“In Dog I Trust”
A Faith of Interspecies Connection in Sassafras Lowrey’s Healing/Heeling
“I dreamed of dog shows the way other children fantasized about amusement parks,” Sassafras Lowrey writes in “Rose City Classic.” Healing/Heeling brings readers into the story of a life deeply affected by dogs. From childhood through adulthood, Lowrey’s connection with dogs is almost religious. Hir book explores this through frequent playful reversals of “Dog” and “God” as these pieces each illuminate a perspective of deep empathy with canines, illustrating a life that has been, in many ways, crafted around a connection to them.
Healing/Heeling is also, as its title suggests, a book about trauma and recovery. Lowrey writes about a childhood of abuse, a teenagerhood of homelessness and insecure housing, and an adulthood facing the psychological ramifications of these traumas. It is also a book about dog shows and dog handling, about queering a sport whose culture can often be hostile to queerness. Most of all, Healing/Heeling reads to me as a book about connection. The deep, lifelong connections that Lowrey forms with dogs will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the intense interspecies bonds we can form when we value the experience of other animals as equal to that of humans. Lowrey explores the nuances of these bonds, the joy and comfort they can bring, as well as the guilt, the sense of failure, and, of course, the healing. Using an experimental combination of prose, poetry, and course maps, Lowrey captures the intricacy of hir relationships with dogs.
Much of this book is a reckoning with the failure Lowrey feels toward the dogs ze has cared for, failures that were born, not of intention, but of circumstance. In “My Greatest Failure,” Lowrey writes that “the biggest regret of my life is the temporary foster/adoption of a border collie mix in Jacksonville Florida.” This piece and “Still With Me” explore the way that we can fail our animals when the world fails us. In both, Lowrey experiences unstable housing and disintegrating relationships, which lead to the loss of hir dogs, and ze explores the lasting guilt that this perception of failure leaves for hir and how pets are inescapably subject to the circumstances of their humans. When we lack resources, so do our pets. Our pets need for the same stability, the same care, that we ourselves need for and, when we are denied that stability and care by our fellow humans, it becomes difficult, and often impossible, to provide it for our animals.
Lowrey reflects on the effects of humans on animals within individual relationships but also in larger societal contexts. In “Goodbye NYC,” Lowrey explores how our human-created environments, schedules, and habits affect our animals. Beneath the charm of this piece, with its mischievous roaming dogs stealing cell phones, is a clear thread of threat, a trapped feeling that emerges in repeated imagery of dead bolts and leashes. We don’t often like to think of the restrictions we place on our pets, of the locked doors we keep them behind while we are away, of the limitations we place on their experiences, for their safety, for our comfort. This piece tackles the constraints that we place on our animals, and the lack of attention we often have of these constraints. It draws our attention to them.
Healing/Heeling has the feeling of a book pieced together from experimental and experiential fragments. Structurally, readers encounter course maps, poetry, and prose. Experientially, we are led into fragments of memory, glimpses of events, and reflections that strive to create connection. As I read this book, particularly the earlier parts, I often found myself reaching for narrative structure, for cause and effect, for greater insight into what happened when and how that affected the next thing. As someone with a high tolerance for ambiguity and narrative fragmentation, this is uncommon for me to experience while reading. I realized about midway through this book that the reason I was so longing for that narrative coherence is because the book itself felt like it was reaching for just that, for sense-making in the midst of trauma. The earlier parts of the narrative often feel like they are missing pieces, as if the story has fractured at multiple points. And, as a reader, you feel that. You try to bridge those gaps. You feel like you’re missing something. Of course, this is how trauma can often feel. There’s a break. There’s a gap. There’s a thing our minds can’t quite understand. And we want to fill it. We want to create cohesive, coherent, stable narrative. But we can’t—or we can’t just yet. Lowrey is able to expertly capture this feeling and place hir readers inside it.
Healing/Heeling is a book about trauma that does not limit itself to the human traumas experienced by its author but also explores the traumas of the many dogs that have been a part of hir life, asserting that the process of healing from these traumas, for both human and dog, is one of interspecies connection and care.
By the end of this book, we see the way Lowrey has created an interspecies family of humans and dogs, a family that does not prioritize human needs over those of other animals. We see this balance of care quite clearly in “Dog House,” where Lowrey describes moving from New York to Oregon in order to buy a house with a yard for hir dog, Charlotte, writing:
when you buy a house for a dog
when your family changes living arrangements
around the needs of a dog
you become a
type of dog person
Over the course of multiple pieces, Lowrey describes Charlotte’s anxiety and the way ze is able to recognize hir own anxiety in it, the way they both struggle together to achieve a sense of safety, and the ways that they care for each other through that struggle.
We also experience, through Lowrey’s writing, the way hir relationships with dogs creates narrative coherence and gives hir a vehicle through which to interpret experience. We see this quite literally in the use of course maps throughout the book. Descriptive and instructional, these fragments chart movement and orchestrate connection. In “Dream Visits” Lowrey writes:
The hardest thing to learn to do in any dog sport is to trust the dog
When the dog understands the game
When you have trained each aspect
At that point
the hardest thing
Is to trust your dog
Trust your dog
In Dog I trust
This trust that is built on both sides of the relationship between dog and human is at the heart of Healing/Heeling. Experiencing the joy that can be found in this trust is one of the great joys of reading this book, which shows how fragments can build connection and how a dedication to interspecies care can create its own kind of faith.
REVIEWED BY MIRANDA SCHMIDT
Miranda Schmidt’s work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Orion, Catapult, and other journals. She has taught creative writing at the Loft, the University of Washington, and Portland Community College. They are currently at work on a novel about haunting and a series of ecological lyric essays. Miranda grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Portland, Oregon. Read more and follow @mirandarschmidt.