Sunday, November 27, 2011

running on planet zephyr

Last month, we adopted a puppy through Labs 4 Rescue. These folks take the adoption process very seriously, and before adoption is final, prospective dog families must pass the “home visit” interview. Labs, we are reminded, are energetic dogs. According to some sources, Labs, more than any other breed, often end up in shelters, because unsuspecting new owners, choosing Labs based on their reputation as a family-friendly and highly trainable breed, are unprepared for the overabundance of energy and exercise requirements. The interviewer who visited our home was thrilled to hear that we had already owned a Lab, and were therefore hip to the fact that a quiet quarter mile walk does little to appease a 6-month-old pup. Having lost my favorite running partner, Sasha, last June, I was looking for a new companion on the trails, so a Lab suited my purpose.

But instead of schooling me in breathless tempo runs, Zephyr has reminded me of the spiritual and psychological benefits of slowing down. On our first couple of trail runs, when he stopped to sniff yet another deer pellet or taste his thirty-eighth pinecone, I became frustrated. I looked at my watch, wondered how I would make up for the lost time. And then, last week, running in torrential rain, water on the trail up to my ankles, Zephyr stopped to examine a Great Blue Heron perched on a rock in the water. I had been running alongside the trail for at least a mile, but my mind was on the coffee waiting to be brewed, on the kids waiting to be fed, on the dishes waiting to be washed. When Zephyr stopped (and I nearly tripped over him), I stopped too, and it wasn’t the Heron that held my attention (I’d seen him there before), but the sound of the brook. It wasn’t murmuring, as it usually was; it was bellowing like a mountain river. Our tranquil little stream had become, overnight, honest-to-goodness white water. I marveled at the momentary wildness of our usually tame local forest.

Today, during Sunday services at the Unitarian Society,one of our congregation read a passage from Thich Nhat Hanh, one I had read before, about mindful dish washing. If, when we wash dishes, we are only thinking about the cup of tea that awaits us afterward, then we aren’t really washing dishes. If, however, we wash dishes to wash dishes, then we are paying attention. If we can’t pay attention to the dishes in that moment, then it’s likely we won’t be able to truly enjoy the cup of tea that follows, because as we sip before the fire, we will be elsewhere—in our offices, in our checkbooks, in our sorrows. But if we wash the dishes purposefully, mindfully, then we will be present in the moments that follow as well.

When I returned from my run, I brought the wild water with me in my hair, in my sneakers, and on my dog. And then I stripped off my wet clothing, changed, and entered the next moment. In the kitchen that had been clamoring for my attention an hour earlier, the coffee had already been brewed, the kids had fed themselves, and Bryan was putting the dishes in the rack. Zephyr, having shaken off the rain, was chewing on a piece of bark in front of the fire, thinking only as far ahead as the next bite.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

the smile on a dog

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid
and self-contain’d.
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of
owning things.
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands
of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

--Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass

One of the most beautiful sections in Milan Kundera’s brilliant novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is “Karenin’s Smile,” in which the protagonists, Tereza and Tomas (played by Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis in the film version), are confronted with a terminal illness diagnosis for their dog, Karenin, and must decide which course to take. In the chapters that comprise this section, Kundera reflects, mostly through the character of Tereza, on the differences between our relationships with animals and our relationships with each other:

. . . the love that tied her [Tereza] to Karenin was better than the love between her and Tomas. Better, not bigger. . . .
It is a completely selfless love: Tereza did not want anything of Karenin; she did not ever ask him to love her back. Nor had she ever asked herself the questions that plague human couples: Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it have the additional effect of cutting it short.
(Kundera 297)

I thought about Karenin yesterday after receiving a similar diagnosis for our own dog, Sasha, who has been suffering good-naturedly for the last several months. Though she has been plagued by arthritis for the last couple of years, she has managed to stay, up until about a month ago, relatively active, and healthy aside from her aching joints, which cause her to groan when the weather is heavy. Though it was clear she would never again be able to join the running group, she has been able to hike, swim, and accompany us on our neighborhood walks. And, true to Lab form, her appetite never wavered, not until last month. That’s when we knew things were changing. One morning she did not come down for breakfast, not even when she heard the sound of the top spinning off of her food container, nor when she heard the rattle of kibbles hitting the metal bowl. When it was time to feed her dinner, her bowl was still half-full of breakfast. I offered her a banana slice, a favorite treat, as an appetizer; she sniffed it and turned away. My heart sank.

Yesterday was ostensibly a routine visit to the vet. It was time for her rabies vaccine. Of course, I brought my concerns with me, but I barely had time to raise them before the vet had decided that Sasha’s condition was “not good.” Her gums were pale, her stomach inflamed, her heartbeat irregular. She had lost almost ten pounds (and she was already quite thin for a Lab). They kept her at the vet for some tests, but I did not need results to know that Sasha was preparing for her next journey.

The results: enlarged lymph nodes, a big one in her chest. Enlarged pancreas. Blood cell count showed likely evidence of lymphoma. We could send her for an ultrasound, then to an oncologist, and then on to other specialists, or we could swallow hard, accept that she had lived a rich and active life, and send her off with love and memories. So, with very heavy hearts, we have chosen the latter.

I’ve said good-bye to pets before, and it’s always painful, but Sasha and I have been together for over ten years. She arrived when I was at graduate school in Vermont, and though I told Bryan he would have to assume the bulk of the responsibility for her while I was finishing up my degree, I could never stand being away from her; as a result, we shared custody, and she spent her first few months as our puppy living in two states. She snoozed on my lap while I read for my Comps exam. She hung on the ears of my roommate’s 115-pound Great Dane/Chocolate Lab mix, Perry. She explored the spur trails and higher peaks of the Green Mountains.

When Bryan and I got married, we spent two months on the road, going out West, up through Canada to Alaska, and back down through the Canadian Rockies and into Washington, Oregon, and Colorado. Sasha was on the trip, and was even present at our wedding ceremony on the summit of Flattop Mountain, just outside of Anchorage (though she did try to sneak off with a trail runner who came through).

Her adjustment to Dylan’s arrival took some time, and in the early days she did express her disapproval at having been usurped, but she later grew to tolerate the kids, especially now that both are able to toss her a ball (she still brings the ball back to one of us, rather than to either of the kids, presumably as a way of stating that, though she has accepted them as roommates, they will never be her masters).

Still, her happiest days are in the yard, chewing on grass, sniffing out a dead animal, chasing anything we can throw. Though we’d like to think she enjoyed the road trip, I suspect she would have been just as pleased—perhaps more so—to run after a Frisbee right here in Cheshire.

If Karenin had been a person instead of a dog, he would surely have long since said to Tereza,
“Look, I’m sick and tired of carrying that roll in my mouth every day. Can’t you come up with
something different? And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turn in a
circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing
for repetition.
(Kundera 298)

Dogs thrive on routine, and a Lab will suffer through just about any amount of pain for the sake of a walk. I have sometimes worried that, left to her own devices, Sasha would literally retrieve until she keeled over from cardiac arrest. In fact, she has a kink in her tail that is a testament either to her stamina or her foolishness. At our wedding party, which took place on Lake Spofford in New Hampshire, the children of our friends threw tennis balls and sticks into the water for Sasha to chase. When dogs swim, they use their tails as rudders, and at the end of the day, Sasha’s tail hung limp and was sore to the touch. The next day she could lift it, but just slightly. When it finally healed, it stood at a crooked arch, and so it remains. But she’d probably do it all over again. Tomorrow.

Last night, we gave the bad news to the kids. Dylan was sad but inquisitive, as is his nature. Lexi was more visibly upset. She has experienced death before, having lost both of her beloved grandfathers, but the frightening notion of death itself upsets her greatly. It’s the “f” word—“forever”—that sends her into a spin. I made the mistake of using the tired euphemism, “putting her to sleep,” when explaining the process of euthanasia. I thought she had understood (though why I would make that assumption, I’m not sure); later she came to me and said, “Mom, Dylan said we’re going to have to say goodbye to Sasha forever.”

I took her hands and said, “We are, honey. It’s time for Sasha to go on to a place where she doesn’t have to feel any more pain.”

And she lost it. When she woke up this morning, she started all over again. I showed her pictures of Sasha doing all of the things that make her happy: chewing, hiking, swimming, sleeping on our bed. I told her we’ll sprinkle her ashes in her favorite places: Brooksvale Park in Hamden; Camel’s Hump in Vermont; Flattop Mountain in Anchorage. She will literally become a part of her favorite trails. We’ll save a little for our backyard, of course.

In Kundera’s novel, Tomas, being a doctor, decides to euthanize Karenin himself, so that Karenin might die in the comfort of his country home, surrounded by his family. “Assuming the role of Death is a terrifying thing. Tomas insisted that he would not give the injection himself; he would have the vet come and do it. But then he realized that he could grant Karenin a privilege forbidden to humans: Death would come for him in the guise of his loved ones”(Kundera 299-300). When Karenin sees Tomas enter the room, he gives a weak wag of his tail. “Look,” Tereza says through her tears, “He’s still smiling”(299).

Bryan and I have yet to work out the logistics of what happens next, but we do know we want her here, at home, if at all possible, perhaps on her lumpy old bed in front of the fireplace. I’m looking at that bed now, at its ridges and wrinkles and stains. Sasha spends most of her time in the bathroom now, preferring cool tile to foam cushion. She doesn’t greet us at the door anymore, but I hear her tail thump against the floor when I enter, and I know that, in spite of her discomfort, she is happy.

But most of all: No one can give anyone else the gift of the idyll; only an animal can do so, because only animals were not expelled from Paradise. The love between dog and man is idyllic. (Kundera 298)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

big girl tomboy

There’s just something about mud.

In creative writing classes, whenever I would be issued a prompt to write about nature, or to give a positive spin to something usually seen as dreary, I would always go back to mud: sloppy trail runs; mountain bike rides through soft, wet soil; hiking in the pouring rain and getting to camp with dirt-speckled calves. It’s no wonder that luxury spas offer mud baths: mud is rejuvenating. Getting dirty makes me feel grounded—pun intended.

Like most folks my age, I spent a good portion of my early childhood making mud pies. Kids are instinctively drawn to soil, and will find a murky puddle on the driest patch of land. A couple of months ago, I went with my family to a maple sugar event at Brooksvale Park, and while the ranger was giving a demo in the sugar shack, a toddler reveled in a mud puddle behind us: first standing, then sitting and splashing, then rolling. I mean really rolling. Many of the faces present expressed horror, but the child’s mom stood calmly off to the side, half-listening to the lecture, bemused and utterly unconcerned. I was fascinated: I was enjoying the show, but had it been my own child, I would probably have worried about what the other parents would think, much as I hate to admit it. When the sugar expo was over and it was time for maple syrup over ice cream, the mom pulled a trash bag out of her purse, exchanged the boy’s soiled jacket and snowpants for a new shirt and fresh pair of sweats, and the two went merrily on their way. I made a mental note to get this woman’s number.

I don’t make mud pies anymore, but I still find all kinds of ways to play in the mud, preferably with friends. An April trail run almost always ends in soggy shoes and a communal hose-down. Just yesterday, I came home from a wet bike ride to find my face covered in brown freckles. Even my eyelashes were spotted. Today, I weeded moist onion beds at Boulder Knoll farm, and in order to keep my 40-year-old knees from groaning, I had to keep switching position, so that, at one point, I was practically lying on my side in the mud, much to the amusement of another volunteer, Starla, who asked if my rust-colored Carhaarts had started out as white. When I had finished for the day, I was at least two pounds heavier, as the mud clung to my gloves, my soles, even the tendrils of hair that had escaped from my cap. Just like a day at the spa.

Truth be told, it’s harder to get out of bed when it’s raining, and I would almost always take a crisp autumn day over a soppy spring morning. But it is a hell of a lot of fun to run a-muck.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

parsnip therapy

Today was my first day of work on Boulder Knoll Farm. After having followed the farm’s CSA (Crop Share Association) program since its inception three years ago, Bryan and I finally decided to join. Our own vegetable garden has, for the past few years, been an exercise in frustration: each spring we turn the soil, clear the beds, plant the seeds, fix the fence, wait for the harvest, and then watch as our beans, peas, tomatoes, and other vegetables and herbs are ravaged by deer, moles, Japanese beetles, and a host of other insects and mammals.

So this year we decided to learn something about successful gardening by participating in a work-intensive CSA program. In exchange for 30 hours of work on the farm, and a small sum of money, we will take home a share of the crops every few weeks from June until October. Even more exciting than the booty, however, is the opportunity to participate in a community agricultural program. Today, before starting work, I looked at the rows of empty beds, at the folks working in various corners of the field, and thought about how great it would be to document, day by day, the subtle changes, changes wrought, in large part, by the hands of a small group of dedicated workers.

But before that, I was sitting in my dining room, reading freshman essays and sighing anxiously, working my way through the paper pile and pausing to consider other piles—laundry, dishes, clothes to be sorted through for spring. I looked at the clock and swore, wishing I hadn’t chosen today—a day I really needed to use for catching up on work—to volunteer on the farm.

At 11:20, I headed over to the farm. My first task was to harvest some parsnips that had “over-wintered.” I had help from two other women, both of whom were delighted by the surprise crop of vegetables. Who knew we’d take home a share on day one? Even more amazing was the fact that these hearty roots had survived the weight of this year’s unusually harsh winter. So many of them, too. And they hadn’t just survived; they had thrived! I dug the pitchfork into the ground, and it took all of my weight to break the roots from the dirt. They clung to the soil, secure in their subterranean shelter. I reached down and pulled, gently but firmly, and was surprised by the girth of these hearty vegetables. The other workers were awestruck, and at the end of a half an hour, we had filled a laundry tub with parsnips. We all agreed that this was a positive omen: an unexpected harvest on the first official day of the season.

I spent the next ninety minutes lopping dead flower stems and pulling out roots to make way for new seeds. It wasn’t intellectual work, and it wasn’t overly physical, but there was a supreme satisfaction in pausing to look at what I was able to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time. In my own work, my school work, there is rarely a sense of completion. I hack away, perpetually behind in my grading, my reading, my prep, and always feeling as though I could be doing more, or doing something better. On the farm, my task was simple, and I could easily set a reasonable goal. Pull parsnips. Clear four beds. Dump the debris in the compost pile. Write the time in the log.

“This is a wonderful place,” said one of the other workers who passed by me as I pulled roots. “It’s amazing to stand here and look at these fields and know that, in three months, everything will have blossomed as a result of our work.”

Though he was right, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead at the moment. I wasn’t thinking about much of anything, in fact. The sun was dancing in and out of the clouds, my fingernails were dirtier than they had ever been, and the work pile on my dining room table was, for the moment, a matter of little consequence.

Roasted parsnips, anyone?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

what to do, what to do

Eating maple syrup and craving moose stew.

For years, I've been looking ahead to 40, thinking of it as an excuse--or an opportunity--to make a return trip to Alaska for one of two butt-kicking races: either the Equinox Marathon, which takes place in Fairbanks in September, or the Lost Lake Run, a 17-mile trail run just south of Anchorage. This race is run in August, which makes it more appealing, as I will still be on summer break and won't have to find coverage for my classes.

One of my New Year's Resolutions this year is To Act. I've spent enough time looking at thresholds that need repair, a barn that needs de-cluttering, and stories that need finishing. But I'm not sure if a trip to Alaska constitutes action or caprice. Or whether it matters if it's one or the other.

Last month, round trip airfare was in the 400's. I almost pulled the trigger (or pressed the button, as it were). I did not. Now we are into the 500's, and with oil prices rising, I don't see fares going down any time soon.

If I were to go, I would have child care (Mom) and places to stay (friends, campground).

And 40 has arrived.

What to do, what to do.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

still here. ish.

After the fervent posting of December, followed by the loud silence of January, friends and family ask, where are you?

Many times since starting this blog in 2007(?) I have wrestled with whether or not writing "publicly" is a productive use of my writing time. Sometimes it seems it is. And sometimes not so much. And so I have found myself turning to my journal again, and it's been comforting for the moment. I'm less inhibited on those pages, and less worried about whether my writing is really the fulfillment of some kind of egomania.

And yet, here I am, letting you know where I am. Old habits. . . .

Oh, and I'm also writing about running at: I'm re-vamping that site to make it more interactive. I'm envisioning a runner's forum. Join us.