Why I’m Soul Sister to a Dog: The Canaanite Woman & Me

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Matthew 15:25-27 NRSV

I am a dog.

One of my closest soul sisters is my friend’s dog. We connect because I understand myself to be a dog in so many ways, in various connotations of the word. I want to claim both those negative and positive aspects, so that I can be whole, as the Canaanite woman is wholly herself, owning the name that Jesus throws at her, which she fetches right back and drops it at his feet.

As a freshman, “you dog!” was hurled at me across the school library, by boys who felt entitled to degrade me because I didn’t meet their standard of beauty. To be honest, I didn’t—straight-haired brunette. Thick eyebrows. Yes, facial hair. No make-up. No interest in fashion. Very much a Spock-loving, Elvish-speaking, poetry-writing nerd of a girl and mostly proud of it. To do any less than own it, to be the dog, felt fake, untrue. So I was ugly, not fit to date—I owned myself.

As a non-desired young woman, I came to identify, later in high school, with Helena, from my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This intensified during my marriage to an emotionally-abusive man who constantly cheated on me. Isn’t that the true place of a “saved” woman?  Fawning over her knight, whom she loved, content to be owned, to have the crumbs from the other women who he’s rescued. In Act 2, Scene 1, while she’s chasing him, Helena tells Demetrius, the man who could heal her: “What worser place can I beg in your love— / And yet a place of high respect with me— / Than to be usèd as you use your dog?”

I can own that I let myself play well into this role over the last twenty-some years. “I am your spaniel. And, Demetrius, / The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.” Yelps–“like me, like me, like me”–chorus in my background. “Bitch” is the pejorative metaphor I never wanted to hear from anyone’s lips.

Did the Canaanite woman expect to hear that insult from Jesus? To be called a “dog” or a “bitch”? Some commentators describe Jesus as smiling in his reply to the woman who dares to implore him for help (Women’s Bible Commentary, 474). He uses the word as a kindness, sort of like when one of my male co-workers greets me with a friendly “what’s up, dawg?” Meant in a friendly way, I know—one cool person to another. Not quite feeling that vibe in the exchange between our savior and the woman, though. Perhaps a little more tension between them—Jesus is focused on his mission. And that reading of a smiling Jesus makes him sound so patronizing. “Nice doggy, go lie down”—pat, pat, pat.

Yet, all along, there’s been another canine shadow pacing quietly alongside these cynical images. For as long as I can recall, when considering my wandering and wondering nature, especially in matters of faith and theology, I’ve described this journey as God letting me out on a very long lead. While exploring other ways of faith-ing, my fidelity has always been given to Christ, despite hackles bristling at rigid dogma or rabid fundamentalism.

Recently, a new friend gave more shape to this numinous form. He noticed that I didn’t just call myself a dog, but very specifically named myself “hound” without any forethought. A new consideration of myself—after all, I didn’t say any breed considered a toy or a lapdog. Hounds, Jeff observed, are independent and given to tracking by scent or sight their quarry. Leave out of your minds right now the masculine sexual connotations
–I definitely ain’t nothin’ like that hound dog!

Do I imagine myself the noble bloodhound, the elegant saluki, the swift greyhound? Maybe. I can claim certain of their aspects. In all honesty, though, I’m most like my Grandpa John’s basset hound, kindred spirit of my childhood—built low to the ground, chasing rabbits (going down rabbit holes), checking out fascinating scents, and generally going my own way around town. Lovingly indulged.

I’ve done with being the fawning spaniel (with all due respect to my soul sister), waiting to be spurned or beaten, or worse yet, beating myself. The Canaanite woman said “yes, that’s me” to Jesus (great improv!). Her “yes” woke him, reminding him that faith and salvation come in unexpected forms. Her “yes” rouses me, too.

Yes, I am a dog; a hound as faithful and true as the Canaanite woman. And very grateful that God has never once taken God’s hand from the lead.

It’s All Chicken But the Gravy

That includes chicken wings at Hooters on Mother’s Day. That was my treat to myself again this year; I looked forward to it eagerly. 2016 marks the fourth anniversary of this tradition for me–two of my closest friends included me in this family tradition of their own, inviting me the first year of seminary together in 2013. This married couple–Leroy and Lacey (not their real names; my friend chose his pseudonym)–have been celebrating Mother’s Day at Hooters for the last fifteen or so years, the happenstance of all the other restaurants in their Alabama hometown having been packed for the holiday one particular year. Needless to say, my friends have taken a lot of flack for frequenting “that restaurant, which degrades women,” especially on a day (a Sabbath, no less) set aside to honor mothers.

I’ve written in an earlier post (“Theo-proprioception“) about my perception of transcendence at a friend’s ordination to the priesthood. Leroy’s ordination took place few days after the one about which I’ve already written. That tangible sense of grace–where would it manifest this time?

Leroy’s wife, Lacey, and I are close friends–she’s one of my few close friends who is a woman. Both of us are what she calls “guy girls;” given our druthers, we’d choose to hang with the guys rather than with a group made up solely of women. We’re not “girly” or ultra-feminine. That’s just who we are. We also are not militant feminists, though we do support women’s rights. But we support men’s rights, LGBTQ rights, in short, a moderately liberal understanding of “love one’s neighbor as one’s self.”

I must admit, though, when Leroy invited me to join them the first time, I was taken aback a little. Hooters does have that reputation; I’d never set foot in one before, on principal, because of that reputation. Plus, I was unsure how I comfortable I’d feel around svelte, large-breasted women in skimpy outfits. When you’re a short, dumpy, nearly fifty-year-old woman coming to terms with her own sexuality, well, not necessarily where you envision a Mother’s Day meal.

However, the kindness of the offer, combined with the fact that this would be my first Mother’s Day without any of my own children, and that I loved being a part of my friends’ rambunctious family, prompted me to accept. Despite my reservations, I opened myself to the adventure.

Due to travel mishaps, my arrival time to Leroy’s ordination cut it close–I got there after the rehearsal had begun, and I was one of the readers (had the honor and pleasure of reading  Isaiah’s call story). Hot and grumpy, I felt unsettled and unready, though happy to be there, in a old Southern church that smelled old, musty, and loved. After helping myself to a drink of water from the kitchen, I found the sanctuary, where the sacramental party gathered–Leroy, Lacey, their three children, Lacey’s brother, some family, a couple of diaconate and priestly seminary classmates, assorted bishops, priests, church members. Not as large a party as that sounds. A hushed urgency filled the space.

Once seated (at one of those high tables Hooters has), Leroy proceeded to strike up conversations, first with our hostess–a blonde, if memory serves–and then with our waitress, a petite brunette. Without much preamble, my friend asked these young women how they felt about working at Hooter’s–did they feel objectified, did they feel less than human? How self-possessed and unashamed  these women appeared as they responded–both were university students doing this to support themselves. They were doing as they chose; they were aware of why men frequented the space, but they weren’t letting that define their lives. Leroy told the story of how he and Lacey came to have this tradition and he shared why he was interested in their stories–the agitation of friends who disapproved of the restaurant chain. His own agitation at being lumped in and objectified himself as a misogynist (well, at least that’s been shared with me). A matrix of human connections appeared amid the wings and the family chaos.

I joined the rehearsal; stepping up to the lectern to make sure the mic was set right, to make sure I was set right. And then out into the jumble of folks to line up and process and sit and read Isaiah and wait for the moment of the Holy Spirit. Leroy prostrated himself for the prayers as had my other friend had just an eon ago, just a few days before. No sparklies then did I see; no overwhelming presence, no desire to fall to my knees. Had I missed something?  Not when the bishop laid hands on him nor when Leroy was vested–beautiful moments in themselves, but. . .

“Peace be with you,” Leroy, as newest priest in the Episcopal Church, said to the congregation as strongly as Isaiah’s, “Here I am, Lord.” And there was the Spirit, the transcendent moment, as he reached out, a beatific look on his face, making the connections he so loves to make, and even better, encouraging others to make those connections.

It’s all chicken but the gravy.