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Thursday, June 30, 2022

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Arts + CultureLitLessons from a fearful fido: Meredith May's 'Loving Edie'

Lessons from a fearful fido: Meredith May’s ‘Loving Edie’

It may be packaged as a dive into doggy world, but the Bay Area author's second book is all about accepting limits.

Cracking open former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Meredith May’s second book, Loving Edie: How a Dog Afraid of Everything Taught Me to Be Brave (Park Row Books), I recalled reading her earlier memoir, The Honey Bus. That first book told the story of childhood years marred by her parents’ unhappy marriage, divorce, and mental illness that raged like a river. Their flow exceeded its banks in her chaotic and in-all-ways-unusual family home. May’s grandfather was a beekeeper, and by learning his trade and channeling his generous attention, she established enough self-esteem and stability to counter her parent’s neglect and abuse.

Honey Bus felt like a visit to another planet in which one discovers that aliens are not so alien after all. Unlike May’s, my parents were no more eccentric than any neighbor’s or friend’s parents; I was never neglected or abandoned to raise myself or subjected to backwards engineering in which a child is the caretaker for a parent. Also, I am not a bee farmer, although I’ve written about several beekeepers and the plight of bee populations in the past. But like May, I had a grandfather I adored who taught me many things about plants and insects and food ecosystems and truly saw me, to use a trendy phrase. Like May, my parents had deep attachments to literature and science and passed those treasures on to their children.

I was eager to find out if the author’s and my second encounter might yield similar connections. Granted, a book all about a dog was going to be a stretch. After all, I’m not a dog person, although I’m not an anti-dog person. I’d never heard of dog mediums, especially online dog “whisperers,” or the Relaxation Protocol created by Dr. Karen Overall. I certainly didn’t realize DOGTV was real thing, a 24/7 digital TV channel scientifically developed to provide home enrichment for dogs. (May in Loving Edie makes it sound so intriguing I might have to get cable to watch it myself, even minus a dog buddy.)

The golden retriever at the center of the story enters as a wee, adorable puppy who is adopted by May and her wife Jenn from a breeder. Despite all the care and vigorous vetting involved in the process, they discover Edie is a highly-anxious, sensitive dog. Every sight, sound, and situation—dogs, people, an Uber driver honking a horn, a garage door opening, wide-open dog parks, or large rooms—is too much stimulation.

May finds her life constricted when nearly every day is spent indoors or in veterinary offices and dog training clinics as she tries to coax bravery from Edie. She stops at nothing and pours hours into online research as if not only Edie’s, but her own welfare is at stake. Tensions between May and Jenn rise as they struggle to “co-parent” Edie. May’s self-questioning and doubt as to her motivation escalate as she wrestles with the idea she is unable to control Edie, to “fix” Edie. She begins to wonder, “Is Edie the one who needs fixing, or is it me?”

Here then is the reward of May’s second book; her tug-of-war with accepting limits—hers and Edie’s and Jenn’s—and carving a path as close as can be achieved to unconditional love and a peaceful nuclear family home. The book, in my view, would have been stronger with a few less dog-detail chapters and more exploration of May’s inner world. She is a most fascinating storyteller when investigating her own mental state and sharing the inner dialogue.

In the end, May writes about learning that she has the capacity for unselfish mother-love, despite having not been nurtured by her parents. She realizes her striving for perfection that is canceled out by Edie’s “imperfections” is akin to algebra; it’s a form of new math when Edie’s better, bolder dog is hijacked by fear and May accepts the equation as still perfect. Edie, she writes, is the kind of sentient being “that truly challenges us to dig deep within ourselves to find out how far we are willing to go, how much we are willing to give up, to bond with another complicated soul.”

It’s a question worth pondering even for the dog-less among us. Where are the limits of love, and who is setting them in our lives? Such a rumination is a great note on which to end a book, and leaves me curious about the next planet May might explore. I’m looking forward to the ride.

Purchase Loving Edie: How a Dog Afraid of Everything Taught Me to Be Brave here.

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