Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Since We Cannot Bring the Mountain to Will, We're Bringing Will to the Mountain

The snow is nearly gone in the valleys.  Rivers are running high.  Each day the sun climbs higher in the sky and day grows as night wanes.  Spring has arrived. 

The season of growth and eventual verdant growth is always a hopeful time for us.  We are rewarded for what we endured in winter and then can look forward to clear sailing.  The snow shovels, snow tires, and rock salt are put away.  Out comes the rakes, sunscreen, and pale skin. 

Each year it is the same. 

But this year there’s something a little different about this spring in Jackson.  When May 7 comes around, it will mark the two year anniversary of Will coming to the White Mountains after fifteen years in New Jersey.  I did not expect much of Will back then, especially not after meeting him. He was fifteen, neglected, and in poor health.  He could see, but not well; couldn’t hear anything; and wore his anger, resentment, and nearly feral ways of being dropped off at a kill shelter on his sleeve. 

I gave him two months, maybe three.  More importantly we were giving him a place to die with dignity.  But here it is two years later, and his gate is not as lopsided, his mood is pleasant – even happy.  Whatever problems he had are mostly in the past.  In spite of all of this, he still can’t walk very far.  Now that the weather allows it, we play in the backyard but there are now walks.  This is completely different from Atticus, who is not a big fan of playing but couldn’t live without his hikes and walks. 

As May moves further along and roads closed for the winter are open again, we’ll be taking advantage of increased access to do something special with Will.  Along with some friends, I’ll be pushing Will in his stroller (affectionately known at the Will Wagon) up an access road, then he will be carried to the summit of a mountain.  The whole adventure will be captured by Willem Lange and his team at Windows to the Wild on New Hampshire Public Television. 

A question I am often asked is why I would want to do this.  Why bring a deaf, mostly blind, seventeen year old dog who cannot walk very far to the top of a mountain?  It has to do with my past.  I grew up with a mother in a wheelchair, and her Multiple Sclerosis did not keep my father from getting the entire family out as much as he could.  We came north to the White Mountains and headed south to Cape Cod.  We did all kinds of activities with that wheelchair crammed into the station wagon with a car load of kids. Later in life I worked with mentally and physically disabled children, and then elderly – most of whom had been long forgotten. 

This is what I learned.  Life does not stop because you cannot walk, because you possibly drool on yourself or have to wear a diaper.  Nor does it end when your hearing and eyesight fail you.  Your senses are always alive, always willing to be stimulated.  No matter what we are missing, we (and I am talking both human animals and non-human animals here) still have the ability to feel! 

It could be a breeze, water, the earth, a rock, or wonderment, excitement, adventure, and love. 

When Will first came to live with us, before I knew how bad off he was, I was hoping Atticus and I could get him up a mountain.  Then, when we met, I knew it probably wouldn’t happen.  But months passed and not only did he not die, his health improved.   He enjoyed being outside with wildflowers or in the shade of the backyard grass, in the early evening.  As the months stretched on, and the seasons changed, Will did, as well.  His past no longer mattered as much, and we then were able to live in the present. 

One of the things I’ve most lived from the animals I’ve known is that they are not very different from you and me.  They like to be happy.  They want to be safe.  They want to be comfortable.  And they do not want to suffer, nor do they want to die.  They want to live!
 
So six months after Will came to us a shell of a soul, with the help of a friend, I pushed Will up an access road, and then we carried him to the top, all the while following Atticus.

The most remarkable thing happened.  Will couldn’t do too much, and as far as I know he couldn’t see very much, but when I let him sit in the crook of my elbow as I often do with Atticus on a mountaintop, Will leaned toward me and did something he’d never done before.  I felt the softness of his small pink tongue against my cheek. Then his head relaxed, he let it rest against mine, and he sighed. 

Other than giving Will a safe place to live in good food, medicine, dignity, kindness, growing love, and consideration, I do not think anything impacted him as much as that day on the mountain did.  There was a noticeable difference after that day.  He was even happier, more interactive with Atticus and me; he wanted to play more.  When I walked toward the door, he now followed whereas, in the past he didn’t seem to care. 

So why climb a mountain with a seventeen year old dog?  Because he is not unlike you and me.  We are all tied to nature.  There's a feel that comes from being on a beach by the ocean and it's different from being in a city park, in a desert, or high atop of a green mountain.  Nature heals and it does this by the way it infuses our senses and makes us feel.  That's the general answer.  As for the "Will answer" - he clearly wants to live, and living doesn’t mean just sleeping the hours away in one of his beds chasing after fleeting patches of shifting sunlight.  Loving someone, anyone – whether they have two legs or four, means being present, paying attention to what stirs them, and investing in what makes them happy.

When night falls after the upcoming hike Will is going to sleep very well.  But in the hours before then Willem Lange and his great crew send Will’s message out throughout New England when the shows air next fall.  Old age is not a disease; and it’s never too late to trust again; to love or be loved again, and it’s never too late to live again.”
  


Will's first trip to a mountaintop.
 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Taking Center Stage


Recently, my friend Wendy and I were corresponding about my fear of public speaking and she asked me if I was ready for Wednesday night’s event where there will be seven hundred people in attendance – weather permitting.  She wanted to know what I will do to get ready to step out of my comfort zone. 

The answer’s simple.  I choose to bring my comfort zone with me.  Yes, I have a fear of public speaking, and most would never know it, but no matter how calm and relaxed I look it simmers just beneath the surface.  (I’ve read that President Kennedy had the same fear and often vomited before his speeches.)  My way to deal with it is to face it.  I think it’s a rush to face a fear and each time I do; I get that much stronger. 

Before an event, I get the lay of the venue and try to have it set up so that Atticus and Will are being put in a position to succeed.  Charlotte Canelli at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood has been a pleasure to work with. We've kept in touch about what will work best for taking care of Atticus and Will, and that’s a load off of my mind. 

But that still leaves me to standing on the stage with Atticus by my side (and Will waiting in the wings with his personal protectors Laura Bachofner and Marybeth Cauffman) in the spotlight in the middle of my fear.  It reminds me of how I feel on a hike along a narrow ledge where another fear – heights! – heckles me.  I freeze, then say “f--- it!” and I take a leap of faith realizing that others before me have done it and haven’t plunged to their death, so I can handle it, as well.

So I will go out on stage, look up into the lights, down into fourteen hundred eyes, and I will leap.  Inside I’ll laugh and feel the thrill of excitement and think of something Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked him about the meaning of life.  What Campbell said was that people aren’t looking for the meaning of life, they’re looking for the experience of being alive.  Fears are part of that experience.  It makes our breath more valuable, creates a sense of being mindful and aware, all time slows down, all time speeds up – and all becomes timeless. 

I equate a lot of my life to the hikes Atticus and I take.  I used to be afraid of hiking in the dark and felt like a child who was frightened to take my head out from beneath the sheets.  Now, however, we hike often at night.  A week ago, when Will woke us up in the middle of the night by going to the bathroom and then falling in it on the kitchen floor, he called to me and woke me up out of my sleep.  I picked his little body up as he shook and cried; he was soaked in his own urine, stained with his shit.  I took my shirt off, pulled him close to my chest so he could whimper against my heart and know that everything was going to be okay, and I held him like that while I drew his bath.

After he was clean and wrapped in a towel, I cleaned the mess on the kitchen floor, lit a candle, and then steam mopped the floor.  After an episode like this one, which happens in the middle of the night from time to time, Will sleeps soundly and won’t budge until late morning. But after rushing in for the rescue and helping my little friend, I often have a difficult time getting back to sleep.  After I shower, I sometimes read in bed. Other times I get up and write letters to friends.  But on this night, with Atticus wide awake and sitting up on the bed with a look of expectation, I agreed with him, got dressed, grabbed my pack, and by 3:00 am we were parked at the trailhead of the Old Path, on our way into the dark woods headed for South Doublehead, and then North.

The night fear stood on the edge of my periphery just to remind me it’s there, but I remind myself that fear of the dark, much like a fear of public speaking, is nothing but ghosts.  And the truth is, I’m not afraid of ghosts.  

We slowly marched up the trail, and when it became steep, we still moved withpurpose and took breaks when we needed them.  Upon reaching the saddle between the two humps, a place where we’ve run into moose, bear, and a porcupine during past night hikes, the stars could be seen through the short trees and off of the backside of the mountain.  I turned off my headlamp and could see the moonbeams filtering through the trees. 

We climbed to the top the ledges just shy of the South Doublehead summit and emerged from the woods into a brilliant night, frozen but clear.  Beneath us, Jackson Village seemed tiny.  To the northwest Mount Washington caught the light of the full moon and stood there like a stunning bride – all of that white against the dark night.  I picked up Atticus and kept my headlamp off, and we looked towards our largest peak, the one the Abenaki referred to as Agiocochook (Home of the Great Spirit), and I smiled.  Such a gift to see the glow of this giant mountain looking at us as we looked at her while the rest of the world slept. 

We eventually made our way to the cairn at the summit of South Doublehead many warm memories linger for me from the various hikes we’ve made both during the daylight and at night, then doubled back to the saddle.  There were no moose or bear to be seen, but there were hoof prints in the snow going to the back of the saddle.  Then it was up into the shadows with my headlamp cutting through a tunnel of darkness before we came to the vacant and locked cabin on the top of North Doublehead.  We took the path behind it and looked at the stars hanging above Maine.  After a few minutes, we walked down the old ski slope and back to the car.

Will was tucked in just as we had left him, just as I knew he would be, and Atticus and I climbed back into bed where we were warm and safe after I had danced with that little fear of mine.  One of the greatest things about entering discomfort by way ofadventure is returning home again where all is appreciated even more. 

We drowsed off.  When we woke up to bright blue skies and the blinding blanket of white in our backyard that full moon, glowing Agiocochook, and the Doubleheads lingered like a dream. 

As we get ready to stand on stage this Wednesday night, we’ll begin by dropping Will of with Tracy at the Ultimutt Cut to have his hair washed and trimmed on Tuesday morning.  Atticus and I will head to a mountain and climb a peak and take it all in and feel the strength, peace, vitality, and tranquility of the mountain.  Of course, it will hurt some because we are both getting back into shape, and I have plenty of weight to lose to catch up to where we were before the cancer came, but it will be good hurt.  I’ll feel my body re-awakening.  On Tuesday night we’ll have a quiet time at home and I’ll pack up.  By the time we leave Wednesday morning, I’ll be excited for our little road trip.  We’ll stop in Medway to visit the graves of Jack and Isabel and introduce them to Will.  I’ll let him get down and dance around where their bodies sleep.    

In my prayers, I’ll tell my father about Tuesday’s hike, about the Wednesday night’s event, and I’ll read aloud to him the latest chapter I’m working on in the next book. He would have loved it all. Who knows, perhaps he is somewhere we he will still be able to enjoy it.  Either way I’ll share it because I know it would mean something to him.

We’ll head to Norwood, take a tour of the library, let Atticus and Will meet some excited librarians, and just before the event starts, we’ll find a private place backstage.  I pull out my iPhone, plug in my ear phones, and listen to music as I do before every event. 

When I step on stage, I’ll be stepping into a new adventure with Atticus, just as I’ve done everything with him over the past dozen years, just as we’ve hiked thousands of mountains, as I fought septic shock, and he fought cancer, we’ve ridden the ups and downs of life’s rollercoaster, and faced storms both actual and metaphorical. I’ll smile and embrace the fear and underneath my breath I’ll think of the “experience of being alive” where fears dance with joy.  Then I’ll leap.  

By all the talking is over, the questions answered, the shaking hands and signing of books complete, and we step out into the cold air, and head to our hotel room, I’ll be spent.  In the morning, we’ll drive back to Jackson and our quiet lives.  We’ll stop, as we always do, at Lake Chocorua to stretch our legs and greet the majestic mountain that always welcomes us back to the region.    

In the days after a big event, I walk around like I’m hung over, even though I don’t drink. I’ll wear my sunglasses, turn off the phone, drink plenty of water, and Atticus and I will find some nice trails to explore where we won’t see another soul. 

It will be a lot like it was when we returned from Doublehead the other night.  The best part of the adventure is the contrast in finding the comfort of home again. 

That is how I deal with my fear of public speaking.  As I always do.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sharing My Life With Atticus & Will On Social Media

Atticus Maxwell Finch and William Lloyd Garrison, unabashedly themselves.

As a reader and a writer I do my best to avoid clichés.  I like original thought and choose the authors I favor for the way they make their words dance across the page.  As a writer, when I’m at my best, the words flow in an original pattern. When I’m not, I write, rewrite, and then rewrite again. As a last resort, there’s the delete key. I’d rather put nothing out there, than something that is tired and uninspired.  

My life is much the same way. I believe it’s important that we embrace whatever it is that makes us shine as individuals.  That’s one of the reasons I spend time with the words of Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Einstein, and others who embraced the song of each soul. 

We all have a song, our very own, and by celebrating it we become part of the greater symphony that lends itself to the glory of life and focuses on what is possible, instead of the mundane. 

This same philosophy is at the heart of my relationship with both Atticus and Will. I choose to see each of them for who they are as individuals and avoid the cover-all, mindless clichés of breeds . . . or even of species.  To me, Atticus is simply Atticus.  Will is simply Will.  Just as my human friends are not classified by being straight or gay, married or single, Irish or African.  I don’t like blanket statements.  They ignore the tiny bits of miracles that make us all unique and potentially exceptional. 

When I see someone refer to Atticus or Will with one of these clichéd terms, it really is foreign to me. For in each of them I see a thriving individual with strengths, weaknesses, peculiarities, peccadilloes, and personalities as fragrant and special as the ones that make up all of us.

I reject most blanket statements about dogs, just as I do about people.  If ever there was a title that reflects my philosophy of what makes all of us, human and non-human animals, special it is Whitman’s “Song of Myself”.  How fitting a title.  It’s no wonder that those I’m closest with and mean the most to me, all have their own songs. 

And this to me is the most interesting challenge of sharing small portions of our lives on social media.  I protect my own individuality and the right of those I care about to be individuals.  In contrast, much of social media can be clichés.    

We have a quiet life in Jackson. It’s simple and devoid of much the kind of drama one finds in supposed reality TV.  When I see it coming, I quickly walk the other way.  I weed our lives as carefully as a garden.  In spite of this, life is not boring.

The other night I surprised a friend of mine when I told her, “Since moving to the mountains, I keep more to myself than ever, and yet I’m never lonely.” 

And it’s true.  I find the stunning beauty of life all around us: in these grand mountains, in our tiny yard, on our comfortable couch.  I believe it’s because I choose to see the extraordinary where in the past I often saw little more than the common.

Three of us live together in our home. We are as different as could be.  Just this morning Will woke up, looked at me, and defecated on the floor as if it was the most natural thing in life. He then trundled around the other side of the bed and let loose a stream of piss.  Atticus stood looking down on him from atop the bed in stunned amazement, as he often does when Will acts this way. Meanwhile, Will made his way into the kitchen looking for breakfast as if nothing happened.  I laughed aloud at the comedy of Will, and Atticus’s observations of Will.  Atti then turned his raised eyebrow towards my laughter. 

Oh, believe me, I didn’t always laugh when Will showed up and shit and pissed on the floor and then thought nothing of it. No remorse. No need for penance. For twelve years I’ve lived with Atticus and can’t remember the last time he did such a thing.  Although once during chemo, he did lose control of his bowels in the middle of the night but came to wake me up to take me to the accident and show me.  But when it comes to Will, what am I to do?  It happens at his age. 

I’ve scheduled regular visits outside for Will so that it rarely happens any more. But after a long night inside, these things sometimes happen.  The comedy lies in Will’s cavalier attitude about it, and Atticus’s equally stunned response. 

Of course when we go outside I carry Will in my arms and he collapses comfortably into them. Atticus trots down the stairs. Once outside Atticus moves easily, Will mechanically.  When we come back in to eat, Atticus dispatches his food quickly.  Will eats a bit, leaves it for a while, and comes back to it when he is ready. Breakfast can last for hours his way.  With treats it’s just the opposite. Will, if I’m not careful, will nip my fingers in his hurry to wolf down the morsel, while Atticus ever so gently takes hold of it and looks me in the eye while doing it. 

One of them sleeps most of the day. The other feels out of sorts if we don’t climb at least two mountains a week.  One sleeps with covers on, the other doesn’t.  One likes to snuggle down, the other is impatient and uncomfortable doing that. 

Atticus came to me at eight weeks of age and other than the imprint of his soul, he was a tabula rasa – a blank slate.  He has been carefully nurtured his entire life. Will arrived twenty-two months ago at fifteen wearing the results of years of neglect and abuse.  In the nearly two years he’s been with us, I feel as though I’ve been an archaeologist as we’ve uncovered his true life and let him shine for what he is – a mixture of nature and now of nurture.  Like Atticus and me, Will is a product of his what he was born with married with his experiences.

I understand that Will and Atticus are dogs and I am human.  We have different biological needs.  I pay attention to those, but the rest is not so different. The way I see it, we mostly want the same things out of life.  We want to be happy, healthy, safe, loved, and respected.  We want the right to be who we are and to make individual choices.  In a human world, although it’s not always easy, I do the best I can with it and it works for us. 

It’s a work in progress for us.  Life always is.  I’ve learned a lot from Atticus, and from Will, but each of them have learned a lot from me as well.  It’s a dance in four part harmony. There’s Will, there’s Atticus, there’s me, and there’s what the world throws at us.  This is the journey I protect and respect.

And this is why social media can be a struggle for me at times.  I have a hard time relating to those who use clichés to describe dogs or breeds or who say, “My Tilly is just like Atticus.”  Such thoughts are foreign to me.  Not only that, they wring out the best parts of life and leave behind the parched and the dry.  I would prefer to think that Tilly is just like Tilly, and no one else and that she has someone in her life that recognizes that about her. In contrast to this, I enjoy when people post about a dog in their lives but don't mention the breed.  Instead they mention the dog's name.  I automatically feel a kinship with someone who doesn't attempt to sum up a dog by his or her breed.

At the other extreme, I find myself uncomfortable with the clichés of those who deify dogs.  You know the old tired terms. I'm owned by my dog. Dog is God spelled backwards. Who rescued who?  I do believe dogs are miraculous, as are all animals, but that includes humans.  We're not so bad ourselves.  Sure we have our shortcomings, but every species does.  I prefer to see the relationship I have with Atticus and the one I have with Will as a two way street.  I'm partial to Carl Jung's philosophy, "The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed."

When it comes to our lives on our little corner of the Universe, I like the way things are. Atticus is Atticus, Will is Will, and Tom is Tom. We are each unique, each special, each both strong and vulnerable, and each of us is filled with the stuff that stars are made of. 

Life is more than the same old same old.  It has to be, if it’s worth living. It should be fresh, renewing, exciting, and filled with . . . well, life! At least that’s the way I see it, and that’s one of the songs of myself.
 


Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
     origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are
     millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
     look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
     spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
     from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

                              ~ Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau...not bad company at all


If you are an author, there are many reasons to avoid the reader reviews on your Amazon page. Most importantly, what you've written is in the past, and there's nothing you can do about it now.  You write something, send it out into the world, and what the reader sees in it is up to them.  There's also the comfortable truth that not every book is for every writer.  Three of my favorite authors are Howard Frank Mosher, John Irving, and Tom Robbins, but I've not liked everything they've written. And lastly, it's human tendency to pay more attention to the negative than the positive, even if the positive far outweighs the opposite. 

Recently, though, when a friend informed me Following Atticus attained the Amazon milestone of receiving 1,000 reviews, I went to the page and read a few of the comments.  The one that caught my attention was not negative, but rather a mediocre review. The woman gave it three stars out of five. She wrote about how tough it was to rate our story. She called it "well written" and "an obviously loving story about a man and his remarkable dog". But in her opinion the Following Atticus "was WAY too pantheistic for me".

A smile spread across my face as I read this, and again later while contemplating her words during a lengthy walk in the frozen woods with Atticus while we kept company with the Swift River.

When a hardcore, Bible-toting politician in Newburyport once noted to me that I mentioned God in my writing but didn't go to church, she stated she was confused and wanted to know what religion I practiced.  I told her I didn't practice any religion. But she pushed, and she pulled and she demanded an answer.  Finally, I conceded by telling her while I refuse to claim any religion, if I was forced to choose one I'm closest to being a pantheist.

Madame Politician then stalked off in utter disgust, (to pray for my soul, I imagined at the time). A few days later her husband approached me with the same disgust in his face and voice to say he couldn’t believe I told his wife that I worshipped panties.  And this, in part, should tell you why I stopped covering politicians and went to the woods, where I feel a sense of God in everything around me.  Including during a walk along the Swift River with Atticus by my side.

Earlier this year, when Pete Seeger died, a popular quote of his circulated and it sums up how a lot of people who love the White Mountains feel. He said, "Every time I'm in the woods I feel like I'm in church." 

Can I get an "amen"?

There's is not a person who loves the woods who cannot relate to that sentiment.  Many of the prophets of old found God while submerged in nature.  It was Emerson, who along with his peers Thoreau and Hawthorne knew this region well, pointed out that we need not rely on the thoughts of prophets of old, but on our own senses and sensibilities to see a personal God. He wrote: "The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes.  Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?  Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"

T
hat personal experience is where I find my religion.  It's while walking an earthen path deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, standing atop lofty Mount Lafayette while being tossed to and fro by a strong wind, sitting by a crystal clear stream tucked away somewhere in the magical Sandwich Range, or encountering a bear in our backyard. 

Raised a Catholic, it took me a while to trust my personal experience. Being a political reporter, it took me a while to see the same divisions that bring out the petty in our politicians, bring out the petty in various religions.  I despise that people use God as a reason to argue or fight or to go to war over.  This has led to my decision to leave out the middle man and find God on my own.  (At this point, I have to add that I have no issue with the route others choose as long as they hopefully attempt to practice the Golden Rule – treat others as you wish to be treated.) 

While I have read the Bible, I also read the poetry of Wordsworth, Whitman, and Oliver; the essays of Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, and most importantly, I pay heed to my own feelings as Atticus and I continue to tramp through this special place we call home. 

How fortunate are we to have our own Garden of Eden, recognized as such by many of the great White Mountain Artists who flocked here in the 1800s? 

The White Mountain National Forest takes up more land than does all of Rhode Island. That’s one heck of a big church. 

I’m not a theologian. If you were to call me anything, you could say I am a
nemophilist. I love the forest for its enchantment and serenity, and everywhere I look in the natural world I see and hear the song of God.  And that, by rough definition, is a pantheist.

I like that I keep company with the likes of Lao Tzu, Spinoza, Heraclitus, Georg Hegel, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Ludwig van Beethoven, William Jennings Bryant, Claude Debussy, Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, D.H. Lawrence, and Ansel Adams, just to name a few who are associated with pantheism.  More importantly, I like that I can see the Divine anywhere, and not just because I was conditioned to.

Now, as the temperature climbs into the twenties and that, in combination with the lack of wind, has it feeling even warmer during this incredibly frigid winter, you’ll have to excuse me.  Will (and his poor ancient skin) needs his bath.  Later I will escape with Atticus to church.  We’re off on an eight mile woods walk today, where every step will be a prayer, and we’ll be filled with the grace of nature.
 

 
 

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Will Update: "All is divine harmony"

Sweet Will.
It snowed last night.  Not a lot.  Perhaps a couple of inches.  Just enough to coat the trees in the backyard on this gray morning, and make our driveway look clean and fresh. But it’s not a Christmas snow.  No, this is kind that falls in late winter. In a few hours, it will rain, and the new snow will be gone. Tonight it will freeze, and if the sun comes out tomorrow and the temperature is as mild as predicted, the cycle will start again. All that comes eventually goes.

Since moving to the mountains, I’ve learned to slow dance with nature’s rhythms.  It’s what has gotten us through our toughest challenges when hiking, and has made its way into the rest of our lives.  This slow dance helped us deal with Atticus’s cancer last year, especially in the beginning when we didn’t know how things would turn out.

I have faith in that rhythm.  It’s the way life ebbs and flows and part of the grand mystery.  Part of my continuing education as a middle aged man has been to understand that I have no control over the outside circumstances.  All I can do is appreciate the gifts along the way. 

When hiking, especially in winter, I follow the simple adage to take what the mountains (and the weather) offer us. There are days to hike, and others where you have to have respect for what’s happening out there, and it’s best to stay home.  Nature tells us what’s best.

In dealing with Will since he arrived here in May of 2012 I’ve paid attention to the rhythms of his body, mind, and heart.  I’ve let him set the course and offered him support.  While I pay attention to what he silently tells me, we’ve always had an agreement. I have told him to stay as long as he wants for he’ll always be loved here, but I also tell him he has nothing left to prove. He can go when he needs to. 

That’s the way it’s been since we brought him in as a hospice dog, to give him a place to die with dignity.  Of course, no one expected him to last this long.  But more than that, no one expected him to thrive, to embrace happiness, trust, and love because of the years of neglect and abuse. But that all changed when Will decided to write his own story.

Now when I have this same talk with Will things are a little different.  In the revised version, I tell him that when he leaves us, the only thing that will actually be gone is his body.  All else will remain behind.  For those we love and think about and hold in our heart are never gone. They live on as long as they are remembered. 

We have a morning ritual I’ve written about before.  After the first trip outside each morning, we come back inside, and Atticus has his breakfast.  I put out Will’s too, but he doesn’t eat it right away.  Atti and I then take our place on either end of the couch, and I read for a few minutes.  Meanwhile, Will walks around our little home, never too far away.  Eventually he pokes my knee with his nose, and I pick him up.  I sit sideways on the couch, and I hold him sitting upright, my arms wrapped around his tiny body, his tilting head (with its weak neck) held up by placing it side by side with mine.  It’s then that the clouds of his aged eyes part and the years recede to reveal the wonder of a younger soul looking out at the grand world outside our picture window. 

After a few minutes, the wonder is replaced by relaxation. Snores rise out of his body, and when it’s time for Atticus and I to go for a walk I set Will in his bed, prop up his head on a pillow, cover him with one of his soft blankets – all which have been made specifically for him, knitted with love and kindness.  I turn on classical music, and he falls asleep again until we return. 

But over the last few days that little tap of his nose against my leg has been missing. After coming inside he doesn’t circle and stroll about.  Instead, he seems to stand still, not knowing what to do.  He slowly eases those old hips, stiff from so many years in a crate, and lies flat on the floor. 

Over the past few days, I’ve been to one to give the loving tap and let him know I want him to join me. I pick him up, carry him to the couch and together we look out at the universe. The snores come more quickly now.  I kiss him gently, hold him dearly.  Say my prayers for him as I’ve always done. 

He sleeps more lately and that breakfast he used to get to eventually, sits uneaten. I wake him up to remind him to eat, but he’s not that hungry and I feed him by hand until he takes over himself. 

The elderly have good days and bad. There are moments of joy, moments of being tired. Sometimes the tiredness stretches into days and sometimes it reverses itself.  I’ve seen this with Will over the time he’s spent with us.  There have been periods when I thought he was getting ready to say goodbye, but he’s always come back from the edge to stick around for a while longer.

That may be the case now.  I don’t know.  It’s not up to me to understand how it works.  My only job is to be there for Will, to live with him as long as he wishes to live, and to ease him into what’s next when the time comes. 


 Yet somehow this time has a different feel to it. 

It’s part of the rhythm of nature…the very same rhythm of all our lives.

There is no sadness here at what is to come, perhaps soon, or maybe months down the road.  It’s anything but that.  We’re still busy living, but I also remember why we invited him into our home.

He’s happy, content, safe, and loved.  We still play.  When I’m on my knees with him he buries his head into my waist, and I rub his body.  When I stop, he nudges me to keep going.  And of course I do. 

Today it’s gray outside, but not frigid.  Snow has fallen.  Rain will soon come.  Winter is here, but not for long. The cycle of the changing seasons is upon us.
 
 

What comes into our lives eventually departs after minutes, days, weeks, months, or years. Nature reminds us always that things change.  John Muir wrote about what I’m feeling these days.  "On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death...Lt children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.  All is divine harmony."   

Will is sleeping soundly right now.  He’s gone from my arms to his bed. He’s covered and snoring sweetly.  Today we follow our own rhythm.  Now that he’s tucked in, and Atticus and I get ready for our walk, I’ll turn on the music for Will, and when we return we’ll have Will’s Friday flowers.  I think tulips will be the choice today. They are a nice sign of what’s to come in spring.  Besides, Will likes their scent and their softness.

Life goes on, and all is divine harmony.
 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Today's Walk


The abandoned farmhouse.
Every two weeks I decide what outdoor experience has moved me the most so I can write about it for our column in the NorthCountry News.  Until this morning, I thought what I was going to write about was a hike we took earlier in the week.  It was a crazy cold day with roaring gusts of non-stop wind, and when the sun dropped below the mountains the day became forlorn and the wind grew stronger and became more harsh and even more vociferous.  We did the smart thing and retreated inside where we were safe and warm.  Atticus and I took to the couch; Will to his dog bed, covered by layers of soft blankets. 

But about ten o’clock something strange happened.  It became noticeably quiet and still.  The full moon was shining brilliantly and the night, sans wind, was as pleasant as a February night has ever been.  After taking Will outside one last time, then tucking him back into bed, Atticus and I set out to hike Stanton and Pickering.  Two mountains just four miles away in Bartlett. 

They are standby peaks for us and with all the fresh snow they were perfect for a night hike with a ripe moon overhead.  I rarely needed my headlamp, and we took advantage of the broken path to make our way to the ledges of Stanton with views over to Attitash.  Then we turned our backs on the lights of the ski area and followed the well-packed path through the snow-laden woods to the views from Pickering.  There, glowing as beautifully as a bride all in her white gown stood Mount Washington.  She caught the moonbeams and danced beneath the stars.  We stood there taking her in for a while before turning around and heading back the way we came.  We were home and in bed by 1:30 in the morning all the better for living our dreams instead of getting fleeting glimpses of them while sleeping.

I thought of that hike over the next few days, and I felt like I was walking around with a pleasant secret hidden away in my pocket.  Night hikes do that to a person. You see things hardly anyone else sees in places no one else is, and you can’t help but feel fortunate to have what amounts to a private showing of some of New Hampshire’s best scenery.  It was like walking in a dark gallery with the masterpiece being lit by the only spotlight in the room. 

That was the experience which enlivened me the most this week – until today. 

It’s Thursday, and the sun is out and the wind is mostly quiet.  The skies are blue and, as is always the case in winter, here in Jackson the sidewalks are impassable.  In order to find a place to walk with Atticus on days we are not hiking we drive the ten mile commute to one of the few places in North Conway where the trails are mostly packed out: Pudding Pond; Diana’s Baths; or Echo Lake.  It helps that the scenery is gorgeous, but two trips a day puts forty-miles on the car only to go for walks. 

But this is the week of February school vacation and the roads in Jackson, much like in most of our small mountain towns, are more dangerous than ever with a neverending fleet of oversized out-of-state SUVs being driven by people who seem to forget that the idea of a vacation is to leave your stress behind and not bring it with you. The invading Huns are so great in number this week each winter that they typically spill into our peaceful walking areas.  So today, looking for a quiet place to go for a walk with Atticus, I came up with a new idea.

We drove to Passaconaway Road and parked at the empty lot for the trail to South Moat. We then returned to the road and started walking west.  Two miles down Passaconaway Road runs into a gate that is closed for the winter, and there aren’t many houses along that stretch of road.  So we took advantage of the bright blue sky, the wind not being able to reach us between the trees, and the warmth of the sun hinting that there may be a spring after all and we simply walked. 

I cannot tell you how luxurious it was not to walk through snow or on top of it.  How nice it was to be outside without having to wear Microspikes, snowshoes, or crampons and to be able to just saunter along. The little snow left on the road was melting underfoot, and it felt grand to have pavement underfoot and to stretch out our legs. Heading west, the road rises a bit in elevation but even that slight grade felt good. I could feel my muscles stretching out in a carefree flight up the road like we haven’t had in months. 

Oh that glorious sun was a treat to behold!  It warmed everything, including us, and I took of my sweater and walked with only a shirt on. Atticus skipped along happily. On either side of us snow was piled deep and the gold beech leaves quivered and waved at us when we passed.  We could hear the roar of the Swift River down the bank as it followed the road and when there was an opening and we could look down there wasn’t much to see.  Occasionally the water was revealed but mostly the Swift was covered by snow over the rocks and it looked pure and serene. 

There is a month left to winter but on this walk, on this day of elongating our legs and elevating our spirits and not seeing a vehicle nor another person, I could feel that winter was in the last depths of its slumber, that place where we all know when we are somewhere between sleep and being awake when dreams, at times, can still be remembered. 

Often when we walk the roads I wear my ear buds and listen to music, and I gave some thought to it on our walk, but the roar of the river below and the sound of the toothless wind above the trees and the otherworldly silence on a week where mania is typically the rule I wanted to listen to nothing but nature. 

Eventually, we came to a farmhouse that looked abandoned. There were “No Trespassing” signs up, and I fancied how nice it would be to live there in peace and quiet, no matter the time of year.  Even in summer when Passaconaway Road runs straight through to the other end where it’s known as Dugway Road and crosses a covered bridge to reach the Kancamagus Highway, it is not all that busy nor is it loud. 

We didn’t trespass onto the property, not physically anyway. But in my imagination we lived there and walked the open porch and sprawling yard and through the weathered barn and the small apple trees sprinkled at the foot of the cliffs in the background and my dream of owning a small farm to take in abused and neglected farm animals sprung to life.

Walking under a moonlit sky on two mountains all to ourselves is always a special gift. But to walk with the promise of a new season and in the possibility of dreams is even greater.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Will Update: He's Gotten Off of the Seesaw

 
Will with the drawing New Hampshire
artist Chris Garby made and sent to us.
The seesaw gait is gone.  When Will walks he no longer rocks up and down like a broken slinky.  Instead, he moves forward.  There’s a fluidity to it that speaks of younger days. 

When we play Will buries his head in me. I tussle his hair a bit, give him gentle shoves, he shoves back, and he gives as good as he gets.  He then spins away, always to his left, bounds up as high as his hips will allow him – like a drunken bucking bronco, which means it isn’t too high – then returns to push in on me again.  I tug him closer and wrestle with him; he nuzzles me with his nose, his once angry mouth, which once-hungered for flesh and blood, still snaps but it is a soft playful snap aimed away from me and without malice.  It’s as though he’s learned to play again and taught himself not to bite.

His journey away from anger is not unlike my own, and I often recall my Aeschylus: “Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”  That’s one thing Will and I share.  We’ve both tamed our “savageness” and in our own way made “gentle the life of this world”. 

This past weekend dear friends came north, and we enjoyed a long visit with them.  They had the opportunity to see what Will was like the first few weeks he lived with Atticus and me, and they even took care of him one night when Atticus and I were out.  He terrorized them with his temper tantrums. 

They’ve seen Will since then, but not all that often.  Now it’s months between visits – at least – and they see the changes that have taken place in the seventeen year old who wasn’t supposed to live this long.  Several months ago one of their children asked, “Are you sure that’s the same dog?” 

He isn’t. 

That was several chapters ago.  Will’s been writing a new conclusion to his life.  It falls under the category of a fairytale endings. 

Will was given a chance when we took him in.  Atticus and I surrounded him with peace, good food, compassion, empathy, and medication when he needed it.  He’s taken advantage of those footholds to save himself – with a little help from his friends.

I know the term “rescue” is big with some people, but I differ from many others in that I try not to look at how people and animals differ, but what they have in common. 

I know there were times in my life when I needed rescuing, and no one could do it for me.  It had to be an inside job.  Ask any of your friends who are in recovery.  You cannot rescue anyone.  What you can do is offer them an anchor.  “I’ll hold this end, drop the rope down into the abyss you are mired in, and I won’t let go as you pull yourself up.” 

I find the term “rescue” to be almost self-congratulatory and takes credit away from where it is due.  As I see it, Will rescued himself.  Atticus and I helped him along the way, gave him the anchor to a good life if he chose to take advantage of it, picked him up when he stumbled, and urged him forward.  But just like you and me he had to make up his own mind.

Yes, there have been many factors that conspired to help him along the way, but whenever Will arrived at a set of crossroads, the choice was always his.  That’s part of what makes his story unforgettable.  It is his story with his choices and his redemption.

I do believe in the osmotic effect of love.  I believe in prayers and good wishes and the scents of flowers, the vibrations of life-affirming music, and the softness in the fabrics I wrap his easily chilled body in. 

Recently someone mentioned that Will has received quilts, Afghans, and prayer shawls from all numerous people.  I like that these were made with caring hands fueled with loving intent.  He seems to enjoy each and every one of them.  I rotate them.  Some out of need, because he still has accidents and urinates on himself or falls in his own feces and things get messy, and floors, blankets, and carpets (not to mention Will himself) have to be washed, but even if that wasn’t the case, I like to imagine he feels the healing love that went into making these lovely garments as they are gently draped over his body.

Will, like all of us, needs help every now and again.  But I never tell myself or rob him of his dignity by referring to him as a “baby”.  Instead, I equate him to the elderly people I used to work with in the nursing home.  He deserves the same respect I offered elders who have endured much.  But in Will’s case, he has survived more than just years, he survived years of neglect and the way I see it, neglect is just another form of abuse. 

After surviving the terrors of a Nazi POW camp, Viktor Frankl wrote and spoke for decades about the choices he had to make and those that Will was confronted with: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Since I chose to see animals in the same light as I view humans, Frankl’s words work well for Will, and any other human or non-human animal that has been robbed of dignity.  This is one of the reasons dignity has been as much a part of Will’s rehab as have been the Metacam, Dasuquin, massages, and gentle stretches.  All of these have contributed to help Will recapture some of his life and because of that his seesaw gait is gone…as are nearly all the rest of the ups and downs he has wrestled with.