One Picture, A Few Words: B & W Photo Challenge Day 6

Scout-the-Lab's feet in black and white
Stinky Feet

We are tired. All of us. Yesterday Scout and I ran five miles, the longest run we’ve undertaken together. We reached a familiar milestone on the Battenkill I once met with Clarence-the-Canine, and then turned and headed back to the car. We did not run as fast as Clarence and I ran, but we stopped to chase chipmunks, important work. Scout does not yet possess the endurance of a veteran German Shepherd runner. And his human has a chronic foot injury and extra baggage. Still, we finished our run, and it felt effortless—we scarcely broke a sweat on a temperate New England morning in October. That is good news.

The rest of our weekend has been hijacked by preparations—for winter and for our upcoming move, which is right around the corner. Snow tires have been hauled out of storage, air conditioners have been pulled out of windows and cleaned up and boxed ’til they’re needed sometime in June, curtains have come out of plastic bins to be washed and pressed and readied for new windows, and everywhere furniture has been shifted around, cobwebs cleaned away, bug carcasses vacuumed, and inventories made: keep, sell, pitch, pack. The soundtrack for all this is the unrelenting rhythm of life—grocery shopping, laundry folding, vegetable chopping, and dog washing. A dog whose filthy feet and stinky coat finally came clean today after weeks of dodging the bullet.

With succulent, steaming chicken in hand, I was finally forgiven.

October in Vermont: Season of ‘Lasts’

Staring into the sun on an exquisite October afternoon
It’s unfair to name October a season, which more properly belongs to fall. But it does mark a big transition in these parts, a time beyond which the air feels more authentically like winter to a person with Southern roots. Not once in the five Vermont winters I’ve seen have we missed a respectable snowfall—a ‘plowable’ snow—before Thanksgiving; if the trend continues we’ll have our first one soon. It won’t hang around for long, not like the snow from a nor’easter does, the kind that takes down the power grid and leaves you wishing your elbows did not have bursitis when you pick up the snow shovel, the one you forgot to leave by the back door, the reason you now have snow melting inside your boots. Rookie mistake. Nature has a sense of humor: thirty years ago last week a surprise early snow knocked out the power for five solid days, the news said. HCB remembers it.

That kind of snowfall comes later mostly, in February and March, and buries the landscape until spring thaw. January in Vermont can be oddly pleasant thanks to a phenomenon known as January thaw. But the big storms here often persist right into April, until winter has no choice except yield to the sun’s new angle in the sky. The miracle of life after all that never fails to amaze me, the idea that underneath those sinister layers the planet is birthing something new and wonderful. I always felt the same about spring in the South, but here the sensation is exaggerated.

In spring the Battenkill will roar through our little hamlet in an angry torrent. It will lick the low-hanging branches on its banks, leaving icicles that dip down into the water, exotic crystalline formations that will finally relent on a sunny afternoon. It does not feel like spring here, not a proper spring anyway, until June. Vermont winters are long, quipped the man connecting the phone cables in my cottage basement back in 2012, shaking his head while he worked. I get it now.

Ice and angry torrents on the Battenkill
Meanwhile the air feels more like late summer; Nate will pound us with rain for the next couple of days. The kids are playing soccer with padded shinbones, still dressed in summery shorts and tank tops, not for long. It’s Columbus Day weekend, a time when droves of tourists pour into the state (not in numbers like they once did, insists HCB) for the foliage and to buy the same syrup they can probably get back home at the neighborhood Kroger for less. Give them their syrup: they pump dollars into the local economy, and anyway it’s more fun to buy some where you can watch it being made while you lick sticky sugar from your fingers, the sugar that coated your apple cider doughnut a moment ago. It’s what fall is about, or October at least. Best to enjoy that doughnut this weekend, because there’s not much foliage to see, still a lot of green on the trees and it is raining indiscriminately—if Nate had come any later he’d have left us a naked landscape, but these trees are not quite ready to let go.

Still, October is about lasts. It is time to polish the silver for the last time—not for the last time ever, one hopes, but for the last time in this little cottage in the woods. And HCB will chide me for it, because we have bigger fish to fry. Polishing silver is my default strategy whenever I hear the words ‘pack and move.’ It is procrastination through and through.

Moving from Tennessee to New England inspired the most silver polishing: that is one heck of an undertaking, disemboweling a home where you’ve lived for sixteen years, prying apart what is yours from what is his, stuffing as much as you can onto a crowded moving truck, and saying goodbye to the stuff that refused to stuff. No use crying over spilt milk, but I cried plenty.

My first lakeside home in Vermont’s Upper Valley was exquisite but beyond my reach in spite of the best-laid plans, as fate proved. I squeezed out enough cash for a year, maybe to my detriment, but in hindsight it was probably important for me to live there. Vermont winters never suffer fools gladly, and my first one was forgiving in that cottage, exploding pellet stove and zombie basement notwithstanding. Life there was a sojourn, a pause I needed from the misery I left in Tennessee. It had its terrifying moments.

Lake Morey through my cottage window, winter of 2013
Thence further inland towards the central part of the state, where I said farewell to my beloved Clarence-the-Canine and finally grasped a new reality: that year and a half or so forced me to square my shoulders and face the music, as it would anybody with a dwindling bank account. Getting a handle on living expenses came at the expense of living among people. I understood people who had gone before me found healing in that beautiful setting I was lucky to call home—180 pristine mountainous acres—but I did not. It was instead an exercise in adapting to isolation, living in fear and living lean, leaning on the lessons I learned growing up during rough years in my mama’s house in Memphis: you can survive if you’re smart. I had that at least going for me, but occasionally I also wondered whether my time there resembled anything like a monastic life. Maybe I needed simply to shut up and listen. I left my beloved Clarence-the-Canine buried on that land, a reminder that life is transient and nothing belongs to any of us forever. Maybe there was healing after all and I failed to recognize it.

Clarence at the loft in Sharon
Combining two households almost three years ago made sense. It’s true two can live cheaper than one to be sure, but there’s also the sheer joy of being together with the person you love instead of a two-hour drive from him, to say nothing of the great satisfaction of writing a new chapter, a big one, and importantly, a hopeful one. Moving here has not been without its vexations: the outdated infrastructure in this tiny little house in the woods can’t support two full-time, full-size human adults, plus one part-time teenager (a while back there were two of them) without protesting. It is a place bursting at the seams—with the landlord’s stuff, HCB’s, and now mine; overflow went into storage. Since I moved in almost three years ago we’ve dealt with bears unafraid of people, with dangerous, law-breaking neighbors, with a fallen maple that badly damaged one new car and left the old car parked next to it with a good-sized flesh wound, and with one tragic visit to the emergency room after a dog bite last October. We are still somewhat isolated on this mountain top, in spite of living in a neighborhood. On an icy morning it takes a while to carefully navigate a dirt road before reaching the highway down below. But we are together.

Soon it will be the last time to navigate that treacherous road, and weather gods willing, maybe we won’t at all. Instead we will take on the new challenges of living in a distinctly urban setting, in and among a community of people, in a house that is waiting for us at this moment. The walls in our 1936 ‘New Englander’ hold the stories of generations of families who have gone before us, to which we’ll add our own. Vermont winter will still come to us there, and we’ll be ready for it. Next October I might polish the silver, or maybe I’ll let it wait ‘til Thanksgiving. But next Halloween I shall certainly pass out candy to neighborhood children. And I shall walk to Main Street with Scout-the-Lab and HCB. I’ll say hey to people I know when I pass them, people I’m about to meet, a couple of whom I know already.

Next October will be a season of firsts, at last.

New Sycamore Stories

Dogged Adventures: Preparing a Shy Dog (And His Humans) for Travel

Kibble for the Road

When I moved to Vermont five years ago I had Clarence-the-Canine in tow, my beloved German Shepherd Dog who saw me through the worst chapter in my life, and then left the planet when he knew I’d be okay. My then-teenager came with us to help during the first week of this huge midlife reboot, but also because I thought it was important for him to see where I’d be living and working in my new life so far away from him. And then Clarence and I put the boy on a plane back home to his dad in Tennessee, wistfully.

Traveling with a dog five years ago was pretty easy, especially with extra hands there to help. We had a single overnight in Harrisburg, PA, where I found a great dog-friendly hotel after a little web research. And once I was settled in my new life in Vermont I happened upon an exceptional dog sitter, a vet tech who’d grown up with complicated shepherds and understood them. Perfect. So for the traveling I did back in those days Clarence was happy to hang out at home with his new human friend.

Resources here in the southwestern corner of the state where I live now are limited. The sitter I found for Scout-the-Lab—a person he knows and loves—is on vacation herself the week we embark on our Way Down South Trip, Part the Third, which is just around the corner. And while Clarence’s former sitter would be happy to take Scoutie for us, the logistics involved are complicated, and he has enough issues still rattling around in his noggin after his big resettlement from Texas that leaving him with somebody new seems fraught with peril. Which left us wondering how to make this happen, and in the time it takes to sit-stay and high-five, we figured we’d just bring him with us. So we’re about to undertake a new adventure, this time with a tender, sometimes fearful four-legged passenger along for the ride.

Sometimes You Need to Scratch Your Face

I think he’ll be fine.

I’m not new to traveling with a dog, but it’s been a few years, and HCB has never done it. I figure the voluminous content I’ve written on the subject recently in my professional life will come in handy, although we’re traveling on a tighter budget than the average consumer who lands on those web pages.

We’ll spend a couple of long days on the road headed down to Charleston, SC, where my sister and her black Lab Waco (pronounced WAH-co, like the aircraft for which she is named) will again host us, this time for three indulgent days instead of a brief overnight. After that we’ll head inland to the mountains of Asheville, NC, destination one nifty little Airbnb rental close to downtown. Asheville’s downtown is vibrant and walkable, with lots of dog-friendly eateries (eateries are important when you’re traveling with a chef), and of course the original Mast General Store, where dogs are welcome. We will probably run over to Knoxville at some point to see family, an easy couple of hours one way, if that. And there is this one leetle footnote: Hurricane Irma is roiling out there somewhere in the Atlantic. If she plans to come ashore in the Carolinas, we’ll defer to Plan B, which is Knoxville-to-Asheville instead. A thing that seems to have changed, even in the last five years: most hotels these days are dog friendly, at least the ones we’ve researched for this upcoming adventure. While Plan B is less desirable, it is at least possible because of this.

When Scout first came to us his Texas family warned us he might be carsick. Not great news, because I knew he would go to work with me most days each week—that’s 40 minutes in the car each way, on a twisty, hilly rural Vermont highway. The reality is, he’s been sick only a couple of times since his arrival last December. Now he’s a commuting champ; he knows every twist in the road, where to pop up and look, understands animal nomenclature and alerts on critters when I point them out to him (squirrel gets the biggest tail wag, but also chipmunk, chicken, deer, turkey, bird, horse, cow, and bear), and generally seems keen to go with me; a couple of times he’s asked to stay home for the day, thank you very much.

The toughest part about taking Scout into a world of people, is the people. He appears to love all dogs: he gets growly with one dog only, who lives in our neighborhood. But because he is a handsome fella with a sweet face, people—especially children—are drawn to him and want to touch him. He’d like not to be touched, and on the occasions where a rogue little person has made a beeline for him, I always position myself between Scout and child to block unwanted advances. He enjoys visiting a flagship retailer near us where dogs are welcome, if people keep their distance. The staff offer him cookies galore, which he politely and gently accepts from them, and then deposits them on the floor. (He devours them greedily on the ride home.)

A Day of Interaction Is Tiring

We had lots of doggish boxes to tick ahead of our beachy-mountain adventure, including hunting down Scout’s current rabies certificate in Texas (which was trickier than I thought it would be), and also getting him inoculated weeks ahead of our travel for canine influenza, which is a thing in the Southeast. We don’t have it up here in Vermont—Lyme is our disease of choice—but the vet tells me it takes only one dog, and it’s merely a matter of time. And my sister says if we wish to play on one particular beach, Scout will need his Canine Good Citizen certificate, something she’ll help us obtain once we’re there; he knows his commands and I expect will perform well on a test. I must admit I am anxious for Scout-the-Lab and Waco-the-Lab to go on at least one beach romp together: Scout’s entire demeanor lights up when he is around another dog, especially a girl-dog, and I anticipate he will adore the smart and eternally sweet Waco.

Then there is the dog travel gear: we will not have the fancy accoutrements I write about at work, but instead the proletariat version of most of them. No collapsible food and water bowls, just regular ones in stainless steel and plastic. And Scout’s things—food, toys, the preventive meds he’ll need to take right on schedule in the middle of our trip—they will all be packed neatly into a canvas bag, with his food pre-measured in the correct portions for each day. We have extra leashes and collars, we’ll bring along the fantastic portable crate in my office to use at each of our destinations, his rear seat harness (which he’s long accustomed to wearing by now and is required by law in some states), and a file folder full of his Important Papers. And there will be ginger snaps, an entire box of them: I learned the power of a ginger snap to settle an upset canine tummy on a long adventure through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with a pair of vomiting puppies, true story.

The one thing I splurged on after a failed experiment with a lesser product: the rear car seat cover. Having decades of experience with Siberian Huskies, German Shepherds, and one gigantic Shiloh Shepherd, I consider myself a veteran when it comes to dealing with hair, mud, and general dog filth. I underestimated what a smallish Lab was capable of doing to the back seat of a car, even when he appears in the rear view mirror to only sit there innocently looking out the window, mainly. This seat cover is bigger, thicker, padded, plush, waterproof, washable, and I’m sure some other things I’m forgetting. Yesterday I spent several long hours scrubbing all manner of dog detritus out of the back seat of the Subi before I installed this fabulous new cover, and I expect it will perform far better than the first one.

We’re excited. HCB and I have worked hard in 2017, Scout has made a huge transition to his new life with new people far away from the people he has known, and we all need a break. I leave you with a single request: please leave me a comment (I’ll moderate in all reasonable ones) about your own experience traveling with dogs. I’d love to hear your tips, advice, what worked, and what didn’t. (No warnings about the risks of leaving a dog in a hot car, or about taking enough water or pee breaks: I’m well aware.) I’m not a newbie, but I’ll never turn down a bit of wisdom if some clever travel strategy worked well for you and your dog on a long road trip. And we’re always open to reviews of dog-friendly venues in the Southeast.

More soon, from the road.

Just Give Me a Cookie

 

Deer Flies and Summer Storms: First Day in July

Second Day in July

Cool air washed clean by the rain that came before it makes the deer flies retreat: that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

There was only steam yesterday, July 1st of 2017. Frontal boundaries on the afternoon horizon stood in stark contrast against menacing, billowy black storm clouds floating above them and clearer skies below. In the distance torrential rain fell in wide, sloping columns, dragged by the advancing atmospheric energy across upstate New York, thence over the border and into Vermont. Somebody somewhere was getting soaked.

Earlier we had gotten it, Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I. First the rain fell against the car windshield in minuscule beads, fragrant, benign, even friendly: call it a pleasant early summer shower. Then with gathering momentum the droplets splattered against the glass intentionally, like an irksome child testing his boundaries. And with no warning at all this erstwhile innocent morphed into an angry faerie changeling with fists raised, pelting the car in a full-blown tantrum, the land around us inundated. Windshield wipers dialed up to ‘stun’ threw rain off the car as we barreled down the bumpy road, dodging puddles right and left to keep the wheels attached to the pavement. I might have pulled over.

You could just say it was pouring, HCB will opine later when he reads this. And I will say, where’s the fun in that? Go decorate some cookies.

By the time we reached our second stop the rain had let up. We threw open the car doors and stepped onto steamy parking lot asphalt. Feels like summer, I was thinking; feels like the South. These conditions are long familiar to me, fleeting up here in these parts where ice and deep cold are wont to wear out their welcome, as my mama might say. This heavy, sunny steam bath—this is prime deer fly weather. However stridently somebody who’s truly in the know might object, that’s my own customized folk wisdom, field tested and proven.

Here’s an example: yesterday I had my first deer fly bite of the season. Because I suspected it would be muggy Scout and I set out early for our Saturday morning run by the Battenkill. He is the first dog in my life to equivocate about running. Dogs aren’t built for long-distance running, nor were their ancestors: they’re born sprinters. You have to ease them into running a little at a time, like any human athlete would train. There are exceptions, of course: the Rhodesian Ridgeback will run your ass into the ground and never look back, evidently. And Siberian Huskies will run for days with a payload to boot (I’ve had four Huskies over the years and each of them needed desperately to go and to pull). But for the most part, our canine companions had rather race ‘round the back yard after smallish rodents, as Scout does routinely these days. He can turn on a dime—it is most impressive. But I digress.

Tight Turning Radius

Scout is gradually getting his running legs (‘summer play muscles,’ insist the staff at the dog camp where he goes for an afternoon a week), willing and able to cover something close to three miles in the heat before he throws his polka dotted hand to his forehead dramatically and quits; we’re getting there. And so it was yesterday morning, when my ingenious deer fly shunning device failed. (Scout’s running leash is long enough that I can whip a section of it back and forth over my head while we’re running, and it usually works: deer flies buzz their victims in circles before they alight and rip painfully into the flesh—a flurry of dog leash is a pretty good deterrent, the best one I’ve devised yet.) We made our way through a couple of deer fly patches without incident; deer flies are territorial and once you’ve gotten through they will not follow you beyond the borders.

But with only a half mile to the finish line, giddy and soaked in sweat, I felt the unmistakable sting on the back of my neck. My hand nailed the little miscreant, who did not live to see another day. A couple of days earlier in the cooler, drier conditions, the little bugger would have been hiding obediently somewhere—wherever deer flies go when it’s cool and dry. Maybe they grow stupid and lazy and take long naps; I don’t care so long as they leave me alone.

No Deer Flies Here

Meanwhile Scout emerged from our summery morning run happy and unscathed. This was not often the case for his predecessor Clarence-the-Canine, the German Shepherd who willingly followed me to Vermont five years ago. Clarence was an athlete through and through—we could run the five miles around Lake Morey where I lived at the time, and he would gladly go again. But in the height of deer fly season Clarence often suffered multiple bites on the tip of his nose, where you had to swat away clusters of them, leaving tiny beads of blood in their wake. On the insect bite pain continuum I’d put the deer fly somewhere between a sweat bee and a common house fly: it’s not searing, scorching pain like you’d feel from a yellow jacket sting, but it certainly gets your attention. Poor Clarence. Yesterday, though, I took one for the team, as it were.

In short, I can see no good in a deer fly, who seems intent only to cause only pain and suffering.

I can see plenty of good in afternoon storms in July (they continued well into the evening) and a day of erranding that yielded lunch at this exquisite eatery over in Greenwich, a new laptop at long last, and hand dipped coffee ice cream: it’s the best remedy for deer-fly-inducing steam I can think of, even if you had to wait in line behind an entire little league team to get it. Little league plus ice cream—that’s a damn-near perfect first day in July.

Damn Near Perfect July Day

Nostalgia and the Shipwrecked Mind: Righting the Boat

Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.—Mark Lilla

Should you doubt that bit of wisdom, you have only to consider this campaign slogan and its outcome: Make America Great Again.

Facebook is notorious for rubbing our collective noses in nostalgia with its “On This Day” algorithm, where the photos and videos and sentiments we posted on this day a year ago, or five years ago, come back to haunt us. If once was not enough you can share them again in a mere click; I do all the time, if the memory still feels relevant to me. But that’s just it: more often than not they’re relevant to me and to nobody else. They’re fun memories, or painful ones (occasionally I cringe), and that is all. Sometimes I wish Facebook followed Snapchat-style protocols and after some interval made posts evaporate into the ether.

But even if a trendsetter like Facebook elected to follow that paradigm, other entities still allow you to peer into your cyber past; the WayBackMachine app is one of them. I confess I’ve used it on occasion to revisit my now-defunct ballet school website. The digital marketing agency where I work also invokes it once in a great while to look at a particular e-commerce website and, say, explore their inventory in a product category from a year ago, or even a decade ago; it can help give us direction when we’re working on a marketing strategy for a client. So you might say nostalgia can be helpful in certain situations.

Yesterday Facebook gifted me yet another memory of my early days in Vermont, a photo of my beloved Clarence-the-Canine stretched out on the living room sofa in my cozy lakeside cottage, the place I lived for just under a year. And here came another one right on its heels, an Instagram photo of a beautiful breakfast I made myself one morning in the same cottage, my coffee mug situated artfully in the background, everything around this little contrived still life neat as a pin. For the first time in nearly a quarter century I was in charge of my life at that instant, my clean, kempt rooms, and the order of the day: it was an idyllic day at that, where I had the privilege of mornings free to run around the lake with Clarence, time to prepare inventive cuisine, time to observe the beauty around me and reflect on it, maybe post something to my blog. The balance of it I spent doing what I’d come here for in the first place, teaching classical ballet to mainly privileged children from nearby Hanover.

I remembered those days wistfully when I looked at that photo: I was the captain of my own ship which was happily bereft of the chaos I had only just left behind. In short, life was beautiful.

Then HCB reminded me the pellet stove in that hard-to-heat place had dangerously exploded one night, foisting upon me a little reality check. The paltry bankroll I brought with me from Tennessee was running out, and fast; a piece of the financial picture I assumed would be there (I had done the math before I moved) had dissolved with no warning, nor did I earn enough teaching ballet to sustain that lifestyle for much longer, and I knew it. I was unused to the brutal Vermont winters—not just the cold and snow, but the palpable expenses of winter, to say nothing of unrelenting grey days that seemed to stretch on for weeks and then months. Although I had met Handsome Chef Boyfriend right after I got here, two hours and an entire mountain range separated us: for the most part I was terrified and living alone with my dog who would soon be gone, with no inkling of what the future might hold, and no real plan to extricate myself from the disaster ahead—I already heard that train in the distance barreling down the tracks.

So much for Eden. Mainly, I think, nostalgia needs to live high on a closet shelf in a shoebox, pulled down once in a while so you can finger its contents wistfully, and then shove it back on the shelf.

The news stories of the day (real or fake) help fuel this wistfulness. Can you imagine an account that goes, Today, millions of Americans got out of bed and went to work, paid the mortgage, enjoyed a nice supper, hung out with their kids, and then went to sleep? Of course not, because there’s no story to that story. Jobs moving overseas, illegal immigrants pouring over vulnerable borders, terrorist attacks, and plane crashes, though?—stories for days. At one point in my life I was so terrified of flying I put the skids on any travel where the destination could not be reached easily by car: that limited us—my erstwhile family—to a relatively narrow geographic area on the East Coast, and a short window of time on the ground when we got there.

Then came the opportunity to study classical ballet pedagogy at American Ballet Theatre in New York City: if I really wanted this thing, I finally had to figure out a way past the anxiety. I considered medications, worried a little about how they’d make me feel, knowing I needed to be sharp at ballet school. And then something remarkable happened during a family trip to Washington, D.C. Our hotel room window looked out on the White House, and beyond it, arrivals and departures at nearby Ronald Reagan National Airport. Unable to sleep one night I stood there watching the planes for hours. They took off and they landed. Over and over again. All night long, and into the morning. Nothing else happened—the planes took off, the planes landed. Only then could I begin to comprehend and correct my irrational fear of flying. Nobody tells the story of planes taking off and landing safely, because there is no story to tell, really. The majority of the time, airline travel is uneventful, however trying its logistics.

I have a recurring bad dream, a wakeful dream—call it a daydream. In it I return to that little Vermont lakeside cottage. I expect to throw open the door and find everything perfect, as if I had stepped out only to run an errand. Instead the place is cold and dark, there’s an inch of dust and cobwebs everywhere, there is no dog—he is long gone, I am alone and unemployed, and the silence is deafening. Nor is my beloved HCB there: only the roaring silence. It is terrifying. This “dream” is triggered by a catchy song that was popular at the time, with piano notes resonating again and again in descending triplets. I hear that song now and it stops me in my tracks, raises the hair on the back of my neck.

Reinventing the past is an exercise in futility. Learning from the past and then moving on feels relevant. But feeding on nostalgia can and does invoke reactive behavior: what if nostalgia inspired rancor and hate founded on a contrived, sepia-toned existence? I don’t know, it might encourage angry, unhinged people to rant destructively using social media as a platform. In its more sinister guise it might encourage somebody to desecrate a Jewish cemetery, or phone in a bomb threat to a Jewish community center. Or to rough up a transgender person who simply needs to pee. Or to shoot and kill a man at close range because he looked “ethnic.” Or maybe to build a wall that shuts out scores of people who are taking away mythical, sepia-toned jobs, people who instead would by and large make us a better, stronger, more enriched nation. In the hands of a reactionary, nostalgia is a dangerous motivator indeed.

* * * * *

Inspired by that photo from four years ago, yesterday I made two lovely breakfast sandwiches; I ate one and gave the other to HCB. The sticky marmalade clung to my fingers and utensils, and afterwards my napkin was rumpled and stained with breadcrumbs and little bits of egg. You could say that breakfast sandwich was a metaphor for our lives right now: uneventful, fairly satisfying, messy at times, but pretty good overall.

Steady as she goes.

Running on the Battenkill: Easter Sunday

Easter Run 2 Edit

Your body is a temple.

I’m an adherent but lately have not behaved in a way to reflect this heartfelt conviction owing to circumstances and such. I started running about fifteen years ago for several reasons, chiefly to energize myself in the early morning hours ahead of a long day dealing with a difficult child. By 2011 I was running 35 miles weekly with my Clarence-the-Canine, ’til this annoying problem reached epic proportions and forced me into retirement in October of 2013. I’ve coughed and sputtered a few times in the intervening months, but with each renewed attempt to run, the foot has objected, loudly.

There is nothing in the world like running, and if you’ve never been a runner, you’ll need to take my word for it.

In recent weeks I’ve felt some changes in the injured area of my left foot that might possibly indicate healing. (Shhh. Don’t tell the universe.) I spend eight hours a day sitting on my arse in front of a computer, and it could be this was precisely the pathway to health I needed, without fully admitting so: I would not have gone down that road willingly otherwise.

Mild weather has urged me and everybody else in these parts outdoors to indulge. Two weeks ago I bought a pair of running shoes that people who share this particular foot problem I have, swear by. Something about “give” in the area of the heel that does not aggravate it—I am still unsure exactly why it’s so special, but if the price tag is any indicator it sure as heck better be. Anyway, at this point in time I would pay a king’s ransom for the privilege of running again; I am okay with short, slow runs, happy to allow others more fleet of foot pass me by like I’m standing still.

Today was the day.

The early spring Battenkill River is flowing full and beautiful right now, a far cry from about this time last year, when there was still so much ice everywhere after the winter from hell. Mud season has pretty much come and gone, and River Road—where I’ve run in the past, and also ride my bike—is just about perfect right now.

Easter Run 3 Edit

The early spring this year is simply stunning. Little streams that feed the river are flowing at full tilt; sound byte at the bottom. Today could not have been more glorious. I arrived back at the car pink-cheeked and positively giddy, and significantly, pain free. The only thing missing now is a leashed shepherd in my right hand.

Easter Run 4 Edit

Easter Run 5 Edit

 

 

Reflections: Loss, Life’s Frailty, & Gratitude

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.—Groucho MarxNYPL Digital Collection Woman and Dog

Mind you, this is not too profound. After last weekend’s disappointing discovery of the incipient decline of many, many of my books I am feeling better about them tonight. I’m lucky to live with somebody who loves me and pushed up his sleeves without provocation to help me save the rest of my collection. A tall bookcase came out of storage last Monday and stands smooshed between a window on one side and a gigantic china cabinet that belongs to the landlord on the other; it seems a little out of place, like it has not yet been properly introduced to the cabinet, but I am ever so grateful there was room on that particular wall for it.

I’ve emptied three large boxes of books, then cleaned and shelved them. There are many more to go and a couple more bookcases to bring out of storage and somehow squeeze among the rest of our belongings—it’s a little like forcing a puzzle piece that does not really fit. Like so many other things in this transitional chapter, it’ll have to do.

The Book Project will continue to unfold over a couple of weeks before it’s done. For now I’m wiping the sweat off my brow, in a good way.

It still does not take much these days to get me thinking about loss, and the books were a predictable catalyst for it: the loss of my home and family, my hard-won ballet school, many of my personal belongings, and then my beloved canine companion Clarence a short while before the very livelihood I moved to Vermont to pursue in the first place was yanked out from under me. There was a moment when I was shaking an angry fist skyward: it all seemed like too damn much.

And then I blew my nose, pushed up my sleeves, and got on past it. Doesn’t mean I don’t still have moments of angst, bitterness, and even stronger feelings. I don’t like going down that road, but I do sometimes when little things set me off: a landscape, a news story, a piece of music—or a book. I think humans are hard wired like that, and it’s part and parcel of continuing to heal and move forward, so long as we’re relatively healthy and stable to begin with.

I don’t live by silly quotes of the kind you see découpaged on living room walls, that are meant to daily remind us how to live our lives. Nothing against them if they really help people, but the cynic in me tends to snigger. Maybe if there is a judgment day I’ll be forced to recant: Sorry I did not live, love, nor laugh when instructed; my bad.

But I do reflect on the higher meaning of things I’ve experienced. Recently it’s been all about living without the things and people once near and dear to me, every. single. day. In the last year since I’ve started fiscally rebuilding my life I’ve been gobsmacked by this simple idea: you really do learn to appreciate the things you can’t have anymore.

This thought tugged at me a couple of weeks ago when I left the dentist’s office after not having the luxury of dental care for about four years. And again last Saturday when HCB and I joined a small group of <mainly> new friends to break bread together and enjoy each other’s company—something I once did routinely, never imgaining that too would soon be a luxury.

Last night HCB and I visited a local inn whose proprietors he has known for years, where we had an indulgent glass of pinot noir and shared a flourless chocolate torte in an intimate bar: divine. I also spent a few minutes enjoying the company of the oversized yellow lab who owns the place. This invoked in me equal parts of joy and overwhelming sadness.

It came bubbling right up to the surface again: you have no dog. YOU HAVE NO DOG. I have lived very few years of my life without a dog. In my professional life as a marketing writer I spend a lot of time writing about dogs for a particular client. The research is fun and so is the writing. But I am almost daily reminded I still have no dog. We’re not allowed to have a dog in this house, and when Clarence and I once came here as visitors, the tricky spiral staircase was too much for him. There was a lot of pacing and vocalizing when we were not all together on the same level of the house. A lot. Last night I thoroughly enjoyed loving on the big ‘ole yellow lab. It was magical. Did you know I have been writing stories about you? I wanted to ask him. When I finally have a dog of my own again, I am confident I will appreciate him more than I ever appreciated a dog, if that is possible. (Yes, it will be a “him” and his name will be Jeeves. Or Wooster. Or Jack.)

I leave you with a clip from one of my favorite movies, Sideways, which HCB and I watched on the telly Friday night. It was this movie to inspire our glass of pinot. And it is a scene that so beautifully expresses many of the emotions I’ve felt (and still struggle with) the last few years. But it will make you laugh, I hope. Go forth and live and love, also.

Warning: this clip is most emphatically NOT kid-friendly. Do yourself a favor and watch it in high def if it does not automatically load that way. Oh, and hat tip to my new(ish) friend Deb, who put the New York Public Library Digital Collections link on my radar, whence comes the great doggie image at the top of the post. Cheers!

Closing a Chapter

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Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I made our final run to Vermont’s beautiful Upper Valley to collect the last of my things from the loft I called home for about a year and a half. It was a grind; there was still some heavy stuff he missed last week because he could not get to it, and there was much packing and arranging to squeeze everything into a single load. I busied myself with cleaning upstairs, tying up loose ends, packing a few smallish items that remained, while HCB did the lifting and loading. I paused several times and looked out the southern-facing windows to the drive below to observe him studying furniture laid out methodically, some of it disassembled, deep in thought.

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This is one of his most endearing qualities: calmly and painstakingly sizing up a situation, arriving at the best strategy, and then diligently executing it. I am always a doubting Thomas, an expert at worrying myself into apoplexy over things. He tends to wave it all off, insisting there is always a way. By the time we pulled out hours later the tired minivan (which we’ve kept long enough to finish this move) was bursting at the seams from the load, including heavy things tied onto its roof. A little over two hours later we’d made it all the way down to our corner of the state without a single casualty, cramming the last thing into our rented storage locker with the day’s very last light, 4th of July fireworks exploding all around us.

In the midst of dusting away all of yesterday’s cobwebs I did plenty of reflecting. It is still hard for me to believe I’ve been a Vermonter for almost three years after living most of my life in Tennessee. This has been a difficult transition. I owe so much to a few people who helped me during a tough time. Living in the loft was a privilege extended to me by a pair of them, a former colleague and beautiful ballerina, and a friend, Ruth, and her kind husband Peter, who own the place. Ruth showed it to me when I arrived in August of 2012, but I decided it was too small for my things, too far off the beaten path, and that Clarence-the-Canine would feel too confined. A year later, after some unforeseen trouble, I appealed to Ruth for shelter in the proverbial storm, and she answered with her typical magnanimity. It was a beautiful, if isolated, place for me to land, and would become Clarence’s final resting place. Another bit of sadness I could not have foreseen. But none of the earlier things—except the isolation—turned out to be true. Ruth told me many people had found healing there, and so did I.

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I never grew completely accustomed to hauling myself and my ailing dog up and down those difficult back steps, but we got some better at it over time. Yesterday HCB and I observed a family of groundhogs living under them; we had earlier seen one of them grazing on the front lawn. HCB counted three little faces peering out from between the second and third steps, babies curious about the interlopers. During my tenure at the loft I observed so much wildlife, as did Clarence; he was ultimately granted off-leash privileges, which he relished. In truth, I did not appreciate the groundhogs so much when I was living there, as they undermined our work in the vegetable garden. Still, I will remember them fondly.

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I will always remember Clarence fondly; I think he probably was my soul dog, brief though his tenure was with me. I stopped by his grave a final time before we left, and was surprised to see not the massive boulder that rises out of the earth behind it, but instead dozens and dozens of lush, green ferns. It is a beautiful resting place for a noble dog who had big work to do near the end of his life.

So one chapter closes, and another life-affirming chapter opens.

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Clarence-the-Canine

 

Balance: Saturday Photo Essay

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Winter stubbornly hangs on up here in these parts long after spring has sprung elsewhere. I’m getting used to it. I think a sure sign of that is worrying less about weather and lately thinking more about finding balance. Not to get all philosophical about it, but I really do try: work, play, food, exercise, rest—both mind and body—forming new friendships, being part of a new family and all the challenges that entails, somehow finding time for myself, and time for me and Handsome Chef Boyfriend to be a couple, and spiritual life. And of course to hold myself to the highest possible standards in all of it. I’ve been going to the gym since I started my new job in January. Giving up running a year ago was hard enough, leaving the ballet world robbed me of the rest of what was keeping me mobile. At the gym I’m attending various classes: one of them can’t make up its mind what it is (a “fusion” of Tai Chi, yoga, and Pilates), Vinyasa yoga, and also a weight lifting class (yes, really: I call it “pump you up” class, but at the gym it has another fancy name).

Yoga resonates with me the most. We work on physical balance in that class, and it is a huge challenge for me: I’ve been trained my entire life to work in external rotation at the hips, but yoga is all about parallel. Forget about it. The other challenge is the guided meditation at the end of class. I know we are supposed to be in the moment, and not allow the day to intrude, and imagine things like flat horizons and layers of stratosphere while we listen to soothing, Eastern music (what a friend’s dad used to call “that goddamn California music,” which always makes me giggle). I stink at reflection and meditation. What I think about instead is, Glad that’s over because my hamstrings hurt like heck, my nose itches, I’m thirsty, and I need to pee: are we done yet? In the end, I can’t take myself seriously enough to be a good practitioner of Vinyasa yoga, but I love what the class does for me, just the same. Today I bravely struck out on a (wait for it) run. First time in a year. There will be hell to pay for it. But there is nothing like a long run to clear the head, after terms like posterior tibial tendonitis and pain insinuate themselves into the meditation of the morning. Yes, it is meditative. Like yoga is supposed to be.

I was outside for an hour and a half this morning. I thought about the Battenkill River, which followed me the whole way, how engorged it is just now with snow runoff, roiling and roaring out of Vermont and into New York, just down the road. I thought about the vernacular architecture I love and was delighted to see that a barn I photographed last year stands resplendent now with its new coat of dark red paint. I enjoyed chatting with a few cows, one of them reclining pensively on the bank of the river, which made me think of this post Jon Katz published recently. I was visited by a barn cat. I found an inlet where the Battenkill backed up into a small finger of a pond, a magical place where the water could not seem to make up its mind which way to go. I talked to the trees, who are still holding back, not for much longer. No signs of color yet, but soon things will explode. Notably, I missed my dog: I feel distinctly lopsided without a leash in my hand and Clarence at my left knee. True balance can only be restored when there is once again a dog in my life.

Still, this morning’s run was the right kind of meditation and reflection for me. Balance whispered in my ear. It is desperately needed and long overdue.

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March 1, 2015 Vital Signs: A Letter Home

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That was a recent winter morning here in the southwest quadrant of Vermont, USA, rare sunlight dappling the woods behind the house. Lately our days have started with temperatures at or below zero, typically without sunshine. Nights have been much colder. One morning last week my car would not turn over without convincing, and then shuddered and complained loudly when it finally did. But the absence of sun–that may be the biggest challenge of Vermont’s long winters, speaking only for myself.

The real reason I shot the photo was to illustrate the exquisite shoveling skills of one of us here, and it sure as heck is not moi. When I was living alone in the loft the best I could do was keep a path to the garage below sort of cleared. New England winters demand those kinds of skills; mine are adequate at best. Still, I have so little tolerance for conventional wisdom articulated with the proverbial eye roll: Time to put on your “big girl” panties.Those are possibly the least sensitive words to proffer somebody unaccustomed to life in these conditions. It would be like saying the same to a person trying to acclimate to the oppressive and dangerous heat and humitidy in the South, if they never had before.

To date I have learned how to shovel a decent path, build a fire in the wood stove pretty quickly, remove dead mice from traps at the frequency of about three or so a week (they are cold like the rest of us; they want to come inside and often find a way), and not panic too much when my car starts sliding on slippery roads. I’ve learned to set aside enough money to put gas in my car (Vermont: we are screwed. Everybody else in the country has cheaper gas.). Ditto groceries (Vermont: see above). I’d call that progress. I have also noticed a thicker skin; I require less layering–a lot less–than I did my first winter here. You could say that figuratively and literally, although I’m trying to avoid the use of the word literally since it is overwrought these days, a friend of mine so correctly observed.

But I digress.

My vitals are okay; I’ve been checking my pulse. A year ago I thought I knew more or less how the next couple of years would look, being wise enough not to look any further; ditto a couple of years before that. I don’t think I could have been so completely wrong. (But in October of 2011, I could not possibly have known my marriage was about to end and my family was about to come unglued.) That’s the danger of predicting outcomes, or even making educated guesses. To those who would suggest I need big girl panties, I’d say you have no idea who you’re talking to.

The lowdown: I’ve lost some things I wish I had not since 2011. The home I thought I’d live in forever. Financial security. My hard-won ballet school. My companion dog, Clarence. I had not much control over the end of his life, except to make it as comfy as possible for him, and there I think I succeeded. I’ve also let myself go somewhat physically–nothing I can’t undo in time. I do have control over that; I’m annoyed with myself that I allowed it to happen. This kind of thing (together with ballet- and running-related injuries) has not helped:

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Which brings me to the highup (which outweighs the lowdown by a lot). I found my voice. It took me a while to do it, but I did. That part I did alone, by the sweat of my own brow. I’d say literally, but, you know. And now that I’ve found my voice, I have a lot to say (as you may have surmised).

I also found love. That part was wonderful and unexpected, and emphatically required the participation of someone else. I had long forgotten how it felt. I could not be happier. Now I am redefining what home means. It is challenging but completely worth it.

I figured out that there are people in Vermont who want to be my friends. That is no small thing when you’ve lived somewhere else for three decades.

I discovered that I have marketable skills beyond ballet; I was starting to wonder. There is much work to do, and I am up to the challenge.

So now it is March 1, 2015. March, the month of the vernal equinox. And the resetting of the clocks. I have been measuring winter’s waxing days since the solstice. It thrills me to think about things happening right this second under the snow, under the dead grass, way down below in the layers of soil, moving, breathing, getting ready for another performance.

The snow falls in layers, too, each one clearly visible, each marking a separate winter storm, packed down by weight and gravity, but also diminished by melting. You can see them on the roof of the tool shed. I was feeling packed down when I stepped into Vermont. Less so now, with the coming of another spring, with the accretional layers of a little wisdom, or as a friend once said, the tincture of time, and helped along by some melting. Soon this winter will be a memory, not before there is more snow, maybe some ice, some sliding around on the road with white knuckles, a little more biting cold.

There will also be raspberries buried between layers of pastry cream and heavy whipped cream.

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