It takes all the running you can do…

…to keep in the same place.–Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


On a gorgeous summer morning several years ago my now-ex and I sat at a small sidewalk café in downtown Knoxville, our family’s Shiloh Shepherd Teddy Blue resting comfortably under the table.  (A Shiloh, in case you wondered, is a giant breed with ties to the German Shepherd Dog, but with genetic material from other European herding dogs also; on the small side for his breed, Teddy tipped the scales a whoppng 140 pounds.)  Teddy always attracted tons of attention when my family and I had him with us in public, but on this day one passerby in particular lingered to chat while she rubbed his belly.  Turned out she was a vet, and our conversation ultimately found its way to a discussion about hip issues in big dogs, and also lifespan.  Yes, she lamented, we haven’t yet figured out how to keep them alive.

I hate that about big dogs—knowing I am lucky if I get a decade with my canine friend—but I love just about everything else about them.  Shepherds in particular speak to me because of their enormous cognitive vocabulary, amazing recall, intense loyalty, sense of humor, intelligence in general, and also the beauty of the breed:  they are handsome creatures.  But they are also prone to hip dysplasia, particularly the American GSD whose breeders have been known to select for the sloping hips that are sought after in Schutzund.  It is stylized, but potentially painful and ultimately crippling for the dog.  Shilohs are not an AKC-recognized breed and the registry maintains its own standards for temperament and other aspects of the dog, including hip health.  They are also wildly expensive dogs, and well beyond my reach for the time being.  And that is a whole lot of dog for one girl to handle alone.

Clarence-the-canine has been a pretty perfect GSD fit for me since our paths crossed a couple of years ago.  This week he turns four, we think.  Although details of his past are sketchy, what we do know about him (and when I say we, I refer to myself and the rescue organization who brought him to me after his surrender to a local shelter in Knoxville, Tennessee) is that he was ill-suited for his first human home, that he does not get along with tiny dog breeds or cats because of his “strong predatory instinct,” and that his suitability to be around young kids is questionable—he in fact has shown himself untrustworthy around them in the two years he has lived with me.  I am keenly aware of this and therefore maintain tight control of him when we are in public, which is rarely.  But he has allowed Handsome Chef Boyfriend to occupy a comfortable place in the pack; in fact, he probably views him as the alpha, if I am being honest (dang it).  And he has gotten along fine with every other dog we’ve encountered save one foolhardy off-leash Golden Retriever who charged us while we were running.  He has also been the perfect workout buddy.  But I know nothing of his breeding, nor of his hip health.

Sadly I had to hang up my running shoes in September after an off-and-on foot injury finally spoke up and said, No more.  At least for now.  For the past couple of years I have been able to push through the pain, but my livelihood as a classical ballet instructor depends on my ability to get up and move in front of scores of kids almost every single day; I can’t do this in an orthopedic boot or on crutches.  Clarence has been a trooper while we wait it out; and because circumstances necessitate my working two jobs now, I am gone ten hours at a stretch on some days, leaving us little time to do much more than, er, take care of business outside.  The funny thing is that since I have backed off my old running habits, my body actually feels worse in some ways.

This has me thinking about my canine friend, who lately has shown signs, perhaps, of hip issues.  I am trying to talk myself out of this, and am aware I may possibly be reading into his movement things that are not there.  Because of my ballet pedigree I am more body aware than average, and this extends to other species.  Is he more wobbly of late?  Is he having more difficulty jumping onto my (admittedly very high) bed?  He is not wincing nor giving any other palpable indications of discomfort.  Still, there is something about his gait that seems out of synch.  Or does it?  I am not sure.

Clarence recently proved that he can be trusted off-leash when we are at home, on this gorgeous piece of land that is nearly two hundred acres in scope.  He is given opportunities almost every day to really open up and run in the field I call the front yard; this is a joyous thing to witness.  He often grabs sticks and tosses them into the air; when there are no sticks, he settles for leaves.  This, I think, is unbridled doggie happiness.  He was happy as a runner, too, but that is a more restrained flavor of of contentment.  HCB and I have observed him closely on these off-leash occasions for any signs of compromise, and there is none—he is fast as lightning, ears pinned back, limbs stretched long, turning on a dime, fleet of foot.  But today when I picked him up to get him into the shower for his bath (because he dug in his heels and refused to come on his own—even for a nice piece of cheddar), he seemed so lightweight.  He has always been a lean guy, and that is better than the alternative.  And he looks great right now.  But it dawned on me that he has probably lost some muscle density.  And I hate that.

I am watchful and aware.  Two of my closest friends and I once agreed that we would not allow each other to focus on our aches and pains during the ageing process because it is tiresome and boring for everyone.  And who wants to be a bore?  I have my uncomplaining canine friend to help keep me honest.  Good dog, Clarence; we will be watchful.  And we will run again.

Just click your heels together three times…

MASH signpostHave you ever awakened in the darkness and have no idea where you are?  Once in a while this happens to me, more often than not of late.  Is this my bedroom? Where?  Wait, not Memphis–I have not lived there since childhood. Knoxville.  Wrong again.  I live in Vermont now.  Am I in the cottage?  No, I am in the loft, where I have been since August. Got it. Now I can exhale. This is home, for the time being–and there’s the rub: the comfort (complacency?) that comes with permanence is gone.  I am okay with that for now, and really, there is no other choice except to be okay with it, or drive myself insane. But the idea of choices is rather intoxicating. There is no one solution, no single path, but many.  My son had a paperback series when he was a ‘tween where you got to choose your own plot outcome:  when the orc gets to the end of the tunnel, he goes left (turn to page 92) or right (turn to page 54).  So now I am the orc, but I also get to turn the pages.

ScarecrowLately I’ve had a sense that opportunities somehow spawn more opportunities; I could be wrong–it is only a sense.  But I think it is possible that most of us use only a tiny fraction of the creative juice and intellect we possess, and when push comes to shove the question is whether we can search for, find, and use it.  Part of that equation is recognizing an opportunity when it appears and seizing upon it; sounds simple enough, but I am not so sure.

As silly as it may sound, this signpost at a split in one of the many trails on the beautiful land I call home for now has become a metaphor for where I am.  Whenever I see it, though, I can’t help hearing the Scarecrow giving Dorothy choices when she reaches that important juncture.  Oh, and I can tell you why the ocean’s near the shore.


Quiet November Saturday: A Photo Essay


Finding peace is work.  It takes effort–every single day–to keep pushing back the fear and worry that refuse to loose their grip on me since my solo mid-century reboot last August.  And then there are beautiful moments of amnesty. Vermont has been good to me mainly; for the time being I come home to 180 unspoiled acres because of the magnanimity of a colleague.  My situation here is impermanent, like so much in my life right now, but I relish it.  Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and Clarence-the-Canine and I struck out along a section of miles of trails on the property in search of the large beaver pond which until now we had found only on a map.  We arrived there after a short hike (turns out it is closer to the house than we imagined) although it was difficult to come to its edge because of swamp surrounding it.  Evidence of beaver activity and dam-building was everywhere, maybe not fresh.  Also human activity both recent and ancient.  We marveled at a wall that was probably built a century-and-a-half ago, its stones trucked in (how? and how far?) and stacked surprisingly high, winding serpentine fashion up a precipitous hillside.  Whose wall and why it was built remain a mystery. Nearby we also found evidence of an ancient foundation, very small:  maybe an outbuilding, maybe a hunting cabin.  Clarence was granted some time off-leash as we made our way back to the house, discovering an abundance of large sticks everywhere, and at one point making his best effort to yank a root out of the ground, silly boy.  I could only catch a joyous blur in my lens; I will take that joyous blur, and a fleeting November Saturday in Vermont with my Handsome Chef Boyfriend, and the cheap, awful coffee in my hand as I write this, as my own.