Niko left us with about eight inches of snow on Thursday, Orson’s knocking at the door right now: we expect him to gift us with ten to twelve or so inches. Yesterday Scout—with shiny, new off-leash privileges—took advantage of the calm between the storms.
Winter was kind enough last week to gift us its annual January thaw, which means the schmutz on the ground—an unpleasant casserole of crusty, gritty snow with a menacing bottom layer of ice—retreated obediently into atmosphere and earth. We have frost heaves already, a phenomenon more typical in early spring. Extreme cold temperatures arrived in December, followed by thawing, and then more cold, and more thawing. You should see our back yard right now: if you didn’t know better you might suspect a bustling community of Hobbits thrives there, creating urban sprawl in every direction, its massive network of tunnels and trenches stretching into the woods willy-nilly without the slightest regard for a plan. You’ll twist an ankle on the peaks and valleys in the darkness. Hobbits.
But January thaw also means mini mud season and messy dog walking. Friday and Saturday the temperatures plummeted, leaving frozen tundra in their wake—perfect for dog walking, nay, running. Yesterday Scout and I had our first real run, a couple of miles in bracing twenty-something-degree air. I had enough sense to quit before anything was torn, pulled, or otherwise damaged. Scout showed me a glimpse of who he really is, the dog inside him, the dog who yearns to play. In a single comical, cartoon-like moment he sprinted ahead of me on his 20-foot lead with so much zeal he face- and shoulder-planted directly into the frosty ground when he reached the end of it. Not to worry, he said, bouncing up and sprinting back again, play gesturing right and left, running in tight circles around me before we continued on our way.
Home again, Scout retreated to the safety of his quiet demeanor, his Boo Radley-like shy ways, but the jig is up: now I know what’s coming ultimately, and it is joyous.
Yesterday I felt like making soup, inspired by the season. That got me thinking about a particular soup, one that was handed to me in a pickle jar across the threshold of my erstwhile home in Tennessee. The young woman standing there with two little people peeking around from behind her explained it was still warm, but not too hot to handle. She also handed me a loaf of bread.
A few weeks earlier, in the late summer of 2006 but also the official start of fall term at my small ballet school, she’d enrolled her tiny and beautiful six-year-old daughter, who looked for all the world like a ballerina in the make. The child sprouted goosebumps and shivered at the start of her first-ever ballet class; when I later mentioned this to her mom she explained their small apartment was not air-conditioned, so her children were unaccustomed to refrigerated air—this happens all the time, she reassured me.
We chatted for a long while that day, this sinewy, athletic woman narrating her family’s journey to Knoxville, her background in Outward Bound programs, her husband’s postdoctoral fellowship in medical ethics at the University of Tennessee, conceding that they were only passing through ’til he finished. Eventually we would go on to talk about ballet schools in the Pacific Northwest where they expected to land, in case her daughter decided she wanted to continue her ballet classes.
Turns out we were neighbors. They lived in a groovy little mid-century modern apartment complex in the same historic neighborhood where I lived with my family; but whatever charm that building possessed—a building that housed many other families of their ilk—it lacked in amenities. If nothing else, it was most assuredly affordable, and its location was ideal for university folk.
Not only did we live in the same neighborhood, we lived on the same street separated by just three blocks. Hence the front door soup delivery, a gesture of kindness on an afternoon when I cancelled classes because a virus had left me hacking and coughing and without a teaching voice. This is the soup I always make when one of us gets sick, she explained.
Later when I was sharing the story of this woman’s charity with a mutual friend, she opined, Oh, yes: she is wonderful, and she really knows how to stretch a dollar. The memory of that remark has nudged me through the worst of times, evoking a skill my own mom fostered in me during some thin years growing up under her roof.
HCB and I have practiced dollar stretching, doing without extras, making things work these last four years. He put a three-dollar chicken in the oven yesterday morning; some of the meat would go into the soup I planned to make later in the day, the rest into the fridge. The carcass would serve as the foundation for made-from-scratch stock which boiled down on the stove all day yesterday, encouraging a certain dog to wander around with his nose pointed skyward—that, and the tender bits of just-roasted chicken he was hand fed earlier, still hopeful for manna from heaven. (Life is indeed good.)
The stock would become soup together with whole coconut milk, fresh lime juice, red pepper flakes, cilantro, green onion, and seasoning: precisely the same soup a huge-hearted mother of two handed me on a summer’s day ten years ago in Knoxville, called again into service on a winter’s day in Vermont, and for pennies. Dollar stretched, check.
The magical recipe, a blessing in disguise, is scrawled on a small index card in a frugal mom’s hand, held fast to the door of our fridge by magnet, dog-eared and stained. In short, the soup is amazing. Every time I make it I think of that family and I swear I still feel the love. Hope they are doing well, wherever they are.
Some people claim they don’t need a special calendar day or a personal milestone to turn a new leaf, they can do it any time. I don’t possess the self-discipline for that: positive change comes to me on occasional birthdays or after emotionally significant events, mainly. For the time being New Year’s Day will do.
A friend and I once stood in the kitchen of her big, old Southern home with one eye on our boy toddlers as they scurried around and fired finger weapons at each other. She asked what I planned to do after mine no longer demanded every waking moment of my day. “I’m taking up golf,” she quipped. I could not tell whether she was serious or joking: this particular friend did not strike me as the kind of person who’d choose golf as a post-mommying avocation. She had a beautiful new baby grand sitting in her living room; it might have been for show as so many are, except she was also an accomplished pianist in another life. “You should take up the piano,” I said, only half joking. She grinned.
Our unspoken words went something like, it’s funny how much of ourselves we’ve given up for the privilege of full-time parenting these children.
I could not have known at that moment how in a few short years events in my life would reconnect me with my own performing arts past, how life would hand me rich and varied and terrifying and wonderful and tragic and deprived and fulfilled chapters, still in the make.
When I moved to Vermont just over four years ago I didn’t have an inkling how bad things would get for me, and soon after for my beloved Clarence-the-Canine, but remained as optimistic as my character would allow. I knew winters would be rough, had no idea how rough, and discovered over the course of four of them I’m not really up for the challenge. I also discovered how many privileges I’d taken for granted when I lived down South. And I didn’t realize how difficult it’d be to find connections. Nor how simple to find the most important one of all. I discovered people here are the same as the people there, with a couple of caveats.
I also underestimated my own grit and determination.
Last year was difficult, although I don’t need to tear out my hair and thrash and wail about it. I was grumpy and will keep on being grumpy ‘til a few promising new sentences unfold. At least give me my grumpiness in the winter. I’m still hopeful for 2017.
I feel about as bad physically as I ever have; it’s time for sanctions. I’m a little worn down emotionally, too: being bitten in the face by an anxious shepherd was harder to process than I imagined. I want to feel better in 2017, starting now.
I’ve missed spending time outside, a thing every dog demands. Thank the universe for Scout-the-Lab, a good dog with a remarkable disposition, who’s already blown that whistle: more heart-thumping time outside in 2017.
I’ve written more in the last year than ever; some of it was good, some not so much. I want 2017 to be the best year of writing thus far, with new outlets for writing.
Time, resources, and circumstances have made it difficult to assuage my culinary passions, as silly as that sounds coming from somebody who lives with a chef. I want to reconnect to the kitchen in 2017.
I feel called to help somebody who needs it; I hope Scout and I will undertake this together in 2017.
I’ve found beauty through the lens of my camera; I want 2017 to show me more.
I enjoyed an unexpected and happy reconnection recently with a beloved mentor I haven’t seen in a couple of years. I want to stay connected with people important to me in 2017.
I also want to practice civility in 2017, and hope the rest of the world will too, but most especially my fellow Americans. We can’t afford not to be civil to one another, especially now.
Come on, winter: let’s get it done. Let’s turn over a new leaf in 2017.
It’s tough on Tennesseans. And Texans. I remember the first time the mercury dipped below zero when I was living in my first home here, my delicious little lakeside cottage in Vermont’s exquisite Upper Valley: I recall the first time I felt pain when I tiptoed outside, the first time I heard my shepherd Clarence-the-Canine cry out when he stepped on frozen, spiky snow in our front yard (on with the shoes, sorry they make you feel silly—better than busting open a pad). We’ve already felt that kind of cold with winter not yet officially arrived. Feels too soon to me; mercifully, it never seems to last long—the cold that is. As for the other unmentionable, Vermont feels distinctly how C. S. Lewis might call it along about March: always winter, never Christmas.
I digress. Three nights ago I awoke to loud, percussive popping, like shotgun blasts too close. It took my foggy brain a while to decipher the noise and calm down, or at least not worry too much about it, the unmistakable sound of our wood deck boards outside in the cold, shrinking, shifting, sliding around in protest against nails that fastened them in place on a much warmer day. That kind of cold demands respect, nine-below-zero cold, the kind that can split boards, or damage warm-blooded membranes and stiffen sinew in seconds; my joints had been trying to warn me it was coming for a while. Here is a bit of wisdom that belongs in a primer for Vermont pilgrims: do not worry too much about the explosions when it’s nine below (or colder); you probably won’t die.
Meanwhile the unworried person beside me slept deeply and peacefully, but I could not. Instead I lay awake and listened to the blasts spaced sometimes at long intervals, other times coming close together, and worried about another creature of slight build and tawny hair, doubtless also awake downstairs, a Texas dog who’d have to face the music outside in a few short hours.
This will be a new and perhaps painful experience for you, Scout, as it was for Clarence before you, and for me, I thought. I made a mental inventory of supplies to track down in the coming days, used my worry to get a fix on some coordinates: Clarence’s old shoes are in the plastic bin, I think—will they fit Scout? Will he trust me enough to let me fiddle with his feet? I replayed the warning on last night’s news: in cold like this, don’t let your pup stay outdoors any longer than it takes to warm up your car. Five minutes.
What if I can’t get the shoes on him? I flipped through old, dog-eared folders in my head overflowing with nuggets and tidbits, things I’ve needed at one time or another in my professional life as a copywriter and later filed under “Archives.” What was it about Labrador feet? Some kind of webbing that makes them adept in the snow? Or was it water? Or was that another kind of dog? Wait, the vet had only just said Scout looked more Chessie than Lab to her. Do they have the same kind of webbing?
Five minutes? How can I explain this to my dog? Or my car?
However perilous a picture the mind (my mind) can paint lying awake in the darkness before dawn, it is never that bad. Scout did consent to the shoes for our first, brutal walk in the very early morning, but objected to them shortly after we launched. By the time we came back inside he was wearing only one shoe, the other three spilling out of my coat pocket. Scout did his doings in about fifteen minutes and seemed none the worse for wear, while all around us the sound of baying neighbor dogs, seasoned Vermont dogs, resonated in the frozen woods. Just before we navigated our way to the path that leads once again to the safety of the cottage, Scout made a quick diversion, took a side trip in the snow, rolling around joyously on his back, ears aflop, tail awag. Nine below is but a number, he insists as he lies there grinning at me. But okay we’ll go in, he finally concedes, standing again on all fours, shaking the snow from his coat and licking bits of it from his smiley whiskers.
Our little house looks inviting from the street with warm lights glowing through its windows in the darkness; inside the stairs have separated ever so slightly from the pretty slate landing while the house tries to shake off the cold.
Nine below, I had almost forgotten your beauty: you make twenty degrees and sunshine feel divine.
scoutverb | \’skau̇t\ – to explore an area to obtain information; noun – one sent to obtain information
Saturday morning came early, bitterly cold and windy, but clear; we’d practically forgotten how the sun looked. We stood squinting and shivering in a nondescript outlet mall parking lot with many other hopeful families, waiting, waiting, waiting for the white transport van from Texas that would arrive any moment and deliver to us our travel-weary companions, canine refugees of sorts: Labs and Lab mixes, puppies and adolescents and adults, on the road for 2000 long miles, soon to be discharged into the loving arms of happy, silent humans (and a few pint-size noisy ones)—happy dogs, silent dogs (a few barking dogs), bewildered dogs. Some were practically home when they were carried or walked off the van, others had miles yet to go.
Scout is a good name for a yellow Lab mix: it also happens to be the name of one of my favorite literary figures. Scout is a worthwhile verb, one that promises adventure and excitement, but best of all, Scout is a noun and he is ours. So let’s try this again, with belly rubs and other indulgences, but mainly plenty of quiet time to adjust.
And what an adjustment: from Texas to Vermont, where Scout arrives at the precise moment the first genuine cold snap of the season rolls in. A light layer of snow from the last small weather event still frosts the landscape in these parts, but tomorrow we’ll awaken to a winter wonderland—a trial by snow for Scout, if you will: if the weather gods get it right, he’ll be in it up to his elbows our first time outside in the morning.
Today there is filtered sunshine, no wind, and a neighborhood to explore. This evening there will be still another human to meet, more tweaking, realigning, settling, obtaining information: the ice maker dumps with a clatter at regular intervals (what is ice?); fresh vegetables sizzle and sputter loudly in a hot sauté pan (only good can come of this), a capricious heater cycles on and off (it is not to be trusted, but the warmth radiating from it feels exquisite), and a mystifying cacophony wafts up spiral stairs from the basement in unpredictable outbursts (more data needed). And outside? Outside are creatures busy under the snow, beneath layers of spent foliage, in a network of tunnels under Vermont’s rocky soil—and they can be heard, or maybe smelt, occupying a keen canine noggin with a fervor that makes him forget the cold, if only for a moment.
Meanwhile we humans are obtaining a little information of our own: what are these floppy ears? What is this short hair? What is this impossibly affectionate demeanor? What is this polite compliance with human wishes? Welcome home Scout. We have but one simple message we shall try to convey in your own language: we already love you like crazy.
I once had a dog who destroyed the back seat of my brand new car in under ten minutes, reducing it to softball-size pieces of upholstery foam; a friend was with me and the two of us had darted inside the grocery for a moment. The dog, a beautiful Siberian Husky gal named Chaika, was all giggles and grins when we returned to the car. Chaika was a love, and that is all. But she came to my family as a shelter dog with an unknown past. One thing was clear about her: she was anxious as hell around food. Mealtime was the only time to be careful around this dog, who would as soon take your hand as she would the bowl of food you placed on the floor for her. In hindsight the food anxiety was probably symptomatic of anxiety in general, including separation anxiety. At the time I considered myself a seasoned handler of dogs; Chaika proved me wrong. Dogs will shame you that way.
Over years, and then decades, I’ve had dogs who peed and pooped in the house seemingly for sport, who destroyed thousands in books, furniture, and other objects, who behaved badly at the end of a leash in spite of diligent obedience training, who were antisocial around people, or antisocial around dogs, or both. I’ve also had well-mannered dogs who were a joy to be around. You could say dog problems are really people problems, and I’d be inclined to agree, but most every dog in my life has been complicated in some way, just like we are. Still, each one has enriched my life immeasurably; my last German Shepherd Dog, Clarence-the-Canine, was mine alone and came closest of any to being a “soul dog.” When Clarence died in 2013 I could not imagine my life without him, and the void he left was every bit as horrific as I guessed it would be and then some.
Teddy was my first shepherd and came to us (my ex-husband and then-seven-year-old child), as something of a rescue. His past was known, but problematic, his bloodlines a mystery. Turns out he had an intussusception—a dangerous “telescoping” of the colon that’s often fatal. The surgeon who repaired him also removed an entire plastic bowl from his gut during the surgery, an indicator of big problems in his previous life. He came through it all fine, healed well, but emerged a changed dog, one who was no longer recognizable to us. And while he remained loyal to a fault, he could not be trusted around other dogs or people because of his aggression. One afternoon he escaped an obedience exercise and bolted across our front lawn, laying into our next-door neighbor, whom he damaged badly. Things could have ended worse, thank the universe they did not. There can be no shelter in a family for a biting dog, period. In Teddy’s case, we foolishly believed there was hope for rehabilitation; he proved us wrong time and again, and because we cleaved to this silly notion people were hurt.
Warden bit me in the face Monday night in an episode I’ve replayed too many times to count. There was nothing impressive about the circumstances, no warning (or there was and I missed it), only a lightning-fast but powerful bite followed by a toothy snarl after an episode of affection, leaving a gaping hole in my nose, an anguished chef, an upset dog, and ending with a prolonged visit to the ER and a sleepless night. I bear Warden no ill will; he has no recollection of biting me and has spent the first few days of his mandatory ten-day quarantine with us confused about disruptions to routines we were already establishing, but also affectionate and friendly. I am sad he bit when he might have reacted to whatever was bothering him another way—with a warning growl, or pulling away, for example. But in that one moment he sealed his fate: he is forever ruined now as a family dog, nor could he ever be trusted in the office where he was to go with me every day—this was to be Warden’s important work. And he certainly can’t live here with us now.
Could I or we have seen this coming? Initially the answer was emphatically, no way. In hindsight, there were red flags reaching into this dog’s past. Our thinking was clouded by our emotions, so determined were we to welcome Warden into our family. He is a beautiful animal with distinguished bloodlines, and that is where our affinity for him must end. He will remain here for the duration of his quarantine period and then we shall foster him for the time being; he will not be euthanized.
However heartbroken we are for this awful turn of events, we are as awakened by it. Will we have another dog eventually? I hope so. Will it be a shepherd? Probably not, but maybe: it’s too soon to decide.
Five years ago I resolved to trust my gut when surveying the landscape around me, because I’ve been right every time I suspect something’s up; I did not stay true to myself in Warden’s case. I hope hindsight will not bite me next time around.
In 1999 the Portuguese virtuosa Maria Joao Pires famously sat at the piano with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, conductor Riccardo Chailly at the podium, awaiting the first bar of the piano concerto she expected to play for this lunchtime concert. Imagine her surprise when the orchestra began playing a different piece of music—the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor—instead of what she had come prepared to play. That moment is captured on video, the sick feeling in her gut written all over her face, which she places in the palm of her hand as the reality of this horrible epiphany slowly unfolds before a crowd of expectant concertgoers. There are only a couple of minutes of music before the piano begins. As the concerto continues, Chailly surmises what has happened, there is an exchange between the two of them, she insists she had something else in her calendar, she is not sure she can do this without preparation. There are a few reassuring words from Chailly, as he continues to move his baton without missing a beat, a smile on his face: the proverbial band plays on.
I can only guess this must be akin to how Warden felt this week in his new digs: surprise! We are the wrong people in the wrong house, these new rules and routines are wrong, wrong, wrong: this bowl is unfamiliar, this collar, this leash—a leash!—nothing is right.
Meanwhile, we’ve smiled and continued to move the baton to the time signature of life in this family. And how has Warden responded to this? Like a boss, that’s how.
The last week has been one of discovery for Warden and for us (living with a dog is in my muscle memory but unpracticed; it is awakening now with lighting speed). Warden regarded us with suspicion in the beginning, most especially one adolescent human who is a part-timer here. This is not just about displacement, I think, but is a character trait of the breed: shepherds are discriminating. Now at the start of our second week together I think I can fairly say he has imprinted on me, regards the tall chef with equal parts affection and suspicion (although hand-fed pieces of succulent baked chicken and beautifully seared salmon must be considered in this assessment). We’ll see how things go with the adolescent later today.
Mother Nature has not been especially helpful in this trial-by-fire week: first time since I’ve lived in Vermont we’ve had snowfall in October, only here in the valley-ish area where we live it was more of an icy, bone-chilling mess with high winds thrown in for good measure. Did we shrink from this hellish weather? Heck no. Warden discovered the neighborhood park with me this week on a day that left us soaked through and muddy, ditto the back seat of the Subi; second time around it was not so awful outside.
And yesterday we had a bigger adventure at this place, which is a bit further afield from home, but happens to be very close to work, where I expect Warden will go with me most days eventually. (Baby steps.) So there was a lot of trust building and plenty of fun to be had yesterday, with one tired dog and a couple of worn-out humans at the end of it all. Warden is champing at the bit to play off-leash; for now he will remain tethered, and stay that way ’til we know beyond the shadow of a doubt the trust is firmly established.
There was adventure to be had at home this week, too. Fun fact about this tiny house: there are skylights.
Who knew? Also, it is possible to lock yourself in the bathroom without opposable thumbs; the best time to do this is right after ralphing up kibble eaten with too much gusto, and whilst HCB is phoning to announce he is stuck in an October snow storm behind several disabled vehicles on the mountain between the bakery and home. (I explained I had to go because the dog was locked in the bathroom and there was a pile of vomit on the floor, sorry you’re stuck on the mountain—good luck with that.) And also the basement is questionable; best to bark at it occasionally for good measure, which you can do conveniently whilst slurping and dribbling.
I think it is fair to say we had a good first week together. It ended peacefully, and last night, as Warden snuggled on the sofa between the two humans, this happened:
As for Ms. Pires, she played that concerto bumper to bumper without missing a note, the consummate professional. I’ve had the great privilege of hearing the Concertgebouw Orchestra live in concert—I’m such a huge fan I frankly would not care about unrehearsed Mozart or muffed notes. I’m also a huge fan of Warden-the-Shepherd. Here’s a short clip of that Pires concert, with some narrative by Maestro Chailly; he is talking about the Mozart, and about Pires, but may as well be talking about us. Take a peek at 2:48—it is the perfect musical metaphor for Warden’s quiet start to life in his new family.
No, really. It was. Friday was a grey day, Friday afternoon brought wave after wave of gully washers to Southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and Friday night the heavens opened up and Zeus hurled mighty lightning bolts down upon us. Prediction: Handsome Chef Boyfriend will look over the top of his glasses when he reads this and ask, Why couldn’t you just say “it stormed?”
Because it’s funner to say it my way, that’s why, and you should stick to making compotes and port wine reductions, and let me sauté the words.
Friday was a truly awful day to be on the road, which is what we were; it was the kind of day where the sun seems never to rise completely, where it feels dark by four, even though the time hasn’t yet changed, and a shroud of fog hides everything beyond the immediate horizon. Friday night was worse still. I might add some language about the mighty rolling thunder, and also the broken reading glasses, the “good” pair, which snapped when I yanked them out of my bag to read my phone in the dark as text messages and Facebook messages and emails poured in. But that would be a different kind of descriptive language, of the sort that exploded from my mouth when my glasses broke. (Rest assured I was not driving while intexticated. I drove the daytime leg of our six roundtrip hours in the car with my devices safely tucked away, and HCB drove the after-dark part of them, because he knows I lack confidence in my nighttime vision, especially in unknown territory, and most especially on dark and stormy nights.) Suffice it to say, no dark and stormy night could impede our plans, not on this day for which we had waited so long.
On Friday we welcomed a new torrent of joy into our family, one Warden-the-Shepherd. Officially, he is “Warden vom Traumhof, by Goliath v Traumhof and out of Emerald v Traumhof,” says so on his adoption contract. I still can’t wrap my head around the pedigreed part of this pooch, although I have read and studied it some through my new reading glasses after the Dark and Stormy reading glasses incident, but I will say he is related to this amazing blogger’s Princess Blaze and Marshal Dillon Dingle: I believe Marshal Dillon and Warden are half-brothers, if I understand all these blood lines correctly. Which I think means we are all family now, so I am sure they’ll be fine if we drop in on their fabulous new digs up in Maine for a few days.
All our friends and family have been clamoring for pictures, which I have promised, but fell short of the mark on Friday. This was owing in part to the weather (I can’t replace my one “good” camera like I can my reading glasses), but also the general mayhem that met us when we arrived at Warden’s house, which I can only describe as a great crescendo of many, many enthusiastic German Shepherd Dogs who are busy announcing and greeting the newcomers but also reminding each other who gets to greet first and who should be put in his place while all this greeting is going on, to say nothing of the chorus of shepherd voices from the training center across the driveway and down the hill; imagine if you will. So I only grabbed a few fair-to-middlin’ iPhone photos, and some pretty dang blurry ones with the Nikon, blurry in part because of the low light and shutter speed (still learning, friends), but also because my subject would not hold still. But I love it when my “mistake” turns out interesting, like the head-shaking-teeth-showing image that seemed a perfect masthead photo for “It was a dark and stormy night.”
Here is the irony: Warden is one of the most agreeable, friendly German Shepherd Dogs I’ve encountered ever, one trait among many that drew us to him, and why his human believed he might be a perfect fit for us. In all the chaos that met us at the front door, Warden was there, too, but did not bark once—did not so much as growl—just tried to fight his way forward to inspect us, intercepted by a pretty girl named Prada and a grand dame named Charlotte. At least, I think it was Charlotte—there was a lot of tail wagging confusion and a few fierce reprimands, and Charlotte was clearly not one to suffer fools gladly. Plus, a couple of females are in season, which had Warden all excited for anybody in a skirt, including Charlotte, who is a mature gal whose time for all that is long past, and who mainly rolled her eyes in disgust at this whole spectacle.
Warden is a special dog and I knew leaving the nurturing fold of his family, both human and doggish, would be difficult for everyone. But once on the road after our longish visit he proved an easy travel companion; we stopped for strong coffee soon after we struck out for home, at the precise moment the storm unleashed its greatest fury on us (or, in the worst part of the storm, if you prefer); the car shook with every clap of thunder, but Warden seemed unimpressed. I took this as a good omen, dark and stormy nights be damned.
I know everybody’s champing at the bit for endearing dog stories and photos, closeups and action shots. They will come in good time, although I can assure you the notorious German Shepherd head tilt is alive and well in this dog. For now, we must give him room to settle in and learn to be part of our family, and to embrace a lifestyle completely unlike the only one he has known thus far.
The sun is shining brightly this morning and there is a contented dog in twitching, snoring REM sleep at my feet, a beautiful condition for which I’ve waited too long. Soon the images will come into much sharper focus.
One of the best presents ever, those pecans. My dear friend Bett sent them to us last Christmas; she said she gathered them from the bumper crop on the ground under two pecan trees near where her mama lives on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. I saved the tags and stuck them to the walls in my work cubicle, a daily reminder of so many wonderful things. I think about Bett when I see her sweeping hand in red marker; I am sentimental that way. I also think about her when I swill my coffee from a fabulous little vessel imprinted with the familiar “M” stamp on the bottom, her signature bear-and-honey-bee motif marching around the outside of the mug. Bett is an American folk artist with distinctly modern sensibilities; her forebears would be proud to count her as one of their own. She is also a diligent student of the South, and I love that about her.
As for the pecans, they did not last long: you can’t get anything approaching the flavor or texture inside those exquisite little kernels up here in these parts. But the union of Southern pecans and Vermont maple syrup? That is salvation, right there. (Still working on teaching Handsome Chef Boyfriend the proper way to say it: p’cahhhn, with a nice, soft ahhh, accent on the second syllable, instead of PEEEE-can, much harder on the ear. There is work to do yet.)
I miss my Southern friends; I knew there’d be casualties when I packed my bags and left home for good. I’ve been a poor correspondent, but everybody’s busy and life has a way of insinuating itself despite one’s best intentions. (Somebody had the gall to say this aloud at a going-away party for friends many years ago and everybody in the room was shocked; I don’t know why—it is the truth.)
It’s not just that, though: seems once you reach a certain place in your life it’s a big imposition to ask for a new friendship, perhaps impossible to forge relationships of the kind that unfolded naturally earlier in life. I know there are exceptions, but it still feels more challenging now than it did way back when; nor does the scattered configuration of the population here help any. And because the tap root I yanked up in 2012 still has a ways to go before it’s reestablished in new soil, I’ve been gun-shy about seeking my “tribe,” if it even exists. I don’t have a church family as I did in Tennessee; my child is grown and lives a thousand miles from me and so I don’t have a place in any of the powerful communities parenting seems to foster; the ballet school I founded in 2006 is long gone; and I have not set foot inside a ballet classroom since October of 2014.
There was a loud rip in the universe in January of that year, my second year as a Vermonter, when I lost my Clarence-the-Canine to degenerative myelopathy, an insidious neurological disease which ‘til then had slept quietly inside him unbeknownst to anybody. This may seem trivial to anyone for whom the companionship of a dog means little or nothing.
The death of my steadfast companion was not all. At the time I was living in a beautiful part of Vermont on 180 spectacular acres where woods, water, meadow, and mountains intersect to create nothing less than a sublime landscape. My loft home was open and sunny and inspiring, truly delightful in most ways, a rare opportunity that came to me by way of a ballet school colleague. Had I any notion I might live in this place after my colossal 2012 reboot, my heart might have leapt, a little.
But had I occasion to reflect on living in complete isolation there without my dog, and with few Vermontish winter survival skills (I must underscore this: surviving a rough Vermont winter alone in the middle of nowhere, however intoxicating the surroundings, requires a certain savvy no novice from the South possesses), I might have reconsidered my course. And in spite of being in a comfortable spot in my still-new romance, I felt the most intense loneliness there I’ve felt in my life, ever. My colleague assured me her land had healed many folks, situated as it was there in Vermont’s beautiful Upper Valley. I never doubted her, but healing seemed to elude me. No amount of HCB’s cajoling in our epic nightly phone calls would convince me otherwise: I was in a terrible financial bind and completely alone, anxious as hell to get out. (And anyway, HCB was two hours away on the other side of the state: it may as well have been a million miles.)
It does not take much to set me off even now: a song that was popular at the time, a smell in the air—these things raise my hackles and set me on edge. The truth is I could not see the forest for the trees, and that is all. But the brief chapter (really just a couple of sentences) that still arouses dread when I have a half-second to reflect on it, continues to change shape as viewed from a greater distance—even a minuscule change in focal length can yield a very different image, a reality I observe each time I pick up my camera. I think I failed to recognize healing is often uncomfortable; it occurs to me now that healing is probably exactly what unfolded there, in the little house in the middle of nowhere.
In 2012 I walked away from unhappiness holding an empty bag, equivocating some, wringing my hands mostly. A dear friend held this question right in my face: Isn’t your freedom worth it? Yes, probably, though I could not have imagined the monumental challenges I was about to face. But does not the void left by something of towering importance imbue that thing with still deeper meaning, make it still more worthwhile to have? As HCB said to me shortly after we met, some things really are worth waiting for.
It’s undeniable—I’m in a better place now than I was a couple of years ago, and if you asked him, HCB would most likely agree the same holds true for him. I spend a fair amount of time yearning for things lost, things still beyond reach, and a few things perhaps unattainable (never quit trying); so does he, with less fervor than I—he is far better at rolling with the punches. It is possible we might even covet a few things. I don’t think that’s unhealthy.
Yesterday we pawed through some stuff in our storage locker, disappointed to find interlopers of the rodent variety had made a big mess and destroyed a few of my belongings; there is probably more destruction buried deep inside the locker, judging from the extent of damage on the surface. (It’s a continuing theme around transitions: move your things, store them, move them some more, and there will be damage and loss, guaranteed.) But there is also this: next weekend we’ll finally achieve this monumentally important thing we’ve missed for nearly three years. It’s most definitely worth waiting for, and it’s about time.
There has been a German Shepherd-shaped hole in my heart since I lost my beloved Clarence-the-Canine to Degenerative Myelopathy in January of 2014; the intervening years have marked the longest dogless period in my adult life. Yesterday Handsome Chef Boyrfriend and I attended the annual pilgrimage at the New Skete monastery in nearby Cambridge, NY. The monks are renowned for their German Shepherd breeding and training programs, among other works and projects; the New Skete nuns are as celebrated for their exquisite cheesecake, made right down the road. New Skete is celebrating fifty years.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest in the world, a branch of the Catholic church steeped in rich liturgical tradition. I especially love the spiritual connection these monks in particular have drawn with their German Shepherd Dogs, one that began with the first dog, Kyr, whose passing left a profound spiritual void, inspiring the New Skete GSD program that exists today. That spiritual connection I have always felt—with shepherds and other dogs—though find difficult to articulate. The monk who demonstrated obedience with his GSD at the pilgrimmage spoke frankly about this in a way that resonated so strongly with me.
We finished our New Skete afternoon at the evening vigil and healing service. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, tower bells traditionally call believers to worship with changing and distinctive patterns throughout the day. The three largest bells in the tower at New Skete were cast at a foundry in Troy, NY, the smaller set of twelve tuned bells at the Taylor Bell Company in England during WWII. The numerous wood bell towers in the Carpathian mountains of Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia inspired the post and beam tower here. The ringing of the bells is a beautiful and powerful way to make an announcement—they say unequivocally, stop what you’re doing and come.
It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved: liturgy that engages every sense has always felt the most meaningful to me and is why I still appreciate so much in my own Episcopal tradition. Divine music in a space that is acoustically alive, elevated language, engaging and vibrant visual art, incense that draws you right to the moment, but also periods of silence and reflection—all these were there at the New Skete vigil.
Near the end of the service I found myself standing before a priest who imposed the cross on my forehead with a tiny brush dipped in holy oil; as I turned to go he stopped me and asked for each hand, where he marked another cross on the back of each—”so that your hands may do good works,” he said. I have not stopped thinking about those words.
I wish for you the same peace I felt at New Skete yesterday, and may your hands do good works.