Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace August 21, 2018

Six years ago today, after a great deal of resistance, I finally followed the advice of several people whose opinions I respect and began this blog. I moved it to the Patheos platform a year and a half ago.

Over a half million visits from 180+ countries later, writing here regularly has provided me with more joy and opportunities for growth than I could have possibly imagined. My latest book, published last year, was entirely a product of several years of blogging, as my next book (which I am currently writing), due to be published in Fall 2019, will also be. Thanks so much to my regular and occasional readers–your support and comments keep me going! 

For my first blog post six years ago, I chose an essay that I had written at a writer’s conference several years earlier. At that time, I was at the very beginning of a long process in which I have gradually learned over time to move away from the academic writing that I had been producing and publishing for twenty years to a much more intimate and personal (and shorter) style.

On the last evening of that writer’s conference, each of us was required to read something publicly (to around 100 people) that we had written that week. Not surprisingly, I chose to write about someone whom I love and who is close to my heart, undoubtedly the second most important female in my life over the past dozen years. Here is “Hail Frieda, Full of Grace,” followed by a few updates at the end.

I have unexpectedly fallen in love with a real bitch. She’s cute, with dark brown eyes and medium brown hair. Although I generally prefer long hair on a female, she wears her hair extremely short and it works. She tends to bite me when she gets overexcited while we’re playing, but I still find her pearly white teeth very attractive. Although she’s willing to allow a ménage à trois when my wife is home, she prefers it being just the two of us in bed. Her name is Frieda.

This is a new experience for me. No one has ever looked at me with a gaze that says “you were put on earth just for me.” No female has ever marked me as a love interest and dared me not to love her back. This is the first time I’ve been chosen before I knew I was even being considered. And it’s not as if Frieda doesn’t have lots of options for love interests. Everybody loves Frieda—she’s extroverted and assertive, yet can be warm, demure, and submissive. She can take over a room just by walking into it, yet is happy to spend hours being quiet doing whatever you’re doing. She is fluent in both English and German. Her profile would be a killer on eharmony.com.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a dog. I’ve always been a cat person; there’s been at least one cat in my life consistently ever since I was ten years old. A cat is a perfect pet for an introvert; they clearly would prefer to be left alone most of the time and will only socialize when it is their idea. There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. It takes time and effort to get to know a cat—time and effort on the human’s part, that is. The cat couldn’t care less. Self-reliance, independence, confidence, a sense of mystery and aloofness—I find much to admire in a cat.

Dogs are a different story; not so much to admire. Dogs are so obsequious, as if canine completeness requires human approval.. But Frieda didn’t and doesn’t need me—she chose me, out of the blue. Frieda is part of the four animal menagerie who arrived when my son and daughter-in-law moved in, joining the two geriatric animals already in the house; she decided early on that I was going to be hers. I’ve seen animals attach themselves to a single human before (usually my wife, a dog person). Not to me, though. So the “click click click” of toenails behind me everywhere I go, an enthusiasm when I come home so over the top that I worry about her health, having a canine jammed in next to me everywhere I sit, a 10 ½ pound dachshund trying to spoon with me in bed—these are new and sometimes disconcerting experiences.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I want to be the person that my dog thinks I am.” Not me—that’s too much pressure. No human being could possibly deserve the rapturous upside-down look Frieda occasionally gives me when she’s laying next to me or on my lap, just making sure that I’m still there. Of course such reverence is easy for Frieda—she doesn’t know about all the ways in which I am unworthy of unconditional love. That’s one of my great fears—what if they (my wife, my sons, my friends, my students—anybody) knew the truth about me? Frieda doesn’t know the truth about me, and that’s why she’s attached to me at the hip. She doesn’t know any better.

I learned as a kid in Sunday School that grace is “unmerited favor.” Divine grace is something I don’t deserve, a gift I cannot earn, bestowed simply “because.” Over the years, grace has evolved for me into “God knows that you’re a shit and a loser, but chooses to forgive you and to love you anyway.” Today I’m thinking that grace is more like Frieda. The miracle of grace is not that “you are unworthy but I choose to treat you as if you are worthy,” but “you are worthy.” Not “I love you in spite of,” or “I love you because of,” but “I love you.” If there is, somewhere in the universe, a transcendent grace and love like that, I am in awe.  That’s something worth believing and having faith in. That’s a thread of possibility that should be followed in order to see where it leads. Of course, Frieda’s just a simple dog and doesn’t realize that her standards are ridiculously low. But as Leonard Bernstein wrote in Mass, “Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.”

Frieda is still with us; she just turned fourteen this month and is still going strong (although she is racking up some serious vet bills). She’s closer to thirteen pounds than-ten-and-a-half and would probably weigh twice that if allowed to eat as much and as often as she would like. For my sixtieth birthday two years ago, my tattoo-artist son Caleb permanently inscribed Frieda on my left arm, so now she REALLY goes wherever I go. 

I’ve learned a good deal about grace, about self-worth, and (I think) about God since I first wrote this essay eleven years ago, but I’m still in awe of the multiple and unexpected ways in which the divine breaks through on a daily basis. Frieda has been, and continues to be, a vehicle of that grace on a regular basis.

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