my bipolar brain thought better of it. Comfy on my couch, I could comfortably just stay inside. Buried in my books, I could easily wind up staying up late reading just about every night of the week. Living happily inside my head, I could possibly not make it out of my living room. Hooked on Hulu, I might just become a hermit in my own house.
So Bailey became a balm for my bipolar brain. He walked me several times a day. He got me out into the great outdoors whether I liked it or not. And he got me out and about – sun, rain, sleet, or snow. I could make no excuses. Bailey was my personal trainer putting me through the paces — 10,000 steps a day. And Bailey introduced me to my neighbors– the three little girls with the German Shepherd, the middle aged guy with two mutts, the couple downstairs with the Golden, and the woman across the street with the Westie — the Westie who always wears a sweater no matter the weather.
It was not quite All Things Bright and Beautiful but I must admit it was a good and joyful thing to live with and (dare I say) love this dog — Bailey, the stupid therapy dog — may he rest in peace.
So friends, tell me all about your creatures great and small.
Note: To my loyal readers who might notice, this is an update of a previous post from May of 2014 — in honor of the Feast of St. Francis. Bring your beloved creatures great and small to the Blessing of the Animals, Sunday, October 4th, 11:30 a.m. on the steps of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Rd, Alexandria, VA, 22301.