January Stillness

Each December, I look forward to the frozen quiet of January.

Holiday décor goes back in boxes and the boxes go back on shelves in the furnace room. It’s a relief to reclaim the living room as adult space.

For arable farmers, at least in this part of the country, the fall harvest is put up and the spring planting is months away. Walk outside and winter seems to say, rest, try to rest.

Dogs and taking long walks have been two constants of my life. Long before I had kids, I had dogs. And before I had dogs, I walked.

I enjoy many of the trails in our parks, but hike the same one most days. Walking the same path day after day is a subtle gift. Skunkweed that fills coves in the spring is later replaced by wild columbine, which later still is covered over with fallen leaves and then snow.

For the better part of three months, when the temperatures are well below freezing, I rarely see another person on the trail. This is my reward for being undeterred by the cold. A forest muffled by deep snow when even the animals are quiet is a stark reprieve from the sensory clutter of modern life.

Until last week, this winter has been hearty, which is fabulous. The kids can ski and sled. The dogs don’t get muddy. And every night when the temperatures hover around zero, fleas, ticks and mosquitoes are exploding in their winter homes. Hooray! After last year’s balmy winter, we had to spend a fortune on flea and tick treatments for several months.

The epochs of my adult life can be divided by sets of dogs. First were Goldie and Alex, a shepherd mix and a sable sheltie. I got Goldie when I was 17 and both she and Alex died when I was 31 and the mother of two small boys.

Bruce Springsteen once said about having children, “You know, all of a sudden, your dogs are just gonna be dogs.” But those dogs adopted before I was a mother were the hardest to lose. They were my proto-children.

Next came Greta, another shepherd mix, and Hoover, my first tri-color sheltie. When young, Greta could pick off a chipmunk running up the side of a tree and shake it dead before I could holler for her to stop. Though past her prime when we moved to Akron, Greta still enjoyed darting after creatures, including bumblebees, then returning to me over and again.

As years passed, our walks became slower so Greta could keep up. One summer day, as I forged up a steep hill, I realized Greta was no longer with me. I turned and saw her lying on the trail 25 yards behind. I called to her and she looked up at me.

Greta was a smart dog and if you have ever had a truly smart dog, you know how well they can communicate. More than once, Greta woke me in the night, presumably to be let out. I’d walk with her to the door and open it only to find Hoover accidentally left outside. As he trotted in, Greta would lie back down on her bed.

That day on the trail, Greta’s eyes told me she wanted to come, but couldn’t. A dignified dog, she was also embarrassed.

I walked to Greta and helped her stand. She ambled a few paces before dropping back to the ground. Not as heavy as she’d been in her prime, she was still easily 45 pounds. I picked her up like a lamb, my arms around the tops of her four legs, her body on my chest.

I walked as far as I could and set her down. She walked as far as she could before I picked her back up. We repeated this until we crested the hill. Though she lived another year, that was Greta’s last hike.

After Greta died, I brought home Lily, my bi-black sheltie. Hoover was 9 and for the next few years, Lily kept him active. I would watch from my kitchen window as they sneaked up and chased each other around a row of privet.

“Please don’t be dead, please!” said all of us many times after Hoover, at age 12, went deaf. When asleep, he’d lie stock-still until touched, no matter how noisy we were.

That’s when Lily became Hoover’s assistant. When I’d call the dogs to come, Lily would dart to Hoover and let him know to look at me. He would, and then come running as best as he could on his arthritic legs.

I know it sounds like I’m anthropomorphizing my dogs, but dog owners understand it’s true. These pack animals work together.

Now 7, Lily’s the old dog. Angus, my second tri-color sheltie, and Dorothy, my big German shepherd, are barely out of puppyhood. It took Lily awhile to remember how to frisk. She’d lived with a senior dog for so long, she acted like one herself.

Creatures grow up and, if we are lucky, we grow comfortably old before we die.

Statistically, we know some of us will not be so lucky. Before 40, the deaths of friends are rare and often accidental. By middle age, illness, especially the Emperor of All Maladies, begins claiming a life here and there.

In Jules’ small classroom at the Waldorf School, two parents did not live to see their eldest children enroll in high school. The first died of melanoma, the second due to liver cancer. Both were in their 40s.

“To love one another, to have compassion even for those who would do us harm, that is the point.”

Sam’s 5th grade photo below mine.

I turn in my columns on Tuesdays. Before these words from my last column were inked on newsprint, Sam, my friend for more than 40 years, had been killed.

Half an hour before she was shot in the chest, she told another friend she was going home to tell her husband of 33 years she was leaving him.

To lose someone prematurely to illness or accident seems unfair. But in the end, it just is. A death like this requires volition, actively choosing to end a life. The grief for a slaying victim defies acceptance because it didn’t have to be.

Compassion remains the point.

I made the three-hour trip to West Milton, Ohio, for the calling hours. Sam raised four boys to manhood, including her stepson. All four of them stood alongside their mother’s casket and comforted more than 100 people. Sam would be proud.

These young men, their wives and children, and Sam’s parents all need endless compassion as they face the months ahead, which includes a trial.

Back home the next day, a dry snow looked like the rice cereal I once added to my babies’ applesauce. It swirled around my boots as I walked across the field to the woods. The dogs barked and chased one another, delighted to be in the park. Delighted to be alive.


Hiking, Dogs, and Fading Angels

“Oh, Lily, someone else is in our park!” I told my bi-black sheltie after a woman attempting to jog on the icy path startled me from my thoughts. Winter’s grip is finally weakening here in northern Ohio, evidenced by emerging populations. Last week I was awakened by the cheer-eeee of a red-winged blackbird announcing his return, causing me to smile before opening my eyes. Later that day, I did not smile at all as I saw ribbons of tiny ants marching on our kitchen countertops and around the trashcan. The Ant Spring Ball occurring inside our dishwasher was abruptly concluded with what must have seemed to the participants like a previously unpredicted tsunami.

10926241_10152923121570660_93094696278365792_oAnd now the humans have returned to our park. My life thus far contains two constants: hiking and dogs. Our side of Akron is nestled into an expansive county park system that rolls into the even larger Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I have several favorite trails I hike a couple of times a year, including those in O’Neil and Hampton Woods, but day in and day out, I hit the same trail in the same park. And for the better part of three months, when the temperatures are well below freezing, I rarely see another person on the trail, which I curmudgeonly feel is my reward for being undeterred by the cold or as the Germans say, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” A forest muffled by deep snow where even the animals are quiet is a stark reprieve from the sensory clutter of modern life.

I am not as good at getting my butt on my meditation cushion each day as I am at getting my feet on the trail. In sitting meditation the focus is on the breath, training the mind to stay put, both in the moment and in the room, with the practioner. On the cushion, my mind wanders and bolts like a feral mustang refusing to be captured. And while not exactly a trained Clydesdale when hiking, repeating the same steps on the same path over and over I observe the same plants, the same ravines, the same coves and, thus, notice the slightest changes. Lately, I’ve been working on a list of things to stop beating myself up about. One is my poor attendance on the cushion. Instead of I really should sit everyday for at least 15 minutes I now think I am cultivating my mindfulness training with each step I take on my hikes. Check. And carry on.

As I hike the same path, most days I am preoccupied with things that have happened or things I need to do. Somewhere along the way, however, the chatter in my head often stops, if only briefly. Creatures capture my attention, be they large deer springing up the hillside, their white tails bopping with each leap, worms coating the leaves after a fall rain or those intrepid little spiders on the vast slicks of ice. And for a moment, I am in the moment. And that is all there is.

The first two months of this year, the mercury never rose above freezing. Each of the many deliveries of snow was stacked upon the previous one. I start my hikes by crossing an open field, which was easier when I could find my boot prints from the previous day. But many times either new snow had filled up my prints or the wind had covered them over. Like walking through wet concrete, trailblazing in knee-deep snow is hard work. “Yeah, but you get a better work out,” I’d hear in my head. It was the voice of my eldest son, Claude, a distance runner, who accordingly dismissed my complaints on a hike several winters ago.

Fading AngelsOn the weekends, Max joins me and my hikes are different because we talk. But as the snow grew deeper and deeper, the trail narrowed like a river valley, forcing us to march one-by-one and speak less. In late January, in the middle of the open field, Max stopped, turned and threw himself back onto the soft, fresh snow. Sliding his arms up and down and his legs in and out, he made a snow angel. With temperatures struggling to reach 20 degrees, his snow angel lasted for weeks. Every few days I photographed the outline as it became muted, while the peaks pushed up by his arm movements rounded into what looked like the globes of a soft bosom. When most sections of the angel’s outline finally disappeared, only I recognized the few remaining ripples in the otherwise flat snowscape as lingering evidence of my man’s body.

Yesterday, the fourth day in of our first thaw in months, the snow had compressed down in the daily melt, which then hardened into ice at night. But as I had all winter, before starting my hike, I slipped over the soles of my boots the unfortunately named “crampons.” A slipper’s skeleton made of silicon, crampons suddenly make any shoe or boot like the adult punch at a holiday party: spiked. Helpful all winter, right now they are essential. Without them, going down the ice-slick hills would be dangerous while going up them would be impossible. And yet, ice be damned, spring is certainly coming for the spiders have joined me, as they always do in early spring, on the frozen trail, their dark, spindly bodies high-contrast and out of context on the snow banks. I wonder where they erupt from as the ground is still seemingly sealed in the white snow and grey ice as though restricting for just a little bit longer the advent of mud season, when I will also need my crampons to keep from sliding into ravines.

I used to bring both our shelties, Hoover and Lily, with me on my hikes, but stopped the year we moved into our house. It was a wet summer and the long hair of the dogs, who resemble small collies, would get so muddy I had to bathe them, or at least hose them off, when we got home. Besides, at about an acre, our back yard is big enough that the dogs seemed to get plenty of exercise chasing each other and the squirrels. Then this past November Hoover nearly died from pancreatitis and though, at nearly 14 years old, his recovery was remarkable (thank you Metropolitan Veterinary Hospital), Hoover’s energy has not fully returned. He has instead slid into his old dog days, preferring sleep to all else other than food and affection. While that’s fine for Hoover, Lily is only four and not at all interested in a geriatric lifestyle. And so Lily has joined me and for the better part of the past three months, and on most days she and I have had the park all to ourselves. For Hoover’s sake, I sneak Lily into the car, which is not terribly hard. The silver lining of Hoover’s now near-complete deafness is that he does not hear me call for Lily when we leave, so there are no hard feelings.

Before Lily, there was Greta, a shepherd mix who loved best of all long hikes. Unlike the shelties, Greta hunted on our hikes. When she was young, she could pick off a squirrel or chipmunk running up the side of a tree and shake it dead before I could even holler for her to stop. Even when she was past her prime and no longer a rodent-killing machine, Greta followed along on hikes, darting after creatures then returning to me over and again. As the years passed, our hikes became walks as Greta moved more slowly. At the end of my daily hike is a steep hill and one summer as I slowly made my way up I noticed only Hoover was with me. Turning to call her, I saw that Greta had lain down on the trail a good 25 yards behind me. I called her and she looked at me. She was a smart dog and if you have ever had a truly smart dog, you know they look at you differently than other dogs do; they look at you knowingly. I hiked down to Greta and helped her up. She ambled a few paces before dropping back to the ground. Not as heavy as she’d been in her prime, she was still easily 40 pounds. I picked her up like a calf, my arms around the tops of her four legs, her body on my chest. I walked as far as I could and set her down, she walked as far as she could and then I picked her back up. We repeated our turns until we crested the hill. Though she lived another year that was her last big hike. From then on, Hoover alone went with me. And now he is the old one, staying home on his bed in the kitchen, happy in the warm fray of the family.

While spring, of all seasons, heralds birth and beginnings, death never withdraws. For one thing, as the temperatures rise and the snow melts, all the carcasses created in the winter thaw too, a dog’s delight. Until Greta was so old she no longer darted off, I kept her on leash for weeks after the big thaw began, lest she come back smelling of carrion. People also die and on the second day of spring a few years back when the peepers were in high concert season, I received a text message that a friend had succumbed to cancer the day before. The death of that friend, whose youngest children are twins just three years older than Claude, seems to be the first of many people around my age to die at the hand of the Emperor of All Maladies. Tomorrow my son Jules, who is fourteen, and I will be attending the funeral of a classmate’s mother, the second parent in his small Waldorf class to die of cancer. His classmate is the oldest of five children. As a Buddhist, I have no god to rail against for the existence of cancer and its affliction of people who have so much life left to live. And even if I did, what would that change?