The Gospel According to Tandy: 10 Lessons I’ve Learned from my Dog
Lesson Four: Carve Your Own Path
When Snowstorm Jonas hit, Tandy was in her element. She loved the nearly-three feet of snow and cherished its cold entertainments as if it were a magical playground built only for her. While Willy, her thirteen pound, Jack Russell Terrier brother found every chance to be carried through the frozen tundra, Tandy joyfully leaped into every snowbank she could find. Like a winter gazelle or experienced snow bunny, Tandy pounced into the virgin fluff, emerging with an ecstatic grin and ice-coated fur.
There was one particular snow-covered hill that caught Tandy’s attention. It rose majestically off of a quiet(er) side street, smooth as opaque glass with the exception of one, crescent-moon trail that ran along its length. Another dog and possibly his owner had built the path and Tandy was thrilled to follow in the footsteps of this unknown pet and its adventure along the hillside.
I relinquished control of the leash and, standing with Willy in the road, let Tandy joyously explore the hill. She started up the incline, following in the footsteps of the previous explorer. She looked back at Willy and I once to see that we were following. When she realized we had not, she took off at full speed up the side of the hill and across the icy terrain, careful to stay in the carved tunnel and, like a true child, checking to make sure I was always in her eyesight.
Once the snow trail began to curve back down towards the road, a little ways away from where Willy and I stood waiting, Tandy decided that where the path was taking her was not where she wanted to go. Instead, she chose to make her own path, ending her journey directly in front of me and her brother.
Now, this path was not cleared or touched in any way. The hill was steep and the snow lay in drifts that ranged from two feet to well above three. This snow was the type of bunny rabbit down that was light to shovel (thank goodness) but not good to pack down or support weight of any kind. When you stepped, you sank, and Tandy did just that.
Like Bambi in the freshly fallen fluff, Tandy reached out her long, clumsy legs for solid ground only to sink down several feet into the snow. Her going was ungainly and awkward, her tempo slowed to a careful (and, dare I say it?, fearful) pace. Her recently ebullient face drained to a widened panic.
Slowly, haltingly, she made her way down the hill and into my arms, out of breath and happily safe.
So often in life we find ourselves following in others’ footsteps. We follow the path that was carefully planned for us by our parents or rationalized by our siblings’ successful outings. We watch one person take a carefully orchestrated step and we choose to follow suit. It’s often made easy for us to follow, so why not?
For creative-types this often results in us trying to recreate Van Gogh’s wave-like movements, Deep Purple’s guitar riffs, and Misty Copeland’s turnout. We hang their photos on our walls and rewrite their song lyrics on our school notebooks. We fantasize about winning that Pulitzer (Grammy, Nobel Peace Prize, Golden Globe, etc.) and have mastered our Pacino imitation in the mirror.
But, at some point, we recognize our admiration and attempts at recreation as simply that: imitations. Once there is that reckoning, it’s up to us to decide whether to forge our own path or continue in the copy.
Unfortunately, I can think of way too many instances within my own artistic career where I embodied a watered down version of what came before. I was often concerned with being the best grade in the class, that I often sacrificed being the best artist for a straight A student.
But the biggest lesson came to me when I first began to write my play Summer in the Light/Winter in the Shade.
I have always been fascinated by “end of life” narratives: stories that feature characters (often men) who are nearing the end of their lives and wish to make amends for the wrongs they have done. One such source of inspiration is Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, which features a retrospective of unhappy relationships, betrayed friendships, and a scene that seems to be plucked out of the Miller-Monroe marriage.
I was enamored with the play and decided that I would systematically break down Miller’s story into scenes that I could then recreate with my own characters.
Once I began writing, though, I found myself writing monologue after monologue. I would scribble unimportant scenes that would serve no other purpose than to lead me to the next long speech. The scenes were weak, flimsy, and vanilla. The monologues were gold.
I contacted my tutor at the time, a quiet man who seemed kind, if you could only peel back the many layers. We met at school and, after listening to me go on and on about my problems, asked me to step outside with him.
We sat on this hidden stairwell in an alley behind RADA. I sat next to him, but one step down, closer to his feet. He lit up a cigarette after he asked if I minded. (I did, but I told him I didn’t.)
“You’re not supposed to write this play.”
“Huh?” Oh, shit… He knows I’m a fraud.
“You’re not supposed to write another After the Fall. You’re supposed to write this play.” He pointed at the pages I held in my hand.
“But… A play that’s just monologues? Has that ever been done before?”
“Who cares?” he replied. “This is what you write well. So write it.”
And so I did.
My progress had been like Tandy’s: awkward, clumsy, and scared shitless. There were many times I wanted to turn back and follow a path I knew could work. Instead, I stepped and sank. Stepped. Sank. Stepped and got stuck. Stepped. Sank and stepped again.
And somehow, several months later, I ended up in a circle of six actors who were reading my work. I was breathless and elated and I possessed something that was completely mine: my very own adventure.
For more lessons from Tandy, click: