Short Leash
by Janice Gary

Michigan State University Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-611-86072-6.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 04/04/2015

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Animal Companions

On an ordinary day in October, 1991, Janice Gary noticed a small black dog in the parking lot at a Piggly-Wiggly in Savannah, Georgia. Her previous dog had died two years earlier and she'd been looking for another. When she called to the stray, he came. Her act of kindness and his acceptance of her call ultimately resulted in an extraordinary journey of transformation. She named him Barney, this lab-rottweiler mix, and he grew up to be 95 pounds, about the size of Gary.

A long-buried trauma from her young life caused Gary to have obsessive thoughts of terrible things that might happen that frequently held her captive. She feared taking Barney walking in the park until a day she refused to obey her whispered warning. She and Barney walked together in the park and nothing terrible happened, so they returned the next day and the next, and the warnings gradually diminished.

Walking a dog in a park should be simple. But for me and Barney, there's nothing simple about it. We're handicapped, the two of us, in ways that are invisible. To see us walking down the road, you would never guess that the smiling black lab at the end of the leash is a fur-covered time bomb or that the athletic-looking woman behind him is incapable of walking without a four-legged crutch. There would be no way of knowing that if a dog comes too close to Barney, he turns into a killing machine. Or that if I find myself in an isolated area or an empty street late at night, my mind enters a war zone where the enemies are everywhere and nowhere.

During one of their early walks in 2001, during a glorious autumn day with the woods' floor covered with breathtaking colored leaves, Gary felt an awakening: "Something is happening out here. I can feel it. Memories melt and merge, coming into clearer focus, becoming bright and vivid, lingering like leaves caught on a net of road." When she and Barney returned to the car, she scribbled onto a torn envelope some of the new, bubbling-up words in her mind that would not stop. In that moment, her writing life re-started.

Writing has always been a part of my life—first as a child making up stories about happy families, then as a teen with poem-filled journals, then as a young songwriter penning lyrics about lost love. Later, the stories returned, written late at night and on the weekends, and then, not at all.

It feels good to write again, and not just write but to swoon over the consonants and vowels, to savor the right feel of them rolling over my tongue. Maybe the words I thought were lost forever haven't disappeared but are simply waiting to be plucked like dried leaves on the forest floor—tinder for a fire that has never really gone out.

Those words reflect the exquisite pleasure that reading Gary's book gave me. Her extraordinary skill with and love of words, as well as her rich insights into what she saw and felt during those walks, gifted me with such deep pleasure that I have and will often return to re-read parts. Although months, seasons, then years passed as she and Barney walked in that same park, Gary's descriptions of the natural world were richly layered and uniquely different every visit.

One very cold winter day as she trudged with Barney after a huge snowstorm, Gary began thinking about how much she'd frozen out of her life: first dancing, then singing, then acting, then filmmaking, and finally writing—much of it shelved in the service of staying hidden. An arts administrator at that time, she saw herself waiting in the wings of the art world, a "shadow artist," as Julia Cameron has termed those of us who long to be artists but remain in shadows. Slogging with Barney through slush back to the car, Gary wrote on a scrap of paper: Look into grad programs. And she did. It became the step that brought her out of the shadows.

When I opened the delightful cover and began my walk through the seasons with Gary and Barney, I entered sacred space. I will long remember this beautifully told story, one that so captured my attention, my emotions, and my sense of reverence for its layered splendor of language, place, reflection, and images. Short Leash is a treasure.

Janice Gary is the recipient of the Christine White Award for Memoir/Personal Essay and the Ames Award for Essay. Her work has appeared in Literal Latte, Kaleidoscope, The Baltimore Review, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Potomac Review and Women Speak Out, an anthology of women writers published by the Crossing Press. She teaches writing workshops throughout Mid-Atlantic area and is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Short Leash was a finalist for the 2014 Sarton Women's Memoir Award. Visit her website.

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