‘I do not know if I am making him nearly as happy as he is making himself,’ I am thinking, while halfway listening to my Zoom meeting and halfway watching Baked. He lays lopsided, just at my feet, licking, tugging, scratching contentedly at himself underneath my dining room table turned working-from-home space. I am both amused by his obliviousness and on the verge of having a misophonic episode, appalled by the sounds of his self-pleasure. Turning my attention back to my virtual meeting, I double-check to make certain I am on mute—don’t want to give my co-workers the wrong impression—and turn the volume up to drown out Baked’s considerable noise. Finally, spent and unbothered, Baked sprawls lazily across the raised, perforated underside of his sheepskin settee. Tsk-tsk. I do not know why I spent so much coin on this cushion for him to just flip it over on the hard, drab side. He must not know how much the rest of us would give for every bit of softness these days.
Despite being slightly annoyed, I smile down at him when a couple minutes later he tickles my bare toes with his sneaky tongue. What a silly creature with eyes glassy and opaque, slits of half-moons, and a slight overbite of chiclets for teeth,with his bobbing tail that curls circuitously in on itself, like that M.A.S.H game maze I used to draw as a child. With his floppy-flappy ears that remind me of a snug ushanka cap with too much fur atop for the fake-out winter days of DC, 2020. Matter of fact, the entire season–the entire year–caught me and many, unawares.
2020 was veritably Armageddon-like with the SARS-CoV-2 virus (COVID-19) spreading like the Australian and Californian wildfires; like the innocent blood of Ahmaud and Breonna; like the viral video of George’s murder; like the teargas of unhinged police on peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors; like Trump’s riotous lies.
Spread like the five and then ten fingers of the man experiencing homelessness who, while attempting to steal packages off my front porch, instead took to choking me out when I confronted him. I never heard a street so housed with home-bound people be so quiet, save for my screams until I could not call out for help any longer. Daylight gradually appeared Rorschach-like. Air became scarce like I was suddenly enveloped in dark, vast waters; my arms leaden volcanic rocks as I tried to fight him off. Albeit nearly fatal, it was one of the only embraces I had experienced in months.
Then someone passed by. A neighbor. Thank you to that man.
In the days following, I could not stay awake for more than two and three hours at a time. Against travel bans and quarantine edicts, my parents and siblings came from out-of-town to stay in weekly shifts. A beautiful boy I was dating long-distance graciously flew up to help. But I broke up with him after he kept leaving my house and car keys outside. At night, I could not stay asleep–every squeaky gate swing, every car engine rumble, every overhead helicopter circling my Capitol Hill-adjacent neighborhood only intensified my bone-deep fatigue. Work, once I returned, became tedious; I was sluggish. I needed help. My hot yoga studio–a pre-COVID sanctuary–had closed. Finding a therapist accepting new patients during COVID-19 was turning out to be futile. I had to find another kind of emotional support.
He was my cousin’s childhood dog. Baked the Shih Tzu is almost 14 years old–stout, stubborn, and still kinetic. Immediately after the assault, it was my Uncle—my cousin’s father—who came across the Suitland Parkway to fetch me from my house after DC Metro police arrived. Once we reached his home in Prince George’s County for respite, Baked–whom I had known since he was a pup–immediately rose on his hind legs and rested his paws on my lap, as if to say, don’t be scared, I can help. Plus, I am cute and down for cuddles. Several weeks later, Uncle dropped Baked off at my doorstep.
And that is how Baked came home in the pandemic.
Baked gets me out of bed in the morning. He yelps and barks incessantly. Feed me! Let me near! Get up! Like the main character in Jesmyn Ward’s novel, Salvage the Bones, “I get up because it is the only thing I can do…if this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I do.” I hear him and come back from my ruminations. He brings me joy.
What, to a pet-less human, is joy? Assuredly, there is no sustainable joy in chasing anything not meant to be caught. There is no joy in burying feelings of loneliness, only to have it hound you, find you again.
What, to a dog, is joy? Joy is chasing a squirrel, joy is burying a bone, only to find it again. Mostly, joy is play.
Watching Baked romp about, I consider the loss of play in my life since the on-again, off-again lockdown orders because outside has become associated with contagion and heightened vigilance. Playlessness is joylessness; it makes one penetrable to the rise of the inhumane, to a deep desperation.
Whereas play and its possibilities are infinite. Play fosters connection. These days, I feel wholly disconnected, and more like in an entanglement, with other dog-walkers in my neighborhood, most of whom are white people. White people playfully smile at my dog. Most do not smile at me. Most do not smile at me as we cross paths along the gentrifying H Street Northeast Corridor. If only they knew that I could sense their discomfort with Blackness, their dogmatic fallacies. They really want dogs to approve of them–they are less afraid to love a dog this way. When white people smile at Baked and do not look at me, he barks his Black-and-white head off and rears up in protective agitation, Anubis-like in his sense of their soul character. I scratch his ears, whisper, “good boy,” and smirk. I did not teach this old dog that trick.
I do try to teach him not to piss on people’s roses.
I train him to sit before he eats and before he can cross the street.
For all the little that I teach him, he teaches me much. He shows me that every tree is treasure. A walk is relief. The rainy-day walks teach me other worldly patience—why must he prance through all the muddy puddles?! Because it is damned fun! And, because eff your carpet, human! There are other things that having him has taught me. After that time on a walk, one of his wet turds tumbled out of the doggie plastic and onto my hand. Since then, I have acquired a new appreciation for “securing the bag”. Without doubt, I have learned that Petco is the new trap house. DC traffic is just exhausting, but it is exhilarating for my road dog. Other things remind me that this may be a traumatic time for him, too. For instance, when we are walking, dogs and bicycles and joggers frequently cross our path, and Baked responds with grown ass growls. As a County dog, he is overstimulated by the activity of the city. He confirms for me that four-legged and two-legged creatures alike tend to give into distractions and basic instinct when anxious, scared, or under threat. He teaches me self-kindness and grace.
Above all, my dog does me a great emotional service, particularly during the heavy of this pandemic: he teaches me forgiveness. Human-hood is jaded but the heart of a dog is ever hopeful. He is hope unleashed. The truth is a dog never minds if they get the short end of the stick–if they can bring it back to you and hear you say, “good boy.” So now, I forgive the smiling white people. I forgive the man experiencing homelessness who assaulted me. Yet I find the systems that do not hold white people accountable for meaningfully acknowledging racism–interpersonal and structural–to be abhorrent. I find the violent conditions that keep that man homeless, that keep him bereft of mental and social supports, to be unforgivable.
I am not a dog person–I am this dog’s person. Baked has reaffirmed the foundational requirements of relationship: security and companionship but also vulnerability. In a short time, he has rescued me from my own brain fog and anxiety, and reminds me not to fold into myself. Apart from the completely inappropriate noises he makes while tending to himself, I find everything about him to be endearing. And we even have our “thing”. Like, he sneezes when he is excited, and I tell him, “bless you,” and mean it. And when I tell him “come”, he knows I really mean let me feed you! Let me rub your belly! Let’s play! Let me protect you! He licks my ankle in response, and I know we are speaking the same language.
Baked Came Home In the Pandemic (C.H.I.P.). And I am so glad he did.
Shoutout to all the Baked C.H.I.P.s of DC, and the humans who love them.
All dog names herein have been changed for anonymity 🙂 **
Mia Keeys is the first Director of Health Equity Policy and Advocacy of the American Medical Association’s Center for Health Equity. She is the former Policy Director of the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust and Health Policy Advisor to Congresswoman Robin Kelly (D-IL). Previously, Mia has also been a Kaiser Family Foundation Barbara Jordan Health Policy Scholar; a Fellow for the City of Philadelphia in the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Health and Opportunity; an HIV/AIDS researcher in South Africa; and a U.S. Fulbright Fellow to Indonesia, where she worked on education and public health initiatives on behalf of youth and their families for three years.
The National Minority Quality Forum recognizes Mia as a 40 Under 40 Leader in Minority Health. The National Academy of Medicine features Mia’s children’s book on health equity—titled Cole Blue, Full of Valor—in their 2017 national exhibit, “Visualizing Health Equity.” Her work on youth and the imagination is featured in a TEDx Talk, titled “A Racial Imagination Quotient”. Mia holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Psychology from Cheyney University, and a Master of Arts degree in Medical Sociology from Vanderbilt University, where she was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Fellow through Meharry Medical College. She is currently a doctoral student at The Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University. Mia is also a creative non-fiction writer, with training from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. She is originally from Philadelphia, PA.
Edited by Panama Jackson