The time that Scuffy had a Xanax is part of this ritual story.
M goes grocery shopping every morning before eight, checks the post office box, has a hot chocolate at the local café, no caffeine. A chat with the barista as he wizzes the milk: she enquires after his own small dog, his new tattoo, his girlfriend in Taiwan. Short motor ride home through sleepy streets. Stark light and high blue skies splashed here and there grey (eucalyptus) and green-green (plane trees – rotten pests, wondrous shade providers). The car motor settles to silent in the driveway and M steps out. There’s the sound of scrabbling claws on wood when her key scrapes the lock in the back door, and then whoosh. Wire door pushes open and a small dog is twisting excited woolly circles at M’s feet. Black and white fur in a blur because she is home. Little leaps, those dog nails at the knees of her blue jeans. Tiny trot-scrabbles on the wood and ‘Scuffy – no Scuffy – hello my little dog – Scuffy down.’
M is slipping off her street shoes, sliding into slippers, and walking through to the bedroom with Scuffy skipping circles behind her. M has two habits that are relevant to this story. She always gets changed as soon as she arrives home, and she always carries a tissue in the sleeve of her clothes. The third habit is Scuffy’s. The doglet sits by M as she changes her clothes, focussed on the sleeve of her sweater. Her eyes track the tissue as it pops out from M’s sleeve and as it drift-drops to the carpet. Delighted, Scuffy sets upon it. She tosses the tissue up with her muzzle, catches it, flicks the tissue left and right with her entire head in kill-mode jerks. Finally, regal as a sphinx, Scuffy lies down with the tissue clasped between her inward-facing paws, and she tenderly shreds the tissue into strips.
The time that Scuffy had a Xanax is part of this ritual story. Because it reminds me that dogs are good for company, for mental health, for our oxytocin levels, and for emotional self-regulation via grounding. Grounding, as Peter Levine described it in 1997, occurs when a repetitive action is undertaken, such as stroking a dog’s soft fur, squeezing a stress ball or polishing a piece of brass to just the right sheen. Such repetitive action brings you back to the present moment, locates you away from traumatic memory and the physiological arousal accompanying it and overcoming the body. The very simple exercise of grounding, say by focussing on the chair you are sitting on – where the body meets its contours, if the chair is hard or soft, hot or cool, how your feet meet the floor – returns you to your body. There is a sense of regaining the present through the repetitive action and in so doing, regaining control. You are safe now.
Domesticated dogs require that you extend yourself towards them, that you feed them, walk them, stroke them and care for them. But the relationship bears fruit; the caregiving is symbiotic. In return – even if symbiosis isn’t about the one-to-one reciprocation implied by return but rather about intermingling mutualism – in return you receive the loyalty and companionship of a woolly body in your orbit. In a stable world, the caregiving relationship between person and pet is carried out with such regularity that it also becomes routine. Routine is good for trauma, for gaining a purchase on a world when one feels that it is crumbly, unpredictable, full of threat.
In Anne Boyer’s The Undying, she writes that ‘The ordinary ongoingness of our existence, like every time we do the dishes, is every time we try to block ruin’s path.’ And while Boyer’s meditative text on pain and modern illness, with its particular autobiographical focus on cancer, is more concerned with questions of mortality than with psychosocial trauma, the sentiment of her statement transmits. These routines mean something. She goes on: ‘There is the work of making the world, which is the world that’s good to look at, and there is the quieter work of keeping the world okay once it is here.’ Life gets in. Its mess and its violence, along with its knife-sharpened beauty, slips in through the cracks in the bedroom door, in through the rubble underfoot on the street. Routine, which might look like exercise or meditation or reproductive labour on a different day, catches the light differently through trauma.
And then there’s ritual, which is sanctified routine, often solemn. It is any customary action or code of behaviour that regulates social conduct. But it can be more than a ceremonial or religious act like marriage or worship. Ritual also speaks to a set of actions that are conducted routinely in the same manner. I’m surrounded by friends who carry out certain rituals in their lives to endow it with meaning, to make them feel good. They take foot baths or light candles at particular times. Theirs are routines on a full stomach – meaning, meaning transforms it into something more. Their routines exceed the ordinary or banal. Routines becomes ritual. A foot bath because self care. Lighting a candle because someone you once loved is now dead. Such small acts are ritualised when we allow them to be. Intention guides the act, and regularity elevates it.
A side note here on the autobiographical. My writing moves outward from and returns to the ‘autobiographical example’ – Saidiya Hartman’s term. For Christina Sharpe, who discusses Hartman’s autobiographical example in In the Wake, the personal counters the violence of abstraction. Following these two women, I am interested not in personal story that folds in onto itself necessarily but rather in ‘historical and social process and one’s own formation as a window onto social and historical processes, as an example of them’, as Hartman says. From the autobiographical example it becomes clear that my practice of thinking and writing into trauma isn’t about ‘wallowing’ in trauma or PTSD, as CA Conrad puts it, just as it’s not about ‘posttraumatic stress growth’. It is interested in how traumatic experiences can cast light on one’s entangled embedded-ness in socio-political processes. It rejects the linearity of Conrad’s term and instead follows the theorist Anne Cvetkovich, who uses trauma theory as a way to understand accounts of pain that are psychic and physical. For Cvetkovich, trauma is a name for experiences of socially situated political violence that forges connections between politics and emotion. This understanding validates my structural approach to writing. To settle for narrow or ‘closed’ accounts of trauma is to settle for cognitive accounts. Mine is an attempt to write into a realm that might increase plural sensitivities to and understandings of the state of having experienced trauma. Affect’s nebulous indications are embraced. As Donna Haraway says, ‘We need stories (and theories) that are just big enough to gather up the complexities and keep the edges open and greedy for surprising new and old connections’.
My feeling is that routine takes on greater meaning when it is communicated. To share an act with others, particularly a solemn act, an act bound up in feeling good or grounded or stable, is to tell the world that you matter. Communication intensifies the act. In language we carve out our own place in time and space, and that is supemely political. Here I am in Rotterdam or Hong Kong, carrying out this small deed. I owe myself this. Without me there can be no world in relation to me and you, or me and anyone. If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me.
Intention and communication transform routine to ritual, and the intention and communication of the act is political.
Routine need not be carried out in isolation to be grounding in the way that Peter Levine defined it. It need not simply be daily grocery shopping before eight or drinking a hot chocolate at a certain hour. There are other routines, too, social routines, that give structure to a day or a life, such as that of M and her dog, Scuffy, who on a daily basis shreds the tissue that pops from M’s sleeve as she changes into her inside-clothing. This routine is shaped by an ethic of devotion, I believe, experienced between M & Scuffy.
Scuffy, family dog and offspring of the family unit, beloved creature that constitutes a living hearth around which my family, fractures and friendships
and all, gathers.
In this instance, the day that Scuffy ate the anti-anxiety medication is shaped by circumstances that exceed the shredding routine. It is shaped by the very form to which this story is bound, the family unit – that most basic and reproduced building block of hetero-patriarchal civil society. It is shaped by routine and ritual. And it is shaped by complex mental health and relationships that unfurl outwards into the world, touching up against its corners and bumps and edges, and bumping and furling back. Matrilineal anxiety transmits patriarchally: that is, via the institution-alised patriarchal structures that shape the contemporary world as M knows it. There can be times when the anxiety that M experiences are overtaking like a head-rush fast car. Those times she flips a half-brick, blister pops a white bickie and blisses back for a tick, in a polite sort of way. Other times she doesn’t need to flip the half-brick. She simply has it at the ready, tucked up her left sleeve for just in case.
M is undressing in the bedroom, peeling back the wool sweater, changing into her inside-clothes. Scuffy, bottom to carpet, curly tail wagging, has her dog eyes fixed on M’s sleeve. Out pops the tissue and Scuffy sets to shredding it.
Scuffy, the quite-small black-and-white shihtzu-poodle, ate a full brick of the anti-anxiety medication in 2015. And it worked on her in a curious way. Five kilos is all that she weighs. M said the shihtzu-poodle climbed onto her lap and looked her in the eye and asked, Mum what’s going on? Then she leapt off and endeavoured to hurtle in circles and loops around the house for hours. Figure eights or infinities. Spinning questions around the family home until the energy wore off, the low-high became a real-low, and Scuffy, tongue lolling, could finally rest.
Late-capitalist concepts of self-care toe a line that teeter dangerously at the precipice of self-optimisation. Likewise, the word ritual has been taken on by the wellness industry, via psychology’s derivations of Buddhism’s mindfulness. But dogs are good company, and everyone except cat-people knows that. Regardless of how we frame our healthy habits, and regardless of how we name our domesticated canines – companion animals, service dogs, family pets – I like to think that the mutual benefits of living with a furry fluffball far exceed the perils.
1. Audre Lorde, ‘Learning From the 60s’ (speech) Harvard University, 1982