Tuesday, September 4

Being the Black Sheep (or Dog)

Last week I asked my boyfriend the pirate what I should write about this week.

“Stitchy,” he answered flippantly, Stitchy – a combination of stinky and itchy – being his nickname for my little black dog Tessa.

But the more and more I thought about it the more and more in line it seemed with my overall message to those trying to make their own way in the world.

For those of you who don’t know Tessa’s story, let me tell you before I elaborate:

It was the fall semester of my junior year at USD. My boyfriend at the time and I had been going through a rough patch. He was gone a lot, I was difficult, admittedly, his family was more difficult – let’s not pretend I’m not biased here – and somewhere in the panic of trying to hold on to each other, we decided to get a dog together.

I would pick the dog, he would pay for it.

So one night I skipped my evening class to make it to the animal shelter down the street from campus before it closed. I just wanted to look. If one jumped out at me, I would come back the next day with my boyfriend and we would discuss it . . .

But of course I wanted to take them all home right then and there.

If you’ve never been to an animal shelter, they’re sad places.

The San Diego Department of Animal Services is a nice shelter as far as shelters go, and yet the floors were cold and wet. Every aisle was a barrage of echoes, gates slamming, dogs barking, chain-link rattling – you get the picture.

The hearts and smiley faces doodled on the printed bios of the animals were especially depressing knowing that half of them would be euthanized anyway, no matter that they were a “staff favorite” . . .

I felt so bad for those ones – the introverted ones and the old ones and the pit bulls, the ones you knew had been there a long time – that I almost didn’t look twice at Tessa.

At 12 weeks old she was still cute and fluffy, still had puppy breath, but the bedazzled pink leather collar hanging around her neck suggested to me that she already had a home.

I thought of Lady and the Tramp:

“You’re too nice a girl to be in this place.”

She already belonged to someone, I was sure, and yet there was guardedness about her; while the other dogs spun and bounced as I walked the line of kennels, she all but ignored me, only thumping her tail (albeit half-heartedly) when I knelt down in front of hers and squeezed my hand through. She wouldn’t even pick her head up.

“Don’t be scared,” I whispered, scratching the space between her eyes with my index finger.

I told myself she didn't need “saving,” though, and went on with my walkthrough, writing down a few kennel numbers on the square of newsprint they gave me with one those teeny yellow kiddie pencils. I gave those numbers to a volunteer behind a desk and, while she was printing up those dogs’ information for me, asked about the little black dog with the pretty pink collar.

“Oh,” the girl said, brow furrowing at her computer screen. “She’s been relinquished. Just today, actually.”

Relinquished, as in “retired from; given up or abandoned.”

That word made my mind for me.

Tessa in the bin.
But a week after I signed the adoption papers, the day fall finals began and a week before Christmas, my boyfriend dumped me. And that would have been one thing on it’s own, but it soon came out that he’d been telling our so-called mutual friends he was going to break up with me as early as November.

“Why the [expletive] did you get her a dog then?” one of my true friends asked him pointedly.

His answer?

“So she had a reason to live.”

. . .

Needless to say, I laughed.

Well, not right away, obviously. At first I was – quite understandably – wounded, indignant and, more than anything, mad at myself for being with such a . . . such a . . . cum-rag in the first place!

(Yeah, I just said that. Sorry, Mom!)

I learned to laugh about it. You learn to laugh about a lot of things after college.

But before laughing again was even a thought in my head, I had exams to take and a life to straighten out – a life that now included a 12-week-old black lab Chow mix with some serious people problems . . .

You see, despite the bedazzled pink leather collar Tessa (previous name unknown) came with, she hadn’t exactly been living the posh life; we didn’t have any details, but from the way she cowered at the outstretched hand of strangers, mistrusted the food in her bowl, ran from loud noises, and yelped if taken by collar even gently, we could surmise.

The overwhelming consensus of my friends and family was that I should take her back. For $40, I could re-relinquish her to the same place I had rescued her from. She was defective, after all, and I had enough on my plate as it was, right?


1) The word relinquish and its definition have no place in my life, and 2) I hate it when people judge a book by its cover.

I hated that people were somehow disappointed with my puppy, that they regarded her as though she were a broken toy, damaged and therefore disposable because she wasn’t like other puppies – a feeling I was all too familiar with.

For those of you who don’t know this either, when I was 8 the youngest of my two younger sisters died. My parents divorced not long afterwards, we moved, and I hit my awkward chubby phase just in time to begin middle school in a new town where I didn’t know anyone.

I had my own share problems, you could say – a junk drawer of them, really – but then what kid wouldn't.

Making things worse were the people who, because they couldn’t look past those problems, never gave me the opportunity to be anything more than those problems.

To this day, unfortunately, there are people in my life who look at me and are only able to see a kid from a “broken home,” because that it what they want to see.
There are people who look at my boyfriend the pirate and are only able to see someone who can’t get “with the program” and put in his fourty hours a week at a desk like everyone else, not somebody with an irresistible desire to travel to better understand his very existence.

There are people who look at my dog and are only able to see a sad little black mutt.

Herein lies the point of this post:


Whether you’ve always been something of a black sheep (or dog) or if life off the beaten path is a new adventure, whether it’s more alienating than you thought it’d be or you’ve been doing it for a long time and find yourself tiring, don’t let the people who will try to define you by your maladjustments make you doubt your greater worth. Don’t let the people who don’t recognize what you have to bring to the table stop you from bringing it.

Somebody will, and that somebody (or somebodies) will probably have a unique perspective like your own.

They will understand the difference between being different and being damaged.

They will value your eccentricities and experiences for how they have shaped you, honed your strengths, and contributed to your conviction.

They will be the ones who know that even if life has made its mark on you in ways that hurt still, a diamond with a flaw is worth more than a pebble without imperfections.”

Until then, though, steel yourself . . .

Keep your head up and your eye on the prize. Go forth off the beaten path with sublime self-righteousness, never forgetting that no one else is capable of the same things you are, because nobody else can be you, character defects, quirks, scars and all.

As well-behaved and as much-loved as Tessa is now, it was the maladjustments that someone else deemed unlovable that made her the one to jump out at me that day and saved her from the pound, that saved her from going back to pound and had me wondering, “What else is  in there?”

Tessa & I today :)
In the evenings, though, when she’s sitting quietly on my parents’ deck – listening to the cars go by, smelling what there is to smell on the hilltop breeze, watching the sun go down on the rooftops with all the profundity of an old man in his favorite old chair – I doubt it’s her maladjustments that she’s counting . . .

XO, Mal


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  1. Wow, what a wonderful blog Mallory! It inspired laughter and made my eyes well up... I actually feel like a better person just to have read it. Thanks for that, I needed it today.

    -Rebecca Lane Rainer