"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched -- they must be felt with the heart." -- Helen Keller
The one-year anniversary of the first lockdown is already behind us, and yet, there are few signs that life is returning to normal. As restrictions are extended, and many parts of the world remain shuttered, it may feel easy to lose heart. But if this year has taught us anything, it is the importance of connections and relationships and ultimately, that the heart is what sustains us.
Over the course of lockdown, we met the American artist Margaret Leigh and her “pandemic puppy” Ren. She shares how their special bond developed and fostered connection with the *human community around them. It’s an uplifting story about becoming a family -- and yes, there’s plenty of heart.
In perhaps the three most typical ways, I’m something of a walking, breathing lockdown cliché. First, midway through 2020, my husband and I got one of our own so-called “pandemic puppies”; six months later, the three of us had outgrown our tiny studio in Paris, and with another lockdown looming, we sought greener, more spacious pastures in nearby Versailles; and by the third wave (or was it the fourth?), I realized I was pregnant.
Get a dog -- check, leave the city -- check, and have a baby -- not quite check, but I’m working on it.
Truth be told, our sweet puppy Ren wasn’t simply a decision driven by boredom or a sense of isolation during the first lockdown. Sure, to some extent, it was spurred on by those factors, but the underlying reason was more emotional and perhaps explains why our experience of getting a dog has been a relative success story...unlike those of many other well-meaning first-time pet owners who quickly found themselves overwhelmed -- between the frustrations of housetraining and the destructive antics of hyperactive young pups -- all within the pressure cooker of lockdown living.
In the early days, Ren, too, had her fair share of accidents, and regrettably, she continues to have them well into her ninth month of life. Every time I think she’s fully “potty trained,” she reminds me that we still have some work to do. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I scooped her up in my arms and crawled into bed, hoping to sleep off some early pregnancy symptoms. But little Ren had other plans. Within moments, she took the squatting position, and before I could process what she was doing, she had done it, and my duvet was soaked. Yes, I had a few choice words reserved for my new dog as I hauled considerably heavier bedding back and forth between the corner laundromat, but on most days, honestly, I am deeply grateful.
In fact, quite unexpectedly, Ren has made my life as an American expat much more connected to the local French community, and for a young woman about to start a family a long way from home, that’s no small comfort.
When Ren was just a few months old, she was so stinking cute that no matter where my husband and I brought her (and we brought her most everywhere), someone inevitably would stop us and enquire about our petite chienne.
“De quelle race est-elle?”
“Quel âge a la chienne?”
As a very reluctant French speaker, I was now forced to interact with people -- in French! mon dieu -- practically every time I took the dog out for a wee. It never ceased to amaze me how even the most serious-looking Parisians would suddenly stop dead in their tracks and light up at the mere sight of her.
“Salut, Ren!” I’d frequently hear as the three of us made our way up and down Rue de Vaugirard.
“Ren, Ren!” chanted our elderly neighbor whom we only ever saw looking down from his second-floor balcony.
Of course, children, too, adored her; it was virtually impossible to go anywhere without them descending on us and begging to hold her. One afternoon in particular, I remember sitting in the grass on Avenue de Breteuil, enjoying a little fresh air after months cooped up inside, when all of a sudden, we were surrounded. I recall counting some 10 to 15 kids passing Ren around like a potato, as my husband and I looked on nervously.
My life since she joined us strikes me as quite paradoxical: when the world was closing down with restaurants, bars, and museums all shuttered, Ren was opening mine up.
I sometimes half-jokingly refer to her as my “emotional support animal.” But actually, it’s a pretty apt description. As she grows, the less she needs from us and conversely, the more she seems to give. During the late nights when I’m hit with bouts of nausea, she sits beside me patiently and dutifully until the feeling passes. I can’t even sneeze without her rushing to my side. If my husband is the alpha dog whom she more reliably obeys, then I’m most certainly the littermate, and wherever I go, she follows.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ARTIST
Margaret Leigh Sinrod Bar owns Peeoui, a boutique media agency in Paris that produces educational video content chiefly for international organizations like the OECD and UN.
In recent months, she has begun creating custom watercolor portraits in addition to her usual video production work. So recent, in fact, it wasn’t until the first confinement that she found herself with both the time and motivation to explore what had once been a lifelong passion. After a near five-year hiatus, her father gently encouraged her to pick up the brush, again, shortly before passing away in January 2020. And thanks to that little push (and the fact that there were now significantly fewer distractions in lockdown), Margaret Leigh dove back in and with gusto; apparently, it is indeed like riding a bike. She now splits her time between creating custom portraiture and producing video content.
The name of her company Peeoui is a small tribute to her late father, as he was one of her greatest champions, and she, his “little Peewee”.
But however little, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight” that matters, “but the size of the fight in the dog,” he used to say (quoting Mark Twain). And if anyone can attest to the veracity of that statement, it’s quite literally the petite, feisty Ren.
Readers interested in ordering a custom portrait are encouraged to reach out to Margaret Leigh directly at PeeouiMedia@gmail.com. No formal sittings required. She uses photos as a reference and ships to clients worldwide.
To learn more about Margaret Leigh’s art and European adventures with Ren, follow @peeoui_in_paris on Instagram.