Last year I was robbed twice.
My house is high up in a river valley, surrounded by hills and trees. On clear fall nights I get a full view of the stars. All the many voices of the mountain wind sing around the dormer windows that I built. It is a little magic cottage, not quite wilderness, but a good place to write, paint, meditate, or live. I pay the bills with my own work, and when I die, maybe a bit of the magic will be there for someone else to enjoy.
Such peaceful, isolated rural houses, obscured by woods, miles from the nearest police, are sitting ducks for thieves. My neighborhood had ten burglaries in a single summer. Before robbing an area, burglars often take pictures of the houses, watch the residents, and make hang-up calls; they might pose as door-to-door evangelists. They hit most often in the early morning. On one job they bypassed the locks and cut right through the wall with a chainsaw. They take guns, stereos, cameras, VCRs, tools. They will even pull out sump pumps and cut up plumbing for the copper. Sometimes they defecate on rugs and smear their excrement on the wallpaper.
If the mark shows up unexpectedly, what began as a burglary may explode into homicide. The owner of a local marble company interrupted a robbery at his place of business, and the thieves beat him to death with crowbars. In the same town, while robbing the house of a handicapped man, burglars tied him to his wheelchair and smothered him with a pillowcase.
One day in June I was building a front porch. My domestic partner Linda left for work, and I went into town to get supplies — an errand that took me less than forty-five minutes. When I came back, my kitchen door had been kicked open and my house ransacked. The missing goods were easy to carry and resell: stereo components, binoculars, watch, jackets, musical recording equipment. The burglars must have been watching from the woods, waiting for us to leave; a lookout hiding at the end of the road with a walkie-talkie could have given warning of my return.
Before this, I had felt vaguely sympathetic toward criminals and convicts, influenced by movies to regard them as twisted victims with perhaps heroic dimensions, getting a raw deal from the American gulag system, fighting back against an oppressive society in the only way they know how, through direct action. These are the kinds of fatuous illusions most easily indulged in by naively sentimental “progressives” who have never been car-jacked, mugged, raped, robbed, or beaten, or had a loved one robbed, attacked, or murdered by thugs. The best cure for such ideas is exactly what happened to me.
The state police came and made a report. That was all. House burglary is such a common occurrence that they scarcely bother to investigate unless it involves homicide. What, you don’t have triple deadbolts? You don’t have serial numbers? You didn’t videotape the burglars? Well, a fool and his possessions are soon parted.
But the loss of possessions is not what mattered; I have given away much more than their value. What mattered was being reduced to an object of prey in the one place you imagine is a refuge from attack by predators: your home. Be it ever so humble, home is where forced entry violates a lot more than property rights. Strangers had used the woods on my land to track my daily moves, to spy on my intimate moments, to note when I would be most vulnerable, and to hit when my back was turned. To them, I was less than a rabbit to a fox. They did not care that I could smell their sleazy presence for days afterward in my bedroom, and they would have laughed if they had known I did not even want to sleep in my bed anymore — which I had constructed with my own hands — thinking how they had walked on the bedclothes and torn up the bookcase going after the VCR like pigs rooting under a log.
I had good reason to believe they would come back. They now knew the inside of my house and the rest of its contents. A few nights later I heard human footsteps in the woods. The next morning I found things displaced: lumber askew and the shed door standing open.
To keep things in perspective, I reminded myself that robbery and pillage are the rule in history, not the exception. The Vikings lived on plunder for generations. If you were a Saxon farmer on the east coast of Britain in the ninth century, your worst nightmare was the sight of those long, curved-prow ships, lined on either side with round shields, rowing up the estuary toward your village. Plunderers are almost always young: only the young have the energy for this lifestyle, or the stupidity to find it appealing. Their most common victims are the weak, the disabled, the solitary, and the old.
I began my recovery by telling all my neighbors up and down the road what had happened to me. Most of them I was meeting for the first time, although I have lived here for eight years. Several of them had also been robbed, some here, some elsewhere. Our isolation makes it easy. Before modern times, the whole of an English village would turn out at the cry of “Thief! Thief!” and join in pursuit. Today, when neighbors have lost that willingness to watch out for each other or, worse, when they don’t even know each other’s names, there is no longer a community, however close they may live. Such a neighborhood, defended by nothing but a small cadre of overworked police, who often have more contempt for victims than for criminals, is a robbers’ paradise.
To be fair to the police, I should note that they broke two rings of thieves here recently and solved a number of local murders. But, underfunded and underappreciated as they are, they cannot possibly stem the creeping disrespect for law that has permeated and bankrupted this country from the top down since the Nixon era; nor can they ever substitute for the mutual aid of neighbors and families.
Lest anyone suspect from my attitude that I am not spiritually evolved, let me demonstrate my awareness of the options that emanate from the higher planes. I could put a sign on my door saying Property is theft. Walk in. I could sell what has not already been stolen and donate the proceeds to charitable causes. I could recall the precept in The Cloud Of Unknowing that those who do me harm in this life are my full and special friends. Imitating the good bishop in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I could advertise in the paper that the guest to whom I had given my stereo forgot one of the speakers and is welcome to return for it anytime. I could see the burglary as a message to simplify, simplify: I own too much, I am too attached to my home and my things. Who needs this computer, these guitars, these bathroom fixtures, this bed, this water pump, this income? I could write poems thanking the burglars for enriching my path.
Instead, I bought two cans of Mace and a 9 mm. semiautomatic pistol. That one act was worth all the thousands of hours I have ever spent on spiritual practices and all the spiritual books that take up space on my shelves. Any desire I had to appear highly evolved vanished in an instant. Along with it vanished the lingering guilt, the longing to be thought wise and compassionate, the hope for progress toward enlightenment that haunts all of us who have devoted years of our lives to The Path. At long last I did not give a rat’s ass for The Path, or for the opinions of so-called spiritual masters either, many of whom are thieves themselves.
At neighborhood-watch meetings, I learned that most of my neighbors own guns too. With a few exceptions, they are not hunters; they own guns for self-defense.
“I hang out on my front porch and shoot into the woods,” said a Marine Corps veteran. “I shoot randomly at odd times of the day or night. Just to make people think I’m crazy. They say, ‘You don’t want to mess with that guy, because he shoots at anything. Stay away from him.’ ”
“We were going out last week,” said one woman, “and I had to remember to hide this and lock that, and as I was taking all these precautions, I got furious that I should be forced to go through this. You can’t live in peace in your own home.”
“And if you try to defend yourself,” another said, “you’re the one on trial. Criminals have more rights than we do. We’ve got to change the laws in this country. If someone breaks into your home — I don’t care if it’s night or day — you should have the right to shoot him, period. No questions asked.”
“Even when the police nail them,” said another woman, “the courts turn them loose. There’s no more room for them in the prisons. And if by some miracle they do time, they’re back out on the streets in two years, doing the same damn thing.”
“It’s the recession. There are no jobs.”
“But these professional burglars aren’t poor. The guy they caught breaking into the condominiums up on the mountain was driving a brand new BMW and wearing an $800 suit.”
“Is this a gun like Dirty Harry’s?” asked the seventy-year-old woman who was watching my house so Linda and I could leave for the day. “I want to shoot a gun like Dirty Harry’s. Will you show me how to use this?”
“Sure,” I said, taking her out to the back yard. She laid down a tight pattern of holes that would have done credit to Ma Barker. “What do you mean, show you how? Why don’t you show me?” I said. We laughed.
“My son is coming by in the afternoon,” I said. “He’ll be driving a rusty Toyota.”
“Yeah, well, he better have some ID or I’ll Mace him.”
I love these people.
The gun felt heavy and solid in my hand. Linda’s fury outdid even mine. We blasted cans, boards, paper targets, and burglar silhouettes drawn onto scraps of sheetrock. I enjoyed the sudden recoil, the acrid smell of gunpowder, the burst of gypsum that accompanied each hit.
When practice was done, I tore down the weapon and cleaned it carefully with nitro-solvent and gun oil, reflecting on the sobering facts that it could as easily be used on myself as someone else, that most gunshot wounds inflicted by homeowners are against their own families, and that guns are extremely attractive items to burglars. Nevertheless, I decided to join the National Rifle Association. Taking weapons away from besieged citizens is like depriving outdoor cats of their claws. Hornets have stings, hawks have talons, porcupines have quills. Reality is always armed. The alternative is to run or fly. I can do neither.
Of course, owning a gun is one thing and shooting a live human is quite another. A night burglary on a garage three miles down the road tripped a security alarm, bringing the resident out of his house with a .357 magnum. He was the owner of a bar and had already been robbed several times. He shot and killed one of the four intruders. They turned out to be local high-school boys looking for alcohol. The boy he killed was on the football team. The school had a big memorial service, and the bar owner was indicted and tried for manslaughter. The jury acquitted him, but the newspaper made him look like a child-killer, and his legal fees pushed him to the brink of ruin.
This is one of the sad ironies of self-defense: the intruder we are most likely to shoot is not the experienced thief, who is skilled at evading risk, but the adolescent kid, whose brains are on loan from a Nintendo cartridge and who regards burglary as a form of bungee-jumping.
If I waged war to defend my right to live in my cottage unmolested, what would happen to its magic? This question was an afterthought. At the time, there was no doubt in my mind, as I sat working in my study with the gun close at hand: any thug who sent his foot through my door while I was home would meet a hail of lead. I was looking forward to it.
When I was sixteen, a gang of boys bullied me without mercy for months. My friend Bill, who went to another school, was dating a girl claimed by one of the gang members, and they threatened to waste us both if he kept seeing her. Finally, they challenged us to a rumble behind an abandoned church. Pushed to the wall, I decided to take my father’s advice about standing up to bullies: whether you win or lose, he said, they will leave you alone. I told the gang they were on; they could bring anybody they wanted, and we would do the same. In those days kids did not carry guns, but knowing there were only two of us against all of them, I expected to be killed nevertheless. We spent the hour before the fight on the toilet. Our plan was to run straight at them from the bushes, hit them hard and fast in the privates, go for the biggest guys first, and keep brawling until we got knocked out. I carried my wallet so the police would be able to identify my body.
We danced toward battle like wild angels, clutching homemade brass knuckles and punching shadows. I did not give a damn anymore whether I lived or died. For the first time in my life, I knew what it was like to lose all fear.
We clasped arms in the blood-brother shake: “This is it, buddy.” We touched our fists together and charged, screaming, into an empty lot. No gang, nobody.
On a side street, we found Bill’s rival, the gang member who was dating the girl, walking toward her house alone. He said he knew nothing about any rumble and wasn’t looking for a fight. Bill punched him in the face and broke his nose. It sounded like a pumpkin hitting cement. The kid dropped to his knees, crying. There was so much blood I thought we had killed him. Bully and victim had suddenly switched roles.
All these threads make up my image of fighting back: the humiliation of being victimized, the restorative joy of fearless rage that sweeps away all hesitation and doubt, the committed bonding with allies, and finally the sullied victory, the needless overkill, the shame of having become what you set out to fight. How many thousands of years have we enacted this ritual? No part of it can be separated from the rest. And yet one thing stands out: that gang never bothered me again.
It is possible, too, that I would choose to give my possessions to a needy predator, but such giving is infinitely more meaningful if you have the power to say no.
Our neighborhood-watch group made lists of motor vehicles that belonged in the area. When I saw a strange car parked by the side of the road, I’d pull up close behind it in my truck and write down the license number, description, date, time, and place. If someone was inside, I’d lean over and politely introduce myself. “You live around here?” I’d ask. “I’m sorry, I haven’t met you. What’s your name?” If it turned out to be a resident, I’d laugh and explain my mission. We’d swap burglar stories. We also watched for illegal trash dumpers — contractors from points farther south, who preferred to dispose of their waste on a Vermont back road than comply with their own state laws. The sense of community, I learned, was alive in this place after all. I had just never plugged into it before.
Watch work has many satisfying and funny moments. One morning I unloaded a round metal cover from my truck and rolled it into my wood lot to cap my spring. A young man driving by in a TransAm stopped and followed me on foot. I closed my hand unobtrusively around the Mace in my pocket.
“You live around here?” he asked.
“Yup,” I said, “right here, to be exact.”
“I live a couple houses up the hill with my parents.”
“Pleased to meet you.” We shook hands.
“When I saw somebody going into the woods, I thought I’d better stop and check it out.”
“Good,” I said, laughing. “Thank you. Keep doing it.”
Once, I came up behind two men in a parked truck videotaping a farm. They looked like hunters, but why would hunters videotape a farm? And why was their license plate smeared with mud? I jotted down a description of their vehicle. Just then they saw me and roared away. I was happy for a week.
This kind of group self-defense is what heals the loss, the insecurity, and the sense of powerlessness that attends being violated by burglary — not meditation and prayer, forgiveness, compassion, or the quest to conquer hate. Each step brought me new strength. Installing a burglar alarm, I learned more about electronics than I ever wanted to know. To put up a gate across my driveway, I dug down five feet, sank two heavy steel posts, and sealed them in concrete that I mixed myself. Being lung-disabled was just another obstacle to work around, like a big rock. While I was working, a neighbor’s German shepherd came over to say hi. She sat in my lap, licked my beard, nosed my pockets, and lay down on my shovel. I couldn’t stop laughing. She crooned happily and pawed my chest. That was it. A watch person should have a watchdog.
I bought a ten-week-old shepherd puppy, my first dog, though I’m past fifty and have always loved cats. We named her Juno. She was adopted to guard my home, but it didn’t take long before she upstaged her purpose. She had to be housebroken, fed, cared for, exercised and played with every day, introduced to the neighborhood, trained to come, sit, stay, lie down, and surrender harmful objects, taught where she could and could not go, and what was OK to chew.
Juno can put on a tough act now that she weighs eighty pounds. Her tail sweeps the ground, her neck bears a thick tan ruff, and her ears stand straight up. At the sound of an approaching stranger, she leaps to her feet and bays like a wolf. I hold her collar to keep her from flying out at the UPS man while he hands my packages gingerly around a crack in the door. He probably doesn’t suspect I’m restraining her from smothering him with kisses and beating him to death with her wagging tail.
I can only wonder how many centuries of bonding created this irresistible devotion between human and dog, but it swept me away as if we were born for each other. I had not suspected what passionate souls lay behind those wet noses and panting tongues. When she ran toward me full-tilt, her legs could not keep up with her round bear-cub body, and she tumbled into my arms, wiggling and struggling to wrap her paws around my neck. If sat in the kitchen, she wanted to be under my chair. I sat in the living room, she wanted to be next to my feet.
When I left for work, she followed me along the fence and whimpered mournfully, wagging her whole butt and prancing her front paws back and forth, struggling to obey my order to stay. Coming home, I could see just her ears sticking straight up above the glass panel of the breezeway door, cocking this way and that to catch the sounds of my approach. As I came in, she threw herself at me in a madness of joy. I knelt down and she climbed on top of me, crying and licking my face. I was always laughing around her. I thought about her all day. I could hardly wait to get back to her in the afternoon.
Her favorite activity was walking, nothing special, just prancing along happily beside my legs as I plodded slowly through the woods, panting heavily. She made wide circles around me, nose to the ground, looking toward me for direction, listening to my wheezing breath with her head cocked sideways. For a game, she stole one of my gloves and teased me with it by staying just out of my range. When I fell once, she came running back and stood over me, anxiously sniffing my face until I got up. I rested for a while to catch my breath and admire the moss on the stones. She sniffed old stumps, dug between roots, ate some deer pellets, lapped at a stream. Then she sat beside me until I started moving again. On the road, when cars passed, I called and held her close to me. After the first few times, she trotted over to me at the sound of a car and stayed beside my feet until it passed. We moved and rested in the same nonverbal current, like two parts of the same animal, learning each other’s lessons and dreaming each other’s dreams. We dreamed of furry things that live in holes, huge cathedral pine corridors, tangled brush, forgotten paths, rank logs, and hidden pairs of eyes.
One night, waking from a sound sleep, I knew by the ominous silence that she was sick. And I knew by the pain in my heart that now I had something else to lose. I found her hiding in a corner, head down, as if ashamed that she had vomited. I cleaned up the mess and slept beside her, imagining the worst. The next morning I waited for news from the vet like a mother with a child in the hospital. It was nothing much: gastritis, probably from a change in diet. Taking her home, I put my arm around her, telling her how beautiful she was. She got carsick and threw up in my lap.
By winter I could no longer ignore the way she limped when running, stumbled easily, and sat whining and wagging her tail while the dog from across the road ran circles around her. I exercised her by throwing her ball so she could chase it and bring it back. One evening she dragged her body toward me with the ball in her mouth, swaying sideways and hitching herself along like a cripple, determined to please me even on the point of collapse. I quit the game and brought her inside. She lay down gratefully, licking my hand.
It turned out that she has hip dysplasia, the bane of German shepherds. Early in this century, shepherd breeders got the bright idea to develop a sloping back in their dogs. They thought it gave a fashionable, attractive profile. They got the sloping back, all right, and along with it a gene for misshapen hip sockets that on X-rays look like melted plastic. Juno’s hips were the worst my vet has ever seen. At eight months, she already had arthritis spurs that made getting on her feet in the evening a painful chore. They say dogs resemble their humans; it figures that I would end up with a handicapped dog. Linda drew a picture of Juno sitting on a skateboard, wearing dark glasses, with a cup of pencils by her side and a sign saying “Guard dog. I will bark for kibbles. Please help.”
Hip dysplasia is sometimes a cause for putting a dog away, but young dogs can be helped by detaching the thigh bone from the hip, rounding the end, and supporting it with leg muscle. This operation will save Juno the use of her hind legs — for which I will pay, without regret, almost half what I lost in the burglary. So I’ll end up spending on the dog the worldly goods that she was supposed to protect.
Sitting beside her and stroking her belly, I thought about all the abandoned, starved, tortured beings of the world, the animals in laboratory cages, the monkeys with their eyelids sewn shut because some clown wants to write a thesis on the effects of light deprivation; I thought about the children who get much less to eat than Juno, the workers who cannot afford the luxury of buying operations for their dogs because to do so would deprive their kids; I thought about the lands where humans would slaughter Juno without compunction and hang her up in the market for meat; I thought about my own rage, which had somehow given birth to love, leaving me even more vulnerable to worry and grief; I thought about the magic — it had not disappeared, only taken new forms; and I thought, yet again, about The Path, which I had abandoned, but which by no means had abandoned me.
When I got tired of all that thinking, I opened a can of chicken and fed it to Juno with a spoon. She liked that. It saved her the discomfort of getting up. She thumped her tail on the floor.